Bare Witness: The Good and the Bad Sides of Activism
Photo: Kim Sallaway
A yoga instructor and activist, Seane Corn has made it her mission to bring awareness to the HIV/AIDS crisis. She is blogging from a remote village in Uganda, where she and 23 other women are helping to build an eco-birthing center for women with HIV/AIDS women as part of the Global Seva Challenge.Some years ago, I came across a photograph of myself taken in 1985. I was about 19 and an activist for a pro-choice organization called WAC (Women's Action Coalition). We were demonstrating at a rally in Manhattan, and I was standing on a small stage with some other members, many holding signs or passing out literature. In the photo, I was shouting into a megaphone, and my other arm was raised defiantly above my head, my hand balled into a tight fist. My head was slightly thrown back, eyes squeezed tightly shut, with my mouth opened wide. I was apparently in the middle of shouting something. We were all fired up, and I was clearly enraged, as I yelled passionately to the crowd. Directly in front was a group of pro-life activists. They were holding up bibles and photographs of dead and mutilated babies. They were shouting up at us, and many in the group had their eyes closed, just like me.
When I found this photo, it demonstrated to me why I was a terrible activist and why activism is often ineffective and unsustainable. I wasn't listening or seeing, and I was willingly fighting an opponent who was also deaf and blind.
I loved a good rally or protest, and afterward I always felt exhilarated and spent. I felt justified in my actions and couldn't wait until the next demonstration and another opportunity to anger and humiliate my opponent. I believed I was trying to create change and that it took an aggressive voice willing to expose hypocrisy, at the expense of someone else's feelings or beliefs, to accomplish that. It took me a long time, many years on the yoga mat and in therapy, to recognize that I was part of the problem and a perfect example of why these outdated methods of activism don't always work.
I came to realize that one of the reasons I loved a demonstration was because it allowed me to release my unresolved anger. I always felt better after a rally because the forceful shouting and fist pumping was an outlet that enabled me to shed my long-held tension. This tension was a physiological manifestation of the repressed anger, fear and sadness that I actually felt, though I wasn't in touch with. As a child, I always had issues around injustice and could never tolerate when I saw exploitation or experienced something I just knew was unfair. In the face of injustice, I would need to express my outrage, but at that time, I did not have the proper words or tools to communicate my feelings and truth, so I'd impose it forcefully through yelling. I never trusted I could get "heard" otherwise. I would rage myself into exhaustion. Truth was, what I was actually feeling was helpless and scared but had even less words to express that reality. Having no outlet to deal with my big feelings, I needed an opponent to fight so I could purge the tension, and therefore emotions. So as a young adult, I participated in rallies where there was much opposition. Women's and gay rights were my favorite. Fists held high, screaming out our agendas, both sides would push buttons and provoke. Each side feeling equally justified when the other eventually overreacted, affirming the beliefs that we/they were dangerous and exactly what was wrong with this world.
How "changing the world" can lead to burning out