Confessions of a Recovering Activist: Being That Activist
As it turns out, I’m not a courageous person. Perhaps I successfully managed to create an illusion of courage in my attempts to inspire change. But courage that is merely illusion or which is necessary for self-preservation isn’t the type of courage needed to be an activist. That courage exists in only the most resilient hearts. My heart wasn’t so resilient.
Are you the new person drawn toward me?
To begin with, take warning, I am surely far different from what you suppose;
Do you suppose you will find in me your ideal?
Do you think it so easy to have me become your lover?
Do you think the friendship of me would be unalloy’d satisfaction?
Do you think I am trusty and faithful?
Do you see no further than this façade, this smooth and tolerant manner of me?
Do you suppose yourself advancing on real ground toward a real heroic man?
Have you no thought, O dreamer, that it may be all maya, illusion?
– Walt Whitman
Recently, Mason Hsieh published an op-ed on Huffington Post titled, “Is the Gay Community Scaring Away our Straight Allies.” In that piece Mason discusses going to an LGBT meeting with a straight friend who asks, “In gay dating, who’s the girl?” He explains that his friend was immediately and “vehemently” told to “check his straight-cis-male privilege” and told he “should be ashamed.” Clearly, a safe space was not created for Mason’s friend and it’s unlikely such a space would be safe for a newly out LGBT person or one deprived of “urban privilege.”
In the piece, Mason goes on to suggest ways to improve our relationships with our allies. A few years ago, I may have disagreed with Mason. I may have been one of the 280+ commenters on his posting taking a hard-nosed stance and refusing to make room for anyone at the table who would not immediately and quickly call-out a microagression. Instead, now I feel that Mason didn’t go far enough. That’s not to say any remark that is oppressive should stand unchecked. But there are undoubtedly ways in which we can address such microagressions, without being threatening and without ad hominem attacks.
And now for the confession: Mason’s article could have been more accurately titled, “Are Activists Scaring Away the Community they Claim they Represent?”
I have undoubtedly been that activist, and I started to scare myself. It was impossible to comply with the demands of my fellow activists – don’t eat here, don’t shop there, don’t say this, don’t mention that, don’t ask … don’t tell… don’t… don’t… don’t. And I was one of the people making even more rules, whether intentionally or not. I began to dislike myself. I began to dislike others. I was at an impasse in activism and had tough choices to make.
I flailed about for a while, continuing to pretend I was somehow making a difference, even though I no longer knew the answers to give to those seeking to inspire change. I became the person I was most horrified of becoming. I became “that activist.”
It wasn’t until late in my work as an activist that I began to fully appreciate King’s Six Principles of Non-Violence. I naively believed that living (or attempting to live) those principles could help me focus my work more directly and limit the “rules” to six. I began reflecting on them and discussing them in more depth with fellow activists, many of whom claimed to have adopted the principles for themselves. One of those principles stuck out more than others as it applied to our internal and external relationships:
Nonviolence seeks to win friendship and understanding. The end result of nonviolence is redemption and reconciliation. The purpose of nonviolence is the creation of the Beloved Community.
It was then that I went from being “that activist” to feeling more like Mason’s friend must have felt. I did not feel safe asking questions or discussing my thoughts, opinions, ideas, life experiences or even what I had for breakfast among my activist circles. Everything, no matter how innocuous it may have seemed, somehow contributed to the oppression of some group or other, but I was so “first world” starved for a damn Starbucks Coffee. Was my egg free range? Did Monsato have a hand in genetically modifying my corn muffin? Often, a quip intended to bring levity to a serious situation, a technique I used for self-preservation, was met with righteous indignation. Any opinion was almost always met with passionate monologues that rarely seemed relevant to the subject matter. I no longer cared to win the friendship and understanding of even those in my own community, so I certainly didn’t care to win the friendship and understanding of the opposition. Simply put, I was not strong enough to abide by the principles of non-violence and without them, I felt I no longer had a guide.
So there are many things we can learn from Mason’s story and many things to which folks have already taken offense. Why should we accommodate those who make such assumptions as gender roles in our gatherings? The answer, I’d argue, is that we should be working to create a beloved community, not prove ourselves “right.” Otherwise, we become the evil doer.