Ottawa
2 min

Our brightest lights

The character of our heroes

Through the customs of their people, the web of their associations,
the output of their artists and the practice of their commerce,
communities are made and know themselves.
Through strife and argument they grow.
Because communities give birth to movements, we nurture them.

—from the Pink Triangle Press Mission Statement

You need not be in a state of grace to take part in the task of community building. There is no math test or eye exam you must pass. No one will ask you for a urine sample.

Still, not everyone is well-suited to activism — as evidenced by our community’s occasional implosions. It’s almost never a case of insufficient skills (although some people are simply out of their depth) but, more usually, a matter of people caught in the wrong headspace.

At last week’s Hero Awards, Capital Xtra honoured two dozen strong, proud role models. You can read about them in the pages of this issue. I recommend you take a minute to absorb a few of their stories. They’re a diverse bunch, from gay rugby players to activists for sex-worker rights, from the organizers of the Inside Out Film Festival to the chief librarian at Pink Triangle Services.

It’s all hard work. There is no such thing as a difficult task or an easy task — there are just longer tasks and shorter tasks. Every time someone switches off Iron Chef to send out a fundraising email or attend a planning meeting, she or he is making a decision that forgoes immediate reward for longer-term and sometimes even elusive satisfaction.

I’m a big advocate of hedonism, so I know this is a tall order. Yet, it is those who have the most self-respect that are most capable of making this kind of sacrifice. Self-respect is a key ingredient in good volunteers, good board members, good activists and agitators. They can be shit-kickers and ballbusters, but as a class of people, they tend to be the least distracted by accolades and least tempted by the poses of righteous martyrdom.

In this regard, I agree with an early essay by Joan Didion, a conservative chronicler of the left’s more colourful (and in some cases mentally ill) flagbearers. People who respect themselves, she wrote in 1961, can cope with the risk “that the venture will go bankrupt, that the liaison may not turn out to be one in which every day is a holiday because you’re married to me. They are willing to invest something of themselves; they may not play at all, but when they do play, they know the odds.”

Self-respect can be hard to pinpoint, but it’s simple enough to spot someone who has it. Possessors of self respect are buoyed by the expectations they place on themselves, not those imposed from without. They state their position unambiguously but are not bullies. They do not apologize for their convictions. They know that not every battle is winnable, and indeed they know that not every discussion ends with a Facebook friend request. They also know that their mistakes are their own and that it’s okay to fess up to their shortcomings.

In that metric, self-respect and self-esteem are not at all the same thing. The sugary road of self-esteem is one in which every action is excusable and everyone will like me if only they get a taste of the real me. The quest for self-esteem is antithetical to the kind of activism our community needs, for it leads people to throw their convictions under a bus for a quick hit of praise.

Didion claims that her grandparents’ generation had a firmer grip on self respect than her own. But older people have been whispering “no self-respect” under their breath for 100 years or more, at least since younger people invented audio devises capable of recording their derision. As an antidote, I hope you’ll have a look at the recipients and nominees of our Hero Awards.