The Thing About Activism

Several years ago, Wes and I went to Longwood Gardens and I totally obeyed a sign that said, “Keep off the grass”.  I didn’t even think about it.  I follow the rules.  I keep the status quo.  I don’t ruffle feathers intentionally and if it happens, it is usually unexpected.

This is, to put it in thermodynamic terms (as though that makes anything more understandable), my lowest energy state.  Breaking rules, going against the grain willfully, challenging largely accepted world views, all require a large exertion of energy for me.  It is rarely energizing for me to speak out and often I have regrets because I do not have the thick skin required to withstand the attacks of people who disagree.

I care a great deal too much what other people think of me, be they friends or strangers.  I have made “being well liked” a large part of my identity, and as happens with anything you make a Part of Your Identity, challenging it hurts and causes you to question said part.  When I wrote that thing the other day and a few strangers on the internet all agreed that, to them, it sounded like a great afternoon and I’m crazy for being uncomfortable and I found myself believing that they were right.  “Oh no…what if I AM full of shit?  What if I’m just too sensitive?  Maybe I’m just an asshole.”  But thinking about it, and getting counseling from Wes, I remembered the actual inspiration for the post and had to find my wits again to remember that yes, in fact, there was something out about the whole affair.

I am a pretty theatrical person.  Jessie calls me a Muppet all the time (which, in our house, is a high compliment).  I am no stranger to putting myself out there in the arena of Making a Fool of Myself.  I don’t generally fear performing, public speaking, dancing on a dance floor to the cool tunes of the 1980’s (or anything really), but I am deeply insecure about my intelligence and the validity of my opinions about social issues, government, philosophy and other “high thinking” things.

I live a privileged life.  I am not blind to that.  I am married to a man and work in science.  I own a house and a car and worry about things like when to plant tomatoes.  From the outside, I look like a standard white, straight, female member of the middle class.  This identity enables me to blend into society.  All the other things that very much veer me away from the norm (atheism, polyamory, bisexuality, burlesque, and the fact that I knew that David Carradine died of auto-erotic asphyxiation after only thinking about it for like 5 seconds) can be practiced under the protective covering of Socially Acceptable.  I don’t have to be out about any of this to have a high quality of life.  I don’t need to fight the good fight to have it all.

And when I try to fight the good fight, I get exhausted with it quickly.  I periodically get tired of explaining polyamory, the advantages and necessity of applying the scientific method to all things, or the impressive, insidious nature of sexism and privileged outlooks in our modern Post-Sexist/Post-Racist/Post-Everyist society, for the umpteenth time.  When anonymity online emboldens people to cast countless vitriolic, hurtful things on those who dare to speak out with their real names, it is difficult to figure out who you’re fighting for.  And when the other end, the end which tells you that you can not disagree…even when disagreement is civil and for the purpose of furthering perspective…lest you offend someone, who is this conversation for?  I get tired of being told that I am either crazy for having a problem, or horribly privileged to even think something that doesn’t take the lowest of the low into the fullest account.  I do not live for debate.  I do not thrive on conflict.

But then, why do I speak out ever?  Why do I not stay quiet forever?  Well, it’s because I feel an obligation as a privileged (brave, due to that privilege), articulate person living a strange life “behind closed doors” quite normally and healthily to spread the word.  My privilege allows me to speak out and say that these are real things in the world.  These are things that are healthy and rational and they impose absolutely no threat to you whatsoever.

And I worry that if I don’t exercise this right; if I don’t use this privilege not just to my advantage but to the advantage of the people struggling who do not have a voice, what is my purpose?  What is my value?  Why should anyone care about me if I am too much of a coward to speak?

Of course, this is all a bunch of ego.  I’m not remotely on the level of any great thinkers.  I have trumped up my importance to the world and have allowed myself to be defined by it.  The world will not stand or collapse based on my willingness to blog or go to conferences.  I am one voice in millions saying the same shit.  I am part of a force that will continue to swell regardless of my level of involvement.  I am not so important that this should be some kind of grand soliloquy delivered to the fourth wall of the world’s stage just prior to my great act of madness and defiance that will cast everything we know asunder.  I’m just a chick in a labcoat who thinks about things sometimes.  I do not have my finger on the big red button.  I won’t make the statement that brings war or peace.

I’m much more Dr. Strangelove than President Muffley, is what I’m saying…in that I will like cackle and talk in a funny accent while the big boys make plans to nuke a country.  We do what we’re good at in Difficult Times.

So what I finally realized is that activism doesn’t have to be all or nothing.  If you are inspired to speak out or do something, and are able, then do it.  If you find yourself exhausted and without words or motivation, then take solace in the fact that ever little bit counts.  Some people might listen and you might get through, and some other people might call you a Pinko Commie Cunt.  That’s life on Planet Earth.  When you get tired of talking, then you should be peaceful in your quiet because your quiet is what you want at that time.  You speak and you act because you want a better world, but the responsibility of representing the ideals of this better world is not yours alone or even yours particularly. Speaking out is worthwhile.  Living your life as you choose to live it is paramount.  You do not need to do it all to have it all or to have great value.

I’m writing this because I never have much to say about atheism as a movement and because I often get exhausted being an ambassador for polyamory and because currently insidious sexism has hit me and has made it hard to be strong and brave and inspiring.  All this passes and my urge to say things will become strong again…and then it will get knocked back down.  I accept this now.  It is just hard to accept it when you want to do everything and have a great sense of humor the whole time you’re doing it.

The thing is I am not an activist.  I am a person living in the world but I won’t always be shy about what I see.  I question. And with often great difficulty, I call out.  And then I go back to regular life.  And even this low level dissidence is hard to maintain without injury.  So, I applaud those who fight outright.  I commend those who go into the fray and debate and enlighten in a way that I just don’t want to, or sometimes can’t.  And every now and then, I’ll help in the way I want to, but being a little squeak on the periphery saying, “Yeah! I see it too!  You’re not crazy!”