I am becoming increasingly disillusioned with and saddened by the current state of social justice efforts, particularly as they often manifest here on Tumblr. The recent debate about cultural appropriation, as well as a lot of the ongoing dialogue about it here, has really caused me to question how this and other issues of social justice are approached.
I am a strong proponent of calling people out for racism, sexism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, body policing, etc. I am aware of the continuing currents of disempowerment, the uneven distribution of resources and power, and how oppression permeates our society. I am a member of some privileged groups—white, middle class, cisgender—and some oppressed groups—female, queer, minority religion. So I have a mix of privilege and oppression informing my approach to social justice.
I’ve put a lot of work into undoing some of the worst societal conditioning I’ve been burdened with. I’ve tried really damned hard to check my privileges, to soul-search, and to really examine the workings of cultural appropriation in neopagan and related religious movements. I’ve worked to raise awareness on a variety of issues, and I’ve been grateful to people who have helped me to be more aware of sexism, racism, gender and sex based phobias, and more. When I’ve been on the hot spot and people have criticized my spiritual practices, I have offered up a record of the ruminations and conflicts I’ve dealt with over the years to get to the place where I am today as a way of furthering the discussion AND demonstrating that I’m not just blithely doing whatever I like without reflection.
And yet it sometimes feels like it’s not enough for some people. Not everyone who works for social justice, but a fairly vocal segment thereof. So please don’t take this as a dismissal of social justice itself—just a criticism of some of the patterns within.
Let me say that again, because I want it to be clear:
Please don’t take this as a dismissal of social justice itself—just a criticism of some of the patterns within.
So, specifics. A lot of my disillusionment comes from people justifying making assumptions and not doing their research, all in the name of “calling out the bad guys”. We in the social justice movement have been so conditioned that certain things are bad that some of us will jump at anything that even looks bad, without question. It’s not that we shouldn’t be criticizing racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression. But not every white person who works with animistic spirituality or uses the terms “shaman” and “totem” is ignorant of the controversy therein. I tire of having the same criticisms levied at me over and over by people who obviously haven’t taken the time to familiarize themselves with what it is I’m actually doing, especially when I’m very public about it. Just as I sometimes get tired of explaining to people why catcalls are not complements, I get sick of educating people about “I’ve never claimed to be Native, I am approaching animism from my own social location, not all Native people utilize buckskin in their art, and would you just take a look at my blog to see what I’m actually up to?”
I felt a lot of frustration, too, in some critics’ conscious refusal to look at the links and other writings I provided as a response—not a reaction—to their criticisms. I’m not new to receiving criticism. I’ve been dealing with people criticizing my path on grounds of appropriation for several years, and many times it’s given me cause to explore the issues at hand where they relate to my spirituality. But there have always been certain people who, even when offered something I wrote that directly responds to their concern, openly acknowledge that they refuse to read it. And that has really discouraged me, because here I am trying to engage with someone about something they’ve seen in my work that might need some inspection on my part, but once they’ve made their initial salvo they shut down anything that isn’t “Okay, fine, you were right and I was wrong”.
Some of it is also the sheer toxic levels of condescension I see across the board in many social justice efforts. Even as I am writing this, I’m anticipating someone saying “Oh, poor baby, someone called you out and you didn’t like it, that’s all this is about, any other explanation is a lie, end of story!” And with that, any disagreement I have is turned back on me. And my pointing out what I have been trying in order to address the issues at hand and where I feel I’ve made some progress? “Oh, little special snowflake, do you want a cookie just for doing what any decent person would do?” And on and on, responding to any question or disagreement with the same sort of stock invalidation. Tell me that’s not condescending.
And if someone questions whether the aggressive, condescending tone with which someone makes a criticism is the most effective in a given situation, the response is too often “Don’t you DARE tell me how to be angry! I’ve had enough of people telling me NOT to be angry!” Which again leaves the questioner in the unenviable position of either having to back down, or be painted as an oppressor who is refusing to check their privilege. In fact, privilege has gone from a fairly matter-of-fact statement of advantages of opportunities, to a way to defuse anything that doesn’t match a person’s given understanding of social justice.
Here’s the thing about privilege. Privilege was never meant to be a bludgeoning weapon. It was never meant to deliberately provoke guilt trips in a privileged person for the express purpose of shutting them down and “winning” the debate by playing on the other person’s fear of looking like the bad guy. And yet this is how I see it misused time and again. There is a difference between pointing out “Hey, here’s a situation where you’ve had some advantages that these other people haven’t—think about that and where’s it gotten you” and saying “PRIVILEGE CHECK!” to anything a privileged person says that doesn’t exactly toe the party line to the millimeter.
And this really leads me to wonder about some of the people who are into social justice. Do they actually want to engage with members of privileged groups to try to raise awareness, or do they just want an excuse tell other people that they’re wrong?
You know what this feels like? It feels like being back in junior high, and being subjected to the same sort of doublespeak and word-twisting that bullies used to back me into a corner. They didn’t have to lift a finger. All they had to do was trap me in a tangle of words and spin, taking whatever I said in my defense out of context, so that at the end anything I said was just more fuel for their attacks. It feels like the same sort of disempowerment, justified with “Well, WE didn’t do anything wrong, we were just talking with you, it’s all YOUR fault you’re so butthurt!” Anyone who was bullied knows what that’s like.
You know what else feels like bullying? The swift and often severe reaction on the part of the group to anything perceived as a threat—even constructive criticism. Suggest to someone that a more aggressive tone may not be the most effective way to get the message across to a given audience, and you’ll get dogpiled with people saying the equivalent of “We CAN’T be nice to these people, because they haven’t been nice to US—and so it’s OUR turn to not be nice! We’ve been nice too long! Oh, wait, you’re one of THEM? Take it without complaint, you deserve it!” And, again, there’s the threat of being labeled an oppressor simply for questioning the manner in which we do things like point out privilege and make other criticisms. “If you’re not with us 100%, then you’re obviously against us!”
And then after a while, with those sorts of shutdown again and again, a person starts to give up. It’s just a matter of human psychology that if you consistently block someone any time they try to engage, eventually they’re going to stop trying. There’s no reward in continually being told how bad and wrong you are every time you speak up.
I am a person who wants to listen, who has actively cultivated listening skills because I want to do better. I want to do what’s right. I have been a strong proponent for social justice for years, and I know I still have things I need to work on.
But if the shutdowns keep up, I’m not going to feel like this is a place where I can be supported in that self-exploration. The social justice movement (or individual communities, if you prefer) is going to lose me. The fact is, I feel I don’t have a safe place where I can criticize what I see as some unhealthy and even counterproductive patterns in many social justice efforts. And for that, I contemplate giving up. There’s only so much a person can take before burnout sets in.
Let me make my final point clear: You’re not going to drive me away from my neoshamanism and other spiritual practices. You’re going to drive me away from engaging in social justice efforts at all. Is that what you really want?
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- joecrow said: Well, yeah. That’s exactly what they want: a “social justice” movement that consists entirely of people who agree with them on every subject. An echo chamber. It’s just another parasite clique colonizing an online conversational space.
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