Activism can be exhausting. It means that you refuse to live in blissful ignorance. You are constantly facing up to the worst society has to offer, and often beating back the same problems over and over again. While, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, there are challenges and setbacks along the way.
Cord Jefferson eloquently lays out this problem in the context of journalism and working the “racism beat”:
Imagine an editor asking a writer to passionately articulate why a drunk driver hitting and killing a boy on a bicycle is wrong and sad. That would never happen, because a drunk driver killing a boy on a bike is a self-evident tragedy. Asking a writer to exert lots of effort to explain why would be a disservice to the dead, as if his right to life were ever in question, as if our moral obligation to not snuff out our fellow citizens via recklessness were something in need of an eloquent plea.
When another unarmed black teenager is gunned down, there is something that hurts about having to put fingers to keyboard in an attempt to illuminate why another black life taken is a catastrophe, even if that murdered person had a criminal record or a history of smoking marijuana, even if that murdered person wasn’t a millionaire or college student. There is something that hurts when thinking about the possibility of being “accidentally” shot on some darkened corner, leaving a writer who never met you the task of asking the world to acknowledge your value posthumously, as it didn’t during your life.
This feeling is familiar to activists as well. Your heart is even heavier at the death of Jordan Davis when it comes on the heels of a not guilty verdict for George Zimmerman. Jefferson’s perspective is especially resonant just looking at the last couple of weeks. Gun control activists saw little real policy response to the Sandy Hook massacre, and must again mount their arguments in the wake of a new string of mass shootings. Feminists have to convince a skeptical audience that the misogyny behind one of those shootings is a real threat that invades women’s daily lives. Rape survivors have to see one of the nation’s most prominent newspapers publish pieces in one week that claim that women pretend to be rape survivors to get “privileges” that come with the status and that the way to end violence against women is to marry them off as soon as possible.
That’s not meant to be a litany so depressing that you want to hide under your bed. But it is a reflection of the reality that we sometimes face. It’s enough to make some people throw up their hands.
What it raises for me is that we need to be sensitive to the emotional toll that activism can take and make decisions that value our well-being. We need to take care of ourselves. It’s better for people, and it’s better for movements to not lose promising activists to burnout. It’s also a reminder that we always have to keep the long game in mind, which is often easier said than done. Much of this virulent outpouring is a backlash against the progress activists are making. It’s overwhelming and difficult to deal with, but it’s also often a sign that we’re winning and we can’t give up.