Back in November, I posted a question about activism: “What’s the importance of credentials when writing or arguing for a cause?”
In the comments, Steve Simpson of the Institute for Justice was kind enough to write a lengthy reply. I’m reposting it here, with his permission, because I thought it contained particularly good advice that I wanted to make sure that all NoodleFood readers saw:
This is a very good and very important question, so I figured I would chime in and offer some thoughts from the perspective of someone who is a professional activist of sorts and has some experience in this area. I’m a lawyer at the Institute for Justice; in addition to litigating, we do quite a bit of writing and public speaking about our cases. So I have some experience in the area of “getting heard.” (How’s that for credentialing myself up front?)
On the importance of credentials, I would say: if you have them, flaunt them (because they are way to get yourself heard, not because they matter to the truth or falsity of your ideas). If you don’t, don’t worry about it. As Diana pointed out, you shouldn’t pursue an advanced degree just to credential yourself as an activist. It’s much more important to focus on gaining the knowledge and the advocacy skills to be an effective activist than it is to try to become “credentialed” in some way. There are lots of people in the activist/policy world with no more than a bachelors degree (or less) who are regularly quoted and published.
So if you want to be an effective activist, there are two things off the top of my head you can and should do. First, and most importantly, develop and hone your knowledge and advocacy skills. The good news is that the sky is the limit, and if you are interested in activism you already have the motivation. Pick an area in which you are interested and learn a lot about it, then start writing letters to the editor, op-eds, and talking and arguing with everyone you can about it. I think it makes the most sense to focus on a particular area rather than on something broad like philosophy in general, because you are much more likely to have pertinent information and to gain some expertise and experience if you focus more narrowly. You don’t have to devote your life to the area; it’s more a matter of setting priorities for a given period of time. For instance, for the next 6 months, I’m going to focus on health care, or the financial mess, or some idiotic environmental policy, etc., as opposed to the decline of western civilization, why the republicans and the democrats are stupid, etc. (Don’t get me wrong; there’s nothing wrong with gaining broad knowledge. It’s just not enough if your interest is activism).
You’ll also need to practice your advocacy skills, primarily writing. There’s a lot to say about this, so I will just say learn to write short, punchy, and informative letters and op-eds. Brevity is key if you want to get published, as is clarity of thought and expression. Practice, practice, practice. Write a letter to the editor every day. Focus on one or two points in everything your write. Edit ruthlessly.
Second, although credentials are not terribly important in getting published (or just heard), some sort of a “hook” often is. There are two main types of hooks–news hooks and what I’ll call “experiential” hooks (by the way, never use words like “experiential” in your writing). A news hook is simply something that is happening in the news that makes a particular letter or article or point of view relevant. Sometimes they are obvious, but often they aren’t. Never assume that because others have not made a particular connection or have a particular insight it isn’t worth writing about.
An experiential hook is something that indicates that you have relevant experience or knowledge that connects you to what you are talking about. For good or ill, news organizations love to feature “relevant” voices on any subject. So Paul’s voice in health care is relevant because he’s a doctor, and Diana’s is relevant on the amendment she opposed because she set up a group that opposed it. But there are many possible hooks of this sort, so be creative in thinking of relevant experiences you’ve had that might make your view stand out. Maybe you are a businessman who has specific knowlege on the impact of taxes and regulation; or someone who was in the military and can offer an informed perspective on conscription or the war. Also, again for better or worse, news organizations love contrast and seeming contradictions. So, for instance, an african american who oppose affirmative action will be more likely to get published than a white guy who does; and a gay person who supports the boy scouts’ right to keep out gay people will be more likely to get published than a straight person. These are just examples to convey the point; there are many other possibilities here that go beyond immutable characteristics. For instance, if you are young or in college, write an article about why young people should not be encouraged to vote because so many of them are vacuous and uninformed. Or when national service comes back in vogue, write an op-ed about how you and many of your peers would prefer to let homeless people ladle out their own crappy soup while you try to live your lives and be happy and productive. The point is, there are lots of “hooks” like this that you can find to make your views stand out from the crowd and get published. Be creative, be entrepreneurial, and never, ever give up.
Thank you, Steve!