On Netroots NW & Feeling Like an Activism Tourist

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.

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7 thoughts on “On Netroots NW & Feeling Like an Activism Tourist

  1. Oh Nat, has no one ever told you that a movement without supporters is just a rather odd looking ranty person with an opinion?

    Politics isn’t always about blazing a trail, its about exercising your freedom to take part, without compulsion, as much or as little as you like

  2. Of course there’s a place for passivism within activism. Not least because there needs to be a place for people whose lives encompass things other than activism, or whose minds and/or bodies restrict them from singular devotion to the cause.

  3. Thanks for your thoughts Nat, and thanks for coming along, and for a lot of useful tweeting on the day.

    It’s an important conclusion you have here, and this is a big part of the point of why we’re doing Netroots UK. There are people with talents, people with experience, and people with an idea of the work that needs doing, and we want to help link them up. We hope some people will come away with a new contact or idea to help them put their skills and enthusiasm to new uses, and others might get a new skill or tip that they can apply to their own work.

    Everyone can learn something from everyone else, and nobody has to be a total digital Dalai Lama to be useful to the broader movement. As Clifford, Kate and Ally all took pains to point out in their plenary session contributions, the next couple of years are going to need absolutely everyone!

  4. I’d never heard of the Pirate Party till I opened my voting papers. (The thing I information that I’ve been trawling the ‘net for hours) Is this man Loz a racist? I don’t want to vote for anyone that sees one human as disgusting because of there skin colour. x

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