Every activist knows that taking a stand for something you believe in is hard but admirable. But living continually in defense of that position you’ve taken can feel like an unending social crucifixion.
Once upon a time there was an earnest young woman who spent her childhood locked away inside a fundamentalist, patriarchal religion. When she finally got out, the girl’s long experience of confinement led her to believe passionately in people’s right to self-determination above all else.
One day, one of the girl’s professors assigned her a fat book arguing that democracy is the most moral type of government. The reason democracy is moral—the book said—is that it institutionalizes self-determination at the collective level. But democracy loses its moral value in the face of severe inequality and poverty, which undermine equal access to political power and make government nothing more than a tool for oppression rather than an instrument to advance collective well-being.
Intrigued, the girl started looking for evidence of that process in her country—the most powerful country in the world at that time—and began to see it everywhere. She saw democracy in her country being hijacked to protect and empower small groups of already-privileged people. She saw marginalized groups abandoning politics after losing faith that democracy could ever meet their needs. She wondered constantly whether her world could ever be different.
Luckily, at just that moment that girl was invited to join a humanitarian delegation in a a faraway land, a country smack in the middle of a democratic revolution aimed at seriously addressing poverty and inequality. And that revolution seemed to be working—the poverty rate was nosediving, from 50% in 1998 to 30% some 14 years later.
The girl rode creaky Jeeps up into the poorest neighborhoods in the capital, where she found an electric political atmosphere and enthusiastic community groups trying to develop a new model of participatory democracy. Everyone she spoke to radiated new hope at the power of their democracy to determine how their lives looked. The girl left the country exploding with a burning optimism about the possibility of democratic progress.
But then everything changed.
The girl left her home country to study at one of the best universities abroad, and when she got there she found that her idealism made people she wanted to be friends with think she was very strange and perhaps a bit silly. Her classmates teased her about being a Marxist, which she was clever enough to recognize as a Cold War–era slur from her own country rather than a descriptor of the rather dated ideas of Karl Marx.
She met well-off students from the faraway country she had just visited who bewailed the recent revolution as the worst thing that had ever happened to them. She was at a loss to defend a sort of politics that clearly did not serve the needs of Nice Respectable People. In fact, the young woman herself wanted to be a Nice Respectable Person, with all the privileges that came along with that.
And so she abandoned her ideals.
Thereafter, when her friends asked for her bleeding-heart leftie take on how to solve the world’s problems, she tried to say as little of substance as possible. The girl graduated and got a Nice Respectable Job, tried not to think at all about the faraway land or her home country, and a lot of years passed without incident.
Earlier this month, Jess Zimmerman wrote a Guardian column about opinion fatigue, and every single word she said struck a chord with me. Of course you have guessed that the Nice Respectable leftie girl in the story above used to be me—but me it is no longer. That young woman lived half a decade or so trying not to have inconvenient opinions, but eventually came to despise herself so intensely for her own cowardice that she turned over a new leaf to become a professional Opinion Haver.
And God is it ever exhausting.
When Orwell deemed intellectual cowardice “the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face,” he ignored the social isolation and exhaustion plaguing those who live in warzones of ideas. As professional Opinion Havers, according to Zimmerman, “we’re supposed to produce and consume opinions with an enthusiasm and confidence that is totally disproportionate to how much most opinions are worth.” She says:
It’s tiring to lug around your armor of spurious competence…Everyone is burned out by thinking something about everything. Everyone is even more burned out by everyone else thinking something about everything.
Every activist knows that taking a stand for something you believe in is hard but admirable. But living continually in defense of that position you’ve taken—embodying an idea that few other people would wish to be associated with in polite company—feels like an unending social crucifixion, a trauma that can send even the most incisive minds searching for a fluffier intellectual sofa to sprawl on for a while.
Even one of my great modern intellectual heroes, Susan Sontag, appears to have suffered this malady of opinion fatigue. The recent HBO documentary on her life recounts how one of America’s most biting left-wing essayists justified her withdrawal from social commentary to write fiction: “In literature,” Sontag told an interviewer, “a truth is something whose opposite is also true.”
But while her exhaustion with intellectual combat was understandable, Sontag’s foray into fiction clearly did not play well to her talents. (Nobel-winning novelist Nadine Gordimer later noted that Sontag’s novels were “not received at the level she would have liked.”)
For my part, I’ve just returned from three weeks in intellectual recovery time with my family in the homeland, where I felt so depleted from recent months of activism that I literally wanted to duck and hide at a mention of the words feminism or socialism. (When an aunt began discussing the negative impact of unions on the U.S. economy, I could barely muster a shrug.)
Nevertheless, I was also thrilled and refreshed to discover pockets of alternative spaces—places like a busy trans-inclusive anarchist bookshop in New York, where I left with my bag stuffed with readings by Ursula K. Le Guin and sociologists critiquing the relationship between capitalism and the nuclear family. Places that reminded me why it’s so important for activists to try to keep the faith, whatever the social cost.
Last night, back home in my adopted country in South America, this earnest young woman went to a birthday party. I eventually found myself sat next to an amiable political scientist in a white collar gushing about the need for a politics that “keeps its feet on the ground,” that engages with the world as it exists in reality instead of “that left-wing idealism” everyone seems to be spouting these days.
I froze for a millisecond and felt that familiar contraction of fear from the old days, the urge to avoid trying to defend the seemingly indefensible, make myself pleasant to this Nice Respectable Person and say nothing at all.
But this time I decided to do something else. “Oh, well,” I offered with my mildest smile. “We’re on exact opposite sides of the political spectrum, then. I’m actually quite interested in utopian left-wing anarchism these days.”
The man in the white collar’s eyes widened. “You’re like my friend here, then!” He flailed an arm out at a man sitting nearby. “He’s an Italian, an anarchist, too!”
I peered across the table at the Italian anarchist, met his frank look, and we grinned at each other. Instant political fraternity.
There are more of us out here than you might think.
Samantha Eyler is a freelance American writer, editor, and translator based in Medellín, Colombia. She has written about politics, immigration, Latin America, and social justice for publications such as NACLA and the New Statesman. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.