How To Be an Activist

“Agitators are a set of interfering, meddling people, who come down to some perfectly contented class of the community and sow the seeds of discontent amongst them. That is the reason why agitators are so absolutely necessary. Without them, in our incomplete state, there would be no advance towards civilisation.”  ~ Oscar Wilde

I received an email last week from Allie.

I read your blog a lot (ok, actually, I read it daily. I go your blog, Pharyngula, Blag Hag, and then the rest of Freethought Blogs. I’m aware that sentence makes me sound creepy. I apologize.) and wanted to ask you how you suggest someone should go about becoming an activist. My roommate, who is a disability activist and teaches self-advocacy, says I should just do it – no special qualifications are required. And I know she’s right. And I know I have things worth saying. It’s just that I’m scared to say them. My Christian upbringing taught me that I should care about others more than myself – that if you have to choose between hurting people by speaking your mind or hurting yourself by staying silent, you should always choose the latter. PTSD doesn’t help with that either. For a long time I’ve given myself excuses – I need to get my shit together, I’d say, and that gave me a lot of leeway, because I’m bipolar and have horrible ADD and, as mentioned above, PTSD, and it’s taken me 23 and a half years to get my shit together enough that I’m stable and have the physical, emotional, and mental energy to do anything other than survive. But now I’m here (which is AWESOME) and my excuse is gone.

I want to be able to ask my Christian parents – my good, kind, loving, amazingly supportive Christian parents – how they can love a god who created the ability for them to fail and then cursed them for failing, who demands they love him or suffer eternal torture, who commands slavery, mass rape, and genocide, and is enraged when people only do it halfway. I want to be able to tell someone who says children with disabilities shouldn’t be given an education “because they’re not going to contribute to society” that their view is unconscionable, a betrayal of the Golden Rule that they claim a moral monopoly on, and that I am ashamed that I have to share a planet with them. I want to be able to tell people who think that ADD is just laziness, or that it can be treated with diet and exercise, to fuck right off, because when I finally got the right dose of medication, successfully treating my ADD, I was terrified that something horrible was happening to me because my mind felt so ALIEN. I don’t even have words to describe HOW it’s different. The best thing I can say is that it’s like recovering from a horrible flu, and suddenly everything is clear and bright and your mind is so BIG. And I was terrified, until my roommate told me that that’s how I was supposed to feel. That’s how most people feel all the time. And people think ADD is just laziness? Fuck no.

I want to say all these things, but I’m afraid – of  hurting the people I care about, of rejection, of getting the kind of vitriol that outspoken people – especially outspoken women – get all the time. But I really, really want to get over that fear.

Suggestions?

My advice would be to start small by just being yourself without qualification.  If somebody asks where you go to church, just tell them you’re an atheist.  If people make derisive comments about somebody’s mental illness, smile and tell them you’ve got your own.  Just acclimating people to the fact that they know (and like) atheists and loons makes a huge impact.

The best way to inoculate yourself against vitriol is to put in the time learning the arguments and becoming informed on the subjects of your activism.  To be an activist is to cure ignorance, and to do that you must have information at the ready.  Someone uses the 2nd law of thermodynamics argument (*gag*), you need to have a counterexample ready (or you need to be able to call them on how silly they are for not asking a physicist if they really want an answer).  As long as you’re speaking, there will be vitriol.  Don’t get occupied with the vitriol.  Find the arguments beneath the vitriol and the ignorance that fuels the vitriol and be prepared go after them like a surgeon.

Being an activist, as I’ve said before, also means telling people they’re wrong, often about some of their most cherished beliefs.  Not because we’re assholes, but because beliefs determine actions and shape the face of society, and we treat beliefs like they matter.  I wish it were easy, but it’s not.  Neither are most worthwhile things (otherwise everybody would do them).  And yes, some people will be hurt.  It is a sad quality of the universe that improvement seldom comes without pain.  To quote Saul Alinsky, change means movement and movement means friction.  Nudging the world to change takes effort, but it’s rewarding effort.  It’s gratifying in the extreme to convince one more person that god is not real, or one more person that gay people are equal, or one more person that mental illness is a physical malady.

What I can tell you is this: honesty breeds respect.  I’ve told a lot of people I thought they were very, very wrong over the years.  Most of them disliked it, and most of them sent me emails later saying “What about this?” because they respected my ability to think and they knew I’d tell them the truth.  Refusing to placate somebody is one of the greatest respects you can give, and I think most (not all, but most) people realize that, even if they don’t like hearing they’re wrong.  I understand you care about others.  Ask my primary girlfriend and I’m sure she’ll spill the beans on what a sap I am when I think others are suffering.  Just understand that caring about others means caring about the world we all live in, and some ideas are better for that world than others.

Also realize that changing minds takes time.  I cannot recall a single time I’ve changed somebody’s mind in the course of a single conversation.  However, I cannot count the times I have received emails or phone calls a few months later conceding that I was right.  Changing minds and changing the world is a marathon, not a sprint.

As you gain experience as an activist doing the small things, you will find strength you never knew you had.  You may start speaking to small groups of people (who will feed you the same arguments as individuals, only this time you’ll know those arguments front to back).  You may go hold a sign in protest.  You may organize a protest.  You may help with a food drive.  There are about a million ways to change the world, and you should do whatever is right at the edge of your comfort level so the next time you might go further.

And don’t be afraid of missteps.  When talking about how to succeed as an activist, it seems I always wind up quoting Dr. David Burger.  Dr. Dave once said to me, “Activism, if you’re doing it, you’re doing it right.”  Our cause is noble, and will not be quelled by a few mistakes (indeed, if we waited for perfect people to change the world we’d never get around to it).  We grow with the movements we support.

Thanks for caring enough to embrace activism, Allie.  The world needs more people like you.  As individuals we can and should change the little things, since those are what make up the big things.  Best of luck to you, Allie.  I’m glad you’re on our side.  :)

Keep in touch with me on how things go?  *hug*

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About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.


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