Is activism "a magic inoculation against the gravitational pull of the sofa"? Or do we underestimate how much it turns others off?


A very wise and acute article from Anthea Lawson on Open Democracy, on the psychological dimensions of being an activist. One might think that the huge nature of our climate, migration and tech challenges would trigger us all into being activists - all day every day. Our blog earlier this week reported on how teenage mental health might be fruitfully addressed through an activist identity.

But Anthea has been researching for Perspectiva on the resistance to activist calls, and the complicated psyches of activists themselves.

She has reached for psychoanalysis to help with her experience - both personal and in research - that activists and non-activists are involved in some psychological transfers: blaming, resisting being blamed, feeling active and being made to feel passive. As Anthea writes:

Aspects of our personality that we disavow - that our culture and family teach us are unacceptable - can become our ‘shadow.’ For Jung, this shadow “personifies everything that the subject refuses to acknowledge about himself and yet it is always thrusting itself upon him directly or indirectly.”

We avoid these split-off aspects of our self by locating and judging them in others, and the critical stance on the world that many activists display provides excellent cover for such projections, which can hide under righteousness and anger.

Anger provides legitimate fuel for campaigning, but motivational rage can get tangled in other personal sources of reactivity. There’s the lifelong battle with authority figures in our childhood, for example.

There’s anger worn as a habitual mask for other feelings we can’t express - particularly for men who were taught that other emotions compromise their masculinity.⁠

There’s anger from activism itself, from the exposure it brings to upsetting situations, police brutality and burnout. And there’s anger that covers for grief. It can be easier to rage at the bastards on the other side than face our own desolation at the smallness of our actions.

Righteousness, meanwhile, is ripe ground for emotional projection - defining oneself as right against someone else who is wrong. When activists focus on the wrongdoing of others, they push out of sight that part of themselves that behaves in the same way.

Think of an environmental activist whose consumption is not dissimilar to that of the elites she blames, for example, or the humanitarian who treats his colleagues in imperious, demeaning or abusive ways. We want to identify with the ‘good’ and dissociate from the ‘bad,’ but our shadow has a tendency to erupt in ways that are unforeseen.

This split is mirrored in the boundary between an activist group and everyone outside it. The author and organiser Jonathan Smucker beseeches activists to come out of their closed ‘clubhouse.’

Righteousness is a form of purity thinking, and on the other side of purity is disgust - the adaptive human response to anything that is ‘unclean.’

As the psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations theory shows, we extend disgust into moral violations. This is dangerous ground. In politics, it helps to account for the ostracism of minorities that comes with populist intolerance.

In activism, it shows how easily campaigners can lose compassion for their targets, and how they can treat people in their own movements badly.

Activists are human, then. But if splitting and projection are human, then activists are not the only ones involved. Those who are confronted by activism are busy doing the same things right back.

Activists may make us feel awkward, for example, because they are doing something we might not permit to ourselves: expressing our real feelings in public. The discomfort we feel when an activist speaks can be relieved by projecting those feelings outwards and onto them.

More here - and very much worth reading and re-reading. These considerations are personal and intimate for Anthea. As she writes here, in Perspectiva’s Inside Out blog, the invitation by Extinction Rebellion to be arrested for your non-violent direct action sent her into a spiral of guilt and commitment:

My indecision about my arrestability is really quite boringly practical. We have small children, no extended family living nearby, my husband and I both work part-time in order to share earning and childcare duties, and if I end up having to travel three hours to London to attend court – or worse – when my husband needs to be away for work, we’re kind of stuck.

We have reciprocal relationships with kind neighbours, but I wouldn’t want to impose my energetic three year old on any of them, nor deprive him of the company of those he knows best, for too long.

So in this dilemma I find myself weighing up two impossible-to-compare scenarios. The practicalities of childcare to cover a night in a police cell and court dates, against the possibility of halting the extinction of human and nonhuman life on earth.

That’s what climate change and mass extinction do, once you take them seriously: they make everything else seem utterly ridiculous. And yet even as we’re trying to protect life in the future, we cannot entirely forget the life that we are living; I cannot leave a three and a six year old without care.

Luckily there are many options for support I can give to others who are going to get themselves arrested, even if I don’t, so I will find a way to join in.

Activism is all about dilemmas. It puts its participants in dilemmas about how far to go, as I am currently experiencing. It puts its opponents in dilemmas about how to respond.

The police next week will have to decide whether to let Extinction Rebellion bring London traffic to a standstill, allowing us to achieve our aims, or arrest us to clear us out, which will also allow us to achieve our aims.

Activism puts its audience, too, in dilemmas about whether to join in. I know people who are deeply worried by our ecological emergency, yet who cannot bring themselves to participate in Extinction Rebellion: they can’t see themselves behaving or looking ‘like that.’

More here.

You might also wish to hear Anthea discuss this at her launch event for the “Beyond Activism” book, “I’m worried about the world but I’m not sure I’m an activist”, 9 July 2019, 19:00-21:00, Conway Hall, 25 Red Lion Square, London, WC1R 4RL