Activism is easy to hypothesise but harder to do, so plan ahead

You may have heard some ominous rumblings about the government’s schemes, and you may have even talked about them at dinner parties. I’d never stand for this, you say. I can’t see how people will let this go forward, you say. Big, abstract, sweeping promises are easy to make but they are harder to keep. When you wonder why people seemed to do nothing in the face of terrible acts in the past, well, try to put yourself in their shoes. I mean really try, as in imagine situations and have plans.

If you live with anxiety (hi), you’re probably used to the role of scripts in your life. I have scripts for everything, in a literal flipbook in my desk. There are scripts for calling elected officials. For dealing with my insurance. For handling customer service issues. When I’m anxious and stressed I can flip to the right page and practice. Sometimes I even leave it open while I deal with a difficult call, so that it’s there for me. Oddly, people like me are better prepared for catastrophic events because we already spend our lives mapping out scripts complemented by incredibly complex decision trees. It’s just how we roll. Mental illness for the win.

But the rest of you may find this alien. Let’s say, for example, that the government enacts a Muslim registry, via executive order or act of Congress. What are you going to do? Not in broad, abstract terms: I mean what are you going to do? Where is your script? If it’s an executive order, the pathway to doing something about it is different than if it’s an act of Congress. Let’s take a real-world example of something that actually happened, in the form of Executive Order 9066, signed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It’s worth reading the whole thing.

In the order, the president directed the Secretary of War (now known as the Secretary of Defense) to intern Japanese-Americans, providing ‘transportation, food, shelter, and other accommodations as may be necessary.’ But here’s the thing: An executive order usually requires some support to go into effect. In this case, in addition to authorising the Secretary of War to move forward with this, he directed other agencies to provide assistance. Assistance like this often needs to be provided through rulemaking and regulations.

So Americans could have rioted in the streets and said ‘fuck you,’ which is hopefully what people will do if something similar happens again. But they also could have come down like a sack of bricks on those agencies, pushing them to refuse to enact the regulatory framework that would make it possible to actually carry out Executive Order 9066. They could have leaned on members of Congress to work to oppose it as well — potentially by passing legislation that conflicted with it. These are all things that we should be doing, and that we should be thinking about.

There’s a decision tree here: If it’s an executive order, then the following things need to happen. If it’s an act of Congress, then these other things need to happen. If this doesn’t work, we need to try this. So on down the line to the point where the registry is legitimised and finalised, and then we talk about how to resist it on the streets (hint: listen to Muslims to find out how to do that effectively).

My notebook is filling with slews of decision trees to map out for myself what I personally am going to do in the event of various policy proposals or events. What happens if…? is a question I want to have answered in advance. I want to be prepared. I want to have practiced. Just as you should keep a kit of supplies in case of evacuation or natural disaster, just as you hold fire drills to ensure people can get safely out of a building, you should have an organised plan for various events in your life.

Because in the moment, there can be a lot of panic. There’s outrage and frustration and confusion and uncertainty, but also, overwhelming panic. It’s hard to know what to do and you can become frozen. Or it happens so incrementally that you don’t realise what is happening until it’s already seriously way too late for you to do anything, thanks for playing, turn out the lights on your way out. That’s why my scripts start long before the executive orders are written, before the legislation is passed, before an agency starts proposing rulemaking on issues that are important to me. That’s why I’m counting on my team to flag me when something on an issue I’m not working on is coming down the pipeline.

Having a notebook might seem dorky. Okay, fine. Have a spreadsheet. Share your spreadsheet. Get a group of people editing a Google Doc together, thinking out every possible permutation and offering their skills, experience, and advice. Label those tabs well so that when something happens, you can flip to the right spot and start going down that decision tree, start marking off that checklist. Practice while you stand in the shower — what will you do if you are at a protest and someone spits in your face? No, really, what will you do? What will you do if you are at a city council meeting and someone says something bigoted and factually inaccurate? What will you do if someone raises a point in opposition that you need to be able to debunk with facts? Do you have those facts? Have you thought about every possible opposition point that could be raised? Are facts enough? Do you need a representative of a specific community or agency there to back you up? What will you do when your child comes home from school crying because she was taunted with antisemitic slurs at recess?

What will you do?

Image: Registration, Official GDC, Flickr