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The Quiet Rise of the ‘Shy Radical’

Introverts are carving out their own space in the resistance movement—and changing the way we protest

In November 2010, Andrew, 28, was in a fetal position on a side street in central London. At the time, he was a first-year undergraduate at the University of Leeds, studying history and politics. Like many students across the country, he’d traveled to the city to protest against the government’s decision to raise university tuition fees, alongside nearly 60,000 other students. While the protest received mainstream media attention with images of anti-fascist protesters covered in black balaclavas breaking the windows of the Conservative Party headquarters, Andrew, a pseudonym, remembers that moment for different reasons.

“I was so overwhelmed. There was so much noise, and I got stuck in huddles a few times. I’d lost my friends, and no one was picking up their phones. It was all so chaotic. I tried to find somewhere to calm down, and I ended up on a street away from the protest, completely on my own,” he tells me. “I felt panicked, anxious and unable to cope with all the noise, lights and sirens, so I sat down and tried to block it out. In the end, it was too much for me.” Andrew says that he was on the ground for more than half an hour before someone helped reunite him with his friends, who were further up in the march and were trying to call him.

Eight years later, Andrew still considers himself an activist — he is, in fact, a paid member of the Labour Party and a big fan of its socialist leader, Jeremy Corbyn. But the experience in 2010 taught him that his activism wasn’t suited to street protests, flash mobs and other direct activity. He attributes most of that to his mental health — particularly in regards to anxiety, a condition he’s had since he was a teenager and occasionally takes medication for; he also, however, says that this method of protest wasn’t suited to his personality. He refers to himself as an “introvert,” someone whose health and happiness is found in solitude and who feels best in quiet, uninterrupted spaces — conditions, he says, protests and “mainstream activist culture” usually don’t accommodate.

On the surface, protests haven’t changed that much over the years. The Dynamics of Collective Action and the Global Nonviolent Action Database, two projects that record protests throughout history, suggest that the first mass protests can be marked to the 16th-century Reformation in Europe, which ultimately led to the reduction in power of both the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor. Other mass protests that led to effective change include Gandhi’s Salt March in 1930, a movement that contributed to India’s independence in 1947, and “Take Back the Night” marches in 1970, which were meant to draw attention to violence against women.

More recently, the Arab Spring saw significant marches across the Middle East against the region’s Western-backed dictators, and the 2017 Women’s March, sparked by the presidential election of Donald Trump, may have been the largest demonstration in U.S. history. The longevity of such events suggests their effectiveness in achieving political results — a theory going back to the work of sociologists like Robert J. Holton and George Rudé, who, in analyzing the role of mass mobilization during the French Revolution, argued that it was the networks of solidarity among the bourgeoisie that ultimately led to the collapse of France’s monarchical ancien regime.

Lately, though, critics of this form of mass protest have emerged. Some, like New York Times writer Zeynep Tufekci, argue that the emergence of social media has meant that protest movements have become more informal, as mobilizing people IRL is no longer necessary since platforms like Facebook have sidestepped “the tedious work of organizing that was required to circumvent censorship or to organize a protest.” Going further, Moises Naim, a writer for the Atlantic, argues that while mass protests can attract a large number of people, their objectives are often poorly defined. He writes:

What we’ve witnessed in recent years is the popularization of street marches without a plan for what happens next and how to keep protesters engaged and integrated in the political process. It’s just the latest manifestation of the dangerous illusion that it is possible to have democracy without political parties — and that street protests based more on social media than sustained political organizing is the way to change society.

This is the problem Andrew has with street protests. “It can often feel like it’s just a social event,” he says. “So unless you have people you know there, or you’re in the inner circle, it’s easy to fade into obscurity.”

Psychologists generally agree that introversion exists on a spectrum. Despite many people calling themselves introverts because they have a preference for being alone, those deeper on the spectrum will actively avoid people and situations that are upsetting — as well as pretty much any other interaction that isn’t absolutely necessary. On the flip side, given the fact that they also have a deeper level of emotional intelligence than extroverts, many care passionately about politics and social activism. But again, like Andrew, when their introversion and passion for social activism meet, the same things typically happen — namely, a feeling of being overwhelmed, and therefore “useless and unnecessary.”

Such was the case with Sarah Lynn, a 22-year-old artist who lives in upstate New York. In 2016, shortly after Donald Trump won the presidency, Lynn joined the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). She doesn’t, however, go to meetings or rallies, finding them both “too fast to mentally process.” “I went to some when I first joined,” she tells me over WhatsApp, recalling when, in the months following the election, meetings would be “packed with people who were angry and who would be shouting. Generally speaking, they’d be very in-your-face, even if they meant well by doing so.”

To her, it was “suffocating.” “It felt like if you weren’t a loud person, or if you didn’t know the lines you’d be shouting or looking for confrontation, it wasn’t the right place. I believe in everything the majority of DSA members stand for, but I find it difficult to articulate, especially when you’re told to right on the spot,” she says. “I freeze, even though I know what I want to say. That is, I know I’m angry about the system and about the way this country works. But when you can’t say that or other people don’t know why you’re angry, it can be very isolating.” As a result, since last year, Lynn hasn’t pursued any direct activism, other than sharing DSA content on her personal Twitter account.

To their credit, some DSA chapters, including DSA Los Angeles, have started putting on more events that don’t prioritize the social component of activism. Meanwhile in the U.K., Momentum, a left-leaning political organizing group, recently held its annual conference, in which it provided areas for activists who didn’t feel comfortable attending the main events or participatory workshops.

Other groups have produced guides for leaders of activist organizations to help members who are introverted, placing an emphasis on designing posters, leaflets and writing letters. To that end, “craftivism,” a type of activism that encourages people to express themselves through activities such as knitting, has become more and more popular. “The great thing about introverts is that they’re good at thinking about the bigger picture and building relationships with people, rather than just shouting,” says Sarah Corbett, founder of the Craftivists Collective. “And so, we help people do gentle protests — like cross-stitching, painting and DIY, which let them express themselves and think about sensitive issues.” Some Craftivist projects include a cross-stitch highlighting the low pay of textile workers during London Fashion Week, and making jam with locally-grown produce.

“Protest doesn’t have to be loud, angry or violent,” Corbett continues. “While protests and stunts can be useful — especially if something is about to be immediately voted on in Parliament — small actions are extremely powerful, too. We need to empower people who participate in protests across the spectrum. We also need to take different approaches, rather than stick to one outdated, uniform method.”

That said, some introvert activists aren’t totally sold on craftivism. They believe it might work in certain scenarios, but they’re steadfast that it isn’t an effective way to protest against policies and laws affecting immigrants, refugees, the LGBTQ community and people of color. “Crafts aren’t going to stop border control from coming after families, or people being kicked out of their homes unfairly,” one tells me over WhatsApp. “In those situations, you need direct action, and introverts have to be part of that.” On that count, Ednaldo Aparecido Ribeiro, a professor at the University of Maringa in Brazil, argues in the Brazillian Political Science Review that introverts should be mobilized by giving them organizing roles, basing them in quiet, controlled spaces such as parks, libraries and churches.

Hamja Ashan, a London-based activist and author of Shy Radicals: The Anti-Systemic Politics of the Introvert Militant, feels the same. “I see Shy Radicals as a Black Panthers for shy people,” he says. He adds that we should see extroversion as a “systemic ideology” that permeates much of society. “It happens in workplaces as well as political spaces,” he explains. “Think about it: If you want to run for political office — a position where you can really bring about change to society — you can’t be an introvert. You have to be charismatic, outgoing and energetic. It’s the same in office environments, too. The people who get ahead in the office are usually extroverts, and the introverts, the ones who are quiet, will either be forgotten — or even bullied.”

His book draws together letters, covert interviews and examples of famous introverts — from fictional characters like Lisa Simpson to historical figures like Ali le Ponte, the reclusive Algerian guerilla fighter who rarely gave public interviews and speeches due to his shyness — to illustrate that introverts have been able to mobilize other activists in the past. Still, he argues that left-leaning political movements continue to have a blind spot for introverts. “Secular socialist movements often don’t value spaces that are silent so a lot of left-wing organizing ends up looking like a party, instead of an organized movement.”

As for Andrew, he’s ready to get back into participating in politics more, especially in the event of another U.K. general election. He’s considering asking to deliver leaflets “during morning hours so I don’t have to do door knocking,” or alternatively, volunteering for the Labour Party’s online campaigning team, which posts videos to its social media feed. He even feels that, having worked in London for a few years now and dealing with what he calls the worst social situation imaginable for someone like him — i.e., standing in a cramped underground tube line during rush hour — he might be able to handle a protest better. “I might just try stick to the back this time,” he laughs.