In just a few weeks, the Trump administration has spawned a dizzying number of protests, including the massive women’s march the day after his inauguration, spontaneous airport protests of the travel ban, and upcoming events supporting science and demanding the release of Trump’s taxes. But if you’re fired up about some or all of these issues, you may be vulnerable to a condition unrecognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders but familiar to weary activists: “resistance fatigue.”
On “Word Spy,” word maven Paul McFedries defines this term as “Mental exhaustion brought on by the constant protesting of unpopular government policies.” The term is at least as old as 1997, when it was used in an “International Institute of Social Studies” article by Ranjit Dwivedi titled “Why some people resist and others do not.” Many consider resistance fatigue not just a side effect of vigilance, but the end game of those being protested. As Yonatan Zunger put it on Medium, “It wouldn’t surprise me if the goal is to create ‘resistance fatigue,’ to get Americans to the point where they’re more likely to say, Oh, another protest? Don’t you guys ever stop? relatively quickly.”
In the realm of language, resistance fatigue has dozens of close relatives. “Apocalypse fatigue” occurs when too many end-of-the-world scenarios have been hyped, usually by the media. Similarly, “threat fatigue” occurs when an abundance of potential threats makes it harder to take any of them seriously. (This term was used often post-9/11, when color-coded travel warnings raised the collective blood pressure while accomplishing little else.)
Many of these colloquial conditions involve variations of TMI. Since the early 1990s, we’ve been talking about “information fatigue,” a condition that’s as common as a cold in our info-overloaded world. If you’ve been liking and selfie-ing till your thumbs ache, you might have “Facebook fatigue” or “social networking fatigue.” Two related terms are “consumer fatigue” and “decision fatigue,” which always seem to plague the person ahead of me at the coffee shop.
A truly bizarre term is “compassion fatigue,” which has been around since the 1960s and involves a tiredness derived from overly sad or horrific events. In 1987, the BBC’s Listener magazine used the term to illustrate how empathy can get stretched too thin: “What the refugee workers call ‘compassion fatigue’ has set in. Back in the 1970s, when the boat people were on the front pages, the world was eager to help. But now the boat people are old news.”
If you work for a non-profit and are having trouble drumming up cash, compassion fatigue may have led to “donor fatigue,” a problem the ACLU is decidedly not having as of late.
Most of these terms are folksy diagnoses on the level of “cabin fever” or the “heebie-jeebies,” but they lexically resemble actual medical conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome and combat fatigue, the latter of which dates from the 1940s and is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder.
A less psychological group of terms includes “corrosion fatigue” and “metal fatigue,” showing this sort of compound is not limited to describing humanity.
We all get tired, and everything in the galaxy seems capable of draining us, from compassion to menus. If you suffer from resistance fatigue, remember that you can’t call representatives, send letters, make signs, rant on Facebook, and organize marches every nanosecond. Give yourself a break. There may be no rest for the weary, but the fatigued should be able to grab an occasional nap.
Mark Peters, the language writer for Ideas, is the author of the “Bull[expletive]: A Lexicon” from Three Rivers Press. Follow him on Twitter @wordlust.