Complaining on the Internet

Let's get one thing straight now, because I don't think people really understand:

Complaining on the internet is not activism.

This is old news by now to any actual activist (not that I claim to be one, I just met quite a few), but not so much to a lot of non-activists who think that complaining on social media actually makes a goddamn bit of difference.

Now, when it comes to making a difference in the world, I'm not picky. I accept any nonviolent method, from direct action to humour to the arts to rallies to letter-writing to blogging and spreading the word online. I even count e-petitions, which many activists don't, because while on they're own they're about as effective as pissing on a forest fire they're still something, and when you're fighting governments, corporations and intangible oppressive structures that have existed for at least a couple of centuries if not more, I don't believe you can afford to be particularly choosy.

All of these methods have something in common: they do something for other people. Spreading the word and blogging educates people. Letter-writing and even e-petitions tell the idiots in charge that you're pissed off. Art challenges people and forces them to think. Direct action and rallies tell people that something is up. And frontline work, of course, directly helps the people involved.

Let's contrast this with complaining on the internet, and let's take something that people love to complain about on the internet: bullying.

I'm not going to pull my punches about this - bullying is a terrible thing, as adults like to say while sadly shaking their heads. Actually, it's more than a terrible thing: it is abuse that gets overlooked and excused by pretty much everyone. And before anyone starts, it doesn't build character and complaining about bullying is not a case of weakness.

This is the bit where I start talking about sensitive subjects like suicide, so if this triggers, upsets or makes you at all uncomfortable I suggest you stop reading.

Every 40 seconds, somebody succeeds in their suicide attempt.

Between those 40 seconds, many more try and fail.

Now, that's a lot of suicides and attempted suicides. Most of them go unsung, remembered only by close family and friends.

Every once in a while, one of those suicides becomes internet famous. People completely forget about all the other people ever who have killed themselves and not gotten the media attention to focus on one person out of millions, and promptly start crying about how bullying is such a horrible thing and wearing various colours.

As if it'll make a difference.

Let me tell you a bitter little story: I was bullied from 7 until 15 wherever I went. I made two suicide attempts over one bully. The bullying also triggered depression that will possibly stay with me for life.

Not one single person wearing wristbands and colours and posting about how horrible bullying was on Facebook or Tumblr ever made my life, or the life of anyone else with a story like mine (and I am one of the lucky ones), better. Not even a tiny bit.

Do you know why that didn't happen?

Because their wearing wristbands, their wearing certain colours, their reblogging and reposting and retweeting, had no effect. It didn't educate people or make them more sensitive. It didn't help people who are bullied find a safe space or somewhere to get help. And it was about as far removed from frontline work, actually physically helping people who are bullied, as you can possibly get.

And I am sick and tired of people thinking that complaining helps. Because it doesn't. It doesn't get anything done. Sure, complaining can be a great way to vent, but it's not the same thing as making a difference.

At this point we come to a pretty pass. If anything beyond changing your profile picture on Facebook seems like a herculean task to you - and I will be perfectly honest about this, trying to make any kind of difference in the world can utterly consume you - fine. I can't yell at you to make a difference in this world. Fine. Keep liking things and reblogging things if it makes you feel any better, but don't pretend that you're changing things.

And if you do genuinely want to try and make things even a little bit better...well, I don't claim to be able to give you a definitive guide. I couldn't, not when I beat myself up for not doing enough and most of my "activism" consists of blogging and tweeting about issues and going out in the streets when I have time (yay for being a full-time student and not having the time to do anything!). All I can do is give you the few bits of advice I've picked up.

Firstly, trying to make a difference is tough. It can consume you, it can kill you, because trying to live in the way you would like the world to be and trying to change the world, even trying to change a tiny bit of the world, demands everything of you. So be prepared for that and don't be afraid to temporarily cut loose if things are getting too much for you.

Secondly, beware of idiots. A lot of people try to set themselves up as saviours of humanity whose only real contribution to their cause involves shouting a lot. These people get a big platform because they're loud, but don't listen to what they have to say - it will fuck with your head. Trust your logic and if someone with a loud mouth is saying something stupid, cruel, or self-contradictory, ignore them or correct them, but don't ever let it get to you.

Thirdly, if you want to do work that makes a difference, know that you won't be able to reach everybody all at once - this goes especially for frontline work of any kind, where you may only be able to reach a few people at a time because of how much time and effort you need to put in building up a rapport with them. Even if you blog and tweet and tumble, even if you're the most prolific user of social media ever and you speak several different languages, there's only so much you will be able to do.

That's okay, because people can only do a finite amount.

It's okay not to be able to do everything.

It might sound obvious, and I guess this is partly me talking about my failings and trying to soothe myself, but sometimes you get to a point where you feel like you have to do everything; either very few others pull their weight and you feel like you've got to do more to make up for that, or people make you feel that you have to be doing everything at once or you're part of the problem, or perhaps both. That's incredibly dangerous, not least because it can rip you apart to be doing everything you can and still feeling like it's not enough, because it isn't, because one person on their own cannot fix things.

This brings me to my next point: You will lose sometimes, most of the time. Your pet cause will go tits up. People will fight amongst themselves. New laws and reforms you were fighting against will be brought in. Wars will start and won't stop until everyone involved is dead. People you cared about will suffer, will die.

It takes what is quite possibly an insane amount of courage to keep going after that, but you will need that courage or a part of you will die.

And remember, you don't have to do this on your own. You don't have to try and fix the world on your own and you don't have to avoid asking for help if you fall on hard times. A support system is pretty essential, a system of people who will take their share of the work but will also help people in difficulty. Without one it's very easy to burn out or break down or overload yourself.

Finally, one last thing before I start talking about ways to help: activism is not a pissing contest. It is not about stroking your own ego. It is not about picking fights with your own side. It is not about putting others down. It is not about blindly hating people and telling them to go kill themselves. It is the exact opposite of these things, and if you see so-called "activists" doing that, call them out and run for the hills.

Right, now to get to ways to actually helping people...

...Firstly, educate yourself. You can't help others if you have no idea what you're doing, so research. Read newspapers, blog posts, books, Twitter, Tumblr, forums.. Watch documentaries, films, TV shows. Listen to radio broadcasts. Above all, think critically and sceptically about everything: a lot of the things you will find are bullshit and you need to be able to separate the bullshit from the truth.

Secondly, live up to your ideals - something I mentioned before but something that I'll mention again. The values you struggle for are not some weekend struggle, they are something you live every day whether you're going on a rally that day or not. Work for people's trust (and don't ever break it, whatever you do). Work for them, work with them. Stick up for them. Care for them. Volunteer if you can (I'm not necessarily talking about time constraints; some charities will only let you volunteer with them if you're over 18).

Thirdly, if people don't know, spread the word and educate them. Write, write, write, write, write. If you can write an essay or even organise your thoughts in a vaguely logical manner, you can blog. Trust me - I have all the literary talent of a cinder block and I have a blog! (Okay, so nobody ever listens to me because my writing's incomprehensible and my points incredibly trite, but still...) Linking to things and commenting on them on whatever accounts on social networks you may have also helps. Just make sure not to fall into the trap of "a reblog alone actually makes a difference".

Fourthly, the arts! Dancing, music, fine arts, sculpture, humour, cooking, drama...If you can think of a way to weave arts and activism together, chances are it's something actually creative and therefore good (as a general rule, creativity is good in protesting as it keeps the people you're protesting against on their toes), especially if it gets massive amounts of people involved. I would say that being subtle and sharp rather than heavy-handed is a good thing, though it's very subjective and I'm known to be pickier and snootier than most.

Fifthly, letter-writing and that most maligned way of protesting...e-petitions. If you're good at writing letters, I'd say go ahead and spam politicians and CEOs with them like it's going out of style because it tells them that people are angry enough to contact them about what they're doing and could actually, you know, do something about it beyond writing a strongly-worded letter. E-petitions can sometimes help, but are not to be used as a tool on their own or even a principal tool as they're too ineffective - plus it helps to check out the site and its ethics beforehand. Some petition sites can be pretty shitty for a place claiming that it wants to help you make a difference.

Sixthly, rallies, demonstrations, marches, and direct action. These are the classic form of activism and the one that most people regard as "real". Despite this, the effectiveness of this varies from "stunningly effective" to "a bunch of people shouting incomprehensibly in the rain" - though it's always worth attending an action to try and make it more effective if you can. Two things I would beware of, though, are the police and anxiety. (I have had anxiety attacks on demonstrations before for various reasons that I don't want to go into in public and it's not fun.)

Seventh, disruption! Fuck with the system! This can take the form of defacing websites, taking them down, disrupting workplaces, occupying buildings...anything you can come up with that disrupts the normal functioning of society, even just a little bit, and calls attention to its flaws. The effectiveness of this varies, but I generally like disruption as it leaves a lot of room to be creative and try new things.

Finally, care for people. This is probably the most personal item on the list and the one with the least range, but it's also the most important in a way; I personally don't find it much use trying to save the world if you don't try and help the people around you. Be there for them. Listen to them. Offer them your help, as much help as you can, and think of them as an things for them and not for you. This is friendship and kindness, and it takes time. It doesn't always work out. You can't reach everyone with it. But even though it's not so revolutionary, I find it works very well to make the lives of other people even a little bit better.