Tim Jordan on the purpose of Activism

     Tim Jordan’s writing in Activism! engages with the question of what the purpose of radical activism is, given that its goals are frequently unreasonable in practice. He references the examples of feminist movements demanding separated male and female communities, or environmental movements demanding automobile-free futures. I think this is a critical issue in activism, and one which any argument attempting to treat it must address. One of the greatest reasons why people aren’t activists is that they feel the goals are impossible – Stanford will never divest from fossil fuels, say – and so it’s a waste of time.

     The key concept in Jordan’s argument is that the highest purpose of activism is to construct new morals – that rather than “defining our future society,” they are “part of the creation of values by which we may judge our future society” (Jordan 23). Moreover, he says that unreasonable goals are a necessary condition to achieve such change. The rationale for this somewhat out-there claim is that if a goal is achievable within a currently existing system, it represents latent but widespread sentiment, and not truly new morals.

     As someone who has inhabited the camp of questioning the practicality of activism, I find Jordan’s thesis satisfying. However, I’ve got to say that out readings don’t seem entirely sufficient to support the claim. The excerpts we read were excellent in categorizing and describing different sectors of activism along with their associated ethics. However, I never found a good demonstration that a radical activist group (conforming to the criteria Jordan lays out) brought about, say, the many varieties of grocery store eggs Jordan mentions in the first chapter. I found this somewhat unsatisfying.

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2 thoughts on “Tim Jordan on the purpose of Activism”

  1. How interesting to focus on Jordan’s claim that achievable goals are not ones aligned with activism!. This allows movements to span out from merely attempting to change an aspect of society to an entire upheaval of the very morals such a society is based on. I agree that this is not the most satisfying of distinctions, and perhaps even closes off some key components of what activism currently means to me.

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  2. I think the idea you bring up here of activist groups making demands that seem impossible and that being both an obstacle to gaining widespread acceptance and popularity as well as being essential to the function of the group as being activists. I was trying to think of campaigns I’m aware of that were successful activist campaigns and the first two that came to mind were groups that made more radical demands and had
    “success” in going partway, namely Fossil Free Stanford and #NODAPL. FFS demanded full divestment from 200 fossil fuel industries and got divestment from coal but not from oil and natural gas. The Standing Rock activists got an easement denial from the US Army Corps of Engineers but are still fighting on the eventual fate of the pipeline.

    I think the difference between asking for change within a system and pushing to create new morals and standards for a future society very interesting. Prior to the 2015 Obergefell vs. Hodges Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage in the US, almost 60 percent of Americans were in favor of marriage equality and same-sex marriage was legal in 37 states. The ruling represented the majority opinion of the country, which was hard-fought but not at the time a demand for new morals. However, looking back to the beginning of the rise of the movement in the late 60s/early 70s, the demand was a lot more challenging to status quo morals at the time.

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