Why I’m Bored of The Age of Activism

Leaders are just the fiercest proponents of isms, right? Wrong.

We’re all little activists now. Glued to our screens, poised to pounce eagerly on the smallest deviation, human cannons with hair triggers, ever ready to nobly confront, bicker, fight, protest, call out, educate the igorant, police the unruly, fix the broken. Hey!! We’re on the noble mission of changing the world!! One person at a time!! Right?


Mostly, we’re squabbling bitterly, furiously, pointlessly over…isms. Yesterday’s isms. Isms as dead and decrepit, as obsolete and over, as the ages they were born in. Obedient foot soldiers, perfect little saluting militants, in endless wars between zombie ideas that could care less about us…cannon fodder.

Blah, blah, blah. Your revolution is probably bullshit. Because it’s made of assholes. Most of today’s so-called revolutions seem to me to be precisely that: the same assholery as ever, as their opponents, as yesterday, as the establishment, as the status quo…just with slightly different language, people, codes, norms. Different shade…same brush. And the truth is: faux-revolutions like that are just marketing campaigns for brands that mask political animals — not transformations in human possibility. They don’t truly change much — just who holds the power to oppress, subjugate, and hurt this week, month, year.

What are we really doing as little activists…no matter how noble the (probably hopelessly dead) ism we’re defending, advancing, supporting? Mostly, we’re insulting everyone who disagrees with us, abusing those who don’t share our cherished beliefs, pandering to those who do (no matter how terrible they might be as people), shaming, slandering, heckling, mocking, taunting.

Guess what? That’s not leadership. That is the opposite of leadership in many ways. It is a childish temper tantrum…for which your fake digital friends throw you a doggie biscuit of the human spirit. What are we not doing when we’re little activists? All the stuff that leadership truly is. Unifying. Setting an example. Exploring. Inspiring, envisioning, challenging, provoking, discovering, imagining…creating.

In this age of broken dreams, we lead shrunken, stunted lives, ever frustrated and thwarted from our potential. Thus we’re slowly coming to believe that we must be defined by and limited to our isms — beliefs, judgments, opinions— not what is greater than them: our accomplishments, achievements, ideas, passions, dreams, loves. Thus, isms make up what too many of us think wrongly and too often must be our “identities”. Go ahead, define yourself in three words or less. At least two of them will be isms — and I’d bet that they form the essence of what you consider to be yourself. You’re a pragmatist, capitalist, mens-rightist, feminist, socialist, atheist, scientist, spiritualist, genderist, mustachioed hipster authenticist.

But. Is that all you are? All you were put here to do…create…imagine…love…be? Are your isms even the smallest part of who you were put here to become?

It’s eminently understandable that we’ve reduced our selves to our “identities”…identities we’ve then reduced to a panoply of dead failed obsolete isms. They seem to be the only certainty left in an unstable world. But it’s not wise. This is an age of failed institutions — and it’s not just that the dead isms we cling to are precisely the ones that broke our failed institutions. More lethally, it’s clinging hopelessly to isms in the first place that is why our leaders are failing at…leading. Therefore. When we reduce our selves to our isms, we’re not leaders beyond those dead isms. We are merely little activists of them. The most that we may ever be is puppets of, instruments to, ism — and ism itself, the idea that a Big Idea matters more than people, grace, love, rebellion, defiance, truth, forgiveness, life.

What do you think broke capitalism? Not the capital, but the “ism” — a blind devotion to a fundamentalist version of it, which propelled financializing everything from education to human life itself. What do you think broke politics? Not just the politicians, but their isms…libertarianism, conservatism, neoliberalism…all dead, dying, obsolete, ruinous, extremist creeds which, pitted against one another, have jammed the gears of government stuck.

We’re fierce defenders of our isms. But does that make us leaders? Nope. It makes us, in many ways, the opposite of leaders. It makes us ideologues, reactionaries, and conformists. And leaders — true leaders, those worthy of the word — are none of those.

Ideologues have closed minds — and thus, do not often grow, adapt, thrive. Have you ever seen an ideologue change their minds? And so leaders — true leaders, great leaders, historic leaders — are rarely mere ideological activists. Instead, because the task of leadership is ever uncertain, leaders must face uncertainty with minds open to unforeseen possibilities, adapt to new realities, digest new facts, form and test new theories — all tasks that stump an ideologue like a Kardashian attempting calculus.

Reactionaries…react. By definition. And as little activists, that’s mostly what we’re doing. Bob said Fred said Tina said Raghav said…OMG isn’t it outrageous…quick!! get them!! But reacting isn’t leadership. What reactionaries don’t do, because they’re too busy reacting, is setting an example of a better, different, new, unimagined way. Yet that is precisely what leaders must do, if they are not just to convince and persuade, but inspire and elevate. The ideologues mind is closed — but the reactionary’s mind is shut. Ever defensive, oppositional, adversarial, the reactionary cannot create tomorrow.

We like to think that we’re all rugged individuals in this age of activism. My special set of isms, each of us believes, are mine — and mine alone. That is what makes me unique, individual, significant — me. And yet we don’t often stop and see that as victims to and partisans of dead isms we are also conformists. Each of whom acts precisely alike. The socialist confronts the capitalist confronts the feminist confronts the rightist confronts the leftist. Where’s the difference — not just in degree, but in kind? The isms may differ — but the behavior doesn’t. Leadership isn’t just a way of thinking, or speaking, or talking. It’s a way of being. And if we are being, behaving, just like everyone else that’s doomed to insignificance wearisomely clinging desperately to yesterday’s dead “isms”…to the point that they define who we suppose we are…then we’re surely not leading.

Leaders aren’t merely slaves to dead isms. People that are slaves to dead isms are better called ideologues, reactionaries, conformists. So what are leaders? They’re the creators of tomorrow’s great ideas, dreams, breakthroughs, passions, loves. Yes. It’s true. All those will probably will, in time, degenerate, ossify, harden into their own isms. And that is precisely why we will always need leaders. So here’s my advice.

Don’t let your isms get in the way of your potential. Burn every ism that comes your way, not with vengeance, but with gratitude. And maybe, just maybe, from the ashes of certainty will rise something greater, truer, and worthier: the possibility of a life worth living.

February 2016