Apolitical

Sometimes I wish I was an apolitical person. This thought came to my mind once more on a Saturday two weeks ago, when I attended a local Open Day for international students with my usual goal of political agitation. This mission was somewhat complicated, as my fellow activist from a student housing action group has arranged a spot for us at one of the stands, only to get an e-mail shortly before the event from an event manager accusing us of being, I quote, political. The manager, employed by the university, was shocked and disappointed. She discovered via Facebook (typical) that our group aims to politicise the issue of student housing in Utrecht, the scarcity of which forces students to live at hostels for weeks or rent cupboard-sized rooms for €500 a month. The Open Day was supposed to be more of a party for the new students, and therefore reminding them of the harsh reality awaiting outside was uncalled for.

The manager wasn’t bothered by us being too radically left- or right-wing, but by us being political at all. Although I was as upset as my action group comrade, I wasn’t surprised. On the contrary, I was surprised when he first said that our group will have a stand at an official university Open Day, as I knew, more or less, what to expect from such an event.

I knew what to expect and yet it hit me like a brick. I entered one of the newer university buildings, all glass and Scandinavian minimalist light wood, and was immediately offered a bag, a reusable water bottle and a university hoodie for a discounted price. People speaking English with various accents surrounded me, bringing back memories of my “undergrad years” as I felt both alien and at home. There were multiple professional-looking stands of societies, charities and student clubs, with serious Dutch students in t-shirts full of logos communicating through walkie talkies. A DJ played songs from a separate DJ booth.

Suddenly a tall guy with a plastic tray attached to his body emerged in front of me.

“What’s that?” I asked, looking at the snacks on the tray.

“Ha, ha, snacks,” he answered nervously. “Do you want one?”

“Sure,” I took a tiny carrot and dipped it in what turned out to be mustard. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” the guy looked around and then quickly approached a couple of Asian students.

Shortly after that, I found the student housing comrade at a stand with information on accommodation, where he explained the situation to me. He could stay there and talk to students about their housing problems, but we weren’t allowed to distribute our flyers or any other material. The flyers at the housing information stand advertised staying at a hostel and renting out your room, rather than renting one in the first place. If I remember correctly, the event manager started questioning the nature of the group after we asked her if we could bring a banner to the stand. I couldn’t blame her. The handmade banner wouldn’t look good next to all the modern and attractive stands, promoting language institutes and bike fixing workshops.

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* * *

The apolitical life is an easy one. It’s a life motivated by values which are entirely your own, formed through long years of education and self-reflection. In most cases you aren’t even conscious of these values and it isn’t a problem either. The key value is your own happiness, your comfort, both motivated by the unpleasantness of the world pushed somewhere to the periphery of your vision.

Walking across those stands, I thought about my months in LA. They were weirdly relaxing in the sense that I didn’t know almost anyone close enough to have real obligations to them; I had so little to do between classes that I even started going to the gym. I reached peak relaxation during the course “Film and Social Change”, watching non-Hollywood films from the 60s in a cinema-like room (with Americans endlessly complaining about having to read subtitles) and writing about them. (I would be proud to say that I got A+ for that course, if only it wasn’t so absolutely puzzling to me that other people managed to get lower grades.) In any case, save for one exhausting episode of flyering for my feminist friend’s party in the student elections (no election training will ever be intimidating to me after the American “close your eyes and imagine your candidate losing” nonsense), these 6 months on the other end of the world were the most apolitical time in my life since I first read Trotskyist propaganda aged 17.

And I was having a pretty great time. Literally no one knew anything about the place I was from (most local immigrants were from Mexico or Asia), barely anyone knew me as a person, I had a lot of weird and great experiences which I want to list but I will restrain myself, since this post is not really about that. This post is about the vague promise that being apolitical has for many of us: the promise of personal success, enjoyment, the assumed guarantee of a happy ending if only one is decent and hard-working, not bothering herself with frowned upon activities such as getting a burnout, doing unproductive and unhealthy stuff or questioning the liberal consensus.

Some people say that those who are apolitical can only be so thanks to their economically privileged position. I’m a humble person, so in regards to myself I think the opposite is true: I can be political only because I’m relatively privileged, or in any case not afraid of becoming homeless and hungry if I lose my job. I also never had to choose between politics and career, assuming (sometimes wrongly) that I can be politically active and do all my work and studies at the same time. But I imagine that people who fight for their apoliticalness (?) are not only happy about their comfortable lives and unwilling to change them: they’re also afraid of losing what they have now and what they might have in the future.

What explains excluding something better than fear? Of course, that assumption is ridiculous if one considers just our small example: an activist student group being a threat to the atmosphere of an event with dozens other organisations. But the manager’s response to us was a part of more general, slightly paranoid thought patterns which automatically relegate any actually subversive actions to the category of nuisance. Interestingly, there were a couple of environmental organisations at the event – for example De Groente Tas, an initiative set up at the university’s Green Office aiming to sell local, “biological” vegetables to students at a low price. Fighting against climate change and for a sustainable society is, as most people would agree, political. Why was De Groente Tas allowed at the event, then, despite its apolitical nature?

The answer to that question lies in the effectiveness of various sustainable actions. As nice as they are, individual enterprises such as De Groente Tas won’t change much; or more crucially, they won’t change things fast enough. The consequences of the climate change are a real threat not only to humans, but to entire ecosystems, and people should unite in finding effective ways to mitigate these consequences. But it’s more convenient for the liberal parties to put this burden on the individual rather than push for solutions on the state and global levels, which would require antagonising the supporters, if not employers, of many a liberal politician: international corporations. The big polluters. Call them as you wish, apparently they can get massive tax cuts while average citizens are expected to buy more expensive sustainable vegetables, pay higher energy bills and engage themselves in countless initiatives which will never be effective enough.

The individual, facing his or her endless individual problems – finding a job, finding a room, now apparently also fighting the climate change – is overwhelmed and confused. No wonder that in this confusion we try to cope as well as we can, hopefully finding a room through connections and then hiding from the world with Netflix and a blanket, and avoiding any additional difficulties – especially as time-consuming and seemingly futile as political activism in 2018. I was reading an article yesterday written by someone quite far away from me on the political spectrum and even confronting myself with unknown arguments was difficult; I can’t even imagine how difficult it is to form a political opinion for people who have been advised to avoid politics their whole lives. And at this point, who can blame the event manager for rejecting politics? She wanted to organise a party-like event. She probably just wanted to do her job well and then go home, get some rest, maybe run around the park and buy “biological” milk if she’s a bit more socially conscious. I know many people like that, who only study and/or work, and sometimes I envy them.

“You have cheese now,” I remarked, passing the snacks guy on my way out.

“Yes, ha, ha. An upgrade.”

I sunk in a soft white Ikea chair, eating my free piece of cheese. If I can understand why these people are demotivated, I mused, and it leads me to the realisation that my activism is pointless, maybe I should approach being (a)political from a different angle: what motivates me?

Probably anger. Based on values I also don’t understand that consciously, but they are still there. Most of all, the discrepancy: there is some basic minimum of logic and decency the world should adhere to, and even that minimum isn’t reached. Who knows if we will achieve anything – I have to do something, because otherwise I won’t be at piece with myself; because I don’t believe that it’s right that the university invites more and more international students without taking responsibility for the dramatic housing situation, choosing instead to advertise hostels which offer a bed in a shared room for €565.00 a month:

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I wish I could just chill and enjoy the cheese.

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How to Be an Activist with Social Anxiety

So you’ve read some stuff and one day you realise that the word must become flesh (or however you say that in English). You become active in a movement or organisation. You’re probably not ~officially diagnosed~ with social anxiety, you just know that you hate meeting new people and picking up the phone. That, of course, is what activists do most of the time, and if you sense a contradiction here, you’re right. As I’ve made many stupid decisions in my life (although most of them, as shitty defence as it is, unaware of the consequences), I will be your helping hand: I will tell you what to expect, and then you can make your decisions as someone close to the rational human being economists would like us to be.

How to be an activist with social anxiety

  • If you’re similar to me, the most difficult part won’t be canvassing or starting a conversation with randoms on the street. The real plague are the many events during which you have to discuss and plan actions with people from your organisation – you’d much rather write comments in an online thread (reminiscent of safe spaces such as Revleft or the mailing list of the failed Occupy protest in your city), but these meetings are held in real life. Before the group decides to do something you totally disagree with and designates you to do something you hate, you should force yourself to speak. Raise your hand, if needed, or wait for a moment of silence. Even if other people begin to talk over you, there’s a chance that the shocking experience of hearing your voice for the first time in ages shuts them up quickly.
  • It’s true that most political activities depend on contacting people and networking *nauseous emoji*, but there are many which need to be done individually. Someone has to design, print and distribute the flyers; someone has to write texts (“copy”), translate them, manage the website and social media, do research etc. You shouldn’t avoid the social activities forever (more on that below), but doing these individual tasks is a good way to be useful in a less challenging way.
  • You have to accept that you’ll see activists less dedicated and competent than you (or, what often hurts more, than your friends) attaining high positions in organisations simply because they are good with people. You can’t deny that this is the key competence, and therefore you’ll ask yourself why the fuck are you even bothering with this. You could be doing something productive instead, for example sweating at raves waiting for a publisher to pick up your yet unwritten novel (something that worked for Zadie Smith, IIRC; I swear that review I promised months ago is in the works).
  • More sadly, you’ll realise you’re not connecting with people that seem likeable and worth your while, because there’s a limit to meaningful relationships you can maintain and social interactions are difficult. That’s quite frustrating as everyone else will appear to be BFFs working on their cool secret projects. But in this regard activism isn’t that different from everything else in your life, so really, you should get used to it by now.
  • Sooner or later, you’ll be valued for your contributions, or just for making an effort, since political groups are the most welcoming environments you’ll ever experience. Of course they are: they depend on your, most likely entirely voluntary, work and one of their main goals is to attract and keep as many activists as possible. If you’re not getting any recognition at the moment, just keep believing in yourself and your assets. (If you can’t, I must refer you to the yet unwritten guide ‘How to Be an Activist with Low Self Esteem and/or Depression”, hopefully produced by one of my comrades in the future.)
  • An even more difficult case is becoming an activist with social anxiety in a country where you barely speak the language, but as I don’t expect most people to reach this level of self sabotage, I won’t go deeper into it. (I would like to meet you, though, to share tips on setting realistic goals and loving oneself.) At least you’re rewarded with learning the language, if you persist.
  • The whole enterprise does have its advantages. As much as I hated the idea for the most of my life, exposure actually helps to deal with your fears, and if you’re presenting a campaign ten times to ten new people within an hour, by the end you may be exhausted, but also less scared than you were in the beginning. One of the biggest surprises is discovering how nice people are. We hear about varieties of the bystander effect and heinous crimes on daily basis, but these are the exceptions: most of us behave decently (while sober). For me, the absolute pinnacle of this experience was hearing Polish conservatives politely refusing to sign our pro-choice petition, and after that I’m afraid my fear levels are dangerously low. Of course, these people probably still write terrible things online, but they are simply not socialised to start screaming expletives in your face. Rare moments of actual rudeness disappear among the hundreds acceptable encounters.

Next to managing your social anxiety better and better thanks to exposure, advantages include feeling like you have a purpose in life, spending a lot of time outside, developing organisational skills and meeting a partner (happened to me and many, many others).

Still, there are moments when you are overwhelmed by work which keeps bringing disappointing results *cough*everyelectioninthelasttwoyears*cough*, when you’re angry at yourself for feeling anxious around people you’ve seen a million times, when you hear that only 1.5% of Dutch citizens are members of a political party and you suspect there might be a reason for that. There are moments when you’re frustrated by ineffective organisations and dying out movements; by the media which frame your actions so aggressively they’re essentially lying (or, even worse, ignore them); by your fellow activists who, just like you, often fail at balancing their work, politics and whatever remains of their social lives. There are moments when anxiety and tiredness kill your motivation; in short, moments when your personal ‘How to Be an Activist with Social Anxiety” guide could be summarised in a single bullet point:

  • Don’t.

Work for yourself, your future and your own little family. Plan your career carefully, and refrain from any activities that do not contribute to this career in a tangible way. Become a responsible adult.

But why would I want to do a thing like that?