When Nothing Changes

So, this is the most depressing topic I could possibly have chosen for my last blog post on this forum. Yes, this is my last post with the Women’s Center at the University of Minnesota, but not in life. I hope to continue writing online and/or just in life generally, so, ya know… don’t be sad? That really depends on whether or not you like what I write, which in that case, don’t worry. I will be around one way or another.

Back to the point of this article. I couldn’t really decide on a topic for this post, mainly because I have a lot of ideas, mostly involving more analyses of certain social constructions dictating our daily lives, like the relationship between the 2016 presidential campaign and its impact on families. Because I’m starting a graduate program at Brandeis University, however, I have to say goodbye. While I’ll miss my time with the Women’s Center, it is time to move on.

Then I realized I wanted to write about moving on.

While it is not necessary to be active in the world of social change in order to affect change, you may decide that you would like to participate. If that’s the case, you may decide to volunteer for a crisis center or at a homeless shelter. You may want to repeal a local bill through protest or participate in a local chapter of a national campaign like Black Lives Matter. Whatever you decide to do with your interest in activism, you decided to do it because you have certain standards of how the world should be. You believe that if everyone is heard, then the world will be a better place. You hold on to this belief so much that you are willing to fight to validate your life and/or the lives of others. This is the reason most of us decide to become active in advocacy, myself included. We’re not always right, and we make mistakes, but the point is that people cannot be denied their basic rights. So, you fight to make your more equitable vision of the world a reality. This is all great and should be encouraged, but then there’s the thing people participating in social change fear and don’t want to talk about.

We don’t talk about what to do when nothing changes.

This lack of change can be big or small. Maybe your campaign to repeal a TRAP law lost. Maybe you have a friend who thinks less of you or your cause simply because they don’t agree with you. Because you don’t want to give up, you try again to repeal that law or fight with that friend. However, nothing you say or do seems to affect change. This then makes you question what you’re doing in the first place.

Understanding this self-doubt is crucial to understanding activism. Activism is the business of changing hearts and minds, and the effort to fundamentally change a person’s point of view is draining. In our current cultural climate, many feel drafted to one side. They align themselves with their values, right or wrong, because that’s what they know or what feels right to them. Yet, when the issue demands nuance or understanding, those original values fracture. We’re left in a void screaming, attempting to be heard in vain.

Let’s take Jimmy Notarealguy for a minute. He’s that one guy in your Psych 101 class, and he seems pretty cool. He seems laid back, and he can keep light conversation with most of the class. But then you all take your seats, and throughout every lesson, that Jimmy keeps insisting that women are fundamentally inferior. Because you see the good in Jimmy, you’ve made it your life mission to change his mind. Before you know it, the semester’s over and Jimmy has learned nothing, and you feel like you failed. Your attempt to educate your classmate has failed, and Jimmy gets to keep his ignorant ways.

To be honest, though, Jimmy is probably not that ignorant. In fact, most people that you believe are ignorant in their ways probably are not. Like you, they wholeheartedly believe that they’re right. Nothing will upset the world view they’ve built for themselves, and nothing will change their minds. This blind faith can work both ways. In activism, if you devote yourself to one thing without recognizing the need for flexibility, you may forget the most essential thing about activism: everyone, meaning Jimmy included, needs to be heard.

So, it’s moments like these that make you question why you bother. As someone participating in activism, you take on the responsibility that you may be going against the value system of those around you or your community. As you stand by your beliefs, the consequences of those beliefs can be wonderful and fulfilling but also damaging or dangerous. Because of this tension, you may eventually reach a point when tensions run too high and the foundation you’ve relied on crumbles. You may have to pick it up again or even reconsider if what you did was worth the struggle. Sometimes it’s not. You may be better off avoiding the conversation altogether. You may, however, be better off with yourself if you say something. If you take a stand, you’ll be right with yourself. And how can you love and respect others if you don’t do the same thing for yourself? Both, though, have their consequences. You may damage relationships or change someone’s opinion of you permanently. You may lose people in your life. It’s painful, and it makes no one happy, both the other people and yourself. This isn’t a PSA to start cutting people out of your life. Consider if it’s worth it, because usually it’s not. Usually an understanding can be reached and amends can be made.

The main point, though, is that these tensions run high and then foundations you’ve built with others fundamentally change. Sometimes, it’s good. Maybe both of you needed to see each other in a different light. Other times, though, it can be devastating. You ultimately need to decide if you should stand your ground or relinquish a part of your beliefs in order to fully understand the perspective of others. In that case, the best thing to do is move on. Chances are, you’re not going to change Jimmy’s mind about “fundamentally inferior” women. Chances are, you’re not going to change the town’s mind about their no dance policy. So, you’ll have to decide whether or not to have that forbidden prom in a barn.

If you’re not going to change their minds, though, then is this struggle even worth the trouble? Is it even worth it to participate in activism? Of course it is! I’m not telling you to give up. That would be just as defeating. If everyone gave up because of resistance, we would not have the vibrant and diverse voices constantly changing the world we live in. No, all I’m telling you is to be smart and practice self-care. Realize that moving on may be the best option for yourself and to keep the peace with others. When you move on, you accept that nothing changed but you can regroup. Try to understand what is or isn’t working, and utilize this new knowledge for another cause in the future.  Don’t be afraid of being self-reflexive, meaning don’t be afraid to admit that your good intentions may fail others or yourself. More importantly, moving on doesn’t make you less of a person or less of an activist.

It just makes you human.

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