Politico-personal Crisis of Faith

If I were an activist, maybe I would know the answer to this question, but… what, exactly, makes someone an activist? I’ve been pondering this question in various forms a lot lately.

It’s mostly this recent lingering depression. Or maybe that’s not the right term for what I’ve been feeling – it’s not caused by a chemical imbalance in my brain so much as the colossal disparity between what my brains think should be happening in the world and what actually happens in the world, has happened in the world always, and arguably will always happen as long as there are people in the world. I’m world-weary. Yeah, yeah, I know – it’s an old story. What person possessing even a modicum of intelligence doesn’t think the world of humans is generally fucked, right?

Poor, poor me; sad, whiny, white, middle class-ish, can’t-handle-the-reality-of-massive-oppression, wanna-be do-gooder me. Yeah, that’s right – I’m not even a do-gooder. I’m more of a think-gooder. I just think of all the helpful things I could be doing, then psych myself out of action by thoroughly analyzing and critiquing the possible impact (or lack thereof) of my endeavors.

See, it seems ridiculous for me to be depressed and defeated, because I’m not DOING anything about anything, right? I don’t work for a non-profit, I volunteer/donate only minimally, and I haven’t attended or helped organize any direct actions since the late 90’s. My current contributions, if you can call them that, read like a check-list for armchair intellectual progressivism: I read a lot and attend discussions/talks in an attempt to lessen my obliviousness as a person with relative privilege living in the most destructive, colonizing nation on the globe; I forward e-mails & re-post bulletins on myspace about things other people are doing; I eat mostly organic vegan food; I buy almost exclusively used clothing/shoes/gadgets/appliances; I attempt to reduce/re-use/recycle in that order; whenever possible I avoid supporting multi-national corporations and evil non-profits; I run my 1980 Mercedes on recycled biodiesel from a local woman-owned collective.

Holy shit, I sound annoying, don’t I?! Like one of those “I buy/don’t buy all the right things, therefore I am making a difference” types. Except I don’t really believe these things make enough of a difference to brag about – I only do them because I couldn’t stomach myself if I didn’t.

I see making conscious lifestyle choices and educating oneself as the least possible amount of involvement anyone calling herself “radical” could have. I have a hard time wrapping my mind around those people who ARE activist—like, real down-in-the-mud, blood-and-guts activists—yet they happily give money to the very corporations creating this mess because they don’t believe in pocketbook activism. Spending money conscientiously isn’t going to bring about revolution, but in a capitalist system, where you spend your money is important. It equals funding whatever the companies/people you buy stuff from have their filthy little hands in. And it’s something you can change with minimal effort (even if you’re not middle-class, contrary to popular opinion).

It is not elitist to withdraw support from those perpetuating the worst elitism in the first place – that’s just common sense. I don’t think the communities most grossly affected by corporate greed are applauding anyone’s continued support of Pepsi and Monsanto as a righteous refusal to be aligned with the bourgie “green” consumers who shop at farmers markets and buy organic cotton sheets. Of course, I’m sure they’re not applauding any of us for our patterns of consumption, but hopefully you get my point. I’d like capitalism to fall and/or morph into something more just and palatable as much as the next anarchist, but while we’re stuck with it we can’t ignore the impact we have on it.

Anyhow, slight tangent there. I’ll stop now, but there’s an awesome blog post about all that here, if you want more.

So, as I was droning, the low-effort aspect of living a more conscious lifestyle is why it’s the main thing I manage to always do. Like, if I can’t even do that, I really can’t justify my own existence.

Yes, what I do right now is minimal, but it is all I can do right now. I’m talking psychologically. I simply don’t have the strength to engage more intensely with the babbling insanity of all the animal torturing, women hating, people of color terrorizing, poor people steamrolling, queer and gender non-conformative bashing, resource hoarding, earth killing devils of western imperialism. I just. Can’t. Do it. Right. Now.

Partly because all these injustices feel extremely urgent to address and I don’t know how to choose just one or two to give more energy to.

Partly because in the past when I have chosen something to focus on, I have found that systemic oppression runs so deep, even those of us trying to buck it rarely disentangle all at once—I’ve encountered transphobic queers, misogynistic environmentalists, classist feminists, animal torturing anti-racists, racist anarchists… combine the descriptors as you may, they’re all out there. How the hell is one supposed to stay committed when working alongside folks who create oppression while claiming to fight it?

And lastly, my apathy stems in part from knowing more about the world than I did when I was 21 and Food Not Bombs-ing my lil’ heart out. When I take a wide view of what I now (think I) know about global history, damn but I can’t find anything that has ever changed the course of things on a massive enough scale to claim success for even one community in a lasting way. So I feel colossally defeated.

Should I engage in actions I feel are mostly futile out of some sense of obligation to my activist status? Attend anti-war or environmental protests even though another war or environmental catastrophe will be right around the corner unless the fundamental principles of world leaders have shifted from “profit & power before anyone/anything deemed expendable”, to “no person, place, culture or species is expendable ever”? Rally against internal state violence like police brutality & the prison system even though I secretly think nothing short of massive revolution will affect the way the state operates unless, perhaps, your time line is in the thousands of years? Ugh, I know, my negativity can be crushing. Apologies.

I have heard it said that the tendency to disregard any action that doesn’t seem likely to fix everything (activist perfectionism) stems from being in a position of privilege. I can’t say I disagree. It’s not that I don’t want to engage in any action unless it will cure all ills on the globe, though – it’s that I’m not convinced any action I might undertake will help anything at all.

I’m sure that is partly because nearly everything I read and listen to tends to focus on tragedies and defeats of peoples everywhere, rather than highlighting what folks are doing to resist and how some of them have succeeded. That’s a major problem, even in alternative media.

I am aware that my skin color, geographical location, and relative class privilege (meaning I get by with minimal financial stress & that’s better than so many) afford me the choice to not fight certain fights. I don’t have to worry about getting pesticide poisoning from working in the fields, being arrested/beaten/shot because of my skin color, I don’t have to work three jobs to get by, etc. Some would argue that it’s easier for me to say I don’t have the strength to actively fight these fights because they aren’t “mine”; that I’m holing up in my little privilege bubble and ignoring the suffering of others because I can. Maybe, but I don’t know – it’s not like I’m putting myself out there for gender equality, queer rights, or economic and environmental issues that affect me more directly, either.

There are multitudes of people globally who are directly oppressed by things that they don’t fight, for reasons not including privilege, such as fear of retribution/alienation/losing what little they do have. Maybe I’m one of those, y’know? Because it’s not for lack of caring, or outrage, or horror that I currently stay out of the fray – it’s for lack of energy, stemming from a lack of faith. And perhaps also a shortage of courage. Maybe.

And if I may be so bold as to point out, it is untrue that all these other struggles aren’t “mine” – as a person who is vehemently opposed to all types of oppression, subjugation, and violence, the fact of my unwilling complicity in all these things simply because I buy things/am white/am a citizen of the US is a serious detriment to my psychological and emotional health. Oppressive systems don’t only oppress the obvious victims – they oppress and fuck with every single person living under them. Even those who benefit from them are simultaneously limited by and subjugated by them in ways that are sometimes less obvious, but not always less damaging.

Anyhow, back to my question – what makes an activist? Recently I was discussing feeling depressed with someone in my book club, who referred me to the Bay Area Radical Mental Health Collective. I checked out their website, and it turns out they are a mental health group for activists experiencing burnout. Ahh. Well thank goodness they exist, really. That’s fantastic. But I was trying to imagine myself at a meeting, explaining how I’m not an activist per se, I just think a whole bunch about stuff. Does armchair activism count? Shit. I doubt it.

Well, I found on their site a really great article about something similar to what I’m struggling with. It’s about how activists sometimes need to take mental health breaks (and some more often than others, depending on certain character traits), but feel guilted or judged for doing so because there’s this culture of all-or-nothing 24/7 commitment in most activist circles. It’s well-written and I think anyone who identifies as an activist should read it. And it made me start to feel like maybe I could consider myself an activist after all, because I’m doing what I feel capable of doing right now. And is that possibly all we can fairly ask of each other, if a sincere effort is being made?

I really hope I don’t sound too oblivious – but more than that, I hope that if I do, anyone spotting it will (kindly) let me know. I’m not just saying that – I’m open to being called out. I call myself out all the time. Just be gentle with me, because this was a difficult post to share – it’s kinda personal.

Thanks for reading.

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September 19, 2008. Tags: , , , , , . Uncategorized.

4 Comments

  1. mswob82 replied:

    hey kyla – thanks so much for this really brave post! i’ve been thinking a lot about our conversation, too, so i was really happy to check your site today and see this post. i recently started a blog this week (!), too (partly because of the guts i managed to find after you and another friend recently started blogging, so thank you!), and my intentions for my blog seem similar to the themes you’re talking about here. to me i am feeling the need to quit focusing on all the shittiness – in myself, my life, society – and instead focus on things that make me feel good. it’s not ignoring the problems/negative stuff, but instead redirecting in the hopes of increasing positivity and discovering joy. creating in the face of all the destruction we live with every day. i think that finding more joy will help me deal with the depressing stuff with a more positive outlook, and to be able to treat those around me more warmly and compassionately.

    last night i went to a benefit for the CR-10 conference coming up next weekend – there were five amazing performances, and the whole thing was really inspiring – from the fact of it being a grassroots fundraising event, to the reason we were all there (prison abolition work and the creation of safe communities without cages), and especially the performers themselves. people are so raw and creative and generous – putting their hearts out for us all to see. it is things like that that help shift my energy and remind me of the beauty in our movement for change. and it reminded me that it would do me good to attend more events like that – that are about peoples’ creativity in the fight against oppression. it was fun! not depressing!

    on the “activism” tip: i’ve definitely heard a lot of critiques of even using the term “activist”. it’s like from one perspective there are people who don’t consider themselves “activists” because they are simply living their lives which require them, based on the condition they are in, to fight for their own justice – the act of living each day is an “action” against the powers that keep them down. and from a similar perspective there’s the ‘other’ side – some ppl resent people whose lives are perhaps not an inherent resistance to the oppressors, but who use their “off” time to “be activists” and organize (on behalf of others). and then there are people who want to call themselves activists just for using a reusable mug… at starbuck’s. and there are so many more inbetween. frankly, i don’t much care. i think we can all do what we can do. and i think many of us can probably do a little more than we think. and some people are doing waaay too much and need to pace themselves. but, at the risk of giving advice – i would recommend finding those events and ways to plug in to ‘the movement’ (in whatever sector you feel most called) that are positive, and doable for where you’re at emotionally – things that will add that feeling of accomplishment and even joy. and community. that’s a big one. i can definitely identify with what i think you were talking about – sort of a paralysis – worried about your privilege and second-guessing every action you could take because of the ways it could be perceived or possible “mistakes” you could make. what i’ve found is that we’re all making mistakes and all learning together, and if you come openly and honestly and with good intentions, it will work out. i firmly believe that direct action is about empowerment – taking power back into our own hands – and that even when it’s hard to see the ‘victory’ at the end, each step along the way helps us see how amazing we are as people who care and that we really are coming together and have the power to create positive changes in our lives.

    sorry if this is kind of a diatribe. but damn, you sounded way too hard on yourself! some of the best actions you can take on behalf of creating positive change in the world is to take care of yourself. so please, find something that makes you happy today! and thanks again for the amazing vulnerability you just braved by posting this. keep it up (but less hard on yourself).

    (and please check out my blog! http://flexibletension.wordpress.com)

  2. mymammouth replied:

    Megan, thank you so much for writing such a thoughtful response! Really.

    You’re right, I’m typically too hard on myself… I’ve known that for a bit, but it just occurred to me that it might be an attempt to not give anyone the chance to be harder on me than I am. Guess it’s preferable to come up with all the reasons I should feel bad about myself first, to minimize the risk of an unanticipated criticism popping out of someone else’s mouth. But that means I have to attempt to cover all the bases, which usually means I go a little crazy.

    Gosh, I feel sheepish!

    And totes on the finding community and something that makes me happy tip. Definitely good advice.

    Good for you for jumping into the blogosphere! Imma go check it out right now!

  3. debbie rasmussen replied:

    this is one of the most thoughtful, honest self-reflections i’ve read in some time, and, i think, addresses so many things that are critical to any sort of movement building: issues of mental health, remembering that each person has their own story when it comes to struggles and lived experiences of oppressions so that while categories/identities we organize around are useful to some extent, one simply cannot/should not look at someone and be able to tell where they’re at in terms of things like privilege and oppression. it seems to me that the only way we can make any progress is to build into our relationships the space to build trust and intimacy, the space to fuck up and hold each other accountable. but when there’s already so much misunderstanding and people coming from so many different perspectives, how do we do that?

    so much to think about. so much to learn and unlearn…

    your honesty is inspiring.

  4. dana replied:

    dear everyone,
    thanks for posting and commenting, your sharing means a lot to me.
    the other night i was describing that one of my greatest fears is not living up to my potential. that said, i do think we (people who give a shit, but esp. folks who have the time and privilege to consider their place and contributions) think about what we are doing too much. how can we all grow if we don’t make mistakes and then (bravely) talk about them, share our failures.
    i salute everyone who is being thoughtful, and i certainly want people to call me out… we do what we can. and only we can decide what that is. that’s what i’ve been learning this year. that i know myself the best to know where i am at, and how i can best contribute–what it means for me to have a balance. (though experimenting with pushing myself out on what might feel like too much is a good exercise now and then;)
    debbie i like what you said about relationships.
    that also reminds me that people inspire people all the time in ways that we never even think about or may be aware of. you all inspire me in different ways, should i tell you that more often?
    optimistically and off-the-cuff,
    dana

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