To A Burnt-Out Activist

The scandal brewing at the end of my post has come to pass. This one hurt a little bit; publicly  at least, Silverman seemed to be in favor of policies that would reduce sexual assault, and spoke out against the bigots in our movement. In reality, given the evidence, he was talking the talk but not walking the walk.

That comes on top of my growing unease over that last blog post. There’s nothing in there worth changing, that I’m aware of; the problem is more with what it doesn’t say, and who it mentions in passing but otherwise leaves at the margin.

See, there’s a pervasive belief that minorities are responsible for bringing about social justice, either by claiming they created the problem or demanding they educate everyone. That falls apart if you spend a half-second dwelling on it. The majority, by definition, hold most of the power in society. If they accepted the injustice done to the minority, they’d use that power to help resolve it. In reality, they tend to bury their heads in the sand, ignoring the evidence of injustice or finding ways to excuse it, so their power is often wielded against the minority. The result is that the minority has to spend an enormous amount of time and energy educating and agitating the majority.

So you can see why calling for people to fight harder for the change they’d like to see, as I did last blog post, can seem clueless and even heartless. Yes, I placed a few lines in there to hint that I was talking to the majority, but those have to be weighed against the context I outlined above. This time around, I’d rather focus on the burnt-out activist than the clueless white guy.

Put bluntly, life is short. You should spend your time doing things you find rewarding; endlessly quoting painful testimony of sexual assault, or the science and statistics of how tragically common it is, or giving an embarrassingly basic lecture on consent, doesn’t stay in that category for long. The resulting feelings of burnout or frustration are entirely valid, and worthy of taking seriously.

Human beings are also complex, we exist in many cultures and movements. I sometimes advocate for secularism, but I’ve also written about science, statistics, and even dabbled in art from time to time. If one aspect of my life becomes frustrating, I can easily switch to another, and there’s nothing wrong with that switch. This may seem like a betrayal; how can you leave your sisters behind as they carry on fighting the good fight?

But it’s extremely rare for a single person to change a culture; in practice, change comes via a sustained, coordinated effort from multiple people. At worst, the loss of one person may slow things down, and even that is debatable: there’s an unstated premise here that once you’ve dropped out of culture, you can’t come back. That should be obviously false (and if it isn’t, run). If you can return, though, then why not use the time away to recharge? You’ll get a helluva lot more done ducking out from time to time to fight burn-out, than you would if you stuck around when you don’t care to.

I have tremendous sympathy for the people who are sick of arguing against all the sexism, racism, ableism, and so on within the atheist and skeptic movements. Take as long a break as you need to, come back if or when you feel it’s time. There should be an empty seat waiting for you, and if there isn’t you’ll be in a better place to flip everyone the bird and create a new culture that gets this shit right.

(As a side-note, I found it amusing when I began working through the OrbitCon talks and heard Greta Christina laying out similar points. She has been a big influence on my views on activism for several years, so the overlap is less surprising in hindsight.)