July 12, 2016
By Nijah Glenn
If you’re reading this, then you responded to the clickbait title I purposefully chose in order to gain traffic, and my marketing genius worked! Kidding. Let me preface everything I say by stating that I myself am an activist, and like all human beings, am seeking to improve myself as a person. The views in this piece are entirely my own, and you are welcome to disagree with any statement I make here. Activists have brought many improvements into the world we have today. Without previous generations, we would not enjoy many of the liberties we have. However, activism has become a corrupted form of what it once was, and the emergence of underlying social issues as daily news has brought activism inefficacy to the forefront.
Between the schism of academia vs direct activism, abuse within activism, lack of culpability, and honest lack of engagement coupled with polarity, much of 21st century activism has diverged so far from its roots in detrimental ways that it actually perpetuates the same issues it seeks to eliminate. If you are upset by the claims I am making, it is important for you to reflect on your actions and see if you fall within these camps.
I grew up in a household that encouraged both academic and civic engagement on a direct level. I didn’t believe marching and rallies were the only way of getting the message across; I also didn’t grow up believing that activism should be found only in academic papers either. The 21st century and rise in social media have brought us new platforms in which to spread awareness and advocate for causes we feel are noble. However, we refuse to have discourse on the differences between academic activism and direct activism. In academic activism, questions of inequity are answered in theses, discussions, collaborative articles, and usually approached in a classroom or academic setting. For the purposes of this discussion, direct activism is physical action, such as protests, rallies, and marches. While outlets such as Twitter have given all walks of life the ability to not only mobilize and educate via tweeting articles, we as a society have refused to address the clear gap between academic and direct activism styles.
I champion many causes personally. Through volunteer work, internships, board work, and my personal interactions, I seek to address as many forms of discrimination and inequity as I can in order to improve the world we live in. However, I do not attend many rallies or protests. I have had people question my dedication to activism because I do not show up to many events where the possibility of arrest is moderate or high. Believe me, I love a good march as much as the next person, but I, as an activist, should not be required to attend all in-person events in order to be given a bonafide seal of approval. In the same way, activism should not be given codified cloak and dagger academic responsibility. If your activism requires a reading list, debate quota, and number of scholarly sources for validation, or a certain number of hours canvassing, being arrested, or screaming through the megaphone in order to be called an activist, you’re genuinely doing it wrong.
People are dynamic – they have the ability to debate issues in a class room or on a panel one day and attend/ organize rallies the next. However, you should not have to have a level of “certified” experience to call yourself an activist. This is not a job on Wall Street: you should not have to have a resume of work to prove that you are an activist (though if you do, hats off to you); this is not the Girl Scouts: there are no required hours in order to gain a badge. If you need to quantify another individual’s work as an activist in order to discredit them or give yourself a pat on the back, you need to look at yourself and the content of your character, period. The inability for academics to be seen as activists without being called sellouts harms the ability for activism to fully gain the speed it deserves, as does calling those who prefer direct action shiftless or unintelligent. Without space in the middle for these two camps to meet, it creates an environment in which emotional abuse can develop in activism, which leads me to my next point.
Modern activism creates an environment in which emotional abuse becomes a tool and creates room for exploitation. When the tragedy in Orlando happened, my heart was shattered. There is never an excuse for death or prejudice, and the circumstances surrounding the tragedy truly speak to the vulnerability of so many in our society and the need for discussions that we, as communities, need to have. I was scrolling down my Facebook timeline after the shooting occurred only to be greeted with a status aimed at straight allies, stating that LGBTQIA+ individuals (especially those of color and those who were Muslim) had “paid attention to your words and your silence.”
For me, I do not grieve publicly. I do not post when the anniversaries of my grandparents’ deaths come up; I did not post when family members died, or about loss, because I prefer to keep my grief private. There is nothing wrong with public grief; I, too, have mourned national tragedies and global events. However, I will not compromise my own emotional state in order to post about it to show the world how terribly I feel. While I believe all people should remain up to date with current events and deserve the right to grieve publicly, I do not think it is fair to call people awful if they choose to not post in the wake of certain events.
What if the individual in question is like me, and is only on social media minimally? What if they cannot find the words to verbalize their loss? Or what if they are afraid to speak on behalf of issues that do not directly apply to them out of fear of ostracism? What about the individuals who are deeply affected by loss and are forcing trauma upon themselves in order to meet a certain threshold of approved sadness? Why do we have to show sadness? Is living in this world as a person fighting these inequities not enough?
Modern activism also has a habit of placing apathy in the same corner as inability to discuss an issue. They are not the same, yet modern activism puts them in a camp where the differences are so incredibly minute that you feel obligated to live the trauma of every event without being given the option to support other causes. Rather than use empathy, many modern “activists” use manipulation and see an inability to understand as proof of antipathy, which could not be more incorrect.
I have seen people repost pictures of lynchings juxtaposed with current racial crimes. This is traumatic for anyone, especially people of color. My grandparents left the Jim Crow South. Unlike any of the activists I know in the North, my grandparents had lost friends and community members to lynchings. I was told stories as a child of these deaths, which did not leave me and haunted my grandparents years after leaving South Carolina. Lynchings and references to death have a very traumatic connotation for me beyond that of many people I have known due to the effects it had on my grandparents. As such, I am NOT ever going to share photos of lynchings or deaths due to the incredibly scarring effect these stories had on me. This does not, and should not, make me a bad activist.
We often tell to anti-social justice figures who laugh at safe zones and trigger warnings that these things are necessary because people may have traumas they do not want to relive; yet we force one another to deal with every instance of trauma or are called apathetic despite the emotional state we may face. How can we call ourselves progressive when we manipulate members of our community into saying what we want to hear? We refuse to acknowledge separate social justice opinions, or that there is more than one way to solve an issue and ultimately do not address the issues we must.
Additionally, we need to kill the opinion that we, as social justice oriented people, are more knowledgeable than others. Just because we hold a social opinion does not mean we deserve to argue with academics who deal with this issue in an in depth manner because we THINK we know more. Arguing about what truly qualifies as economic injustice when you have read a few articles on stratification and your opposition is an economist with a social science background doesn’t make you seem impassioned; you simply enjoy hearing yourself talk.
Within the social justice sphere, there is a bad habit of not admitting that we may be wrong, or that there is more than one way to solve an issue. We also refuse to admit that perhaps we are not as unproblematic as we pretend to be. I have known activists who will talk about the beauty of being a person of color, only to refuse to date other people of color, or people of color darker than they for fear of having children who do not measure up to the same beauty standards said activists claim to eschew. I know activists who will cite Whole Foods as giving food to officers during the Freddie Gray protests instead of children as wrong, but refuse to volunteer at their local food bank or to check in on neighborhood children and assure they have a meal and safe space. While change and charity are not the same within activism, volunteering is often written off as something the very privileged do as an ego boost rather than out of kindness. I won’t dispute this claim, as I cannot adequately speak for all who volunteer, however making sure that those with less than me have clothing or food in their stomachs at night does a bit more in the immediate sense than marching for children who have no food, but refusing to help them ourselves. We pass the buck, even as activists, despite the need for us on the front lines.
How often, as an activist, have you known someone to say something problematic, and when called out, mock an argument, deflect, or play the victim rather than admit that they have growing to do? While part of it is that we live in a culture where shame is literally the worst thing possible, part of it is also hubris. Activists often believe they are inherently better than those who don’t know the correct terms or aren’t the ones to lead protests. If we cannot actually grow and learn without deflecting or playing the victim (while not allowing opposition those same privileges), should we call ourselves activists? We need to stop stroking our own egos or guilt tripping others as a means of gaslighting if we are to grow as people.
Lastly, the polarity in activism, coupled with people using activism for the wrong reasons, has tainted many movements. There is the assumption that people cannot sit in the middle of an issue; this is patently untrue. Life is not black and white; we cannot see each activist as being 100% there for every cause (especially those where they cannot be more than an ally to or do not know well enough). It cannot simply be that they are either clearly in support the current system OR for whatever cause there is against it to the same degree we are. That’s not how any movement has worked…like literally ever. In theory? Yes. In practice? No. I can stand for a cause heavily and still not want to attend all protests due to fear of being arrested, and thus losing my ability to enact change on a systemic level inside. It doesn’t mean that I don’t care – it simply means I do not want to put myself in a position where I believe I cannot help others as effectively.
This desire for polarity has a created a niche for people to become “Expert Activists” due to their willingness to be at the forefront of everything, but only for their own personal gains. Again, in my personal experience, I have met many activists who are making a career out of current injustices to gain local fame, or even university spots in an extreme example. Of course, in every case, the individual in question has used a movement to gain momentum, and once they have risen to the accomplishment or object of their desire, they’ve then walked away from the cause or distanced themselves considerably. Seeking to become a leader in order to call the shots, but not personally do any work doesn’t make you special. It is a sign of power lust and nothing else.
As activists, we see ourselves as changing the world. If we are going to, we need to admit that we are not perfect and need work beyond checking privileges. We need to stop having simplistic conversations in order to assuage our guilt. If we consider powers-that-be to be truculent forces that refuse to look at themselves and reflect, what does it make us when we have glaring flaws and refuse to look at ourselves? Without activism, child labor in the States could never have been abolished, black Americans would not the right to vote, and mental institutions would still be able to enact feudal “treatments” on patients, and so many other positive changes would not have been possible. However, we need to reflect on the progress we have made, as well as ways in which we have hurt it instead, if we are going to grow. We are not above criticism, and the moment we begin to act as though we are, we no longer fight the good fight.
Nijah Glenn is a senior biology major and dedicated youth activist. She is a member of the NewPeople editorial collective, avid coffee consumer, and is dedicated to making both the scientific field & world more equitable.