Burning Out

I was sick all weekend with a nasty cold, including low-grade fever. As I often do when I get sick, I tried to figure out what happened. I quickly realized that I had burned out. All this anger and fear was creating a lot of stress in me – and stress is probably the biggest factor in most diseases, major and minor. I decided to step back and evaluate because there’s too much at stake right now. I don’t want to keep getting sick. I want to figure out a sustainable way for me to remain active.

Then on Sunday, someone posted a plea to Facebook. They were scared that people on the very margins of our society will get left behind because there’s too much going on. Except that’s not how they put it. Instead, they pleaded to not take a break until we verified that all fires were covered. I noticed how reading this plea was inducing shame in me: I wasn’t working hard enough. I was taking a break, how dare I! Part of my burnout came from those inner voices, of course, however there also seems to be something inherently ablist in activism: There is an assumption that when we take a break it’s because of our privilege. Worse, it seems that taking a break is a sign of failure, of not being committed enough to the struggle. Even the language implies this: Activist, struggle, fight.

Activist burnout is a real thing. While guides (like this wonderful one) are helpful for individual activists to find balance, it might also be important to question the underlying assumptions of activism that seem to leave little room for those of us operating without a full set of spoons. Instead of, for example, making coverage the responsibility of individuals, let’s make this part of our organizations. So, the responsibility of individuals rests on ensuring that our groups do that, that we’re holding them accountable.

Ultimately, I want my activism to reflect the world I want to live in. I don’t want it to be all fight and struggle. There has to be a way that we can include joy, food, and dance as well. Honestly, I haven’t figured out how to do this – yet, hopefully. Now I know that I am looking, though, which makes it more likely that I’ll find it.

International Women’s Day

Today, March 8th, is International Women’s Day. Many women are striking. Many women are helping to show what the world would look like without women (though note the privilege that reflects). They are celebrating. I am mourning (maybe they are, too). I am mourning what happened 4 months ago today on that Tuesday in November. Instead of the United States finally joining the many nations that are capable of being led by a woman, the U.S. showed that it still is too steeped in sexism and misogyny to let that happen. Not only that. Not only was a female, highly qualified, though imperfect, presidential candidate defeated, she was defeated by a man whose behavior reminds me so much of my abusive ex-husband that I am in a constant state of trigger. She was defeated by a man who could be a caricature for patriarchy: Unqualified yet so confident he makes people think he knows everything; believing that the world, especially women, owes him complete devotion; and an almost pathological hunger for overpowering women no matter what that means (lying and violence, the preferred means). He won not despite of these things but because of them. There are people, mostly men though also a disconcerting number of women, who believe that his way of behaving and his attitudes just show how strong he is. They believe that we have to be ruled by an authoritarian father. Why, I am not sure. Because I don’t understand this line of thinking. It’s so far removed from my way of living, how I want to be in the world, I have trouble fully grasping it. Plus, I’ve experienced living at the receiving end of authoritarianism, albeit in the family context. I did not like it then – and the fact that I now live it in a social context with the country ruled by an authoritarian – just makes me angry. The anger mixes with my mourning.

Life as a Positive-Sum Game

A friend of mine posted to Facebook yesterday: “Life is not a zero-sum equation. Ensuring the liberation and justice for those most marginalized doesn’t actually take away any liberation or justice from you.” It reminded me of some things I’ve mulled over off and on.

It seems that much of the fear that was whipped up during the 2016 election is based on the assumption that life is a zero-sum game. If I gain a right, you lose it. When African-Americans get to vote, Whites votes count less. When women start working, men’s jobs are threatened. When same-sex couples can get married, the sanctity of heterosexual marriage is threatened.

These zero-sums are artificially created.

According to James Surowiecki, one key element that differentiates a crowd that moves toward wisdom from mob rule is diversity of opinion. By giving voting rights to people other than white male property-owners, we are diversifying the electorate and should end up with wiser choices. Yes, I know, this doesn’t seem to happen. The flawed U.S. system restricts diversity of opinion through other means, including the winner-takes all system. More sinister, though, is the voter suppression that happened, especially during the 2016 election. The election result was more a reflection of mob rule than wisdom of crowds.

With jobs, the artificial creation of a zero-sum game is even more obvious. Let’s assume we have 10 hours of work to do. If we gave those 10 hours to a white man, he’d have to work the whole 10 hours. A white woman, two women of color, and a man of color also want to work. Now we have five people. Each one only has to work 2 hours! But what do they get paid?! In our current economy, they’d all get paid only one-fifth, which makes all of them less well off – unless they all could find 8 more hours of work. It could be worse since there is another person, often a white male, who pegs all five against each other and gives the job to the lowest bidder (who probably would end up working all 10 hours for less than 1/5th of the pay!). This is the zero-sum game of capitalism. It doesn’t have to be this way, though. What if those 5 people got together and created their own co-op. They could share the work and its benefits. Maybe they would end up working, say, 5 hours each but would earn the equivalent of 10 hours work. What we are taught is that this is not possible. We are taught to stay stuck in the zero-sum and don’t even try to create a positive-sum, which would lift everybody up because a positive-sum would not benefit those that benefit from the artificial zero-sum: Those who siphon off wealth for their own enrichment creating the extreme inequality we see now in the United States and the world.

The marriage example is only grounded in rhetoric. There is absolutely nothing that my neighbor does in the privacy of her home that impacts anything that I do in the privacy of my home (well, assuming she isn’t hacking into my computer or something like that 😉 ). Claiming that someone else’s marriage somehow impacts mine is plainly absurd.

Undemocratic Institutions

When we think about democracy, we usually think of a model for the government, how a country is run. Maybe that’s a mistake. Maybe this is partly why the U.S. experiment is now being tested in a way it has never before.

At the core of the existing democratic states are two undemocratic institutions, especially in the United States: The family and corporations. Traditionally, the family is run by a father who “knows best,” which is a euphemism for authoritarianism. Questioning the authority of the father is akin to sin – it is immoral. Although many families are more egalitarian now – with mothers and fathers running them – they still follow the nuclear family model, which gives adults more leverage. Additionally, we only consider certain types of families as the true family creating a hierarchy of types that are more or less supported by society depending on where they fall on that hierarchy. Corporations are headed by a CEO who is often white and male and who sets the direction for the company with the power to hire and fire people who don’t comply. As George Lakoff stresses, corporations “are metaphorical strict fathers.”

Most of us spend far more time experiencing the family and corporations, so their top-down, authoritarian style becomes familiar. We transfer what we learn in those contexts to politics, expecting a strong leader to change things. Note that this was even the expectation of progressives, liberals, and Democrats when we elected Obama. Maybe if the outpouring of activism that has happened since the November election had supported his administration, they could have enacted much more.

So, what do we do if we want to test democracy in more depth? We need to design a society that is thoroughly democratic. I suggested some ideas, building on John Dewey, in my thesis. In particular, I presented a family model that I called intentional family that brings together adults and children in an environment that is designed to teach democracy through living it. Decisions are made collectively, including by the children whose voices are amplified because there are more of them.

I didn’t tackle business structures in my thesis, however, there are already some well-functioning democratic models available: Co-ops. Both of these ideas probably need fleshing out, especially intentional families. However, before I do that, I want to tackle the argument for democracy since it implies that the nurturant parent (to stick with Lakoff’s terminology) is morally superior to the strict father. I will try to take this on in my next post.

Survivor Activist

My life changed November 8th. It was as if the election result pulled out the rug from under me. I’ve been struggling with understanding its impact and how I want to respond ever since.

The past couple of months have been hard on many of us – those of us who care about respecting other people, honoring other cultures, and valuing plain human decency. Since January 20th, activism has moved into high gear as we defend values that are now under open attack. Many of us are not only learning tools of activism but also how to balance it with our lives.

For those of us who have survived intimate relationship violence, there is another layer to this – and that is the layer that seems to be impacting me the most. A man who bragged about sexually assaulting women was elected. A man whose is bullying people through legal action and his Tweets, whose physical demeanor during a debate was meant to intimidate his opponent, a woman became the most powerful man in the world (and prevented a woman who was far more qualified than he is from obtaining that office). His chief strategist was accused of domestic violence. Then just this week, a man who voted against the Violence Against Women Act multiple times and who dismissed sexual assault just became attorney general.

On top of that are the familiar behavioral tactics. The speed and chaotic roll-out of a slew of policies by decree seems so similar to the environment in unhealthy relationships. You never know what’ll happen next, when the next blow will come. You never know when you’re safe to rest or when you need to be ready for another confusing event. Even the threats are similar. “Lock her up!” always reminded me of my ex-husband’s similarly baseless wish to “throw your ass in jail.” A Tweet with “SEE YOU IN COURT” reminded me of the many times this was hurled at me in an equally angry manner as a threat. (And having at least one other activist, a white male, not understand how DJT’s tweeted threat is different from the ACLU’s promise was also not helpful. In addition to dealing with a trigger, I have to explain why it is one.)

The exhaustion from dealing with all this also has a familiar impact on my life: I often run out of energy for the things I love. I don’t sleep well. I react to what is going on rather than being pro-active in living my life. What I focus on, where I spend my energy is dictated by an outside force.

There might be one area, though, where there is a difference. I can take breaks knowing that there are millions of others out there who are also fighting back. There is so much to do, we can chose the topics we want to work on, allowing individualized activism. Most importantly, for now at least, my home remains a sanctuary. I can go offline and I am away from the chaos and the assaults. That privilege is overshadowed by the knowledge that for many people even this has already been taken away (if they ever had it) as raids against immigrants and hate-crimes have increased.

I am curious how other activists who have experienced intimate relationship violence balance all this. What self-care are you finding helpful? Have you figured out a way to a new balance that is sustainable?

Property Damage and Egos

There’s been some discussion on social media about what happened at UC Berkeley last week. What I saw ranged from condemnation to support and warning the other side that they’ll play “into the hands of the fascists.” The discussions I am talking about here are those going on among people on the left, not the incitement of murder we’ve seen from some in the GOP. I don’t want to go into the actual topic here – untangling what is violence, whether property damage is violence, etc – because I have a sense that there’s already a rich literature on this discussion from the 1960s. I want to learn before I contribute directly. Instead I want to share some observations about what might be behind at least some of the discussions.

Ultimately, I suspect liberals and anarchists (setting aside, at least for now, how broad-stroke those labels are) want the same thing: Prevent the United States from further declining into an authoritarian, fascist state. We’re all scared as we watch it happening. We disagree on tactics and probably also end points. There might be more common ground than we realize. A lot of rhetoric is getting in the way of seeing our commonalities. And egos.

I noticed that first on the other side: Property damage is perceived as violence because so many of us define ourselves through what we own. Our clothes, our cars, our houses are expressions of ourselves. So, breaking windows and ATMs must hurt someone because somehow they are part of someone. (The break-down of this perception is clearer to see when we’re talking about property of companies…)

As I got more involved in the discussions, I started to notice my own reactions. I don’t like to be accused of collaborating with Nazis. And I don’t like it when someone uses “liberal” as an insult. That’s attachment. I am attached to being seen a certain way: as anti-fascist and open-minded. When that is questioned, indirectly in this case, I have a sense of being personally attacked, become defensive and react. Ironically, I ended up accusing “the other side” of exactly that they were accusing people like me of: Playing into the hands of fascists. When I really was playing into the hands of my ego, something that is probably facilitated on social media because many people we interact there don’t bother to learn who we really are. We react to snippets and ignore context. Again, I had seen this in others. Now, I was doing it myself.

When this happens – when we identify with labels – we are not able to fully engage in a discussion because we’ve become defensive. What can help in situations like this, which I find so challenging to do in the thick of it, is to step away, to take a break, to sort out what’s going on internally. These issues are complicated enough we don’t need to make them more so by defending against (imaginary) threats: The threat against who we are.