Wednesday, December 24, 2014

From Enthusiastic to Exhausted: Activists Burn Out, Too

So, activism. It's awesome, important, and it can and has changed the world, over and over. It's comprised of activists. Activists are people. And people get disillusioned.

I've been an activist for one cause or another as long as I can remember (hence the vagueness -- this isn't about one cause, but rather, having a cause). In that time, I've noticed in both myself and in the vast majority of other activists a pattern of interest, enthusiasm and eventual burnout.

The first, and absolutely most important part of any cause is awareness. I'm sure you've seen lots of 'raising awareness' campaigns. The typical cynical (burnout) response to this is: Awareness already exists. Time to move on. Now, if we're talking about a major disease like cancer that everyone actually does know about, maybe that's true (unless we're talking prevention or healing options). But with most things? Nope.

Think back to how you first got into a cause. You learned that it existed. Someone took the time to explain to you why it was important. Perhaps they did that through a conversation; maybe it was a link to resources about the cause. Either way, you then learned something and became excited to help others share that thing.

On the opposite end of the timeline is the burnout who has decided that if you don't agree with them, they don't have time for you. These people are the death of a cause. That cynicism is a cancer on the whole topic. They are as much 'part of the problem' as that which the cause is fighting against. And I specifically chose cancer for a reason. Because their mentally exhausting cynicism spreads, infects others. Worse, there has been an increasing trend, especially among certain causes, for those tumors to deliberately infect others, posting about how education is a waste of time and anyone who doesn't already know is 'part of the problem.'

Moving past my own irritation at watching people turn away from becoming activists because of those jerks, I wanted to talk about the path to becoming (and avoiding) the anti-cause.

The Evolution of an Activist

Awareness: The cause exists! Wow! I'm learning!
Becoming Part Of The Solution: I'm involved! Oh, this person doesn't understand. I'll help them learn about it (repeat this no less than 500 times with new people).
Involved: I sure love this cause. I don't understand why other people don't see how obvious it is. This should be a universal goal. Man, there sure are a lot of people who don't know about it.
Burnout: Fuck, people. How do you not already know about this now? Ugh. I'm tired of explaining it. I've explained it fifty million times! I've put my all into this cause and I feel like it's not doing anything. It still exists. The need for it doesn't seem like it's ever going to go away! Humanity sucks.
Reaction 1: (Jaded) I'm done with the cause.
Reaction 2: (Healthy) I'm going to keep going, but I'm done with new recruits. Maybe I should look into self-care. I'll leave the awareness to others.
Reaction 3: (Ideal) I'm going to write a blog post or find one I really love to educate people by just linking them without writing a deep explanation from now on. I'm going to look into self-care and remember that this isn't futile, it just takes time to cause such a big change. After all, women didn't get the vote overnight. Segregation wasn't ended overnight. I just have to keep going and find more time to take care of myself. In the meantime, I'll do my part for the cause without letting it suck the life out of me.
Reaction 4: (Toxic) People suck. If they don't agree with me, I'm not wasting my time on them. I did my part, and it did nothing. I know the cause requires work, so I'm just going to keep on going. I'll make vague social media posts about how people who do this thing suck and flame anyone who doesn't just automatically agree with me. They're part of the problem, after all. I'm doing something about it.
Reaction 5: (Healthy) Continued involvement with the cause, but reduced or changing tactics.
Reaction 6: Option C people who refuse to fit into categories.

Do you see the issue? Activism often involves a lot of repetition. It can hit the point where you feel like with all of that, everyone in the world must have heard about the cause by now (especially for people whose causes touch on abuses they have suffered their whole life -- and being part of the cause does not obligate you to educate: it does obligate you not to literally tell people to fuck off and die for asking to learn more).

Newsflash: children are growing into teenagers and adults every day. These are people who need to reach the awareness stage. Assuming they've already been reached is erroneous and unhelpful. Being angry at them for not being reached is counterproductive.

Activism can be exhausting. There are tons of resources for self-care because of this. I understand being sick of answering the same question that it feels like everyone should know by now. That's why I leave that to the shiny new activists who have the information and are eager to help. I have a collection of links to send to people to get them started. I assume anyone asking a question genuinely doesn't know. That's the most important, I think.

I want to thank all of the bloggers out there who approach their cause with this in mind -- there's been many times when I wanted to learn something more, but was put off by the attitude of the people who exposed me to the topic. I won't even be involved in many causes that I feel are important because I don't want to be around the tumors that have become the front of the cause.

Don't be a tumor. If you can't educate, at least don't give the cause bad publicity by associating it with your refusal to educate. If you can't avoid using inflammatory language that causes people to shut down, please stick to sharing links from more reasonable people. You hurt your cause as much as people who are actively against it, if not more so.

We can make the world a better place. But we can't do that by alienating others. And we need to watch out for burnout and take care of ourselves, too. It's not selfish. Selfish is allowing yourself to become someone whose soapbox is so high, no one not standing on another soapbox can hear you.

We're in this together -- be it a cause or just this planet we're all living on. Let's act like it.

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