All posts filed under: Activism

When Children Protest, Adults Should Tell them the Truth

Last Friday, children in over 120 countries skipped school to follow the example of a Swedish 16-year-old who has become an international icon of climate change activism. Greta Thunberg’s extensive media coverage has made her a familiar figure—large almond-shaped eyes, brown plaited hair, serious expression, and diminutive stature. This month she was named Swedish Woman of the Year and also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by three socialist Norwegian MPs. She has spoken to world leaders at the United Nations Climate Change Conference and she has delivered a talk to the World Economic Forum in Davos. Her achievements are extraordinarily impressive for a young girl suffering, by her own account, from several mental health issues. Thunberg is inspiring thousands of schoolchildren to join her skolstrejk för klimatet, or “school strike for the climate.” She has dedicated every Friday to this cause since August 2018, following her first full-time strike. Inspired by the teen activists in Florida who organised the March For Our Lives in response to the shooting at Parkland school, Thunberg’s protests outside …

The Environment Is too Important to Leave to Environmentalists

The fact that belief in climate change in the US tends to correlate with political affiliation should tell you that we are not objectively interpreting the science as much as we are following the values of our chosen peer group. Because in a world where we follow the evidence, it’s an extraordinarily unlikely outcome. The truth is that the science of what is happening is as settled as science ever is. That isn’t to be conflated with the challenges of predicting the future. However sophisticated the predictive models get, they are still speculative. And it isn’t to be understood as believing all the headlines written by journalists too lazy to check the original sources (no, all insects are not about to die out—at least, the research that prompted those headlines does not provide any such evidence). We know enough to understand that we should be taking serious action. The fact that the only groups advocating action at the moment are demanding questionable strategies doesn’t change that. If you’re in a vehicle heading towards a cliff …

Why the American Left Should Embrace Effective Altruism over Provincial Populism

I After the global financial crisis, the Right seemed to know something the Left didn’t: how to channel post-recession outrage into political action. As Francis Fukuyama observed in a 2012 article: “Despite widespread anger at Wall Street bailouts, there has been no great upsurge of left-wing American populism in response.” The Occupy Wall Street movement sputtered while the Tea Party fueled one of the most sweeping Republican midterm victories in history, including the election of many insurgent hard-Right candidates. Little did Fukuyama know that an upsurge of left-wing American populism was well on its way. Seven years ago, who could’ve imagined that Bernie Sanders would pose a serious primary challenge to the Clinton machine? Who could’ve predicted that the chairman of the DNC would describe Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—a 29-year-old democratic socialist who was working at a bar a little over a year ago—as the “future of our party”? It’s no surprise that left-wing populism is ascendant in the United States. Beyond the fact that Donald Trump has a special talent for enraging and energizing the activist …

A Witch-Hunt on Instagram

“Knitting is just so white. Let’s hope it gets better.” I overheard this puzzling remark in my local yarn store in Edinburgh, Scotland, last week. The store is in the affluent area of Marchmont, just outside the city centre. Its Edwardian and Victorian tenement flats, adjacent to huge green spaces, are popular with students and families alike. Two customers were chatting to the store owner: “It’s about time we had the conversation,” one of them offered. Her companion nodded in solemn agreement. Knitting, which helps lower the blood pressure and keep the mind busy, has enjoyed an upsurge in popularity in recent years. The Internet has allowed for the proliferation of new platforms from which to buy yarn and patterns, and has helped connect artisans and hobbyists worldwide. Usually, it’s a calming and creative pastime focussed on aesthetics rather than politics. However, a short browse through the knitting posts on Instagram steered me in the direction of the source of the exchange I had overhead and the “conversation” it had produced. On January 7, Karen …

Homophobia and the Modern Trans Movement

Two and a half years ago, I spoke in Vancouver at Q2Q: A Symposium on Queer Theatre and Performance. After I delivered my paper, I became a focal point for criticism—though not because of my the content of my presentation. The controversy emerged in the Q&A, when I mentioned the fact that I was not only a gay man, but also a drag queen. Members of the audience stood up and opined about the apparently problematic practice of a white drag queen (like me) lip-synching to “appropriated music”—by which they meant music originally written and performed by non-white artists. It is undeniably true that drag queens (of all races) have a special affection for the work of divas of colour—and pay homage to these idols by lip-synching. It’s also true that gay and drag entertainment culture is centered in large part around pop music more generally. This is an industry that owes much to musicians of colour, who often have had their work used or co-opted without adequate compensation. But while this was a fair …

What PETA Has Cost the Animal Rights Movement

Animal advocates constantly complain about the reputation of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). They frequently see their cause dismissed because of the strong associations with this rambunctious organization. Earlier this month was no exception, as PETA made major headlines by asking the internet to stop using idioms like “bring home the bacon”: In fact, the word “PETA” has become a pejorative for stunts, gimmicks, and putting feelings over facts when it comes to animal issues. I argue in my new book, The End of Animal Farming, that animal rights will succeed in building a food system where we eat meat, dairy, and eggs without the use of animals, but it’s a tragic irony that one of the biggest obstacles for activists might be the bad reputation of its best-known advocates. I should clarify. This isn’t to say PETA hasn’t done a lot of good. The first modern undercover investigation of farmed animal abuse was conducted by the pioneering organization in 1983 at a Texas horse exporter, shortly after PETA’s famous lab animal investigation …

The New Evolution Deniers

Evolutionary biology has always been controversial. Not controversial among biologists, but controversial among the general public. This is largely because Darwin’s theory directly contradicted the supernatural accounts of human origins rooted in religious tradition and replaced them with fully natural ones. The philosopher Daniel Dennett has described evolution as a sort of “universal acid” that “eats through just about every traditional concept, and leaves in its wake a revolutionized world-view, with most of the old landmarks still recognizable, but transformed in fundamental ways.” Fearing this corrosive idea, opposition in the US to evolution mainly came from Right-wing evangelical Christians who believed God created life in its present form, as described in Genesis. In the 1990s and 2000s there were repeated attempts by evangelicals to ban evolution in public schools or teach the so-called “controversy” by including Intelligent Design—the belief that life is too complex to have evolved without the aid of some “Intelligent Designer” (i.e. God)—in the biology curriculum alongside evolution. But these attempts failed when scientists demonstrated in court that Intelligent Design was nothing …

Silencing Women in the Name of Trans Activism

It all began with a warm and friendly email from an arts producer who runs a regular London-based project called the Truth to Power Café (TTP). Founder Jeremy Goldstein had seen my writing, and figured I might be a worthy performer. “[The show] includes live and spontaneous testimony from participants rising up in the name of free speech and political activism,” he told me. “During the course of the show, I invite participants to respond to the question, ‘Who has power over you and what do you want to say to them?’ before a live audience. This year, I’ve worked with over 100 participants in four countries including U.K., Australia, Netherlands and Croatia.” I hesitated before accepting. Performance art isn’t really my thing. And I already do a number of events as part of my feminist activism, so I need to be careful about how I allocate my remaining time (especially when, as in this case, I’m not being paid). But the free speech and truth-to-power elements appealed to me, so I agreed to take …

Do Advocacy Groups Belong in Academia?

A few months ago, The Washington Post published an opinion piece by Suzanna Danuta Walters. Its title was: “Why can’t we hate men?” Walters’s byline, printed before the body of the article, read: Suzanna Danuta Walters, a professor of sociology and director of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at Northeastern University, is the editor of the gender studies journal Signs. As the byline suggests, Walters isn’t a layperson sharing an opinion; she’s a social scientist writing within her field of expertise. Her position as programme director at a prestigious university and as editor of an academic journal further underscore her academic credentials. Walters begins the article by describing incidences of abuse of women by men and notes that “it seems logical to hate men.” Although acknowledging the value of institutional analyses of power, she describes the “universal facts” of various forms of male domination (as opposed to citing examples of men abusing power within various structures and frameworks). Since men “have gone low for all of human history,” she writes, “maybe it’s time …

Single Issue Campaigning and the Polarisation Problem

In their new book, The Coddling of the American Mind, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff argue that a polarisation cycle exists at US universities. First, a progressive professor does or says something provocative in response to a real or perceived injustice caused by conservatives. Next, the right-wing press picks up the story, and it is shared and retold to amplify conservative outrage. Then, people are encouraged to email or tweet at academics. Finally, the university, which isn’t used to being attacked, makes a badly thought-through decision in order to make the problem go away, which too often means that someone leaves an institution when they probably shouldn’t. As progressive campaigners working outside of college campuses, the cycle Haidt and Lukianoff describe felt worryingly familiar. We began to wonder whether well-intentioned progressive campaigns were contributing to the same kind of polarisation in wider society. Polarisation is one of the few remaining political topics upon which there seems to be something approaching a consensus. There is widespread agreement that our political identities increasingly preclude us from listening …