A common complaint made about contemporary political theory is that it is far too focused on describing what a perfect society looks like, and not focused enough on exploring the means by which we are to move toward the ideal. This criticism seems to me to be basically right. But it would not be correct to say that nothing has been said about the means by which to improve society. Political theorists have had a fair amount to say about ‘civil disobedience’, for instance.

Moreover, in recent years, scholars have increasingly turned their attention to allegedly ‘uncivil’ forms of activism, from hacktivism to hunger strikes, rioting to revolution. What all of these forms of activism have in common is that they typically have laws and policies as their targets. Hence, when political theorists think about activism, they tend to have what you might call ‘formal activism’ in mind.

While formal activism is of course essential, I want to draw attention to forms of activism that have social phenomena other than law or policy as their targets. Let’s call this kind of activism ‘informal activism’. There are at least three reasons why informal activism is important.

Good societies are about more than just good laws and policies

The first reason why informal activism is important is that social phenomena other than law and policy make a crucial difference to whether an ideal society can be achieved. One example of such a phenomenon is social norms. For instance, if people in civil society continue to comply with sexist social norms, then gender equality will never be achieved, whatever law or policy says.

Law and policy can affect social norms, of course. But the relationship between the two phenomena is complex and bidirectional; norm change is not simply and inevitably downstream from legal change. This means that activism should not only target law and policy. It should target social norms too.

Understanding contemporary activism

The second reason why informal activism is important is that this category helps us to better understand contemporary instances of activism. Consider the militant anti-fascist groups (Antifa) that received attention in recent years due to their activism during Donald Trump’s term as president of the USA. Perhaps the most famous act by an Antifa member was the punching of white supremacist Richard Spencer on the day of Trump’s inauguration in 2017.

It is almost impossible to understand Antifa’s militant activism if it is conceived of as an attempt to change law or policy. However, if Antifa’s militant activism is conceived of as informal activism, it appears much more legible. The aim of Antifa activism is not to win over the public and thereby encourage the government to change law or policy, but to enforce the social norm against fascism and white supremacy. To enforce a social norm is to encourage compliance with it by imposing an unwelcome experience on those who fail to comply with the social norm in question.

Antifa are willing to use militant tactics to enforce the social norms against fascism and white supremacy because they believe that history shows that violence inevitably follows when such ideologies are permitted to take hold. As Mark Bray notes in his book on Antifa movements, “anti-fascists don’t wait for a fascist threat to become violent before acting to shut it down, physically if necessary”. My point here is not to defend Antifa activism, but to understand it. Even if one is minded to oppose and critique Antifa’s tactics, understanding them is a crucial first step.

Morally evaluating activism

The third reason why informal activism is important is that the category helps us to better morally evaluate certain forms of activism. Consider, for instance, the practice of public shaming. Public shaming involves inducing a person to feel shame by drawing others’ attention to the person’s alleged wrongdoing with the expectation that these onlookers will disapprove. Public shaming is a means by which to enforce social norms. Insofar as it works, it does so at least in part because most people find it unwelcome to be disapproved of by others.

One problem with public shaming is that the unwelcome experience imposed can sometimes be disproportionate. This is especially true for online public shaming. The massive scale and uncoordinated nature of internet interactions means that many individual acts of online public shaming can aggregate in such a way that the unwelcome experience imposed on the shamed person is much, much greater than any individual shamer may have intended. In these kinds of cases, there is a considerable risk that the unwelcome experience imposed will be excessive.

But we must remember that proportionality judgements are comparative. We are evaluating whether the unwelcome experience imposed is excessive in relation to the good that the imposition will achieve. If one assumed that activism must have law or policy as its target, then many forms of public shaming would not register as forms of activism at all and the good that they aim at may be obscured.

Once we see that activism can aim to encourage compliance with social norms, we can at least ask ourselves whether the ends justify the means used to achieve them. In many cases, the answer will be ‘no’, but this will not always be so. Either way, we need to first formulate the question in the right way before we can even attempt to answer it.

Temi Ogunye

Postdoctoral Prize Research Fellow in Politics at Nuffield College, Oxford