4. How to Tell the (Absolute) Truth

To create really useful Activist Project Histories, you have to tell as close to the absolute, objective, unvarnished, “microscopic” truth as possible.

This is harder to do than it sounds.

All kinds of things stand in the way of our telling the truth, including: strong negative or positive emotions surrounding a situation; a tendency to overemphasize a situation’s good or bad aspects; myths, clichés and stereotypes surrounding our work; and a tendency toward generalization and oversimplification.

Here are some tips for getting past these and other barriers:

Learn Not to Self-Censor

We often self-censor when we believe our thoughts or feelings are somehow unacceptable. What I have seen from working with my students is that most people self-censor a lot, in big and little ways.

You may, for instance, start to write that you hated having to call up strangers for a get-out-the-vote project. That feeling strikes you as unworthy of a “true” activist, however, so you mentally correct (i.e., self-censor) it by thinking, “Wait a minute! If I’m really an activist, I shouldn’t mind making a few calls.”

Just write, “I hated calling strangers.”

Or, you may start to write that you hated working with a certain person. That feeling strikes you as unacceptable, however, so you mentally correct (i.e., self-censor) it by thinking, “How could I hate that person? She’s a famous, brilliant, important activist, and I learned so much from working with her. So what if she has a temper?”

Just write, “I hated working with her and her obnoxious temper.”

Don’t censor your positive feelings, either. If you start to write, “I loved having the summer off. It was great taking a break from activism,” but then start to self-censor it by thinking, “I should be committed enough to my cause to never want any time off,” just write, “I loved taking a break.”

Or, if you start to write, “I loved creating the posters and other artwork for the event,” but then catch yourself starting to self-censor by thinking, “Aw, that was just stupid, silly stuff. Other parts of the project were much more important,” just write, “I loved creating the artwork.”

Always write the absolute truth in your Activist Project Histories, even if that truth makes you feel guilty, embarrassed or ashamed. Remember that your feelings are always valid, even if they don’t meet your own or someone else’s standard of seriousness, appropriateness or ideological purity.

Head vs. Heart? Heart Wins

If you study the previous examples, you will see that frequently a strong and honest feeling is obscured by an intellectualization or rationalization. So, “That other activist was obnoxious, and I hated working for her,” gets obscured by layers of rationalization about how brilliant and dedicated the activist was, and how much you learned from working with her.

We often try to intellectualize or rationalize away feelings or thoughts we feel are unacceptable or inappropriate. Try not to do this, as it is one of the most fundamental forms of self-denial. In other words, if there’s a conflict between what your heart (your feelings) and your head (your intellect) are telling you, go with your heart.

Your heart often speaks in a softer voice than your head, and you may need to slow down and stay quiet to hear it. Just concentrate on your feelings, including your physical feelings. If thinking about a certain situation makes you physically tense or even physically ill, that’s obviously a warning sign. Conversely, if thinking about a situation causes you to burst out into a big smile, that’s obviously a very positive sign. Your brain may leap in and try to cover up whatever it is you are feeling, but don’t let it.

Watch Out for “Shoulds” and “Shouldn’ts”

If you catch yourself thinking things like . . .

• “I should have done more work on that project.”

• “I should have given more money to that cause.”

• “I should have stood up for myself more when talking with that opponent.”

• “I shouldn’t have taken the night off to be with my friends.”

• “I shouldn’t have bought that new coat.”

. . . the very next thing you should do is ask yourself, “Why? Why should (or shouldn’t) I have . . .”. It may be that you’re right: you should or should not have done the act in question. But it is also very possible that what you did was quite okay, and this “should” and “shouldn’t” stuff is pure pointless self-criticism and Monday morning quarterbacking.

As you will learn in Part III, criticizing yourself because you didn’t act perfectly is a destructive habit.

If you’re oppressed by a “should” or “shouldn’t” statement, try repeating it a few times in your mind. Whose voice do you hear saying it? Is it yours? Or is it your Mom’s or Dad’s? Your partner’s? Some other activist’s? Or someone else’s? Once you know who, specifically, is “scolding” you, you can often then figure out whether he or she is making a valid point or just trying to manipulate you into acting according to his or her agenda.

Embrace Complexity and Contradiction

Most of your projects will have both positive and negative aspects, and include elements of both success and failure. Try to capture all of these contradictory aspects and don’t worry about reconciling them or coming to some kind of artificial, oversimplified conclusion. So, instead of just writing, “I hated working for low pay,” write, “I loved doing activism full-time, I loved most of my colleagues, I thought my boss was OK—but I didn’t like working for low pay. Actually, I didn’t mind the low pay so much as not having health benefits. That really screwed me up when I got into that accident with my bike.”

Avoid Preconceptions, Clichés and Stereotypes

Many of us also have bought into the many clichés and stereotypes surrounding activism. You may believe, for instance, that . . .

• All activist work, no matter how difficult and unrewarding, and no matter how meager the result achieved, is inherently worthwhile.

• Activism is supposed to be difficult or unpleasant.

• Activists are supposed to be suffer.

• Someone who has suffered discrimination or oppression has an automatic pass to be obnoxious or hard to work with.

Try to get past preconceptions, clichés and stereotypes such as these, so that you can record your honest experiences and feelings about your work. One key here is to listen to your “heart” voice, as discussed above.