Why do you care about this and not that? How come you can get all outraged over this but don’t do anything about this other thing? Why aren’t you following this? Why are you focusing on that? The tide of questions seems endless, and they all revolve around the same basic thing, at their core: An expectation of performative support and concern for all causes everywhere simultaneously, even if that’s not physically possible, and even if support takes many forms. Though the time people spend policing the cares, activism, and concerns of others could perhaps be more industriously applied to other things, perhaps it’s worth analysing these oft-repeated phrases.
Many of them are rooted in the belief that because someone isn’t performing support or concern in the right way, or working with the right people, that the individual isn’t aware of a cause and isn’t working on the issue. This isn’t necessarily the case, though, nor is it entirely fair to expect people to engage in activism in the same way on all things — there are, after all, many causes in the world, and a finite amount of energy. Maybe someone engages with one cause by going to marches, but with another by sending donations, feeling that the money would be well spent. Perhaps someone helps organise rallies, or prefers to interact on social media. Perhaps someone is working on a cause in a different space, or under a different name, wanting to keep identities separate.
There is a brash aggressiveness about not doing enough that perhaps stems from personal feelings of guilt and the desire to do more, because it feels like there is always more to be done. As soon as you win a victory in one place, you’re facing chaos and defeat in another. As soon as you’ve hopped onto the marriage equality bandwagon, along comes someone pointing out that true marriage equality should include equal protections for disabled and poor people, who can’t always marry under the law. Or you have someone else pointing out that the queer community has bigger concerns than wedding bells, like spiking homelessness rates and a high risk of youth suicide.
This internal guilt, the frustration over never being able to do enough, can be tempting to lob onto someone else. If you’re feeling like less of a person because you can’t do all the things and be all things to all people, why not deflect, and push your worries onto another person? Therein lies a snarl of traps, though, because the further deep you go, the harder it is to get out. Suddenly life becomes a series of constant moves along the chessboard in an attempt to stay ahead, to support enough of the right causes to be considered acceptable in your social group.
What people seem to be reluctant to talk about is the plain and simple fact that a single person cannot throw herself wholeheartedly into every single social cause on Earth, even if she knew about every cause and was intimately acquainted with all of the issues, the groups working on it, the problems within the movement, and the other factors that can complicate political causes. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day. By the same token, though, it is in fact possible for someone to care about, and take action on, more than one thing at once, although that might not always be readily apparent. Some causes need different things, and some actions are modest, quiet, focused on getting things done behind the scenes.
There’s no one right way work on social issues, no matter what you may have been led to believe. Choosing a select handful of causes to target the bulk of your efforts onto isn’t a bad thing — neither is recognising that you’re aware there are many more issues, some of which intersect with yours. Likewise, it’s not a bad thing to scale your support up and down depending on your ability and needs, as well as the needs of the cause itself. Maybe striking teachers need support during a big push for better working conditions, so you throw your weight into their movement for two weeks and see if you can get some time off work to be on the picket line. Perhaps a group needs your help for a phonebanking or envelope stuffing campaign. Maybe there’s an organised action going on. Is it better for one group to get $2,000, or for 2,000 groups to get $1 each?
Ultimately, what matters is the face and the person you see in the mirror, not what other people think. You may not be flagellating yourself enough or performing to the satisfaction of others, but do you feel like you’re doing all that you can? Do you feel like you’re also protecting yourself from burnout and ensuring you can continue to support people into the future, instead of flaring brightly and then vanishing? Because that’s what’s important: Not whether you support an approved checklist of causes or participate in Twitter campaigns or donate the right amount of money.
While you should ostensibly be working on social causes because they’re of concern to society as a whole, your self-integrity is also important, much more important, in fact, than the attitudes of others around you. You don’t need to defend yourself from accusations that you’re caring about the wrong thing or not caring about X enough or ignoring Y in favour of Z. If you’re working with communities and you’re listening to their needs and supplying them, you’re playing an important role in making the world a better place.
This is a harsh world and we need to work together. You need to give according to your abilities, and that’s the best that you can do.
Photo: red curtain, Lutz Koch, Flickr.