Austen Crowder

Increasing Awesome, Decreasing Suck

Filed By Austen Crowder | February 22, 2011 8:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality, The Movement
Tags: burnout, increase awesome

I think the activist community has a problem with optimism.

Between all the marriage battles, the commercialization of the "It Gets Better" campaign, the continued assault on our visibility as valid and acceptable members of society, and the neverending victim train that is activism, the bad news keeps rolling on and on - kids killing themselves, bullies getting away with it, Mucinex-fueled gay panic, transphobia ahoy, etc., etc., We're stuck in a holding pattern. We always focus on the suck and rarely encourage people to participate in the awesome goings-on in our queer little corner of the universe.

I've tried for months to articulate this but somebody beat me to the punch: I happened upon this video from the vlogbrothers youtube channel. There, Hank Green justified the money spent on the James Webb Space Telescope with the following:

I personally believe that there are two ways to make the world a better place; you can decrease the suck, and you can increase the awesome. Now these are not mutually exclusive things [. . .] but they're also not the same thing.

[. . .]

I do not want to live in a world where we focus on suck and never think about awesome. If we lived in that world, people would play soccer by having both teams stand and guard their own goal the whole game with the ball sitting at midfield and at the end of the game we're supposed to all celebrate because no one scored any goals against our team. That's not going to get you on Sportscenter!

We have to guard the goal and we have to try and prevent bad things from happening, but we also have to make good things happen.

I think we, as Americans, have puritan work ethic tattooed on the backs of our eyelids at birth. It is both an unavoidable and unconscious part of our culture. The mere thought that we may not be working hard enough to achieve our dreams can, in some more severe cases, inspire terror and a renewed sense of purpose.

Problem is, when this ethic transfers to voluntary activism we encourage burnout, stress, and the scaring off of well-meaning folks who just aren't "dedicated enough" to fight for equality.

Here's the problematic cycle of activism, as I see it:

  1. Recognize injustice in the world.
  2. Say "This sucks and we need to fix it," often loudly and at every person they know.
  3. Gain encouragement for calling out social injustice.
  4. Redouble efforts.
  5. Realize that, somewhere in between repeating the message, discussing the message and recognizing more injustice to add to the message, time hasn't been taken to find good things in between the lines of injustice.
  6. Convince yourself that the early signs of burnout are just internalized homophobia/transphobia/majority culture/etc. Redouble efforts.
  7. Let the increasing fatigue of focusing on injustice grow heavier. Try to work through it.
  8. Realize that activism is now devoid of joy.
  9. Find other rewarding pursuits.
  10. Fade out of activism.

Work hard, and when you're tired of that, work harder. Again, puritan work ethic on our eyebrows. It's no wonder LGBT political activists tend to be tenacious, intense, and short-lived.

Here's the intervention: somewhere along this process we get these political activists involved with social and community activism. We're awesome at making noise when people want to take our rights away; why not show people that increasing awesome within our community centers and neighborhoods can be just as useful as decreasing suck in politics or media?

Some potential examples:

Instead of focusing on the words of our nasty political opposition, why not work for local visibility and education campaigns? The latter isn't nearly as big in the media but it goes a long way toward changing the hearts and minds of the people who are willing to listen. We're never going to convince Fred Phelps to march in a gay pride parade - and why would we, when he provides us with so much hilarity? - but the local efforts are a positive way to encourage tolerance and acceptance. Besides, it's a fun way to meet lots of new people. Honest.

Instead of espousing it as the only facet of LGBT youth issues, why not encourage more people to get involved with the youth who aren't ready to commit suicide and may just need a helping hand here or there? Not everybody is cut out to work in youth suicide prevention; it's hard work that requires a lot of training. However, in the midst of all this "LGBT kids kill themselves!" media attention I think it's easy to forget that LGBT youth are still youth, and have plenty of dimensions beyond their identity or sexual orientation.

There are plenty of drop-in youth centers and mentor programs that provide kids both a safe space to be themselves and have access to positive LGBT role models. This is far less headline-grabbing and interesting than youth suicide, but pays real returns for real people down the line.

Giving queer kids a place to have a pizza party won't change marriage laws or reduce the amount of suck in the world, but kids who attend have a chance to meet other youth like themselves, making them less isolated and more apt to see their own identity as valid. This is an awesome and powerful thing for children. Does the lack of impact in the media make these awesome spaces any less important or useful than big-name, alphabet-soup laws?

Look, I'll be honest when I say that political maneuvering isn't my strongest suit. It never was, and once I stepped out behind the blogger cap to try my hand in local activism this fact smacked me in the face, hard. I'm conflict-evasive and am better suited to engendering community and helping people see their self-worth; instead of convincing senators that I'm worth protecting, I spend my time helping kids see that their life is worth living to the fullest.

Will this prevent Indiana's Super-DOMA from passing? Probably not. However, I can say without reservation that I'm working to change the world by helping to create awesome spaces for youth who sorely need it.

If we want to include this process of creating awesome within our definition of community activism, how can we encourage LGBT activists to increase the awesome in their community, even if it doesn't decrease suck in the process?

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A very worthwhile endeavor indeed!

Thanks, Bil. I could never bring myself to truly "believe in" the political process of passing laws - and to those who can, thank you so much! - but I really, truly believe in the power of local community empowerment.

Agree with you about working locally instead of being obsessed with national policy. That and the courts are where I'd like to see efforts focused. Also agree how focusing on an endless stream of haters' rhetoric is a lousy way to motivate people.

We need pizza parties and activists. Both. The problem is I find others who hold similar beliefs to what you're expressing here are usually not the ones to actually throw the pizza parties, they just want to dismiss what they view as negativity. And I have done prolonged volunteer work with suicide prevention and found it profoundly moving and, yes, life affirming.

Unlike you, I've never found canned optimism to feel good. Most often it seems like a deep American trait to avoid the difficult and painful which is more oppressive than anything that would lead to liberation.

I don't think this is canned optimism - this is optimism couched in the realities of our time. Life sucks. If we can improve the world around us even a tiny little bit with that optimism, it's not canned. It's genuine.

And just for the record, I'm one of the ones that both champions the pizza party and helps run it. :D I practice what I preach.

Michael Weiss | February 22, 2011 2:14 PM

I like the idea of doing things that benefit the local community. We've been screaming, shouting, and throwing condoms at church people since Stonewall, and we still have people blaming us for dead birds falling out of the sky. We can keep screaming at the politicians, but let's face it, they're rich, they're affluent, they live in a bubble, they're not going to listen to anyone that will make them unpopular in their social/political circle. We can keep screaming at churches, but that will only harden their resolve. We, as a "community", are great at partying, great at being loud & obnoxious, and great at being completely self absorbed. We need to be a little less self absorbed, and reach out, connect with the people, not the politicians. This will be a slow process due to deeply ingrained puritanical beliefs; but if we can show "the people" that we are more than just angry clown-like caricatures of sexual decadence, and show that we are an actual asset to American society,
the politicians might start to agree with them.
I believe that if we focus our energy on doing good things for our local communities, if we give to our communities, instead of lashing out in rage expecting total submission to our demands, the people in our communities will start opening up, viewing us as less of an invading army and more of much needed source of good. If they see as a source of social good, instead of a source of social corruption, they'll quit blaming us for the dead birds.

Honestly, this is why I make porn. As well as other fun things I do to increase the awesome.