content: reflecting on valuing people in social justice spaces and how this informs my guidelines for participation.
Everyone wants to feel like “the good guy”, but to genuinely commit yourself to working towards social justice, you can’t try to be the hero.
There are people who devote their entire lives, their career and personal time to improving the world. They can make great contributions, and still be oppressive. They might have a certain area that they don’t understand as well, and make misguided comments. They might be strong advocates for one group with a great prejudice against another. They may not have been exposed to a particular idea, or been born before a particular movement.
What does it mean to give someone celebrity status in social justice spaces? It means that they get support and benefits that they are trying to reap for their entire community. I want to benefit my communities, and recognition and access would be amazing, but I never want to do it at the cost of others like me. I am very fortunate to be able to have and (I hope) maintain this platform.
This does not negate or reduce the contributions of “social justice celebrities”, of people who make mistakes, or of people who never get much attention. It also doesn’t mean that it isn’t important to support people who do informal intellectual and emotional labor.
It does mean be wary of the heroes. Do not idolize or fetishize when you admire, be critical in your self assessment, and make an effort to support work you value and systems for those who are devalued.
A few times I’ve seen people use their marginalized identities as proof they know best in a discussion about whether something is oppressive, or tell me how long they have worked in a field defending their position. I have even seen this used to justify harassment against other activists.
I don’t believe harassment is every justified. I am not a pacifist, and I do not question when people react with violence to personal threat, but I am never going to support mob mentality.
When we speak about our lived experiences, we must be mindful that there are people who’s lived experiences are different from our own, and that they could just as easily hold up their experience as proof the patterns of oppression we discuss do not exist. That is why when we talk about systemic issues, we can bring up anecdotes to support a point, and empathize with an experience, and to be supported. We cannot use them to justify erasing oppression.
I have often been criticized for my tone. So I understand the importance of distinguishing intersectionality and openness with tone policing. After all, I am most frequently told about my tone by people who did not want to respond to the words being said.
I’m complimented for being assertive, and criticized as being aggressive. Sometimes I’m told I’m too blunt, other times, times I treasure, I am thanked for being tactful. Not only are these not mutually exclusive, neither justifies the other. It also doesn’t make it wrong.
I am not going to change who I am, though. Or how I speak to be less straight forward. My approach has been called masculine, I’ve been told I nag and that I’m shrill. I have seen many men receive praise for traits that are unappealing in myself. And I have read research that confirms again and again that my approach will always be criticized more heavily because of my sex.
Even people who work against sexism will be affected by this bias. And some will insist they have low tolerance for aggressive responses from any gender or sex.
This does not make me less legitimate. It does not make me wrong. It means that I need to work harder to see and accept legitimate criticism, because it is wrapped in layers of prejudice that I now must unpack.
I intend to hold myself accountable to what I say.
A list to which I might add:
- Don’t pay mind to trolls.
- Don’t bully or permit bullying.
- Accept criticism.
- Don’t internalize evil.
- Be mindful of one’s own privilege.
- Don’t use marginalized identities to validate opinion.
- Be respectful of all lived experiences.
- Be accessible.
My general rules for participating in conversations can probably be boiled down to:
- Don’t shame people, don’t bully, if you’re jumping on the bandwagon, chances are you’re doing this.
- Don’t co-opt the big picture conversation to show how you’re different from whatever is being talking about, it’s not about just you and no generalization exists without exceptions. Insisting on those exceptions is pedantic.
- If you might be doing something wrong, don’t self-flagellate to make yourself the victim. Find reassurance in future improvement.
- If you don’t get it right away, maybe just listen for a while.