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What Activists Must Learn

Lasting solutions depend on abandoning language of conflict, says author.

By Chris LaVigne 6 Jun 2006 |

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  • Carry Tiger to Mountain
  • Stephen Legault
  • Arsenal Pulp Press (2005)

Stephen Legault's first experience with activism came as a teenager living in Burlington, Ontario. To make room for a highway, the government decided to clear a patch of woods Legault used as a refuge from a turbulent adolescence. Enraged, he pulled up all of the survey stakes one night to try and stop the construction. They were replaced the following day. After repeating his futile protest a few more times, he was finally defeated when the survey team abandoned their stakes and made their markings directly on the trees.

Soon after, Legault channelled his energy into starting a high school environmental club, and later a university group. The rage he felt over losing his refuge fuelled him. "I was the portrait of the angry young activist," he writes. "These emotions made me want only one thing: to win, at any cost."

The importance of not being angry

The Tao has just three lessons

restraint, compassion, and love

These are the three treasures

With love you can be courageous With compassion you can accept all things With restraint you can lead

-- from Stephen Legault's Carry Tiger to Mountain

Legault's first exposure to the Tao Te Ching occurred at the same time in his life. Through his lifelong relationship with it, he says he gradually saw how anger was not an effective method of protecting what was important to him. The energy he had spent sabotaging the highway crew as a teen could have been used more wisely.

Legault says he's consistently turned to the Tao Te Ching during his 18 years of activism. Written in China around the sixth century BCE, this central text of the Taoist philosophy inspired Legault to write his own book, Carry Tiger to Mountain: The Tao of Activism and Leadership. Legault's book contains his commentary on the Tao Te Ching as well as an interpretation of its 81 verses, both aimed at providing guidance to the activist community.

"The reason we're angry at something is because we love something else," Legault says in a phone interview. In Carry Tiger to Mountain, he writes about how activists need to replace their vocabulary of conflict -- always struggling, wrestling, opposing, clashing and fighting -- with one of compassion.

Many social activists need to make some fundamental changes to the way they approach their work, Legault says. Rather than wasting energy raging against the machine or worrying the sky might be falling, he suggests activists look to a motivation they may have forgotten about: love.

"As activists, we feel that we don't have time to spend on the inner world because we're spending all of our time on the outer world," Legault says. "But if all we're doing is working on the outer world without addressing what's going on inside of us and what is guiding our action in the world, we will continue to fail as activists. And we are failing as activists right now."

Throughout his book, Legault's passion for activism is evident. And so is his frustration with the mistakes he says activists keep repeating -- mistakes he believes the wisdom of the Tao Te Ching may prevent. Specifically, he advises readers to trade their anger and fear for love and compassion, their egos for selflessness, and their fixation on complexity for simplicity.

Always attacking, always attacked

The sage leader knows that force and conflict always lead to defeat 

Even the most effective campaign leaves bitter feelings 

   and a desire for retribution in the hearts of the defeated 

Lasting victories are not won this way

As an example of aggressive activism gone wrong, Legault discusses the fight to stop grizzly-bear hunting in B.C. in 2000. Activists, led by the Raincoast Conservation Society, waged a media war in the last days of Ujjal Dosanjh's premiership and won a three-year moratorium.

However, the heated debate they created allowed the B.C. Liberals to make grizzly hunting an election issue, Legault says. When Gordon Campbell became premier, the moratorium was eliminated. The result was a good example of Legault's Taoist philosophy: "To win by perpetuating conflict will almost certainly mean that our victory is short-lived."

Legault is conscious such advice will be hard to accept for some. Any book mixing Eastern philosophy with activism risks being labelled what he calls "West Coast, crystal-gazing woo-woo." His book also veers dangerously close to the growing genre of spirituality-based self-help books, which usually boasts titles and premises -- What Would Buddha Do at Work? or The Corporate Sufi -- that verge on parody.

But Legault's book avoids the "hippie, new age" label by being practical. The lessons the 35-year-old Legault gleans from the Tao Te Ching are backed up with examples from his ample activist experience.

In 2005, Legault founded HighWater Mark Strategy and Communications, a consulting firm for non-profits, charities, and ethically conscious businesses. Previously, he was a co-founder of the national conservation organization, where he was executive director for six years. He's also worked with numerous conservation groups in Alberta and Ontario, where he was born and raised.

On inaction and the right action

Can you accept that even for the most vital matters 

the way of the Tao is to let events run their course

Taoism may seem a strange source of inspiration for activism. The Tao Te Ching teaches inaction as the proper response for most situations. The word tao is usually translated as "the way" and interpreted to mean the natural order or flow of the universe.

Legault says the Tao Te Ching teaches that true strength comes from recognizing this flow and working with it, rather than trying to resist or control it. Legault doesn't preach inaction, though. Instead, he writes that activists should wait for the right action. "We in civil society are very good at doing things -- at inserting ourselves, sometimes aggressively, into the debate at every point. I'm suggesting that we are capable of acting more strategically, more effectively, if first we step back."

Legault says stepping back requires holding our egos in check. He warns activists and their organizations too often put self-interest ahead of the greater good. Legault admits that he did it.

"Environmental groups are fiercely competitive with each other," he says. "I would say we're even more competitive with each other than the business community."

In Carry Tiger to Mountain, he is very critical of the professionalization of activism. Legault warns that activist turf wars and institutionalization are major turn-offs for the general public. He writes that professional activists need to remember that "our members don't serve us, we serve them."

The Tao Te Ching advises readers to surrender their ego by flowing with the patterns of the tao. Legault recommends activists step back from a situation to see how they can best serve it, rather than thinking of ways it can serve them.

"In a natural system healthy, functioning relationships exist based on the right balance of cooperation and competition," Legault says. "We need to mimic that more in civil society as a whole, and in the environmental movement in particular."

Tao and the KISS principle

The more complex your rules 

the less likely people will follow them

Another manifestation of ego Legault cautions against is a much more forgivable one. He warns activists not to burn themselves out by taking on workloads that are too heavy or making strategies that are too complicated.

Legault points out that the activist community is filled with people -- including himself during one period -- who "have once been on fire and are now simply fried." In Carry Tiger to Mountain he writes that burnout springs largely from activists not trusting others to help carry the load. Activists need to let go of the idea that only they can do what must be done.

A similar problem, Legault says, is the belief that a winning strategy must be a complex one. "Part of our tendency as activists is we see the complexities of an issue," he says. "We become overwhelmed. We try to think about all of the elements that might possibly be at play here, and we end up creating some plan of such complexity that we can't even get started with it."

Again drawing from personal experience and the teachings of the Tao Te Ching, Legault encourages activists to show restraint and to search for simple solutions to begin with. Grandiose plans that satisfy the ego by making oneself or one's organization seem important should be avoided, Legault advises. Complexity can come once a simple base has been built.

Look out by looking in

Be an advocate with love, and you will wield a great sword 

Defend the earth and all its creatures with love 

and you will be a mighty shield

While critical of activism, Legault's book radiates a hope that it can improve. His simple, focused advice will challenge readers to become better advocates for the things they love by forcing them to take a closer look at their methods and motivations.

"We have to do a lot of work on ourselves to make sure that the people who are making change in the world are making that change from a place of strength rather than weakness," Legault says. "And that strength is comprised of a strong spiritual grounding -- whatever spiritual grounding that is -- and that we act from love and compassion rather than fear, hatred and anger."