14 Social Action Quotes to Motivate Your Activism

These are rough times to be an activist. With bigotry, nationalism, inequality, nihilism, and apathy on the rise, it's hard not to become fatalistic or disillusioned. But this is not the first dark time in history, and we are not the first activists to feel as if we're on the back foot. The great dissidents, resisters, freedom fighters, and iconoclasts of the past all faced dark times, and many of them left behind tips, suggestions, and guides for holding up a light against the enveloping dark.

Below are 14 quotes from great thinkers, writers, activists, and dissidents that will help inspire you through these dark times, and will get you thinking about what being an activist — and a human — really means.

"To do good, you actually have to do something." — Yvon Chouinard

Yvon Chouinard is perhaps best known today as the founder of the company Patagonia. Chouinard, who was a rock climber and an alpinist in his early years, has long been a supporter of environmentalist causes, and he has made an effort in his life to reconcile running a sound, profitable business, while also functioning sustainably. This year for Black Friday, Patagonia pledged every cent it earned on the notorious shopping day to grassroots environmentalist groups. As a result, the store earned $10 million dollars — nearly five times what they expected to make.

"You cannot take what you have not given, and you must give yourself. You cannot buy the Revolution. You cannot make the Revolution. You can only be the Revolution. It is in your spirit, or it is nowhere." — Ursula K. LeGuin, The Dispossessed

Ursula K. LeGuin is one of the greatest living writers. She's best known for her science fiction and fantasy, which often carry themes about social justice, feminism, Taoism, and environmentalism. The Dispossessed is about a scientist named Shevek who lives on a planet inhabited by anarchists, and who comes to a nearby planet, not unlike ours, to try and foster communication with the scientists of that world. The downtrodden of the new planet, though, want him to lead a revolution — and Shevek knows that revolutions are not conducted from on high, but instead are lived.

"A step backward, after making a wrong turn, is a step in the right direction." — Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano

Kurt Vonnegut was one of the best writers of the counterculture era. His gentle humanism never kept him from becoming overtly political, though: Vonnegut was a tireless advocate of the dignity of all human beings, and fought for freedom of speech throughout his life. Vonnegut, an atheist humanist, (a "freethinker," as he called it), often said his favorite speech was Jesus's Sermon on the Mount. This quote, from his first book, is a valuable reminder to anyone feeling frustrated by what may feel like regression. Steps back are fine, as long as we learn from them.

"If you wish to understand evil, you must understand the bark, the roots, the worms of the earth… Aphid eats leaf. Ladybud eats aphid. Soil absorbs dead ladybug. Plant feeds upon soil… Is Aphid evil? Is ladybug evil? Is soil evil? Where is evil in all the wood?" — Alan Moore, Swamp Thing

Alan Moore is the greatest comics writer of all time. You probably know him for V for Vendetta and his antihero's Guy Fawkes mask, which has since become an emblem of the Anonymous and Occupy movements. In Swamp Thing, one of his lesser-known works, he takes the old, two-dimensional, B-movie character of the Swamp Thing, and turns it into a tale about the nature of good and evil. Eventually, the title character has to ask -- is there such thing as real evil? And if so, can it ever truly be defeated? It should be a welcome parable in these divided times.

"Stand up all victims of oppression
For the tyrants fear your might
Don't cling so hard to your possessions
For you have nothing if you have no rights
Let racist ignorance be ended
For respect makes the empires fall
Freedom is merely privilege extended
Unless enjoyed by one and all."
-Billy Bragg, The Internationale

The Internationale has been the anthem of the left-wing since the late 19th century, and is often associated with Soviet-style communism. But in 1989, as the Soviet Union collapsed, and the left began to redefine itself, folk legend Pete Seeger approached rocker Billy Bragg and asked him to rewrite the song's antiquated lyrics. Bragg's rendition puts less emphasis on war and violent overthrow, and more emphasis on human dignity, respect, and pacifism in the face of the dehumanizing forces of hate.

"Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten."
-Neil Gaiman, Coraline

Neil Gaiman is one of the most beloved fantasy writers of our time. This quote is Gaiman's riff on a similar G.K. Chesterton quote, but it is important because it reminds us that our strength can come from the stories we tell.


"If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner."
— Nelson Mandela

When anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years, he had every opportunity to lead a violent overthrow of the white supremacist government. He could have taken power and purged his enemies. But instead, he chose to advocate for reconciliation and reconstruction. He died in 2013, but he will always be remembered by history as one of those rare people who were offered great power, but declined it in the name of the greater good.

"Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth." — Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali was one of the greatest athletes of all time. As a boxer, he was dominant in a way that few others were. But perhaps more remarkable was his willingness to stand up for his ideals, even at his own expense. Because of his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War, he was suspended from boxing for three of his most prime years. After a triumphant return in which he (again) became the Heavyweight Champion of the World, Ali retired and spent the rest of his days as an activist. He died earlier in 2016, and is remembered as one of the most iconic Americans of the 20th century.

"It's the questions we can't answer that teach us the most. They teach us how to think. If you give a man an answer, all he gains is a little fact. But give him a question and he'll look for his own answers." — Patrick Rothfuss, The Wise Man's Fear

The Kingkiller Chronicle is a fantasy trilogy about an adventurous wizard who has been orphaned at an early age and is attending a wizarding school. Yes, it sounds like Harry Potter, but it's just as good, and slightly more adult. This quote, from the second book of the trilogy (and the latest released) should be tattooed on the palm of every activist who has spent time searching for answers that they never find. Life is an exploration, and activists explore some of the darkest questions humanity has ever been confronted with. It's important to step back every now and again and recognize that the search alone has value.

"There are occasions when it pays better to fight and be beaten than not to fight at all."— George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia

As a young writer, Eric Blair (better known as George Orwell) traveled to Spain to cover the civil war that sprung out of Francisco Franco's fascist attempt to overthrow the country's Republican government. He ended up putting down his pen and picking up a gun. Orwell was eventually shot in the neck by a sniper, and then, for the crime of speaking out against the Stalinists who were undermining the other freedom fighters, was driven out of Spain altogether. That Civil War was lost, and Franco would rule Spain until his death in 1975. Orwell, however, never regretted standing up against brutality and repression.

"It could be worth bearing in mind that, if you really care about a serious cause or a deep subject, you may have to be prepared to be boring about it." — Christopher Hitchens, Letters to a Young Contrarian

Christopher Hitchens was one of the of the late 20th century's great writers and polemicists. He spent his early life speaking out against authoritarianism in all its forms, even when people began to get a little exhausted of hearing him talk. In the 21st century, he would turn his ire towards all organized religion, and he strangely left behind socialist roots and supported the war in Iraq. His life remains hard to pin down politically -- he frequently flirted with misogyny and Islamophobia -- but his 2001 book, Letters to a Young Contrarian remains a valuable guidebook for any freethinker and iconoclast.

"I do disagree with [the Quakers] over their slogan, 'speaking truth to power.' First of all, power already knows the truth… it's a waste of time. Furthermore, it's the wrong audience. You have to speak truth to the people who will dismantle, overthrow, and constrain power. Furthermore, I don't like the phrase, 'speak truth to.' We don't know the truth. At least I don't. We should join with the kind of people who are willing to commit themselves to overthrow power and listen to them. They often know a lot more than we do." — Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky made his name first as a pioneering linguist, but became truly famous as one of the most eloquent, intelligent political dissidents of his age. The breadth of his writings are truly staggering, and he's still churning work out at the age of 87. The granddad of the left is always controversial, but is also always thoughtful.


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"No people goes down until their women are weak and dishonored." — Sioux saying, from A People's History of the United States

A People's History of the United States should be required reading -- most of us got one version of American history in high school, but Howard Zinn gives us the other version. He documents the lives of the poor, the marginalized, the downtrodden, and all the people who would otherwise have been forgotten by history. In his chapter on the lives of women in early America, he quotes the Sioux puberty ritual, which was designed to elevate women and hold them in communal respect. In an age where there's a resurgence in misogyny and violence against women, it's a valuable thing to remember: women hold up half the sky.

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." — William Shakespeare, Hamlet

The Bard's greatest play features one of the Bard's greatest lines -- you know, aside from "To be or not to be." This line, spoken to the learned Horatio by the hero Hamlet, is one of the greatest calls for humility in the face of the mysteries of the universe in literary history. As activists, we act on our convictions, and it can be easy to forget that our convictions -- well, they may be wrong. Humility and a willingness to learn is one of the most valuable tools an activist can have in her utility belt. 



Matt Hershberger is a writer and blogger who focuses on travel, culture, politics, and global citizenship. His hobbies include scotch consumption, profanity, and human rights activism. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and his Kindle. You can check out his work at the Matador Network, or over at his website.