There are few things as comforting or empowering as being surrounded by a community of supportive and like-minded peers. As an activist, I relate quite viscerally to the relief that comes with finally finding your promised land.
For most of us, high school was a semi-hostile environment where caring about sociopolitical issues was anathema to social acceptance. After years of being on the outside looking in, finding one’s niche is heavenly. It liberates your social and sexual relationships, it grows your self-esteem, it fuels your faith in humanity and it helps to heal over past wounds. Unfortunately, it also can do considerable damage to your ability to “change the world.”
Regardless of what that phrase means to you in particular, any effort for social, environmental or economic change begins and ends with people. Major changes are the product of smaller changes; larger awakenings the result of individual ones. Without the ability to communicate with those who don’t yet care about saving the whales or about LGBTQ discrimination, our efforts won’t get very far. As comforting as it may be to surround ourselves with allies who already understand our perspective, it often results in an estrangement from the mainstream worldview. When we then try to step out into the fray again, finding ways to talk to people who don’t even know what the term ‘rape culture’ means can be an unpleasant reality-check that brings out our most snarly and judgmental side.
Those who have yet to undergo the metamorphoses from passive ingredient to active ingredient are not aliens from another planet, although it may be tempting to treat them as such. No matter how uninformed or even hostile they may be, they are human beings just like you and I. They all have histories, dreams, passions, insecurities, physical environments and social pressures that culminate in the person they have become. Everyone you hang out with may understand that wasting food is heinous given the global context of mass starvation, but everyone they hang out with doesn’t and would probably mock them for bringing it up. As much as your activist bubble supports and grows your inner Riot Grrrl, the norm-reinforcing environment of mainstream America quashes theirs.
It is easy for us to forget that once upon a time we were not activists. Few of us sprang from the womb ready to fight the man. We all have our genesis story: a series of incidents that culminated in waking up to the problems of the world, followed by the decision to take some responsibility in solving them. If we are honest with ourselves, we know that along the way we have each had several incarnations of self that were in some way or another misguided and ignorant. These snapshots of our own past are good starting points from which to begin finding things in common with even the most materialistic USC sorority girl you’ve ever met.
As for why we want to relate to her in the first place, the simple answer is: because we need each other. We need her because we need more women and men on our side. We need more people who are proud to call themselves feminists. We need more people to recycle and think about their food consumption choices. We need more people at the picket line, more people calling out racism and homophobia, and more people who don’t look at global issues through a strictly nationalist lens.
We need her because we need a million other people like her to start seeing options outside of the mainstream consumerist narrative and, on the flip side of the coin, she needs us too. She needs us because she has experienced the oppressions of sexism countless times in ways that she doesn’t even have names for. She needs us because she doesn’t have friends who love and support her regardless of her adherence to the norm. She needs us because she has more to offer than another sad repeat of the same off-key imperialist anthem. We need each other, and in that there is enormous potential. This potential is only realizable if we can step outside of our comfort zone and remember what it is really like out there. From there, the next step is to start thinking critically about how best to communicate with those who infuriate us.
It’s tempting to conclude that just because we are ‘speaking the truth’ we should be able to throw the facts at people and thus instantaneously transform them. Not only is this rather childish, but it’s simply not how communication works. If you want to get a message across to someone, you first have to speak that person’s language. The wonderful lexicon of terms that subversive academia has passed down to us is, frankly, rather pretentious and useless in the context of a conversation with someone who doesn’t believe in gay marriage. Far less important than what we think we are saying is what the person we are talking to is actually hearing. As much as we may hate the moguls of advertising, we have a thing or two to learn from them about how to adjust our speech to match the ears of our listeners.
The bottom line: the struggle to move towards a sustainable and empowering future is not happening inside of our peace pipe circles. It is happening out there with all of those people that we are forgetting how to talk to. Pop your bubbles please! We’ve got work to do.