On Being a Social Justice and Peace Activist

Browsing the Internet, one can find a deluge of entries on social justice and peace activists, but very little about their own introspections on how they see and feel themselves as activists.

Seeking to fill at least partially that void I aim to explore in this article what it is like to be an activist in America for social justice and peace. I will do this in four ways.

First, since this journal is read by activists with varying levels and types of activity I will ask them about their activism. How would you answer the following questions?

Your Activist Self Checklist

a) Type and Degree of Feelings

Minor (e.g., anguish, ashamed of America, disgust, guilt for not doing more)?

Moderate (e.g., despair, determination, hopelessness, resignation)?

Intense (e.g., alienation, anger, burnout, paranoia, suicidal)?

Unusual (e.g., pride in fighting the corpocracy)?

b) Activities:

Armchair Activist? Street Activist? Activist Elsewhere? Professional Activist?

Percentage Yearly Time Spent on Activism:

Minimal (25% or less)?

Moderate (More than 25%)?

Extensive (50% or more)?

c) Experiences and Degree of Hardship:

Minor (e.g., inconvenience)?

Moderate (e.g., inclement weather, harassment)?

Extensive (e.g., physical confrontation, injury, detainment, trial, prison)?

Anyone higher on the scale for all three categories could be considered in my opinion a supreme patriot who is suffering a lot for that patriotism in its purest sense (i.e. not “my country right or wrong,” but, “my country, please do no wrong”). I should think such a patriot would feel a sense of pride mixed with other feelings.

Second, I will tell you about myself as I see myself. My score for the last few decades would waver between minor and moderate. Except for once participating several years ago in a protest at the local office of a U.S. Representative, all my activism has been from afar, sitting unharmed and comfortable at my computer desk (my family calls it the “cave” where I disappear to grumble and write). That one time was so pathetic it was disgusting. I had responded to an e-mail from the NGO, Move On.org Political Action Team requesting that I join with others in my community to protest outside the local office of said politician who was on recess. A few of us showed up holding signs (I had made my own). He never came out to hear us or talk to us because he was either not there or hiding.1 Never again, I vowed. So instead of weathering more outdoor protests I accelerated my armchair activism of writing out my protests via articles and books.

But therein began my slippery slope into feeling a form of alienation, one from my own nation. I found myself straddling between feeling that I was part of it and at the same time not part of it. I will never choose to be an expatriate, and never choose to alienate myself from my own life by ending it, so I will probably bear this personal conflict and other unhealthy feelings for the indefinite future.

Personal Vignettes and Memoirs

Third, although personal vignettes and memoirs of living activists are hard to find, I do have a few to share with you, starting with these from a few commenters (names withheld) on some of my activist articles:

“If I did not have people like you and them to examine this moment in time, I would go insane! The people I meet, and even my own family appear clueless.”

“I am working hard on staying centered, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally–and trying hard not to add fuel to the fire of hate.”

“I personally feel that we are in a hopeless decline and are sliding down that slippery slope to the destruction of our democracy. There is certainly little left of it now.”

“Many of us feel despair.”

“Gary, I hear your frustration and despair. I too feel it, so I will share my philosophy that keeps me going so far.”

“I also have members of my family that know what I write about and never read any of it.”

“Gary, while I was reading this article I kept thinking of all the loved ones with whom I longed to share it. But this comment stream shows me there are many others like you whose efforts are ignored or despised by the ones we want to help the most.”

“I do the same thing (pass all sorts of information on) and the response is almost non-existent. Heartbreaking.”

And here are excerpts from accounts told by three very active activists:

Lauren Rankin, a feminist activist, freelance writer, and a graduate student in Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University:

If you are involved in social justice activism in any way, you likely know of ‘activist burnout,’ the feeling of sheer mental (and often physical) exhaustion that catches up with you after spouts of perpetual tuned-in-ness. But for activists like me, this burnout is magnified by an ever-present undercurrent of chemical forces beyond our control: my burnout is coupled with my depression and anxiety.2

Lawrence S. Wittner, a tenured professor, book author and longtime agitator against war and social injustice:

On a cold night in mid-January, 1985, the police in Albany, New York, placed me under arrest. It was my first arrest, but not my last. Over the course of my life, I also have been tear-gassed, threatened by police with drawn guns, charged by soldiers with fixed bayonets, spied upon by U.S. government intelligence agencies, and purged from my job for political reasons. More often than not I was a marginal, alienated individual—in short, an outsider.3

David Swanson, a full time professional activist and co-founder of the peace activist organization, World Beyond War. Mr. Swanson lives and breathes for peace. He is the consummate peace activist: He wrote an article about how he became a peace activist. It is informative, at least about him.4 In it he wrote:

I often speak at peace groups and colleges and conferences about working for peace, and I’m often asked how I became a peace activist, and I always politely dodge the question, not because the answer is too long but because it is too short. I’m a peace activist because mass-murder is horrible. What the hell do you mean why am I a peace activist?

I can’t tell from his article when he became an ardent peace activist, but it may have been when he was an older teenager, as he writes this:

We once had a guest visit us from out-of-town who wanted especially to visit the Naval Academy at Annapolis. So, we took him, and he loved it. The mast of the U.S.S. Maine stood proudly as a monument to war propaganda, though I had no idea what it was. I just knew that I was visiting a beautiful, happy place where great resources were put into training people to engage in mass-murder. I became physically ill and had to lie down.

By their very nature personal vignettes and memoirs such as the foregoing are subjective as reported in each by a single subject. At best they give us insight about the person. They can’t lead to generalizations about what being an activist really is. For generalizations we need to rely on research findings.

Research Findings

Fourth, I will share with you the findings from one research study. Research studies are as hard to come by as are personal vignettes and memoirs. But the one I am summarizing is as good a study as the subject would intrinsically allow.

The study was conducted by two researchers at the George Mason University.5 Using a well-designed interview protocol and a rigorous analytical procedure they interviewed a sample of 22 very active activists. While the study’s focus was on activist burnout, it also uncovered other effects of activism on the activists. These related effects included exhaustion, cynicism; inefficacy, hopelessness, disbelief, selflessness, and deterioration of physical, psychological and emotional health. In short, these 22 activists were paying a heavy personal cost for their activism.

Conclusion

Since America’s social injustice and wars of aggression continue unabated, being an activist protesting those conditions continues to be a futile effort, and thus burnout and all the other conditions of being a social justice and peace activist are to be expected and are found with perhaps a few rare exceptions. One exception, I think, is personified by David Swanson. I can’t imagine a more upbeat activist than him. He has a very healthy perspective, viz, “People ask me how I keep going, how I stay cheerful, why I don’t quit. That one is pretty easy, and I don’t usually dodge it. I work for peace because we sometimes win and sometimes lose but have a responsibility to try, try, try, and because trying is far more enjoyable and fulfilling than anything else.”6

Oh, how I wish I were as young as David Swanson and as cheerful and optimistic about my activism.

In Closing Twice

Once because I am closing this article. Twice because I am not like a young David Swanson and unless I recant, I am closing my chapter of life on writing about such depressing subjects and will try my hand at writing an uplifting children’s book (David Swanson says he once wrote one).

  1. Brumback, GB. “Stop Warfare, Not Medicare: A Pathetic Personal Experience but Still Undaunted”. OpEdNews, July 10, 2011. []
  2. Rankin, L. “When Activist Burnout Meets Anxiety and Depression.” Speak Out, July 01, 2013. []
  3. Wittner, L. “Working for Peace and Justice: Memoirs of an Activist Intellectual” (Legacies of War), March 20, 2012. []
  4. Swanson, D. How I Became a Peace Activist. OpEdNews, December 4, 2017. []
  5. Weixiachen, C. and Gorski, PC. “Burnout in Social Justice and Human Rights Activists: Symptoms, Causes and Implications.” Journal of Human Rights, September 27, 2015, pp. 1-25. []
  6. Swanson, op. cit. []
Gary Brumback, PhD is a retired psychologist and Fellow of both the American Psychological Association and the Association for Psychological Science. He is the author of The Devil’s Marriage: Break Up the Corpocracy or Leave Democracy in the Lurch; and America’s Oldest Professions: Warring and Spying. His most recent book is Corporate Reckoning Ahead. Read other articles by Gary, or visit Gary's website.