This week I’m drifting a little closer to home and going to talk about activists and privilege. This is, hopefully, going to be harder to read then my initial rant against the military and the oppressions of capitalism, I’m pretty sure that you’ve heard that argument before.
Now it’s your turn. And my turn, incidentally, because I am as guilty of this as anyone else, and it is fucking damaging to both me and the work that I might be trying to do.
This. Is. Dangerous.
Let me be clear, I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t be activists. Altruism isn’t just an option, it’s a moral imperative. Change for the better only happens because people make it happen, often in the face of violent resistance, and we need huge changes in this increasingly neoliberal world.
by placing yourself as the hero of the story, you isolate yourself.
The world can be a horrible place and there are times when we all need help, consequently there are times when we have the capability to help those around us. But be wary. When you stray into the realms of activism, there are always people around you who need help and we can begin to believe ourselves to be their white knight, riding in to save the day. Helping the helpless, as if the people we meet didn’t spend every moment of their lives dealing with whatever situation they are in regardless of your actions. This story is popular with Hollywood; the privileged hero travels to the faraway land and teaches the poor and helpless denizens found there how to be better. Whether in the plot of Dancing with Wolves, Avatar or in your daily life as an activist, thinking of yourself as a heroine is not only condescending but, ultimately, doomed.
And I’ll tell you why.
First, because it demeans the lives and experiences of the very people you are trying to help and positions you, even if only in your head, as better than them. By stripping them of their role as the protagonists of their own stories you not only efface the meaningfulness of their choices and their struggles, but also run the risk of judging them in relation to yourself – for you would never allow yourself to reach this place of needing help, so they are clearly inferior for doing so. By keeping yourself as the centre of the story you can no longer see the paths that these other stories have taken in order to reach this point. And if you are thinking something then you are probably going to come to believe it and, eventually, act upon it. Not only will you start to wonder why you bother, but you will start to think that maybe you are owed something for all this charity work of yours.
Second, by placing yourself as the hero of the story, you isolate yourself. You become, in your own mind, separate from the other people there and distanced from the context and community in which you work and of which you are a part. Worse still is when this individualism leads to a narrative of self sacrifice you begin putting this ‘fight’ ahead of your own life, ahead of your own wellbeing and your own health. While many of us have access to privileges which need to be challenged and in a fair society our lives should be harder, to start down this kind of thinking invites either burn-out or disillusion. Either you completely burn-out your physical and mental health, social life or personal relationships eroded by the constant belief that being a heroine means sacrifice. Or you start to wonder why, in the face of apparently glacial change, you work so hard and eventually you will quit.
Third, a hero is supposed to be perfect, supposed to be able to face any challenge, do so alone, do so against overwhelming odds and to already have all the skills and knowledge they will ever need. Again, burn-out seems inevitable should you too often throw yourself into impossible situations. But more insidious is the potential to close ourselves off from future learning, to stop listening to others and to believe that we already know everything that we need to know. What could the supporting cast possibly have to tell you that you do not already know?
Fourth, heroines are important, they are independent, can do everything right and can do everything themselves. They also, traditionally, treat people around them like shit and put their own priorities first. The people around you aren’t stupid. If you, the hero, act like the arrogant and narcissistic lead character of an action movie then they are going to notice and because of the way heroes treat others then they are very quickly going to get tired of working with you. You are going to find yourself in arguments over who gets to speak, which projects get developed and where the organisations priorities are. If you find that you are having these kinds of arguments, then maybe it is time to take a look at yourself and wonder whether or not you’ve been trying to be a hero.
Heroism, as we currently understand it, is fucked up. We try to praise individualists who suffer and, despite their suffering, perform great things. We get told this story so often, we get told that this is what we should aspire to, that it is no wonder we come to believe it and to act out some of those ideas in our own lives and work. But we shouldn’t be doing this. We shouldn’t collude in the actions of military violence and we shouldn’t valorise those who struggle despite the systemic opposition that they face. Neither should we believe that we can change the world all by ourselves and aspire to become these disconnected martyrs.
If we do not see ourselves as part of a coherent whole, as a part of the communities in which we work and a part of our society, if we do not really live and connect with the people around us and listen to their lives and act with them to create real change, then we are bound to alienation, disillusionment and failure. Worse, we will fuck up.
And when we are doing activism, those fuck ups can hurt the people around us and the things we are working for.
Glen is a critical human geographer whose research focuses on privilege and inequalities. You can learn more about his work here