Popular imagery of politics and political movements is dominated by boisterous, charismatic personalities. The vast majority of history is told through the exploits of the most dynamic leaders and the most booming voices. This form of what is known as Great Man theory — the interpretation of history and social movements as relying on powerful individuals or “great men”— imparts on the general public that creating political change requires one to be outgoing, persuasive, charismatic and possess other traits that are typically associated with extroverted personality types.
As a campus organizer who is not only introverted but downright terrified of talking to people, I know first-hand that you don’t need a persona as bright as the sun to engage in activism and agitation. I’ve led protests, facilitated workshops, confronted right-wing agitators and run an often busy mutual aid table, yet if I see someone I know in Homer Babbidge Library I’m guaranteed to slink into hiding like a scared kitten. In fact, the smooth-talking rhetorical masterminds and effortlessly poetic radical punks are simply highly-visible rarities in left-wing spaces — the rest of us, as you could imagine of any movement that encourages educating yourself on history, political theory and survival skills, are just a bunch of nerds with dreams of a better future for all. If this sounds at all familiar — if you stumble over your words in political arguments with your wine-enthused uncle or sit in the back of organizing meetings, afraid to pitch in for fear of being even 1% incorrect — this article is for you. If you will, entertain this introvert’s guide to radical activism.
Praxis makes perfect.
Never be fooled into thinking that your first try doing anything has to result in a perfect, infallible product. This is especially true for political activism. While political science is considered a science because researching governments and social movements requires generating and testing hypotheses, the real scientific process happens through organizing. Every social movement throughout history has, without a shadow of a doubt, involved rigorous experimentation and perseverance. Organizing is more often than not a process of trying, failing and committing to learn how to fail less next time. This is just as valid for attracting a crowd to your group’s mutual aid table as it is for making a revolution that creates a new society from the old.
Even seasoned organizers whose activism is as effective as it is efficient had to go through exhaustive and sometimes embarrassing trial and error periods before becoming competent — and, even more importantly, confident — activists. They probably still actively engage in the process of applying the knowledge they gained through failure to every evolving initiative, which constitutes an everyday example of praxis.
Communication is capital.
Okay, I know how this sounds, but hear me out. Communication with others — as in real, often non-virtual people — is one of my weakest areas of personal growth precisely because anticipating an argument from conversations about politics is a frightening hurdle. The amount of time and energy invested into political discourse can be tiring, but nothing helps you learn how to articulate a point like having to repeatedly defend it from a relative or slightly combative acquaintance. Furthermore, it gets easier to engage in calm and thoughtful dialogues about politics and activism instead of the same heated, dead-end argument. Your goal, ultimately, is to learn how to communicate your organization’s activist platform to the communities that you’re trying to serve; viewing conversations with friends, family and community (real or virtual) as a valuable investment in your learning process de-emphasizes the supposed need to win points against strangers.
Accept, give and practice love.
As unhelpful as I find gatekeeping, there is one rule on which I am willing to lay down the law: You can’t be an activist in any meaningful sense unless you have a real and genuine love for the people. By “the people,” I’m referring to the oppressed masses that any impactful organizing efforts should serve. Status, monetary, credential and social rewards should never motivate activism more than love and the desire to do better by your community members and comrades. At the same time, you shouldn’t hesitate to accept the love and help that is offered to you by others. Motivational burnout and isolation within a group are a serious hindrance to organizers and comrades who haven’t quite found their place; building a sustainable community where knowledge and support is shared unconditionally forms a solid shield against this.