The ego of activism
Updated: Jun 18, 2021
One of my friends has, in the last few months, left her job of more than a decade as a campaigner at an international NGO.
She’s brilliant at what she does. Focused, tenacious, strategic, practical, thoughtful, and deeply motivated by care for the people for whom she is doing it: the people who lose out from our economic system’s relentless quest for yet more money which will mostly go to those who already have enough.
There were good and practical reasons for her to move on from that job, and she is already involved in meaningful and effective campaigning elsewhere. But still, she was feeling uncomfortable.
‘I think I’m missing the status of it,’ she said, hesitantly. ‘Being asked to speak at conferences and in the media. And, by working for an organisation that was known to tackle edgy subjects, feeling that I was radical.’’
I was surprised. I’d always thought of her as someone for whom giving service was the only thing; as someone who didn’t have a lot of ego invested in what they were doing, and wasn’t troubled by questions of her own status.
And that was certainly true in contrast to the many campaigners I know or have encountered - and I suspect I have been one of them, too - who are very attached to their idea of themselves as the superhero who might save the day.
Her discomfort wasn’t just coming from the loss of status that she gave up with that job, of no longer being able to say ‘I do that (or insert cool campaigning activity of your choice).’’ The discomfort was also in her awareness that this isn’t what campaigners who are motivated by helping others - as she certainly is - are supposed to feel or think.
The discomfort was in her awareness, too, that social media, where so much more of our campaigning is going on during lockdowns, trains us to seek the gratification that comes from other people’s recognition of us as individuals. And this happens even if our intention in using social media is to push for change that benefits those who are worst-off. ‘‘I am struck by how hard it is to be an activist without it being about promoting your own ego,’ she observed.
As campaigners it’s not meant to be about our own ego. We’re supposed to be selflessly focused on the task of making things better.
That’s why we’re doing this work, after all.
Three years ago I began an enquiry into what - at the time - I was calling the ‘inner life’ of activism.
Like my friend has just done, I had also left my high-status job. I’d been a campaigns director at an NGO. For years I had been publishing investigations into the arms trade and corruption and environmental destruction by banks, tax havens, lawyers, oil and logging companies, and working on successful campaigns for new treaties and laws.
But I had stopped what I was doing because I felt something was missing.
Part of it was that we weren’t going deep enough towards the root causes of the problems. Trying to reform an economy based on endless growth to make it less abusive isn’t sufficient when our survival on this planet depends on a new economic model.
But I also stopped because I sensed that our work wasn’t paying enough attention to the inner lives of the people whom we were trying to change or influence.
Nor were we paying enough attention to our own inner lives: our motivations, and emotional needs, and what of ourselves we were bringing to our work, under cover of our earnest desire to change the world.
I started talking to other activists, and found that many of them felt the same.
What was it that we weren’t looking at?
Why our typical reaction, when faced with the politics and values of ‘the other side’, is disgust, and whether that is a problem
Whether our anger about the problems we were trying to fix had roots in our own lives that were not related to the matter we were campaigning on, and how that might be different to anger for an injustice that has affected us personally
What happens if we view ourselves as the hero or the saviour
Our feeling that we have to save the world ourselves: that the task is on our own shoulders
Our own needs for status and how they became entwined with this terribly important work we were doing.
And too often, these behaviours and needs can derail our activism.
They create toxic working environments.
They encourage us to burn out and turn away from the work.
They can make us unbearable to anyone we think we’re trying to help.
They result in us re-creating, in our organisations and movements and the ways that we work, the very problems that we want to solve in the ‘outside’ world.
This enquiry has led to my book, The Entangled Activist.
It’s my story of coming to see some of the ways in which the deep causes of the problems I want to tackle in the world also run through me.
It’s an enquiry into the ways in which we are using the tools which caused the problems to try to fix the problems.
It’s about how we are entangled in different ways depending on where we’re coming from.
And it’s about what we can do when we realise this. It’s about how we can approach our activism differently, when we understand that we are always entangled in what we are trying to change.
It’s about how we can think about what is going on when we start to see - as my friend is now doing with her uncomfortable questions about her own status motivation - that we might not be as different as we thought from the people on the ‘other side’.
The Entangled Activist will be published by Perspectiva Press in June 2021.