Eros and Thanatos: A Freudian take on activism 


A few months ago, Sam Asumudu (Editor in Chief and Founder of Media Diversified) and I felt compelled to launch a campaign to hold UN soldiers; whose abuses have been documented in nearly every country where they have been stationed; to account. The campaign #predatorypeacekeepers which started on twitter came about shortly after a Canadian AIDS charity published a report accusing UN and French troops in the Central African Republic (CAR) of sexually abusing at least 98 girls. Harrowing details of the report include Black (African) girls being tied up and raped by multiple soldiers and, the death of one of the victims. The campaign has been one of the most difficult actions I have been involved in, laying bare intersecting issues of racism, sexism, colonialism and geo-political violence, amongst many others.

I am no stranger to experiencing despair and hopelessness and, in all honesty there have been times during this campaign when escaping the call of the darkness within has felt virtually impossible. Times when both my body and mind were so consumed by the suffering of the children in CAR, that it felt as though my energy and passion were being sucked out of me. During these times every silence around the campaign felt like an assault and; the apathy which continues to plague the campaign; became torturous. I am passionate about what I do. I care a lot.

‘Activist burnout’? 

Caring that much about stuff can make it difficult to disconnect and to disengage from the pain and hurt injustice creates and this in turn, makes it incredibly easy to become drained of life. The psychological demands of activism have been widely noted. For people of colour though, fighting for racial justice is naturally, particularly psychologically trying. It is trying because as we campaign for racial justice, we continue to suffer attacks caused by anti-Blackness or racism and, there are few places, where the injuries these attacks cause are taken seriously. It is trying because repeatedly proclaiming our humanity, means necessarily facing the fact that one is still not fully human, in the eyes of many.

‘Activist burnout’ is now a well known phenomenon. It is believed to occur when political or social activists feel overwhelmed, frustrated, hopeless, or depressed, usually after extensive periods of activism. The above definition whilst helpful as a starting point is quite limited in that it does not specify the mechanisms which may bring about ‘burnout’, nor does it seem to quite explain the more serious and intense impact of activism. Organising and campaigning can be effective ways of processing the trauma of living in an unjust world. There is definitely a feeling of liberation that comes with working towards dismantling structures that have done injuries to the self. Activism can allow us to escape white supremacist patriarchal capitalist society and to transcend the pain of the inevitability of being structurally located within it. Perhaps though, sometimes the pain cannot be transcended.

On February 8th 2016, Marshawn McCarran a young Black Lives Matter activist took his own life. He was only 23. The reasons behind his suicide remain unclear. But we do know that Marshawn was at the forefront of racial justice campaigns, that he helped organise protests in Ohio following the death of Michael Brown in 2014 and, that he was instrumental in organising around the Black Lives Matter movement. Karyn Washington is another Black campaigner who took her life. About two years ago. Karyn was the founder of the website For Brown Girls, and instrumental to the project of #DarkSkinRedLip project. She had dedicated her life to celebrating the beauty of darker skinned black women and to their empowerment. More than that, Karyn encouraged black women of all shades to love themselves. But on April 8th, 2014 she took an overdose. She was only 22.

Trauma and activism

There has been increased interest in examining the wounding effects of trauma on those who support people who have experienced trauma or who are exposed to trauma stories. These studies have however, in the main, focused on the impact on those in clinical roles such as doctors or therapists. Various formulations have been put forward to make sense of this vicarious traumatisation including: secondary stress, emotional contagion and, compassion fatigue. 

Secondary traumatic stress or secondary trauma refers to the severe emotional distress believed to occur when an individual hears about the first hand trauma experiences of another. Emotional contagion on the other hand, describes the phenomenon by which one person’s emotions, feelings and behaviours are triggered in other people and finally,  ‘Compassion Fatigue’ has been described as ‘a state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress; it is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper’.

Those theories though slightly different in focus, are centred on the role of empathy as the primary mechanism by which trauma may be communicated and become harmful to people in supportive roles.  These formulations, tell us little nevertheless, in terms of why some people may be more likely to feel the urge to expose themselves to trauma and thus its risks and, which particular individuals, if any, may be at an increased risk of vicarious (re)traumatisation. Given the potentially high psychological and health costs of getting involved with trauma, the existence of similarly powerful motive to indeed get involved seems presumable.

Eros and Thanatos

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) Freud described the concept of the death instinct, in the book he proposed that ‘the goal of all life is death’. Of particular interest here, is that Freud noted that people who experience a traumatic event often feel compelled to reenact the experience. This led him to posit that human beings hold an unconscious desire to die: our death instinct (Thanatos) but that the life instinct (Eros) largely keeps this wish in check.

Thanatos conflicts with Eros, our natural tendency toward what is life-producing such as survival, sex, and creative productions and, one could argue organising or campaigning. From this Freudian perspective, activism may, for many, be seen firstly as a way to reenact our traumas and secondly, as a strategy to transform our pain and our death urges into something more socially acceptable perhaps through sublimation. Sublimation is a defence mechanism by which unwanted impulses are transformed into something less harmful or ego-threatening. Sublimation is said to channel the energy created by the tension between Eros and Thanatos into life-producing activities.

This energy thus takes us away from destructive impulses and into something that may be more socially acceptable and/or creative. It follows that the energy and passion we have as activists may stem from that very tension and thus may well mask a real vulnerability. Perhaps it is that vulnerability that attracts some of us to activism in the first place. Perhaps too, it may be helpful to think of activists as wounded healers. In that vein, one may easily formulate how a less effective sublimation defence, perhaps because of fatigue, would make activists quite vulnerable to succumbing to the death drive particularly, if sublimination has been the main defence which may have been used to manage the tension between life and death.

All this analytical talk may seem quite removed from where some readers may be located or from their experiences but, they resonate with me, immensely. Though my activism has definitely made me more acutely aware of my wounds and forced me, on so may levels to consider death, it has also allowed me to take a more participative and active role in how the reality that continues to shape them is created. Through activism we may attempt to repeatedly heal and help ourselves, by acting on our social contexts, whilst seemingly helping others. This may be particularly true for those whose fields of action engage the very social conditions which gave rise to their trauma or wounds and for many, the urge to become activists in the first place. Consequently, understanding the balance between healing and hurting ourselves or Thanatos or Eros may well be central to activists practising self-care and self-preservation.

For those interested…

So what of #predatorypeacekeepers? The campaign (petition) has reached over 10 000 signatures, thanks to it, media pieces on the issues have burgeoned and we have written a couple. High profile celebrities spoke out, the UN has engaged with us and, critically adopted resolution 2072 (2016) – a resolution concerning the repatriation of troops when evidence emerges which suggests systemic sexual abuse. As a result, France withdrew their troops from CAR.  A major achievement for the campaign and one of our core demands.  We are continuing our action to ensure the needs of the victims get more visibility.  But at present, we are determined to taking a self-care break, hopefully that will help ensure we can continue on to amplify the voices of the victims and survivors in CAR whilst looking after ourselves.

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  1. A tragic situation, Guilaine, and so thoughtfully described. I am deeply touched and inspired by your compassion and willingness to take action despite the heartbreak and disinterest of others you have encountered. Your analysis reminded me of a framework one of my former students brought to my attention – “how to survive life in the tragic gap.” I am attaching a link to a brief post that describes the approach and includes a link to a video that further explains the model from the perspective of it’s developer, Parker Palmer, a long-time social activist and educator: Palmer’s ideas help me remember the importance of balance and give me permission to take time to find the beauty around me. I don’t know if this will help, but I’m sharing it out of caring and respect for the important work you are doing.

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