Ah, activism. To the untrained ear and eye this word has long conjured imagery of hoary bongo-playing hygienically-challenged layabouts. Although there is a kernel of truth in every stereotype, only a fool or establishment shill would openly proclaim that this aforementioned type is the only kind of person who engages in activism…man.
The simple fact is that an activist is usually a regular person who has had enough of reading about, watching and hearing about injustice, corruption and twisted morality on a massive scale and has finally decided to do something about it. True activists know they can never be a hero or everything to everyone. The smartest ones have found a niche that best addresses what bothers them the most, and set about trying to enact change with a courageous zeal that money could never substitute. The only common drive that unites all activists is the effort to overcome apathy. It is precisely this kind of thought process and sense of empathy for others that those who abuse power fear the most.
Below is a simplistic and handy guide for navigating the psychological and physiological vagaries of activism in the 21st century. Most of it is not especially unique in import by any measure. It is however the kind of manual I wish someone had written for me about a year and a half ago.
1. Sleep. Sleep. Sleep. Not the zombie-esque decrease in consciousness you feel when strolling through a shopping mall. I mean serious slumber, the alpha-beta-theta wave kind that allows your body to renew cells. Why? Because being an activist demands input from every fibre of your being in a way that is not wholly apparent right from the beginning. Ask anyone who participates in activism and also has a family to raise, a demanding but spiritually unfulfilling day job or anything else that falls under the banner of Adult Responsibility. You will be tired all the time. So get some sleep, because it may boil down to a choice between: missing out on some semi-interesting online banter, or reaching the state where you’re seeing your old best friend from Year Seven saying hi to you on the train…when the carriage is actually empty. Or perhaps something from Naked Lunch.
2. Don’t put shit into your body all the time. Being busy ins’t an excuse. “Coffee keeps me going until it’s time to be drunk enough to go to sleep” is only a fleetingly enjoyable diet ethos. As with point 1, you’ll inevitably reach a plateau of perma-exhuastion, so only real nutrients can keep you from becoming a bloated/frail/constipated/sweaty train wreck. Recreational drugs may provide occasional release but chronic use makes you become That Guy on Twitter. We all know one of those.
3. Sense of humour. I’m of the belief that few activists are genuinely humourless – if that were not true, that means we lack the humanity that is the basic essential requirement of giving a shit about the world around us. Most importantly, humour is your ultimate survival mechanism, one which allows you to ride the troughs of despair as well as the peak experiences. Do not be afraid of humour, it is your weapon and your tool, and one that always needs sharpening and refinement. As Leo Rosten said, “Satire is focused bitterness”. The most difficult skill you will have to master is figuring out when you are crossing the line and becoming merely puerile for the sake of a laugh, or of your trolling, sarcasm and jokes are actually saying something deeper and making people think to themselves, “Fuck yeah that bitch is onto something there, man!” Also, creating memes is not only a necessary stress-relief strategy, it’s a great way to create false noise that drains the resources of grossly over-funded internet surveillance programs. Nothing makes a mockery of OSINT (open source intelligence) like a good vajazzling meme.
4. Despite Your Worst Fears, You Too Probably Have a Useful But Under-Utilised Talent. Many people refrain from speaking up and participating in activism because they think they have nothing new or special to contribute to a cause. Effective activism does not only consist of gifted oration, eloquent writing, or being a wizard with code. You could have an artistic bent – working with your hands, or better-than-average skills in Photoshop. Perhaps you can wrangle papier mache or liquid latex like no other. You can be guaranteed that every successful street protest or social-networking campaign has worked well because people with highly varied skill-sets and expertise have come together to pull it off.
5. Loneliness. Particularly true for those who engage in activism only online, but just about every activist finds themselves in a period where they are “crossing the desert” in terms of their personal relationships. You will probably lose or alienate a few friends who do not understand or feel your passion. Be prepared for it and don’t expect everyone to understand your cause or why it’s important. Some of your friends and/or family will remain content to keep themselves smothered in an apolitical cocoon of quasi-comfortable security. That’s their problem. Learn to compartmentalize your relationships for the sake of your own sanity and safety. That said, don’t refrain from talking to others about your cause – you will truly be surprised at how much people care about certain issues but never voice their opinion simply because no-one has ever engaged them about it in a social situation. Never feel embarrassed about giving a shit about something – we have all been conditioned to be comfortably numb by mass media and endless, pointless consumption. Many of us are unable to articulate why we feel so alienated because of this. If you have a chance to become someone’s else’s inspiration, never waste that chance.
Also, it’s kinda awesome and somewhat lulzy watching your meekest of friends and relatives slowly become radicalised by your endless soapboxing.
6. Paranoia. Depending on your outlook, this can be hell or highly entertaining (also depending on who’s got the paranoia). Some activists are worryingly blase about any kind of information security yet others sound like they survived COINTELPRO even though they grew up in Adelaide in the 1990s. A disproportionately high number of activists are often convinced there are feds under the bed – even if they are not doing anything remotely illegal. Of course, there are many places on Earth where peaceful democratic dissent can cost you your life. Paranoia about things like surveillance and infiltration of your networks (online and IRL) is much like the humour factor – subtlety and balance will get you a long way. Do seek out proper advice on how to secure your communications, preferably by a nice hacker friend, but assume everything is monitored – those trillions of national security dollars aren’t being spent on filling jars with brown M&M’s. Don’t over-share the minutiae of your daily existence to your activist friends and don’t expect them to do the same – the less everyone knows about each others’ Adult Responsibilities, the better. Besides, activism does tend to become an escape from boring shit like that anyway. Best of all, jokes about feds are a great way to pass the time when you’re being watched by one of them in a bar somewhere on a Saturday night. (Also see point 3).
7. Don’t Be a Broken Umbrella In a Shitstorm. Many causes and activist movements feature a central charismatic figure that milder minions can rally around; other movements are more amorphous and decentralised. The problem in either framework is that you will inevitably face the expectation to defend someone else’s shitty behaviour for the sake of the Greater Good of the Cause. In this way, activist movements often mirror the same sociology that powerful elites do. An activist collective forms naturally for a special purpose, yet every so often, an minor or major scandal will arise that threatens to tarnish everyone involved – and you will be expected to defend it, justify it, or play it down, because the cause is Bigger Than One Person. So what do you do? Hopefully you adhere to you own internal moral and ethical code – that’s what got you into activism in the first place. You stand your ground and call bullshit when you see it – even if it means becoming temporarily unpopular. This is probably the hardest advice to heed, as activist politics tends to absorb and try bury certain unsavoury behaviours and viewpoints in order to survive. No-one can give you definitive advice on how to navigate the median between being principled and being one of the team. But if defending a fellow activist for something indefensible makes you feel like a dirty whore, or worse, a shill – don’t do it. Life is too fucking short.
8. Go Offline Once In a While. It’s usually the ‘older’ folk that will tell you this, and for good reason – they remember a life lived entirely offline. Particularly amongst activist movements that only convene online (which is just about the norm nowadays), there is a risk of becoming entrapped in an ideological bubble that can actually be disconnected from traditional knowledge and different ways of life. The problem with this is that as an activist, you tend to become a slave to the news cycle or worse, assume that everyone in the world must know and care about a recent particular event because all your fellow activists are going mad about it on the interwebs. Step back, take a break from the computer and smartphone, go see some nature or something. Most importantly, spend time in a library, reading real books. The skill of deep reading is vital for synthesizing information, critical thinking, and making well-formed arguments. Know your history. If you only read the news, you will miss out on the the context that is such a vital part of activism and you’ll essentially remain the same as the herd animals you thought you were different from. Look at the most inspirational intellectual role models you have – all of them locked themselves away from mundane chatter to learn something deeper. It worked for them and it will work for you. Read things that make you angry. You will remember a seminal book for far longer than an adequately-written feature article.
9. You will often question what is the fucking point of it all. A deficiency or abundance of any or all of the above factors will make you start doubting yourself and your ability to affect change. In many ways, this is normal – if altruism was easy, everyone would be doing it. Remember was pisses you off about the world and never let those thoughts leave your back pocket.
10. Most importantly, don’t forget to have fun and fight the motherfucking POWER.