[…] they see their role as defending the indefensible, so that the rest of us won’t suffer at the hands of a government with authoritarian tendencies. If they were to begin appearing reasonable, they’d lose resonance. More important, nobody will be speaking out for the innocent who will otherwise go to jail.
While Salil was talking especially about human rights activists (his own profession), this is broadly true of all activists in general. It is their duty to be unreasonable, since in a lot of cases they will be defending the indefensible.
If you are an environmental activist, for example, you will want to take unreasonable positions in favour of environmentalist causes. As Salil goes on to write in his old piece, the job of being reasonable belongs to somebody else.
They may even be selective – nothing prevents from others to pick up cases and causes these individuals do not. Let the think tankers and policy-makers become practical. Because otherwise, everyone will support the idea of safety-over-liberty, and we would all be losers.
That activists need to be unreasonable also comes from Graham Allison’s political resultant model. The basic idea is that every government decision is a function of all the positions submitted to it. You can think of the final direction of the decision as being the vector sum of all the positions submitted to the government. In this case, the job of the activist (human rights or otherwise) is to present the unreasonable and extreme case in favour of the activism, with the full knowledge that the government will go with a sort of political resultant.
So what happens when an activist comes into government? Remember that the activist is coming in with years of experience of taking extreme and unreasonable positions. Taking the “resultant” and the “reasonable view” has always been someone else’s job.
The risk of such a person being in government is that they could abandon the process of taking the “resultant” (which is what governments are expected to do), and continue from within government the process of going with the unreasonable policies and politics. That, however, makes for bad government and doesn’t give the people what they deserve.
As politics has been getting more and more extreme over the years (read this lovely essay on how louder politics is making it more unreasonable, drawing from sound theory), activists have been throwing their hats into the ring. Mainstream politicians have been endorsing extreme positions rather than taking them as just one of the inputs.
The problem is that such extremism isn’t how a government usually operates, and doesn’t make for good policy. Hence, activists shouldn’t really be part of the government.