We Must Not Confuse Affirmation With Activism

flickr/Joe Piette
Instead of retreating to a progressive bubble, we must do the tediously vigilant work of true activism.

Like millions of my fellow Americans, I’ve read enough news articles to find myself perpetually spiraling into a state of sustained restlessness and utter hopelessness. Both the election and the years of political dysfunction that preceded it have left me with anger and anxiety like I’ve never known.

In the face of this emotional exhaustion, now more than ever I want to surround myself with people who think like I do, to see myself reflected and my resistance affirmed. I want to insulate myself from the terrifying feeling that the ground has been yanked out from under me.

Often, I’ve headed to Pantsuit Nation, the controversial online community that has nonetheless provided ready access to inspiring stories in my moments of desolation. I want to read the post from a teacher whose second-grade students wrote letters to their senator denouncing hate. I want to look at pictures of interracial same-sex couples getting married. I want to see Muslim women in red and green hijabs wishing their neighbors Merry Christmas.

I want to insulate myself from the terrifying feeling that the ground has been yanked out from under me.

On social media, I want to look at pictures that compare Obama’s inauguration crowd to Trump’s, and read articles about Trump’s low popularity or the large turnouts at women’s marches.

This quest for affirmation is understandable — but with time, I’ve come to understand that it’s also the absolute last thing I should be focusing on right now.

When I retreat into a progressive bubble, I remind myself not only of how much goodness there remains in this world, but of the broader movement at work pushing for change. In doing so, I prevent myself from falling emotionally victim to what Arianna Huffington recently called the “outrage cycle.”

The problem with this is that — while self-care is indeed vital in times like these — checking out of this cycle isn’t a choice for many.

I’m in a position a lot of people are in — I’m personally targeted by some of the Trump and Republican agenda, but able to insulate myself from the worst of it.

My same-sex partner is a cancer survivor who gets health insurance through my job, so marriage equality and laws that keep insurers from excluding pre-existing conditions are saving my partner’s life. As a woman I want to get paid the same as a man for the same work. I want to make it through the day without sexual harassment or assault.

But I’m also white, U.S. born, non-trans, non-Muslim, and not among the 50% of people in this country who couldn’t put together $2,000 in an emergency. I don’t depend on any government program for my daily survival. I don’t have kids who attend underfunded schools or need services I can’t afford.

It’s not unusual to want to calm your fears by checking out. The difference is that, unlike people who are fighting for their daily survival, I can. What of those who don’t have the option?

I’ve also come to understand that, as much as I’d like to feel safe and protected, what I need to feel right now is uncomfortable and scared.

What I need to feel right now is uncomfortable and scared.

I need to stop skipping over the terrifying articles about the Trump administration’s plans for the environment or immigration, because I need to stay angry and scared enough that I’m motivated to take action. If I cocoon myself in stories of hope, I will be less likely to go to the protest when it’s freezing cold, or call the governor yet again about why he didn’t condemn Steve Bannon or what he’s going to do to save health care, even when I’m sick of talking to the intern who answers the phone.

Political affirmation is not the same as political activism, and I’ve confused them too many times. Political affirmation is consuming media or staying in social groups where everyone shares my liberal/progressive views. It feels like activism because I’m talking and hearing about political issues — but I’m not influencing anyone who doesn’t already think like me or strategizing to make any tangible change.

Political activism is tedious vigilance. It’s paying attention to the minute workings of our government and our corporations. It’s trying to keep up with elections and legislation and not having all our influence as citizens drowned out by professional lobbyists. It’s taking time to call the Republican senators who defected from the party’s efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act — not because I’m convinced it will work, but because I don’t want poor people with medical problems to be the only ones calling. It means taking the time to thank federal employees who are defying the administration’s overreach.

Political affirmation is not the same as political activism, and I’ve confused them too many times.

Activism is protest. It’s being visible on the streets, and doing it when police officers are in riot gear, not just when they’re high-fiving the crowd like they did at the women’s march, when white women’s privilege was at work.

Activism is frustrating and uncomfortable and sometimes scary; it is, unlike affirmation, not designed to make you feel good.

Of course I would rather watch viral videos of progressive comedians than stand out in the cold at a protest. But while I spent the Obama years doing too much of that, people who blame our country’s problems on immigrants and Muslims were organizing and winning elections.

Activism is frustrating and uncomfortable and sometimes scary.

I’m not saying we need to get rid of hope and affirmation. We need it to guard against burnout so we stay grounded, resilient, and energized enough for the long haul ahead. The key is learning to use political affirmation to fortify ourselves for the next round of activism, rather than consuming it as a substitute for change work. Clicking the “like” button on an inspiring Facebook post is not the same as clicking the “donate” button on the site of an organization working for immigrant rights, racial justice, or a livable minimum wage. It’s not the same as showing up to protests or calling my senators or emailing the government to demand an audit of Donald Trump’s finances.

I don’t need to stay in the political struggle even when it’s not easy or uplifting. I need to stay in the struggle especially when it’s not easy or uplifting.

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