“We need activists that complexify better…”

by Jake Wobig

Continuing on yesterday’s theme, I found this blog post today by James McCarty (via Dave Algoso) where McCarty makes the argument against the “just do something” mentality.  I recommend it in its entirety, but I want to highlight a few passages:

“One theme consistently raised by my students this semester is that social analysis can become so complex, and           never-ending, that it can become paralyzing. One can quickly feel the desire to “throw one’s hands up” and do nothing because determining the right thing to do can be so difficult. However, the more they’ve used the tools of social analysis they’ve also become convinced that simple analyses don’t usually lead to long-term change for the better. …

I hear the cries of those who want academics to help them “simplify better.” Unfortunately, I don’t know how to do so in this situation. This situation calls for, insists upon, complexity and more complexity. If that is paralyzing for some, or many, I am sorry, but I don’t know any other way to be morally responsible in a situation like this. Sometimes complexity is the enemy of the good and sometimes simplicity is. In this situation I think what we need is not academics who “simplify better” but activists who “complexify better.””

The point I was trying to make yesterday is precisely this “complexify better” argument, though with a nod to the gains of specialization.  If the normal person thinks they want to “do something” about global poverty or human rights issues, the things that will spring immediately to most of their minds will be things that are not helpful, like giving away food (with the consequence of wiping out local agriculture), or armed intervention, or building orphanages, etc.  The reason these tactics come to mind is because they are deeply rooted in Western culture, probably as a hold-over from colonialism.  They are scripts available to the uninformed and so they are the scripts that will be used unless some alternative is presented by those who know better.

Which is precisely why we need activists to do more in their interactions with the public (and students) than criticize what doesn’t work – they need to give illustrations of what good aid looks like.  Done correctly, describing positive steps can actually illuminate why the complexity is so important to achieving the goals of reducing poverty and protecting human rights.

Moreover, there is some portion of the public (i.e. most) that will never sit through a lecture on foreign aid, but who still want to do something and could be useful in raising money for the right kinds of programs or lobbying for the right kinds of governmental policies if activists would just tell them what those were.  Anyone who has ever worked in politics know that the way you get people to take action is to 1) fire them up, and then 2) make the action easy.  Step 1 is easy to do in the development field.  Step 2 is something that only the religious aid organizations do very well.