Marching in a large protest is like dancing at a rave or feeling a god descend onto an ecstatic ritual: you transcend your ordinary self.
You get a feel for collective energy — your mood syncs up with the crowd’s, shifting together, sometimes literally second by second. Decisions are made without you choosing to make them (and the crowd’s choices only sometimes align with the organizers attempting to direct things. I’ve been in marches that spontaneously changed direction and ended up halfway across the city from the intended destination as the initial leaders pleaded on their megaphones, getting desperate, begging us to stay on course). You lose yourself — but giving yourself up means becoming something larger. How did the first bacterium feel to join into a multicellular, complex organism?
And when the police are there, the ecstasy mixes with a feeling of power. You’re submerged in anger and exultation, chanting and chanting and chanting and raising your fist. You look at your friends and you silently promise that you won’t scream or run or lose your head when the gas canisters and flashbang grenades start to land. It’s no wonder both leftists and soldiers call each other “comrades.” Police seem to get a thrill, a warrior feeling, out of confronting and containing protests. But the protesters themselves are floating on the same high. Even the flashes of terror and desperation only end up deepening the intensity of the experience. The sense of absolute moral vindication is part of it, sure. But the sophisticated ideologues are shoulder-to-shoulder with people who don’t care whether or not they can coherently explain the cause, whose only analysis amounts to, “We rule, they suck! Screw them!”
Online #activism is to street protest as sexting is to sex: sure, actually using your body feels nicer, but you’re gratifying the same desires. You still get the thrill of confrontation, of having an enemy to fight, topped off with the riding-high sense of knowing that you are morally right and they are morally wrong. That ethics-intoxication mixes with the antidote to whatever powerlessness or helplessness you may feel in ordinary life. For once, you aren’t entirely at the mercy of things beyond your control. You escape yourself and empower your deepest self, both at once.
Of course activists crave that feeling! That’s why they started marching in the first place. Yes, they sincerely view their activities as a means to an end, but why do you think the same individuals are so flexible when picking a cause? Abstractly, there’s no reason why “defund the police” and “stop global warming” should draw so precisely the same crowd. Sure, many activists can explain to you why every issue is connected in a philosophical sense. But those ideologies aren’t reasons. They’re justifications constructed after the fact, designed to explain away what would otherwise look like a pretty big coincidence.
The only real common thread is activism itself. Activism is a community of value — people helping each other feel meaning in life by creating something together. In that sense, it works just like a religious congregation, an amateur softball league, or even a tight-knit extended family. The tricky thing is, the goal of functioning as a community of value has very little to do with the ambitious social transformation that activism claims to be creating. People do activism because they want to do activism. They then risk having a disconnect between their concrete activities and their stated intentions. Like other intense ritual practices, activism transforms its participants, and it feels like it surely must also be changing the external world — but that doesn’t guarantee that the desired result will literally come through.
How do activists manage that cognitive dissonance? I usually just got frustrated. And why not? You have people who have dedicated their lives to uplifting society, and who do indeed take genuine physical risks on a regular basis in order to do it. And yet, somehow, society so rarely answers the call. Thinking realistically about how historical processes happen tends to lead you straight out of activism — whatever a group of activists decides to do or not do doesn’t really matter. Masses of people drive history. They do so according to historical and sociological processes that no individual can either control or fully comprehend. If activists fail to achieve their goals, it’s because they’ve set themselves an impossible task. How can you move history on purpose when that is not how history wants to move?
Before I left the activist community, I was so angry at it. When history proved intractable, I turned my attention instead towards the people over whom activists can exercise power: other activists. The moral thrill of the march becomes a self-crushing guilt trip as you sit in your bedroom later that same night. You ponder the depth of injustice and ruthlessly examine your brain, every random stray thought, guarding against any trace of unchecked privilege. That’s where the impulse comes from to act like a cop — the unwoke ideas you hear other activists mention unthinkingly reflect back your own shortcomings. Sometimes you get the urge to smash the mirror. Disappointed eternalism becomes nihilism. It’s not cynical. It’s not hateful. It’s bitter. It’s grief.
And when those psychological dynamics play out interpersonally across activist culture, activism itself becomes the topic, displacing actual political issues. (“Cancel culture” is the go-to example lately, but don’t forget all of the earlier panics: Bernie bros, macktivists, white-privileged Black Bloc provocateurs, scene-stealing allies…) Bit by bit, the world-spanning moral vision that drew people to activism in the first place recedes into the distance. The community’s eyes keep turning back inward. It’s like a novelist who keeps writing books about novelists writing books.
Communities of value — activism included — can be useful. Making meaning in other people’s lives is a deeply virtuous, loving thing to do — as is allowing them to create meaning for you. Many communities of value offer so much to individual seekers while also serving to enrich the broader culture. They also all inevitably fall short. When you rely on other people to make your life meaningful, something always goes wrong at some point. When that happens, you will feel tempted to either lash out or dig in. Disillusionment and fundamentalism represent different extreme responses to the same moment of disappointment — and as I wrestled with my own unfulfilled expectations, I reacted first with fanaticism and later with bitterness. Neither one was a skillful response on my part. I have only admiration for activists who’ve managed to stay in the community while avoiding both.
Spiritual maturity is less exciting than swinging between extremes. In the moment, it’s also less emotionally satisfying. After all, it doesn’t make the ambiguity go away — in fact, it largely consists of accepting the ambiguity for what it is, treating it as a friend to welcome rather than a monster to slay. But it’s the only response that won’t drive you to treat people like enemies for merely being human. And in the case of activism, it’s the only way to avoid the pitfalls without withdrawing entirely, shirking your civic and democratic duty to participate in political life.