Keep the Set of Fundamentals As Small As Possible

Against Activist Mission Creep gives a name to a concept that I had long thought important: that of activist groups undermining themselves by subjecting themselves to an ever-expanding list of requirements that distract from the original mission.

The article gives a few examples:

Recently, the New York City Pride organizers told an organization for gay police officers they were not welcome at the city’s Pride parade. The move comes as a form of solidarity with the protests against police brutality, especially of black and brown people in the United States. The organizers say they want “to create safer spaces for the LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC communities at a time when violence against marginalized groups . . . has continued to escalate.”


A couple other instances provide a similar pattern:

The author, who is himself an activist for free trade and YIMBY, describes this as mission creep, after a term for military campaigns that become endless because their objectives keep changing.

I've long wanted a term for this phenomenon where a group united by issue A happens to contain people who are passionate about issue B, and those people, through their activist enthusiasm, push out members who agree with them on A and not on B, whereupon the group becomes an A+B group, not just an A group. The A+~B members must either remain silent about B or defect to a ~B group. Repeat with enough groups and enough issues, and everyone ends up in one of two all-or-nothing partitions of society arranged along a grab bag of issues, with most people holding their noses and keeping silent about at least a few issues within their ingroup or else feeling ostracized in either wing.

The article focuses on what this means for the effectiveness of a movement, and comes out against mission creep in those terms: mission creep doesn't just push out would-be allies who might be fine with A but not B, it makes already anti-B people who otherwise hadn't thought much about A against you.

I would like this concept of mission creep to be deployed as a bulwark against the all-consuming culture war. If activist groups, or, for that matter, other groups like companies and churches, can take pride in diversity of thought outside their core mission, they can be more effective at that core mission, attracting a big-tent coalition while focusing narrowly on a set of goals their members can all agree on.

Contrast this to the attitude that I label fundamentalism: the attitude that there are positions A, B, ... etc that are fundamental to one's identity, and that membership or association with anyone who contradicts any of the fundamentals is anathema. Members of this subreddit doubtlessly have no shortage of examples at the top of their mind of this happening in social justice circles. Atheism-Plus. Intersectional feminism. Marxist BLM. The list goes on. But it's not exclusive to social justice; my choice of the term "fundamentalism" is intentional and harkens to the Christian movement that enumerated a long list of core doctrines as "The Fundamentals" in the early 20th century, and was characterized by its insularity and withdrawal from the wider world of people who didn't share all those core doctrines.

(An aside, I think what most of the "social justice is a religion" arguments you see pop up around here are really trying to get at. The most salient example of fundamentalism before social justice came from religion.)

Opposition to mission creep doesn't really eschew fundamentalism, but it does put up guardrails around it: yes, our group is united around some core fundamentals, but we aim to keep the set of fundamentals as small as possible. This isn't to say members aren't allowed to believe or take strong stances on other issues outside those fundamentals. But they should not impose litmus tests around those issues on members of a group focused on a different issue, or else the group will have to confront mission creep.

Anyway, I'm happy to now have a name for this concept, which helps distill what I think is wrong with fundamentalism, a concept that I thought applied well to the worst corners of both social justice and Christianity (both of which I identify with in some capacity, in a motte form if not the bailey), but didn't to my satisfaction convey what was really wrong about it. It's not fundamentalism itself that's the problem, it's fundamentalism plus mission creep, expanding the set of fundamentals and restricting the intersection of right-think across all of them.

I'm not overly optimistic in the short term that many movements or groups will be able to avoid mission creep. But if this article is right about the negative impact mission creep has on a movement's success, then we can predict that the most successful movements are those that manage to avoid it. The author of this article staking out an anti-mission creep stance is a leader of the Neoliberal Project, which definitely has a set of fundamentals like free trade and anti-NIMBY. I'm keeping an eye on them to see how well they manage to keep their fundamentals list short and whether they manage to make progress on their primary mission.