I recently moved to a small coastal town in northern California and have been looking for a volunteer opportunity, not only because I find volunteering incredibly rewarding, but also to meet new people and become a part of this community. I came across the Northcoast Marine Mammal Center, which seems like a fantastic organization that rescues injured pinnipeds found on our beaches. As an animal lover, I moved to this area in part because of its pristine nature.
After sending in my application I was feeling pretty good about my choice. Then I started to doubt myself. Am I doing enough? Should I be trying to tutor struggling children or stocking the local food bank? Should I be searching for a more serious volunteer opportunity rather than hanging out with baby seals? These questions not only made me doubt that I was making the correct choice—it nearly paralysed me. This paralysis, in turn, got me thinking about what activism fundamentally is, and why my struggle with this question has me doing less, not more.
In an attempt to better understand activism, I made a list of well-known activists. I looked at the first three names: Martin Luther King Jr., Malala Yousefzai and Harvey Milk. I asked myself what these amazing people all have in common. The answer, I quickly realized, was that they had all been shot. King and Milk both died of their wounds at ages 39 and 48 respectively. Malala survived her horrific ordeal and is now 25 years old (feel old yet?).
I wondered why these three activists had come up first when I was creating this list. I also wondered why I had kept writing down and crossing out others. Society has collectively constructed larger-than-life narratives around these figures, and we seem invested in the impossible idea that great people must be infallible. I believe I had been crossing out names because I was worried that the other people were not good enough for the list. I did not want to deal with messy activists—the ones who could not pass every purity test.
Everyone knows that a well-intentioned person can do both positive and negative things. While I do not think we should look away from the negative stuff, neither should we ignore the positive. In America particularly, we seem to live in a culture of extremes, where we reject so many potential heroes the moment they fail to live up to our exacting standards. With the constant scrutiny and reexamination that we watch play out on social media, in the news, and among our friends, it can be hard to figure out whom we are allowed to admire.
Consider Gloria Steinem, who helped shape the feminist movement in the United States. Still alive today, in her 88 years she has fought for equality, but she has also been criticised. Many of these criticisms are completely fair. She could have spoken out more strongly on same-sex marriage and rights for the LGBT community. She expressed some negative views of trans people in the 1970s. She has been held up as a poster child of the many problems with “white feminism.” Yes, she could have done a better job. Perhaps she should have done a better job. I am sure we could all do a better job. But Gloria Steinem also did a lot of good.
Mahatma Gandhi was another messy activist. His nonviolent resistance helped India gain its independence from the British Empire. He also unsuccessfully fought the partition of India along religious lines. Yet in recent years (in my admittedly contrarian circle of friends), mention of Gandhi brings up a lot of well, actually sentiments. He was racist, he supported the caste system, and he was deeply misogynistic and perversely anti-sex. Gandhi was also assassinated in 1948 at the age of 78. Perhaps some would say that he lived long enough to become a deeply problematic figure.
A more contemporary example is Ayaan Hirsi Ali, now 53, who has fought for women’s rights around the world. She has been especially outspoken about female genital mutilation, child marriage and honour violence. Although she grew up Muslim, she left the faith and is now an atheist who speaks out against what she perceives as the violence of Islam against women. While I am not an Islamic scholar and cannot speak to this issue authoritatively, I can say that she has worked to give countless women the rights to their own bodies, and in so doing has received numerous death threats for her activism. She has also been dubiously accused of anti-Muslim hate speech by organisations such as The Southern Poverty Law Center.
Knowing that I was writing this for publication, I found myself looking for unimpeachable examples of acceptable activists. I wanted every name on my list to live up to impossible standards of excellence. I started to wonder if the reason so many of the people we hold up as idols died young is that they never had the chance to disappoint us. I know we want our heroes to be uniformly heroic, but this trend seems to suggest that we are asking them to be something more than human.
The reason that I am paralysed when I try to find a way to do good in the world is that I am worried about making the wrong choice. Every time I see a post on social media about something kind a person is doing for animals in shelters, for example, someone always seems to ask: But what about the starving children? These kinds of comments lead me to wonder: should I be feeding human babies instead of baby seals?
I am surrounded by incredible people who are burning out in their efforts to save the world and be the right kind of activists. They spend so much time stressing out about what they say, what they project and what they prioritise, that I see one after the other giving up. Some are sacrificing their long-term financial plans and their mental health to save the world. Yet we no longer applaud them for doing good. We now often scold them for not doing better.
This neurotic perfectionism is not inspiring activists to try harder, but is instead discouraging them from trying at all. We should absolutely embrace the seemingly perfect activists in the world, but we should also continue to celebrate them when we find out that they too are human. Let’s also remember to celebrate individuals who find an extra $10 to donate to their favourite charity, rather than telling them they should have found a better one.
The key to social change is to embrace the in-between of activism. Yes, there are a few bright lights out there, but there are also many people who are doing nothing at all. Let’s encourage more people to find that middle space by celebrating everyone who does what they can and by encouraging more people to join them. If you only have the time to help out one day a week, month or year, that’s awesome. In the in-between of activism, you give what you can, when you can. And right now I am happily awaiting a response from the Northcoast Marine Mammal Center where hopefully this winter I will be doing my very small part for the world.
This piece is published as part of a partnership between Areo and the publication Queer Majority. You can find the original source here.
Feminist Gloria Steinem says young women support Bernie because they want attention from boys. Steinem dropped the notion during an interview on Bill Maher’s show, in the context of a broader discussion of this season’s Democratic primary. Discussing Clinton and Sanders’s respective support bases during the Friday night interview, Steinem said: >“Women are more for [Clinton] than men are. …First of all, women get more radical as we get older, because we experience. …Not to over-generalize, but … men tend to get more conservative because they gain power as they age, women get more radical because they lose power as they age. >And, when you’re young, you’re thinking, where are the boys? The boys are with Bernie…- Meanwhile, one wonders why Sanders has support at all-women’s colleges like Wellesley when there are few cute boys around to impress, and why Steinem once declared Bernie Sanders an “honorary woman- to endorse… Read more »