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Activism and the Fight Against Self-Interest

The Apostle Paul of Holy Bible fame once wrote, “…the way I am aiming my blows is so as not to be striking the air.” Imagine two boxers in a ring and one of them keeps missing his opponent and striking the air instead. You don’t have to guess who will win the fight especially if the opponent is getting punches in.

We all face fights daily. Sometimes the fight is physical and at other times they are metaphorical. At other sometimes we are so moved by the suffering of others that we want to fight for them. Whatever the case, when we do fight, we do not want to aim our blows so as to strike the air. We want to direct our blows strategically so as to disable the enemy.

So when we face difficulties, we are strategic about how we approach the solution. We first have to identify who the opponent is, in a manner of speaking. And what their weak spot is, so we can neutralise the threat. If the fight is personal, we would also think in terms of what is in our best interests and take actions to protect these interests.

However, when we try to help others, things get tricky. We need to be even more careful. Because we cannot read minds, we have to be sure to ascertain that we are on the same page as the person we are trying to help. People who have tried to settle a quarrel between a husband and a wife have seen this play out so many times that they have decided that the course of wisdom is usually to mind their own business.

A person may agree to pursue a particular course of action because of the (internal or external) pressure they are facing at the time, but it takes wisdom to be able to tell whether they are ready to pursue the case to a logical conclusion. Mind you, “logical conclusion” is person-dependent. You cannot help people make decisions that will affect their future and how they are perceived, this is a path they must walk themselves. They must demonstrate not just by words and nodding to all your suggestions but by independent action that this is what they really want.

As another example, people who have tried to help women who are facing physical/emotional abuse in their marriages have found that until the woman herself decides it is time to leave, it is to no avail that they keep telling them to. The women hang on, hoping against hope that their case will be different until they see it isn’t, and then they give up. Trying to pry them out of the relationship before they are ready will only make you an enemy. It will amount to you fighting for yourself rather than the person facing the abuse. Another wise saying comes to mind: you cannot cry more than the bereaved. This is why activism is sometimes called a thankless job.

The recent case involving a young lady that accused a popular music star of rape further underscores the fact that people who are working as activists/advocates should be sure that they are representing their client’s interests and not their own.

There is a principle in law, “Nemo judex in causa sua” which means you cannot be a judge in your own case. It is the principle connected to conflict of interest. I mention this principle in relation to activism because people often become activists because they have suffered the same injustices they are advocating against. This can be a problem because they will see themselves in the situations that they are fighting and may end up fighting their own battles instead of that of the person they are representing. They forget (and they cannot be entirely blamed for this) that the human mind is very fickle and some people think that some prices are too high to pay for the closure that they seek. Their idea of what logical means is in direct conflict with what the person they are trying to help wants.

Arbitrations and out-of-court settlements are a thing because most cases are hardly ever cut and dry. There are intricacies that even an innocent party would rather is never made public because it is not in their best interests. And they know that when the case drags on, they will come under intense scrutiny and these might be revealed. They would rather settle and not let things escalate whereas the activist’s sense of justice says otherwise.

Activists who want to fight so as not to strike the air will first identify the opponent and then help their client understand what they are getting into. They must agree to fight based on full disclosure. They cannot be seen to be fighting their own battles. In reality, some people just want someone to stand by them and support their own decisions. But if the activist decides to literally take the matter into their own hands, the client may let you keep fighting, hitting the air, while they find a way of protecting their own interests.

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