Activism, and Whether I Do It
My pal Monica Byrne (who is, incidentally, a fabulous writer), asked me the other day if I would consider myself an activist, and if so, would I call myself one publicly. It was an interesting question, especially since I’m at least partly known for having strong political and social opinions, and sharing them via this blog and other outlets.
My answer to her was no, I don’t really consider myself an activist. The reason I gave her was pretty straightforward: I’m too lazy. Which is to say that while I have my beliefs and principles and largely follow them (sometimes imperfectly), and will happily tell others what those beliefs and principles are, the sort of committed action that to me defines activism — and the continued proselytization for a belief that activism often requires, including the desire to inspire others to take moral action — is not something I usually undertake.
There are other reasons for this besides laziness, including work and the desire to have other interests in my life, but laziness really is a large part of it. Activism is work. I’m glad other people do it, and admire their effort. But it’s not something I put much effort in.
But you write here all the time on political and social topics! Yes I do. But this is not a blog for activism, it’s a blog for whatever I feel like writing — or, when I’m writing a book as I am now, what I have time for writing. The blog is like me; all over the place and a bit pixelated. This is not to say people I would consider activists only do activism. They do other things too, of course; the people who only do one thing all the time are (I would submit) maybe a lot to have to deal with. But I would certainly say activists commit more of themselves and more of their time to activism than I do. Blog posts and retweets do not an activist make.
After my chat with Monica on the topic, I came up with another reason why I don’t call myself an activist, which is that many of the causes I find myself agreeing on and writing about are ones that I don’t consider my primarily fight to fight. For example, for more than a decade, here and elsewhere, I was (and am!) a vocal proponent of same-sex marriage in the US, and I was thrilled and happy when it was made the law of the land. Was I an activist for the cause? Well, as a straight person, I’m not sure it was my place to be so. I can say I was active for it, surely. But declaring myself an activist for it (aside from the fact of the laziness mentioned above) seems sort of usurp-y. I didn’t need to be seen leading or directing the course of that particular parade. It wasn’t my parade to lead. I was just happy to march in it.
Likewise for women’s issues, or issues involving people of color, or trans issues, as examples, all of which I’m interested in, and have opinions on, but which ultimately don’t have me as their focus as a white cis male. I have an ego, to be sure. But I don’t think I need to pull attention to myself in these fights. I’m happy to stand with, not in front of (and hopefully not get in the way of, which could be a thing if I’m not paying attention).
Which brings up another point, which is that very often activism seems to come out of the well of having no other choice — that in some cases if you’re not an activist, you’re going to get steamrolled by the dominant culture. And, well, you know. I’m pretty much aware that in the US, I’m in the dominant culture, and quite bluntly I get to pick and choose what political and social issues I get to be involved in, and how deeply. And when I get fed up, I get to say “later,” and go write or play video games or just disappear. I have the luxury of engagement, or not. I suspect that for a lot of folks, to declare myself an activist when I can bail whenever I feel like it would be exasperating.
(There are activist issues not specifically related to racial/gender/sexual identity, of course — tech and politics and religion and so on and so forth, where your average white straight male isn’t necessarily pulling focus. Very few of these engage me to the extent that activism on the subject calls to me.)
I’d note that this is all about whether I would consider myself an activist; other people might have other opinions, either in a positive sense, or in a negative one. Surely every time someone labels me a “social justice warrior,” for example, they pretty much implicitly accuse me of being an activist, and one for issues they don’t like. And three things here: One, I don’t mind; two, fuck ’em; three, it still doesn’t make me an activist in my own mind.
If someone else wants to consider me an activist, for whatever reason, I couldn’t stop them if I wanted to, and I don’t. I do hope whoever they are, they know I’m destined to disappoint them somewhere down the road. I’m inevitably going to fail whatever standard they have for activism, in no small part because I’m not even achieving my own standard for it.
Again, it’s not to say that I’m not often engaged on many issues. I am. At the end of the day, though, to my mind, what makes an activist is commitment to a cause and the commitment to change the hearts of others, and possibly the course of history. I’m happy to speak my mind and if my words make people think, and sometimes even think differently than they did before, then that’s great. But I don’t know if that’s enough to consider myself an activist for any one cause. I think I’d have to do more than I do. And who knows? Maybe one day I will. We’ll see.