Forty years ago, while reporting on an environmental symposium at a major university, I heard a conversation among colleagues in which one expressed simmering frustration that he could not make any headway with his proposals to stop environmental damage.
With some bitterness, he said he hoped the fossil fuels would all be used up soon because then everyone would be forced to recognize that he had been right all along and they would be forced to do just as he had been advising. The consequences for others or for society as a whole did not seem to concern him.
While I believe strongly in protecting the environment, I could never join a cause led by a person like him. He practiced what I call “toxic activism.”
You know people like him. You’ve met them. At a family reunion they would be the in-law who insists on digging up the hatchet that everyone else in the family buried 30 years ago.
When toxic activists have what they consider a worthy cause, and when they’re in your office, your neighborhood, your church, or your children’s group of school parents, they’ll use that cause to bludgeon you.
No matter what the cause—civil rights, the environment, liberal or conservative politics, gender politics and equality—if your response doesn’t match theirs in intensity, then you obviously are an uncaring and ignorant individual. Ironically, they may accuse you of being so focused on your own small world that you have no time for the more serious cosmic problems that should concern you. Toxic activists are very good at laying guilt trips on others.
There are many people, including me, who would be glad to help correct injustices and help undo damage that has been done in our culture or our environment. I could gladly give money and time to efforts that would help cure some of these ills.
But please don’t come at me with your list of demands. Please don’t tell me what burden of guilt I must accept on behalf of my social class, my faith, or my ethnic group before we can work together on solving the problem at hand. That’s no way to begin a relationship that will require us to trust each other.
What is it you want to happen? Do you want my cooperation? Or are you more interested in scoring some ideological points? If you try to persuade me instead of accusing me, you’re much more likely to win my support. I have time to listen to reason on an issue, but I have too little time to spend it with someone trying to bait me into contention.
Let’s talk. I am completely in favor of “equality,” “justice,” “mutual support,” and “cooperation.” But I am not likely to take up your cause unless I know just how you are applying those terms and what specific outcome you are seeking.
Getting in my face is no way to get into my heart and mind.
In my faith, we have a book of scripture called the Doctrine and Covenants. It is a record of revelations given by God to modern prophets. One of those revelations teaches that power and influence in the hearts of others can never be maintained over the long term through compulsion or domination; this can only be done through persuasion and patience. (See Doctrine and Covenants 121:39-44.)
Look, I’m willing to be your friend. I’d like to help your cause if it is just. But if you want to win my help, present your case and let me decide according to the moral principles that guide my own thoughts and actions. If your course of action agrees with those principles, you’ll have my support.
Perhaps there are areas or causes in which I could do more. Perhaps there are aspects of some problems that I do not understand. I am open to listening and learning.
But I am not open to being threatened or coerced.
I will be the one, not you, to decide on my course of action, because I will be the one, not you, who will be judged by God for them.