Ask A (Shitty) Activist #1: Does Reformism Work?

cropped-the_shitty_activist_logo1.jpgIn our first ever installment of “Ask A (Shitty) Activist,” we get right into the mix with a question from Life Loving Libertarian, who asks:

“What is your opinion of this article on why reformism does not work?”

He links to an article posted on The Last Bastille, written from an unapologetically libertarian perspective, explaining why reformism, or working within the system, doesn’t accomplish anything.

On The Shitty Activist blog, I’ve brought up many times how I believe the most effective activism seeks to transform (or replace) the system without being confined by its restrictions. I’ve discussed why I think it’s important for activists to be “unreasonable” and avoid the temptation to pull their punches in order to get grant funding from corporate foundations.

Suffice to say, The Shitty Activist believes reformism might have a role in society, but it’s often weak and self-limiting when conducted under the banner of activism.

Now, let’s address some of the points in the article, the first of which is a mention of the all too frequent lack of strategy in the activist world. The author wrote, “If there are no strategic goals, then what milestones could possibly ever be used to measure incrementally progressive successes?”

Unfortunately, it’s hard to disagree with that statement. While many activists are constantly reassessing their goals and finding ways to improve, sometimes even the best activists get caught up in what I call “feeling good over doing good.” That’s the phenomenon where long-term movement goals take a backseat to an activist’s craving for the heady feelings that come with an easy win or public approval, or the dirty high from complaining about what’s wrong instead of doing the hard and uncomfortable work of addressing root causes.

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Submit Your Activist Questions to “Ask A (Shitty) Activist!”

cropped-the_shitty_activist_logo1.jpgIn the uninspired and clichéd tradition of “Ask Me” columns in our nation’s newspapers, The Shitty Activist is launching a new segment called: “Ask A (Shitty) Activist!”

Here’s your big chance to ask the activism-related question that’s been driving you crazy all these years, and get the answer you may or may not want to hear.

Examples include: How do I organize a protest? Should I bother signing online petitions? How do I color-coordinate a balaclava with the rest of my outfit?

Submit your questions via Facebook ( or Twitter (@ShittyActivist) and brace yourself for the response, informed by The Shitty Activist’s twelve years of failed activism!

The Case for Anger in Activism

– by The Shitty Activist

TOPSHOTS A protestor shouts a slogan inWe’re all familiar with the stereotype of the “angry activist.” Ranting and raving, spewing self-righteous venom at anyone in his or her path. And while that image is obviously an exaggeration, a lot of activists are definitely angry, including myself during my twelve years as an organizer. So here’s my question: Is that really such a bad thing?

Women’s right to vote. Civil rights. Gay marriage. While there were many supporters for these causes in their early years, there were far fewer organizers who actually did the grunt work of collecting the signatures, organizing the marches, writing the pamphlets. Were these leaders pushing change in a difficult political climate gentle, mild-mannered, happy-go-lucky individuals? Some of them probably were. But I bet the majority of them were outspoken, somewhat pushy, type-A personalities, fueled by an emotion many might call outrage, others anger.

Now, where does this anger come from? No doubt, a lot of it is legitimate disgust at, for instance, the treatment of an entire gender, race, or sexual orientation as inferior to another. The injustices alone are often enough to light a fire under activists to do something to make change.

But, it’s also likely that many organizers are also angry for other reasons, be it aspects of their personal lives, disappointment in others or themselves, or just a general irritable – aka sensitive – personality. Does this mean that they are just difficult people with a chip on their shoulder and therefore looking for something – anything – to complain about?

Maybe, but I don’t think so. Because, in my experience, I don’t think injustice itself is enough to motivate most people to do anything. People don’t act on rationality, they act on emotion. They’ve got to feel something before they do something.

Those easygoing souls who weren’t bothered by much of anything probably disapproved of a lunch counter refusing to serve someone because of their skin color. But, my guess is they were less likely to feel that injustice in their gut. They might’ve shaken their heads and shrugged and said, “What can you do?” but then went on to focus on something more positive.

But someone who was, say, more sensitive to stimulus that might’ve led them to a state of anxiety or irritation, would’ve been more apt to feel something powerful inside them when they saw someone refused service at the counter for racially-motivated reasons. Their pathways to anger were more accessible and more prone to be stimulated. Which would’ve made them feel agitated and want to do something to make themselves feel better, which would’ve been to end the injustice.

Wouldn’t this slightly pissy person have been more likely to organize a protest rally than the one who tended to let things slide?

Of course, this natural irritability can go too far, with some highly-reactive people focusing their rage on petty slights, such as their barrista not smiling at them when serving their morning latte. But those who use their easily accessible outrage and funnel it towards worthy causes outside of themselves might be doing society a favor, and I believe have been, in large part, responsible for positive change over the years.

That being said, there are many risks involved with rage being your sole motivator. The first, is that if you project this fury outwardly towards other people, you run the risk of alienating possible allies. Not everyone is able to access his or her inner warrior. If you drip with negativity and antagonism, perhaps many hard-core activists like yourself will identify with you or just accept you for who you, keeping the bigger cause in mind. But those less dedicated to the cause, or those who simply can’t stand being around intense people, might end up drifting away.

Another drawback is that if you stew in anger all the time, you will start to burn out. It’s unpleasant and unhealthy to always be angry, as the stress milks your adrenal glands and the cortisol streams through your blood, and you’ll start to suffer in your mental and physical health. It could impact your personal relationships, and those at work. It doesn’t mean you have to try to repress it, which wouldn’t work, anyway. Acknowledging and accepting your anger is the first step to dealing with it. If you don’t, chances are you’ll give up on activism before too long, anyway.

But let’s look at this from another perspective. When it comes down to it, what if activism from a place of healthy anger is actually about something else entirely? What if it’s really about love?

If you love the freedom to be who you are, if you love the natural world that keeps you alive, anything that endangers those things, you, of course, want to destroy.

Personally, I don’t blame or judge any activists driven by their rage. Think about if someone threatens a loved one, be they a parent, a child, a partner, a friend. What is your reaction to that threat? Acceptance? Tolerance? Circumspection? Hell no! It’s an immediate and extreme desire to destroy this enemy by any means possible. It’s an evolutionary response.

This doesn’t mean that lashing out is always the most effective action. But that’s strategy and tactics, and a whole other discussion. My point is, you can’t blame someone for feeling this anger when someone they love is in danger. In the same way, you can’t hold it against activists who are motivated by outrage in their chosen cause.

As a former angry activist myself, I have only one piece of advice on this topic for activists today: If you fuel your work with anger, make sure you burn it up as cleanly as possible, so your exhaust is mostly water vapor.