Cluster bombs & small moments of activism

19 August 2011 by Jennifer

An Amnesty campaign, and some general musings on small actions adding up to bigger effects.

Amnesty’s got an email campaign going on at the moment about the Royal Bank of Scotland investing in companies that make cluster bombs. (A cluster bomb is lots of small bombs spread around, and they don’t all explode when they land. Amnesty reports that 98% of the people killed or injured by them are civilians. It’s illegal to actually manufacture them here. UK tax money helped to bail out the RBS; if you’ve ever been to the UK, you’ve probably paid VAT even if you don’t pay income tax here. RBS isn’t the only bank funding cluster bombs, but I think that connection is why they’re up first.)

I was thinking of sending an email, only then I got the urge to send a handwritten postcard instead.

Well, so why am I writing about this? Not only to publicise the cluster bombs issue and a relevant postal address (and not only to tell the world that I do a lot for charidee ::haha::). I was also feeling the urge to muse a bit on that kind of small-scale activism and what I like about it.

Activism and mental health

I am only one human being, and there’s so much of the world that isn’t how I would design it, the scale of our predicament can seem overwhelming sometimes. As a sort of counter to that feeling, I like to sometimes be part of building a step in the right direction.

In a conversation elsewhere on the net recently, I was musing on the mental health aspect of activism. Edmund White wrote something (in States of Desire) which I often remember in this context:

… activism is not only valuable for the community but also essential for one’s own mental health. Being gay in a straight world, even in a hypothetically permissive straight world, is so alienating that the only way to avoid depression is through the assertion of one’s own gay identity. Anger can take three forms – self-hatred, uncontrollable rage and calm but constant self-assertion. The first solution is tiresome, the second useless, the third wise …

OK, he was talking about gay activism in particular, and in this post I’m not, not particularly. But the idea of activism as healthy is the same.

I’m pretty sure there are emotional benefits from acting altruistically in any way (except for psychopaths, who possibly don’t have the wiring for that). Aside from that, it feels healthy for my own optimism to act on a belief that ordinary people can have an effect on big corporations or government.

Of course you could get the illusion of doing something without your action really having any effect in the rest of the world. But (unless my postcard gets lost in the post :-) ) I don’t think this is one of those. I think there’s enough evidence from the past efforts of Amnesty, Avaaz and similar campaigning organisations to indicate that this kind of thing does play a part in genuine change. Yes it’s only a little thing, but it’s not nothing.

My postcard

What I wrote:

Dear Mr Hester & colleagues

Please stop the RBS investing in cluster bombs. These terrible devices are a blight on people’s lives. There must be better places to put the money.

Thanks for reading.

Jennifer Moore

I was a bit tempted to say “children’s lives”, which is equally true, but realised that could be read like “But go ahead and do it to adults, fine by me”. So decided not to play that card.

I’m actually not a great fan of that middle sentence – maybe I should’ve left that out and made it even shorter… but hey, I’ve stuck the stamp on now :-)

I found the company’s registered address and addressed it there: Mr Stephen Hester, Chief Executive, RBS, 36 St Andrew Square, Edinburgh, EH2 2YB. I don’t know if that’s the best address to reach the Chief Exec, but I figure if it has to pass through some other hands to get to his assistant’s inbox then that’s all the more people to glance at it along the way.

My postcard’s picture is of a peaceful lake and a boat. (I got a ridiculous number of this rather nice design in a clearance sale one time, hence financial cost virtually nuppence except the stamp.)

Writing vs signing

I’m also thinking a bit about why I felt like writing a postcard rather than sending an email.

I remember, a long time ago, being told that for people like MPs who get lobbied all the time in various ways, getting a handwritten thing in the post is one of the things that (relatively speaking) means a lot. That’s part of it.

Separate from that, there’s taking responsibility for the words. Sometimes with these email/petition type things, I care about the main issue involved, but I don’t entirely agree with how it’s been framed (either substantively or in some nuance-and-implication-of-words way). In that case, I’d rather only say a few words of my own. I remember on one occasion declining to sign a web petition despite sharing the writer’s underlying concern, because I couldn’t agree with how it had been put.

In this case, I’m not actually sure whether or not I agree with every word of Amnesty’s draft email (not that you have to use their draft; in fact they do suggest that you personalise it). The chore of debating with myself about that fairly long text is part of why I wanted to send a shorter one. I’m pretty sure that Amnesty’s campaign as a whole will make the RBS board well aware of the issues if they aren’t already. So I don’t need to explain. All I’m really trying to say is that I’m paying attention, to some degree, to what they do, and I care about the result.

Well, as it happens, that fits onto a postcard :-)

Microactivism

I think it’s important to affirm the value of even the tiniest steps in the right direction. For that reason I like the term “microactivism”. Arguably, going so far as to send a postcard is a bit on the big side for that label. I don’t want microactivism to suffer from inflation, as it were :-)

Some things I’d say were definitely microactivism-sized are e.g. wearing a badge, not laughing at a dodgy joke, or putting one can in the recycling instead of the bin. If I’d sent the same message as an email, I’d probably count that as microactivism.

In a way, I want to recommend microactivism even more than bigger-scale activism. All sizes of activism are worthwhile of course, but microactivism is potentially available most often to the most people.

Wishing you all some moments of microactivist satisfaction in your day, week, year or life.

(That link again in case you wanted to have one now)

1 thought on “Cluster bombs & small moments of activism”

  1. Activism and mental health – really interesting…though i think perhaps the “evidence from the past efforts of Amnesty, Avaaz and similar campaigning organisations to indicate that this kind of thing does play a part in genuine change” possibly is not well known enough to be validating for everyone…?

    “Some things I’d say were definitely microactivism-sized are e.g. wearing a badge, not laughing at a dodgy joke, or putting one can in the recycling instead of the bin.”

    Yes. And it feels good to be reminded that valuing these kind of actions is potentially powerful.

    Thanks Jennifer.

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