Activism fatigue and the work of changing minds

From wikimedia commons.

I have been teaching as part of my graduate school career for more than a year now. It’s intense work. Some find it invigorating and exciting; I find it grueling. Teaching engages the same part of my brain that writing about the Religious Right does; it forces me to listen carefully to ideas I find distasteful, to be willing to poke around in the nuts and bolts of those ideas until I’ve found the root of the problem, and then point others at that root and ask them to think about how to extract it. Teaching is about unsettling things and making people uncomfortable with their own assumptions.

Teaching and activism were areas that felt immediately connected to me the moment I pushed open a classroom door and awkwardly looked around at my students. The first course I taught was a “race and ethnicity” credit for my university’s liberal arts system, and one of the first weeks was about gender. Incidentally, that week was the hardest, and remains the hardest for me to handle in every course since. To my students, I probably appeared a bit hyper. Maybe they chalked it up to the coffee I always brought to class. Inwardly, I was bracing for every sexist comment I’ve ever heard and desperately afraid of losing my cool. I imagined myself bursting into tears, because yelling at students isn’t typically the kind of breakdown I have to fear from myself. (Fundamentalist girls – like most girls, really – aren’t allowed to be angry, so we learn to turn it inward.)

This past fall, the fatigue of teaching and the fatigue of online activism (discussions, debates, and general “awareness”) dovetailed perfectly, and I started to realize why I was feeling that the social justice networks I was reading had become somehow toxic. The reason is overexposure and the absence of a visible result.

A commenter on my previous post wrote about the term “mansplaining”:

Its analgous to concepts like “white privilige”–in fact I’d like to coin a word that would reflect the way white people (I am white) are often eager to explain racism or not racism to non white people, or eager to share newfound historical discoveries to people who are still living this reality in their present. After you’ve had several dissussion with someone–and they happen prety frequently on the internet–where some idiot demands you go back to first principles and re-argue something like equality, or labor pains, with him you need a convenient short hand for why you aren’t going to bother.

I can relate to this. My posts on modesty last year drew months of commentary like, “But shouldn’t women dress to respect themselves?” (See these posts for my answer.) When you’ve been thinking about a concept for a long time, and even more so when you’ve been engaged in deeper and deeper conversations about the root of the problem, coming back to the surface is a jolt. And it becomes harder and harder to distinguish between innocent curiosity, proud ignorance, or open hostility. You’re just suddenly dealing with someone who has no idea (or doesn’t care) that he or she is repeating an extremely offensive cliche. Everyone who’s ever said that discriminatory line melds together with this person into a big shadowy Enemy who can’t be taught. “Women are just naturally more sensitive,” said Every Man Ever!

But Every Man Ever never said that, because Every Man Ever doesn’t exist. He, like Every White Person Ever, is a construction that we activists inevitably make when we start recognizing the same discourses reiterated over and over. But it’s not a construction that’s helpful. I don’t think “mansplaining” is useful, and I don’t think a similar term for people demonstrating their white privilege and ignorance would be useful, because these words target something that isn’t the problem. Being white isn’t a problem, nor is being a man. The problems are arrogance and ignorant, inconsiderate behavior, not the identity of the speaker.

I recently saw this roll across one of my newsfeeds:

“If your activism makes your oppressor feel comfortable than maybe you should reevaluate your activism”

My badass professor Dr. Zwissler 

We were talking about Slutwalks, when she dropped that truth bomb. “Don’t get my wrong, I want to dance at the revolution, but I don’t want my oppressors dancing with me”. 

It’s a strange thing to observe in social justice media, because I had thought that we were all more or less on the same page about what the Enemy and the Oppressor are. They aren’t people. We know we can’t win the war against sexism or racism by rounding up and killing white men, so why do we still act like people with privileged identities are the oppressors rather than privilege itself and the discriminatory ideas that unexamined privilege produces?

I much prefer the logic here, attributed to Abraham Lincoln (probably erroneously):

“Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”

And, for that matter, the Bible:

“For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places…” Ephesians 6:12

This probably sounds like smarmy, spineless, kindergarten stuff to a lot of people. It’s not like these aren’t cliches, too. But I’d argue it’s the more accurate and optimistic of the two views. Unless we have converted at least some of those who first approached us as oppressors, I don’t think there will be a revolution where we’ll have to choose dancing partners.

When your oppressor is a set of ideas or discourses, changing people’s minds is how you know you’re making progress.

Which brings me back to the problems with internet activism: overexposure and the inability to see a result.

On the internet, you deal with people superficially. Typically you make a statement and people respond to it. You don’t stop and learn about who they are. You interact only with their opinions, and opinions are one-dimensional. They either agree or disagree with your own opinions. And sometimes they have really bad reasons for disagreeing, like ignorance and privilege. You get one shot, basically, at saying The Right Thing that will check their privilege and make them see the light. At least, that’s what it seems like. Realistically, though, you have a 50/50 chance of getting through to them, and it has nothing to do with what you say. It has everything to do with whether or not they’re willing to learn.

As a teacher, you spend whole semesters with people, seeing them at least once a week. You establish a rapport. There are people, even then, who aren’t willing to learn, but you stand a greater chance of reaching students because you have a relationship with them. You also approach them with professionalism and goodwill, and they (hopefully) approach you the same way. This is not true of internet activism, where you have to deal with trolls and with people who clicked by having never heard of you and having no intention of learning anything. So it’s easy for online activists to get fed up, and start building walls:

  • “I don’t have to explain this to you. It’s not the duty of the oppressed to explain their suffering to the oppressor.”
  • “You have no right to be offended. You have to be selfless when the underprivileged are talking, and not take it personally when they attack your identity.”
  • “No one cares about your pitiful white/male/first world problems.”
  • “No, I don’t have to be ‘nice.’ You have no right to expect me to be nice when I’m dealing with your ignorance.”

I won’t dispute that some of these are valid points, but they aren’t terribly useful, either. I’ve seen requests for further reading met with “I don’t owe you an education,” which only alienates people who are genuinely trying to learn and might turn out to be allies. (Yeah, I know that “ally” is a disputed term, but I have yet to see a better one for someone who helps a cause that isn’t “theirs” by birth.) What this spells to me is burnout. Burnout is what I feel every time I encounter the modesty debate, when I feel the need to respond to the same old assumptions and find myself repeating what I’ve already said thousands of times. It doesn’t matter if my interlocutors are strangers; the debate is so well-worn that it feels like intellectual trench warfare.

On the internet, because people blend together into an unwashed sea of opinions, you just keep seeing the same sexist or racist cliches popping up over and over again with different names. They become The Unteachable Oppressor, and you get sick of engaging with them. And you’re right: you don’t have to engage with them. You don’t owe them anything. Owning that right to silence is an important part of your activism, after all. My commenter above said of “mansplaining” that “you need a convenient short hand for why you aren’t going to bother.” I disagree. You don’t need an excuse. You can just walk away, close the window, really write off that encounter and say, I am not going to teach this person anything right now. That’s entirely within your rights as an individual.

It’s okay not to make a difference in every encounter. One activist cannot do it all. But it helps to remember that people’s minds are changing. Just because the supply of ignorant comments seems endless does not mean that there is no change taking place. When you teach, you sometimes get to see minds change. You start to see people grappling with their own privilege, coming to more nuanced perspectives. You don’t get to see that on the internet, because most of the time, you never hear from that person again. But sometimes they do change. Sometimes they disappear after you’ve explained something, or sent them a link, or told them a phrase to google, and they do that reading on their own and change their minds. But you’re none the wiser, so all you remember is that ignorant comment they made and how many times you’ve heard it before. Overexposure.

But the right reaction to that overexposure isn’t to respond with another set of cliches and condemnations. Because that’s where activism and teaching are supposed to intersect: if you consider yourself an activist, you’ve voluntarily taken on the job of fighting ignorance. Let’s not underestimate how exhausting, irritating and frustrating that job is. Let’s not expect immediate results. And let’s pause to think about whether our responses are coming from a creative, constructive place, or from burnout.

For my own part, I’ve had to turn off some channels for sanity’s sake, because getting caught up in the ever-rolling waves of anger wasn’t making me a better teacher, just a tired person.


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