For the last decade years leftist activism and social justice oriented circles have been a big part of my life. I lived in activist oriented community houses for several years. I have been involved in various movements, particularly climate-oriented campaigns. I used to co-host a podcast about spirituality and activism. Part of my spiritual and personal growth over the last few years have involved examining a lot of the reasons and beliefs that led me to those spaces in the first place, becoming concerned with the ideological and behavioral trajectory of social-justice communities, and ultimately deciding to leave it behind.
I don’t want to go into a long personal history here in the interest of keeping this a reasonable and readable length, but I will say that one thing that strikes me as I review my reasons is how similar they are to the reasons I left fundamentalist Christianity. As I write this, a lot of the old fears, pain, and mixed feelings I had when I left that community are coming up for me again. There were a lot of really positive things I learned and wonderful people I met as a result of my time in activism, and there are things I will always be grateful for. The same is true of my time growing up in conservative Evangelical churches. But in the end, I had to leave evangelicalism to grow and develop, and the same is true of the activist left.
Without further ado, here are a few reasons I left activism behind:
1. Most activists spend too much time analyzing and critiquing what is wrong rather than nourishing and cultivating what is good.
“There is none righteous, no, not one.”
Those words from St. Paul, quoting the Psalms, were burned into my brain as a child. I was taught that we are all sinful, courtesy of Adam and Eve, and any good we do is through the grace of God, not of our own power. Christians were better off than others, because we were saved by the grace of God, but the world was was full of terrible things and people and I heard about them on a regular basis every Sunday.
It’s hard not to feel pessimistic about the future when that’s the worldview you’re given. Yet it’s not too far off from what I absorbed on a daily basis in activist culture. Instead of original sin, it was privilege and internalized oppression. Rather than the horrors of sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll, I was regaled with a constant onslaught of capitalism, climate change, racism, and patriarchy. The constant lens of critique became something that was eventually turned inward, on other members of the group, and activist scenes eventually turned into orgies of sniping and recrimination. In my experience, the Evangelicals were actually better on this point, they had an ideal of Christian love that kept the witch-hunts in check; the activists had nothing but a belief in their own analyses.
There’s an oft-quoted statistic that comes from the work of John Gottman, who has spent his career studying what makes relationships between couples work. He says that couples who stay together long-term spend about 83% of their interactions building connection, praising, encouraging, and doing things are generally positive; and about 17% of their interactions engaging in conflict— a 5:1 ratio. Couples whose interactions are almost always positive tend to break up because they’re not being honest with each other about what they really want and need. Couples who spend more time in conflict break up because there’s not enough love and positive feeling between them to get them through the pain of conflict.
What struck me when I first learned this is how much positivity and feeling good we need as humans, both within ourselves and within our relationships. Changing ourselves to learn to be in a stable, lasting relationship is hard work. Changing ourselves to be happier, healthier, individuals is hard work. We need A LOT of positive reinforcement to stay the course and work through the pain. How much more difficult is trying to change the world around us?
There’s an episode of the podcast Invisibilia from a several years back called “The Problem With the Solution.” Social science that shows that frequent criticism and framing issues as problems in need of a solution is often counterproductive, particularly in regards to mental health. I won’t recap the whole thing here, but I recommend listening to it. The TL;DR is that it’s really hard for people to change when somebody is frequently criticizing them or even just deeply emotionally attached to the idea that they need to change and get better.
One of the things that I noticed in my own life was that the more I focused on what was wrong, the more space it took up in my life, and the less I was able to enjoy the good things. When I flipped this attitude and focused on reframing some of the negatives into positives, being grateful for my blessings, and making more space for things that genuinely made me feel good, solutions to some of my problems either presented themselves spontaneously, they resolved on their own, or I was able to tolerate them a lot more easily. That last one is really key: Gottman says that couples who stay together will have core disagreements that they never resolve. They learn to live with them, have a sense of humor about them, and maybe even see them as a source of creative tension.
We will never arrive at a place of perfect equality and happiness for all, and we will never eliminate all pain and suffering, nor should we— some degree of pain and suffering is a necessary impetus to learn and grow. That’s not to say we can’t make things better or that it’s not worth trying. But what I experienced so much of in activist spaces, in myself as well as others, was constantly looking at the world through the lens of our critiques, of oppression and power imbalances, to the point that they became self-fulfilling prophecies. When you assume the whole world is against you, because of sexism or capitalism or racism, your brain tends to remember and emphasize data and interpretations that reinforce that assumption. Eventually, you find that the whole world IS against you because you’re constantly spoiling for a fight and deeply unpleasant to be around.
That’s not to say that climate change, racism, sexism and other problems don’t exist. To pretend otherwise is to develop the same kind of toxic positivity that leads relationships to break up. But they are not the only things that exist, and to constantly use them as interpretive lenses only entrenches and reinforces their power. We need to spend far more time cultivating healthy habits of mind, relationship, and spirit, the kinds of things that help us feel connected to the world around us; creative, appreciative, and hopeful.
2. Activist culture has become entrenched in stark black and white binaries at the expense of curiosity and nuance
One of the things that was most exhausting about Christian Fundamentalism was the constant worry about whether you were in or you were out. To be “in,” in the simplest form, meant that you had accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and received him into your heart. There’s nothing I particularly object to about that; I think Jesus has been powerful and transformational in positive ways for many people, and I would never deny anyone the purpose and joy they get from such a relationship. Nor would I deny that communities need to have definitions of what it means to belong. A group that tries to be all things to all people ends up satisfying nobody.
The problem is when the notion of being in or out becomes Manichaean, when when we begin to map this idea of absolute good or absolute evil onto it. To be “in,” for fundamentalists, was to be a member of the chosen, assured of God’s care and protection in this life and a heavenly reward at the end; to be out was to burn in hell forever. Most of the people I grew up with would not have understood themselves in this way. They would say that God is loving, God wants to save us; we do not have to be good, but only to ask Jesus to enter our hearts and trust in God’s goodness to change us. But the high eternal stakes this all was given— if you do not accept Jesus, you will literally burn forever— meant that practically, there was a lot of anxiety about whether one had truly sealed the deal, anxiety that was projected onto others.
If I can differentiate myself from the unsaved people, I can assure myself that I truly am saved. This creates all sorts of litmus tests, formal and informal— Do they go to the right kind of church? Do they use the right kind of language? Do they show evidence of having been transformed by Jesus, by exhibiting certain behaviors and abstaining from others? Do they believe the correct things and support the correct political viewpoints? This created an environment where I had very little room to explore my curiosity and creativity. To learn about other ways of seeing and experiencing the world was to risk traveling down the path to hell and damnation.
The activist left operates in much the same way. The world is divided into the woke and the wicked, those who fight for the oppressed and those who oppress. If you are on the side of the righteous, you must prove your allyship, show you are “doing the work,” you must use the right language, which seems to involve spelling lots of words with Xs. To get curious about why people voted for Trump or oppose COVID vaccination in the hopes that you might understand how to respond to and influence people in a more desirable direction is to prove your iniquity, because Trump voters and anti-vaxxers are obviously all irredeemably stupid and evil and must be cast into the fire. To identify or find commonality with those on the opposing side in any way is to prove you were trash to begin with.
Of course, not everyone, evangelicals or leftists, fits into these stark ideological stereotypes I’ve framed here. In my experience, most people don’t, and will privately admit so. The key word here is privately, because that is usually the only place it is safe to voice any doubts or exhibit any idiosyncrasies. Which only proves the larger point.
3. Over-reliance on external rules vs a genuine internal compass
Evangelicals talk a big talk about the grace of God and freedom in Christ, but if you step too far outside the norm they will question whether you’ve truly received God’s grace. If you drink alcohol or watch the wrong movies, don’t use the right catchphrases or lift your hands up during worship, people look at you sideways. The ultimate reference for behavior and decision making is the Bible, I was taught that my own sense of right and wrong was irretrievably broken. I spent far too much of my life second guessing and fearing backlash from every step I took. It took me a long time to learn to listen to my desire and trust my own decisions. And if the recent SBC scandal has shown us anything, performative righteousness has very little to do with genuine goodness.
Which is why the constant admonitions and prompts to correct behavior on the progressive left drive me batty. On my socials last week I shared my frustration with the memes I see passed around lefty accounts with instructions on “How to Apologize.” They always have several steps explaining how to perform the obligatory ritual if you accused of doing harm. I see people dancing the steps all the time, genuflecting at the feet of some person who called them out, promising to “do better.”
I get why these exist. Often, when people are accused of doing wrong, they want to apologize to smooth over the discomfort, even when they don’t feel they’ve done anything wrong, so they say things that have the appearance of an apology without exhibiting any genuine remorse. I had a boyfriend who used to apologize like this, saying things like “I’m sorry you got upset,” or “I’m sorry you perceived I was ignoring you when I wasn’t.”
It was infuriating, and what’s more, it often felt deeply sexist, because it seemed as though he was treating me like a crazy female who was getting upset over nothing. When I was able to push him to say things like “I’m sorry I ignored you,” or “I’m sorry I didn’t consider your feelings,” my ego got a little bit of gratification, but it was never really satisfying on a deep level. When he was genuinely sorry, it didn’t matter what words he said. I could feel it energetically. I could sense his remorse, and that was what touched my heart and gave me the resolution I desired.
From the perspective of time and a lot of work done around improving my relationships with men, I see how we were often talking past one another. My partner was sexist and insensitive sometimes, yes, but I was often interpreting things through the lens of my own trauma and assuming the worst. Forcing him to say the correct words did nothing to change him in the first instance, and in the second, I was asking him to violate his own integrity.
I see the way this rigidity and lack of authenticity takes its toll on people’s psyches and bodies. The clenched jaws and hunched shoulders, panic attacks, decision fatigue, and burnout that are endemic in social-justice circles are a direct consequence of this culture.
Any collective action that hopes to build something that will last has to be built on authentic relationships where people feel free to be honest and open. Micromanaging language and behavior is counterproductive; moreover it is exhausting for both the manager and the one being managed. I’ve learned myself not to apologize unless I am genuinely sorry, and not to perform behavior when it feels inauthentic. People who are grounded in their own integrity and self-worth will almost always respect it, even when they disagree.
4. Forcing reality to fit ideology at the expense of genuine truth seeking
God created the world in six days. Unsaved scientists like Darwin teach that the world evolved without a God over millions of years because they hate righteousness and want to lead us astray.
That’s what I learned in Sunday School, and then in my church-run elementary and middle school. The justifications became marginally more sophisticated the older I got, with some sciencey explanations thrown in to make it palatable to a 12 year old. It wasn’t until I got to high school, my first experience of public school, that I was given the understanding to pick through these Creationist arguments. Evangelicals had put a tremendous amount of energy into convincing themselves that the facts matched their dogma; for the time I lived in the silo they convinced me too.
Eventually I began to question more and more… was being gay really so terrible and contrary to nature? Were yoga and meditation really dangerous practices that would allow Satan to control my mind? When I asked questions in my Christian groups, presenting data that undermined creationism or suggested homosexuality might be innate, or that yoga and meditation were quite beneficial to one’s health, I was quickly silenced. Nobody was interested in being honestly curious, they only wanted to affirm their comfortable pieties and remain faithful to the group ideology.
One of the most obvious ways this dynamic operates on the left today is in the realm of gender and sexuality. Last year I was enrolled in a program on women’s sexuality that drew on tantric and other mystical practices as well as modern medical science. It was progressive in its approach to gender, which I thought I was fully on board with going in.
It’s hard to articulate what, exactly this approach was, because it was often contradictory. We were told being a man or a woman had nothing to do with what kind of body we had. But also male and female bodies and sexual responses weren’t really that different at all, they were mostly alike! How could we say this when being a man or a woman had nothing to do with one’s body? I don’t know, and neither did they.
It became increasingly difficult to be in a group learning about women’s sexuality while also being encouraged to detach the concept of “woman” from our actual bodies. When one woman shared that her own experience of womanhood felt intimately tied to her menstruating, uterus-breast-vagina-having body, and felt very different from a man’s, she was encouraged— oh so lovingly, sweetly, yet firmly— to reorient her perspective to the “correct” viewpoint. We were in a program that was supposedly about being present to the truth of our bodies, yet this woman’s truth was being subtly shamed. Out of a laudable desire to make people feel included in their sexual and gender diversity, we have begun to create an ideology around sex, bodies, and gender that is incoherent.
The whole thing was very reminiscent of my experiences in fundamentalism. The cognitive dissonance required to speak about women’s bodies while actively denying there was any such thing as a cohesively female body was exhausting. I felt myself shut down in response, and eventually dropped out of the program.
I began to dive more deeply into issues of gender and sexuality. I believe there is a lot of confusion being created by some progressive scientists who are inflating the degree to which ambiguity exists in sexual differentiation and denying the extent to which sexed bodies and hormones influence behavior and performance. That is a whole topic in and of itself that I don’t have space for, but I will say that I’ve found Harvard biologist Carole Hooven to be the best guide on this issue, deeply empathetic and affirming of trans people while clear about what the science does and doesn’t tell us. I found her interview on Joe Rogan to be very illuminating. Yes, I find Rogan’s dumb-jock schtick wearying and disingenuous and I’m sure I would not agree with many of his guests, but his interview with Dr. Hooven, and her book, are worth checking out.
To be clear about where I stand on this: I believe trans people have the right to exist, and to transition medically and socially to the extent it is possible. I believe we as a society should make space for trans people to exist and have their dignity and unique gifts affirmed. This will undoubtedly involve reconceptualizing some of our traditional notions around sex and gender, which is fine as long as that reconceptualization 1) Is faithful to a science as free of ideological and emotional bias as is possible, and 2) considers the impact on ALL stakeholders, which includes the vast majority of us who remain basic boring cisgender normies.
These are honestly just a few reasons I left activism behind. There’s much more I want to say, particularly regarding the reification of egoic identity and the cult of victimhood that exists in activist spaces, but this post is already running long, so I’ll save it for another piece. I will say that I still consider myself to be on the left, and remain committed to creating a better world for myself and others. I’ve become deeply disillusioned by the counterproductive nature of our current politics, but that’s not to say that I have no hope. I’ll speak to that more in coming days
I love this article, so glad you wrote it! I was familiar with Gottman and his basic assertion, but not exactly as you shared here, which I find very helpful as this principal can apply to so many areas of life. I am sync with what you have written in that I have never been a part of an activist group, but I did on two occasions spend 23 hours in my bathroom to raise attention and protest the use of solitary confinement in prisons, and it made me sick. My focus now is on using my voice to (joyfully) talk about what people need to be well: human connection, healthy food and sunlight. Feels so much better!! Out on a walk earlier, a thought dropped in to form a "happy activists" group. Thanks for helping me lean in to the ideas you presented here. Very helpful article with a lot of clarity.
Thanks for writing this. You and I have had some similar experiences with dogmatic ideology, both religious and political.