There are various articles I’ve been wishing to write commentary about, but never had time to. One of these is an article at Salon.com about a study on people’s attitudes towards feminists and environmentalists. The article is titled: Everyone hates environmentalists and feminists and it claims people’s opinions of the stereotypical feminist and environmentalists makes them less interested in adopting the behaviors promoted by those groups. According to the article:
“Unfortunately,” [the researchers] write, “the very nature of activism leads to negative stereotyping. By aggressively promoting change and advocating unconventional practices, activists become associated with hostile militancy and unconventionality or eccentricity.”
I can sympathize with the point they are making. I’m an activist, but still I find myself intimidated around other activists. For one, I have a fear about sharing food with other activists. Does all food have to be locally grown vegan food or is it okay to admit I eat grocery store food as well? Is it okay I drove my minivan to the event rather than bicycle? Will I say something that will implicate myself as being oppressive in some way? Do I admit it used to drive me nuts when, long ago, I would go to meetings where people referred to “female or female-oriented people”? There are at times a sense that within activist circles there is some sort of purity code, whereby people strive to out do each other in being anti-oppression. There’s even a language barrier at times with activists using jargon like “embodied experiences” and “cis-gendered people.” And of course there’s a quagmire of unsolved political or social questions about which activists are incredibly passionate, in differing ways, and woe be to someone who expresses an alternative view. (For example the question of whether legalized prostitution is a pro-woman thing or a pro-exploitation thing.)
I don’t know how representative of the public the study was, but I could believe it as being true. The article addresses the issue of stereotypes around activists as people, not looking at people’s impressions of the actions themselves – rallies, sit-ins, etc. Yet I’ve heard of people who, upon hearing that I was at a protest, say things like “is that legal?” or maybe “that’s okay as long as they don’t block traffic or burn police cars.” Yet I don’t think it is just a fear of legality or the potential of violence that is involved. The article suggested people are more receptive to ideas from people who ‘fundraise for grassroots organizations’ than those who organize rallies. Fundraising can suggest that the problems in the world wrong is a lack of money, or at least the solution an increase of money to certain places, and not a need to restructure society. It’s not as threatening.
Then there’s the general idea that activists – environmentalists, feminists, anti-capitalists, etc – are in some way against society, and most of us are a part of society. If a person is an activist, does he or she by definition judge or critique me? Is he or she against my way of life? I think activists need to be willing to speak up about the ways they participate in society and the ways in which they create positive alternatives to the norm. There needs to be an element of accepting that other people do have lives to live, and a valuing of their lives as they choose to live them, rather than too quick a judgment or rejection. The message people need to hear is: “Yes, we want to change society, but yes we understand you want to live within society… but we want to find some way of working together, to improve things and make things just a little bit easier, safer and more sustainable for everyone.”
Of course it is hard to get that message across since ultimately there is this desire that we have to change the world. Activists see the wrong in the world and they want to change it. Feminists do want men to give up their male privilege, and that’s hard to hear at least partly because people don’t want to acknowledge the priviledge and feel implicated in its existence. Activists want people to give up their racial privileges, their economic and social ones. Yet they need to figure out how not to be scary in doing so, and I don’t really know how to do that.
On a shallow level, I think activists could make it easier by identifying and participating in community in ways other than just activism. Most people are multifaceted beings, let’s acknowledge that. Living out multifaceted lives, interacting with people in roles other than activist and building relationships those ways probably all help. We need to not be concern trolls busting to every conversation with a particular agenda but still somehow bringing one’s concern for justice into caring, honest interactions with others from who we can learn.
On a deeper level I think activists need to be able to recognize the tensions and contradictions we face. There is tension between wanting to make societal changes and wanting to individual’s choices. Or the tension in wanting to reject the radical individualism of our consumeristic society but also take a position that is a minority opinion. We need to recognize the difficulty of what we ask from ourselves and from society at large. What does it mean to recognize the destruction of the earth and at the same time still depend upon modern technologies? How do we reconcile our own abilities to live up to our ideals? Are there ways we use our understanding of different justice issues to feel superior to others? To put others down?
Activists of all sorts also need to recognize the time constraints and the limits people face and the overwhelming desire to just be able to live a normal life. There’s a song by Jim Strathdee that includes images of a better future and one line is “all of the peace crusaders having time to be good parents too.” I love that line but I also think that things go the other way too, where we need to redefine the idea of what being a good parent is so that we have time to be peace crusaders as well – and help one another find the resources to do so.
What I do not think is a good idea is the weakening of the terms ‘environmentalist’ or ‘feminist.’ There are plenty of people who say anyone who believes that men and women are equal is a feminist. (I don’t know if anyone argues that everyone who loves trees and recycles is an environmentalist or not.) In some ways it seems to much like lowering the bar, abandoning any expectations and just making the terms meaningless. It is a position that suggests that the questions of feminism are already answered, the problems a thing of the past.
I think there should be some expectation that feminists and environmentalists and activists in general attempt to expand their understanding of the world. A feminist who isn’t willing to listen to other people’s perceptions of the world, and struggle with the ways in which those perceptions clash with her or his own perceptions, isn’t much of a feminist, is he or she? An environmentalist who doesn’t think about the implications of the things around him or her isn’t a very good environmentalist, right? Being an activist or environmentalist or anticapitalist or whatever should involve continual self-critique and learning, though perhaps that part of why people don’t like feminist and environmentalists. We want to keep our eyes closed, stay in the dark. We don’t want to struggle, and struggle is part of the job.
The most important thing I think for environmentalists and feminists is to recognize that we don’t have all the answers. Some environmentalists might want to live off the grid in a subsistence farmer fashion but they don’t have answers as to how we build a sustainable life for everyone. Recognizing we don’t have answers on the big questions shouldn’t mean we don’t argue for the answers we have for the little questions. We don’t have all the answers but we do know that more impermeable parking lots is a bad thing for healthy sustainable watersheds.
I would love to hear other people’s responses to the Salon article, or to any of the ideas I’ve brought up here. I don’t have the answers. I know that, but one of the things that really interests me is how we can expand the social justice movement. How can we bring more people in? How do we keep them in? How do we, in the least, make them not hate us, without us becoming completely uneffective ‘safe’ social clubs?