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.

Copenhagen – Modesty, equality, taxes, etc

Another thing I found very attractive about Danish culture, aside from its introvert-friendly values, is that it’s a very egalitarian society. The income gap between the richest and the poorest Danes is relatively small, Danes are notoriously modest and don’t lie to show off, and they genuinely care about the good of the collective. We had a visitor yesterday from the psychology department at DIS (who I met in Denmark, and now she is here for a week) who gave a lecture on why the Danes are consistently ranked the happiest country in the world. One of the things she said is that collective societies tend to have higher suicide rates but lower happiness, where as individualist societies tend to be the opposite – more happiness, but also more suicide. Denmark, she said, is what’s called a individualist collective society (or something like that), meaning that they pursue their own hopes and dreams, but feel that one shouldn’t pursue one’s personal happiness at the expense of the collective.

That’s probably why, in general, they don’t mind paying the high taxes that they do. The average tax rate in Denmark is 50%. That’s right, half of your income goes to taxes. The highest earners pay up to 75% – I talked to one woman who said she pays 70%, and she was complaining a little bit, but really not too bitterly. Even those who make minimum wage pay around 30% income taxes. But the minimum wage, AFTER TAXES, is still the equivalent of about $18-20/hour– more than I currently earn at my job. Of course the cost of living is higher than in Minnesota, but in general I think Danes earning minimum wage probably live a lot more comfortably than Minnesotans earning minimum wage, which is $6.15/hour here (BEFORE taxes).

White Privilege, Hard Borders, and other Controversial Things I Sometimes Talk About

I fear I may have made some enemies in the last couple of days. I’ve been trying to keep my metaphorical mouth shut on some of these issues in order to minimize conflict (very INFJ), but I really have a hard time not voicing my opinion on things about which I care deeply and passionately (also very INFJ….alas).

I don’t mean to judge anyone here. I don’t know you in real life, so unless you post some pretty blatant remarks, I have no basis on which to judge you. That’s not my place, anyway. But I can’t just let some of the things go unchallenged.

Here are the main issues I tend to rail on about, and my basic position on them, if anyone cares.

White Privilege
In his book, The Racial Contract, Charles Mills challenges the idea that modern society is founded on the basis of the “social contract” (as described by Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau), wherein human beings in the “state of nature” decide, by mutual consent, to relinquish individual autonomy in favor of civilization. Instead, Mills demonstrates, the world we live in today is based on a different contract, discriminatory where the other is (or is supposed to be) equitable. Mills calls this the Racial Contract. The main points of Mills’s book are state that white supremacy originated in the colonial era and continues to pervade global society today; that this white supremacy should be understood as a political system; and that white supremacy can be conceptualized as being based on a contract between whites (the Racial Contract). Mills emphasizes that although all whites benefit from the contract (to varying degrees – certainly a rich man would benefit more than a poor man, and men typically benefit more than women), this does not mean that we are all signatories to the contract – in other words, we are not to blame for the situation, but morally and ethically we should do our best to move our world toward a more equitable system.

Hard Borders
As defined by Loren Lomansky, hard boundaries are “demarcation[s] not easily traversable at will which function to confer substantial benefits or impose substantial costs on individuals by virtue of which side of the line they happen to find themselves on”(1). The division of the world’s landmasses according to hard boundaries, then, creates a situation where some people are born into poverty and others into wealth. Those born into poverty have very little chance of overcoming this system to make a good life for themselves and their families. Hard international boundaries are maintained for political and economic reasons that fail to address the inequality created by such boundaries. I believe such hard boundaries, institutions that serve to restrict the movement of people between geographical or political areas, are morally indefensible, for the reason that hard boundaries violate human rights and perpetuate white privilege

(1) Scarpellino, Martha. “‘Corriendo’: Hard Boundaries, Human Rights and the Undocumented Immigrant.” Geopolitics 12 (2007): 330-349. Web. 15 August 2008.

I believe that all of the problems that restrictionists blame on undocumented immigration can be traced to capitalism, corporate greed and globalization, and their colonial and imperial roots. These forces have led to a constricting job market in the United States, a decrease in wages in relation to prices and profit, anti-American sentiment abroad that threatens our national security, and the overtaxing of the Earth’s resources. Furthermore, globalization has arranged the world’s wealth so that developed nations control the vast majority of, and the disparity between the global rich and poor is astronomical. Until the system based on the accumulation of material wealth is torn down and replaced with a system based on respect, integrity and compassion, our world will never be at peace.

These are the main issues, anyway. I also tend to go on about marriage rights and other GLBT issues, but not to the extent of the topics above.