The Man in The Arena: Thoughts on Activism

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Theodore Roosevelt, “Citizenship in a Republic”

Over the summer,  I read two books back to back that quoted this speech by Theodore Roosevelt. Too bad I haven’t been reading much outside of school since school started.

The first book, Daring Greatly, by Brené Brown, opened with this quote and used it as the central theme of the book, stating that throwing yourself into your relationships and exposing yourself, complete with weaknesses, was the very definition of vulnerability. You’ll never be completely prepared and you’re missing out on many opportunities by holding yourself back.

On the other hand, the second book, How Not to be Wrong, by Jordan Ellenberg, is entirely about statistics and probabilities and is more critical of this statement. He cites specific people who weren’t on the frontline during WWI but had a larger impact than any individual soldier. What you do isn’t important if it’s not correct. Saying “Obama will win the election,” is misleading. Saying “Either Romney or Obama will win the election, but Obama is more likely to win.” is an accurate statement. Being uncertain is a kind of action, and often a wise decision.


The Google Keep post that inspired this post

This is the belief that I identify with more because it gives me an excuse to not do anything I like the idea of being “right.” I admire activists for the causes they fight for, but I can’t help but think that there’s a better way to get things done. Protests are glamorous and garner media attention, but they’re usually more emotionally than rationally driven. It’s easy to say that something is completely wrong. It’s harder to admit to admit that there may be shades of…blue in between, and that the issue isn’t as blue and…orange as it seems on the surface.

That being said, if I’ve learned anything from running #givchat, it’s that even when you pour your heart and soul into something, you’re lucky if a stranger marginally cares. Calling yourself an activist is one of the best ways to proclaim to the world that you care, but it’s no guarantee that anyone will listen to you.

I had an conversation a few days ago with a friend about modern day feminism after he claimed that “women aren’t oppressed in first world countries.” I probably should have been more outraged at the time, but we eventually agreed that most people already know about gender inequality and that most new campaigns nowadays are ineffective. Simply screaming out statistics isn’t going to gain the respect of anyone unless you’re the ones that are affected. (ahem, this video)



7 thoughts on “The Man in The Arena: Thoughts on Activism

  1. Hi amy! Love the blog.

    Sometimes I wonder if academics get too caught up in the idea of thinking before we act. Of course, in theory that makes a lot of sense. Don’t change it until you know what you’re getting into…but often with complicated problems, you’ll never know what you’re getting into…you can never be fully educated, there is no right answer. Sometimes you have 2 pieces of information, 1) the status quo is bad, and 2) the concept of natural selection. #2 is a bit confusing, but basically I’m saying if you do things, dynamically, everyone pushing different uninformed ideas, it matters less whether the idea is informed or not. In the end, the better idea will stick, it’s survival of the fittest but in activism.

    So Idk, sometimes I think mindless activism is much better than sitting on our books and hoping for change to take affect, but it takes more bravery than i think I’m capable of, and definitely a lot more unknown risks.


    • Hey Nikhil! I agree with everything you’ve said, but I can’t get over the fact that mindlessly supporting ideas cheapens academics. There has to be a balance of some sort, but that “balance” usually results in me not doing anything. (Same problem with the lack of bravery.) The idea of natural selection is interesting–it reminds me of a book i read that said that the best way to increase your chances of success is to keep trying different things because eventually one should survive.

      Thanks for reading :)


  2. So I read this one on Sunday actually and I really wanted to comment on it…but I didn’t know how to phrase my comment…and I still don’t. Because I’ve thought about this topic a lot (but definitely haven’t researched as much as you at all…if I state anything it’s just opinion without factual evidence…), and still haven’t formed a definite conclusion, I’m not quite sure what to say about this post. Even though I agree activists aren’t as effective as they could be using other methods, idk…at least they’re doing something? And I think more importantly every party of the social change machine is necessary to bring any kind of change. You need the intellectuals who know how to bring change about right but don’t have the emotion to bring more people on board and you need the activist who doesn’t think but only feels which shuts out a lot of other options but also garners the most attention and support. Also your post this time is a bit scattered haha (which is great cuz it brings a lot of thoughts in!) which means I have a lot of thoughts about the separate things you talked about that I can’t comment out without this comment becoming super long…thanks for bringing up this topic! :D


    • Research. Ha. This is just a bunch of incoherent thoughts. Anyways, activism is definitely better than no activism, but if you’re going to put in the effort, there’s probably better things to do. You’re definitely right about everyone needing to be on board though–however there’s very little overlap in between the causes that “intellectuals” are willing to research and the causes that activists are willing to support.

      Also, I love super long comments. Feel free to comment away. :)


      • hehehehe, well I don’t know, I think the biggest activist movement I’m trying to understand and figure out which side I’m on is this feminist movement…I’m a self-proclaimed “feminist” (idk what that even means honestly) but…there so many different degrees of radicalism for feminism, it’s hard to know which actions are effective and which are just attention-seeking. Like the video you posted. It’s a funny/engaging video but I don’t know if having little girls curse is the best image for the feminist movement to have especially since the people who need to have their minds changed are generally conservative (IDK NO RESEARCH AGAIN OK, JUST LIKE OBSERVATIONS) and curse words only make the feminist movement look more like a young movement with little relevance in the mature world of sophisticated words and formal proposals. I can’t tell which parts of feminism are being blown out of proportion (like that catcalling video…I don’t know man…when videos are geared towards creating a stir idk what to trust) and which parts need more attention (gender inequality everywhere but America?? Americans may know it but males in the country itself don’t). Feminism is such a complex topic that every conclusion I try to draw ends up making me feel like I’ve forgotten some aspect. WHAT REALLY IS THE BEST WAY :'(


  3. Pingback: Orthogonal Vectors | Educated Opinions

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