Hey progressives, can we stop using the tools of social justice to tear one another down?

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Hi everyone. This might be another one of those serious posts, so please take a few deep breaths and eat some dark chocolate. While perusing an online group, I witnessed a conversation between several colleagues, and it was disheartening. A difference of perspectives led to assumptions, which led to attacks, which led to accusations of privilege and power, which led to defensive stances regarding oppressed identities, and then there were terse sign-offs and sarcastic hashtags. It was so demoralizing to see nonprofit colleagues talking to one another in this way that I had to take a pause and read the news to cheer myself up.

A while ago, activist Frances Lee wrote “Excommunicate Me from the Church of Social Justice,” a thought-provoking article that led to a lot of needed discussions. Lee wrote:

“Activists are some of the judgiest people I’ve ever met, myself included. We work hard to expose injustice and oppression in the world. But among us, grace and forgiveness are hard to come by. It is a terrible thing to fear my own community members, and know they’re probably just as afraid of me.”

I’ve been noticing similar patterns, both online and offline. There are expectations of perfection. There is little room for forgiveness. There is often the one-strike-and-you’re-human-garbage mentality. If you don’t know the latest terms and concepts, if you make a mistake, or if you simply ARE a particular identity, then you are a terrible and irredeemable person whose presence does nothing but add to the oppressive systems everyone ELSE is trying to fight. We are all walking on social justice eggshells, always one misstep away from having all the good that we are, that we’ve done, invalidated.

What also disheartens me is seeing progressive leaders weaponize social justice terminology and concepts against others, including other progressives. Terms like mansplaining, gaslighting, heteronormative, patriarchy, etc., serve as useful common language for us to identify the issues we’re working on; but lately it seems they’ve been used just as frequently to one-up and shut down others.

A colleague of mine told me she left an online group after sharing her #metoo story of life-traumatizing sexual assault and basically had it invalidated because she was white and was “centering” herself. Can we not empathize and affirm someone’s pain and humanity while also acknowledging and confronting the disparities inherent within injustice?

A while ago, I attended the week-long training Art of Transformational Consulting. One of the activities we went through was an empathy exercise that involved us pairing up and taking turns looking at our partner while their eyes were closed and they were simply breathing/being. “Look at your partner,” our facilitator instructed, which I’m paraphrasing here, “watch as they inhale and exhale. Remember that just like you they have loved and been loved. Like you, they have had moments of joy and happiness, and they too have suffered pain and disappointment. Like you, they too have gone through heartbreaks and loss.”

I looked at my partner, someone I had just met. I don’t need to tell you what they looked like, whether they were white or POC or cis or trans or rich or disabled. As our facilitator asked us to simply see our partner, it made me realize just how dehumanizing systemic injustice is. We often do not see the people around us as they are. We see one another only through the lens of our own experiences, including our own pain and anger. And we confound our anger at systems of injustice with anger at the people who exist within the system of injustice and even those who too seek to fix it.

What does our tearing one another down do in the long run? I’ve seen good people get shut down and even ostracized. I myself have been nervous about making comments in online groups, and sometimes in person, usually deciding not to chime in at all rather than risk the collective public pile-on that often occurs when someone says something that provides a different perspective to the group’s general perspective. It’s exhausting.

Let’s engage differently with our colleagues. No, I’m not calling for “civility.” We know that awful things have happened throughout history in the name of “civility.” (Read: “White People, It’s Time to Prioritize Justice Over Civility”)  Everyone should be angry. We would not be doing our job right if we were not angry. But here are a few things I would really encourage all of us to remember in how we relate to one another. These points are not new; they have been brought up by others, but it’s helpful we bring them up from time to time:

All of us are affected by systemic injustice: We are affected in different ways and in different degrees, but all of us are affected, and so all of us must care and work toward a just society. I know this sounds like a cliché, but I believe it, and I think it is also one of the principles that should ground our sector. But lately, especially on online conversations, I’ve been seeing a lot of “F off, this is not about you, take your privilege elsewhere” sort of perspective. Whenever we talk about injustice, it IS about all of us. Yes, we should definitely ensure that the people most affected have the majority of the power and resources to lead in the fight, but we should work to ensure everyone care about these issues and create space for everyone to involve themselves some way in tackling them.  

Not all of us have the same grounding in terminologies and concepts: Some of us have gone through various trainings on race, gender identity, disability, etc. Some of us lead trainings on these topics. And some of us have not had these opportunities, have not done these trainings, have not read these articles, have not had these conversations. For various reasons, maybe because they’re not offered in our geographic area, or it’s overwhelming to figure out what’s useful on the internet, or we don’t have mentors who can guide us, or we live in an area where it would be professionally unwise to even bring up these topics. Very few of us were trained in these extremely complex topics in school or in our families, so a lot of us are struggling.

Everyone is on different points on the continuum: Even if we do attend the same trainings, we all have different upbringings, cultures, and experiences that render our interpretations different. That means that it is easier for some of us to grasp a concept, and harder for others. Some people can quickly “get” something, while others need time. And all of us can totally absorb something, like race, and struggle with other things, like gender. The assumption that everyone is at the same place on the continuum on every single topic means we get impatient with one another.  

No one asked to be born with privilege: None of us asked to be born into disadvantage. People of color, women, transgender individuals, people with disabilities, etc. must struggle in a system that consciously and unconsciously discriminate against them. However, we sometimes forget that the people born into certain privileges also did not ask to be born that way. This does not excuse people from examining their privileges and work to understand how their privilege harms others and to help change the system. But so many conversations I’ve seen lately take on this stance of blaming and shaming people for having privileges they were born with, instead of helping those with privilege figure out how they can use their privilege for good.

We must be strategic about who is taking on what role in fighting injustice: Some of us are warriors, out there vocally calling out racism and other forms of oppression. Others are bridge builders, helping to teach, heal, and connect people. It is discouraging when instead of attacking injustice, we attack one another for not using the same strategies we are using, even though we are all aiming for the same goals. Warriors, it seems, have been turning their anger toward bridge builders. I’ve seen people who say things like “Maybe that person didn’t know that was offensive; someone should pull him aside to tell him why it was problematic” get totally destroyed, accused of defending injustice and might as well just throw themselves into traffic, all for giving someone the benefit of the doubt. This does not serve anyone. Both types of activism—“call out” and “call in”—working in parallel, are needed.

None of this is to dismiss the amazing dialogues that happen. I’ve seen incredibly helpful, groundbreaking exchanges in many online forums, and I’m appreciative of everyone who put time and effort into the incredibly challenging task of facilitating these conversations, online and offline. 

Our work is complex and difficult, and sometimes it feels futile, even hopeless. So I can understand the anger and frustration out there. But let us not turn against one another. Let’s stop expecting perfection. Let’s stop using dismissive sign-offs. Let’s stop creating snarky hashtags. Let’s stop it with the one-strike-and-you-are-a-horrible-human-being mentality. Let’s stop using our anti-oppression tools to put down others who are also working to end oppression.

Let’s assume the best intentions of one another. Let’s give one another the benefit of the doubt. Let’s have grace and patience. Let’s help one another be better. And let’s always remember that our colleagues are all also flawed human beings who, like us, have known joy and pain, love and heartbreak. They too make mistakes, and they too are working hard to make our world better.

(Update: Please see the follow-up post, “Hey people with privilege, you need to be OK with making mistakes and being called out“)

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