On The Paris Attacks
November 15, 2015
In Answer To “You Have A Penis Therefore You Are A Man”
December 8, 2015

Policeable: How Social Justice Loses The Forest For The Trees

I find that social justice thought seems to have an excessive focus on things that are “policeable”.

Something “policeable” in this case means an aspect of presentation, an act, or something you say, which could be criticised and therefore changed. There’s a lot of good that can come out of changing these things: if you thoughtlessly called things “gay” as a way of saying that they were bad, you might reflect on that and stop doing so, so as not to contribute to gay stigma.

I’m no way saying that there is anything wrong with changing and talking about “policeable” things. However, I do think that the social justice movement focuses on them excessively. I believe this is for the following reasons:

1. It’s easy to police something. If you’ve decided that a certain thing is “problematic”, you can “call it out” and feel like you’re making progress. Each “call out” is like a point scored: quantifiable, and therefore satisfying. You can do it from the comfort of your computer seat without really committing to any more serious activism.

2. Modern social justice culture, such as it is, is very much a product of the internet, and the internet lends itself to policing, because you can be aggressive or obnoxious on the internet without risk of actual danger from any backlash, and without actually having to deal with your… ah… students in person.

3. No one wants to be the one who gets attacked for saying the wrong thing, which creates an environment where people who have views that the social group deems “wrong” either change their views or stay quiet and leave the dominant views unchallenged.

Consensual Criticism

I’m not a fan of policing. I believe that criticism that is intended constructively should be given kindly and consensually. When criticism is delivered aggressively, I’m pretty sure it’s almost never taken well. When you attack, the other defends. In fact, probably the defender just becomes more deeply entrenched in their ideas.

Am I “tone policing” here? You know what, I think maybe the whole idea of “tone policing” is just a construct used to prevent aggressive “activists” having to deal with the consequences of their actions. You do have a right to your righteous anger, but attacking people with your anger is never appropriate or useful. Asking you to stay civil isn’t the same as invalidating your emotions.

I believe that criticism must be CONSENSUAL*. The other person should agree to receiving your criticism. If they tell you to stop and you don’t, then you’re acting obnoxiously… dare I say, “problematically”?

You can sometimes make a guess as to another person’s consent when the stakes aren’t too high and you’re likely to be right, just as you can in other contexts. If you know a person, for instance, you probably have some idea how open they are to your input. If you don’t know someone, you could also POLITELY offer advice, without requiring the other person to take it, or else. But you are not entitled to other people having the same opinion as you. No, not even when you think they are being bigoted or whatever. For one thing, you may be wrong. For another thing, you can’t change them, and if they want to be bigoted, they will be. Finally, it’s simply the height of arrogance to expect everyone to mould themselves to your personal vision of how they should be. The world is an amazing, diverse place exactly because no one is given that power. And historically, those people who have claimed such power haven’t been remembered in the most flattering light.

I recently considered this. A lot of social justice activists are not vegan, and yet continue to aggressively “call out” others for their “problematic” behaviour. What then, if I “called them out” every time they ate meat? What if I called them a speciesist and a murderer? Would they just sit there and take it? They should, because they obviously expect other people to when they do the same. But in practice, they would see how obnoxious this behaviour was and would tell me to quit it.

So I’m not a fan of policing.

Effective Activism

It’s not just that I have an issue with policing, though. I have an issue with the whole social justice scene building its school of thought around the practice of policing. Without anyone noticing, social justice has been about documenting every single way a person can do something that may be classified as “problematic” and then policed. Yet… there are a lot more things social justice can and should do.

I believe we can make more nuanced critiques of social structures, where oppression comes from, and how we can change it. Focusing on “policeable” things leaves little room for nuance.

I believe that effective activism usually looks different from “policing”. We can be putting pressure on governments to change structures. We can be raising awareness of everyday discrimination. We can take to the streets and protest. We can volunteer to help refugees. We can help out at old folk’s homes. We can raise children in non-oppressive ways (radical unschooling). We can cook people vegan food to help them realise how easy it is to avoid killing animals for the sake of their nutrition. If we’re financially privileged we can give money, time, or shelter to those who are not. We can tell the stories of those who are otherwise erased or stereotyped, using whatever media works for us.

Whatever happened to all of that? How is it that social justice has been reduced to everyone sitting at their computers attacking each other?

No one can attack you for not doing these things. It’s hard to say you have to do work to contribute to the betterment of humanity, or else. It’s much easier to say that something you’re already doing is wrong. But I believe that this sort of activism helps a lot more than simply remoulding those aspects of yourself that are policeable.

As I’ve said before, I think the world is far better served by 100 white people with dreadlocks working at a homeless shelter than 100 white people with straight hair sitting at their computers policing each other.

We can still make civil criticism of people who are doing policeable things, where appropriate. But I do think we need to shift where we focus the bulk of our energy.


I have one last issue with policing culture. That is, I think that seeing as policing is so widespread, and people put so much effort into picking apart policeable issues, much of it is just wrong. Because people are scared of speaking up about bad ideas, so they go unchallenged; and because if you overanalyse things so much, you’re going to run out of legitimate things to say and start saying bullshit.

Nowadays, I am letting go of a lot of concepts that I used to believe in. Some I now think are just wrong; others, I simply don’t consider worth my time. For instance, I guess it’s true that using the word “crazy” is problematic, as it stigmatises people with mental health issues. However, erasing that word from my vocabulary would take effort, and with that effort I could be actually helping out at a refugee camp. We could ask the refugees what they prefer I do.

*I enjoy using the word “consensual” here as the concept is kinda sacred in the social justice scene and pointing out that something a social justice person does is not consensual must put a lot of pressure on their psyche; and yet I’m using one sacred social justice concept (“consent”) to attack another sacred social justice concept (“calling out”) so let’s just see how people resolve this one…



Cultural Appropriation

Activist Anger: A Spiritual Perspective On Social Justice

Anger In The Context Of Social Justice Activism

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