So, I had a plan.
I’ve been reading this book called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. I’m only about halfway through it, but already I can relate, relate, relate.
My plan for this week was to write about introversion. I wanted to talk about how, for introverted people, engaging in traditional forms of political activism (marches, protests, rallies, etc.) can be very challenging. Reflection, introspection, pensiveness – these aren’t qualities that grab people by the throat and get their attention. Instead, in order for their voices to be heard – and author Susan Cain provides many examples of this – the introverted need to pretend that they love being around lots of people, and that they love speaking up and speaking out. They have to pretend to be something they’re not – extroverted.
And I had lots of good research to support this, too. There’s a 2012 study that shows that people with avoidant personality characteristics tend not to engage in community activism. Avoidant personality disorder, by the way (at least in the DSM-IV-TR typology), is an Axis II disorder. People who are labeled “avoidant” tend to be very anxious in social situations, constantly engaging in self-evaluation as they navigate the social landscape. And so they tend to avoid these situations – hence the term “avoidant personality.” Axis II means serious, chronic, temperamentally-based, and highly resistant to treatment. Yes, introversion has been seriously pathologized.
There’s the 2010 study of AIDS activists that showed that the only personality trait that correlated with the likelihood to engage in activism and civic engagement was – you guessed it – extroversion. The activism that these individuals participated in involved lots of social interaction – corralling random people on the street to get them to sign a petition; engaging in public demonstrations; giving presentations to high school and college classes, civic groups, and health care organizations. Exactly the kinds of things that highly introverted people (or people with “avoidant personality disorder”) would completely shy away from.
There’s the long trajectory of research conducted by Abigail Stewart, a feminist psychologist and researcher at the University of Michigan. Much of her research focuses on political activism – specifically, how personality characteristics and environmental factors contribute to one’s activism. Of course, repeatedly being on the receiving end of prejudice, discrimination, and oppression can galvanize someone, regardless of their temperament, to become politically involved. But being an extrovert, and being willing to take risks and try new things (a quality that personality researchers refer to as “openness to experience”) – both of these together are cornerstones of an activist personality.
That was the plan. But, as they say, the best-laid plans of mice and men oft go astray.
Last night, I decided to postpone writing this blog post. I’d started to write (and, as you can see, had begun to connect the dots between activism and extraversion). But there came a point where I just couldn’t stop yawning, and my brain felt like it was turning in for the night. Between my partner’s ongoing health issues (which have been keeping me awake at night) and my neighbor’s ongoing mental health issues (which also tend to rear their ugly head at night), I’ve been TIRED. So I went to bed. Tomorrow morning, I said to myself, I’ll be fresh as a daisy, ready to write about introversion and activism. As I was drifting away to sleep, I could feel my mind working and re-working the idea that we, as introverts, have our own “activist style.” I slept peacefully and woke up looking forward to writing.
But before I sat down to write, I scanned the headlines. “GEORGE ZIMMERMAN CLEARED OF ALL CHARGES,” proclaimed one headline. “GEORGE ZIMMERMAN ACQUITTED OF MURDER IN TRAYVON MARTIN SHOOTING,” said another. I read a gripping New York Times piece written by Charles Blow: “The Sadness Lingers.” And then there were the demonstrations, all over the country – in L.A., San Francisco, Oakland, New York, and in front of the Seminole County Court House.
I’m stunned. But not surprised. And now my “best-laid plans” seem inappropriate and irrelevant. Because Trayvon Martin is dead. George Zimmerman walks free. Institutionalized racism still exists in the United States.
And, right now, I can’t think of anything earth-shattering to say. But I will say this: writing about introversion, after reading these headlines, seems silly and shallow. Instead, I feel like I need to say something strong and powerful – something memorable and insightful, about the trial, about racism and oppression. But it’s not happening. At least not immediately.
Some people are incredibly skilled at speaking up in the moment, saying exactly what needs to be said. Rev. Jesse Jackson has that quality. So does Al Sharpton. And both of them spoke up immediately after the Zimmerman verdict. Some people are good at thinking on their feet, springing to action in the moment when necessary. Many of last night’s protesters probably fall into that category. These are the hallmarks of extroverted people.
I have neither of those qualities. I need time to think and reflect before speaking. When I’m faced with a decision, I need time and solitude. (Interestingly, I’ve been told that I make decisions very quickly and definitively. I may look like a quick decision-maker, largely because I don’t tend to talk through my decision-making process with others. But believe me, there’s a lot of internal churning going on.) My writing process is similar – I don’t actually spend a lot of time writing, but I do spend an incredible amount of time thinking. Most of the work happens in my brain, which makes my writing process seem deceptively short and easy.
And right now, I feel like I need time to think, digest, and reflect. I don’t want to go downtown and protest. I don’t want to tweet or post Facebook comments – at least, not yet. At the moment, I don’t even think I want to talk about this much. I do, however, want to go inward, and take the time to sit with this – and then speak up and take action. It doesn’t look sexy and powerful, but that’s the kind of activism I practice.
Last night, before my brain and body threw in the towel, I came across a 2012 study conducted by Dawn Szymanski from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. She looked at the individual coping styles of African-Americans who engaged in activism, and found that those who had a reflective coping style, characterized by thoughtful, careful planning and insight, were far more likely to engage in activism, compared to those with a suppressive coping style (people who bury their head in the sand and pretend that problems don’t exist) or a reactive coping style (people who speak and act quickly, often on impulse). And people with a reflective coping style are more likely to be introverted rather than extroverted.
Hmm, I think as I read my post. Maybe my best-laid plans didn’t go so far astray after all.