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.