Few political creeds are as widely and grossly misunderstood as anarchism. Although anarchism, by definition, is a movement based in nonviolence, orderly conduct and personal responsibility, it has been largely co-opted by people who fail to understand the basic tenents of anarchist theory.
This has led to a massive and widespread misunderstanding about what anarchism is really all about, to the extent that anarchy has now become synonymous with “chaos” in modern language. True anarchism differs drastically from the concept presented by mainstream culture.
As a political activist deeply connected to the anarchist movement, I have witnessed both the realities of legitimate anarchism and the deep misunderstandings of mainstream society regarding anarchism itself.
Anarchism Myth #1: Anarchists Believe there Should be No Rules.
The word anarchist is a combination of the Greek root a(n), meaning “free of”, and “archos”, meaning rulers. An absence of rulers does not in any way equal an absence of rules: it simply implies a willingness to question and challenge authority. Anarchists believe in caring social structure based in the premise that all citizens need and deserve equal power in determining the fate of their communities, but this in no way eliminates the need for moral standards, social norms, and structure.
Anarchism Myth #2: Anarchists are Punk Rockers with Facial Piercings and Tattoos.
Most anarchists who I have met wouldn’t get a second glance from soccer moms. While some anarchist activists choose to challenge authority by setting their appearance apart from the norm, they are a minority within the anarchist movement. Anarchists can look like hippies and punks, but not all hippies and punks are anarchists. Many–if not most–political activists choose to blend in with the rest of society for personal or ethical reasons.
Myth #3: Anarchists are Violent and Support Terrorism.
It is true that there are a few extreme organizations that support terrorism who call themselves anarchist. However, while these organizations are the most outspoken among anarchists, they are by absolutely no means the norm. Most anarchists I know view anarchism as being an inherently peaceful political creed; some go so far as to say that it by definition rejects violence. Anarchists generally believe in political, grassroots revolution grounded in principles of peace and nonviolence.
Myth #4: Anarchism is Unrealistic, Impossible, or Utopian.
The idea that it is impossible to have a culture with no rulers is a very common misunderstanding among anarchism’s critics. However, history gives us plenty of examples of longstanding cultural traditions based in ideals that were ultimately anarchistic in nature. Anarchist writers like Derrick Jensen and David Graeber give multiple examples of cultures that reject centralized authority, including the Piarora and Bushmen. Some anarcho-primitivist thinkers have even gone so far as to hypothesize that all human cultures were anarchistic until the rise of agriculture.
Myth #5: All Anarchists are Young; It’s a Phase that They Will Outgrow.
I have many anarchist friends in their fifties and sixties who still believe in anarchism as strongly as they did thirty years ago. While many anarchists learn to “tone down” their beliefs when in the public eye, in order to simply avoid scrutiny and stereotyping, anarchists of the older generation tend to be every bit as idealistic and strong-willed as their younger peers. Although they not be in the spotlight as much as young punks on college campuses, they play an equally important role in the progress of the anarchist movement.
Few, if any, political movements ever advance progress without first facing misunderstanding and demonization from proponents of the status quo. Anarchism is no exception to this common flaw in the political, social, and ethical advancement of cultures. With adequate education and understanding, anarchism may one day be recognized as the peaceful, responsible, and ethically sound political creed that it is.