Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Self-care in Social Justice; Ableism in Activism

I started writing this post a couple of days ago. Enough has happened in the world in those hours between then and now for my approach to go from one of calm and hopefully usefulness, to fury.

Some people can sustain rage. I'm not one of them. Anger lights me up like a burning oil slick, and the smoke fills my lungs and clouds my eyes. Anger consumes me from within, and unfortunately comes with pronounced physical deterioration as well as emotional. It could, with some stringent control, be channeled into some sort of constructive output, but most of the time I do not have that control, and it's probable that I never will. It simply isn't the relationship that anger and I have.

Which is a roundabout way of saying I need this post. So, onward, Here is the mild introduction I had already composed:

A year ago, maybe more, I was trapped in the endless scroll that is the tumblr dashboard. You know; your finger is starting to hurt from all the scrolling past endless pictures of owls and sharks but there just might be something really good coming up next, it just doesn't end, so you keep scrolling. In amid all the pretty dross was a small text post. I thought I'd bookmarked it, but apparently not. I can't remember who the author was, and they've probably changed their tumblr handle by now. 

It was a small, simple thing, simply commenting that the author felt there wasn't enough advice or resources to promote mental self-care for people just beginning to dip their toes into the world of social justice and activism. That first foray can be galvanising, but at the same time incredibly disheartening. Learning of all the wrong in the world, that exists in our ordinary mundane lives, is crushing. Comprehending how much struggle there is, and how much more there needs to be, and how little change has come about can make everything seem futile. 

And I thought, "Yes." 

It was a thought that had been circling the upper stratosphere of my mind, not yet any thing more than a few confused wisps, nothing I could articulate even to myself until this small post gave me the words I was seeking. 

I thought I was the weak one. 

And here is the continuation, no longer mild, written in rage.

The world is a horrible place full of injustice, cruelty, intolerance and wilful ignorance. If you choose to exercise compassion and empathy, if you choose to care about the world beyond your own sphere, then you will get hurt. It's unavoidable. If you choose to invest yourself into improving the world, you'll learn how deeply entrenched the inequality is, how invested in maintaining the status quo your opponents are, and your hope will take a battering.

You'll end up becoming intimately acquainted with despair.

How deeply you're affected will depend on your position in society, your own methods for processing stress, and myriad other diverse factors, but you will still feel it.

It never stops. The victories in social justice a few and far between whereas the demonstrations of inequity are countless. Your initial enthusiasm and passion will wane and wilt, and along with despair you will also come to understand helplessness.

If you're at all like me -- having been diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder being just the beginning -- then you're going to burnout and burnout fast.

I look at the people who are engaged in the same fight, who have been fighting for longer than I have, and fight harder, and give so much more of themselves - engaging total strangers in a debate which is aggravating and upsetting if only because it might, later, teach them something. Putting themselves out into the public sphere and taking all the slamming that comes with that. Their anger sustains them, is fuel for the pyre they're building for this broken biased system. Protests, rallies, marches, petitions, High Court injuctions, volunteering, public speaking, fundraising, cold calling--

And I, I have to flee from social media because the noise of the news is soul-destroying.

If I don't, then depression will take over and do away with me anyway.

Suey Park is an Asian American activist I particularly admire, and has spoken much upon the topic of ableism in activism. So much that I'm not going to find any direct quotes, you can just check out her twitter account. She has often pointed out that the industry (for lack of better word) of activism is based upon the principles of labour laid out by a patriarchal and imperial system, the same system we are trying to dismantle. The value and worth of the work you do is measured against external criteria determined by what is best for the economy; not the individual.

I have to admit, after comparing my efforts to those I follow and admire, there's a wonderful feedback loop of inadequacy that I find myself tiredly trotting around. I can't go to a rally, it'd knock me flat for a week. I can only extremely rarely engage strangers in debate because it drains me intellectually and emotionally to the point of, again, being incapacitated. I can't even work a full time job without falling apart. It's not hard to see why I find Suey's stance appealing. She works with such diligence, with the long game in mind, and knows that the harder she works, the more people will target her with abuse and vilification. Yet she manages to keep on because she advocates for herself, managing her own anxiety and respecting her own borders, and working to meet her own benchmark, not what activist culture holds as 'enough'.

These years of illness have been good practice at advocating for myself and my own wellbeing, but it is still an act that does not come naturally. I could not stand up and say, "It's okay to step back, take a break, and recharge. It's okay." Someone else had to go first, so that I could follow. You may not agree with all of Suey's views, I don't, but the fact is that she constantly highlights the ableism in activism, which led to me giving myself permission to take care of my mental health.

In my case, that means no longer berating myself for not doing more physically, nor nurturing the idea of failure that skirts around me when I shy away from the conversation in order to simply make it through the day. It means I watch the people around me, and do what I can to enable them to take care of themselves, regardless of their situation.

Ironically and disappointingly, this means drastically turning down the volume on what news of bigotry or theories on social justice to which I am exposed. I can't follow Suey on twitter. A day is enough for me to admire her insight and intelligence and determination while completely undermining and overwhelming me with all the fronts of the battle she's engaged in. I recently had to do an immense cull on twitter, moving too many important voices into a keeplist before unfollowing. I need to be able to function as a person before wading in to battle. We all do.

Ultimately, only you know if you are making excuses in order to bury your head in the ground and rest on your privilege – and we all have some form of privilege – or if you need to step back for your own well being.

Similarly, only you know if you are making excuses to keep on pushing past your tolerance point and into the realm of damage. Don't measure the worth of your actions by standards that do not take into consideration the context of your life.

The change I seek will be a long time in coming. I doubt I will see it in my lifetime. This is a long, long game.

Pace yourself.