This weekend, I trekked up to the barren north (Manchester) for Netroots North West, a one-day conference focussing on the digital side of activism. Inspired by, and in partnership with, the US grassroots organisation Netroots Nation – now in its seventh year – the considerably more fledgling UK branch aim to amplify progressive voices by providing a space to exchange ideas and experiences about how best to use technology (in particular, them interwebs) to influence public debate.
So far, so relevant to my interests. I can never resist an opportunity to rant about how best to harness the power of the internet, and besides, there was a free bar. My day ended successfully discussing the media misrepresentation of Anonymous across a pint with the current leader of Pirate Party UK, Loz Kaye. I say ‘discussing’; I fear my conversational style was more of an inarticulate slurring by this point. I mentioned the free bar, right? And how I should never be allowed near one? Standard.
NB:- I’ve storified my tweets from the day, if you couldn’t attend & would like to see some Interesting Quotes from Relevant People.
Surrounded by all these people doing such valuable grassroots campaigning, though, I found myself waiting in fear for the moment when they asked that inevitable question: “So, what do you do?” Then I’d glance uncomfortably at the floor, with a mixture of embarrassment and shame, and mutter out of the side of my mouth, “Well, I work in digital marketing. Um. Web content? A bit of social media. You know. Nothing, uhh…. nothing important.”
I consider myself to be a reasonably politically engaged person. I protested against the hikes in student tuition fees, against the cuts to the NHS, against Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB bid. I showed my face at the March for the Alternative. I know the names of everyone in the cabinet, I keep up with the news obsessively; almost every morning finds me yelling at John Humphrys from beneath my quilt. I’ve been down to Occupy LSX and discussed the process of change with Ani Difranco! I have friends who’ve been arrested for supergluing themselves to banks! I’ve only missed three PMQs in the last year and a half, dammit!
What I’m saying is: I’m certainly not the politically apathetic young person so maligned and despaired of in the mainstream media.
The truth is, I feel like a fraud.
At protests, I’m little more than a tourist, strolling around and taking in the sights. At Occupy, I dither on the steps of St Paul’s, sure that I support but not sure how to support. A passing journalist asks whether I’m “with the movement”, and I hesitate, not wanting to speak for a group that I’m barely even on the peripheries of. I bump into a friend from Queer Resistance outside the University Tent, who tells me that they need more writers for The Occupied Times; I tell him I’d “love to be doing more for the cause” and promise to get in touch. I don’t. I’ve been to parliament plenty of times…but, erm, normally only for the monthly karaoke night in the Sports & Social.
I’m angry, yes; I disagree with a lot of what the coalition government is doing. But I don’t feel that righteous rage that I see on the faces around me. I’ve never even been pepper-sprayed, and frankly, it’s getting embarrassing.
It isn’t that I don’t care, but I don’t feel like I could possibly ever care enough; my voice lacks that certain sincerity that so gushes from the mouths of my ‘proper’ activist friends. It’s a constant source of mild anxiety and guilt for me: does my irreverence render me irrelevant?
Perhaps unfortunately, most people just aren’t that fierce, passionate, fighting type, who can speak wide-eyed for hours about people power and the importance of social change. It isn’t that we don’t think it’s important; we do. But an ‘all-or-nothing’ approach risks alienating the more casual activist, who prefers to pootle in and offer a bit of support where they can – whether that’s a physical presence at a protest or a well-timed tweet. I’ve been thinking about it for a while, and I’ve come to the conclusion that that’s ok, really, and that there’s room for all types within the progressive movement. Even if you’re not out perpetually campaigning and flyering and placard-waving, you can still contribute to a more ambient awareness, which can creep miasma-like into the mainstream consciousness.
TL;DR – I’ve decided to stop beating myself up about it, because maybe there’s a place for passivism within activism.