Are Introversion and Activism Compatible? (Or, The Armchair Activist)

I’m thinking today about activism. I don’t really consider myself an activist. I do my civic duty: I educate myself, I vote, I sign petitions, I donate to causes that are important to me. And I speak up, in my own way, about certain causes that speak to me. But by “speak up,” I mean write, share things on Facebook, occasionally engage in private conversations with acquaintances in the hopes of stimulating them to think critically about issues at hand, and also learning from their point of view. But I don’t really do anything, and in light of recent events (Ferguson, McKinney, Charleston…), I feel like I need to do more. Fewer words, more action. But what can I do that will be more effective than my armchair, Facebook activism? Pass out leaflets? Attend protests?

I care deeply about these issues, but I’m an introvert. And I also have a toddler. Going to protests just doesn’t seem feasible a lot of the time. Take this Saturday. I’d like to take my kid to an event (not a protest, but a community-building event), but it’s right during the time of day where if he isn’t napping, he’s not going to be in the right frame of mind to engage with anything. So that’s probably out. But when he gets a little older, that will change, and I will be able to take him to things like that, and it will be a step in the right direction.

But I’ll still have to contend with my introversion. I hate saying it like that, because it makes it sound like a mental health problem. And it’s not. I have one of those, too, and it’s not the same thing at all. So I don’t like to treat it like one. But, sometimes the reality, as much as I hate to admit it, is that introversion is something I have to “overcome.” So this thing on Saturday, even if it weren’t during naptime, I’d have to, like, talk to people there. Volunteer work usually involves a lot of personal interaction. At protests or demonstrations, I’d have to be surrounded by a bunch of strangers. I don’t know if I can do it.

I struggle with the conflicting ideas that I should put myself out of my comfort zone to support initiatives to fight racism, homophobia, etc. That, as a white, straight, cis woman, the least I can do is be a little uncomfortable around strangers for a little while. And I can do that. I do, every now and then. But it’s not a sustainable way, for me, to engage with the issue.

So I’m back to square one. I’m back to writing stuff, holding private conversations, and sharing facts or stories or words of wisdom from others, usually from behind the screen of social media. I’m not a coward—I’ve never been afraid to say that awkward thing that no one else wants to say—but in-person interaction is just so exhausting. And I do feel like writing things, talking to people, and sharing information and facts and stories are important. Of course it’s important. But is it enough? I don’t know. Probably not.

On the other hand, there are plenty of people in my social sphere who (I believe) could use to think critically about some of their beliefs, so why do I need to go out and engage with strangers to try to convince them to think differently, when I can encourage people I actually know to examine their beliefs and biases? When I can do so with a message of, “You are my friend/family member/acquaintance, and I don’t think you’re a bad person. But let’s talk about this. Or here’s something you might not have considered.” When these people know me, maybe even respect me, and maybe think it’s worth listening to what I have to say, even if they still may not agree. That seems like a better starting point than making a big speech to a bunch of people who don’t know me from Adam, or holding up a clever, quippy sign. Not to disparage those efforts, but are they the only way? Or even the best? Who decided that? I wouldn’t be writing this post if someone (an extrovert, probably) somewhere a long time ago hadn’t decided that the “right” way to effect social change is loudly: by demonstrating, protesting, making speeches, and arguing.

I don’t like to think of introverts as being “oppressed” or “disadvantaged” in the same way that some groups are oppressed or disadvantaged, but it’s also true that the world, or at least the US, caters toward extroverts. There is such a thing as extrovert privilege. I don’t like to frame it in those terms, because it in no way compares to white privilege or straight privilege or cis privilege or male privilege. But it’s there.

Extroverts have the privilege of not having people assume they are boring, dull, stupid, or uninterested because they listen more than talk in a conversation. Extroverts have the privilege of not having people assume they are stuck up or aloof because they are not good at small talk. They have the privilege of “class participation”—in other words, talking—coming naturally to them, when active listening, which comes naturally to many introverts, is just as important a part of learning as speaking up in class, and indeed perhaps even more of a rarity, but seems to be much less valued in our educational system. They have the privilege of finding energy in networking or social gatherings, whereas introverts have to push themselves to participate in these activities which often make or break hugely important parts of life, like one’s career or finding a suitable romantic partner (thank goodness for internet dating!).

I don’t mean to make this blog post a cry against extrovert privilege. There is a time and a place for that (maybe), but it’s not here. This post is about what I, as an introvert, can do to use my other privilege (white, cis, straight) to help bring down a system in which that privilege exists. What I can do that is true to myself, but also recognizes and honors the struggle others go through every day that is so much greater than my own.

I believe that education is the most important tool for social change. By profession and by nature, I’m an educator. I educate students every day about cultural difference, about respect, about examining their own biases and going into a new culture with an open mind. I do my best to educate my son about racism, privilege, and human rights (as much as one can educate a 15-month old about such things). I do my best to educate myself. I share my thoughts, knowledge, and opinions with friends and acquaintances, with the aim of encouraging thought, and growth, and introspection, and exploration.

I also believe that we’re approaching a place where more physical, radical action may be required. I know I won’t be the person to lead that. I may not even be a person who participates. I don’t even harbor the illusion that I will inspire someone to be the leader of such a movement. But maybe my contribution is that I can help prepare even just a few minds to be receptive to this movement when and if it comes to fruition.

Maybe that’s not enough. Maybe it’s a cop out. But it comes from a place of knowing myself and recognizing my own limitations, and knowing that the world is complex, that these issues are complex, and that there are no easy answers. It comes from a place of not knowing all the answers and knowing I will make mistakes, but doing the best I can do be part of the solution, and not part of the problem. And that, I believe, is that place at which all conversations—and action—around such complex issues must begin.

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One thought on “Are Introversion and Activism Compatible? (Or, The Armchair Activist)

  1. This is very interesting, I will talk to you about this too at some stage.

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