Compromising your Principles

Five ways to feel okay about yourself and your choices as a sometimes-activist.

I’m a Justice of the Peace in my small town in Vermont. It’s an elected office. I’m also a longtime mutual-aid, anti-capitalist, not-just-armchair anarchist. When I got elected to be a Justice of the Peace, I felt like a traitor to the cause. An anarchist who counts votes is no anarchist at all! I had to rethink what I called myself, how I could look at this situation as something other than being bad at what I was.

I used to be more of an all-the-time fuck-the-man activist. Now I am a woman with a few jobs, all of which pay me with money that isn’t entirely guilt-free. Most money isn’t. I’ve changed my vision to be more about “deliverables” than adherence to absolute philosophical ideals.

I am happier not being stuck in the activist quagmires of my former hangouts where strongly-principled people debated incessantly over terms of engagement or (accidentally or on purpose) recreated shitty power dynamics. I see these interactions happening still online.

Under the intensely-focused magnifying glass of internet interactions the necessity of compromises between dream-world values and real-life actions can be forgotten or intentionally overlooked. It’s easy to judge others’ decisions from the security of your own words-on-a-screen persona.

You may ask yourself
Am I right?…Am I wrong?

I have made compromises. You have too. They’re hard, and sometimes they go badly. Sometimes the choices we make turn out not to be the right ones. I have a short list of personal mantras that help me through this.

My five principles for accepting compromise in yourself and others:

1. Everyone’s hardest struggle is their hardest struggle.

Having empathy for people who are dealing with suffering, even if I perceive that they’re more privileged than me, is a way of being gracious. I might think I can determine the “relative difficulty” of people’s problems (in that “Awww boo hoo your Porsche is in the shop!” way) but it’s still snotty and not useful. It’s easy to generalize, to minimize. I might think I can see and understand their struggles, but I probably cannot, not entirely. I can just listen to and understand other people’s feelings, I don’t have to share them or agree with them. I have sleep anxiety. It seems stupid and petty compared to “real” problems but it’s really real to me.

Hard struggles are hard struggles. Competitive suffering is a terrible spectator sport and it’s even worse for the players.

2. Be tactical. Realize you’re playing the long game.

Sometimes you have to bide your time. After a long time of general dues-paying, I now get paid to stand up in front of large groups of people and tell them that copyright reform needs to happen and that Fair Use is essential and necessary. People listen to me. I did some things along the way that got me to where I am now. Sometimes you can’t just be there, you have to get there. That takes time and possibly doing things that feel less important along the way. Be okay with that time. It’s necessary.

3. Put on your own oxygen mask before helping others.

This is a total Ask MetaFilter maxim, but no one is expecting you to be a total ascetic monk while you walk your path. Be mindful of the choices you are making, but don’t self-abnegate for no reason. Dorothy Day’s autobiography is titled The Long Loneliness which talks about the necessity of community but also highlights the poignancy and difficulty of a principled life lived only for others. You can’t help people from a hermitage, most people can’t. Do the things you need to do to take care of yourself first and then work your way outward. Be supportive of your own choice to do that and be a friend to yourself. Try to remain open to criticism that other people may have drawn the line between their own needs and the needs of others differently.

4. Everyone, everywhere, is in some sort of compromise position with their values.

You may not know what compromises other people make, but they make them. It’s okay for you to sometimes make them too. People won’t broadcast them on social media but they’ll often tell you if you ask them. It’s good to understand the many ways that principled people make real-world decisions so that you can decide for yourself which ways you might, or might not, want to adjust your approach. I’d much rather hear people talking openly about their chosen compromises — when does the Dalai Lama decide to eat yak? — than pretend that they are the only ones who have the necessary discipline to walk the true path. An open discussion of compromises can also serve as a reality check from other people who care and remove the shame that we’re not doing enough good, doing good enough.

5. Sometimes there are problems that money can solve. Know which ones those are.

Being an activist can often mean DIYing just about everything. Know when it may be worth tossing money at a problem to make it go away so that you can free your body and brain up for other things. This is also true for taking money — from supporters, from organizations, from benefactors — to help advance your goals. Your time may not be measurable in money but your time does come with a cost. This is, of course, a position more easily held when poverty is not one of the main problems you are combating. It’s very important to know and understand the privileged position of being able to solve a problem with (just) money, and knowing when it’s appropriate to go that route. Use the tools you have available to you in the world, even the ones that may seem distasteful.

This list could also easily be titled “Five ways to console yourself when you’re a sell-out.” I see it both ways at the same time. My ideals need to be made real through an existing imperfect system if I’m going to get anything done at all.

I’m pretty comfortable with my position in the world relative to where I’d like to be as a person and as an activist. I get to give people a break on their taxes and discuss the coercive power of the state with my town’s elected officials from a position of relative status. I get to perform pay-what-you-want civil wedding ceremonies and use the power of the state to give legal protections to loving couples. I get to make sure the vote counting is as legitimate as it can be — supporting the rights of people with disabilities and people who are incarcerated to choose their representatives — and personally fight against disenfranchisement, all at a local scale.

Being able to reflect from time to time and evaluating whether the path you’re on is the one you want to be on is a useful exercise. Forgiving yourself for not being perfect helps you not lose time to fruitless self-criticism and inaction. You get one life, make it count.