Activism and Alienation – Why I Feel Excluded

I’ve seen a trend over the years and it’s not a good one: activism is increasingly becoming a bubble, an echo-chamber where the only people listening are fellow activists.

There are reasons for this and one of the most telling ones is that the message is not reaching the audience. How often do you read an article or listen to a speech by an activist? If you’re not one yourself, the answer is probably close to never.

The big question is why?

For me (and I suspect for others too) there are a couple of elephant-in-the-room type problems. Activists seem to speak a different language, they bombard us with academic jargon and unfamiliar terms. Even the words that we recognize have subtle shifts in meaning so that understanding remains elusive. And then if we don’t use their preferred terminology or accept all of their ideological rhetoric as the gospel truth we get attacked. To put it simply, we are excluded.

What a great way to convince people to listen to you! Yes, that is sarcasm.

With far too many activists it’s a case of “my way or the highway”. You either interact with them entirely on their terms or you get bullied into submission or retreat. And most people won’t submit, so the audience dwindles until the only ones left are those who echo the activist’s ideology.

What’s the point of being an activist, of fighting for social justice, if in the end you are only preaching to the choir? The congregation has gotten fed up with your hellfire and brimstone and the pews are empty.

You’ll notice the overt religious imagery I’m using here. That’s deliberate. Running into an activist has a lot in common with running into a fundamentalist preacher. They are so convinced of the rightness of their beliefs that to question them in any way brings down their full wrath.

 

 

Last weekend there were the largest protest marches in US history, responding to the inauguration of Donald Trump as President. These protests were instigated by women in response to fears about the actions and intentions of the new administration.

But what were the majority of posts I saw on Facebook saying? Were they talking about the historic scale of the opposition? About the importance of standing up for rights that are visibly under threat?

No, the majority of posts I saw were basically saying that the majority of those protesting did not have valid concerns, that they should be ignored for not doing things the way the activists would prefer them to.

That because they were marching for reasons that meant something important to them as individuals but did not explicitly seek to include other groups they were somehow hostile to those other groups.

Now I’m not saying that ignorance and privilege are right or fair. But they exist. And unless activists engage with these people they will continue to exist. Shaming women who believe that sexual assault is wrong and got behind the “pussyhat” because “not all women have a vagina” is a shitty thing to do. For a lot of women the vagina (and associated organs) is something they strongly identify with as symbolic of their gender. Denouncing this as binary gender essentialism, or reducing people to their genitals doesn’t change the way so many women feel. It might not align with the activist’s beliefs but that doesn’t make it less real.

The culture of calling out and shaming people is wrong. It’s the tactics of the oppressor, the bully, of those we are trying to fight. It doesn’t advance the cause of understanding or acceptance. It’s just asking for them to turn around, say “Fuck you!” and decide you’re irrelevant. You might get kudos from fellow activists for being “on-message” but you’ve been counterproductive. You’ve stopped someone from listening to you before you even explain your point.

Bullying people into complying with your wishes and demands breeds resentment and opposition. If they comply they do so under duress, and as soon as they feel they are no longer under scrutiny they will actively undermine you. It’s about hearts and minds, not about coercing people by threat.

If we truly want to achieve equality, acceptance, understanding and all the other good stuff we need people to come to us willingly. Every person we alienate is a potential opponent, every person we support is a potential ally. We have a lot of opponents and some of them are very powerful. We need allies and supporters. We need to include them, not shame them and drive them away. Once they’re in the door we can educate them, teach them why some of the things they do might be problematic.

I’ve stopped interacting with activists online. It’s a toxic environment, like traversing a minefield where the slightest mis-step leaves you injured. I’m excluded, and I’m saying this as an autistic trans woman who ought to be feeling supported by rights activism. But I don’t feel supported. I feel threatened, unsafe in those spaces. I feel I have to watch every word I say or write, second-guess everything. And I’m not willing to do that – it takes energy I can’t spare to avoid any mistake that will bury me under an avalanche of bullying verbal assault.

I support many of the aims of activism for rights, but too many of the tactics are actively dangerous to my health and well-being. That’s why I am alienated. That’s why I am excluded. That’s what activism is getting wrong, for me and for others.

Learning to Think

One of the most pernicious lies I can think of is that it’s wrong or weak to change your mind. That once a decision is made you are committed to that course regardless of the consequences. To which I simply say, “Bollocks!”

As we grow we acquire a cultural opinion–a meme if you like–that decisiveness is what matters. It’s better to make any decision and move forward than to stop and wait for a degree of certainty.

Motion is everything, the direction secondary. Except that you must never backtrack. No about-face, U-turn or retreat. Think about those terms: “backtrack”, “about-face”, “U-turn”, “retreat”. See how they are imbued with negative connotations: you have been conditioned to see them that way.

The consequence of this is that a bad decision is seen as better than no decision at all, and that bad decision, once made, commits you to a particular course of action. This is accepted by many without question and yet it is utterly false.

Let’s think about a simple scenario: you want to cross the street so you decide to step out into the road. Okay, you’ve made a decision (good for you!). Are you now committed to crossing that road come what may? Or should you change your mind and retreat if you notice a car approaching after stepping out?

My point is that we rarely have all the information at the point of making a decision. We try to predict what will happen but in all except the most trivial cases we cannot know. This means we know more about the consequences of our decision after making it, once we have taken the first steps along that course.

Which is more foolish? To argue that a decision has been made, it is set in stone and we must continue along that particular path, or to re-examine the decision periodically and judge whether it is still a beneficial course of action?

It’s not a new phenomenon. Wellington was castigated in the weeks and months following the 1809 Battle of Talavera when rather than advancing on French-held Madrid (a key aim of that summer’s campaign) after the French retreat, he made a rapid withdrawal back into Portugal and spent the winter sheltered behind the defensive Lines of Torres Vedras.

At no point did Wellington have complete information about the size or disposition of the French forces opposing him, but his success in the Peninsular War long-term was a result of planning for different scenarios together with his ability to abandon a plan when he saw that circumstances had changed.

If not for the support of influential figures in London, Wellington would have been replaced as commander and the history of the Napoleonic Wars would have been very different. And even today it is politically almost impossible for anybody to change a decision once made.

The core of the problem is absolutism, the idea that every question has one correct answer. Reality doesn’t work like that, but few people are comfortable dealing with probabilities. But incomplete information means that a decision based on what appears most likely at one point in time can easily turn out to be the wrong course of action, something that comes to light later as we learn more.

Politicians don’t help their situation by applying absolutist arguments to justify their decisions: their way is the One True Path, the only way that will work. It means that when events conspire to frustrate their plans they need to maintain the fiction that their original decision was correct and continues to be correct.

There can be no wrong decisions because their jobs depend on the illusion that they alone have the right answers. We are all losers because this binds them to inflexible ideologies and prevents them from adapting to changing circumstances.

The way out of the trap is to recognize and admit that the world is a complex place and it’s not always clear how best to get to where we want to be. Admit that pressing on regardless sometimes means going further down a dead-end path, wasting time and resources in pointless activity.

Adaptability and flexibility are what matters most. Setting goals matters, but it’s not so important how they are reached. Indeed, stating what outcome you hope to achieve should be the most important thing.

Regarding the EU Referendum, the biggest problem with it as far as I’m concerned is that is offered a choice of two courses of action (leave the EU or remain in it). Nowhere did it ask people what they hoped to achieve by those actions. It was like asking people whether to turn left or right without giving them any idea where they were trying to get to, or where either path might end up.

It means that the government have a (narrow) mandate to take a particular course of action–leave the EU–without saying anything about what it is intended to achieve. Is it supposed to create jobs? Cut NHS waiting times? Stop it raining on Bank Holidays?

At times like these it is more important than ever to scrutinize those in power. To be critical. To ask “Why?” and “How?” Don’t be satisfied with attractive but empty slogans. Push for the details, and if they can’t or won’t provide them ask yourself why they might not want to reveal their objectives. Are they really working in the best interests of you and me, or of corporate lobbyists?

Question everything. Be critical. Think for yourself.