The best-laid plans


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.

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5 Comments

Filed under hate crimes, human rights, psychological research, racism, Uncategorized, violence

5 responses to “The best-laid plans

  1. Reblogged this on Sacrificial Tomato and commented:
    I wasn’t even thinking about race, I’m just horrified that someone got away wish shooting an unarmed child.

    • It is horrific. As long as our society continues to view guns as “the answer” to settling conflict, these tragedies will continue. And as long as racism goes unexamined, then racialized violence will continue as well.

  2. Gary Hollander

    Thanks, Gayle, for this post and your ongoing commitment to your thinking and your readers. There is something vulnerable and raw about this post; thanks for the candor.

    As I read the beginning of it, before you got to the George Zimmerman verdict, I was thinking, “Does she have this right? Are we introverts really not activitists in the ways the research suggests?” Just yesterday I spent an awkward three hours greeting people at a fund raiser for my organization hosted by a board member. It could not have been a lovelier day, but my mind wasn’t in the game and my heart was somewhere around my knees. “My feet, mechanical, walked along a wooden way” (Emily Dickenson, describing grief).

    In some ways I am a fraudulent extrovert — many see my handshakes and embraces, enthusiastic greetings, and relatively quick assessments as evidence of extroversion. But, these are usually learned responses from me, behaviors I have forced on myself, and adherence to cognitive models I carry in my head. I think that many of us introverts make decisions that complement our cognitive style. I have decided to stay in the activist game for the long haul. I have decided that there are certain true things that I can go back to time and again when I am speechless. I have decided that my leadership is more likely through influence than working up the crowds at a rally. I have decided that the apparent moments of change are build upon the decades of work that preceeded them; those decades are my strength.

    Like you, I have increasingly become clear that my discomfort with not knowing right away is bearable and, quite possibly, the best thing I have to offer.

    Mr. Zimmerman’s culpability exists in the context of a world-wide cultural battle in which participants in ALEC and others seek to dominate policy (so-called Stand and Defend, Conceal and Carry, and other nonsense) that devalues human life in favor of global financial domination and greed. Attorneys will drag out the relatives of the defendant who will bring sympathy to his situation and at the same time obfiscate the racism that contributed to his actions, his view of the world. The court will allow the victim to be put on trial by allowing his school attendance records to paint a picture of him instead of the pathetic educational systems in Florida and elsewhere. The media will make us scratch our heads over the ludicrous trial of a dead man in Russia during the same week that we witness the trial of Trayvon Martin in the US.

    This is what I have been thinking.

    But, as this was unfurling in the news, my Facebook post was “I am trying to make sense of the senseless.”

    • My response is much-delayed – not because I’ve been in such deep reflection all this time, but because I’m on semi-vacation, and not on my computer as frequently as usual. My apologies.
      You know what’s interesting? A lot of people I’ve been interviewing for my upcoming book are activists, but are also closet introverts. They don’t love being in the spotlight. They don’t thrive on being in crowds of people. They express themselves better in writing than in extemporaneous speech. They are thoughtful, intelligent, and reticent around unfamiliar people. But they have strong convictions, and are powerfully motivated to help bring about social change. Some have learned to develop extroverted qualities. Others have found ways of capitalizing on their introversion. I think, by writing this blog, I’ve done that to some extent as well.
      I think the research has it all wrong, and part of it is because the studies use a faulty “operational definition” of activism. If our definition of activism only involves extroverted qualities, then of course you’re going to find that extroverted people gravitate to activism. But if we use an expanded definition of activism, and if we look at the wide range of possibilities of bringing about social change, I bet we’d find that a lot of introverted people – like ourselves – are devoting a lot of energy and making significant contributions to activist efforts.

      • Gary Hollander

        Two quick comments:

        I am chuckling with the thought of you cruising the Bay Area in a big truck on your “semi-vacation.”

        For some time I have been confused about the activists of the keyboard. I have mostly pushed myself to not fall into what I have viewed as the social media trap of being a commentator instead of an active participant. Some of my heros who do some of their work via blogs — like yourself — are also at the events, in the mix, in the field. Other share opinions not formed by the anvil of human interaction. I have one pal who writes everyday, but I am always struck by her loose connection to daily life. It is as though she were still in the incubator that she experienced 50 years ago. I really don’t have a position on this aspect of the introverted activist, but I know it confuses me.

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