For every apolitical, apathetic citizen in the United States, there is an enraged activist doing jumping jacks trying to get their attention.
Ok, so it’s extremely wishful thinking to imply that the ratio is 1:1. Realistically, it’s probably more like 100,000:1. But, on the bright side of economic despair, I think the gap is closing more and more each day. As people’s economic situations worsen, they begin to ask questions—about themselves, about their situation, and, hopefully, about the larger system at play.
Eventually, most people reach a point where they acknowledge some level of systemic injustice. However, a majority end up either underestimating the scope of the injustice or, more tragically, underestimating their power to change it. Who hasn’t thought to themselves, Well, what could I possibly do to change anything? And while it is true that no individual has the power to single-handedly overthrow a system, it is also true that no system can be overthrown without a mass movement made up of individual human beings. This paradox is one that keeps the masses of people trapped in an isolated and isolating illusion of helplessness.
For those of us who have escaped this trap and made the leap to becoming “activists,” one of the biggest obstacles is overcoming the frustration that comes along with trying to awaken people out of apathy. In this frustration, we often leap to the other, equally unproductive, end of the spectrum. We can become so single-mindedly focused on the injustices of the world and how we believe they can or must be solved that we become intolerant of or impatient with those still unaware or apathetic to the cause. This in turn alienates the very people we need to reach in order to create a truly unified, peaceful and just world. This counter-productive frustration takes on many forms. As I become more active myself, I am increasingly aware of these impediments to revolutionary change, both within the various organizations and individuals I meet, as well as within myself, as my own activism grows and takes on new forms.
At the organizational level, it begins by accepting the paradox of sociopolitical organization itself: having a plan of action requires a certain amount of ideological confidence, and yet it is this very confidence that can turn into the self-righteous dogma that plagues the evolution of human society. No organization is immune to this. And if an organization is going to succeed, it must acknowledge this. Any organization that does not address this paradox as a core element is dangerous, in my opinion. We must appeal to and encourage people’s critical thinking abilities if we want to attract individuals to join and effectively contribute to a global, unified revolutionary movement. An organization that proclaims to have it all figured out will only attract blind followers, not future leaders.
At the level of the individual, we begin by practicing humility and patience. We must acknowledge that, as human beings, our selves and our ideas are imperfect. We must remember to not take ourselves too seriously and remain open to the possibility that our ideas may be mistaken or at least able to be improved upon. We have to listen to others respectfully and respond in earnest pursuit of the truth, not in defense of ourselves or our ideas. This is humility. But insofar as we are confident in our ideas, we must also exercise patience in relating them to others. Supposing that there is some ultimate good or truth that we are all aiming to ascend toward, we must be mindful that not everyone is at the same level of ascension and refrain from judging others based on their current situation. We must have the patience to try to help others ascend without placing expectations on them.
Myself, I have only recently made the jump from Passive Conscientiousness to Active Revolt. It has been a liberating, empowering, and dizzying transition. I’m still figuring out how to best channel my energy, how to pick my battles, how to engage other people in productive discussions, how to not get burnt out and frustrated. It’s amazing how quickly I went from relative passivity to immediately wanting (and, on some irrational level, expecting) the whole world to jump into activism with me. It is a lesson in humility and patience that I think I will continue to struggle with for a long time. On the other hand, I have also been devouring information and building the knowledge base that fuels my activism and increases my confidence. This too is a perpetual process of learning.
It seems to me that these two opposing lessons constitute the ultimate balancing act of an activist: finding the equilibrium between confidence and humility that allows us to keep ourselves and our cause moving forward. My goal as an activist, and as a human being in general, is to never give up on this struggle.