by Sanaa Humayun
It’s been two years since I’ve written anything for the sake of writing – I’ve written school and work assignments, but for two whole years I’ve refrained from writing about the things I’m passionate about – because for a period of time I could no longer remember what that was. I became so focused on being liked, and so afraid of being vulnerable that I chose to remain quiet.
I spent my undergraduate degree entrenched in the issues I was passionate about. I not only wrote about issues and tried to be a vocal advocate but I also tried to listen – I oriented my social media around people who were better activists than me in the hopes of learning from them. I did learn, and I continue to, but there was a side effect that I didn’t expect. I was surrounded by articles, videos and news of all the perpetually ongoing horrors in the world – and it felt bad. All I could think about was how bad the world was, and how even when I thought things couldn’t get worse they did, and how we were on this seemingly endless downward spiral. I was consumed by the thought that I was just one person, and not a particularly influential one at that – there was nothing I could do, no contribution I could make to the endless badness.
I thought that if I wasn’t engaging with and aware of every wrong that was happening across the world then I was a bad activist, but humans aren’t built to feel such wide scale pain – we’re creatures of empathy. I began doing less, writing less, and caring less in an attempt to feel less. Many of the activists I followed on social media deactivated their accounts. Eventually I realized there was a word for this: burnout. Somehow, without doing all that much, I burnt out to the point where I had no desire or ability to write about social issues. The sheer amount of terrible news I surrounded myself with bombarded my senses, and I disengaged.
At some point I stopped being a person who stood up for the things I believed in, not just because I felt burnt out but because honestly – it’s hard. It’s emotionally exhausting, it’s scary and it’s fundamentally difficult to be disliked. It’s hard to post an opinion and have it be poorly received. So much of my internet presence is centred around being liked. My pictures are carefully and artfully cultivated in order to harvest likes, I’m fairly quiet about social issues on my own social media, though I have my own personal opinions. I’d like to say that this is because my life exists primarily outside of social media, and while that’s part of it, my desire to be liked also plays a huge role in that silence. There’s a level of social belief that’s fairly safe to post into the internet universe. If I post “racism is bad!” on my Facebook, chances are I’d be met with unanimous agreement. It’s when you delve deeper into racial and social issues that opinions become really charged, and polarizing. When I would try to talk about the deeper nuances of white privilege and racial dynamics I was met with hostility and resistance. It wasn’t just disagreement, but disagreement combined with hostility, which never leads to a productive conversation. It became easier, after a certain point, to keep these opinions to myself instead of starting a conflict. I know where I exist within these opinions, but I dreaded sharing them with the world and finding myself in a virtual conflict with a white friend or acquaintance, as I had time and time again. I stayed silent to avoid it.
The other huge shift in my mindset was when I began working – suddenly I left my university bubble. Not everyone agreed in university. Despite what right wing pundits will have you believe, my university experience was not a socialist hive mind – people disagreed vehemently. Class discussions and free time discussions were filled with hearty debate encompassing varying opinions. I didn’t realize what a luxury that was. It was such a luxury to be able to speak your mind. Through discussion I was able to listen and learn and assess where I stood on a lot of issues, by hearing the opinions of people I agreed and disagreed with. Though there were some classmates that I would never be friends with, we could at least have a conversation about our differing opinions with mutual respect and a willingness to hear each other out. When I joined the working world though, things were different. It was less important to argue for what you were passionate about, and more important to be a likeable and easy coworker. No one wants to be told that their political opinions are problematic at 8:30 AM on a Monday morning in the office. I learned what has proved to be a valuable and demoralizing skill – I learned to bite my tongue. I saw it as picking my battles. Someone would say something to me that would make my insides curl, but I’d stay quiet. Someone would post something vaguely racist and also factually inaccurate and I would scroll past it. Until I couldn’t anymore. The breaking point for me was when an ex-colleague posted an article from a right wing news source that’s well known for straying from the truth. The article led with a really inflammatory headline that made me stop in my tracks – it took me about 10 seconds of googling to find out it was undeniably false. The article itself was actually a copy-and-pasted article from the Globe and Mail from 2015 – with dates and a few key pieces of information changed. I posted the original, non-doctored article on her status and commented that I recommended she fact-check. She apologized and a few weeks later quietly removed me off all her social media.
There’s this idea on the internet that there is no room for mistakes when speaking about social issues. If you say something well-intentioned but offensive 50 social justice warriors will descend from the sky in order to skewer you and roast you alive. I was so afraid of being cast into that stereotype that for so long I didn’t say anything. With my colleague, I finally reached a point where I felt like I needed to say something, and then felt shame afterwards because I felt like I embodied that stereotype. I felt that I had been too harsh, that maybe if I had found a better way to bring up that conversation there would have been a more positive outcome. There’s a gap there now that I don’t know how to bridge, and that feels bad. But at the same time, she, and many people like her, benefited from my silence – I was easier to deal with when I cared most about being liked.
I realized that I tried so hard to be liked that I stopped being me. I became a watered-down, non-confrontational version of myself, and I can’t do that anymore. I refuse to continue to whittle away parts of myself in order to be more palatable to my white counterparts. I don’t want to enter every interaction with guns blazing – in truth, I’m still afraid of fulfilling that stereotype. But I’m going to write and talk about the things that are important to me, and hopefully I’ll be able to remember what it’s like to exist in a space where people can not only learn from me, but I can learn from them and their experiences as well. I don’t harbour any illusions that I can create any sort of long lasting social change, especially not through writing. But if I can create a space where I am the most genuine version of myself, and people feel safe to be honest and vulnerable with themselves and others, then maybe things aren’t as hopeless as I once thought.
Banner Photo Courtesy of The Wanderer Online Visual Editor Emily Gallagher.