the activism trap

Being an activist can really suck. Let me show you how.

I’m engaged with anti-bullying efforts for a bunch of reasons. This includes the fact that I was severely bullied as a kid, as a teen, during university, and periodically as an adult on the wonder that is the Internet; that I find working on anti-bullying initiatives healing; and that I believe my way with words and openness can help the cause.

But at core, the reason I want to stop bullying is so that people who are awesome have the space to do awesome stuff. It’s hard to make art, do research, be an awesome friend, teach kids, help animals, strive for political reform, provide awesome customer service or do whatever it is you do if you’re being bullied and recovering from being bullied. The best reason to support anti-bullying is so that more people have the space to be the most awesome versions of themselves they can be.

The thing is, when I spend all my time talking about stopping bullying or anti-gay harassment or sexism or transphobia or whatever thing I feel its critical to speak out about (and feel capable of speaking out about — there are lots of issues I support where it’s probably better for me to let other people speak while I keep learning), I don’t have time to do my awesome stuff. And then it’s a little bit like the bullies have won, because they’ve forced me to abandon my agenda and will for the purpose of responding to their actions and arguments.

This really sucks. And it’s emblematic of something I think most activists face at various times. From feminist advocacy to fighting poverty to stopping racism — when you have to be an activist all the time, it’s easy to lose the benefits you’re supposed to enjoy from that activism helping to make the world better. Balance is key, but, in a cruel world, pretty hard to come by.

Which is why I really want to stop talking about the Buffy thing (here, have a summary from someone who was there and isn’t me), because I feel that particular activism trap closing in around me. But, that said, there are a few remaining things I do want to address.

First, thank you for keeping it civil. While a few comments here have made me angry or upset, and while I disagree with some opinions I’ve seen expressed, no one really crossed the line in discourse here. That’s awesome, and I totally appreciate it.

Next, about that argument where you say, “Well, I want to take this person at her word, but she sounds awfully emotional, and therefore I can’t.” — That argument is a misogynistic rhetorical device that often gets pulled out against women who are upset and not against men who are angry. It’s happened in various branches of this discussion (which is now happening across Whedonesque, several blogs, and Livejournal). It’s an effective rhetorical device due to the way we treat women in this world, but it’s not actually good argumentation. It’s also angry-making. Please knock it off.

Additionally, I am really trying to avoid making a post about the whole “toughen up” thing and why it’s so problematic, as, again, I don’t want to get sucked into the negative self-impact activism trap I described in the opening of this post. However, it’s important to me that you understand the following things: First, there is no universal standard of appropriate emotional feeling; just as the Goblin King asks Sarah in Labyrinth what her basis of comparison is when she declares, “It’s not fair,” I would ask you what yours is when you say someone is over-sensitive. Second, it is my sensitivity that allows me to do what I do for a living — writing stories, examining pop-culture, performing, and eroding the artificial boundaries we’ve set up between scholarship and sentimentality. (A theoretical excess of) feeling, just like anything else, can be a tool, an advantage, and a weapon; it’s certainly one of mine. Trying to stamp it out or devalue it, isn’t just nasty, it’s illogical.

Finally, stop with the “free speech” and “censorship” noises. I’m a trained journalist. I give to the ACLU, and I am, like Rachel Maddow, an absolutist about free speech in the legal sense. Wanting to have as little government regulation of speech as possible is not, however, inconsistent with wanting people not to be egregious to each other; encouraging people to be civil in public; telling people to knock it off when I’m offended; and using the tools I have available to me to manage speech in the online venues that I host. Arguments to the contrary are disingenuous, and beyond this statement, I will not engage them.

What would I love to see going forward? I’d love to see more discussion, in general. Just hearing all these viewpoints (which are not split into two camps, but run a wide gamut) is, I think, valuable to everyone. I’d also like to see, as Chip from Two-minute Time Lord and I discussed late one night at this year’s Gally, con panels that have historically been about fans behaving badly branch out into discussions of how we can make things better.

I would also like to see discussion from activists of all stripes talk on how we can work hard, avoid burnout, and reap the benefits of the change we are trying to create in the world while continuing to be activists. It’s hard stuff, and we’re all still learning.

Now I’m going back to explaining why Sarah Jane Smith’s status as a journalist proves that the Doctor is real.

7 thoughts on “the activism trap”

  1. I’ve often wondered how one deals with that constant cycle of outrage.activism and when it leaves time for anything else. It is one of the reasons I’m so hesitant to write much about these topics. I hate the feeling of being unable to stop. My very few experiences with it were exhausting, disheartening and felt like they lasted centuries.

    This post is well done.

  2. This has been an exhausting year for me in regards to activism. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve written to my Congresspeeps and have had to take a break, so I could do the laundry, go to work, and maybe find better, more expressive words with which to try again later.

    And I feel guilty for not keeping at it. There are so many assaults against women, the poor, children, survivors, etc. that need to be taken up. So, I take a break, do the stuff I need to, and then head back in when I can. There’s nothing wrong with taking a break.

    Your first post on this Gallifrey OMWF thing is getting really wide-spread mentions. It showed up on one of my James Marsters Yahoo lists.

  3. I hesitate to call myself a bisexual activist, because I don’t know whether I qualify as one. Having said that, other people have referred to me as such (and I’m part of the organising team for BiCon 2011, so I think I may be by default). But back to the point, I have found myself doing a lot of mythbusting on bisexual from those within the TW fandom.

    I totally understand what you mean about burnout. I’ve been challenging TW fans casual bi-erasure from comments that were reported from Gally, and I feel like I’m going over the same thing again, whether it is at work, or with friends, or with the internet!

    So yes, excellent post, and I totally understand!

  4. Echoing Anton, there’s not only the issue of activism intruding on time needed to be awesome, but what about sheer outrage fatigue?

    Full disclosure: I don’t consider myself an activist. I sign online petitions and give money, but I don’t do the really heavy lifting partly because there is ALWAYS something for me to be angry about re: sexism, homophobia, transphobia etc. that often simply reading about it can ruin days and weeks (I’ve had to give up feminist blogs for this reason).

    That you do what I do heartens me and makes me want to do more, but how have you learned to keep the anger and frustration at the slow rate of things getting better from ruining the awesome?

    1. I don’t think I have managed to find a way to manage the anger and frustration well. Honestly, anyone who has to deal with me a lot knows that. I send a lot of ragey venty email to friends. Sometimes I just have to detach not on the merits, but because I’ve hit full, and stare at the wall for a while. And I sure to expend a lot of tears on the Internet backlash/bullying BS that goes on.

      I’m getting better at it, but very much not something I have much advice about beyond making posts like this, which are really about helping me get comfortable with the idea that I may be a voice on certain things, but I am ultimately a voice for me, and if I let people tell me what I have to write about, how often, and in what way, I really use the ability to be both useful to those causes and myself.

      Like right now, I feel very upset that I’ve not had a lot to say on the current abortion/women’s/sexual health legislation going on, but I’ve not had time and I’m sort of trying to calculate how I’m going to handle that when for maximum impact. I’ve also not been doing a lot of writing about Wisconsin and the spreading union protests, although as a union member I should be doing that too.

      But for me, increasingly, being a good activist means not making living homework, but letting living be living.

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