8 Great Reasons to Take Some Pleasure in Activism
There's a nasty strain of dourness in leftist politics. All too often, we run into the idea that activism is only valuable if it's solemn, focused entirely on the harsh realities of the present or the grim possibilities of the future. This attitude was encapsulated perfectly in a Washington Post column by Petula Dvorak, opposing the pink pussyhats in the Women's March after inauguration day. "This is serious stuff," Dvorak said. She argued that the Women's March was about serious issues of suffering and danger, so the imagery shouldn't be playful or fun. "The Women’s March needs grit," she said, "not gimmicks." (Note: Many trans women and women of color found the pussyhats exclusionary, and there are good arguments against them. Dvorak's column isn't one of them.) Dvorak's attitude is common. And it needs to be loaded into a cannon and shot into the sun. Pleasure, fun and joy are enormously valuable in activism. Pleasure isn't a requirement for everyone, of course: different people pursue activism in different ways, and that's a good thing. But of the many tools in our collective toolbox, pleasure is one of the most powerful. Here are eight reasons why.
1. It gives people a reason to stay in activism, and helps keep us from burning out. If a thing is fun, more people will keep doing it for longer. A lot of activism is difficult, stressful, or just plain boring hard work, and burnout is a real problem. If we're spending a lot of time moving chairs, updating the database, schlepping people or supplies, dealing with abusive assholes, or standing outside in terrible weather, one of the things that can keep us going is remembering the fun times we've had in our activism, and looking forward to the fun we'll have in the future.
Lauren Lane is co-founder and chief organizer of Skepticon, an annual free conference for atheists, skeptics, and other non-believers, largely skewed toward social justice. "Pleasure keeps me sane," she says, "and having fun is integral to my activism. Skepticon has dinosaurs and a fun, lighthearted tone because that makes it fun for me. Makes it so I can keep coming back and enjoying it." Nicole Miesnik Harris agrees: "As hard of a job as it is to be a clinic escort, I don't think many of us could get through it without a sense of humor."
2. It makes activism more appealing to newcomers. For people who haven't been involved in activism before, getting involved can seem daunting. But when activism is visibly joyful and playful, it makes it more appealing. And it can make it seem more accessible, more like something anyone could do. Anlina Sheng, from the Winnipeg Working Group for Sex Workers Rights, says, "Not everyone has the capacity or interest in showing up for things like protests or strategy meetings (not that these things can't have elements of fun to them too, but they are often not fun). So doing fun things to support a movement, like art, parties, performance, can be really effective in broadening the movement and connecting with people who might otherwise not show up."
3. It strengthens bonds. Connections between activists are certainly deepened when we go through hard times or dangers together. They're also deepened when we have fun together. Making our activism fun reminds us of why we work together. It reminds us that we like each other. It reminds us to bite our tongues when we're stressed and are about to snap or be catty for no good reason. All of this keeps us showing up, week after week, month after month, year after year. James Croft, outreach director at the Ethical Society of St. Louis, says, "I actually use the level of fun as a sort of guide to how well a group is working together. I loved being in Join the Impact MA, for instance, because for a long time we really liked each other and enjoyed each other's company. Once that element started to vanish, the group fell apart."
And pleasure can help us bond, not only with each other, but with the people our activism is supporting. Amy says, "I cook sometimes for a local winter shelter and we bring our kids with us. They pet the dogs and play UNO or war with the guests and it's kind of the whole point. People sharing love and energy. Goes both ways. That informs my activism around trying to get more permanent shelter and housing for our neighbors. And my 7-year-old can't be too scared of a dude he's beaten at cards."
4. It helps people feel less helpless. Oppressors want us to feel helpless and despairing, frightened and cowed. Creating pleasure, for ourselves and for each other, is a powerful way to fight that. It helps us feel like our bodies, our minds, our lives, belong to us. It reminds us that while oppressors do have a great deal of power to shape our lives and our minds, we have some power as well. Strong, visible shows of defiant pleasure are an important form of resistance. As Lori Fazzino says, "When I was working on the Openly Secular campaign and consulting for the Secular Student Alliance, I had so much fun working with everyone... and I took pleasure in knowing I was part of something bigger than myself!"
5. It sets us apart from our opponents. The forces we're battling are deeply anti-pleasure, for anyone but themselves. That's a big part of what makes us different from them. When we fight for reproductive rights or queer rights, we're fighting for pleasure—the right to enjoy our sexualities. When we're fighting for an economic structure that doesn't force people into unstable jobs at long hours for low pay, we're fighting for pleasure—the right to enjoy our lives. When we fight for decent health care for all, we're fighting for pleasure—the right to enjoy our bodies. When we fight racist police brutality, we're fighting for pleasure—the right to live without constant fear. So when our activism is pleasurable and playful and fun, it makes it clear that we aren't just fighting against things. It shows what we're fighting for.
Ben Nyer has been attending support rallies for his town's Planned Parenthood clinic for the last year. "Making the support rallies an entertaining experience," he says, "has been absolutely critical to [their] success—not only to keep our members coming back every week, but to distinguish our colorful, flamboyant, dancing selves from the dour, bitter anti-choicers." And Anlina Sheng adds, "With a variety of causes, I've gotten into an angry activist rut, where I've lost sight of building for the future and got totally focused on what's wrong with the present... For me, the fun stuff can also serve as an important reminder that we're not just fighting, we also need to look at what we're building to replace the status quo."
6. It can help with mental health. I'm not the only activist with depression, or whose depression got much worse after the November 8 election. And the pleasure I find in activism is one of the things that helps me get out of bed in the morning. If you're tempted to scold activists for having too much fun, think twice before you tell people with depression or other mental illness to stop doing one of the few things that helps us take any action at all.
7. It can be hugely effective. Humor and play can be attention-grabbing—and grabbing attention is often a big part of activism. It's not enough by itself, but it's important. Mockery of powerful people can bring them down a peg: It makes them seem less daunting, and it can get under their skin. And if you're resisting a situation that's flatly absurd, absurdity can be one of the most powerful ways to shine a light on it. If you don't believe me, look up Pussy Riot, ACT UP, Dick Gregory, the Yes Men, Jay Smooth, Srdja Popovic of the Serbian resistance group Optor! and author of Blueprint for Revolution, Ladies Against Women, Hip Hop 4 Change, Lenny Bruce, Harvey Milk. All made their activism far more effective with entertainment, humor, and fun.
8. It's valuable for its own sake. Where did we get the idea that things are only important if they're solemn? Taking an issue seriously means giving it time, money, thought, planning, work, tolerance of people you find annoying. It doesn't mean doing it with a scowl. Human experience is valuable whether it's solemn or giddy, sad or joyful, angry or funny—or all these things at once.
Harold does a variety of community activities, including painting schools and cooking for the homebound and homeless. "I find no contradiction between enjoyment and compassionate effort," he says. "In fact, the owner of my company, whose brainchild this is and who pays for it all, once remarked as we cleaned up the industrial kitchen we had just cooked several hundred meals in: 'Man—this is sweaty work—but I guess the sacrifice is part of the virtue.' I told him that the sacrifice was part of the work but enjoying it or not did not affect the level of virtue—and I threw some soap suds at him. We laughed and started horsing around more as we worked. It's a bit of a shame that we generally think compassionate action and fun have to be mutually exclusive."
The puritanical roots in U.S. culture run deep. They show up most obviously in the religious right and their toxic influence on our politics and culture. But they show up on the left, too. We've all learned that sacrifice is virtue, that pleasure is dangerous, that sobriety is proof of commitment, and that our lives are only valuable when we're laboring. These ideas show up everywhere. But they're part of what we're fighting. We shouldn't be embracing them.
If pleasure and fun aren't part of your activism, that's fine. We all do this differently—that's the point. If you want your activism to be solemn or angry or grieving, if that's what resonates for you, do that. But don't crap on people who work better with pleasure, humor, and fun. These things get people into activism, keep us in activism, make our work more effective, keep us connected and powerful and healthy, and remind us of why we're doing the work in the first place.