Sadly, I’ve come to believe that most groups working for social change are dragged down by those I call lifestyle activists – people who believe the right principles, but who have no belief or interest in the possibility of change. Instead, their main interest is to define themselves and denigrate others by expressing activist beliefs.
For example, I recently read a conversation on Twitter about the shortage of women in technology. One lifestyle activist suggested that the problem was not that women weren’t in the field already. A man with a history of support for women in computing commented, “it’s a little more complicated, isn’t it? It’s systemic. It’s not like we just discard all the women resumes,” and the lifestyle activist accused him of patronizing her. He responded mildly, saying he was trying to understand, and she replied that she wasn’t “someone who gives a fuck about helping you.” After he politely bowed out of the conversation, she continued to make sarcastic comments aimed at what he had said.
It’s not surprising, of course, that an advocate for women in technology should get tired of continually hearing the same questions. Repetition of basic questions is rarely endearing. Nor should she be expected to welcome mansplaining – men telling her what she already knows first hand far better than they should.
Yet, at the same time, from the context, the man was obviously an ally. If he asked questions that were too common, he seemed open enough that – unlike most men with similar questions – he could probably be taught something. However, instead of taking the chance to educate him, the lifestyle activist leaped to the conclusion that he was as clueless as other men she had encountered and attacked him.
Not being a total stranger to activism myself, I’m tempted to ask the lifestyle activist what she expects. If you take positions that are outside the social norm, you shouldn’t exactly be shocked that people want to talk about them. You need to set borders so that you don’t spend more time answering questions than you care to and you may grumble in private about ignorant questions and even more ignorant outsiders – but the one thing you should never do is forget that, for other people, when you speak you represent your cause. If you are rude, what outsiders will remember is not that you personaly were rude, but that people who support your cause in general are rude. Those who want to help bring about change can never afford to forget the fact that, by being an activist, you invite others to view you as a teacher.
Sadly, though, the woman in this example was not motivated by any such understanding. Instead, the tenets of feminism were weapons for her personal use. She used them to lash out at a stranger in revenge for past encounters with others. If the idea that she might be hurting her own cause occurred to her, it had no visible effect on her behavior. Her reaction was so far beyond anything justified by the exchange that it looks like nothing except an expression of ego. If the man or anyone reading the exchange didn’t become hostile to feminism in technology, the reason has more to do with them than with her.
This kind of lifestyle activism is not new. George Orwell noted in the 1930s and 1940s that the English left had been out of power so long that most of its members were incapable of suggesting responsible policy alternatives. All they could do was condemn existing policies and reinforce their identity as leftists. You can can see the same sort of reaction today on the left, or in environmentalism or any other cause intended to create change.
Lifestyle activism is so prevalent that I think it explains why society as a whole is so slow to change. Too many of those who appear to be working for change are really busy feeling good about themselves at the expense of their alleged causes.