Monday, May 14, 2012

Activist, Know Thyself

[re-blogged from February]

While the response to my piece ‘Drop Inn Center Needs Help Now’ in the Cincinnati Enquirer has been overwhelmingly positive, there have been a few people who took exception to my claim that ‘there is something sexy’ about protesting.

the section in question:
"We receive a lot of support and advocacy from our community. We appreciate it. There is a time to fight big battles, and there is a time to make public stands. When the moment to rally comes, there are always more than enough people available to hold signs and shout slogans. Rallying is exciting. There is something sexy about it.What is less sexy – but even more necessary – is maintenance. I understand the excitement of starting a new project or fighting a big fight in the public arena. In between these capital moments, however, someone has to sweep the floors. Someone has to pay the electric bill."
In contemporary vernacular, ‘sexy’ is often used as a synonym for ‘exciting’ or ‘hip’. There may be a hint of the reproductive about protest as well, but overall, these two synonyms were what I meant.

No one does anything without ego playing some part in their actions. When the soldier goes to war, she is not just saying ‘I am doing what I need to do to protect my country’, she is also—on some level—saying ‘I am a hero’. When Gandhi was overseeing the salt march in India, on some level he was aware of the romantic image he was cutting in the mind of peace-inclined revolutionaries all around the world. Our self-definitions mean a lot to us, and we derive those definitions partly from the acts that we engage in.

Ego plays a part, and no one gets involved in anything for one motive alone. We are complicated animals; we may not even fully understand all of our motives. But ego plays a part, and there is nothing to be ashamed of in that. 

So I do believe that there is something ‘sexy’ about protesting, at least in the minds of the protesters. To ‘rage against the machine’ is viewed as heroic. At every ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protest across the country, there were countless aspiring Che Guevaras itching to pick up the bullhorn and put their own populist stamp on the national consciousness. There may have been a noble overriding goal to the protest, and the predominant motivation of most occupiers may have been admirable, but there is self-interest at play in almost every decision we make. I also think there is something literally ‘sexy’ about it too, as any honest person who has ever taken a date to a rally—or met a future lover at a rally—can attest.

There are no saints in this world, and I am glad for it. It takes a certain kind of humility to admit that we have various—and sometimes sordid—motives for the things we do. ‘Every saint should be held guilty until proven innocent’, said George Orwell. ‘If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him’, said Lin Chi. It takes great self-awareness to interact meaningfully with this world, and no person who is adequately self-aware will ever mistake themselves—or the movements they belong to—as absolutely pure of intention. Throughout history, all movements of ‘pure intention’ have led to concentration camps, gulags, killing fields, mass graves, and performance art (all of which are terrible, terrible things). 

If we’re going to be effective in achieving our goals, we don’t need saints and messiahs. We don’t need cults of personality. We need real, flawed, self-aware people muddling through the best they can, with an appropriate dose of fear and trembling to keep them honest.

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