How can I become a better progressive?
February 15, 2013 4:45 PM   Subscribe

I am not as good of a person as I would like to be. Is there anything like a social justice life coach to help me figure out how? Probably not. I don't want a therapist, because even though I hate myself, I want to be a better person rather than a happier one. Plus, and this is why I need to not talk to my friends about it, it's really gross to whine about how it's so hard for me as a privileged person to deal with the fact that I can never be a good or trustworthy friend. I read a lot of blogs, and while I have improved, I also cry over what a worthless creep I am and that is gross, useless and also no fun either. Not terrible like actually suffering, but I don't like it and it interferes with my ability to have friends what with how annoying I am. So: no life coach ( I think), no bothering friends, blogs aren't perfect, what do I do?

For instance, even though I have become more liberal over time, the rest of the world has become more liberal more quickly. I thought for quite a while that it was good that I was a feminist and supported gay marriage. With feminism's history of racism and transphobia, can I really call myself a feminist without essentially telling trans people and POC that I don't care about them? One of the things I struggle with the most is a quote saying that gay marriage is a form of racism. Every person I have showed it to agreed, even white lesbians. Now, I don't think that gay marriage is the most important issue facing the GLBT community, never did, but I can't bring myself to believe it's wrong for married gays to appear or be portrayed in public, even if other forms of love are just as valid. I always get stuck on "but such and such isn't inherently bad, it's just over-represented". And I can see the problems with that outlook, but I STILL can't be disgusted at married gays for being hegemonic, and I feel that I need to. I do romanticize marriage a bit, even if it's not at all for me. And I feel like I'm not part of the GLBT community (is it okay to call it that? That doesn't cover everything) because even though I always thought I was bisexual, I am straight-leaning and don't date. I think when I first realized it, that made me bi, but now it just makes me straight and ugly.
TL;DR: I used to think I was a pretty good person but now I feel like Rush Limbaugh or something. And even though it's gross for a privileged privileged princess to whine about how haaaarrrd it is to be a terrible white bitch, I hate myself and I don't want to hurt anyone. These are some of the people I care about the most.
I know how annoying I am and that's why I didn't send this in an e-mail to someone I know.
posted by WhathaveIdonenow? to Human Relations (34 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I am going to gently, lovingly suggest that you try therapy anyway. Because hating yourself is not normal or okay, and I'd bet a lot that you do need to be a happier person instead of a better one.
posted by mynameisluka at 4:55 PM on February 15, 2013 [12 favorites]

I want to be a better person rather than a happier one.

Hm. A pretty standard piece of advice for people trying to figure out how to have healthy relationships is that a moderate and reasonable amount of self-esteem is extremely helpful for entering into a sane and equal partnership with someone else.

I seriously think you should start there too as the first step in entering into a better relationship with, well, the whole world.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 4:55 PM on February 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm not really sure what your question is. It seems to me like you are expressing liberal existential/social angst. Does that sound right?

When I expressed similar concerns to my therapist a couple years ago she said the way people who feel like they're not doing right by the world deal with it is by volunteering to their community, because that's the most accessible way to make a difference. She was totally right and working several nights a month packing food in a food bank has really helped me. After all, EVERYBODY eats food, right?

Could you volunteer with a local organization that helps people in some way that seems good for the world?

Or maybe I'm totally misreading your question.
posted by MonsieurBon at 4:57 PM on February 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

OK, so I work for a progressive advocacy organization, as do many of my friends, and I volunteer for other progressive causes. I'm telling you this so that maybe I'll have a little bit of legitimacy when I tell you that I have seen this in lots of people and I don't believe it's actually about politics or queer issues or feminism. It's about perfectionism and holding yourself to an unreasonable standard.

You say you want to be a better progressive, but what I hear from your post is that you actually want to be a perfect progressive, and that is just never going to happen, because as you've alluded to, there are lots of progressive issues and strains of thought and movements. Sometimes they conflict and that's ok. That's good, actually. It's the conflict that makes change happen. But it also means that you, as one person, will never be perfect by every definition of progressivism. Actually, you'll never be perfect by any definition, because we are humans and we aren't perfect.

But. How do you become a better progressive? Well, first off, I think activism is important. By that I mean finding a cause you care about and an organization you respect, and working actively to make progress. You talk a lot about opinions and conversations in your post, but not about action.

The great thing about action is that you realize it's not all about you. It's not about what you think or feel or you being perfect - it's about what you can accomplish to make things better for your community or causes you care about.

But. I do think that working on your self-hatred is key, too. I see a lot of people in activism who really hate themselves, and, honestly, they are not very effective as activists. Best case scenario, they are challenging to work with. Worst case scenario, I have seen such people actually destroy otherwise good organizations.

Really, emotional health is key. Emotionally healthy people are good community members and can be good activists. Really, I think you should see a therapist. Because you hating yourself doesn't do a damn thing for the world. It doesn't make things better for anyone.
posted by lunasol at 4:59 PM on February 15, 2013 [37 favorites]

I think you have a very narrow perspective of what's 'good'. Your comments about GLBT, gay marriage as racism etc speak of being a 'politically correct' person rather than a good person.

Lunasol's comment above is great. And it reminded me of a time in my life when I hated myself and all of humanity. I was trying to save the forests and the critters and the whales and, dammit!, us humans are just fucking it up!! Coincidently (not), most of my friends, including those also saving forests, didn't want much to do with me at that time. I was burned out and depressed and I didn't know it. All I knew was that I was a bad person because I hadn't, ya know, saved all the critters and trees and whales.

Then I went a spent a bunch of time working on human issues from a non-political perspective. It helped put the self-love back.

To be a better person in society you need to be a better person to yourself. Honesty, integrity and kindness are the three key elements, me thinks, that are required to be a good person. So if you really want to be a better person, start getting honest with yourself, treat yourself with integrity and be kind to yourself.

The best way to do this is to have an emotional coach (aka therapist) to guide you.
posted by Kerasia at 5:10 PM on February 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

Uh. How much help are you really going to be to people when you "hate yourself"?

By all means, go out and do good works, but you're prob going to need to work on your own little bit of self image in tandem if you want to be particularly good at good works.
posted by Blisterlips at 5:12 PM on February 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

You're gonna paralyze yourself by overthinking. Sounds like you already have.

I'm a woman of color, a dyke (married, even!), and politically too far left to be called a liberal, and I give you permission to stop trying to attain some mythical, unattainable standard of Being Good.

I also think you should get some therapy, because even at my most politically active activism, when I was trying to save the whole fucking world, I didn't think as badly of myself as you do of yourself for making mistakes, not knowing things, and not actually being able to save even a little piece of the world.

You are not a terrible person. But you're the one who has to start believing that. A very wise person named jessamyn has said that everyone's hardest struggle is their hardest struggle. That yours might not be as hard as some other person doesn't make it not hard for you. You deserve and need to treat yourself right. You can't hate yourself while trying to spread love and empathy.
posted by rtha at 5:16 PM on February 15, 2013 [12 favorites]

Might I recommend reading How can I help? by Ram Dass? Very helpful for these sorts of questions.

I'm hoping Velcrow Ripper's new film will be opening up some dialogue too.... Http://

Progressives at their worst, just as on the right at their worst, are rigid ideologues. Progressives at their best encourage debate. If there is no debate, you are probably not in a group that is making much real change. Branch out. Or, if you can find it in you, be absolutely honest with the other activists in your life about points where you disagree. Sometimes being the person who forged space for real dialogue is the one who creates real positive change.
posted by chapps at 5:25 PM on February 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

I agree that you should reconsider therapy. Do you realize that almost every post and comment you've left on this site includes some criticism of yourself for actually or potentially not living up to an unrealistic standard you hold yourself to? Even your username alludes to it.

I actually think this has very little to do with politics. You could hold any political opinion at all or none, but it won't help you feel or be any better until you learn how to stop hating yourself.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 5:26 PM on February 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'll agree: there are no perfect progressives.

By the nature of a progressive, the idea of we're all in this together means that we're ready to ration everything for the betterment of mankind. How we ration things is though a contentious issue. There are a finite amount of resources period. How you ration your thought (do you focus your time on women's issues instead of LGBT issues?) is where your priorities are. Meaning, that your priorities aren't correct - because someone else has exactly the opposite ratio than you do. And another progressive person thinks completely differently than either of you. Don't judge yourself against the socio-political movement, judge yourself by whether you are pushing *any* aspect of the movement forward.

Some liberals want to free Tibet, others care more about domestic issue, or the soup kitchen next door. Is one more right than the other? I tend to think not. If you aren't actively putting someone down, and you are working for the betterment of mankind, there's a high likelihood you are doing it right.
posted by Nanukthedog at 5:32 PM on February 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

I am not as good of a person as I would like to be.

Me too. I tend to think that the desire to improve oneself is an excellent quality. Bravo.

I don't want a therapist, because even though I hate myself, I want to be a better person rather than a happier one.

You do know this doesn't make sense, right? How can you be a better person if you hate yourself? If you hate yourself, would you even be able to tell if you were being "better"? Seriously, this statement is making my brain hurt.

Plus, and this is why I need to not talk to my friends about it, it's really gross to whine about how it's so hard for me as a privileged person to deal with the fact that I can never be a good or trustworthy friend.

It's essential to understand your own privilege, but it's also essential to learn that in some contexts, making note of your own privilege is not at all relevant or helpful to understanding the issue at hand. Are you having problems with your friends? You should communicate to them about those problems. Stop using privilege as an excuse to hate yourself.

With feminism's history of racism and transphobia, can I really call myself a feminist without essentially telling trans people and POC that I don't care about them? One of the things I struggle with the most is a quote saying that gay marriage is a form of racism

I want you to know that I went through a similar crisis of belief when I was involved in activism against female genital mutilation. I wondered whether I was being racist, imposing my cultural beliefs on another social group, etc. etc. Sometimes the question of what's right IS really complicated, and quite frankly, that's why those who stand for the status quo are (usually) more organized and cohesive than progressives.

Ultimately, I am of the opinion that one should constantly be questioning and reassessing their belief system, and I do very much admire your impulse to do just that. I think it has the potential to strengthen one's understanding of the issues, to improve the quality of the dialogue, and ultimately, the caliber of the solutions. But like anything else, moderation is key. You've questioned so much that you aren't moving forward at all.

Nothing will be perfect, but you can certainly endeavor to do more good than harm. I have a job that is in line with my moral beliefs, and I have the pleasure of helping people who need it every single day. But even that job has some negative costs on society, depending on your viewpoint. I'm aware of those problems, but I don't let them stop me from accomplishing what good that I can.

Nothing is perfect if you think about it too hard.
posted by murfed13 at 5:34 PM on February 15, 2013 [4 favorites]

One thing I have learned, the hard way, from experience, is that trying desperately to be a good/liberal/kind/moral/correct/progressive person is a pursuit that is 100% about you. It's extremely self-centered. It's about constructing an image of yourself that looks good. It is an dead-end path that will not actually result in more kindness, morality, or progress in this world.

Here's the thing, my friend, and I say this with kindness: when you suffer inside, when you hate yourself, when you feel angst and pain and confusion, you WILL share all of that with the world. When you suffer less inside, when you love yourself, when you experience clarity and joy - you will share those lovely qualities with the world instead.

Do not obsess about the details of what is correct. Do not obsess about which causes and labels to align yourself with. That kind of identity search, unfortunately, despite what I absolutely believe are genuine beautiful intentions, are all about producing a version of you that you can accept. It won't work. Constantly searching for the perfect outlooks, attitudes and opinions is an endless quest at which you will fail.

Ethics ARE extremely important, and listening to others is incredibly needed in this world. So do that: listen to people. Completely, without spending all your time trying to figure out if their stories affirm or contradict your beliefs. Ask yourself which actions will lessen suffering in the world and pursue those things. This is not easy, but it is simple.

Do not listen to people, hear the first 2 seconds of what they are saying, and then go off in to a tailspin about how they are saying something that you didn't already officially believe, and that makes you horrible, and now you have to re-align yourself and reject everything you thought you knew, etc etc.

Believe me, I know this is hard. But the path to authentic kindness does not involve plastering yourself with the correct labels.
posted by Cygnet at 5:43 PM on February 15, 2013 [15 favorites]

And even though it's gross for a privileged privileged princess to whine about how haaaarrrd it is to be a terrible white bitch, I hate myself and I don't want to hurt anyone. These are some of the people I care about the most.

Uhh... I'd thank you not to use that kind of language to describe human beings living their lives and thinking about things who so happen to be white women. I know that you think you are referring to just yourself so it's okay, but the reality is that you are demeaning many, many people with that language.

In just about every progressive movement that there has ever been, women are encouraged or outrightly ordered to put themselves last, and that to do anything else makes them selfish and horrible people. Women then police each other to make sure this happens.

It becomes a competition of self-abnegation. The woman who can demean herself most completely, and put herself furthest to the back, is the most virtuous.

Consider that by doing this, you are a part of the problem that you are trying to solve. The goal is to treat everyone with respect. Demeaning yourself and other people who share your race, gender, or socioeconomic class is not going to get you there. To treat other people with respect you need to first have respect for yourself.
posted by cairdeas at 6:17 PM on February 15, 2013 [25 favorites]

I'm not clear why you don't like yourself, but it does seem that you will need to deal with that issue first before you'll be capable of liking and caring about other people. The degree of your self-loathing is definitely not healthy and productive, and therefore it would seem to be important to try to do something about it, whether it's therapy, a supportive SO, etc. You can't just intellectualize has to come from somewhere deep inside, and your deep inside is wounded right now.
posted by Dansaman at 6:24 PM on February 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

Seriously, do some reading. Pick say, your top 5 favorite male revolutionaries on the topic of race, sexuality, labor, etc. Read what they had to say about disenfranchised people who were not disenfranchised in the specific way that they themselves were. It's either going to blow your hair back (not in a good way) or you'll find that they really just didn't care at all and it wasn't important to them. They weren't up nights raking themselves over the coals about how horrible they were. Really quite the contrary. It might give you a totally different perspective.
posted by cairdeas at 6:25 PM on February 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

the fact that I can never be a good or trustworthy friend.

You are way, way, WAY overthinking all of this.

There's a reason they call white people/straight people/men/etc. "allies" and not "the enemy".

Because having privilege doesn't make you the enemy.

Of course you can be a good and trustworthy friend.

Just... keep being a good and trustworthy friend to everyone in your life, regardless of their background or identity. Like you do. Because you're a plenty good person.

Then again, if your "friends" think that it's important to hate married gay people because they are "the enemy" or RACISM or whatever, maybe you need new friends.

I also think that the advice to volunteer is spot on. Often I feel like a lot of the Privilege talk eats up energy that could be put to more constructive use. Especially the sort of Privilege talk that spends a lot of time talking about why X or Y stance on an issue doesn't hew some kind of party line (e.g. "fighting for same sex marriage is racist" or whatever). Spend the energy you normally spend worrying about this stuff actually helping people.

Pick a nonprofit or activity that isn't directly about identity politics issues. For example, you might like to work with 826 if you live in one of the cities they serve. If you happen to live in New York, Housing Works is another good option that will cause you to interact with people of very diverse backgrounds and directly help less privileged communities, but outside the activist/political context.

Or, hey, maybe you just need to get away from people and our complicated issues for a while. I was at my local animal shelter recently, and it seemed like they could use all the help they could get.
posted by Sara C. at 6:28 PM on February 15, 2013 [5 favorites]

Thank you all for taking time to answer my question. There are an awful lot of "best answers" here!
Cairdeas, I do agree with your first response, unfortunately. I really ought not say things like that. I feel I ought to, that we all deserve it, but that's also really terrible and not actually true. As for your second, well, that's what I'm afraid of. There are plenty of people who were good in certain ways and didn't care about other things, and they are not remembered well. I can't be heartless just because it's been done before.
Dansaman, I do like and care about other people! I could do a better job of acting like it.
Cygnet, that is....very true.

To all: I have been afraid of "taking action" because I've been afraid of getting it wrong and accidentally causing more harm than good, maybe saying the wrong thing or generally being ignorant and making better activists feel betrayed and disenfranchised. But I don't have to do anything that challenging. Like Monsiuer Bon said, everybody eats food. I could do something like that.

I really, really appreciate all of your kind and furthermore helpful words, and I think I will try to actually do something instead of waiting to be perfect before I can start. Obviously these worries aren't going to go away, and I don't even think they should, but I will refer back to this page when they are interrupting my life again.
posted by WhathaveIdonenow? at 6:38 PM on February 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm glad to read your response. I stopped in because I wanted to tell you something.

You are a real person.

This seems trite and obvious, but I can tell that there is something inside you that does not believe it. You are not a machine for helping the humans that deserve your help. I have thought the way you were thinking, and on some bad days I still do. It never helped anyone or anything. It didn't make me more effective. It exhausts you, physically, to spend energy hating yourself and discounting your ideas simply because you are the one who had them. Just because it is easier for you, due to your circumstances, to get the help and support that you need for the pain that you feel does not mean that your pain is false, or that you are undeserving. Suffering is not a zero-sum game.

Also, I agree with cairdeas when she says:

In just about every progressive movement that there has ever been, women are encouraged or outrightly ordered to put themselves last, and that to do anything else makes them selfish and horrible people. Women then police each other to make sure this happens.

I'm going to gently suggest that you stop reading social justice websites for a little while -- not because they are not valuable sources of help, thought and information, but because you don't need your awareness raised any more than it already is, and reading constant internet arguments and shaming will not help.
posted by Countess Elena at 6:47 PM on February 15, 2013 [9 favorites]

i think there are two ways of approaching helping others. the first is to do it out of a sense of genuine love and concern for the other and the second is to do it to try to earn one own's sense of worth or goodness as a person. actually, in the second way the person probably does care about the other as well but their sense of self is really tied up in it and in never doing enough. i would encourage you to slow down and really do some thinking about what you base your sense of self-worth on. a person's sense of self-worth is not conditional on their behavior. it is about ontology, their being; it is not about their doing. personally, i believe it is a relational and spiritual issue. you have great value just for who you are and are not some worthless person because you are not currently your generations' MLK.

if you are not currently volunteering then i think it can always be good to do so but do something you have a real passion and love for rather than something you feel you "should" do. i also think therapy would be helpful in dealing with your self-hatred and perfectionism. there is a great book i read called forget perfect that might be helpful to you even if some of the focus is a bit different than yours. that book showed me that perfectionism isn't really about my not doing enough but is really about relating well to others and not trying to earn love and approval. we even need to learn how to receive before we can love others well.

you might also want to consider pursuing a spiritual approach if you are not doing so, one that is community-oriented and focuses on others but giving from a place of overflow rather than exhausting yourself trying to do more, more, more. as counterintuitive as it sounds you may need more fun, relaxation and peace in your life before you can go out and really help others. giving from a place of overflow is a good thing otherwise you are just running on fumes and don't have much to give anyway. balance is key so you don't burn out.
posted by wildflower at 7:17 PM on February 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

I have been afraid of "taking action" because I've been afraid of getting it wrong and accidentally causing more harm than good, maybe saying the wrong thing or generally being ignorant and making better activists feel betrayed and disenfranchised.

This, right here, is exactly where the Privilege angle becomes toxic.

We are all just people. Trying to do the right thing. Trying to make the world better.

Just jump in here with us and start doing something. Don't worry so much about what others will think of you.
posted by Sara C. at 7:17 PM on February 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

some ideas: 1) therapy, this is the first step because you cannot be a better person, or offer service to the world at large, when you are pouring all this energy into hating yourself and being upset with your thoughts/opinions on this issue.

After therapy gets you a little more unstuck, consider exploring: 2) volunteer work/charitable giving, 3) work on learning great listening skills, give people the benefit of the doubt until they show a need for the alternative, be very open, 4) maybe eat less meat?, 5) divest to a credit union, and my favorite: dispense random acts of kindness, verbal and gesture-based, whenever you see a chance. use these to counteract and atone for moments when you made assumptions, used stereotypes, or were unkind.

good luck, i think you're pretty amazing and impressively self aware for asking this question and wanting to improve yourself in this way.
posted by zdravo at 8:12 PM on February 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Therapy is important. It's pretty much impossible to be loving and good to other people if you treat yourself like shit. Our outward actions reflect our inward experience.
posted by Miko at 8:32 PM on February 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

I agree that therapy is a good option, because what you're saying sounds like straight-up obsessions and perfectionism (this is coming from an experienced obsessor). It reminds me of scrupulosity, a type of obsessive-compulsive glitch that makes you over-focus on being morally perfect. Instead of the usual religion, you're getting your impossible-to-achieve morality from progressive "rules."

So I'm thinking that instead of hating yourself and trying to become impossibly perfect, you might want to, say, get a lot of vigorous exercise and consider cognitive-behavioral therapy.

If you refuse to try therapy, then I agree that volunteering can help, but I'd vote for volunteering in a way that shows you how impossible it is to be pure. For example, when I lived in the US, I spent a lot of time as a volunteer for undocumented Mexican immigrants. When you get deep into their world, you see that the issues are waaaaay more complex than any outsiders on the right or left can see. I was a far-left do-gooder. The family I spent the most time with had "anchor babies" and encouraged others to have them, expressed racist beliefs, and kept pulling their kids out of school for no good reason, so the kids struggled to learn English.

No one, neither the helpee nor the helper, is noble and pure. It simply can't happen.
posted by ceiba at 9:35 PM on February 15, 2013 [6 favorites]

I really ought not say things like that. I feel I ought to, that we all deserve it, but that's also really terrible and not actually true.

When you think those things, and feel like people like me "deserve" them, it might help to remember that I spent my childhood having them shouted at me by adult men of all races and degrees of wealth, who thought they could brand me with a deep-seated belief that I was inferior and weak, with an inferior and weak mind and character. Is that what you want to do? Do you want to do the work of people like that, help convince them that they are right?

If your definition of the perfect progressive is one in possession of no qualities or characteristics that have ever been shared by anyone else who ever oppressed anyone else, you're not going to find it, ever. It's not possible.

I wonder, if you feel at times that any white woman deserves to be called a "white bitch" because some white women have oppressed many other kinds of people before, what kind of names you think gay men in general deserve to be called, since Dan Savage wrote about his anger towards black Californians, whose widespread opposition was a factor in the end of gay marriage in California? I wonder what names you think Native American men deserve to be called because of the rates of domestic violence on reservations? I hope you can see this is not a good path to go down at all.

I think the sort of "internet social justice awareness raising" that is targeted to teens and college students is so rarely focused about making life tangibly better for anyone. It's so often only navel-gazing and so focused on ranking who is the most progressive, transgressive, or revolutionary of all. Who gets to be disgusted by whom, and under what circumstances. It's more complicated than the court at Versailles, and it would be different if it were making the world better but it's not at all. It seems to me in fact like a way to ignore the real world and actually avoid doing anything about anything at all.
posted by cairdeas at 10:43 PM on February 15, 2013 [17 favorites]

Oh, god, step away from the social justice internet. Seriously, it makes me want to weep and scream.

I'm a lifelong leftie, I make my living working on the left, and I minored in women's studies (and majored in the political economy of communication) from a very leftie university. So as to establish my cred. Women's studies in the 90s had a little of what you are describing, lots of talk of privilege, a hyper-awareness about language and degrees of oppression, but it wasn't a fraction as bad as the stuff I see on the internet now. I'm going to echo cairdeas here--I think a lot of it is posturing so as to avoid doing the actual work.

I see so much--forgive me--bullshit navel-gazing and snitty slap fights on the internet masquerading as activism. White people yelling at other white people about how racist they are, as if bellowing their righteous indignation was anything like actually doing anti-racist work or being an ally. Or, anything else that involved getting one's ass out of a chair. (Personally, I think any time one is taking offence on behalf of someone else one needs to do a little self-reflection about needing so much attention and being so aggression.) And sometimes I'll read someone spin something out that is clearly drawing from all that really esoteric and hyperbolic post-modern theory from women's studies and I'm surprised that anyone well and truly believes that stuff was meant to be a blueprint for actually being an activist.

I also see a lot of people on the left who are kicking the shit out themselves and other activists, who think they are changing the world, when what they are really doing is working out their own personal anxieties and disorders on the people around them, and dressing up their hurt and anger with fancy words pretending it's about privilege and oppression. Don't be those people.

My suggestion is this: if you want to make the world a better place, be a better person. Stop hating yourself. Consider therapy. Think about what skills you have that could actually help improve things and find a place where you can offer those skills in good faith towards a cause that you believe in. Accept that we live in a fucked up world, and that fucks us up, so sometimes we make mistakes. Learn to sincerely apologize. When in doubt, do the thing that seems most kind. STEP AWAY FROM THE INTERNET. You don't need to read more and learn more and practice a script and score 100% on your Progressives 101 exam before you can become an activist. You just need honest intention and a willingness to listen and collaborate. A desire to do some grunty heavy lifting. But, definitely, try to love yourself first.
posted by looli at 11:54 PM on February 15, 2013 [17 favorites]

Just be kind to the people who cross your path, be generous in your assumptions about their motivations, and do your best not to talk bad about them behind their backs. Above all, don't use your personal beliefs as an excuse to put other people down. Recognise that progressives are pretty much all on the same side and that backbiting and splintering and fault finding among progressives helps no one but the conservative fundamentalists. Just be kind. That's all you have to do. Oh and give to charity.
posted by hazyjane at 11:59 PM on February 15, 2013 [4 favorites]

With all due respect, you need therapy. The key fact is that you hate yourself. All of the rest of this about not being a good enough liberal and being too privileged and so on is the result of your brain trying to make up excuses to keep you away from therapy so that it doesn't have to change.
posted by medusa at 4:32 AM on February 16, 2013 [9 favorites]

I'd suggest doing something physical, like get with Habitat for Humanity and swing a hammer or haul bricks & lumber all weekend. Or perhaps some sort of environmental cleanup activity. Volunteer at a recycling center like Ecology Action, if there's a place like it near you. Grunt work. Boots on the ground.

I occasionally do cave cleanups with the local caving chapters, and it's extremely rewarding & invigorating to bust ass all day, and feel both the exhaustion & sense of shared accomplishment at the end of the day.

You can't help but feel better about yourself when you step back at the end of a hard day and take a look at what you've gotten done.
posted by Devils Rancher at 5:51 AM on February 16, 2013

Think about this. There's a fire. People are working to put it out. Some bring a fire truck, some can work with others to pass a bucket from the lake to the fire, some can run and grab people who are doing nothing and tell them to grab a bucket or call the fire department. ALL of these people are helping to put out the fire. The guy holding the firehose isn't critiquing you bucket-holding technique, or that you didn't have a bucket so you had to grab a big gulp cup, or saying that the guy who called 911 didn't help. He's saying wow thanks for the help in getting this fire under control! Don't let perfect be the enemy of the good. Even if you just live your privileged life with compassion and care for the people you encounter; even if all you could do is live your privileged life while raising a child to treat people equally, you are helping to put out that fire! Don't let the fact that you aren't the guy with the fire hose make you feel bad about your contribution!
posted by MsMolly at 9:17 AM on February 16, 2013 [6 favorites]

Check your memail!
posted by Vaike at 1:04 PM on February 16, 2013

I'm a white cis bi-but-married-to-a-dude Canadian woman who grew up in a village of 300 white people. I could have written parts of this question, especially before this year. So I'll just share some things that are helping and not helping.

Hanging out on AskMe and MetaTalk helped sometimes because it helped me question some things I hadn't realised were assumptions. The sexism and racism debates here sometimes turn into really vulnerable conversations and I have valued that. Other times, just step away.

Taking breaks to be gentle with myself between Racism Reading Immersion stints helped. I would get overwhelmed and feel ashamed and like Must Fix It All Now and that was paralyzing.

This year I find myself working a job that puts me in a lot of contact with Muslims and black people doing regular stuff. I also worked for 4 years in an office with mostly gay men. This has been SO helpful. Getting to know individuals in all their variation demystifies it and moves you from thinking about Category Non-Whites to just Plain Old People. They are changing my heart, and that is not something that I can do on my own just by thinking really hard.

I am at a point right now where I marvel that I sometimes need to think for a minute to remember whether someone is black or not, and it's because they are more present in my mind as a complex individual than as A Black Person. Do I agree with the thing in my head/heart that hadn't gotten the memo yet? Of course not. I know Black people are regular people. I know White people are ethnic too. People are more than their skin colour. But my culture lies about this, so I need to broaden my horizons by introducing my heart to more Black people, more Muslims, more gay people, more trans people. More conservative people and rich people, even!

I see what you mean about "gay marriage is racist" (or normative?) but… no. This isn't about forcing gay people to marry. Marriage isn't the right fit for every straight relationship either, but the right to marry should be there. Being a working mom isn't for everyone, staying at home with the kids isn't for everyone either, but both options should be respected and not dismissed or shamed. It isn't about fitting everyone into boxes. It's about expanding options.

Brass tacks: You're a little racist, and a little sexist, and a little homophobic, and a little transphobic, and a little classist, and a little wrong-religion-ist. Welcome to the club. We are immersed in a culture that is that way, and it feels shameful when we realise it.

You have an opportunity to lessen all of those things in the world by lessening them in yourself, but this takes time and it is painful and you will mess it up as you learn and grow into new habits of thinking and reacting. Introduce your heart to new people. It will open if you give it people to open to. Be patient with yourself.

Read blogs that celebrate diverse things, rather than shaming people.
posted by heatherann at 3:29 PM on February 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

I have been afraid of "taking action" because I've been afraid of getting it wrong and accidentally causing more harm than good, maybe saying the wrong thing or generally being ignorant and making better activists feel betrayed and disenfranchised. But I don't have to do anything that challenging. Like Monsiuer Bon said, everybody eats food. I could do something like that.

I hope my comments about people who hate themselves being potentially damaging to progressive organizations didn't reinforce this line of thinking. I can see how it might have, so I apologize for the somewhat clumsy phrasing.

That said, I'm glad you've decided to go beyond this fear and get involved anyway, because I do think it will really help. Both the organization/effort that you work with and you yourself. And remember: you don't need to be be the Best Most Perfect All-Star Volunteer or Activist. Not when you first start, not ever.

Any group or campaign or collective or whatever worth its salt will do the following with new volunteers/members. If any of this is missing, you have my permission to say "thanks but no thanks" and find another group/campaign/collective to give your time to:

1. Good progressive organizations are welcoming to new volunteers/members. They will be happy to see you and will not subject you to any bullshit litmus tests.

2. They will adequately train you for the work you're doing and let you know exactly what the rules are. Even if you're doing something pretty simple, they'll teach you what you need to know and make sure you know what NOT to do.

3. If you do mess something up, they will let you know in a non-accusatory manner and either fix what caused the problem on their end or make sure you know the right way to do whatever.

I'm telling you this because I actually used to manage volunteers for progressive organization/campaigns and I'd say that about 50% of the hesitation people had about volunteering was not the time commitment or the dislike of the work, but worry that they would "do it wrong" and look stupid or feel embarrassed. This is why good organizations take care to make new volunteers feel comfortable and valued.

Of course, sometimes groups aren't so great at this, but it has nothing to do with you: it's about the people in the organization being overworked/burned out, a toxic culture, or whatever. If you encounter anything like that, find another organization.

I also sense that you're worried about picking the "wrong" cause or organization. Again, I totally understand that, but when it comes down to it, there are very few "wrong" organizations. There are different ideas about priorities, tactics and strategy. And yes, there are organizations that are not so hot when it comes to issues of privilege. Be on the lookout for that. But remember: if you end up with an organization whose priorities or tactics you disagree with, that doesn't make you "bad." It just means you either have to find a different organization or decide that you like enough about what the organization does to stay, with some reservations.

And yes to what everyone else says about the progressive internet. I drifted away from most of the progressive blogosphere when I realized what an echo chamber it had become, and how little real activism was going on. I don't have time for that when there's so much work to be done.
posted by lunasol at 6:18 PM on February 16, 2013 [4 favorites]

The most progressive thing we can do is be decent to those around us. It is the place where we have the most impact. I believe you ought to start by being decent to yourself. You are one human, not the entire planet.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:26 PM on February 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have a friend who puts all her time and energy into her particular cause. She's basically taken a vow of poverty, and would never do anything as self-indulgent as look after herself. And she's miserable and makes being an activist look like a horrible chore.

So get some therapy, cheer up, and then get involve in a cause and be an inspiration to other people. Let the world see that feminists aren't humorless, and that animal rights activists aren't dour, and that caring about the environment doesn't mean sitting in the dark while moaning, and that revolutionaries might like to dance.
posted by The corpse in the library at 3:05 PM on February 17, 2013

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