– by The Shitty Activist
In the wake of the Trumpening, activists around the country are asking themselves the same question: WTF happened?
Many factors are likely to blame, most of which have already been analyzed by people who actually know what they’re talking about: Clinton’s middle-of-the-road positions failing to inspire Democrats. Trump’s speaking to the economic anxieties of the working class. Anti-immigration sentiment, racial prejudice, and Islamophobia.
It’s likely that all of the above issues played a role, with pumpkin spice lattes figuring in there somehow. But I’m joined by a large number of leftists who point to another reason for Trump’s rise: the backlash against shitty activism.
For the last year and a half, The Shitty Activist has tried to expand the influence of activist causes by offering ways to overcome the many (often self-imposed) obstacles to victory. I’ve invited activists to adopt stronger stances that can inspire action that may lead to genuine and lasting change; to put the brakes on the name calling, the crying wolf, the PC language policing, and the censorship; and to take themselves a little less seriously by joining in on a laugh once in a while.
Unfortunately—as was the case during my 12 years as an activist—I failed to change many minds. While resonating with a few, usually my suggestions were ignored, and all too often my constructive criticism was deliberately misconstrued as opposition to the very causes I dedicated most of my life to advancing. Once a shitty activist, always a shitty activist, I guess.
After the election, I had hoped that activists would finally realize the failure of many of their current tactics and do some soul searching to figure out how to become more effective in the future. Instead, I’ve seen the opposite: a sharp uptick in pointless and usually unjustified name calling, an almost complete avoidance of any personal responsibility, and a dreary, dismal humorlessness.
Based on my observations, I’m sad to report that most (though not all!) activism in the U.S. has devolved into little more than feel-good symbolic rallies, ineffective online petitions, and endless social media blathering whose purpose almost seems to be to avoid taking the very actions that could result in a win. I hate to say it, but my honest belief is that the single greatest threat to activism is activists themselves.
Perhaps a complicated and barely applicable analogy is in order? Effective activism is like when a hormone fits into a brain cell receptor, the way a key fits into a lock, and the door is opened to a natural, pleasurable sensation. On the other hand, shitty activism works the same way certain harmful drugs do in the brain, cramming a broken key into a lock and jamming it stuck with a quick, dirty high. Shitty activism isn’t just accomplishing very little, it’s actually preventing worthwhile advocacy from taking place.
Am I talking about a corporate or government conspiracy to infiltrate activism and destroy it from within? Alas, no. If only that were the case, we could root out the bastards, get some martyr points, and continue on our merry way. Instead, we have well-meaning activists who have gotten addicted to the dirty high of shitty activism, feeling good without doing much good at all. And, like a junkie, anything that might keep them from their fix (such as suggestions to come up with a new game plan) is seen as an attack on their very being.
As Hillary Clinton failed to mobilize voters to get her into office, shitty activism has mostly failed to mobilize activists to win campaigns. Because of these many losses, activists have resorted almost exclusively to virtue signaling and jargon enforcement, anything other than doing the hard work that actually needs to be done.
It’s this focus on “calling out” anyone who holds an opposing view—instead of actually trying to implement the real world alternative—that has turned a public usually indifferent to left wing activism to come out vehemently against any candidate seen as catering to it, i.e. Hillary Clinton.
A lot of people voted for Trump not because they agreed with his “policies,” but because he stood for the opposite of political correctness. Idiotic or not, voting for Trump was a big fuck you to those who feel the need to insert micro-aggressions, safe spaces, and trigger warnings into conversations, whether doing so is relevant or not.
A lot of people say the left has become too extreme. I couldn’t disagree more. The reason activism is failing and turning people against it isn’t because it’s too strong. It’s because instead of trying to actually move forward concrete actions, it’s almost primarily focused on the impossible task of policing the words (and maybe even the thoughts) of those who hold opposing views. The focus on silencing the other side is the last spasm of a dying movement that no longer knows what it stands for.
This is devastating to me because these are the causes I care about most in the world and have devoted a decade and a half to organizing around and writing about. But if I’ve learned anything from The Shitty Activist, it’s that most activism is emotional, and therefore activists are rarely going to be swayed by rational, logical arguments.
It took me twelve years of largely ineffective campaigning to finally get me to step back and take a long hard analytical look at my advocacy. I understand now that if activists want to make the shift from losing to winning, that realization is something they’re going to have to make themselves.