There has to be something more to activism than this same old intellectual framing

Because I am a well-educated dark and queer person who is in the humanities, I was automatically enrolled in the activist internet, even though I really don’t do anything to participate in it. And I am okay with that. I enjoy reading peoples’ blog posts about how eating quinoa means that you’re killing Bolivian peasants or how the Human Rights Campaign is transphobic. It makes me feel very hip. Nor am I really in disagreement with the things that I read. I believe in structural racism and that we all have privilege and all that stuff.

But there’s also something a bit wearying about it. All the posts seem to hit the same point: America is an -ist society that is operated for the benefit of a wealthy, white upper class. So much time and intellectual energy is spent following this assertion and tying it into every little thing: poor people are being forced out of San Francisco by a rich white upper-class; or the rich white upper class is using its weird food habits to demonize the eating choices of the poor; or the rich white upper class is policing everyone’s body image.

(And many of the posts also have this weirdly unattractive tinge of apologia to them, too, because many activists were also born into the rich white upper class.)

And…sometimes I just want more than that. I don’t even know precisely what I’m saying. But someday I want to click on a link and feel more than outrage. I want to feel the world open up and be revealed. I’m not saying that I want solutions to these problems (I’m actually very uninterested in solutions). What I want is a new way of thinking about the problems. There’s nothing wrong with the old way. It’s just gotten boring to me. And I’m sure it’s gotten boring for other people too. It’s like in advertising. An ad campaign might be great, but, after awhile, everyone’s seen it. You need to introduce a new ad campaign just to keep people interested.

5 thoughts on “There has to be something more to activism than this same old intellectual framing

  1. b!

    Compassion fatigue is a real thing. It’s the same reason why nonprofits push so much for donations just after big crises and disasters– they know that people and news outlets are going to get tired of reading/reporting about the same horrible stuff day after day, so they need to capitalize on the moment and get money from it before the attention disappears. I think the lesson here is that people don’t want to feel sad/angry/stressed all the time if it isn’t necessary for them to be. It’s a shame for the people who actually do need help, but a reasonable human response nonetheless.

    (I have no solutions to this, either, but your post reminded me to brainstorm. Sort of like how walking through the Tenderloin on my way to work every day makes me think more about how to tackle the issues that plague people who live there. Making them visible makes some people uncomfortable, but how else will we know that they’re there?)

  2. John Nelson Leith

    My two cents is that it’s not apologia on the part of white activists so much as cloying condescension. A lot of this mind-numbing repetition is a relentless effort at anecdotal cherry-picking to construct and maintain a threat narrative, sealing by outrage (and angst) our political loyalty to a new power class defined more purely by affluence (top quintile of income) than by affluence *and* straight-white-Christian-male identity like the old, dying power class. A lot of top-quintile white males simply shifted to a new power narrative by allying with top-quintile non-whites in the late 60s. Similar new power alliances and narratives were constructed with top-quintile women and, later, LGBT etc.

    The narrative of the old power class–still festering in desperate, top-funded enclaves like Fox news–reads like this: “Look at this pattern of barbarian incursions (from which only we can protect you).” The new narrative, from a metastasizing horde of highly energized sources, is: “Look at this pattern of predatory oppression (from which only we can liberate you).” Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. When this new narrative comes from a white politico, the racial content of the narrative requires them to apologize: “I’m one of the good ones, you can trust me,” i.e., “follow me, vote for me, donate to me.” It’s very manipulative and condescending, and ultimately a veiled power struggle between two aristocracies.

    As a white guy who grew up poor (How poor? “Government cheese” poor) and struggled his way into the top quintile, let me reveal from behind the veil: white, affluent “progressives” have a proprietary attitude toward those they feel they champion. It comes off quite manorial in tone to anyone with a sense of history. (To be fair, the attitude isn’t confined to affluent whites.) When top-quintile, white progressives believe they are among peers, there’s very much a “look at my curio shelf” sense of self-congratulation to their diversity politics. They talk about some group having a “rich culture” with the same voice they use when exciting about discovering a series with several seasons on Netflix they can binge on. It’s nauseatingly smug and superficial.

    I hear them openly talk this way about poor whites because they often just assume I must be “one of them” (white + doesn’t speak Honey Boo Boo = didn’t grow up poor), an unctuous prejudice that reveals what many of them really think about class and race and merit underneath their convenient “I have a dream” piety. If non-whites could “pass” they way I can, they’d probably be shocked at the way white, top-quintile progressives talk when they think outsiders aren’t listening in. Instead, we get this carefully packaged public sideshow of enraging (and heroic!) anecdotes to keep us clear on what we’re supposed to think and whom we’re supposed to line up behind.

    This might seem like a cynical, everybody’s an asshole, worldview… except that I do believe there are lots of honest, rational, ethical people (among all groups) who are simply drowned out in the din of our bilateral political war or kept in the dark by its constant deluge of polemical narrative.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      I’d agree with a lot of this. I’d say, though, that most politicians–even Democrats–don’t really engage in the rhetoric I’m talking about, although some certainly do use code-words to allude to it. It’s primarily a yuppie thing. Again, I don’t know what exactly I’d want to be different. By casting everything in life as a series of power relations, this worldview obscures as much as it reveals. Because there are things in the world that aren’t oppression. Or, if they are, then they’re not solely that. Looking at the sociology of situations can reveal what is hidden, but it also hides what is on the surface. For instance, all this attention to systemic, global problems colors our thinking on how to live a good life. Secular ethics tend to place too much of a focus on civic virtue: being polite to service personnel; participating in political activity; not making messes (in terms of noise, garbage, drunk driving, etc) that other people need to deal with.

      But there’s more to life than that. In fact, that’s an incredibly minor part of life. But we’re not equipped to deal with that. It’s a sleight of hand. People blossom into their intellectual life with the question “How should I live my life?” and all they hear is “The world is fucked up.” But that’s not really an answer.

      Some people try to turn that into an answer by saying, “Oh, what I should do is strive to unfuck the world.”

      But there’s something about that which feels very sterile. If the goal of life is to unfuck the world, then where’s the room for art? Where’s the room for love? Where’s the room for fun? I don’t know. It turns all of life into a guilty pleasure. And that doesn’t feel quite right to me. There’s got to be a more life-affirming way of having this discussion.

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