I’ve been into Social Justice for the last few years, and have a lot to comment about this school of thought and the subculture that has built up around it.
There’s a lot that is good about Social Justice; it has given me a framework with which to think about social oppressions in a more nuanced way, and hopefully with which to combat them. It has helped me take my experiences as a trans person and use them to understand the experiences of other oppressed groups of which I’m not a part, such as disabled people and people of colour.
What I don’t especially like about Social Justice, however, is that it has an aggressive, angry culture attached to it. I see this culture in activism in general, as well.
I was into the spiritual scene before I got into the Social Justice scene, so I have a different perspective on anger and aggression than most Social Justice people probably do.
It took me a long time to reconcile my Spiritual thinking with my Social Justice thinking. The two schools of thought tended to be in conflict; for instance, New Age spirituality tends to insist that you focus on the positive things in life, whereas Social Justice necessarily entails a focus on negative things.
Then, there’s the matter of some Social Justice inclined people being so full of rage that it seems like a veritable poison to my spiritually-inclined eyes. This rage tears them apart, makes them sick, and takes them away from any chance at happiness. The world seems like a horrible place to them.
When I was getting into Social Justice for the first time, and hadn’t learned to reconcile my Spiritual thinking with my Social Justice thinking, I engaged a bit in Tumblr-style banter. (Tumblr, I hear, is where this sort of exaggerated Social Justice culture is the strongest). Someone would say something that I found offensive regarding trans issues or the like, and I would unleash my indignant anger on that person through intellectual critique of their problematic stance, somehow thinking that this could help them change their mind.
I had some rather unpleasant experiences that way and even lost a few friends. Eventually, I came to realise that venting on people never changed their mind. They always got angry in return, and in doing so they closed their mind to listening to what I had to say.
Later, I tried using calm words to voice my criticism of people’s problematic words or actions. I tried my best to make what I said sound as non-confrontational as possible (while still being a confrontation, of course). I found this worked pretty much as badly as getting angry at people. It seems that when you directly criticise something someone has done, they almost always respond with an ego-defence, and this means again that they won’t really be interested in considering your point of view.
So it is that I came to understand that it was useless to try and “call out” people as the Tumblr world likes to call it. If I wanted to change people’s minds, it had to be in a context where their egoes didn’t get in the way. Therefore, I shouldn’t criticise what they say directly in the context where it pisses me off, but voice my opinions on a public platform such as my blog, keeping it general rather than personal. Some people still won’t change their minds, but I have to accept that; getting angry doesn’t change anything.
I think making friends who understood the oppressions I go through helped me, as did distancing myself (angrily or not) from people who said things that I found problematic. When I had a strong support structure, I no longer needed to get so angry at ignorant people, because I no longer depended on their dubious social approval.
You have to kind of let go of the things you think are “wrong” to do this. If you want to keep raging against the people who are “wrong”, you have to remain in their midst and listen to what they have to say. This isn’t conducive to your emotional health, however. Just accept that you have a limit to your power to change people, and you’re not required to martyr yourself for the cause. A sick activist helps no-one, anyway.
I think the best people to attempt to educate are those who are interested in learning more, those who want to challenge their own oppressive mental structures themselves. When this happens, their egoes won’t get in the way, or not excessively. These people will seek you out; you don’t have to spend too much energy looking for them.
Besides all these rather pragmatic ideas, I just think it’s violent and disrespectful to try and change the minds of people who don’t want their minds changed. Perhaps you think they don’t deserve respect, but I think they do. I think everyone deserves respect and kindness. After all, you’re probably still doing problematic things, and do you want to be attacked for it? If everyone got what they “deserved”, we’d all be doing pretty badly. That’s where the spiritual concept of forgiveness comes in.
It helps me to call things “problematic” rather than “fucked up”, and people “problematic” rather than “assholes”; as well as this, it helps me to remember how it felt to be participating in the structural oppressions I’m now attempting to change. To remember how I was still a human being, and didn’t want to be attacked. To remember how easy it is to ignorantly participate in structural oppressions, and how social structures often condition people more than their individual will.
It’s easy to forget this when you’re arguing with people and they’re being aggressive towards you. They might seem like real assholes then. But remember, you were probably aggressive first. And from their point of view, you seem like the asshole. They can’t see what you see, so all they see is a random attack.
I think the problem for most activists is that giving up aggression makes them face a sense of hopelessness. If aggression won’t work, what will?
My answer to that, coming from Spiritual schools of thought again, is: everything comes in its own perfect time.
Does that sound useless? Well, angry activism is useless too. One way or another, you have to face up to your sense of futility. You have to accept that things are as they are, and will remain so for a while yet.
That said, we can still make a change. It’s just that this will look a little different to how we imagined it. Change will come voluntarily, by working with people and their own better nature rather than against them. It will come slowly, perhaps too slowly for your aggressive sensibilities, but at least it will come. It will come through kindness, and inspire more kindness, rather coming through aggression, and inspiring more aggression.
After all, there is only one reason the world is messed up, and that is because people don’t care about each other, and are unkind to each other. There is only one way we can get to the root cause of the problem, then: by being kind to people and by inspiring them to similar kindness. Whatever activism we undertake, this must be our ultimate goal.