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Being a responsible activist

Opinion pieces and their corresponding opinions are all the rage these days. Social media has give every Tom, Dick, and Sally with a computer and an internet connection the ability to share their views publicly. While there are countless devils in the details of our newfound lust for content, I would highlight one such devil that I have seen prey on a good number of people that I respect; as well as healthy collection of those I have yet to find that respect for.

This devil is one I shall call “irresponsible activism,” one that, in my questionably-humble opinion should be diligently hunted down, ridiculed, and ultimately banished from civilized discourse.

What sets a responsible activist aside from the others? Before we can dive in to this, we must first take a vow of impartiality while sorting through the swarm of opinions clamoring at your news feed. There will always be people who disagree with you, many times there will be a vast multitude of them which may not even agree with each other. It is important to realize that the quality of an article is independent of it’s slant on the issue. To be a responsible activist, you must be able to read something you do not agree with and still give it credit for its quality.

While this list is by no means complete and of course, open to debate, it will provide a good starting criteria for evaluating an article and ultimately deciding whether it is a candidate for the esteemed pedestal of responsible activism.

Fails to adequately support opinions with facts, sound logic, or good sources.
This one is a classic that I’m sure you’ve heard about in school. The core of it is that being able to identify good sources and bad sources is an essential skill when separating high quality works from low quality ones. A reliable source is likely to be from somewhere you recognize as being known for impartial and high quality articles, something relatively high profile like NY Times, BBC, or ABC. This is not primarily because these places are authorities on anything, although many of their authors do have an academic or experiential background on their topic. The important part is that they are trained to do their homework, have their articles reviewed and edited to a high standard, and operate under intense public scrutiny with a reputation to uphold.
Here is a short article from Cornell with some advice on evaluating a source.

Sound logic and well accepted facts can also serve to better ground an article in reality and can be used to support conclusions in lieu of sources. Depending on the kind of conclusion you’re drawing, citing sources may not even be very appropriate.

For every opinion you should be able to ask the question “why should I believe that” and be able to find the answer somewhere in the article. Any exceptions to this should be clearly separated from the rest of the article.

Fails to add value to the “conversation” or movement
This value could be just about anything, but without it, it may be more appropriate to share links to your sources with little to no commentary; the sources will speak for themselves. The value that you add may be aggregation, where you bring together a number of sources and fit them together into a meaningful and cohesive story. It could be commentary or review of one or more sources where the author dissects the original sources and offers critique on the original source’s analysis or sources. It could even be some sort of summary of the original sources that is easier to read and understand that the original. It should be pretty obvious to the readers of the article what the value that you add is.

Beware of pieces that offer only opinion and commentary. While these may be add value in the form of a unique perspective, they are unlikely to be a high quality citation. Instead, consider citing the original sources directly.

Fails to provide a call to action, a proposed solution, or a meaningful conclusion
This is similar to the previous one in that it is aimed at making sure that the piece contributes to the world in some positive way. A rant, while cathartic, isn’t particularly useful to the world at large. While having an opinion is healthy, being an activist isn’t about having opinion, it’s about having a goal. A piece of responsible activism should further that goal by highlighting some aspect of reality, having a supportable opinion based on that reality, and then offering a path forward. Writing to simply “raise awareness” fails to add value to the conversation by being useful only to readers who are not already aware of the issue. Raising awareness comes automatically with a well written and informative post that contributes to the movement.

It should be noted that news items are exempt from this requirement. The tone of a news article is that it should serve to only report the facts and should not be a source of much opinion or direction.

Fails to clearly separate opinion from fact
As mentioned briefly before, opinion and fact should be clearly separated such that a reader is constantly cognizant of whether they are reading something that is intended to be factual or a logical conclusion from something that is an expressed opinion that may not be fully supported directly by the facts presented. Ideally the bulk of the opinions are grouped together in one place so that the reader doesn’t have to constantly switch back and forth between analyzing your logic and sources objectively and evaluating your opinions in a more subjective way.

Speaks to a well-defined audience
True for any written piece, defining, knowing, and speaking to your audience is crucial. Your audience may be people who disagree with you in an attempt to convince them to agree with you. It may be people who generally agree with you and you may be hoping to refine an opinion or present a specific solution. Perhaps it’s people who have never heard of the issue or people of a certain demographic. It may even be a combination of a few of these. Your audience can be as broad or as narrow as you choose, but it must be well defined and at the forefront of your mind throughout the article. Avoid insulting your audience. Don’t cover in detail something that you expect your audience to already know. Address concerns and opinions that you know your audience might have. You may even address your audience explicitly, in many cases, letting your audience know that your article is written for them will make them more likely to receive it well.

Uses inflammatory, biased, or otherwise inappropriate language
Insulting the opposition or exaggerating events and evidence with the use of intentionally charged language may work well to stir up a violent mob, but it has no place in responsible activism. If a cause truly is just and well presented, it will win people over by appealing to them with logic, reason, and empathy. Inflammatory language serves only to further polarize readers and often causes your true audience (the people you’re trying to convince) to feel defensive and dismiss the points, even if there may be validity buried in the incendiary language.

Let’s play a game, read each article and determine the following:
Topic: The topic/issue at hand, described in a neutral way
My Opinion: Your personal opinion/side on said topic (important to note your opinion as it helps others to evaluate your analysis of the article)
Author’s Opinion: The author’s opinion on the topic
Article Quality: Is the article an example of responsible activism? (which of the above items does it violate)


Wikipedia Declares War On Women, Gives Anti-Feminist Males Control Over Gender And Sexuality Entries

Topic: Wikipedia arbitration committee’s handling of the ongoing dispute over the Wikipedia article on the “Gamergate controversy”

My Opinion: Mostly undecided and neutral with the caveat that I generally trust Wikipedia to act responsibly, but don’t know all the details of this specific incident.

Author’s Opinion: Extremely against Wikipedia’s decision to ban editors from editing, believes that Wikipedia is acting in favor of the “anti-feminist” movement.

Article Quality: Extremely low, this article manages to hit almost all of the points I’ve assembled:
– Sources: A brief perusal of the links that the article shows that the sources provided are an opinion piece with approximately the same slant/quality as the article and a personal blog post that is also clearly slanted and is quoted of some pretty inflammatory language and tone. The fact that there are only two sources and they’re both slanted in the same direction is enough to make this article even less useful than the cited sources themselves. Because of the topic is covering a news item, the omission of a more reliable news source or two is further cause for alarm.
– Adding value: As I mentioned in the last bullet, either of the linked sources, while also of low quality, would make for slightly more constructive reading material on the subject.
– Fact from Opinion: After reading this article originally, oddly enough, the question left in my head was “what even happened?”. Not only does this article do a poor job at giving all relevant facts from the issue, but the facts that are available are scattered through what is basically a rant about how Wikipedia’s decision is anti-feminist.
– Inflammatory Language: This last one is a gimmie. Both the tone and the language is extremely inflammatory. Honestly, you need not read past the title of this article to decide that it’s grotesquely irresponsible.


Wikipedia votes to ban some editors from gender-related articles

Topic: Wikipedia arbitration committee’s handling of the ongoing dispute over the “Gamergate controversy” page.

My Opinion: Mostly undecided and neutral with the caveat that I generally trust Wikipedia to act responsibly, but don’t know all the details of this specific incident.

Author’s Opinion: The author manages to remain extremely neutral while discussing a variety of different views on the issue.

Article Quality: Extremely high. While this article is hardly an act of activism, it deserves recognition as neutrality we should aspire to. It covers the facts and the opinions/concerns of both sides without getting involved personally. Notice that this article manages to avoid the things I’ve listed pretty well. When writing and analyzing pieces of activism, compare them as much as possible to news articles. It’s okay to add your opinion, but being able to present the facts and the other opinions in a concise and eloquent way will work wonders for establishing yourself as a reliable source of information as well as opinion.


DEA warns of stoned rabbits if Utah passes medical marijuana

Topic: Medical marijuana bill in Utah

My Opinion: pro-legalization

Author’s Opinion: Seemingly pro-marijuana, he does a fairly good job at staying neutral, but there are a few places that make me fairly certain that he’s pro-legalization

Article Quality: Good, not only does the article do a good job at covering the opinions and statements of a few choice opponents, he does a good job of addressing them in a concrete way.
– Sources: He cites a number of sources that, while aren’t uniformly high-quality, do serve to more than sufficiently illustrate his points. He’s not leaning extremely heavily on his sources, instead, he’s highlighting them as interesting items.
– Conversation: He addresses a number of items that the opposition has brought up and while he doesn’t firmly refute them, he manages to gently defuse them in a way that is unlikely to insult anyone.
– Call to action: This article doesn’t have a call to action, but as a news story, it’s allowed to omit it.


Fake Olive Oil: What You Need To Know New

Topic: Fake olive oil being stocked in stores and sold as real olive oil

My Opinion: Neutral, uninformed

Author’s Opinion: Many olive oils are fake

Article Quality: Low. The biggest glaring issue with this article is the lack of quality sources. If you click on any of the links, you’ll find that it’s mostly a link farm for other “news” articles on eatlocalgrown.com. It’s especially concerning that they’re citing statistics and studies that are either not linked or improperly linked. My attempts to track any of these studies down failed miserably. The eerie part is that other than the lack of links, this article actually seems fairly good. If you are willing to trust the author’s research, it comes across as a well supported and news-worthy piece.. but because it’s from a site that doesn’t have a very large public reputation, it can’t be taken at face value. This sort of article is particularly persuasive to people who don’t bother to source and fact check. All of these studies may be legitimate, but because we don’t know, and can’t find out from the citations, we have to assume that they are not.