The other day, the answer to this question (or, rather, the answer that makes the most sense to me) occurred to me in while I was engaging in a rather abnormal activity:
I was shopping.
“Shopping is an ‘abnormal activity’ for you?!”, you say? Well, yes. I generally don’t like it, as I find it inefficient, and often overwhelming. This is why I usually only go to two stores, because I know they have clothes I like, that fit me well, which means I can get everything I need an hour or less. So, the fact that I was shopping – and in Banana Republic*, of all places – was quite unusual, indeed.
However, cheesybird was in town last week, and she wanted to go shopping in the stores that aren’t available to her back home. So, like the good tour guide I was, I obliged. As we were in BR, looking at pants, we started talking talking about my previous post about activism, and about how, writ large, activism is such a personal thing.
For example, I was asking cheesyb about her recent decision to go completely vegan. For her, it is a form of personal protest against the wholly inhumane treatment of the animals being raised for food. She doesn’t preach her veganism, or think less of people who do eat meat and other animal-derived foods (such as yours truly) and, as far as I know, she’s not part of any official organization of animal rights activists. Being vegan is simply her personal and political decision not to participate in/contribute to a practice that she finds abhorrent.
This brings me to my second point, which is about the nature of the term “political”: it doesn’t always have to mean capital-P “Political”. That is, it doesn’t always have to represent one’s affiliation with a formally-recognized political party (“Democrat”, “Progressive Conservative”), or political ideology (Socialist, Marxist, Anarchist, etc.). At a fundamental level, politics is about relationships of power: to yourself, to others, and to the institutions that form the basis of your society. More specifically, activism is about how you choose to negotiate those relationships of power, at any given moment.
Which brings me to my third point: activism is inherently contradictory, because there is no “outside space”. That is, at no point are were ever outside of, or above, or disentangled from, relationships of power. (Take, for example, feminist activism: much of the force behind it came from white, middle-class, heterosexual women, whose privilege blinded them to the realities and lived experiences of women of colour, poor and working-class women, and queer women. Hence, the ideological and practical split between second wave and third wave feminism.) This means that, while we may be marginalized in some regards, we may also be privileged in others. Further, our marginalization and privilege are not static, because relationships (be they inter-personal, intra-personal, or institutional) aren’t static: they change over time.
So, not only is there not one form of activism (such as protests) that will effect social and political change, activism also necessarily entails compromise. What are you willing to give up? What are you willing to ignore? What are you willing to forgo, just this once, in order to achieve your goals?
Thus, my answer to “What is activism?”, is this: At any given moment, it’s deciding which compromises you’re willing to make, which ones you aren’t, and then living your life accordingly.
(Which is why, despite my activist stance towards Banana Republic, I bought clothes from them – “just this once” – because they had dark blue trouser jeans (on sale!), in a style that looked good on me (which is very important, because I have a hard time finding pants/jeans that fit properly), and a pretty, soft, green t-shirt that I just had to have, because… well… it was pretty, soft, and green. *blush*
*It is my personal and political decision not to shop there, because of the (neo)colonial connotations of their name. (Plus, I think most of their clothes are boring.)
Edited to add:
So often activism is based on what we are against, what we don’t like, what we don’t want. And yet we manifest what we focus on. And so we are manifesting yet ever more of what we don’t want, what we don’t like, what we want to change. So for me, activism is about a spiritual practice as a way of life. And I realized I didn’t climb the tree because I was angry at the corporations and the government; I climbed the tree because when I fell in love with the redwoods, I fell in love with the world. So it is my feeling of ‘connection’ that drives me, instead of my anger and feelings of being disconnected.
Environmental activist Julia Butterfly Hill, who spent two years living in a redwood tree she named “Luna”, in order to save it from being cut down by a logging company