You're driving a friend back to her place. She tells you to turn right from the next intersection. You point out to her that turning right there will involve going miles out of the way and is the wrong way to go to get to her house. You're much better off turning left. She immediately accuses you of being opposed to getting her home. She wants to know why you have this discriminatory attitude towards her house. She says you have vested interests because it happens to be your car. That you're secretly planning to abduct her. Not once in all this does she tell you why she thinks turning right may the best way to go.
Your school-going nephew is setting up a stall in his school fete. He wants to make enough money out of the stall to buy the latest Playstation (or whatever other meaningless thing kids today crave). His big plan is to sell cars from this stall. His logic is that a) people buy cars b) people make money selling cars. What could possibly go wrong? He wants you to come stand in the stall and help. You point out to him that you don't think anyone is going to buy a car from a school fete. He wants to know why you're against his making money. He feels that you must not want him to be financially independent so you can keep him dependent on your for presents. He accuses you of being useless and unsympathetic to his cause.
Sounds ridiculous doesn't it? Yet these are exactly the kind of arguments I find myself repeatedly getting into on the blogosphere. Take a stand against reservations (because you think it's a meaningless measure that will not help the truly backward) and you're automatically elitist and unconcerned with the plight of the deprived. Criticise some feminist rant (because you think it's doing more harm to the feminist cause than good), and it's obvious that you don't wish to contribute to the fight for gender equality, that you don't care, that you think it's not your problem and that you probably don't understand feminism in the first place.
Well I for one am sick of it. So, three points:
1. Who's not for you is NOT against you
Silence is not consent. Inaction is not support. Just because you don't go out of your way to protest something doesn't make you culpable for it. That's just the kind of irrational guilt people want to thrust on you so they can manipulate you for their own ends.
The reality is that we're all implicated in a thousand social and political evils. Global warming, species extinction, destruction of biodiversity, poverty, AIDS, sectarian violence, genocide, rape, murder, illiteracy, malnutrition, gender equality, gay rights, abortion, nuclear arms - the list of causes that we could all potentially contribute to is endless. In an ideal world, of course, we would all actively seek ways to cure these ills, we would all be out there everyday trying to do our bit for the planet. Obviously though, that's not realistic. What we can (and should) do is prioritise - pick the two or three causes that we feel we want to fight for, and take active (or semi-active) steps to contribute to them. For all the others, we can only hope to give them our tacit support - signing petitions, voting for political actors whose view on these issues is consistent with our own, ensuring that we ourselves and those around us are not acting in ways inconsistent with our views on these topics. And that's it. This doesn't mean that we're condoning these problems, or that we're against the people trying to solve them. It simply means we're human and can only do so much.
That brings us to a second question, though. How do we choose the one or two issues that we do choose to support? Obviously, criteria for choice will vary, but I suspect a few trends may be general. First, we will tend to choose causes that influence our lives most directly, and where our own interests might conceivably be at stake. Second, we tend to choose causes where we believe we can make a real difference - either because there are specific things we can do that would seem to have real results, or because there is too little support for the issue and therefore our voice could make a much larger marginal difference. Third, we may choose causes where we believe that the leaders of the movement have a well-thought out, realistic plan that we approve of. If we happen to like the leaders of the movement, if we feel a sense of solidarity with them (even if our own interests are not directly at stake) so much the better.
Obviously, the factors above come together in some sort of notional weighted average, so that one may partially compensate for the other. So for instance, if we really have strong emotional reasons for caring about a cause then we may choose to set up our own initiative if we feel that current initiatives are rubbish. But the fact that we don't do so, doesn't mean that we don't care at all - it just means that we don't care enough to set up our own NGO - though we may well care enough to contribute if someone came up with a plan that we thought was worth doing.
2. Disagreement with means is not disagreement with ends
There's an even more pernicious version of the 'If you're not for us you're against us' formulation though. It's the 'If you're not for our specific proposal, you're against everything we're trying to achieve' argument. That's just silly. Agreement on ends does not guarantee agreement on means. It is not inconsistent to agree with what someone is trying to achieve but disagree violently with how they want to achieve it. In fact, that's a large part of the point of public debate. If anything, it's precisely the people who agree with your objectives who are least likely to be impressed by your good intentions.
Meaningful discussion of public issues doesn't just involve agreement on what the problem is, it also involves an objective yet critical evaluation of various availabe solutions. It involves asking the questions - will this work (why / why not)? Could it be done more effectively and efficiently? Is it ethical? What are the consequences it has for other people? How should it be communicated? Assuming it's worth doing, how should it be implemented? What factors will aid or threaten it? Details matter, and any or all of these questions could be the basis for criticising a movement or a point of view whose end objective you agree with. That doesn't mean you're against progress. That doesn't mean you're trying to sabotage the end-goal. It just means that you refuse to participate in a false solidarity that will involve you in a compromise that you're unwilling to make, or cause you to lend support (or seem to lend support) to a set of actions you don't agree with. And it means that you're interested in finding a real solution to the problem, rather than acceding to whatever incoherent rhetoric you might be expected to subscribe to.
3. The attention budget
You could argue, of course, that as long as the different means are non-contradictory, why bother to debate. Why not go ahead and implement both. This is the 'you agree to my proposal and I'll agree to yours' argument. The trouble is that political and social capital is rarely infinite. In most cases we have just enough resources, just enough energy, just enough momentum to implement one or two key initiatives at a time. Which is why it's so important that we choose wisely, prioritising the projects that will make a difference over those that sound nice but will achieve nothing. That is why we need to question the efficiency and efficacy of every action we take for a cause. Doing the wrong thing, or doing something that's ineffective is not costless. There are multiple opportunity costs involved: the cost of lost time, as we implement projects in sequence or wait for the results of previous projects to come in; the cost of lost resources - especially man-hours and socio-political support, all of which may take time and effort to replenish; the cost of disenchantment among supporters and loss of credibility among external stakeholders.
The analogy of a budget line is an apt one. Socio-political initiative is limited, which is why we must spend it in ways that maximises the total utility for the parties we are concerned with.
Notice that this issue of a 'budget constraint' is closely linked to the 'choice of causes' mentioned under point 1. If effectiveness is one of the criteria by which people choose social programs to support, then programs that can demonstrate that they have a clearly thought out action plan will, ceteris paribus, end up attracting more support. This in turn will make their chances of success greater, thus attracting even more support and setting off a virtuous cycle. By contrast, movements where so called leaders can do little more than offer vague platitudes and general exhortations, will be seen as not worth investing in, even by people who implicitly care about their aims.
Again, you could argue that this is unfair. That you should evaluate social causes on the basis of the seriousness of the problem, not the ease of the solution. There are two problems with this. First, it's pretty hard to find a basis on which to choose between social causes based purely on the merits of the problem. Is the AIDS epidemic more concerning than rape? Is education more important than choice about abortion? The second problem is that it's just naive to expect people to go out of their way to think through possible solutions to every problem and then pick the one they want to pursue. Realistically, there's a market for social attention, and causes that compete most effectively in that market, that do a good job of 'selling' themselves and generating support and buy-in from well-meaning citizens, are the ones that will win out. The rest will just not get solved. And the faster champions of a particular cause realise that, the quicker they're going to be able to solve the issue they're concerned with.
 Of course, there will always be some people who will have strong emotional reasons for preferring one cause over all others. They're what I could call cause-loyal consumers. My point is that those people are going to support you anyway. What you really need to do is build alliances with people who don't think that this is the one and only issue in the world, and convince them that your cause is where their contribution would deliver the most value.