We live in a time when many people seem to be proud of being “an activist.” They think it a good thing. There are professors who think incorporating activism into the course is a good thing. I am different. I think critical thinking and education is a good thing. And I have found that in the vast majority of cases, activism and critical thinking are incompatible. Let’s look at the definitions.
Critical Thinking: the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment.
Activism: the policy or action of using vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change.
The activist is not someone engaged in an objective analysis. The activist is campaigning. The activist is not evaluating. They are imposing. The activist is not trying to form a judgment. The activist is trying to turn their judgment into political and social change.
Some activists might insist that they began as critical thinkers and having reached their judgment, they seek to act on it. But in making this distinction, the activist is admitting the incompatibility of critical thinking and activism. What’s more, a true critical thinker will hold to judgments tentatively, being aware that new information can arise which will call for modification, or even abandonment, of a previous judgment. But an activist cuts himself off from this dynamic. The activist becomes deeply invested in their judgment. Such deep investment can come in many forms: psychological (my cause gives me meaning); moral (my cause shows how good I am); financial (my cause earns my income); and social (my cause allows me to network with likeminded people). These investments result in the activist becoming closed minded such that the only satisfactory end point for them is the success of their campaign. And closed-mindedness is incompatible with critical thinking.
Activism is not merely incompatible with critical thinking; it is comfortably compatible with propaganda. It easily exists in a symbiotic union with propaganda. So much so that it is typically accurate to think of an activist as a propagandist.
Bruce Lannes Smith is Emeritus Professor of Political Science, Michigan State University, East Lansing and coauthor of Propaganda, Communication and Public Opinion. In his article on Propganda, he explains: