Community Or Success?

Sophia Burns
3 min readSep 2, 2021
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The other day I was doing laundry. I heard what sounded like a crowd a few blocks away. If I focused, I could make out what they were shouting, a call-and-response chant. Someone with a megaphone led the crowd: “What do we want?” “Justice!” “When do we want it?” “Now!

I couldn’t tell what they were protesting. I still don’t know — it could have been anything from police brutality to the end of the eviction moratorium to the mayor’s refusal to resign after opposing the protests last year. But whatever it was, the same people would have shown up. They would have done the same chant with the same fervor.

When critics of the protest subculture compare it to a religion, that’s what they mean. Tent revivals use call-and-response. Churches dust off the same hymns and prayers for all kinds of different occasions. It reminded me of being a teenager at my very first protest: marching against the death penalty in front of the Texas governor’s mansion. We waved signs and shouted and cried out to the heavens for justice. I hope the heavens were listening, because the governor sure wasn’t. I mean that literally — the mansion had been damaged by a fire a couple of weeks earlier. It was still closed for repairs, so the governor and his family were temporarily staying somewhere else. No one was in the building who wasn’t on a maintenance crew.

Maybe we did infinitesimally shift public opinion in Texas against capital punishment. Maybe the rally I overheard the other day raised some awareness for whatever its cause was (although the bit I overheard certainly didn’t). But I don’t think that’s really the point. Gathering with hundreds of others and rhythmically shouting in unison isn’t about reforming public policy. The point is to lose yourself in the energy of the crowd — merge with something larger. Affirm your shared beliefs. Shut out the overculture, the normies and mundanes and worldly folk who don’t get it. Bystanders aren’t the audience. Neither are journalists or politicians. It’s the participants themselves. The show is for the actors.

There’s room for some of that in a successful political movement. But it can’t be the main locus of activity — it can’t be the point. When you’re customizing a car, you can optimize for speed or for safety. Past a certain point, though, you can’t do both. Every safety feature adds some…

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Sophia Burns

Paganism, Buddhism, Classics, philosophy, LGBTQ culture, and the art of living well. Former activist; I don’t trust culture war. http://patreon.com/sophiaburns