Everyone is wearing leeches
Updated: Mar 22
For me, becoming an activist did not feel like a choice. It was simply the natural, flowing response to the realization that everything I thought was "normal" or "fine" was not actually either one of those things.
Imagine thinking you're wearing clothes that don't quite feel right. You've been wearing these clothes for a while, long enough that you can't actually remember when you put them on. Every now and then someone gives you an odd look, which you wonder might have to do with what you're wearing, but you're busy and can't stop to check. You've got too much to do. No time to worry about your clothes.
All you know is that you have moments where your clothes feel strange. But hey, maybe it's normal for clothes to feel strange. And no one around you has said anything about your clothes. So it's probably fine.
Then one day you look down and see you're not actually wearing clothes. You're wearing leeches.
You're wearing a coat of leeches that have been placed on your skin without your consent.
They are alive, they are disgusting, and they are literally killing you.
No one wants to know they are wearing leeches
Discovering something this horrible about your reality - holy shit, I'm wearing a coat of leeches! - is a damaging, traumatic event, and our brains know it. We don't want this knowledge. It's too much to handle. So we constantly, and unconsciously, reject it. But it's possible for that knowledge to eventually permeate deeply enough to pierce our routines of unconscious rejection.
Several things are likely to occur at that point.
First there is confusion, as you try to understand what you're looking at.
Once you understand what you're looking at, there is revulsion, so strong it can feel like claustrophobia.
And then there is rage, rage that someone would dress you in leeches without first obtaining your (highly unlikely) consent.
Species of leech
Here are some of the species of leech I've managed to identify so far, either on my body or on the bodies of others in my environment:
Neoliberalism is leeches.
Fascism is leeches. Sexism is leeches. Racism is leeches. Ableism is leeches.
Homomisia is leeches. Transphobia is leeches. Nationalism is leeches.
War is leeches.
Profit is leeches.
Power over others is leeches.
Punitive justice is leeches.
Colonialism is leeches.
Prisons are leeches.
Borders are leeches.
Misogyny is leeches.
Extractivism is leeches.
There are many kinds of leeches. Most are not listed above. These are just the ones I've had to notice and peel off of myself. Lots of them mix together and have hybrid babies that can be even harder to remove than their parents. And just in case it isn't already abundantly clear, let me state something unambiguously:
Leeches are not people.
Leeches are CONCEPTS that COVER and SURROUND people.
A person can NEVER be a leech.
Great! Now that we've cleared that up, we can focus on finding other leeches that I haven't listed. There are a lot of them out there, smothering all kinds of people that never asked to be covered in leeches.
So now you know everyone is wearing leeches, and you may even have an idea about what kinds of leeches we're wearing. What's next?
Well, we can be pretty sure it's not enough to peel leeches only off our selves. For one thing, that would be pretty selfish, but it would also mean that every time we hug someone else we just get more leeches on us again. Obviously we have to get the leeches off everyone - all those people who, like us, never asked to be plastered with leeches but got plastered with leeches anyway.
But we have to do this removal work carefully, and with consent. We don't want to do anything that will simply replace the leeches with other leeches. This means that you can't berate leeches off of people, or yell at people to remove their own leeches. These tactics will not work. They will backfire. For instance, the other person may get so irritated at your behavior that they reflexively grab some leeches off their body and throw them at you until you go away. We don't want that! Some of those leeches might stick to us! So whatever we do, we must be consensual about it. That takes conscientious work, usually some mix of extended dialogue and emotional connection and intellectual exchange and historical education. Whatever form it takes, such work is called "activism", and it's all about 1) peeling leeches off people and 2) making sure the leeches don't come back.
Once you realize everyone you've ever known is covered in leeches, there's a possibility you will feel like committing yourself to changing the world - specifically, changing it into a place where people aren't nonconensually smothered in leeches.
This process of deciding to let your newfound awareness and emotions guide your tangible actions in the world toward change has a name. It is called "activation". You may encounter this word in many activist contexts, including unionism and many forms of environmental and social justice. Let's talk about what it means.
Simply put, activation is the process whereby a person becomes an activist. Activation is different from simply learning about activism, though it certainly tends to include that learning process. But it is also not a formal procedure of any sort, and does not happen the same way for any two people. However, I can give you some potential expectations based on my own long and ongoing experience of activation.
The flow of emotions over gears
Activation generally does not happen all at once. It's not a switch being flipped. It's more of a long, slow clicking of gears, one after the other, all being turned like a waterwheel by the falling energy of all those emotional states I listed previously - confusion, revulsion, rage. As the emotions flow, the gears turn. Your thoughts turn, your actions turn, and you turn.
Let's revisit those emotions again for a moment - confusion, revulsion, and rage - but in reverse order, to see exactly what they are doing in the mind of an activist.
Rage compels us to act.
People are covered in leeches! I have to do something!
Revulsion helps us understand how not to act.
Whatever I do, it should not involve replacing these leeches with other leeches! That would defeat the point of getting rid of these leeches!
Confusion guides us in learning how to act.
How did these leeches get here? Is there a way to remove the source of the leeches, so that I don't have to keep removing individual leeches from individual people?
For effective activation, we need all three of these emotions working in concert. Luckily, they all tend to emerge together once we spot the leeches. However, if we are not careful, these emotions can overwhelm us.
These emotions evolved to be powerful
They are signals that keep us alive against potential and actual threats. Their processing is deep and instinctive, honed by evolution to flow through our mammalian minds and keep us alive in response to harm and danger.
And they are great for that! That is why we can so effectively feel these emotions in a limited personal context and then apply them to our entire species, including strangers. You can even go further, and let these emotions activate you on behalf of nonhuman animals, natural environments, cultures, and so on. These emotions are strong, and they can generate quite a bit of energy for you as you activate.
Unfortunately, the flip side to all this emotional strength is that if these emotions are not acted upon, they do not simply go away. Instead they sit, and fester, and mutate into chronic modes that damage our bodies and minds. We can mitigate this damage by acting in response to these emotions, in a concerted, conscientious way, to change our real environment. This removes the emotions by removing their environmental source, which is really the source of the leeches.
No more leech source, no more leeches. No more leeches, no more emotions. No more emotions, no more damage.
In other words, the emotions stop flowing, the gears stop turning, and we get to stop activating.
Thus, in a certain sense, activism itself can be thought of as the struggle to change the environment so that your own personal activation can stop, allowing you to focus on other things. After all, there's much more in life that every activist I know would rather be doing, instead of figuring out how to get rid of leeches.
The waterfall is not endless
You are likely to be processing a lot of things when you activate - not only the process of activation itself, and how the environment and people around you are responding to that process, but also the experiences that prodded your activation in the first place.
Trauma, fear, and pain, which are the signals that tend to make us look down and notice the leeches, do not suddenly disappear once the confusion, revulsion, and rage show up.
They may be temporarily displaced, but they will still require a lot of processing for you to become a healthier, stronger, safer version of yourself, which is something you will need to do if you are to successfully maintain your activism against the leech world that activated you in the first place.
This means you must nurture yourself, but more importantly, it means you must seek out a community to embed yourself within, to nurture and be nurtured in turn. This is because community care is far more sustainable than self care, and you will need a lot of sustaining of you in order to sustain your activism in turn.
Questions from my personal journey through a landscape of leeches
What activated me? What particular hybrids of leech comprised my coat? How long were they there? How many have I missed, what part of me is hiding them, and what species are they?
I look at the leech coats of the people around me. What leech species are in those coats? Are they the same as mine? Are there any new ones I haven't seen before?
What about all the people I haven't met? Are they wearing leech coats too? Does this happen to everyone?
I don't have good answers to these questions, but I continue to ask them. All I know is that at some point, I lived that horrifying act of looking down at my leech clothes and realizing what I was wearing. Ever since, guided by my confusion, I have been trying to understand. Guided by my revulsion, I have been trying to avoid doing harm. Guided by my rage, I have been trying to change my environment for the better. I've poured a lot of conscientious work into this project. Here's a partial rundown.
How the process of activation has looked for me
I had to learn what I was looking at on my body.
I had to recognize that I did not like what was happening.
being dressed in leeches
I had to build confidence that my assessment was valid
wearing a leech coat is not good
I had to trust myself even when everyone around me acted like I was overreacting.
"there's no leech coat, and if there is it can't be so bad if we all have one"
It's a hard process, peeling back the layers of gaslighting and Stockholm Syndrome that keep us from seeing the leeches our entire lives.
But in my experience, once you realize it's been happening, the strength of your emotions (confusion, revulsion, and rage, but also more healthy and nurturing ones like hope and love) will power you every step of the way, even if you have to take a break now and then to rest, or to learn a new tactic, or just to understand some new species of leech you have found.
In the end, I'll always hop back into action, driven by the desire to ensure no one ever gets forced to wear a leech coat ever again. Feel free to join me - I'd love the company!
Thanks for talking about leeches with me. With any luck, this metaphor clarified more than it confused.
UPDATE: It has been pointed out to me that the use of leeches as a metaphor for really bad things is another, well, another leech - specifically, speciesism, which is the idea that humans have the right to judge the relative worths of other species in this world. Thanks to Maria for pointing this out, and for giving me an important new realization to grapple with. This is a good reminder that even in the process of trying to teach through careful pedagogy, we often end up teaching best by our mistakes.