In my mind I’ve come to conceptualise this blog as skirting the line between the fields of personal development and social justice. This didn’t really come out of any very intentional choice; I just gravitated towards it because those two subjects are the ones I spend the most time thinking about. Personal development was the first field I got into, social justice the second; and now that I’ve gone quite deep into both, it’s interesting to see where I can reconcile the inconsistencies between the two perspectives.
One of these inconsistencies, perhaps the biggest or the one I’ve spent the most time thinking about, is the conflict between “positive thinking” and the focus on injustice which social justice thinking necessarily entails. If you took the “positive thinking” mindset far enough, you just couldn’t engage in social justice thought, because it would involve too much “negativity”.
Indeed, when I was starting to involve myself with social justice topics, I felt quite a sense of resistance. I was getting angry and hating the world. This wasn’t healthy. Right? — But despite my struggles I pushed through, because this was what made intuitive sense to me. Some of my personal-development-type friends urged me to stop focusing on the negative. I ignored them.
As I struggled to reconcile the two perspectives, I came to see anger at injustice as a phase I had to go through. As I see it, there were three stages in this evolution:
The first stage: seeing the world with pink coloured glasses
The second stage: awakening to the hideous injustice in the world, feeling angry
The third stage: having integrated this understanding, no longer dwelling on it, and being able to focus on positive things again.
If we are to entertain for the moment the idea of a spiritual hierarchy of sorts (as problematic as this can be) we could consider that stage one is a “low” level of consciousness; stage two a bit higher; and stage three the highest in this progression. So despite it looking unenlightened, anger is actually spiritually more advanced than sticking your head in the sand and looking superficially peaceful.
What many social justice activists get wrong in my opinion is not realising that anger is only a stage. Beyond anger is something even more healthy (or less sick). It’s valuable to work to move on from anger – without rushing the process, but otherwise as soon as possible.
Nowadays I don’t dwell on the fact that the world is full of unjustice. A bit harder but still possible, I also dwell less on the fact that the world is full of injustice directed at me (because I am transgender, for example). I do my best to avoid situations where I may have to face discrimination for who I am, and I do my best to process and move on from those situations which I can’t avoid. While it’s clear my life is more restricted than before I came out as trans, and my emotional energy is constantly being drained in order to deal with the inevitable negative situations, I don’t live in a state of chronic anger.
I don’t think the world is objectively a wonderful place. If you were to ask me, I would say that the world is sick and full of injustice and pain. Everything is relative; there are surely planets out there with more pain than this one; yet I compare Earth to my pre-incarnational memory of a better place, and with that sort of relativity in mind, Earth doesn’t come out very favourably at all.
Yet, in reality I rarely waste time these days thinking about how horrible the world is. So long as I’m not sticking my head in the sand, the goodness/badness of the world isn’t relevant to me. My quality of life is constantly being reduced by the injustice of this world, yes; but if I simply accept it as it is, it is a drain, but not usually a source of true suffering. I make the best of the resources that I DO have at my disposal, and I find that those that I have are quite enough for a decent shot at happiness.
“Acceptance” can often be confused with passivity. If I think to myself, “I have to be accepting”, then my mental image is usually one of passivity. I learnt acceptance not through affirmations or meditation or focusing on the concept, but by working through my anger and resistance, and fully processing the perspective that anger came from.
Anger comes from a certain perspective, and that perspective is a valid one – an essential one, even. But it’s only one perspective, and once you’ve processed it you can move on to seeing things from other perspectives too.
The point is, all perspectives are true, and none of them are ultimate truth. If you cling to anger all your life, you’re saying that injustice is an ultimate truth. It’s not; it’s just one angle you can see things from.
The way I see it, you use a certain perspective for as long as it’s useful, and no longer. Focusing on injustice makes sense for a while. But then it makes more sense to focus on what you have power over in your life.
I do want to change the world, and processing injustice helped me reach that point. But nowadays I don’t need constant anger to fuel me in my work to change the world. All I need is a connection with my inner creative impulse, my sense of raw, undifferentiated love, and my sense of purpose. Really, I don’t need to think about motivation much at all; it’s just there.
I don’t need to dwell on injustice in order to work to end it. Sure, some occupations will expose you to injustice more than others. Writing my blog as a form of activism is fairly sheltered, as it goes. But I believe that whatever you do, you can focus on the work itself, and not overmuch on the injustice you’re working to end, and you don’t have to live in chronic anger. You can still be happy or at peace, even when your occupation requires the acknowledgement of immense unhappiness.
I focus on injustice when I need to. When I perceive an aggression against me or against those I identify with, I feel anger, work through that anger, and then I reach peace again.
In my everyday life I focus on whatever the moment brings up. Right now, as I type, I’m focusing on constructing and articulating concepts. When I cook, I focus on cooking. When I walk down the street, I might be thinking about something interesting, trying to meditate, or looking at my surroundings. Then, I might find myself waiting for a bus and see a man taking up space at the bus stop, who I read as being a possible sexual harasser. (Yes, not all men harass, but enough men do that I have to take caution with all men I don’t know). So, I decide to sit somewhere else, out of his harassing range.
It’s unjust that I should have to do this, but I’ve been through that, and have no need to beat a dead horse now by getting angry about that injustice again. So there’s a brief moment of discomfort, and a slightly longer period of inconvenience, but my state is not noticeably changed by this. It’s just a fact of life.
If you think about it, there are many things to get angry about that you never do get angry about, simply because they have always been there. Why not get angry at people’s willful apathy in not learning Esperanto or something similar, forcing us to spend thousands of hours learning much more complicated languages in order to communicate with one another? If I had a mind to, I could get pissed every single time I find myself obliged to study German in order to exist comfortably in the country I live in.
Now imagine that Esperanto was already widespread, but then it was made illegal and eventually eradicated. You’d get angry then, right? And so would I, indeed. But I’d process it and eventually move past the anger.
What I’m saying is that injustice is everywhere, and there may be plenty of it that you just haven’t spent enough time thinking about to get angry about. The mere existence of injustice, in itself, does not demand anger. Anger is necessary when injustice is being acknowledged and processed, but it’s not needed on a permanent basis.
Ultimately, I see so many social justice activists living in chronic anger, poisoning themselves, making it impossible to ever be happy. They don’t WANT to be happy, because, look at all this unjustice! Yet, what fucking good does unhappiness do to them? I’d say their enemies have won if they control their emotional state in this way.
Worse, social justice activists want to USE their anger as a tool. While I won’t say this never has a place, I believe it is very much a double edged sword. Hey, the Stonewall riots, which sparked the LGBT movement, were very much a manifestation of anger, and I’m privileged enough not to have to worry about what I would do in that situation. Yet, in my life I’ve rarely if ever been in a situation where I felt anger was a necessary tool. Instead, I’ve witnessed thousands of moments where unbridled anger hurt the social justice causes I was involved in. I’ve seen so many activists attacking would-be allies to their cause, or even each other, because of some perceived error that’s really quite small in the grand scheme of things.
I think some people are so blinded by anger that “calling out” becomes a way of venting aggression, and it becomes quite far removed from any real activism. If you look at some of these people, and ask yourself whether they are really thinking about the greater good of all humanity as they vent, you’d come up with an obvious answer: no. The venting may serve some personal therapeutic purpose, but as far as the activist cause is concerned, all it does it scare people, intimidate them, drive them away, and hurt them. Being a “good ally” starts requiring a certain amount of masochism. Ultimately, I don’t think the anger had a good intention behind it in the first place; it was just indulgence.
I don’t mean to say the anger is wrong (a great way of getting attacked by social justice activists :P). All anger is valid. All anger is meaningful as a way of processing experiences. But no anger is healthy if it becomes chronic. And anger is never a healthy way of dealing with other people. When directed at people, it’s a weapon.
Weapons have a use, but most of us would agree that the best outcome is never having to come to that. Most of us would agree that diplomacy should be resorted to before declaring war.
When violence is avoidable, it’s best to speak kindly to each other. Because kindness is more effective at opening minds. Because most people are not truly our enemies anyway. Because doing so is an example of the world we want to build, where kindness rules and not cruelty.
Ultimately, I believe social justice’s ultimate goal (even if not everyone realises it) is to build a world of kindness. I believe the ultimate enemy is not capitalism or the patriarchy, but unkindness. Capitalism, patriarchy, and all other negative structures spring from the basic fact that people are unkind. This is where personal development steps in. The world will never be saved until people evolve. Social justice needs personal development, and vice versa.
Social justice will bring us face to face with injustice, and anger will result; personal development is the only way of dealing with that in a healthy way and ultimately maximising one’s ability to contribute to the cause.