So this weekend at SkepTech (a conference about skepticism and technology), I was on a panel that addressed some of the differences between real world and online activism. I LOVED being on this panel, I thought I had some great co-panelists and I always love to speak in public about things that I love. I thought we got to some pretty interesting points about the fact that the internet and in flesh activism have different uses, different reasons, different motivations. But there were a couple things that we never got to touch on that I’d like to explore a bit here.
So one of the first things that I don’t think we touched on much is self-care. We talked a fair amount about how all sorts of things can be activism: it can be blogging or being open and out or being willing to talk and answer questions or it can be tabling…but one thing we didn’t really mention is something that as someone involved in mental illness I think is really really important. Taking care of yourself can be a radical action. If you are oppressed, or if you are struggling, or if you are marginalized, then getting through each day, staying healthy, staying as relatively happy as possible is activism. JT Eberhard mentioned that having fun can be an amazing form of activism for atheists because a stereotype of us is that we’re unfulfilled. This goes the same for taking care of yourself. Atheists who are well-adjusted and flourishing are the best advertising we can have.
And this goes for all sorts of oppressed groups as well: when society tells you that you don’t deserve space or you don’t deserve to exist or your existence is wrong and evil and horrible, you cultivating your existence, your space, and your joy is radical. There’s a fantastic Audre Lorde quote about this: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Many of us feel like we need to put our mental health or physical health to the side in order to do our activism. We feel that because this cause is important to us it might be more important than taking time for ourselves, or that we should feel guilty for not doing enough, or that we should always push ourselves harder. If we can reframe this instead to the idea that self-care is part of activism and that it’s simply one element of activism that we have to balance with all out other concerns (taking care of those in the movement, engaging with new people, opposing problems), we can be much more effective activists. We will have more energy and more strength when we do external activist work.
Another important piece of this panel was about managing online vs in person activism. One element of this that I forgot to address in the panel (oops) is that as an introvert, I am extremely picky about who I socialize with. Often, if I go to a group and there’s someone who rubs me the wrong way or who insults me for my major or who I feel I have to educate about racial and gender issues, I probably won’t go back. Now I could go through the effort of figuring out how to get along with this person, but I’m trying to work on my self-care activism and so I just won’t right now. Online I get a lot more control over who I interact with. I can turn off my computer if I want. I can block people. No one cares enough about me to email me yet, so I can pretty well decide who I want to talk to by choosing who to friend or follow or read. That’s really important for me. That gives me the space to stop those triggering and upsetting conversations when they are too much for me. That lets me set my boundaries on any given day where I need them to be. If you want to be a part of a group, all the good people automatically come with all of the less pleasant people.
While for some people exposure to all sorts of people is what draws them to in person activism, others of us want more protection and might prefer online activism. Online activism also gives us access to probably the widest variety of opinions, if we choose to seek them out. It is the best tool for educating yourself as an activist and as a human being simply because you can read about and learn about so many different human experiences.
Another interesting part of this dichotomy is that I think it’s drawn far too sharply. At this event, for example, the hashtag was projected in the room so that everyone could see what people were tweeting about the event. I don’t think this technology got used to its full potential. A lot of people were simply tweeting the hashtag with summing up the information that was being presented. I preferred to use it to interact with what was going on, to ask questions, to make rebuttals. I think if more people used it in BOTH of these ways, it can bring together in person and online activism in a really interesting way by making the in person experience more interactive and by allowing others who are not there in person to see some of the event. Beyond that, I also feel it gives those of us who might be a bit more introverted a way to jump into some of the in person activities that were taking place. I think that integrating technology into in person events is a wonderful way to bridge the gap and give us some of the benefits of both.
And the final point that I was interested in is kids. I sort of think that children are natural activists. When they get upset about something they want to do something about it: they’re still idealistic enough to think they can change the world. But even more than that, kids haven’t internalized oppressions the way adults have (young kids primarily, this applies less and less the older a kid gets). As JT said in the panel, everything that we do that is NOT oppression or is behaving in a way that doesn’t conform to oppression/gender roles/racial roles/etc is activism. Kids do this ALL THE TIME. We have to teach our kids hatred and how to oppress each other. Not explicitly of course, but we give them lessons through our own behavior. I think we start out with a generation that doesn’t oppress because they haven’t learned it. If we can hold on to some of that state of simply NEVER learning oppression, we could make huge differences in our future. Because every time someone acts in a way that challenges a gender role, it is activism. While we don’t necessarily feel the impacts of it when kids do it (primarily because of some stupid ageist bullshit), we should recognize that often we start out naturally as activists.
I’m not 100% sure about this theory, but I think it could have merits. Thoughts in the comments?