Activism is boring
When my husband told our neighbors as we passed that we were off to staff a booth at the San Jose Gay Pride Celebration
, they said it sounded exciting to be activists.
Oh, how wrong they are. At its best, activism is fundamentally boring. You might have mental images of a tight cadre of people in intense planning in rallys, perhaps bonding in solidarity in civil disobedience. In reality, time spent on activism these days is mostly spent on these activities:
- figuring out what events to put on
- organizing the logistics for the event
- convincing other people to show up at the event
- showing up at the event
Figuring out what events to put on is somewhat frustrating, as it's really hard to come up with ideas for things that haven't been done before.
Organizing logistics for an activism event is not much different from organizing logistics for any other event. You need to fill out paperwork, coordinate activities, fill out schedules, arrange the audiovisual elements, decorate the set, etc. etc. etc. Furthermore, activist organizations usually do not have the luxury of having lots of money, so the logistics are not as straightforward. For example, instead of just hiring somebody to deliver and operate a sound system, the preference is to call around to a lot of different people to try to cobble together pieces of a sound system into a usable whole.
One of the logistical pieces is convincing people to come to the event. This is difficult not just because people are over-committed these days, but because the events are fundamentally boring (see below).
While there is some variation in events, most fall into one of these major classes:
- public demonstrations (rallies, protests, parades)
- governmental meetings
- information tables/booths
For governmental meetings, the most important thing is to show up, to impress upon the governmental officials that your side has more bodies than their side. Governmental meetings, by definition, are run by public servants -- who are self-selected for enjoying the sound of their own voice. There is also usually a time for public comment, at which point you make your most important arguments (over and over and over) and the loyal opposition makes their most important arguments (over and over and over). For contentious issues, the public comment can last for several hours -- and the speaking skills of the public usually does not compare favorably to those of public officials.
In addition to public hearings, you get to go to rallies. Attending a rally means standing with a bunch of people who agree with you and listening to someone who shares your values telling you stuff you already know. It is not educational for you, and passer-bys rarely stop for more than thirty seconds, so they don't learn much either. That's okay, because the point is not to educate anybody at the rally, but to get on TV. Thus it's not important to have interesting speakers, but to have material that looks good on TV.
Staffing an information table can occasionally be interesting if you get into a dialog with somebody who stops by, but also involves a whole lot of sitting around and waiting for people to come by.
Going to fund-raisers can actually be a whole lot of fun, as you are usually with a bunch of people who share your value priorities in a congenial situation. There is that one annoying little part about feeling obliged to actually give the organizers money, however...
It almost seems like unpleasantness is the currency of activism, a way of saying to the world, "Look! I believe so much in this cause that I am willing to endure this much unpleasantness." That certainly worked for the racial civil rights movement, where activists enduring being beaten, hosed, and set upon by police dogs was highly compelling.
It is perhaps a testament to how tame the issue of gay rights in California is (for a straight woman) that the worst I need to endure as an activist is boredom.