Rethinking Social Activism

By Nathan Shearn

In a world where rights are snatched and activism is thriving, what role do protestors play?

Photo by Hanna Benavides.

Photo by Hanna Benavides.


It was a warm fall afternoon and I was standing among hundreds of other people in the shadow of the Stonewall Inn, engulfed in a sea of Rainbow flags, anti-Putin posters, and brightly colored protest signs.

The sky was cloudless and the air was surprisingly fresh. I noticed clusters of people gathering around the main speaking platform. Police officers guarded the outer peripheries of the rally while people continued to trickle in, greeting one another with warm embraces and a tender kiss on the cheek. Anticipation and excitement swept across the crowd — finally, we were ready to march.

Four weeks ago, on October 14, I attended a human rights event in New York City called Voices4Chechnya. The event, which consisted of a rally and a march across Manhattan, was organized in an effort to pressure the Trump administration to grant humanitarian parole visas to LGBTQ individuals from Chechnya, who continue to be the target of an ongoing genocide in the region.

The march was a social justice event, organized by a collection of human rights groups that work with Russian-speaking LGBTQ migrants from the post-Soviet bloc who now live in New York City. Many of these migrants are refugees and asylum seekers who are afraid of returning to their home countries out of fear of imprisonment, physical harm, or psychological abuse. Getting papers to stay in the United States is crucial for many of these migrants. For some, it literally means the difference between life and death.


Shock, Euphoria, and Confusion

I decided to attend this event for two main reasons. As someone who identifies as a member of the LGBTQ community, and as an individual who has been following the stories of terror that have come out of Chechnya in recent months, I felt it was my duty to participate in the march and use my voice to speak out against violence. The event also offered the perfect opportunity for me to collect data on a research project I had recently begun. It afforded me the chance to make preliminary observations, meet interesting people, get to know an association of activist organizations, and absorb the rapturous environment around me.

At the beginning of the march, I remember feeling shock, a surge of euphoria, a rush of excitement. I felt a burgeoning sense of solidarity with those who marched alongside me. The experience reminded me of “communitas,” a concept that describes the spirit of community, the intensity of our social bonds, and the feelings of togetherness or belonging that members of a community experience when they organize themselves outside the structures of society. This was what I thought social activism was all about — passion, invincibility, collective will and solidarity.

But expectation rarely meets reality. As the event wore on and I gradually absorbed more of the environment around me, there was something I began to notice. It was a spontaneous sort of feeling of anxiousness, confusion and suspicion. It would seize my mind one moment, and then disappear the very next. It felt like an inner tension that I couldn’t escape.


On Affect and Activism

I felt dislocated and emotionally conflicted. I no longer felt as morally pure or righteous as I did at the beginning of the event. The euphoria began to wear off, and I began to question whether anything I was doing carried any “real” meaning or significance.

These feelings of discomfort, what I now think of as a kind of dirtiness or contamination, emerged and submerged at different points during the event. In certain moments, I would become hyper-aware; I would see the contradictions, the limitations, and the exclusions in everything around me. The rally, the march, and the chanting -- everything seemed somewhat contaminated, not quite authentic. Impure.  

Dozens of people stood on the edge of the sidewalks, watching or taking footage of us as we marched by. I felt increasingly like I was a part of a performance, a show, a public spectacle of some sort.

Social activism is about visibility. But how do you feel when you’re in the moment; how do you feel when you’re walking down a street and ten different cameras are pointed at your face? How do you feel when someone sticks a microphone in front of your mouth and tests to see how much you really know about the cause you’re fighting for -- your cause?


How authentic does it feel to be an activist then?

I felt myself starting to question whether everything I was doing was as noble or significant as I thought it was before. I started to reflect more critically both on my positionality at the march and on the conflicting emotions that were taking over me. I began reflecting on how my identity and my privilege as an activist made me feel in the moment.

To some extent, I still felt like I occupied the moral high-ground: I mean, here I was, fighting and giving voice to the lifeless, the violated, and the damaged, while the rest of the world remained silent. At the same time, I admittedly felt angry and frustrated. I felt simultaneously proud of what I was doing yet disturbed by the sorts of implications my actions were having both on my own sense of personhood and on that of those individuals for whom I was claiming to speak. What, did I really know about anything going on in Chechnya anyway; and who was I to speak on behalf of the suffering and the persecuted? To me, it became clearer as time went on that each of the people I thought I knew were nameless and faceless to me.

In her essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Gayatri Spivak, a renowned Indian feminist and literary theorist, asks us to reflect upon our role, and even our complicity, in coopting the voice of the subaltern (the socially and economically marginalized), and in so doing, of furthering the task of imperialism, of silencing the voices of those who are oppressed and subordinated in society and speaking for them, rather than letting them speak for themselves. She invites us to think more deeply about a hierarchy of voices; whose voices speak louder than others and whose voices are silenced? Whose voices can make “legitimate” claims, and whose voices cannot?

What kind of contamination might we discover if we, the privileged and the socially mobile -- dig a little deeper into our own humanity? Might our intentions, our actions, and even our thoughts not seem as “pure” as we initially thought? And is there beauty in realizing that certain things are contaminated, that they are neither wholly righteous, nor pure, nor noble?

Social activism is never a morally pure endeavor. It’s okay to step back and realize that we live in a dark, violent, and deeply unsettling world. And it’s also okay to stand up to that, to resist and fight back, to imagine a better, more accepting and inclusive world for future generations. It’s okay to dream. But, it’s necessary that in doing this, we recognize that our intentions and our actions are mediated by our own limitations, and that we, as humans, are naturally flawed and imperfect.


Fighting My Emotions

I battled my emotions throughout most of the march. I questioned things that I observed around me. I wondered why there were so many people who stood off to the side and watched us march by. Why others were more ambivalent and why some just flatly ignored us. I wondered how people interpreted their voice or their positionality. I asked myself why so many of us were aware of the human rights violations taking place in Chechnya, yet simultaneously seemed so unaware of the structural violences that produced and legitimized the homeless with whom we shared the sidewalks. Where were their human rights? And why did nobody seem to recognize the structures of inequality and violence that made their reality practically invisible to us all?

How are human rights violations recognized, articulated, and addressed? Do time and physical proximity mediate the responses we enact and distribute across differences of race, class, gender, religion, and sexual orientation, when violence is perpetrated against one marginalized group or another?

This reflection ought to give pause to those of us who are invested in social activism today. For those of us who may feel contaminated or discomforted by the politics of social activism, I challenge all of us to continue our missions and fight for our causes. But in doing so, to remember that the first step toward building a better and brighter future is making peace with the fact that we live in a dirty and polluted world and that we are flawed, imperfect, and limited human beings. We are contaminated by our very nature, though this is not always a bad thing. In many cases, this kind of contamination is an advantage, a healthy human quality.

My hope is that in recognizing that our humanity is impure, we may be able to continue the work we do and do it both with a sense of humility and a recognition of our privilege. This, I ultimately believe, is integral to preserving our dignity, our sense of self, and our commitment to end suffering and violence wherever it may be found.

Photo by Rashika Jaipuriar.

Photo by Rashika Jaipuriar.

Nathan Shearn is a junior studying anthropology and Russian language, literature, and culture at Syracuse University.