Why I am not an Activist

Found this on Facebook posted by “Purpose Fairy” – it succinctly sums up how I think life works.

One thing I’ve not been since I was a teenager is a political activist.   Working in Washington DC from ages 23 to 25 gave me a kind of cynicism about the nature of power politics in America.  I couldn’t put my heart into the political games that were played, even when the stakes were high.   At age 25 I made a choice to leave a very lucrative and successful career start in the world of DC politics to go back to the Midwest and get a job at Rocky Rococo Pizza as a night manager.

I had an MA from Johns Hopkins SAIS, but in Minnesota a degree in International Studies opens few doors.  Still it felt good to be away from power games and doing something real – running shifts at pizzeria.   And we had some excitement, like when Kirby Puckett ordered a pizza and tipped our delivery guy $50.  Ultimately I decided to get my doctorate and teach international affairs and European politics.

Although we did orders, Rocky’s niche was pizza by the slice — a plan like this yielded 8 slices of thick crust pizza

While at grad school a friend asked me if I’d help out with a counter protest to a right to life group that was protesting a Planned Parenthood clinic that did abortions.   It was theater of the absurd.  The protesters screamed at women coming in for the procedure, hoping to convince them through screams, shouts and signs to change their mind.   The women couldn’t change their minds though, since they were not pregnant.  They were a misdirection – the real abortions were done on a weekday evening, the Saturday afternoon time was just to make sure the protesters were there at the wrong time!

The other side was screaming about how we were all godless, like Hitler, doomed to hell, and murdering babies.   They said it was the holocaust, a crime against humanity and wicked.   But then “my side” screamed back, and the rhetoric wasn’t any better.   Some people from “Act Up” were making sexually lurid statements about the protesters and well, I didn’t want to identify with either group.   They were too angry and made me feel very uncomfortable.  I ended up moving towards the back and having separate conversations with interesting people rather than joining in the action.

While I agree with much of what they stand for and respect their commitment, I’m not going to be found at an “Occupy” protest.

For awhile after leaving DC but before my pizza gig I was working for a group promoting a nuclear freeze – the job entailed going from door to door explaining the movement and asking for donations.   Others, mostly activists, went door to door and were enthused to try to promote the movement.  I froze.   I couldn’t do it.  I couldn’t knock on a door, disrupt an evening, and try to talk to people about a political issue.  It felt intrusive.   I waited in the cold two hours until the car picked me up and I informed them this wasn’t the job for me.

Yet I’m surrounded by activists I respect.   Both colleagues and students are often very active in a variety of causes, many of which I agree with.   I admire the work they do.   So I have to ask myself – am I wrong to avoid activism?   Am I being selfish spending my time writing a blog, teaching overloads that earn me money rather than getting involved in community action?   After all, in political science we point to civil society — being active in community groups — as a key indicator of the success of a democracy.

When I do get involved, it’s usually not political.  I am very active in the PTA and get real satisfaction from that.   I’ve been active in faculty governance and issues where I work.    I just ended five years as campus President of the local faculty union, though as tensions mounted over lack of a contract I gave up my role to someone more passionate about taking on the system.   I enjoy the work of helping colleagues deal with difficulties, but leading a union fight is not my cup of tea.

Sometimes comedy does more than anything to make people see the world differently — that was Carlin’s niche!

When I try to force myself to get involved with political battles it doesn’t feel right.  Not like I’m doing something wrong, but that it just isn’t me.    So I started to think about how the world works.   Activists are a minority, people driven to and wanting to work to change things on the front lines – protesting, lobbying, and getting involved.    There are others who do a lot of volunteer work to help others, and many more who focus on their own worlds.

I also started to think about how activists are able to be effective.   Political action can only work when there is an opening for change — people are ready to accept something different.  That comes about through the spread of new ideas, education, and free thinking.   Maybe my role is to do what I love – teach, work with students, and help young people get a broader perspective on reality and think critically.   I think I do that reasonably well.

After all, activists might otherwise work in a typical corporate office and not do much teaching or exploration of new ideas – that’s not their niche.   Maybe it doesn’t feel right because it’s not my niche.   Of course, my colleagues who both teach and are activists are able to do both, why not me?

One reason I’m not an activist because at base I’m not a materialist.  I really believe in the top photo on this entry, life works by how we think and what we bring to our daily interactions, all of them.  I know that in the world of secular academia I’ve got spiritual views out of sync with most of my colleagues.   Sometimes I get on little sidetracks on ethical issues in class, joking that I must have inherited a little preachiness from my Grandfather, a Lutheran Minister.

But maybe that’s my niche.   I try to strike a subtle spiritual chord in my dealings with students (or my blog and facebook) that is a bit unconventional.  Since I don’t believe any dogma it’s not to convince students of anything, but to signal/model that it’s OK to think about the world differently; spiritual thinking is not bad.   I also am naturally positive and optimistic about life — something I do get teased about.   I’ll note the bright side of a problem and a colleague will say “only Scott could twist this into sounding like something not that bad!   In fact, I know I irritate people by tending to think positively, but that’s who I am.   Maybe that niche for me pushes me away from activism and towards a different kind of influence on reality.

One thing I tell students is to try to know themselves and be themselves, and not be what society might be programming them to become.   Live awake, not in a cultural trance.    And just as I hope others won’t judge me negatively for my spiritual positivism, I certainly won’t judge people negatively for passionate activism.    If that is who they are, that is how they should live.

And that’s the key – know who you are, be who you are, and recognize that we all have different strengths and weaknesses.   Trying to be something you’re not — even if it involves doing something you consider to be good — isn’t the right path.

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  1. #1 by lbwoodgate on July 8, 2012 - 16:28

    Nice piece Scott.

    It was a junior college teacher that turned things around for me and helped me look at the world differently than from what I was raised to believe. It has taken time to realize that carrying parts of your culture with you is not a bad thing. The past has lessons that help give life some of its meaning. But thinking outside the box is also something you want to achieve as you progress.

    I’m with you too on the overt protestations about injustices and inequalities. I just don’t have what it takes to be a part of that crowd. But I do admire and tend to support those out there on the front lines that vocalize the issues and get the attention of the media that some of these issues demand.

  2. #2 by Sherry on July 8, 2012 - 17:02

    Boy this strikes a cord. I have the greatest respect for activists. Those that plod on relentlessly. I marvel at their staying power. I have always chocked up my failure to march much with pure laziness. But I agree, that the endless taunting back and forth solves little, and changes virtually nobody. So I blog, relentless in my condemnation of what I believe is wrong, hoping that a sane head here and there will listen. I can’t say who is right here. Both have their merits.

  3. #3 by Ron Byrnes on July 9, 2012 - 17:43

    I’m with Larry and Sherry. Really nice reflection/explanation.

  4. #4 by jd on July 12, 2012 - 17:30

    I would like to inform you that, in fact, you are an activist. You teach, you write, you are in the PTA. That’s all activism.

    I wish you would have fleshed out this issue of not being a materialist a little more. It seems you are saying that material conditions don’t matter. Do you really believe that? If so, what’s the point of teaching political science? What could you possibly be doing at the PTA?

    If material conditions don’t matter, then politics are theater of the absurd, and every organization is a farce, because all that matters is how each individual thinks and behaves. And those living in a garbage dump or warzone have just as many opportunites for happiness, and just as few obstacles, as those living on inherited wealth on park avenue.

    I think that’s patently absurd.

    So I think: Yes, if your belief that material conditions are irrelevant to human suffering causes you to shy away from politics, then you are wrong and being selfish.

    • #5 by Scott Erb on July 12, 2012 - 17:56

      I believe material conditions reflect ideas and underlying beliefs and understandings. I’ve worked through lots of issues and have many blog posts dealingn with them- I have categories like “Faith and philosophy,” “Consumerism and Values” and “Economics.” If you’re really curious in how I think about those issues, there are posts there you can explore if you’re so inclined.

  5. #6 by List of X on July 13, 2012 - 20:44

    I would not want to be an activist in a common meaning of the word, since there are not that many things I am highly passionate about, and those that I do feel passionate about just aren’t the things one would gather signatures against. I mean, how do you protest against hypocrisy and stupidity and what good would it do?

  6. #7 by Liz Cush (@lizziecush) on July 20, 2013 - 09:54

    Hey List of X,
    hypocrisy and stupidity are just the things activists protest against, i.e destroying land and water and over using the planet’s resources, very stupid to me. The point is to find ways that are effective and can make change, make a real difference. There is a beauty in solidarity, in standing side by side to fight for a higher cause than our own individual lives, but the methods need to work, not just endless shouting at government and corporations, they don’t ever listen anyway.

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