From the age of thirteen, I’ve marched, donated, and worked for causes I’ve believed in. Consumer advocacy, elections, environmentalism, feminism, recycling, social justice, welfare advocacy, wildlife rescue, unionism – name the cause, and I’ve probably been involved at some point. But close involvement has never been very satisfying, and sooner or later I become more of a fellow traveler than a regular worker for the cause. Recently, when the pattern reasserted itself yet again, I realized what I should have known years ago: I’m more of an eccentric than an activist.
This is a distinction that’s rarely made, but it’s an important one for me. Like an activist, I abstractly want a better life for everyone. Outwardly, you could frequently mistake me from the average supporter of good causes.
However, what differentiates me from a routine activist is that what concerns me most (not wholly, because it’s a matter of degree) is how those causes fit into my life. For example, a redefinition of gender roles seems healthy and necessary to me, but what mainly concerns me about feminism is how my belief in its tenets affects my own behavior and interactions. While I agree with many feminist social critiques, what matters most to me is how I interact with women myself. Do I avoid being condescending and trying to take charge? Do I refrain from taking charge of a conversation? Keep in mind that an interest in a woman doesn’t give me the right to intrude on her? Guiltily, I admit that I am more concerned that my conscience is clean than in the causes that activists talk about. I frequently condemn my focus as egocentric, but I retain it all the same.
This focus often distances me from any group working for a specific cause. With my concern for acting rightly, I am very much a believer that the means must be in keeping with the ends. Most activists would agree to this statement in theory, but, in practice, they violate it all the time.
For example, I frequently encounter groups that claim to believe in consensus, yet are organized from the top down. The leaders make a point of appearing to consult, but actually only do so on minor issues; they may allow discussion of T-shirt designs, but only limited discussion (if any) of general policy. Similarly, the leaders say that they don’t believe in the cult of personality, but do everything they can to promote their own celebrity. All too often, the leaders do not even feel they have to keep their promises to supporters.
No doubt this behavior shows the difficulty of trying to do things in alternative ways, but I react to these inconsistencies the way I would in personal life: I consider them evidence of hypocrisy, and as proof that the leaders are more interested in ego-satisfaction than their alleged cause. Being what is politely termed a high-vocal, sooner or later I’m likely to voice my opinions about what happenings, which speedily results in my withdrawal from the group.
Yet another problem with my conscience-driven approach is that I have trouble supporting the party line without questions. For me, being concerned with acting rightly means perceiving accurately what is happening around me. That means that I believe in multiple causality and that I’m always watching for nuances. But neither multiple causes or nuances are compatible with a party line. Again and again, I come to perceive the required beliefs of a cause as a collection of half-truths and over-simplifications at best.
This perception doesn’t mean that I don’t support a cause. After all, the corollary of my outlook is that conventional views are also half-truths and over-simplifications, and I believe that I have to choose a place to stand, even if it isn’t completely perfect. But such qualifications mean that my support is more intellectual than emotional, so I rarely manage the unthinking enthusiasm that so many activists seem to demand. I’m simply not that good at lying to myself.
Moreover, my outlook isn’t one that activists enjoy hearing. They’re apt to accuse me of over-intellectualizing, or of being undermined by doubts and therefore bad for the general morale. All too often, they accuse me of imperfect loyalty, – and, once or twice, of being a traitor. These seem the only interpretations that most activists can make of qualified support.
Such realizations do not mean that I no longer support the causes of my younger days. I do, and plan to continue to support them this side of senility or death.
But my realizations do mean that in the future my support should be more distant than in the past, taking the form of more donations and occasional consulting or helping out when asked than regular involvement. I’m tired of thinking I’ve found a community only to find myself needing or wanting to move on, or of puzzling people because I try to practice what I consider intellectual honesty. As an eccentric, I’m more of a fellow traveler than dedicated party member, and while I’m not altogether happy with this truth, denying it seems needlessly disruptive for everyone.