As you might have noticed, things here in the United States have been tough lately. Between actual literal Nazis, mass shootings, natural disasters, the looming threat of nuclear war, and the constant veil of racism and sexism casting a shadow over daily events, it’s hard to keep up. We are so inundated by daily rancor that it can be exhausting. Sometimes, just reading the news in the morning feels like a struggle. We don’t know what new fear or sadness we might have to add to the burdens we already carry.
I hear daily from friends and acquaintances about how difficult it has become to stay “woke,” to keep reading instead of allowing yourself to fall blandly into ignorance. But even though we know we’re all tired, we’re not letting each other off the hook. Instead, we’ve started policing each other to make sure we’re woke enough. It’s only pushing us away from the awareness we seek to cultivate.
This past January, when everything felt on the brink of disaster, when it felt like the world as I knew it was crumbling around me, I did something I hadn’t done since college. I went to a protest, and so did incredible numbers of people all over the world who, it turned out, were feeling the same way. Walking up on the Capitol on Saturday morning,I couldn’t help but tear up. It felt right. There were so many of us, we had come from so many places, and we were all there to share in a singular experience of resistance. It was history happening. The march was peaceful and friendly. We chatted with some older ladies from the Midwest, and some young queer radicals from California. We smiled at men in “This is what a feminist looks like” t-shirts, and shared our snacks with a couple who’d brought their baby. It was a beautiful day, and it made me feel so much better.
But before I had even had time to let the experience sink in, to figure out what it meant to me and how to move forward, I began to see a steady stream of criticism coming not (just) from the new administration whom the march had targeted, but from other progressives who were quick to point out every possible fault. While the criticisms were often valid, things we could learn from and take to heart, they seemed to drown out a lot of the momentum that arose from the experience. Many people who had never protested before were inspired to get out and do something, and that is tremendous. But rather than welcome them with open arms, meet them where they were and help enfold them into a progressive movement, so many of us in liberal circles chose instead to cut them down, to downplay the value of their support, and to paint their good intentions as close-minded ignorance. It hurt. We cannot bring more people into a movement if we shame them for not knowing everything the minute they begin to explore.
Real change takes time. It doesn’t happen because you crafted the perfect sentiment in your Facebook status, or because you donated the appropriate amount of money to an organization that used it in exactly the right way to have exactly the right impact. It doesn’t happen because your message hit all the right notes for the super left and the center left, while still speaking to conservatives in a way that doesn’t alienate them. The “right” way doesn’t exist. It’s a straw man, and it’s holding us back from effecting real change. We’re letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. I know it’s hard to see right now, but there is so, so much good out there. I am lucky enough to work in a field and have the sort of life in which I spend a lot of time with dedicated do-gooders, people who make it their life’s work to improve the lives of others: educators, public defenders, social workers, civil servants and nonprofit leaders. These people get up every day and do the work. It’s not glamorous or showy, but they still show up and keep trying to make a difference. Their jobs are demanding and often carry a heavy moral burden, laced with ambiguity. They knew this going in. But lately, it seems like things are even harder, and I often find myself in deep conversations about a growing sense of doubt, a worry that none of it even matters, that they are not doing enough, that their work is futile.
Their work is not futile, and it does matter. But when we create an environment in which their quiet resolve is constantly overshadowed by the broader problems, the next step ahead, we are telling them again and again that they need to move on, that they really aren’t doing enough, that they should focus on the latest thing we think needs attention. How can one work as a lawyer on behalf of the disenfranchised when the whole judicial system is broken? Why should one help foster children find homes when poverty and a growing opioid crisis are the reason they are without them? We are pitting one good against another, instead of seeing each for the valuable role it plays. Instead of making these doers feel inadequate, we should be championing them for rolling up their sleeves and doubling down on something they care about.
It’s not just individuals either. We do this to everyone. When Wonder Woman came out in theatres, many of the women I know were delighted to finally see a superhero blockbuster with a female lead. But once again, the stream of criticism began to trickle in: we shouldn’t see it because the director still exemplifies the male gaze, because she still relied on a male character for development, because Zionism, because because because. But if we didn’t go see it and didn’t get excited about it, we might not get another shot. We cannot ask the first and only of something to be the everything. We did this to Hillary, too. We wanted her to be everything and anything a female candidate, finally, might have been, and as a result, we lost our shot to have a woman – imperfect, flawed, but female – as a president. One movie, one person, one event cannot be everything for all people. I know that when you are starved for representation, staring down an entire wall of oppression, chipping away at it can seem futile. But it’s the only way we begin to make cracks.
We need for these people, the ones chipping away, not to quit. If they do, I don’t know who will take their place. There is no perfect progressive hero. We all must choose our battles, because no one person can do everything. We should all strive to learn and grow and expand our efforts, to care about those for whom no one else seems to. But we can’t be faulted for picking a place to start and getting on with it. Find your own way to make a difference, but give others room to do the same. If the action you can take today is continue to bring attention to those who are invisible, that’s great. Let’s just avoid engaging in a ranking of the oppressed, telling one person that their experience or their voice is less valuable than another’s. After all, isn’t that the world we’re trying to change? Let them do their good, and let it be enough.