On Beginners and Burning Out

[Unfinished version of this ended up on Facebook earlier, because blogging during class is hard to do. Second half wanders into more speculation.]

One of the things I’ve gotten very used to is that in the social circles I interact with, people react when you say ‘feminism’. There’s the flinching; the people who are waiting for the other shoe to drop, the ones who are leaning in, expecting to need to bear the brunt of anger or argument. And the people who tense, expecting some kind of conflict they’ll be trapped watching.

I’m usually in the last, group, and I’ve gotten very used to saying ‘gender things‘ where anywhere else I’d say feminism. ‘People‘ instead of ‘men’ or ‘women’. Having citations not just read, but memorized, along with holes in methodology and side discussions about confounds and alternate hypotheses.

And…it’s exhausting. But one of the things I’ve really liked about the classes I have now is that we just…don’t do that. There aren’t endless paragraphs and loops and citations and caveats that have to be run through before we can address the chilly climate effect in group therapy, or disproportionate violence risks. I think I was the only person who tensed at a question of what feminist theories the class thought were useful to bring into one-on-one practice.

This isn’t actually a blog about why you should become feminist.

I mean, I’m sure I’d be delighted if you did, but this isn’t a feminism-specific problem. Supposing people join causes for some cluster of reasons around:

1. All their friends are getting into That Cause
2. They want to educate others about That Cause
3. That Cause is some sort of learning/knowledge group. [Ex: religion, rationality, atheism, philosophy clubs, ???]

And for a long while, it’s fantastic. For 2 and 3 especially, there’s this delight in seeing other people discover the That Cause. It’s your ingroup! You’re all together! Look, even more people have joined in! It seems plausible that some small minority of people could find this sustainable and invigorating on the long term (this group probably has large overlap with the people who make good teachers and tutors). But more to the point, I think most people don’t like this. You field the same small set of questions over and over and over, and it becomes impossible to feel as thought you’re either making any kind of difference (for #2) or able to progress in your knowledge (for #3).

Wandering into slightly-more-dangerous Guessing-Land, I think this is what creates the aspects of feminism and social justice(*) that are so deeply resented. Things like “it’s not my job to educate you!” and responding to questions with anger (leading to the perception that even asking questions is treading risky waters) are commonly aspects of SJ and feminism that actively make people like the movements less…and simultaneously, they’re reactions I have so much sympathy towards.

Let’s oversimplify a bit, and presume that the only question that feminism seeks to answer is whether or not women and men are equal.  So you, New Feminist, get involved in feminism (for the purposes of this exercise, and because I’ve already slightly oversimplified, please assume you’re female). You start identifying as a feminist, and as a result start having conversations/arguments/discussions about whether or not men and women are equal. In the start, you’re fresh-faced and you care a ton about this new concept, and so you devote a ton of time to discussing. You have the emotional energy to remain chipper in the face of very angry opponents, and you’re delighted when people concede even minor parts of discussions. Even though just a small number of people you discuss with are amenable to feminism, it’s easy to be caught up in the energy. You spend a fair amount of time reading up on discussion tactics and common arguments and counterarguments.

Timeskip. It’s two years later. You’re still fielding the same questions. Both because societies rarely change on the order of months and because there happen to be a lot of people who like arguing about gender, your conversations about feminism usually start with a variant of “but women and men just aren’t equal, right?” and…it’s exhausting. You’ve gotten so accustomed to the number of objections to feminism that you can mentally categorize them, because the themes repeat. It’s really hard to get excited or happy at all when someone moves very slightly in the direction of your position, because now you’re painfully aware how many people haven’t at all. But also, you’re female, and it’s not as though you feel you can walk away. You want men and women to be equal, dammit, and when they’re not, you’re adversely impacted and you know it.

Furthermore, though you started out eager and willing to have long discussions of equality and calmly walk through each and every of your opponents points, you’ve realized that it’s mentally exhausting for you. Lots of the time, you do that and then…nothing. No visible change. And a few times, you’ve done this and then been badly burned…your words were used as representative of all that was wrong with feminism, or quoted out of context, or the person you were corresponding with explained that they weren’t actually interested in changing their mind, just wanted anti-feminist ammo. So, you’ve got some pretty awful priors for anyone who starts a conversation about feminism with you. I’d fathom that this is a similar phenomenon to what happens in helping professions, where those on the edge of burning out have a more negative perception of those they help than the average bystander. (Maslach, 2003)

And…now you’ve known for a long while that men and women ought to be equal. So you’re not getting to have the conversations that come to mind as the next step. You haven’t gotten to discuss what that would mean in terms of military service, or how to handle equality when reproduction and bodily autonomy and reproductive coercion intersect with the fact that only half the population can actually bear children. And you can’t have those conversations, because as far as you can tell, every time you start them, some bystander explains that they’re just not sure that men and women ought to be equal.

[At this point it seems necessary to point out that this hasn’t happened to me for feminism but sure as hell did happen with atheism.]

I haven’t really been able to come up with an overarching solution to this. I have a lot of sympathy for people who have been badly burned by asking a sincere question, only to be lashed out at, told they need to go educate themselves. Asking a local expert seems a heck of a lot easier than attempting to locate an explanation, sifting through better and worse ones, and not knowing which explanation of a position or term is most accurate or representative. Simultaneously I have such sympathy for people trapped in the dynamic I describe above.

I have no idea how to reconcile these.

A first step perhaps, is to acknowledge that for most people, repeatedly having intro-level discussions is exhausting and eventually unpleasant. That some spaces exist specifically to cater towards people who have taken a set of common assumptions for granted and want to have conversations that go to the edge of where those assumptions take them. That having those spaces can be an extremely important coping mechanism. That perhaps, when you and I and everyone else get caught up in causes and ideas we want to promote, we also find or create spaces that won’t regularly have new people asking old questions.


Maslach, C. (2003). Burnout: The Cost of Caring. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
* A confound here is that with feminism and social justice-ish topics, it seems plausible that there’s also an expectation of niceness combined with deep frustration with being ‘nice’ whilst not having equal treatment. I don’t think this is the entire explanation, which is how we ended up with this essay in the first place.




8 thoughts on “On Beginners and Burning Out

  1. The best way forward I’ve ever found is, “I don’t understand this very well and would like to learn more. Could I ask you some questions? If not, that’s totally okay; I know you probably get asked to do this a lot.”

    1. Yeah, and I like this! However, given that people who well-meaningly ask things about SJ or feminism topics that are entirely new to them, I dunno how to get this meme out. If they haven’t interacted with SJ much, I don’t know how they’d hear about this either :/

      1. Well, SJ isn’t a monolith of subjects. I say things like this all the time, because I’m not perfectly “educated,” either. Someone who sees me do this in a conversation about race or disability may then think to do it in a conversation about gender or sexual orientation. And the fact that the problem you’re writing about even exists is a testament to the fact that non-SJ people do often encounter SJ things on the internet. Modeling behavior I’d like for people to emulate is probably the only thing I CAN do, because by the time someone is complaining to me that “SJWs” neeeeever react well to someone who’s just asking questions, then probably no advice I give them will help.

      2. The problem doesn’t just exist in SJ, though. As you mentioned, it happens for rationality, religion, atheism, transhumanism, quantum physics, and probably any other you care to name. If this meme gets out, it can help in all these fields; conversely, it can start in any of them.

        One thing I’ve seen happen (can’t find the link), which can be done from the answerers’ sides instead of the askers’, is saying something like “The best place to learn the basics of topic is [here]; it explains things far better than I could. I’d be happy to answer any questions which aren’t covered there” (optionally skipping either of the last two parts, although you might be more willing to answer questions at the 102 level). From the asker’s end, be sure to say “if you don’t want to talk to me about it, that’s fine, but could you potentially refer me to some basic resources?” (this could probably be rephrased better to also give an out if they don’t want to refer you either, but I can’t find a good phrasing). This takes a lot less time than answering the same questions over and over, so similarly gets less tiring.

  2. I think the standard solution is to write a FAQ. Then, just give new member a hyperlink. Best case (if your movement is large enough and has enough volunteers) would be to have a separate forum for debating the FAQ. Then, the objections mentioned in the forum too frequently can be included in the FAQ.

  3. Thank you for this post. This definitely happened to me with LGBT+ rights. I was an enthusiastic activist in high school and college, and even worked for an activist organization for a while. Now I’m so over it. My straight friends get more excited about marriage equality than I do these days, and I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t even want to point out the employment protections thing, because I’ve just had the same conversation SO. MANY. TIMES. (“But people can’t get fired for being gay in this country.” “Yes they can.” “Really?!” “Yes, really.”)

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