I’ve been thinking about activism again, partially because of Mental Health Awareness Week. Activism doesn’t just apply to political action. It’s about going the step beyond raising awareness. It’s about pushing the boundaries to force change. It’s something I find really hard to do.
Activism asks you to get out of your comfort zone. It asks that you stand up for what you believe in, even when everyone around you is sitting down. It asks you to keep repeating yourself, even when people ignore and talk over you. It asks for commitment in the face of what is often immense adversity.
There was a lot of “talk” during Mental Health Awareness Week. But I wonder – what does it actually change? I know I sound cynical – and I am. I have seen so many people fight so many battles, only to have to let it go because of the energy is requires and the constant disappointment – even distress – when nothing moves forward.
My own activism took a massive toll on my already shitty health. Even writing a blog post exhausts me, let alone speaking out in mainstream media and putting yourself in the firing line, meeting with MPs who make commitments that never eventuate, constantly defending your position and your rights.
I did write something for MHAW, about the suicide numbers in New Zealand and the shocking lack of access to care. Does that mean anything? It’s hard to measure. Did me putting myself out there, sharing my private battles, being vulnerable, really actually make any sort of difference? And if it doesn’t – why do I do it? What else could I do?
A while ago I wrote about this – online activism – for The Nelson Mail and at On The Left. Since I’m not doing those columns any more, I decided to revise that in light of what I’ve experienced since.
In November last year, Auckland Museum hosted a panel on “slactivism.” The panel included Nicky Hager, ActionStation’s Marianne Elliot, Laura O’Connell Rapira, and Matthew Hooton. (god knows why he was there).
The topic was: “Political protest and general social unrest seem to have moved almost exclusively online in the 21st century. Is this enough? Are politically-flavoured tweets a sign of our lack of engagement or the new face of political and social activism?”
Up until this year, I never would have called myself an activist, and I still shirk away from it. I have no problem with anyone using the label, or protesting, or hashtagging and liking the heck out of everything. Go for it. These things all need to happen together if we’re going to create change.
In a piece about fighting for marginalised people, Julie Pagano identified that diversity of tactics is crucial. There’s no “right way” to be an activist. There are many methods and we’re going to need all of them if we’re going to make any headway.
In the past, activism has been a synonym for loud. I have been loud, and I don’t regret the choice to give my voice to the issues that are important to me. But I can’t always do that, and when I can’t, I shouldn’t feel diminished in my role as someone who is committed to change.
There are other reasons for not wanting this label. In some circles, “activist” is an epithet. It can diminish the authenticity of the work.
This is especially true for women activists, because our passion and anger is interpreted as irrationality. I am starting to lose track of the times I’ve been called an “angry feminist” as if it is an insult, as if it reduces the importance of my work, or the credibility of the message.
Julie Pagano identified some of the ways in which you can be an effective activist while still looking after yourself.
Quiet activist acts
- Do What Works for You. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Self-care is radical.
- Supporting Others. Tiny things like texts and tweets keep me going.
- Humour and Satire. We all need this occasionally. Sometimes if you don’t laugh, you’ll just cry.
- Teaching. Education is so important. Sharing what you know is the best way to spread the message. This doesn’t mean always calling people out publicly or blogging or lecturing. It can be as simple as quietly discussing what you think with someone you trust.
- Act Locally. Do small things close to home.
Pagano also says that “showing up” is in itself is an act of activism. For example, me continuing to simply live my life as an educated, disabled, feminist beneficiary could be considered activism, because that alone challenges social beliefs.
So, if that’s what it takes – who’s doing it? How? Why?
The people frequently looked up to as heroes are those doing the most vocal and visible work. While this is important, it’s not the only work that should be valued and looked up to. The people who are able to be vocal and visible are often the most privileged. That privilege can lead to a lot of mistakes, especially when it comes to including more marginalized groups.
– Julie Pagano
Online activism is intrinsically linked with people who are loud online, and people with influence – politicians, journalists, and bloggers.
As a public servant, I wasn’t allowed to go to protests. As a journalist, I could, but I’d say it’s not recommended because it would be viewed as biased. As a blogger, I can do whatever the hell I like.
Here’s a couple more tweets from the Auckland Museum panel that I found interesting.
I don’t think this is actually true. Maybe I’m wrong. Do I sound like I’m speaking for the Greens or Labour? I sure hope not. I speak for me.
And then there was this:
Ah. Now we’re getting somewhere.
HOW – Getting information.
It’s obvious: we (people who want change) need the right information to make the right moves. Sometimes, it can be very difficult to get yours hands on it. Furthermore, we have to discern what’s actually true, and how best to get it.
NZ Herald journalist David Fisher has been lauded for this speech condemning the difficulty of getting information from the public service through the Official Information Act.
I’ve been on both sides of this ball court. I’ve worked in government communications and had to prepare responses to OIA requests, and I’ve made them in both professional and private capacities. It takes many, many hours. Fisher argues that that is totally unnecessary.
One of the forms of empowerment Hager is referencing is the preferential treatment Whaleoil writer Cameron Slater received when making these requests.
Earlier this year, I requested my personal file from Work and Income New Zealand under the OIA. It took around three months to get a response. Most of what I received, despite being ostensibly my own information, was censored. I was not allowed to see any of the correspondence regarding myself between the Minister of Social Development and WINZ.
Should it be difficult as a private citizen to get information the government holds on you?
Should it be difficult to get public information as a journalist trying to use it for the public good?
What about a blogger?
How – Whose story is it?
You may remember the tragedy in January last year when a woman died after journalist Caleb Hannan wrote a story that outed her as a trans person. The two had a specific agreement that the story would not focus on her gender.
Here’s where David Fisher and I part ways. He, and many other journalists, publicly backed the writer’s decision to publish.
I was utterly furious at the sense of entitlement being expressed here. While I’m not currently working as a reporter, I am a qualified journalist and I consider myself one. I have often used Writehanded as a platform for other people’s stories. Those stories are important to give authenticity and weight to the arguments I make.
I tell people’s stories. I do not own them just because they told them to me.
When I was in the media last year, the reporter requested that I sign a privacy waiver, which would allow WINZ to discuss my personal details with her. I declined. (Update: WINZ now refuses to comment on any case unless the person involved signs a waiver).
In the OIA material I received from WINZ, an email to the reporter asks: “Did Sarah tell you why she wasn’t willing to sign a privacy waiver? It doesn’t make sense given her social media activity…”
I find the question incredible, and the fact that they cite my social media as indicative of my supposed lack of desire for privacy. Excuse me, but I don’t think me discussing my own life on my channels on my terms is the same as giving a government department who clearly is not interested in my wellbeing the right to reveal my private details to the media – who could then quote it any way they chose.
As activists, we will be given stories that are powerful for our cause, or our reputation. Here comes the old adage – with great power comes great responsibility.
WHY – Progress
I hate the phrase ‘people power.’ But it makes sense. If activism – any form of it – is to make change, it needs to be lead by people making their own personal changes, no matter how small or quiet those steps might be.
I stole this from Julie Pagano, who quoted it from her friend FireCat:
Be quiet. Be loud. Yell on Twitter or in the streets or in the House. I don’t care what you call yourself or how you make your voice heard. But it must be heard.
There’s no such thing as “slacktivism.” Yeah, so writing a blog post or tweeting a tweet or holding up a handmade sign and instagramming it might not be much – but it’s something. It’s better than nothing. It lets other people know how you feel. It starts the groundswell. We need it, just as much as we need people who can take on much more that that.
So… what to do?
- Read, read, read. We can’t act if we don’t know.
- Check the Quiet Activism list and do what applies to you.
- Write a guest post for me!
- Tweet and Facebook and Instagram your thoughts.
- Sign petitions. It might seem futile, but as my Mail column mentioned, it very often works.
- If you are able, go to protests. The more of us they seen on the streets, the better.
- Consider joining a political party or a union, if that’s your thing.
- Irritate your friends at every opportunity.
We need more people to sing.