Activists are interesting humans too!
To understand why I’m writing this now, you could go read something by Laurie Penny and then something written in opposition to Penny’s writing, but as the combined total is clear of 5000 words, lets just say this: some activists really don’t like Human Interest stories. Which is a shame, because activists usually make good human interest stories, and these stories tend to relate activism to the public much much better than political rambles.
I was recently discussing how I’d like to write several books, and one of them would be about being an activist – not how its done, or the political stuff, just about being an activists. The stresses, the strains, the positives, the negatives; not just my own experiences but other people’s as well. The very personal side of collective resistance – not the individualistic egotism that rears its head, though it would need addressing, but the ways groups come together and fall apart. Judging by reactions to anything written about the people behind protests that I’ve witnessed amongst activists, it probably won’t be popular.
Thinking back through my favourite activist books, starting with No Logo as a convenient example, one thing does seem to emerge – there are lots of actual humans in them. Naomi Klein is exceptional not because of her analysis, but because of just how human her books are. I’m amazed at how many protesters claim to dislike them because they don’t pursue a tough enough analysis of the situation, or they’re too story-based.
When a small group of female activists who fit the target audience of Grazia agreed to appear in a feature that made them look normal and approachable to anyone reading that magazine, all hell broke loose. Actually, I’m amazed at how calm and wise people were in preventing it becoming a massive issue, but it highlighted how much revulsion activists show to their lives being of any interest to anyone.
Sure, there have been major hiccups, and these things need to be handled with care: I’m far more interested in reading about people inspired to attend their first protest than people who’ve made a life, a career, or even worse, a pastime, out of protesting. Its really obvious when someone is in it for an ego-trip, as one particular eco-campaign had to learn (hindsight says they should have seen it coming, but its totally unfair, and I know why they accepted it for so long). But activists are people with vulnerabilities, we’re not somehow super-human.
There are two possible answers to this aversion to “colour pieces” and “human interest stories”. One is that people somehow think that if there weren’t any such pieces, movements would get inch-for-inch the same coverage but entirely in dry political debate. Sure, Penny simplified things (and if she ever writes ‘the book’ she’ll do well to un-simplify them, if only to hit a vastly higher word count).
In my experience, its the other reason that actually holds true: people might use political argument against human interest stories (not focused on the politics, to individualistic, unrealistic etc.) but actually they don’t want to confront who they are and what goes on inside them. Its much easier just to continue putting on a brave face and push the spotlight away. Otherwise, who knows how broken we might appear? Its very easy to put politics before our own welfare, the more so if one is trying to put off dealing with personal experiences.
As activists, we have to offer two things together to the world: change and accessibility. Offering change is actually pretty easy, or so the number of publications, blogs and so forth lead me to believe. We have hundreds of ideas, and we’re only too happy to share them. What a thousand political essays cannot do, of course, is explain who we are, what motivates us and why you should want to come hang out with us in the freezing cold, howling gales or whatever else Britain’s weather systems throw at us. And besides, we’re a pretty interesting bunch it seems.