We Are Constantly Learning: How to Make Mistakes in Activism

Protest with a sign that says No!

Activism has more or less surrounded my personality, my being, for my entire adult life. Perhaps it was solidified when I undertook my first piece of volunteer work, or when I went on my first march. Maybe it goes all the way back to my first Blue Peter Bring and Buy sale at age eleven, when I commandeered a school classroom and flogged my classmates’ old crap to raise money for charity.

Maybe it was somewhere in between those two points. Or–more likely–maybe it has been a constant evolution.

My journey into feminism is much clearer. I became a feminist when I read How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran. After a year of recommending it to me, my friend finally bought a copy and forced it into my hands. She insisted it would change my mind about feminism–something which, until that point, I didn’t fully understand.

She was right.

“I looked back at these moments and realised that I had, despite my protestations, been a feminist all along.”

Until that point, I had hated the F word. I actively rejected it. I thought feminism was burning bras and hairy armpits (admittedly both things I have done in the last year). “But men are naturally stronger, aren’t they?” I parroted from some patriarchal echo lodged in my brain.

But I duly read the book. And my god, what a revelation. I was a feminist. I looked back at my teenage years arguing with my mother about learning bass rather than piano; about getting my eyebrow pierced; about having short hair; about doing anything that would make me seem “manly”. I looked back at these moments and realised that I had, despite my protestations, been a feminist all along.

Now I know it’s not ‘proper’ to admit that my feminist awakening was thanks to Caitlin Moran. She does, after all, have a problematic history, and her narrative is one of distinct white privilege. Nevertheless, she is an important figure in modern feminism. She’s turned some heads and changed some minds–mine included. As Laurie Penny (another important yet problematic feminist) said, “I have a great deal of respect for Caitlin Moran, and I’ll have more when she owns her mistakes.

Because here’s the thing–nobody is perfect. I am not perfect.

“Owning those faux-pas and improving ourselves as a result is the only way we can learn.”

I need only look at the ableist and homophobic slang that pops up on my Facebook Memories to confirm this. I need only remember the way I tutted at feminism; the way I rolled my eyes at the welfare state the same way my older relatives did.

I don’t recognise the person I once was–but I don’t deny her existence. My sense of right is innate, but it took a lot of learning to find it. I learned and I kept learning until I got better. Until I became the person I am today.

But I’m not finished learning. Not by a long shot. I am still not perfect–and I probably never will be. I will keep f*cking up and I will keep learning–but only if people keep calling me out on my mistakes.

Whilst being called out for our mistakes has a habit of making us feel defensive, owning those faux pas and improving ourselves as a result is the only way we can learn. We apologise, and we learn something new.  As our wonderful Head of Outrage, Liv Woodward, puts it in her guide to being called out, when you get called out you shout: Stop. Apologise. Educate yourself. Forgive yourself.

Recently, Chris Pratt (not to be confused with Chris Evans or another one of the 150 Chrises that seem to exist in Hollywood right now), demonstrated exactly how to react when you get called out.

After releasing a video in which he insisted that viewers should turn the sound on, it was pointed out that, actually, not everybody can hear, even with the sound turned on. So do you know what he did? He apologised. Not only that, but he apologised in sign language, and publicly called out Instagram for lacking a closed caption feature.

I’m sure some people are still angry at Pratt for the incident–but I’m convinced that we shouldn’t be. He made a mistake, he owned it, and he learned something. He learned to step outside of his own privilege and consider another point of view.

And isn’t that the point of activism?

“The only way activism can work is by teaching and learning. Without that, we’re just shouting into the void.”

All of your favourites are problematic. And guess what? So are you. It is hard to consider everyone in everything you do, and it’s so much easier to slip into the comfort of our own privilege. But if we want to call ourselves activists, we must try, and keep trying, and keep learning. Because we want a kinder, more tolerant and equal society. And we won’t get that if we’re lashing out at each other over every mistake.

Because society is constantly evolving. We are constantly evolving. The issues are constantly changing and so as activists we are constantly learning. We are constantly getting better. And we have to support each other in that–and not give others (and ourselves) such a hard time when we slip up.

The only way activism can work is by teaching and learning. Without that, we’re just shouting into the void.

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