18 min read

Your Last-Minute Guide to Not Being an Angry Activist This Thanksgiving

The past 2 days have seen activists around the country protesting the events of Ferguson, MO. People around the world are outraged that yet another killing of an unarmed black man boy is going unpunished. While the debate has centered upon the details of whether the officer legitimately killed Michael Brown in self defense, the larger context of racism and police brutality make the details of this incident less significant amidst the fact that African Americans are 21 times more likely to be shot by police than whites are. WTF.

For many, the way this sadness, disillusionment, and anger is being expressed is through protests that themselves can result in aggression towards innocent people's property. I am not judging this. These protests are extremely important for showing the outrage and need for political action on the issue. They are one way to react to a tragedy or miscarriage of justice. But vandalized neighborhoods (which may not even be caused by those truly impacted), along with the often hysterical news media, can alienate some people from being open to the message that something needs to be done about racism and police brutality. And of course being out in the streets doesn't in itself propose a clear solution, yet some may have the impression that protesting in vain is all one can do. Others outraged by the lack of even a trial for the officer are taking to Facebook arguments and unfriending people-previously-known-as-Facebook-friends.

Meanwhile, tomorrow is Thanksgiving, a theoretically beautiful day of giving thanks and watching football, but one that is also rife with contradictions.

Of course, Thanksgiving is a celebration honoring the massacre of native Americans - a fact that has been whitewashed and perversely removed from the mythology of the holiday. (Should we really be celebrating today?) It is typically celebrated by feasting on a turkey who has likely been raised in utter misery - including having their beaks and toes cut off without painkillers, being kicked or thrown by callous workers and denied veterinary care, and then being shackled by their feet upside down to be slaughtered. The fact that this suffering is ignored as people dine on turkeys is perfectly perversely aligned with the origins of the holiday.

All of this is just so sad.

Thanksgiving is a time when people gather with their families, and it has become cliche that the family time can lead to bickering about all of the above.

Cue the anger.

So what is an angry activist to do?

Here are 5 tips:

1. Don't discuss hot-button topics with your family, especially over holiday celebrations. You are with your family because of your history together. Because of all your years together, all the (good and bad) memories, all the inside jokes, and all the shared joys and sorrows. Because you want to hear how your cousins are doing, see Uncle Hal for maybe the last time, or make sure Grandma knows you are taking care of yourself. You are not with them in your capacity as a highly passionate person wanting to persuade others to your opinion. At least I hope not because if that's your goal there are much more effective uses of your time. Maintaining family relationships is important, and you may one day regret it if you don't.

2. Think about the true purpose of the words that are about to come out of your mouth - and stop yourself just in time. It might seem like your intention is to promote equality or compassion, but hold on. Are you wanting to make someone feel guilty? Wanting to make them feel stupid? Wanting to show them that they are racist or ignorant? Trying out a new passive aggressive - or just plain aggressive - strategy to finally convince them they've been wrong all these years? Family members have all kinds of baggage with each other that keeps them from being open to being told what to do (think how you feel when they insert their opinions about your job, you having kids, etc.), and all of these things will just make that worse. Plus, when was the last time you were inspired to open your heart or mind by someone attempting to make you feel any of those things?

3. Be a happy, kind, loving, and positive activist role model. Nobody wants to dine with Debbie Downer. People want to be happy, so they want to be around people that are happy, and they want to be like people who are happy. Doing your best to be happy and positive - even if you just fake it till you make it - will have people be more likely to come to you, trust you, emulate you, ask you your opinion, listen to you than if you angrily tell them what to do. And if they don't, then what? You got happier either way.

4. Breathe. And be grateful. If some really awful things are coming out of people's mouths, or if you're upset about the carcass being joyfully carved up on the table, practice taking deep breaths in through the nose and out through the nose. Consider each breath your attempt to dig deeper into your well of compassion and to be able to shower those around you with love, regardless of their views. Practice gratitude. You are with people who love and care about you, and who you on some level love or care about. Or did at one time. Or maybe you're with people you just met. They are doing the best they can in the life circumstances they have lived. They are unaware of their privilege and now is not the time to teach them. And you have food on your plate, electricity and internet, people who want to spend their holiday with you, a place to sleep, clean drinking water, and a toilet. Which is more than billions of other people have. Breathe and give thanks for the privilege of getting upset at the dinner table because of someone disagreeing with you. Give thanks that you are alive.

5. Start to think more strategically about your activism. I hope that doesn't sound condescending, but most of us just fight the battle right in front of us without really thinking it through.

There are a few key points to consider here:

  • Many people have made up their mind and are not persuadable on certain issues. You and I certainly have. If you tried to convince me that animals deserve no protection from abuse or that more people having guns make us safer, you would be wasting your time. I have made up my mind on those issues, and your arguing with me on them would only serve to ruin our time together.

    At YEA Camp, we teach about a Spectrum of Agreement, where people who agree with you from 0-30% are not open, and people who agree 80-100% already agree - yet typically we focus our discussions on people on the outer edges of the bell curve, and not on the 50% of the population in the middle. This is not a good use of our time. Focus on people who are open-minded, interested, already like-minded but not as informed, or have never thought about the issue before. These are people whose opinions you are far more likely to influence.

  • We have a finite amount of time and energy to devote to our cause. Any energy we waste unproductively came from somewhere, and it gets sapped if we don't replenish it. Usually, if we feel we are being effective in our activism - maybe we give someone a new perspective or they come around to our way of thinking, woohoo! - it provides fulfillment that regenerates our activist commitment and work. On the other hand, when we feel ineffective, it can be extremely demoralizing. Think of it like we are watering seeds in hopes that they will grow, but if we pour all of our water on the same seed and it's still not growing, we just feel parched and empty, and we may on some level question the potential of water to help any seed grow. Use your time and energy wisely.
  • Ultimately, does it actually make a difference to your cause what your Aunt Sue's opinion is on gay marriage or Michael Brown? No, it probably doesn't. Whether she is homophobic or not, she doesn't get to vote on the Supreme Court's ruling on the Constitutionality of gay marriage. Unless Aunt Sue is an influencer or decision maker, as a typical non-activist American, her opinion has no real impact on what should be done to address police brutality or racism. So, this might sound mean, but why waste your time on her? She does have a say on her food choices (if you're mad about the carcass), but see all points above.
  • Get clear on what, if anything, you want to do on the issues you care about. On the Ferguson issue, one productive result that could come from this is changes in policing policy, including police wearing cameras, having consequences for police, and demilitarizing police forces. Dream Defenders has created a petition on Change.org with a clear list of 6 demands and 7 policy solutions addressing these matters. Spread the petition and donate to this organization. For animals, there are countless things, from volunteering with Mercy For Animals to getting more veg options in your town, to donating to organizations you believe in, and more.

    Of course these are just a few small ways to get involved in the midst of countless others, but if you are clear on what you are doing to help, and are clear that it is constructive, you will feel less of a need to bring everyone around you along to your way of thinking when, in fact, their agreeing with you -- if you could even get them to do so -- might make little difference.Consider that sometimes our efforts to convince people around us can distract us into feeling we are making a difference when, if we are honest with ourselves, we are not.

Dealing with the emotions that come up when we empathize, when we feel, when we are conscious of the injustice in our world, is not simple. As activists in touch with our emotions, we need to find healthy ways to process and sublimate. These are complex issues that I plan to explore more deeply in this blog. Any feedback or suggestions are appreciated!

Sending gratitude out that you care so much.