Anyone who has spent time organizing for political change knows it isn’t easy. You have to deal with setbacks, rejection, long hours, seemingly insurmountable challenges. But we finds ways to persevere and recognize that major social change is a long-term project. Some people get discouraged and don’t stick with it, and the great Rebecca Solnit identified how some people in the movement contribute to that problem in”letter to my dismal allies on the US left“:
So here I want to lay out an insanely obvious principle that apparently needs clarification. There are bad things and they are bad. There are good things and they are good, even though the bad things are bad. The mentioning of something good does not require the automatic assertion of a bad thing. The good thing might be an interesting avenue to pursue in itself if you want to get anywhere. In that context, the bad thing has all the safety of a dead end. And yes, much in the realm of electoral politics is hideous, but since it also shapes quite a bit of the world, if you want to be political or even informed you have to pay attention to it and maybe even work with it.
Instead, I constantly encounter a response that presumes the job at hand is to figure out what’s wrong, even when dealing with an actual victory, or a constructive development. Recently, I mentioned that California’s current attorney general, Kamala Harris, is anti-death penalty and also acting in good ways to defend people against foreclosure. A snarky Berkeley professor’s immediate response began: “Excuse me, she’s anti-death penalty, but let the record show that her office condoned the illegal purchase of lethal injection drugs.”
Apparently, we are not allowed to celebrate the fact that the attorney general for 12% of all Americans is pretty cool in a few key ways or figure out where that could take us. My respondent was attempting to crush my ebullience and wither the discussion, and what purpose exactly does that serve?
I won’t go so far as to say I’ve never been guilty of anything like this, but I’ve also lamented it and been worn down by it. I think there are different flavors of this kind of response. Some people honestly want to strive and make sure that certain groups and causes aren’t left behind or compromised. Others feel like they have to be fighting all the time, or that they lose their cred if they support incremental change, or find it easier to complain so much that it seems like nothing can change.
I had this dynamic on my mind before I read Solnit’s piece on the day the Supreme Court decision on marriage equality came down. Amongst the celebratory posts and articles, I saw a number of people posting about how this didn’t solve everything because it’s assimilationist or because there are many other pressing issues related to LGBT rights that aren’t solved. I have the utmost respect for those people who know this is only one step and that we must keep fighting. I am annoyed by the primacy of marriage as an institution in our culture. But this was also one of the most amazing victories for social justice in my lifetime, and for ONE DAY I just wanted to get teary-eyed looking at pictures of men in their 80s finally getting married, and get back to the fight tomorrow.
The way we celebrate our victories, large or incremental, has a lot to do with the longevity of our movement and the ability of individual activists to stay involved for the long haul. As Solnit says,
When you’re a hammer everything looks like a nail, but that’s not a good reason to continue to pound down anything in the vicinity. Consider what needs to be raised up as well. Consider our powers, our victories, our possibilities; ask yourself just what you’re contributing, what kind of story you’re telling, and what kind you want to be telling.
Over the 12 years I’ve been working full-time in advocacy, I’ve occasionally talked to people who say they don’t think they could deal with trying to create change in the face of challenges day after day. I feel the opposite–I would feel much worse if I weren’t at least making an effort and moving the ball forward, even if the steps are small. My life is more fulfilling because I spend so much time with people who commit themselves to making social change. But I wouldn’t be able to sustain that if I only focused on the negative and didn’t see the potential for change.
Earlier this year, I attended an event about reproductive rights in the US, filled with activists and potential activists. I sat through a lengthy list of the assaults on women’s bodily autonomy, and felt increasingly depressed. None of the information was new to me, but hearing it all strung together relentlessly with little to no mention of progress or a vision for how we would fight back was daunting. I can’t imagine how that would motivate a person who’s new to the issue or make them feel at all empowered to take action. Anger can be a good motivator, but there needs to be something else to grab on to.
Wallowing in what’s wrong to the point that you just want to throw your hands up is a lot easier to do when the stakes are relatively low for you. Last year, I attended a screening of Freedom Summer, followed by a panel featuring some activists who were in the film. During the Q&A, a young white man stood up and said he didn’t see the point in engaging in the age of Citizens United. I understand how money in politics can be very discouraging and easy to fixate on. But we were in a room with a Freedom Summer activist who had had a noose tied around her neck with the other end tied to a truck by angry white people who didn’t like her voter registration activities. If she kept fighting, I don’t see how we can’t. Solnit talks about the importance of keeping these things in perspective:
Can you imagine how far the civil rights movement would have gotten, had it been run entirely by complainers for whom nothing was ever good enough? To hell with integrating the Montgomery public transit system when the problem was so much larger!
Picture Gandhi’s salt marchers bitching all the way to the sea, or the Zapatistas, if subcomandante Marcos was merely the master kvetcher of the Lacandon jungle, or an Aung San Suu Kyi who conducted herself like a caustic American pundit. Why did the Egyptian revolutionary who told me about being tortured repeatedly seem so much less bitter than many of those I run into here who have never suffered such harm?
There is idealism somewhere under this pile of bile, the pernicious idealism that wants the world to be perfect and is disgruntled that it isn’t – and that it never will be. That’s why the perfect is the enemy of the good. Because, really, people, part of how we are going to thrive in this imperfect moment is through élan, esprit de corps, fierce hope and generous hearts.
Given the suffering that continues around the world, we can’t afford to be satisfied with only incremental change. Our organizing doesn’t ever stop. But we need to celebrate it. Because that change can mean a lot to that same-sex couple and their children who finally have stability and legal protection through marriage. To the single mother in Oakland who now has sick days and a higher minimum wage. To young immigrants who have the opportunity to stay in the United States and go to college. Working for social change is hard, and it also needs to be fun and rewarding. As a movement, we won’t be able to sustain the passion, energy and drive we need to succeed if we don’t take a moment to celebrate our real, meaningful victories.