American Poison: Life and Death and the Pursuit of Social Progress

Originally Written - March 6, 2018

Submitted and accepted to the 2018 A&M Communicating Diversity Conference

Winner of Best Undergraduate Paper Award

*Edits made for grammar and clarity since original creation. 



Time and time again in movement after movement, activist leaders find themselves occupying a similar space - an early grave. The method through which this end is met varies: suicide, outright murder, and often through chronic-stress related passing. Taking up the mantle of an activist is a known coping mechanism for oppression-centric stress. But at what point does the coping became a pathway to an excess of trauma? What is the threshold of when the weight of social movements becomes too much for an individual to bear? Since the advent of Trump-era politics, there has been a substantial uptick in the prevalence of significant political anxiety in residents of the United States. As Americans try to navigate this intensified landscape, the already mentally and physically exhausting work of activism takes on an even more fatalistic dynamic. By looking at historic and contemporary figures in the world of American activism and by examining the available data from the American Psychological Association (APA), we can try to grasp at the answers to the questions posed above. This paper endeavors to add to the ongoing conversation about the linkages between life, death and the pursuit of social progress in the American World.


The Warrior

Colorful intro inbound: The story of the warrior is the story of a person who takes up arms to defend that what is moral and good in this world. The ideal warrior takes all glancing blows and pushes forward to their goal of peace, justice or equality, regardless of the wounds that come to decorate the body. All spears thrusts and sword swipes may do damage, but ultimately they bounce off the roaring souls of those who take up endeavors to help others. Even in death, the warrior does not fall; others pick up their weapons and march on to the destination. This is the story that has continually filled American minds in the country’s brief yet extensive history. From our dozens of superhero movies to our celebration of historical figures, America is enamored with the sacrificial fighter. If outward attacks cannot destroy the spirit of the warrior, then the real danger to be wary of is internal, an internal poison.

The US, like much of the western world, has a culture that glorifies the suffering of marginalized groups. This causes young social activists to readily take the reigns of suffering, at times at the neglect of their own mental health. If we endeavor to understand the causality between activism and stress, the dynamics of America’s infatuation with martyrdom, and the new landscape for social engagement, we can aim to better equip young activists with a mindset that is more conducive to sustaining long-term social mobility.


Stress and Activism

First, it is essential to understand the relationship between activism and stress. For many marginalized folks coalescing into more massive social movements provides an avenue to contextualize their own experiences and traumas. By placing oneself into a grander national or transnational struggle, personal effects and dilemmas can seem manageable when set in contrast with overarching institutional barriers that an individual’s identified group is trying to overcome.

Further, engaging with activism “provides a means to cope with these individual and environmental stressors by providing opportunities for validation, support, and resources to help deal with and counteract the increased stress and devaluation associated with racist experiences” or other forms of discrimination (Syzmanski and Jioni 2014). The propensity for marginalized individuals to engage in activism is an intensely logical happening. Activism acts as an antidote to the toxic ills that can poison the mental (or physical) state of an individual. However interestingly, while activism initially works as a pathway to alleviate stress, unsurprisingly it also opens up a gateway to new stressors.

There is the recent example of Anti-Police brutality activist Erica Garner. Garner took up the mantle of an activist after NYPD officers murdered her father, Eric Garner. Garner once described in an interview with podcaster Benjamin Dixon the toll of her activism. “I’m struggling right now with the stress and everything… This thing, it beats you down. The system beats you down to where you can’t win,” she said (Wang 2017).

Now just a few years since the death of her father, Erica Garner is dead. At age 27, she suffered a heart attack which left her in a comatose state leading to her eventual passing. While other health factors were at play, excess and chronic stress are commonly linked to fatal heart attacks. The connection between stress and activism in documented. Jacqueline S. Mattis in the Journal of Adult Development found that there was a direct positive relationship between global race-related stress and membership in a political-social justice organization (Mattis 2004). With that, it is crucial to take into account that the American Psychological Association links chronic stress to the six leading causes of death (Hartz-Seeley 2014).

The effect of widespread trauma as a result of active engagement with activist messages is having a palpable impact on communities. As Black activist and thought leader April Reign told fellow activist Clint Smith during an interview for the New Yorker “the repeated watching (of police brutality videos) can cause emotional and mental trauma. Many activists in this movement are experiencing P.T.S.D.”(Smith 2017).

Garner had previously articulated that her actions went beyond her heartbreak, she had stated that her efforts were for her daughter and the next generation of African Americans. At the time of her death, other activists and community members tweeted out praise for her bravery and sacrifices. With her stated stances and public response, Garner joined a long-standing line and narrative of Black individuals who paid the ultimate price in selfless pursuit of larger moral good.


Martyrdom I: Societal Foundations


It is not the aim of this paper to discredit or somehow undermine the efforts made by activists like Garner, or others who have taken great pain in pursuit of their respective social goals. However, there much to be gained by analyzing the dynamics of the glorification of sacrificial American actors from marginalized communities.

The United States has promoted a narrative that sees marginalized suffering as inevitable and admirable. As a society, we link the acceptance of marginalized trauma to our cultural and societal reveling of martyrdom. The idea of the nobility self-sacrifice, in general, has deep roots in the western world. “The martyr as hero appeared in Western culture centuries before the discovery of the New World...With the triumph of Christianity in the West, the martyr became part of the collective imagination of Western civilization, embodied above all in the real as well as the symbolic figure of Jesus Christ" (Naveh 1990). Even Americans who do not subscribe to Christianity, have grown up in a society where the influences of the religion have manifested in a multitude of areas. On top of that, those who observe and look up to activist figures have likely looked upon individuals who used their faith as a driving force for their activism.

Further, while in many senses we operate in a wholly sophistic world, the influences of platonic thinking still appear often. Plato and by extension Socrates have a strong foothold in public discourse and thought. While specific tenants of their beliefs may not be readily available knowledge for many, their names still carry a degree of reverence. During The Gorgias, Plato’s hugely impactful opus of morality, Plato (through his mouthpiece Socrates) contends that while he would not prefer being inflicted suffering nor inflicting suffer, he consistently asserts the former is more admirable a state(Plato). Much of the modern U.S narrative related to oppression echoes this idea. While there is valuable comfort in such a notion, there are also dire implications.

In countries across the globe leaders for social change are assassinated to derail their causes. “If a leader upholds an ideology of martyrdom or a movement operates in a society where martyrdom has deep cultural roots, the dead leader will more easily be converted into a martyr with mobilizing potential for the movement“  (Bob and Erickson 2007). This is true in a variety of countries, US included.

It is a self-sustaining system. Whether through assassination, suicide, or illness, activist leaders die. In attempts to make certain that their deaths were not in vain, followers rise to fill vacancies and carryout unfulfilled promises. Similarly, victims of fatal hate crimes are often granted unsolicited martyrdom. Murdered LGBTQIA persons, victims of police brutality, lower-caste persons of oppressive regimes who do not wear the label of leader or activist may be seen as such post-mortem. The act of granting martyrdom is then too, a coping mechanism for the trauma endured by a group. Death can act as a galvanizing force to spur individuals onward. Martyrs create more people who are willing to be martyrs. In a society that has emphasized this way of being, the inclination to self-sacrifice is not surprising.


Martyrdom II: Dismissing mental health


With these schemas of thought being the undercurrent of Western and American society, it would incredibly easy for aspiring young activists to fully embrace the nobility of martyrdom. The negative ramifications of this can be understood with the concept of identity fusion, the idea of the individual not distinguishing between self and group. In this idea, the individual creates a ‘oneness’ with a larger body, often motivating behaviors that can come at a high personal cost (Swann 2012 ). When your identity is intrinsically tied to the well-being of the larger group, self-preservation no longer means care for self; it means tending to the needs of the whole. As a result, it is then more individually justifiable to engage in actions that can be personally damaging. This concept alone does not present an inherent problem. The mentality is not dissimilar from the understandable desire to make sacrifices for the individuals that someone loves, such as within the context of family or mutually shared bonds. It does, however, leave room for the neglect of mental health. The national conversation about providing quality psychological healthcare is still in its infancy. As previously established, engaging in political consciousness is already a fix for personal stressors. It carries, then, that it would be harder for an individual to recognize that their fix has subsequently turned into a problem. Couple this with identity fusion and the societal admiration of martyrs, people are slated to dismiss personal mental health problems easily.


Changing Landscape


For many young self-identified politically conscious or activist Americans the accessibility of global trauma can levy trauma on to an individual in incredible quantities.

The age of the internet can elucidate otherwise unafflicted individuals to an immense amount of suffering. In the same vein that immigrants and refugees can experience the societal trauma of a new culture they move into, politically inclined individuals, by way of internet engagement, can be exposed to the shock of geographical others (Alexander 2010).

Given that Kunst, Boos, Kimel, Obaidi, Shani, and Thomson have concluded on the extension of how identity fusion can account for extreme activist actions on behalf out-groups, we can see the potential for grave personal danger. Engaging in extreme activism for identifiable others (groups an individual does not belong to) is motivated by “by perceiving them as being treated in a way that clashes with one’s own political beliefs” (Kunst). In simple terms, empathy with the plight others can compel people to take up struggles that do not have an immediate relation to them. This extreme activism does differ from more normative protests, which most forms of online engagement would fall under, but the same fundamental principle of emotionally, spiritually, and mentally tying oneself to a larger identity still apply. When you place this information among the discussion of activism and stress, individuals may now find themselves experiencing the stress and trauma of not only their own ingroups but a multiplicity of groups that exist all over the globe.

The adverse effects of stress occur when it “exceeds the adaptive capacity of the individual” (Orzechowska 2013). With the constant exposure to so many ongoing and complex plights and struggles, the individual plugged into social progress-oriented conversations is poised to face an immobilizing depressive state. For many individuals, the election of Donald Trump acted as a catalyst for both individual political awakening and anxiety. There has also been a notable increase in hate crimes over the course of the past few years (Berman 2017), meaning that individual experiences of racism and discrimination have also increased. With these items in mind the cycle of looking to activism for stress relief, and then subsequently being inundated with new stress is likely to continue.



"Struggle" is a relative term. When accounting for the current conversations about acknowledging privilege, an individual can be quick to dismiss the negative ramifications of personal excess suffering experience due to the concept of being grateful for the privileges they do enjoy. When it comes to activism for outgroups, an understanding that the individual is not the one who is suffering most leaves certain people inclined to be willing to take on whatever pain they feel from that situation readily. Those passionate about social progress may adopt a mentality towards the pain they feel for a certain situation as being “the least they can do.” However when a piece of pain is brought from every struggle on the globe an individual can find themselves so immobilized by suffering, so much so that their potential for any positive effect is severely hindered.

The points brought up in this paper are mentioned with an understanding that social change does not come easily. This paper is also of course not calling for a ceasing of all activist activities, nor is it calling for replacing empathy towards outgroup struggles with apathy. However, when an individual takes on the emotional burdens of all of a multiplicity of social movements, they can become inundated by the classic folly of spreading one’s self to thin. Even if an individual, activist, or leader subscribes to just one pursuit of social progress, the complexities of that movement may prove too much to bear emotionally.  

This paper further does not intend to characterize deep immersion into pursuits of social progress as trivial engagements in heroics nor as naive optimism. People are dying every day, suffering every day, because this is real life. Activism is about life and death.  Ultimately young activists need to realize a valuable lesson. While activism is a form of self-care, its very status as such makes it so that individuals are not inclined to recognize that additional adjustments need to be made upon deeper immersion.

Passion for social progress can be honed into an energy that encompasses the fist as it delivers a blow to the walls of oppression that stand between now and the future. However, the recoil of striking brick sends shockwaves back to the core. When left unchecked this action can sooner cause activists to crumble before there is any visible damage to the institutions and systems they wish to topple.

The task of Superman is so that he has to stop every super villain from destroying the world. On the other hand, the job of a super-villain is much easier. They have to destroy the world one time; if they fail, they can try again. But if Superman fails just once, there is no second chance. Social activism deals in intensely serious subject matter, it is entirely understandable why people would fall into traps of neglecting self-care when the stakes are often so very high. Like with Superman, the source of strength for activists is also their greatest weakness. The kryptonite and poison to American activists, unflinching acceptance of their own pain, can sneak up on the unsuspecting proponent of the social good. Above all, it needs to be known that at times even heroes need saving.




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