Activism’s negative side

We shouldn’t subordinate our mental health to political engagement

I’ll admit it: I enjoy railing against white, peace-loving, dreadlocked, vegetable-eating, hippie types. Their erasure of difference, minimization of inequality, and repression of dissent make me want to hurl. Invoking love as the antidote for hate sans political analysis makes for a toxic mixture. Sadly, their interminable barrage of pot, hugs, and tea do not make me feel less oppressed. If only! But there must be something salvageable from the political vacancy that is the cultural left. I mean, we can, like, learn from each other and stuff, right? Alas, radical activist communities aren’t perfect either.

While the bohemians walk around with rose-tinted glasses, activists find themselves sinking into the ground with the weight of all the fucked up shit in the world on their shoulders. At least this is how we imagine our truest and most legit heroes. This aggressively sought-out status is otherwise known as activist cred. Garnered from hyper-productivity, quantifiable outputs, trailblazing, DIY organizing, direct action, unceasing resistance, and staunch radical politics, it’s a straight up heavy burden to bear. As fun as it may be to be rad(ical) famous, this ideal is destructive, unattainable, and unsustainable to boot.

The imposition of this yardstick makes for an entire culture infected by shame, guilt, and silence. You’re either not doing enough, not doing it properly, or not doing the right thing, period. And if you’re one of the special few that actually has the time, energy, and mental capacity to even begin emulating this prototype, no one wants to hear about your woes. Remember: there are folks out there who have it way worse than you do – so quit griping. No one likes a whiny, over-emotional politico who can’t handle their workload. People are legitimately oppressed, God damnit!
Our political communities fester when attitudes like these go unchecked. The increasing concentration of anger, defensiveness, and condemnation that follows is like acid in an already putrid wound. I mean, I get the drive to ward off and weed out those perceived as uncommitted or inadequate. I really do: they can pose a threat to already deeply threatened realities and objectives. But when that leads to frowning on dependence, scoffing at calls for support, and scorning emotionality, then I am most certainly not down. Let’s not collapse the trials and tribz that come from the unhappy marriage of hard work and unattainable ideals with a drive to excise quasi-radical infiltrators.

Alright, lemme quit beating around the bush. When our own radical communities demand the subordination of our feelings, mental health, and sense of self to the work that we do, something’s amiss. Becoming enslaved to the very things we produce? Sounds oddly reminiscent of the type of alienation foundational to that tyrannical asshole, capitalism. When the only significant difference amongst people starts to become their levels of productivity and political profitability, we need some serious re-evaluation. Our inability to embody the activist ideal is not reflective of personal shortcomings, but is the product of various systems (capitalism, racism, sexism, ableism, et cetera) that tell us what is and what is not valuable, who is and who is not worthwhile.

If our bodies and minds are etched with and steeped in those normative social relations that we love to lambast as oppressive, then we’ve got some serious cleansing to do. Lemon juice and maple syrup, anyone? As long as it includes a dash of compassion. In a society that will arbitrarily chew us up and spit us out, doing the work to love ourselves, each other, and all of our efforts is a sincerely political act. By some sort of freak coincidence, we’ve ended up in the same place as our tree-hugging lifestyle-conscious, TLC-revering friends.

Lisa M is one of The Daily’s biweekly columnists. Vent your pent-up emotions to her at