So you want to save America…
One of the reasons it’s been hard for me not to lose my tiny mind in the past two weeks is it feels like sanity has suddenly become a luxury. I mean, how selfish is it to worry about little things like how many times I break down crying, or whether I’m snapping at my kids? Every time I look at a news site, I see some fresh issue to worry about, and every time I look at a social network, I see a friend committing to some form of political action. What’s happening to America and to the world feels a hell of a lot more urgent than my various neuroses.
But the truth is that depressed, crazy and anxious people make shitty change agents. If your game plan is to literally throw yourself in the path of an oncoming tank, it would be nice for your fellow travellers to know that you’re acting from sincere belief rather than mental illness. And just about every other form of political action is going to be a lot more effective and sustainable if it is grounded in something like mental wellness.
That’s why it’s crucial to think about how we can take action in a way that supports our personal and social health, while protecting and building our political organizing capacity. How we use the Internet is, of course, a key part of that picture — particularly since it’s easy for our online habits to undermine both our mental health and our political effectiveness.
The goal of this post is to address that very specific problem: How to prevent your post-election emotional distress from sabotaging your own work or the work of other activists.
The Internet increases the risks of that kind of sabotage in five ways:
- Online news sources immobilize us with excess information.
- Social media makes it easy and tempting to make big public declarations/decisions — like quitting your job.
- Online activism offers deceptively low-cost opportunities for social action — many of them low-impact or even counter-productive.
- Online communications and social media leave us vulnerable to harassment and potentially, government surveillance/sanction.
- Social media shaming gives us a false sense of empowerment in the face of hate.
If each of us can recognize and address these immediate risks to our effectiveness, we are much more likely to make a meaningful impact in the medium- to long-term. Here’s what what I recommend:
1. Consume for action, not information.
There are now a lot of articles purporting to explain how the Democrats fucked up or the Republicans cheated or what’s wrong with America. Undoubtedly, we will at some point need to understand — as well as we possibly can — how this election result came about, so that we can do better in the future.
But I’m not sure we need to read all those explanations this week, or even this month. I’ve read too many of them myself, and mostly, they just re-activate my desperate urge to rewind the world by three weeks, or maybe three years, so we can do it all differently. Until we’re out of our immediate post-election shock, go easy on the post-mortems: the best post-mortems are probably months away, anyhow, since it will take some time and perspective to come up with the smartest and most-informed analyses.
Similarly, we don’t need to consume every moment of the Trump transition. Yeah, it’s probably a good idea to pay enough attention that you’ll know when it’s time to pack your suitcase and head for the hills. And I take my hat off to the brave souls who are already getting back on the horse so that we can challenge Trump’s odious appointments and ensure he doesn’t get a smooth ride in the face of a demoralized opposition.
But I also see a lot of people consuming the latest news in a way that prevents action, rather than driving it — because the play-by-play exacts a huge emotional toll. Consider designating one or two windows in the day when you’ll catch up on the news, and then give yourself 10 or 20 hours to recover. (And for God’s sake, turn off those CNN and New York Times push notifications that deliver the latest horrors, unprompted, to your desktop or phone.)
If you still Can’t Even, consider a media or social media fast. I’m not usually a fan of unplugging, but I have seen some people find that very helpful this month. Give yourself time to grieve and process; I promise, there will be plenty of terrible news and right-wing commentary waiting for you whenever you’re ready to return.
2. Leave your hair the way it is.
After a traumatic breakup, many women get a dramatic haircut. I’m seeing a lot of the online equivalent: people contemplating big changes in the wake of The Worst Thing Ever in the History of Bad Things.
And in six weeks, or six months, if you want to quit your job to save the world — hey, go for it! We need your brilliance and your energy.
But there is a reason that people generally advise against making major life changes in the wake of a breakup or death: when people are in a state of trauma, they don’t make great decisions.
So by all means, dive into immediate action that signals the continued relevance of progressive America to our newfound powers that be. Go to protests. Give money. Volunteer for an organization that is making a difference.
But don’t make long-term decisions right now. Hold off on that email to your boss, saying you’re going to quit unless she changes the company’s focus from CRM for small business to CRM for radicals. (Or if you must compose it, store it in a place the NSA can’t find it, and look at it again in 2 months.) Draft — but don’t post — that LinkedIn update, declaring that you’re only taking on clients who are working on anti-Trump initiatives.
These could be great decisions, once you’ve had some time to grieve, reflect and adjust. But they are probably not great decisions to make right now.
3. Support existing initiatives before (or instead of) launching your own.
If anything good is going to come out of this election, it will be in the sheer number of people who are now awake and committed to social change. From what I see on social media, it looks like there are a lot of long-time activists who are now ready to kick it up a notch, and many professionals and entrepreneurs who are now eager to put their skills and resources in service to social change.
So let me offer a suggestion, as someone who has seen this movie before: to figure out where you can be most helpful, start by participating in existing organizations and initiatives.
All too often, we see folks from the for-profit world coming to the world of public service and social action as if they’re here to save us: “Good news, non-profits and organizers of America! The big boys are here to help you with our Real Business Experience and Techno-Wizardry.” (Indeed, there’s no better example of the arrogance of this approach than Trump himself.)
What private sector professionals sometimes fail to understand is that there are challenges, considerations and forms of expertise that are specific to the non-profit and social change universe. Yes, you may have done an awesome job creating a social network or a thousand business websites or an email service…but that doesn’t necessarily mean your strategy will work in the non-profit or social change sector.
So resist the urge to launch the online organizing platform that you’ve decided the world needs, but which you might find already exists (or has been tried, and found wanting) if you stopped to connect with people who have spent the past twenty years doing grassroots organizing. While there’s certainly room for multiple organizations and initiatives on any issue, there’s a point at which helpful diversity becomes dysfunctional fragmentation. And even if the world does need your particular brilliant idea, your brilliant idea is going to be a lot more successful if it’s informed by the successes and failures of the many social initiatives that precede it.
That’s why it’s smartest to begin the next phase of your social activism by getting to know the people and organizations who are already working on the issues or problems you care about. Volunteer with a local organization that is trying to address the rise in hate crimes. Give money to community organizations that are doing great work. Attend conferences or join online communities that will help you learn what has and hasn’t worked in the past.
And for technologists and digital marketers in particular, consider getting involved in one of the many online communities or professional groups that focus on supporting the digital needs of social change organizations and non-profits. A few places to start:
[Full disclosure: I’ve worked with some of these organizations/people.]
4. Protect yourself online.
Online activism is not risk-free. Particularly at this moment, when fear and anger may lead to particularly bold declarations, it’s important to remember that everything we post online can come back to haunt us later — and we don’t know what that is going to look like in the Trump era.
My recent article for Passcode, “Worried about surveillance under Trump? Here’s what to do” spells out what activists need to think about and how to protect themselves. For now, please keep three things in mind:
- Whether you’re an activist, journalist or simply a concerned citizen, be aware of the potential consequences of online criticism and activism — including the possibility of harrassment from other Internet users.
- Protect your online communications using end-to-end encryption of both email and messages. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has a good Surveillance Self-Defense Kit that can help.
- Even if you’re not worried about your own communications, using privacy tools is a great way of helping to keep other activists safe; if only people engaging in high-risk activities use these tools, then using privacy-enhancing tools immediately flags activists as “suspicious”.
5. Spotlight crimes, not criminals.
In our post-election outrage and panic, it’s incredibly tempting to just do something, particularly when it comes to the increasing incidence of hate crimes and hate speech. Donald Trump’s election has given license to every racist, every homophobe and every misogynist, not just in America but around the world. What we’re seeing right now is the result of that license.
But using social media to expose alleged criminals is not the way to fight back. As someone who has long urged caution when it comes to using social media to report crimes, I am worried that a Trump-controlled state may turn out to be a state in which citizens do need to assume a role in keeping law enforcement accountable so that we ensure a prompt and consistent response to hate crimes. But we’re not there yet.
Social media can be hugely useful in exposing the increased incidence of hate speech and hate crimes, and in demonstrating how many of us absolutely reject that kind of hatred. But that only works if we are sharing stories that are verified to be true: either things we have personally witnessed, incidents that have been reported by reputable media sources, and/or incidents that are at most one degree of separation away. (i.e. if your sister calls to say she was harassed on the street for covering her head, and gives you permission to blog about it, feel free — but be more cautious if a friend is telling you this happened to her sister.)
Even more crucial, refrain from naming names or sharing photos of alleged perpetrators online. If you have information about criminal acts, contact law enforcement, the (still Obama-controlled!) Justice Department and/or an independent advocacy organization. (For example, see this great guide on reporting hate crimes against Muslims.)
Creating a culture of citizen vigilantes — even progressive vigilantes — is deeply problematic. We are already seeing the dangers of right-wing, hateful vigilantes. Let’s think very carefully before creating a new culture of DIY law enforcement on the left.
Maintaining your sanity as a social activist is not a simple task: there’s a reason that Aliza Sherman and Beth Kanter have written an entire book on the subject. (Full disclosure: My husband created the fab cartoons for that book.)
But this post-election moment poses particular risks, including many risks that are created or heightened by the Internet itself. By paying attention to the emotional and technological context of our forays into social action — and by taking care of ourselves and taking care of others when we go online — we dramatically increase the possibilities for taking meaningful, sustained and effective action in the weeks, months and years to come.