Inside Activist culture
I received a phone call this morning from a friend in Germany who’s active in Extinction Rebellion. She was concerned about the activist culture there, how it favors action over reflection, a masculine doing over a feminine being, how it has little tolerance for the hidden or secret voices of members which were paved over with a tendency to group think.
People often come into activist groups, exploring, and don’t find the welcome or the home they want. There are voices in them that feel unheard or unwelcome, not reflected back. They can’t quite find themselves here.
This isn’t about Extinction Rebellion, but about activist culture in general. Activist culture tends to unconsciously conform to the values and structures of the larger culture, even as it tries to confront them. It’s similar to the larger culture in the pressure for conformity, the lack of space for listening. When we sense this pressure (and humans, being the supremely social creatures we are are tremendously good at sensing it) we immediately know it’s risky to show up and speak up just as we are. We know what the group norm is and we conform lest we become unpopular quickly. This emotional riskiness and lack of safety is much like the wider culture which also favors a more superficial conformity.
The more we can counter this in ourselves and in the activist culture, the stronger we’ll all be.
So here are some thoughts on what something better might look like, sparked as my thinking usually is, by another conversation.
Hidden beneath the conformity are fearlessness and vulnerability
What does the conformity and suppression of individual voice cover up? One way to say it is our ability to experience both fearlessness and vulnerability.
Fearlessness is distinct from bravado or martyrdom. It doesn’t suppress other parts of ourselves and diminish or belittle them, as if we’d be stronger that way. Fearlessness is based on a free choice, consciously chosen. In fearlessness, every part of us is lined up behind the action and we actually feel grounded and ready. We recognize our friends who are there with us too! Fearlessness isn’t really possible as a solitary act because to the extent it’s a solitary act we’ve no one to be fearless for.
Vulnerability is distinct from collapse or weakness. It means knowing the risk and showing up anyway with an open heart. Vulnerability also opens us to the trauma that’s part of the human experience, what we’d like to pretend wasn’t there. Trauma is in the larger human body and every family’s history is touched by it. Welcoming our experience sooner or later means opening to trauma and even the fear of death. Like fearlessness, vulnerability is also social. We can’t be vulnerable without others to be vulnerable to. Another thing that vulnerability means is daring to go at our own speed and to respect and take care of our own needs. It’s a form of self-care, including for parts of us we may have been denying our whole lives.
Neither vulnerability in the sense I mean it, or fearlessness, are possible without intentional places to practice and improve in. That’s because the social norm is to not welcome them. It’s not socially safe to risk either vulnerability or fearlessness.
Hidden beneath the conformity: tension between the individual and collective
Also hidden beneath the pressure to conform is an ongoing but almost always invisible tension between the individual and the collective. The more he or she speaks with an original voice – the less she conforms – the more she risks being excluded. But the more she conforms to the group and suppresses individual doubts or concerns in order to belong, the more she disempowers herself and the less truth she has to contribute. (Read more about this in The Singular Place of Dual Blessing. Dual Blessing is the place where we make room for both sides of the paradox.)
We can explore this personally and practically in small groups that name these issues and welcome others.
My secret wish is that everyone have an opportunity to do the work that can’t be done alone, both for themselves and for the sake of the work. Otherwise we’ll ”unintentionally” propagate the unconscious biases of the larger culture- and feel frustrated doing it.
We need the messy, emerging-in-the-moment voices we have, just as they are to get the transformation work done. Need it both for the work and for ourselves.
Check under Groups, above, for practice opportunities!