– by The Shitty Activist
You just got home from a protest march, a banner hang, a treesit, a naked bike ride, or some other action to hopefully advance your cause. You feel pumped, inspired, and empowered. Your entire body is aglow with that high that comes along with making the world a better place, one of the greatest rewards in the often difficult and underappreciated role of activist.
No matter the outcome of the action, allow yourself that rare interval of peace and quiet, that clean buzz of the righteous. Wait until the next morning for sober reflection: Was the action effective? Did I do the best I could with the tools I had at my disposal? Is the movement any closer to its goal? In other words, was the purpose of the action to do good, or for me to feel good?
Activism is messy. Not every action results in a win for the cause, especially in a movement seeking structural change. The key, as I see it, is figuring out if an action is a step in the right direction, one that advances the cause, or if it’s done simply to say that you’ve done something, strategic or not, to access that activist bliss.
I’d like to give an example from my twelve years as an activist of what I think exemplifies the principle of feeling good over doing good, where the activist subordinates the good of the movement for their own personal satisfaction. If you agree or disagree with my assessment, or have any other examples from your own life, please post in the comments.
In 2005, two treesits were erected in a stand of old-growth forest slated to be logged in the Pacific Northwest. The treesits were strategic in that they occupied trees that stood in the path of a planned logging road, which meant the trees had to come down if the loggers were going to cut the stand. Of course, with a person perched on a wooden platform suspended 150 feet up in the canopy, that wasn’t going to happen any time soon.
A few weeks into the sit, it had come to my attention that the activists had been shot at by one or more persons wielding a bow and arrow and a gun. As evidence, one of the activists brought a water bottle to the sheriff that had been hanging from one of the treesits, punctured through with a heavy duty arrow used for hunting bears. However, the sheriff refused to investigate the crime, they claimed, because the report was made too long after the incident. If it happened again, it should be reported right away, and then the sheriff would something about it.
I decided to camp out in the forest with a video camera to capture footage of the shooter if he ended up returning, which I could then get to the sheriff. After a few quiet days, I went into town for a supply run, and when I got back, one of the two sitters informed me via walkie-talkie that she had heard a gunshot. I told her this was another chance to immediately report the crime to the sheriff to get them to investigate, protect the treesitters, and possibly get some media coverage, which could make the public more aware of the sit, and maybe even get more folks in the woods to help out.
The sitter agreed this was a good opportunity, but she informed me she would not be coming down from the tree. Confused, I explained that I would get someone else to take her spot temporarily, so there would be no chance of loggers coming in and cutting the tree while it was unoccupied. The sitter explained she wasn’t worried about that, she just didn’t want to come down because she was enjoying her experience and wanted more time to “connect with the tree.”
I told her I appreciated her dedication to the tree and respected the connection she had with the natural world, but assured her that the trip to the police would take only a few hours and she could be back up there that evening again. But she refused. When I persisted, she shut off the walkie-talkie.
I stuck around for the rest of the week in hopes of getting some footage, and while trucks crept around the logging roads in the dead of night, I didn’t witness any shootings. However, weeks later, after I left, more shots were fired, and soon thereafter it was impossible for the campaign to get any ground support, as people feared for their safety. Without ground support, the treesitters were in a dangerous and lonely situation, and they eventually abandoned their posts, opening the way for the loggers who cut the stand.
Now, I’m not saying that if this sitter had reported the shooting to the police, the sheriff would’ve investigated, caught the shooter, made headlines for the campaign, and saved the forest. Even perfect campaigns can fail.
What I’m saying is that talking to the sheriff was clearly the most effective action at the time, yet the activist who could’ve carried it out made her personal experience more important than the ultimate goal of protecting the forest. Maybe it wouldn’t have accomplished anything, but of course now we’ll never know. And perhaps I’m being harsh on this treesitter who literally risked her life to be in the forest. But, to me, it seemed like her decision wasn’t the best one for the trees she cared so much about.
Personal satisfaction is perhaps the only payment an activist receives for sometimes hundreds of hours of work under often grueling and dangerous conditions. Any time an activist can feel that warm tingle in the heart that comes from championing a cause that can make the world a better place, that’s ideal. However, if that feeling is at odds with the best strategy for achieving the goals of a movement, the activist’s personal enjoyment should probably take a back seat.
It’s not an easy thing to admit to yourself that you carried out an action something simply for the joy of it, rather than because it advanced the cause. But if your movement is going to achieve its ultimate goal, that’s exactly the question you need to ask yourself: is this about doing good or feeling good?