On this day 28 years ago, hundreds if not thousands of students were killed in Beijing at Tiananmen Square, ending a seven-week long pro-democracy movement in the worst way. As a current graduate student in Beijing, not unlike those who fell at Tiananmen, my heart feels a special weight today. I wish to honor the victims of Tiananmen through reflecting on the privilege of activism enjoyed in liberal democracies.
I once ascribed a negative connotation to the term “activism,” associating the word with images of social justice warriors throwing temper tantrums and claiming victimization by the world. But now, in part due to my experience living in communist China, I understand activism as a vital component of my liberal democracy at home. Ignoring any baggage constructed by the media, the term active-ism refers to individuals’ engagement in society and efforts to improve the status quo. The Bill of Rights in the United States Constitution facilitates activism through protecting free speech and assembly and delegating power to the states and to the people. James Madison in Federalist Paper 10 explains the societal value of factions of citizens advocating their unique concerns and desires, whatever they may be. Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America applauds the avenues of civic engagement encouraged in America.
That being said, while activism in principle enables a liberal democracy to flourish, not all forms of activism are constructive.
Criticism of individuals instead of ideas, passively re-Tweeting or sharing Facebook posts without checking their validity, and acts of violence are hallmarks of destructive activism. Equally destructive are forms of activism that individuals have sworn against in their professional capacity, such as justices who have promised not to legislate, or soldiers who have promised not to publicly participate in politics.
Constructive methods of activism share a respect for individuals and for constitutional institutions. The most constructive forms not only identify problems but also offer solutions, and those solutions may not be limited to government action. After all, why should government officials alone shoulder responsibility for our collective good?
One illustration of constructive activism is TODXS, an organization that was co-founded by my classmate in Beijing and dear friend, Italo Alves. TODXS is a non-profit structured like a startup that works to protect and empower the LGBT community in the liberal democracy of Brazil, which is the most dangerous nation in the world for LGBT individuals with one LGBT murder every 25 hours. The TODXS team is grounded in respect for all individuals, regardless of their opinion on LGBT rights, as well as for the constitutional processes in place to effect policy change in Brazil. TODXS studies and shares information about LGBT issues, advocates clear policy solutions to those issues, and goes the extra mile to pioneer solutions that do not depend on government action, such as a mobile phone app that empowers citizens with knowledge of existing LGBT regulations.
Launched just this week, the TODXS app contains a database of LGBT-specific regulations from 97 cities across Brazil. The app may be used to reference LGBT-specific laws in a given location or based on keywords; locate LGBT support organizations; or report illegal acts of discrimination to police. While the app does not compel legal enforcement, it does enable the user to evaluate police service, or lack thereof. In the short term, the TODXS team plans to expand the app’s database of laws and develop a function for users to publicly chastise establishments that violate those laws. In the long term, TODXS will use the app’s growing database of information about the LGBT population to petition the Brazilian government for better laws and more reliable legal enforcement.
News these days is saturated with examples of destructive activism, from hateful posts on social media, to violent riots on college campuses, alleged judicial activism, and military leaders endorsing political candidates. We must do better to celebrate models of constructive activism, such as TODXS, so that the destructive cases do not taint our respect for activism on principle. I worry we may not appreciate what we have until it is gone.
The views expressed here are my own and do not reflect the official position of the Department of Defense.