Be a Disruptor (But Only the Right Way)

Walk OUT or walk UP? Which way is right? One’s got to be better than the other.

Disruption creates an uncomfortable environment, but isn’t it true that we experience our best growth when we embrace our discomfort? If you are done growing and enjoy your comfort, then keep trying to oppress activists so that you’re not inconvenienced with becoming uncomfortable. If you’re not done growing, let’s keep the disruptive discussion going.

The word ‘disrupt’ seems to have been given a negative undertone. Disruption is not predicated by negative effects in the form of harm to people or property, yet it can have a destructive quality. But that’s the point, right — to destruct volatile social constructs that violate the ideals of basic safety or humanity? To generalize activism as something that destroys people or property (literally or symbolically) is itself a destructive practice, as is any generalization. Generalizations (‘always-never-all-none’ statements) are dangerous.

Come on…is it fair to dismiss all kids based on your judgment of the few that eat Tide pods? Do you appreciate being called a redneck just because you live in Kansas? (I’m from Kansas and unfortunately have contended with this exact sentiment before.) Or do you enjoy when others call you racist because you’re more aligned with ring-wing politics? Perhaps you’re lazy and entitled because you’re a Democrat. Of course, these generalizations are dangerous, especially in policy-making. Yet, we fall into these traps anyway. If you don’t agree with the reason for disruption, does that mean it’s okay to oppress the activists by using generalizations? I suspect it feels like generalizing somehow justifies your opposing opinion by trying to discredit the activists. Instead, re-focus on the problem itself.

Most problems are intertwined and multi-faceted — which means they probably require intertwining and multi-faceted solutions. I (as many of us) witness many conversations about why we should or should not be activists in some way. This reductionist view to individualism is dangerous because it ignores the complexity of the problem. Why do we try so hard to reduce things to non-comprehensive arguments? I guess because we think we like our lives to be simple and clean so we try our damnedest to reduce complex issues to simple, clean problems. It’s just not that simple.

Why are we all so stupid? No, really, check out this video on a Facebook group page about how we all have cognitive biases that contribute to our…you got it…stupidity. This group of social scientists @whyareweallsostupid is making discovery of self more accessible through their presentations on things like the endowment effect, availability bias, and overconfidence. The point is, we have biases, whether we realize it or not. If you’re afraid to examine those (for instance, “I have no biases” = fear to examine), maybe take a step back and think about how you identify yourself.

I believe that we all have much more of a responsibility in all facets to actually work toward non-biased decisions that make a difference to lives of humans, not just individuals or select groups. Why isn’t it more okay to act on multiple solutions instead of forcing ourselves into just one? Is it because of how you identify yourself that makes it harder to think outside the box or break arbitrary rules of your social group? Or because it was “how I was brought up”? Or that your religion guides you and you have a divine fear of going a different direction? Or maybe you’re simply fearful of what others may think about you.

Humans will always do things that you judge in your life to be ‘offensive’ but I urge you to investigate the difference between ‘offending’ and ‘violating,’ especially when talking about safety and humanity. Whether you allow yourself to be offended is 100% in your control, but being violated is beyond offensive. You, and you alone, control your reactions and responses and whether you’re offended. If you hear yourself saying you’re offended, ask yourself if you feel offended or if you’ve been violated. Does that change how you see activism for people whose safety or humanity has been violated?

Why can’t we support walking out and walking up so everyone can do their part without feeling ostracized by all these ridiculous social constructs that force us into corners? I argue that we need both walking OUT and walking UP! The fact is, both conditions can co-exist! We don’t have to back into corners of contempt of others or apathy of the very systems that are meant to support us.

Walking out is more of a forward, in-your-face, active disruption tactic to create a physical, emotional, political, or financial impact on stakeholders that (for whatever reason) aren’t recognizing or mitigating an issue that others define as a real and present problem. This type of movement is not just defined by walk-outs. Whatever motion (or movement) is created is done so through creating palpable, highly-visible, high-impact motion around a cause.

Examples throughout history demonstrate the power of movements. Was it so bad then? If so, why? Is it really so bad now? If so, why? Is it because it impacts you as an individual who has cognitive biases that cripple you into feeling threatened by this type of activism? And if you feel threatened somehow, why is there so much fear in your life? Exactly what are you threatened by? (Hint: Discover yourself more through getting uncomfortable with your biases.)

For anyone who encourages other types of activism, like walking UP, that’s great too — with the realization that it’s easy to slip into victim blaming and shaming. So the concept is something like this: Walk up and be nice to the boy who has no friends. Let’s put that into context and how it had high potential to fail in other historical settings:

  • Walk up and be nice to the slave with the chain around his neck who has been separated forcefully from his country and family and tortured to near death. [Acts of kindness did little to nothing for these enslaved human beings for centuries. Active disruption did.]
  • Walk up and show compassion to the Japanese legal immigrant who looks sad walking alone in the internment camp[People with American rights had those rights stripped because of ancestry. Compassion would not return those rights. Active disruption did.]
  • Give your thoughts and prayers to all those kids who were molested for years by their coach. [Thoughts and prayers don’t help convict a criminal. Active disruption did.]
  • Walk up and be nice to that woman who’s at home while her husband is gone voting. [These women wouldn’t have achieved suffrage if they relied on other people’s kindness and support. They did it through active disruption.]
  • Walk up and console that lady who’s trying to teach ranchers about ethical treatment of animals while they dismiss her because of her quirky behavior and non-traditional methods. [Consoling Temple Grandin didn’t advance her multiple causes or help her get her PhD. Active disruption did.]

Walking UP and being nice alone would not have helped any of these people in their causes. If we rely only on this type of walk UP behavior, we’re not only contributing to victim-blaming, we’re also crossing our fingers and hoping for the best from the people who fall through the cracks of fallibility. The evidence is in the adults who deploy harmful, negative power tactics in their families and communities, yet preach walking UP instead of OUT because they feel threatened by what might happen as a result of the walk-outs.

This type of walk UP activism supports characteristics and values that I think most people like to believe they already have and want to instill in others. I adore the altruism in this type of activism and wholeheartedly believe in it. To a point. This type of activism doesn’t really make policy change, but it does galvanize us to be better human beings to each other. If this type of activism is going to be successful (or solely relied upon), it needs to be applied everywhere. All the time. Not just to the groups we judge acceptable. Can you do that? Can you expect that of all your peers? All the time? Isn’t that what religion teaches us? And why laws are made? For millennia, we have failed the tenets of our religions and edicts of our laws. We have fallen through the cracks of these things. Humans are fallible, even in our best intentions.

That fall-through is not a crack; it’s the Grand Canyon.

So…we need both. It’s awesome to encourage the walk UP method to offer support, love, and compassion to oppressed individuals, but it’s not enough. I believe both types of activism need to done synergistically for the best effect possible. We cannot ignore the fact that walking OUT is standing up and creating actual motion for those who are oppressed into immobility — there’s no oppression more immobilizing than that of death.

Before you criticize activists of any kind, I encourage you to consider what you might do when something tragic occurs to you or your family. What will you think when someone tells you to sit down and shut up and don’t act entitled, that your voice and your opinion won’t do anything anyway, to do something better with yourself. Why don’t we re-frame this discussion from a fight about hate and entitlement to one of empowerment. So many people unconsciously fear empowering others because they’re fearful of losing their own power.

…And then there are those who aren’t afraid of empowerment of self and others.

Were any of the following things worth their painful pasts for you as you live your life today? Do you reap the benefits of other people’s walk OUT disruptions or walk UP type activism? Maybe you don’t want to be an activist in any OUT or UP way. That’s fine too. But please recognize the privileges you have at the hands of those who have (or had) the courage to do it on your behalf. Someone else had the nerve to walk OUT and UP synergistically, in direct relation to each other, in order for you to feel so comfortable relaxing into the privileges you (hopefully) appreciate in this very moment.

  • Slavery
    • OUT — Disruptions or disruptors = Civil War
    • UP –Synergistic support = Underground Railroad
  • Civil rights
    • OUT –Disruptions or disruptors = John Lewis, Freedom Riders, Mahatma Gandhi
    • UP– Synergistic support = providing protection during protests, acknowledging personal biases and making personal changes
  • Sexual misconduct
    • OUT –Disruptions or disruptors= #metoo, Aly Raisman et al.
    • UP — Synergistic support = giving useful resources for victims who have been violated, financial assistance for legal fees, offering a platform for communication
  • Gender equality
    • UP — Synergistic support = family who cheered on these women to travel, and provided transportation to, events like the Seneca Falls Convention, political support to increase safety for activists
  • Disability
    • OUT –Disruptions or disruptors = Temple Grandin, Stephen Hawking
    • UP — Synergistic support = building tools for activists that helped break barriers of disruption

In an earlier post about power dynamics, I mentioned that I agree with walk-outs if you want to be part of a movement for something you’re passionate about. Yet, incredibly, we continue to find ways to diminish the impact of activism. We even give a name to this power dynamic — age, experience, gender, title, financial status, position, neighborhood. It’s true these things offer us unique experiences inherent to the dynamic itself, but those experiences do not entitle us to a claim of power over another.

For-real parent Facebook comments about local high school walk-outs:

  • “If they really want to walk out, they need to feel real consequences to really make it worth it for them to feel what their [sic] doing to us.”

Wow, “doing to us.” If this isn’t a threatened person choosing self-victimization over self-power, I don’t know what is. Most activists are fully aware of potential consequences and are still willing to experience them. But the intensity of consequences is not correlated with the effect of a movement. According to this Facebook user, people who experience harsher consequences must be more committed to a cause than those who don’t experience harsh consequences.

So, what shall we do to “make it worth it for them”? How about writing a law that mandates jail time for a high school walk-out? That’ll teach ’em! And those who are willing to go to jail must believe in the cause more than anyone else.

I think that is precisely the definition of oppression in the form of fear tactics and policy-making that targets activism to reduce its impact.

  • “Why don’t they do it on 3/14 with the rest of the nation so they won’t miss school since they’ll be on Spring Break?”

What?! This comment is laughable and so uninformed. Is it just me, or isn’t the entire objective of a walk-out to make large stakeholders not only aware of, but feel the impact, of the absence of so many people in their organization?

  • “Kids these days are so entitled.”

I know some high school kids that are far more mature and knowledgeable than some adults. Speaking to and about kids from the seat of any privilege (in this case, age) is yet another form of oppression that we’re imposing upon young people. By the way, the ‘adult’ who made this particular comment is currently two years older than the high school “kids” of today.

The problem when it comes down to making change for a shared problem is that we become consumed with this Us-versus-Them thing, not an Us-versus-Problem thing. And to take it one step further, it declines even further into my-form-of-activism versus your-form-of-activism. More attention gets focused on what activism is ‘right’ and which one will victimize me the least, rather than focusing on the complexity of the problem and attacking it from a lot of different directions. The problem itself gets lost in individual and group identities, loss of universal vision, and greed. All we’re doing is confusing everyone instead of coming together to find solutions.

Not just one way is right. We need to come together and prioritize — I mean really prioritize — what our universal vision is as humanity. Business theory doesn’t survive without vision statements, yet humanity lacks a common vision.

At the end of the day, I get to stand up for whatever I want to stand up for. No one gets to tell me what’s more worth my time and efforts because that’s different for everyone. I have a lot of different people to thank for this privilege. It is precisely because of privilege I owe to others who have fought for me that makes me want to pay it forward by supporting disruption. And if I’m willing to deal with consequences of my disruptive actions, I try to recall other people who were too — John Lewis, Martin Luther King, Jr., Temple Grandin, Steve Jobs, Stephen Hawking, Helen Keller, Fred Korematsu — and the benefits of safety, knowledge, and equality that I feel because of their courage. Even more powerful to me…they don’t even know who I am, and they fought for me anyway.

I will support my own kids in whatever forms of activism they choose to participate in, as long as they intend to do no harm to people or property. I will not oppress them in their activism of whatever they find oppressive. I want them to know it’s not only okay to disrupt, but that I encourage it when they feel it’s necessary.

My daughter is a young adult who has the courage to walk OUT and walk UP whenever she sees fit. Whether I agree with her on everything is not the point. Rather, she knows I will support her in her disruption because I know she attacks things with love, compassion, and a regard for humanity. She is open-minded, empathetic, and brave enough to say what’s in her heart when it matters enough for her to do so.

I have a teenager who lives at home. He knows exactly what the Second Amendment says, grew up around guns, does not eat Tide pods, believes change is needed, is on the Honor Roll, can speak more intelligently about current events and politics than most adults I know, plans to major in Political Science, is privileged in many ways and yet under-privileged in others…and did not walk after Parkland. He can speak to his own reasons why he chose not to. And he knows I would have supported him either way.

My youngest teen, who lives with his dad, refuses, even at this young age, to be defined by boxes in his life. As challenging as his non-conformity can be as a parent in a world that defines kids by their conformity, I get him. That apple did not fall far from this tree. While I may not agree with some of his opinions and beliefs, I will always support his individuality and his courage in not letting others define him.

This upcoming generation is one to be reckoned with, and I couldn’t be prouder of our future leaders.

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