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Quiet Activism in Revolutions


Mushrooms of various sizes and colours grow on brown sloping soil. Underground, lines reach out from their roots and spread out widely, overlapping and interlacing.

How does social change occur? How do we create revolutionary changes that significantly alter the society we live in? When we think of revolutions, what comes to our minds are spectacular images of mass protests and sit-ins, or even violent riots, uprisings and wars. There are some scholars and historians who even suggest that violence is necessary in social change. For example, Andreas Malm, the author of “How to blow up a pipeline”, argues that many social movements have been “peacewashed” [1]. This means that we have falsely conceptualised societal change to be a peaceful event devoid of any violence, bloodshed or painful sacrifices, where change and progress comes naturally. He raises examples of the role of the suffragettes in giving women the right to vote, and the Black Panthers as the militant wing vital to the success of the civil rights movement in the USA, thereby illustrating the importance of violent factions in many social movements.


Even movements inspired by figures such as Martin Luther King, known for his preaching of nonviolence, ranged on the spectacular. He emphasised the importance of direct action, such as disobeying immoral segregation laws [2]. These actions were highly disruptive to the functioning of mainstream society in order to force a change in the status quo, explaining why up to 75% of Americans disapproved of him at the time of his death. Some of today's climate movements continue to use similar tactics, such as throwing soup on paintings, slashing SUV tyres in cities, or stopping private jets from taking off.


Environmental activists and scholars remain divided over the efficacy of these radical actions, just as historians today continue to debate over the role played by the Black Panthers and suffragettes. Regardless of their efficacy, these stereotypes of revolutions still paint an image of the spectacular and of direct action, and our minds are still wired to think of revolutionary change as such. This in part has been shaped by the media we consume, or even memory bias to only remember the spectacular [3].

Photo of a person in a cap, mask and sneakers kneeling next to a car tyre from The Tyre Extinguishers, and a group of people in white raincoats gathered around a small plane carrying colourful flags, from Extinction Rebellion Nederland.

Indeed, we often conceptualise social change in a way that romanticises the grandiose, and forgets about the everyday acts of resistance — banal yet necessary, subtle yet significant. Perpetuating or encouraging such a view of activism excludes those who are unable to afford the consequences of civil disobedience. This is especially pertinent in a politically repressive environment such as Singapore, where one can get prosecuted for holding up a placard with a smiley face. Therefore, holding a view that reserves activism to those willing and able to engage in acts of civil disobedience automatically places this activist ideal beyond the reach of many who are unwilling to join such acts for various legitimate reasons. These reasons range from disagreement of tactics, fear of prosecution, or even fear of being terminated from employment, especially for those working in the public and civil service.


The fact of the matter is: political potential goes beyond spectacular acts of protests, and encompasses what some scholars call quiet activism [4]. Imagine this form of activism to look like small quotidian acts of kindness, such as the expression of solidarity through contributing to mutual-aid funds and tangible acts of charity; or harnessing the powers of persuasion through social media or physical conversations to amplify voices and spread the cause. It could also refer to everyday acts of resistance, such as small-scale farmers saving and exchanging seeds to bypass the corporatocracy of the agro-industrial complex [5]. It could even simply refer to people refusing to cower or surrender to their fate and surviving the oppression dealt to them. For example victims of environmental injustice refusing to leave their polluted land, and attempting to clean it up repeatedly everyday in what seems to be a sisyphean endeavour - inconsequential and absurd, yet also a courageous act of resistance where they communicate their reluctance to accept the injustices in society [6]. Other pertinent examples of quiet activism trending is the notion of quiet-quitting as a form of resistance to the rat race of the corporate world, inspired from the “lie-flat” movement in China resisting the “996” phenomenon. Indeed, amidst hustle culture, rest is a form of resistance in itself [7]. In Singapore, such acts of resistance could look like donating to the crowdfunding pages of those sued for defamation by PAP politicians for astronomical damages.

Three people holding up cardboard signs with the words “ExxonMobil kills kittens & puppies”, “SG is better than oil @fridays4futuresg”, and a smiley face.

Quiet activism is not only inclusive, but it also centres individual agency and avoids painting the oppressed as hopeless [8]. As illustrated in a previous post, this is instrumental towards calling people to action as it provides a pathway to those wanting change but not knowing how, and therefore avoids succumbing to doomism or being susceptible to compassion fatigue. If we continue to paint a picture of revolution as merely one of big protests or civil disobedience, we discourage people who have different visions of reform from joining the movement. There are many quiet, unseen and often banal ways change occurs, all of which are critical to revolutionary change. A romanticised view of revolution only comprising the spectacular and direct action neglects the copious ways in which activism and resistance can happen through everyday bonds and acts, many of which sustains and nourishes us [9].


Diagram of Overton window with “policy” in the middle and extending on both sides the words “popular”, “sensible”, “acceptable”, “radical”, “unthinkable”. A box surrounding the five middle words is shown moving upwards towards “more LGBTQ rights”, while the other direction is labelled “less LGBTQ rights”

The spectacular and the mundane however, are not mutually exclusive, and social change often requires both of them. The recent repeal of Section 377A in Singapore for example, would not have been successful without the Pink Dot Rallies over the years and the constitutional challenges in court. However, it would have been stunted without the modest acts of activists raising awareness of the discrimination faced by the LGBTQ community in daily life and helping to shift the Overton window [10], the daily conversations at the dinner table to gradually change minds and hearts, or the many volunteers giving their time and effort to LGBTQ organisations who provide a range of services to help the LGBTQ community have a better quality of life on this heteronormative island. People Power, a concept talked about in a previous post, does not only consist of protest and direct action, but also a multitude of everyday forms of resistance, persuasion, and community and volunteer work and organising. We must create a capacious movement that includes such small acts of resistance, only then will it encourage more people to participate in a movement and generate the potential to enact revolutionary change. While it is inevitable that bold and more salient acts of activism such as direct action are more easily noticed and remembered, small everyday acts of resistance remain critical to any social movements and revolutions.


The environmental crisis today requires revolutionary change in the way we organise our society and political economy, including those beyond the forefront of the activist movements. We need everyone to join the revolution in ways that they can to co-construct a more sustainable and just future. The good news is they don’t need to have a placard— there is a whole ecosystem of roles you can play.


Image of Social Change Ecosystem Framework by Deepa Iyer and Building Movement Project. It shows a circle in the middle with the words “equity, liberation, justice, solidarity”. Many circles of various colours branch out from it, labelled “weavers, experimenters, frontline responders, visionaries, builders, caregivers, disrupters, healers, storytellers, guides”
Social Change Ecosystem Framework by Deepa Iyer and Building Movement Project

If you are looking for ways to contribute to societal change, we have provided a non-exhaustive list of organisations and resources below.


LGBTQ: Pink Dot, Sayoni, Oogachaga and more (see list of orgs on SG LGBT wiki)

Migrant Workers: HOME, TWC2

Transformative Justice Collective

Eastside and Migrant Mutual Aid

Environment: LepakInSG, Students for a Fossil Free Future and more (see SG Green Lobang wiki)

Labour Issues: Workers Make Possible, SG Riders


Sources:

  1. Malm, A., 2021. How to blow up a pipeline. Verso Books.

  2. King Jr, M.L., 1963. Letter from Birmingham Jail (1963). Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and the Civil Rights Struggle of the 1950s and 1960s: A Brief History with Documents.

  3. Fyock, J. and Stangor, C., 1994. The role of memory biases in stereotype maintenance. British Journal of Social Psychology, 33(3), pp.331-343.

  4. Pottinger, L., 2017. Planting the seeds of a quiet activism. Area, 49(2), pp.215-222.

  5. See 4

  6. Liboiron, M., Tironi, M. and Calvillo, N., 2018. Toxic politics: Acting in a permanently polluted world. Social studies of science, 48(3), pp.331-349.

  7. Hersey, T., 2022. Rest Is Resistance: A Manifesto. Little, Brown Spark.

  8. See 6

  9. See 4

  10. The Overton Window is what Political Scientists define as the range of acceptable opinions





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