Activism, by its very nature, involves opening oneself up to scrutiny. In challenging dominant social structures and ideologies we, intentionally or unintentionally, invite criticism and debate from those who wish to maintain the status quo. Sometimes that criticism is fair and is an invitation to examine a piece of evidence that we overlooked or a flaw in our reasoning. Sometimes that criticism is loaded, reactionary, and even abusive. The prevailing wisdom is to just laugh it off, ignore it, and feel confident in the fact that we, at least, are creators of important content while the abuser is just a pathetic troll.
However, the call to activism often emerges from trauma. Within feminist circles, it is common for many women to identify not only as activists, but also as survivors of rape, intimate partner violence, and psychological abuse. Many of us mobilize for causes because of initial personal experiences that are later bolstered by statistics and academic theories. In sociology, we often refer to C. Wright Mills’ concept of “the sociological imagination”, a mechanism by which we explore the relationship between “private troubles” and “public issues.” A single act of sexual violence, for example, could be considered a private trouble that can be managed through therapy and other supportive services for a victim and an intervention of some kind for the perpetrator. The prevalence rate of sexual violence in the United States, wherein 1 in 5 women will be raped or sexually assaulted in her lifetime, is clearly a public issue. It raises questions about the culture we live in, the perceived consequences of being a perpetrator, and the relative social value and roles of women and men. A woman is raped and applies the sociological imagination to see her individual trauma playing out on a broad scale for millions of other women in her country. She is angry, not only for herself, but for all of her fellow survivors, at the society that is complicit in allowing and advancing this collective gendered violence. This may be her call to feminism.
The world of feminist activism can be a hostile and emotionally dangerous place for a survivor of trauma. Rape and death threats are common, sometimes including brutal details. This is clearly egregious and generally the knee-jerk thing that people react to when stories are written about online abuse. But there are more subtle, insidious discouragements as well. There will be people who question your right to speak at all, about anything. They will gaslight you and tell you that you’re crazy. That no one cares about the issue but you. They will calmly tell you that your voice doesn’t matter. That you don’t matter. For a person with a strong sense of self worth, these comments might not be a big problem. But for activists who struggle with depression, social anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, or other mental health issues, sometimes these words matter a lot. Sometimes they will make you stare at your computer screen breathless and humiliated, or go home early from that rally, or hang up the phone and fight the urge to cry. Sometimes they will make you want to give up. Not because you don’t believe in your cause anymore, but because you don’t believe in yourself. Because you have borne witness to violence and abuse against your body and spirit before that left you feeling worthless and ashamed. And then what?
This isn’t just a problem in feminism. Any time we fight for marginalized identities, we are fighting against the current. This is true in anti-racist work. This is true in LGBTQ+ work. This is true in disability rights work. When we own the marginalized identities we are fighting for, many of us are vulnerable. We have lived in a culture that has told us, implicitly, explicitly, and violently, that we are subordinate. We’re all in different places as far as rejecting that message is concerned.
Of course, it’s important to push forward and keep doing the work. There are a lot of people who have had these struggles who keep going. I think that it’s important, however, for all of us who are engaged in social justice activism to be mindful of the residual poison that we and our comrades might carry in our psyches. We need to be open to various ways to participate and refrain from talking down about those among us who are hurt, or need to take breaks, or need accommodations for participation. For an activist with agoraphobia, attending rallies might be out of the question but social media could be a valid way to engage with and promote a cause. For an activist with social anxiety, making phone calls might be unthinkable, but tasks like data entry or painting banners could be a meaningful way to participate. We need to be kind to each other and to ourselves. We need to ditch the idea that there is only one right way to be a feminist or any other kind of activist. We need to accept that although we will not always feel confident and fearless, we are important to our movements. We need to check in and remind each other often that we are doing good work.