A recent study done by researchers at the University of Toronto turned up an interesting nugget: even when people support environmental goals and causes, they would actually prefer to not be associated with any activists promoting those same items. This is not talking about the people who disagree; these are the ones who – if you are an environmentalist – are on your side. These are the ones who get the email newsletters and the invitations to the yearly auction. They, some of them, don’t mind writing a check now and then. But if you are some kind of an activist (gasp), there is an odor associated with what you do and that smell may rub off. Apparently.
“If individuals believe that social change is crucial and socially valued, they should generally be supportive of and responsive to the activists who advocate it,” says the study’s lead author Nadia Bashir. “Ironically, it may be this enthusiasm with which activists promote social change that undermines their impact: rather than admiring their determination to address issues, individuals may avoid affiliating with activists and disregard their pro-change initiatives.”
Essentially what the study is saying is that if the people who advocate for the environment just did it a little more quietly, people would like them more. If you want to be popular, just shut up. Go along to get along, and don’t rock the boat. The Japanese have a saying that covers the concept wonderfully: “The nail that sticks up will be hammered down.”
With all due respect to the folks at U of T, the larger message is not simply that people don’t like environmentalists. It’s not just because activists are seen as shrill or unhygienic. The reason for the uneasiness goes deeper than that. The message of the environmentalist – at its core – forces us to look at our own personal contradictions, an activity that few enjoy taking on.
And it is precisely these who would tend to see themselves as being philosophically aligned with larger environmental goals, these are the ones who will take the hardest line against those who bring the message. That the industrialists and land-rapers oppose the environmental point of view is not surprising. I think we were all prepared for that. What the study shows all too clearly, however, is that the rest of us don’t want to be confronted with the contradictory streak that runs through our lives either.
There is a constant pushing and pulling in this life, where virtue is praised but avarice is rewarded, where cooperation wins accolades but competition brings financial success. We talk about our values as if they are shining ideals, somehow unconnected to our actual lives. We say one thing but do another. Contradictions are the norm here and we want to act as if they don’t even exist. We tell our children that they can grow up to be anything they want to be and then, when they tell us that they want to be a teacher or a writer, we advise them to pick something more marketable, because making a living has somehow become more important to us than making a life.
This is not something we like to be reminded about; we, all of us, would prefer to pretend that we hadn’t already made some sort of deal with our lives.