As a social justice activist and conflict resolution scholar-practitioner, I have always been particularly concerned with what motivates people to enter the theater of protest and civil resistance. It is a far more complicated question than what motivates people to start a career or a family because even the largest social movements are made up of a relative few, and the connection between activism and survival (or prosperity) are not always so clear, especially if one comes from a position of privilege.
Leaving aside the handful of saints whose selfless sacrifice for the downtrodden has inspired millions and whose motivations I will not attempt to elucidate or defame, I think that for many, especially those whose immediate interests are not necessarily served by the campaign they have chosen to join, the core motivation for activism is guilt. This is the feeling I get whenever I hear the term “white allies” in the struggle against racism or the term “male allies” in the struggle against gender oppression. However, this is not to say that all people who actively support a cause that does not immediately further their own interests are motivated by guilt alone or by guilt at all; I will return to this later. This is also not to say that being motivated by guilt is a negative thing. Guilt is a powerful social emotion that curbs sociopathic or otherwise reckless behavior. If guilt inspired white South Africans to vote for Nelson Mandela or the white clergy to support Martin Luther King, Jr. this is certainly better than if they had stayed blissfully apathetic or disdainfully opposed to black liberation.
While there is a selfish motivation behind any response to guilt, since what one ultimately wants is to relieve that sense of guilt, if the same activists are struggling solely to further their own interests, I believe the motivation is the same as that of the Wall Street banker who quietly hired lobbyists to counter the Occupy Movement: power. It does not matter whether the activists are black or white, male or female, privileged or marginalized. Yet power is not always built up as a means to bring others down.