An Activists Guide to Dealing With Bullshit
I have been an activist in various social movements for the last 18 years. I have been in some bad situations over that time and have learned some practical ideas for dealing with oppression. I decided to write this in the hope that maybe some I what I have learned will do someone else some good in the future. I learned much of this the hard way and hope I can help others deal with bullshit more effectively, so we can get on and build a better world.
We don’t all think the same way. What works for me, may not work for you or anyone else. Take any ideas you think might help you and ignore the rest if you don’t like it. I am not normal, and I suspect there is no such thing. So take it all with a grain of salt.
Note on terminology- Due to the myriad of different ideologies, social systems and types of oppression going on in the world I talk about fighting ‘The Man’. It seems to me to be a good generic term for various authoritarian roles where control is exerted and resisted. It is a term easily replaced with whatever power structure you are confronting.
Dealing with Setbacks
Global politics is played out over a long time period. Days don’t matter. Weeks pass in the blink of an eye. There are good years and bad. Yet, from the first Tyrant, societies have tended towards more just and equitable forms of social organisation over the seven thousand years or so of recorded history. This is an active process and you have your part to play. It is through the struggle to make things better that good changes can occur. That doesn’t mean they will get better straight away.
No-one is a born activist and everyone will make mistakes. The point is to learn from them and try something new. Failure only occurs if you give up. Everything else is only a setback and a learning experience, as long as you think critically about what you do and learn from when things go wrong.
In the grand scheme of things, people will not remember whether protest X was a huge success or failure. They wont care that you lost a vote or looked stupid saying something you later regret. Chances are, they have done the same, repeatedly. Murphies Law exists for a reason. We are all subject to it, so don’t take your own fuck-ups personally.
Chances are you have a small amount of personal resources and are taking on powerful institutions. Every battle is a David versus Goliath struggle, so every small victory is worthy of celebration. What we have to our advantage is our sheer numbers. Millions of people across the globe struggle against all kinds of bullshit daily. There are so many people fighting so much shit, that by sheer weight of numbers we push things forward. We don’t need to win all of our battles, or even half. Every victory helps, but what really counts is participating.
I view activism as experimental. Every attempt, like an experiment advances knowledge. A failed protest or poster campaign can be a guide of what not to do. Writing blogs etc. of your experiences adds to the collective knowledge of what kind of actions are having good results and what isn’t working. Like science, over time you can build up knowledge of how to affect change. Unlike science, you are dealing with humans who can actively oppose you and change their own tactics to negate any activity you undertake. Therefore what works now, may not work in the future.
Don’t invest all of your hopes on any one action, organisation or tactic. Every political action provokes many different reactions as people in power adapt their techniques of oppression and tactics to what you try. Organisations can be corrupted and are only of value whilst they fit in with your personal hopes and desires. Sometimes the only sane thing to do is to walk away, take stock of what you have been doing, redefine yourself and start again.
The biggest threat to anyone engaging in activism is burnout. There is a lot going wrong in the world and the need to oppose all of the shit can lead activists to taking on too much. Some people have an ideological position of supporting all progressive struggles in the hope of spurring on a revolution. Whatever the cause, taking on too much doesn’t help anyone. If you want to be still sticking it to the Man in 20 years, you need to pace yourself.
It is completely OK to take some time off. The world will be here when you get back. Doing any progressive activism automatically makes you of more value to civilisation than the vast majority of the population, so there is no need to feel bad if you need some time to recharge your batteries.
You can also spread yourself too thinly. Trying to do everything can lead to nothing being done well. Human society and culture are made collectively, so you will have to trust others to do their bit too. Pick what matters most to you and focus a significant proportion of your activist time on that campaign, movement, organisation etc.. Rely on others to campaign on what they think is most important and offer solidarity by showing up when something you support gets organised.
By focusing on what you care most about, your motivation levels stay higher than if you try to do everything but never quite succeed in anything. You also can make a more significant contribution by being completely across the issues and actually seeing a campaign through. Succeeding in a campaign or cause builds confidence in other campaigns and causes. Positive examples of activist success gives everyone else positive examples to take ideas from and shows everyone that the Man is not all powerful.
They way you attempt to build a better future probably has a greater influence on the future than what you dream for the future. Human culture (/society/ history) is made collectively through the contribution of just about everyone. The way you interact with everyone else is of greater importance than what you try to do. The ends never justify the means because there are no ends, only means. If you want an open and participatory society help create open and democratic structures that encourage participation and then participate. It is not enough to demand change you must create it and live it.
It is only the human tendency for hubris that enables us to think that our specific causes are the most important and everyone else is ‘wrong’. It isn’t anyone’s fault, we each inhabit our own bodies and have our own unique experiences that make us who we are. As Quantum theory states, everything is relative to the participant. This makes each of us the centre of our own experience of the Universe. Understanding that we all have different interests and goals can enable a more honest dialogue and a better foundation to work upon different issues.
Humans have a wide range of interests and motivations. There are issues that I feel very strongly about and spend my time and energy working on. Other people have different priorities and work on other campaigns I may agree with, but don’t think is important enough to dedicate my time to. Whilst there are different approaches and priorities, much of the time social movements have similar issues with the same institutions (government and corporate). Attempts should be made to help each other out, and when possible work together on common actions. Building common ground between different movements can collectively give us all greater power to affect change and all get what we want.
It is important to go so far as defending basic rights for people you fundamentally disagree with. ‘Fairness’, ‘Justice’, ‘Equality’, ‘Freedom’ etc. must be applied to all or they are meaningless terms. It is possible to defend a principle without having to support the cause of someone with a view you disagree with. Tools used to persecute your enemies can easily be turned on your friends and you.
I wish this was more self evident. However, in the last few years there has been many examples of people working on common causes treating others on their side poorly. Cultural sexism in the Atheist movement, Socialist left and Crypto-Party/ hacker scene has exposed the limitations of formal equality for all genders. The vast majority of our interactions with others do not occur through legal structures, nor would we want them to, so it is culture itself needs to change.
Apologists for discriminatory behaviour say things like ‘we will deal with it after we achieve X’. This can be that they don’t care about the discrimination themselves and try to avoid having to deal with it or they hold particularly utopian ideas about oppression and think that if it is beaten in one sphere (that they think is most important) it will automatically fade from other spheres. Discriminating against people because of gender, race, sexual orientation etc. is harmful to progressive causes because you are excluding potential allies who may agree with your cause, but also know all about discrimination and rightly believe they shouldn’t have to put up with that shit.
An important aspect of this is to create safer spaces for people to exist in. Living in a better world requires active participation and this requires a conscious effort. People need to feel safe in activist spaces, so it is the responsibility of all of us to deal with issues where people feel threatened or intimidated. It is not a matter of believing a victim over the accused. If someone feels threatened, asking the source of that threat to leave the space is the best course of action. We aren’t in a position to judge the facts of any accusation, just whether someone feels threatened or not and that and that alone is what is being dealt with.
As for the accused, asking people who contribute to causes to leave due to personal issues can be humiliating (which is why you should not treat an accusation as a basis of guilt) and also damaging to a movement. Talking to the accuser and seeing if there is a way to facilitate them reconciling with the accused is the next step once they feel safe. (N.B. This is not always possible.) Longer term, don’t rush into a decision as to what to do, just talk it out with all involved, separately if need be. In the end, collectively you have to make a judgement call on what to do. Unfortunately there are no easy answers because human relations are complex. The safer spaces policy linked to is a very useful guide.
Pointers for Disagreements
Reasonable debate is not as common as you could hope for. This is because we humans are emotional creatures. Unless taught otherwise, our logic is more likely to be used to justify an emotional response, than actually objectively applying logic to a situation. Often politics happens on this level, but it does not have to.
There are many critical thinking courses, websites, books etc. where logic and reasoning are taught. It is very useful to learn these skills as they enable a better understanding through evidence and a clearer insight into both your own and others arguments. The better you can understand something the more confident you become in expressing it. Find something that suits your style and start learning.
Applying critical thinking in the broader political sphere is a long term project. Many people have faith based belief systems, be that religious or ideological. Even someone who thinks they are rational and base their politics on evidence will have ingrained prejudices which will influence their reasoning. You can spot when this is affecting you by the rise of anger when someone says something that is contradictory to your belief system. This is commonly known as cognitive dissonance. The same political situations can be viewed many, contradictory ways even if the facts are agreed upon. Usually the facts can’t even be agreed upon, creating another possible source of cognitive dissonance; reality itself.
Part of attempting reasoned debate requires participants to act in good faith and to attempt to work towards a common understanding. There is a tendency to treat disagreements as a conflict that one side wins and the other loses. This is where our egos can get in the way of better politics. Staking out a position and defending it come hell or high water just makes you look like a dickhead when evidence says contrary, even if you can bully people to get your way.
It is a matter of being scientific about the topic of discussion. Science is not a set of theories, but a method for uncovering accurate information about aspects of the Universe. This means you have to actually look at evidence and be prepared to admit you are wrong. It is much better to be right long term than to win any individual argument. To build a movement capable of enacting change requires ideas that can stand up to solid scrutiny and a culture that encourages open dialogue between various positions. No one ideology (whatever they try to tell you) has a monopoly on the truth.
In terms of organising actions, a lot of disagreements are needless. They stem from the misconception that everyone has to agree to do the same thing. A better approach is to facilitate a group adopting a variety of tactics that either happen around the same space/time or the group agrees to try one then the other and through experimentation the best tactic becomes apparent.
At times, tactics can interfere with each other and when opposing tactics are supported by people campaigning for the same cause, care must be taken not to undermine the other group. It can be a matter of planning actions at different times and/or in different places so the actions of one group don’t interfere with the other.
So You Are Being Repressed by the Man
The state and its corporate backers rely on a toolkit of oppressive techniques to make activists lives difficult. We didn’t become activists because they are a bunch of mis-understood but basically nice guys. The only measure of good to most companies is the bottom line, this makes them amoral as there is nothing they would not do for more profit. Those that have moral limits just get replaced by people who don’t. These people would sell their own mothers if there was a buck in it. Using repression to maintain power is par for the course of any member of a ruling class, group or Party throughout history.
Every act of repression is a result of the Man’s fear of your success. The more effort they spend in going after you, the more of a threat they see you as. Using state resources is not cheap and overt repression has a habit of breeding more resistance, so they only undertake action when they think it is serious. It usually means you are doing something right.
Police, prison guards, Prosecutors, Judges etc. don’t come cheap. You can take a rough measure of your importance to the Man by the amount they spend going after you. I was once arrested for possessing a small amount of marijuana. To deal with what was a small offence, they needed two Police to arrest me, one desk Sergeant to process me, four Court staff to hear my case (despite pleading Guilty) and another two staff members to process the fine. It would have cost well over $1,000 to issue a $400 fine. Imagine the huge costs incurred by all the institutions around the world in the attempt to persecute Julian Assange.
It does not matter what the Police, prosecutors or corporate media thinks of you. They are often in those roles because they believe the government/corporate media line. They will not understand your motivation (possibly deliberately) and will try to make you feel like an outsider, outcast or somehow morally reprehensible. They will try to humiliate you. For me, knowing this is enough to render their attempts powerless, others still take it personally. Remind yourself that they support a system or policies that you view as morally reprehensible, it makes their attitude to you easier to deal with.
PTSD and Fear
Being an activist can be traumatic at times. Street protests are routinely harassed by Police, tactics like ‘kettling’, baton charges and snatch squads are increasingly used to deter resistance to the Man. The mainstream media will happily show footage of Police rioting against peaceful protesters and blame the protesters for the violence. The same sort of intimidation is being deployed against activists who work online. The brutal sentences handed out to people participating in DDoS protests and security breaches are calculated to instil fear. Anyone who thinks activism is safe from behind a keyboard is removed from reality.
Overbearing policing and intimidation of activists is often a tactic to cover a complete lack of moral authority, so it is a sign you are doing the right thing. Activists are usually motivated by a need for justice. That we get treated unjustly, whilst unsurprising, is cold comfort in the middle of receiving a beat-down or being told you face years in prison for taking part in a virtual sit-in.
Post-Traumatic Stress is where you relive a traumatic event in your memory and it comes to affect your day to day life. It manifests itself as an emotional response to thinking about a traumatic event or situation. Psychologists believe the symptoms must be present for a month before it is classified as such. There are two main ways people respond to post-traumatic stress, they either become alert and hyper-vigilant, ready to defend from another trauma or they withdraw from any reminder of the trauma in an attempt to avoid the memory and the stress.
The single most important thing we can do collectively to avoid and minimise the damage of post-traumatic stress it to organise debriefing sessions. Talking about both what you experienced and how you feel about it with others who experienced the same events really helps your brain process what can be very difficult experiences. Do this right away and again after some time has passed (E.G. a week, depending on the situation). Keep talking about it with people you trust until you can control the stress you feel when thinking about it.
When debriefing, be honest. There is a very high chance everyone else will be feeling much like you and sharing the experience and the way it makes you feel helps everyone come to terms with the trauma. Debriefing is no place for bravado (except as comic relief). It is no place for political analysis. It is for dealing with the stress of taking on the Man. If people want to try and score political points, tell them to fuck off.
If only some members of your group were there, it is worth inviting others along to the debriefing meetings. It is very helpful to have someone who is feeling OK to understand what you have been through, this really helps your organisation manage any issues arising from the stress. People who have been around a long time will have probably been through their own traumas and are likely to be understanding and sympathetic, and offer useful advice.
Debriefing is not a cure, it is a preventative measure to stop PTSD developing in the first place. If the stress persists and starts to affect your every day life, seek professional help. If you developed PTSD breaking the law, a lot of psychologists, councillors etc. will not want to help you, they will however (usually) refer you to someone who will. Ask them if they are cool before unloading your deepest secrets and if they don’t want to know, ask them if they know anyone who you can be referred to.
*Some psychologists see disobedience as a psychological disorder (oppositional defiant disorder). It is theorised that to become a psychologist someone must jump through many years of academic hoops, which requires obedience. Psychologists, having a tendency to obedience can characterise disobedience as abnormal, from their own perspective of slavish obedience.5 If they try and diagnose you with oppositional defiant disorder, use the disorder and defy them. Being obedient in such an amoral system is the real sickness here. Regardless of the bits of paper people hold, you are the best judge of your own mental state so if you think a professional is talking shit, odds are you are right.
Councillors, neuro-linguistic programmers etc. are not as useful as professional psychologists, but are usually much cheaper. They don’t require the years of training to practise their professions, so can vary more in ability and usefulness. They are however, usually better than no help at all.
One really difficult problem with PTSD is how this can affect political activity. Discussing future actions can cause feelings of stress, particularly if the action is similar to the cause of the original trauma. Sufferers may avoid meetings or alternatively get angry and act unreasonably. Try and be understanding. (See the Need for Solidarity section)