Activists are interesting humans too!

Tuesday, 8th February 2011 at 13:33 UTC 1 comment

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.


Entry filed under: Activism, Culture, Media, Personal.

Thoughts on Demo2011, London Joy, Despair and Utter Confusion

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Jonathan  |  Tuesday, 8th February 2011 at 18:21 UTC

    “these stories tend to relate activism to the public much much better than political rambles”

    Question: what is your grounds for this?

    Personally pretty much everyone I’ve met who is politically engaged became so due to being pissed off about a particular issue and deciding to get involved, not because of something encouraging them towards “activism” per se. That isn’t to say handing out endless political tracts on a street corner is likely to sway people towards a particular viewpoint, but I’m not sure reading how Laurie Penny spent her weekend is likely to do so either. They may be interesting, but interesting doesn’t equal persuasive, nor does it necessarily lead to participation.

    I’ll be honest and say I’m not particularly fond of the “human interest” activist pieces. That isn’t to say I think they’re harmful as such, and I’m sure they’re quite interesting to some folks. However, while I don’t see them as harmful, I also don’t see them as particularly useful. I’m just don’t see what campaigners have to gain from them in real terms.

    And without wanting to be rude, I found both of your “answers” rather lacking.

    With the first, I think you’re using a strawman – if you’ve ever encountered someone who thinks that were these personal interest articles no longer there, they would be magically replaced by in-depth political critique, I would like to meet them. I’m not sure such people exist.

    The second, meanwhile, was a tad patronising IMO. Believe it or not, it’s quite possible to have a critique of these articles without it being down to some emotional hangup on the part of the person in question.

    Unless you have actual grounds for doing so, making assumptions about why someone makes a given argument (“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”) seems a little unnecessary to say the least.

    The critical articles you linked to in your post contained a number of entirely valid points – that Laurie Penny had glossed over differences within the movement, misrepresented gender issues, misquoted people, presented an unnecessary “generation war” motif, taken her experience as one person in one occupation in one city as somehow representative of “the movement” – that can’t just be dismissed as down to the author’s trying to put off dealing with their own personal problems. That isn’t to say you have to take all those points as valid, but attributing them to some emotional issue on the part of the person in question isn’t really helpful IMO – they are reasoned, well-articulated points which should be dealt with as such.

    Personally, from what I’ve read of Laurie Penny’s stuff (which admittedly isn’t a huge amount), I just find it rather lacking more than anything – a lot of romantic, poetic language, a lot of hyperbole, and a lot of (unfounded) assumptions that somehow “this generation” is somehow better equipped than those of the 90s, 80s, 70s and 60s to effect social change.

    That isn’t in any way to castigate the current wave of student activism – I find it amazing, have been to many of their demonstrations, and they’ve certainly done a hell of a lot more in the face of the cuts than pretty much any other group. And seeing the burst of protest from school and college students has been phenomenally inspiring.

    It isn’t, for that matter, an attempt to castigate Laurie Penny and her ilk for what they do – she produces quite popular “day in the life” style articles detailing what she gets up to as an activist, full of both personal anecdotes and political reflections, and fair play to her for doing so. And if she’s helping get information out there, so much the better.

    (And also, FWIW, I realise I’m probably not her target audience, so it’s not entirely surprising I wouldn’t engage with her writing 100%.)

    However, I do think the concerns/criticisms of this style of article are quite valid, and worthy of addressing.


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