I’ve been thinking a great deal recently about the dynamics of social justice spaces. Like any culture, certain patterns of communication form within these spaces, and certain norms and taboos as well.
In describing this and anything related to social justice, I feel the need to define everything I say and use many disclaimers. This too, can impede communication. It can benefit it by making sure I am mindful to explain the words I use and by keeping me accountable to those who have gone before me. This is good, but the fact that I am afraid to challenge these norms, even though I want very much to advance marginalized people reduce stigma and discrimination and break down systemic problems, is proof of their power to exclude and silence. I know I am not flawless and might be wrong here. But I’m not afraid of being wrong, as I am of how people will respond. Will they help me learn? Or will they accuse me of betrayal, hurt me and cast me out? This is the choice I do not want to impose on anyone else.
I’m concerned about how this affects the ability of different people to participate in dialogues. I see a tremendous lack of accessibility when it comes to creating spaces for marginalized people in groups dedicated to a huge population, and for people who don’t enter into these spaces already knowing the norms and jargon.
This is a barrier to communication.
I see many groups that have very explicitly outlined their norms in ways that are incredibly useful to many marginalized people, and this is excellent! Clear information, and prioritizing interests that are repeatedly marginalized is crucial to accessibility.
Unfortunately it sometimes is used to promote hierarchies of oppression. While I understand and support the need to center people who are most affected, it’s never possible to say that one individual is more or less affected, only groups. This is an important distinction that becomes erased when people can point to their marginalized identities in order to validate occupying space or denying others the right to participate.
This is a difficult statement to make, when we rely so much on this sort of identification to communicate on the internet, where we are invisible until we make ourselves seen, and there is so much more pressure on those who do not fit socially imposed norms to articulate ourselves.
So I want to return to what is our goal? My goal is to share support among people who need it and share the labor among people who can give, so that not only the people who have historically been called on to provide support are the ones doing the work. My goal is to have dialogues, educate and share resources to improve understanding and break down oppression.
These goals are not being met. Space in online communities is being treated as a limited commodity, a zero sum game. This means that if one person takes a slice of the pie, there is less pie. I don’t believe that is the case. I think we need to look at how we can create spaces that elevate those who have been left behind without cutting out the needs and desires of people who might not have won the “oppression Olympics”. If we act like it’s a contest, we don’t work to include we work to exclude to support a specific group/entity. Sometimes this is necessary. Sometimes we do need dedicated spaces, spaces where only some people are welcome because we need to be with our own kind. This is a need.
It is a need because people become isolated without access to spaces where they are not the minority. Being a minority, even if its illusionary (many minorities are a numerical majority) is itself damaging. We need spaces where people can recognize themselves reflected in the people around them. Research backs this up. (add links?)
We also need spaces where people of all different experiences can come together to learn and share and explore how they are affected how their experiences can allow them to build empathy and learn. Where people who are isolated and have not learned the correct/technical language can be supported.
Too often I see spaces dedicated to educating and supporting people full of pettiness and personal attacks. Too often do we attempt to engage with problems we see by lashing out. We assume the worst, because we often experience the worst, but at the cost of experiencing something better.
The “social justice rules” are just guidelines that shift with every generation. We try to get closer to attitudes and norms that are more inclusive and that address the problems we see, but they are not flawless.
Just as we sometimes put people on pedestals, seeing our leaders as heroes, we also put principles and concepts on a level where they cannot be criticized without calling into question the entire system they purport to support.
This is not the solution. This is part of the problem. We are replacing power dynamics of the larger society with toxic power dynamics that keep out the budding activist and the person questioning the way they’ve been indoctrinated.
I say many unpopular things. Often they are to correct leaders, because we hold them up to much higher standards. Often to disagree with what I see as toxic behavior that is justified by the toxic behavior of other people.
Just in the past few days, I’ve been mocked, ignored, and attacked for sharing ideas that were uncomfortable to someone. In none of these cases did I attack back. In most of them I chose to listen and try to learn and reflect, as well as respond and engage. And disengage when it was clear that I was not communicating effectively because being called names isn’t communication or because my reflective listening was an unwelcome approach.
Recently, I posted in a group I belong to about a problem I’ve seen. In groups dedicated to the benefit and wellbeing of various marginalized groups, people often make comments that are oppressive to others. As a member of many of these groups, I try to discuss why certain kinds of remarks are hurtful and oppressive without attacking people who make these comments, with the understanding that participating in these spaces means caring about not hurting or oppressing anyone. I assume that people have good intentions, and therefor would like to know how to effectively embody those intentions. Many people say intentions don’t matter, but I believe that good intentions don’t remove harm, they determine whether people are willing to address possible problems because we all make mistakes some of the time and that shouldn’t be proof of bad intentions, just the product of lack of perfection. Anyone who claims they are perfect is already wrong.
Unfortunately, despite the popularity of my initial sentiment, a call to greater inclusivity, received some negative responses from members of group leadership. Specifically, it was suggested that a new group be created to serve the needs I discussed, despite the fact that this is a national group. When I pointed out to one of the leaders who commented that I had tried to communicate with her and others about problematic posts, I was told to provide proof (which I didn’t have access to) then told the matter would be investigated, then summarily and without warning my posts were deleted and I was banned. My partner tried to join the same group and was immediately banned without being able to see it, suggesting someone decided that his association with me warranted this type of exclusion.
As far as I can tell, I was banned for saying that I expect to be harassed and kicked out for daring to mention that leaders in the group had previously harassed and ignored me when I pointed out their prejudicial remarks. This conversation happened on a popular thread I made about the need for inclusivity, which was deleted, and my partner was banned for being my partner. This is the kind of leadership that is toxic, that silences and harasses those that disagree with them.
Social ostracization is harassment. Removing emotional and intellectual labor of marginalized people who are calling for greater inclusivity or discussing how they are marginalized is oppressive.
Whenever someone feels excluded or silenced, they are pushed to leave, to find another space that is dedicated only to that concern. I am tired of leaving groups because either there is no effort to educate and oppressive comments are permitted to exist unchallenged, or people are unable to not already know all the answers and are afraid to ask questions.
Many people would say it’s not the responsibility of the marginalized individual to educate- and that’s true, it’s not the responsibility of the individual to educate, because it’s no one person’s responsibility.
However, it is the responsibility of the group to share tools if they want people to pursue a particular type of education. As someone once told me, I can google this, but how will I know what I should read?
If I ask a friend to google feminism, the friend can easily find white feminism, anti-feminism, and still not learn about whatever I wanted them to engage with. If I want this friend to understand why racism is a feminist issue, I can link to half a dozen articles I’ve already read that helped me out. And if I don’t have the resources, I can tell me friend where else to look, link them to groups and pages. If my friend gets shot down for asking a question there, they might stop looking. They are making an effort to educate themselves, but they don’t have the resources.
Often emotions run high with issues that affect our lives in intimate ways, and emotions and the way different people express them are often shamed and denied space in our societies. This is why it’s important not to police tone, to tell people how to deliver their message or that their approach is inappropriate because it makes people uncomfortable. Discomfort is necessarily a part of change.
This does not mean that there are times when people use this common knowledge among activist communities to justify bullying or harassment. Willful ignorance inspires anger, and for those of us who face it regularly our anger is justified because we must always balance the question of whether we are being attacked in ways that people who aren’t marginalized do not.
This makes it incredibly challenging to respond to genuine questions and interest in improving and sharing information with an open mind. We are in the habit of protecting ourselves for very legitimate reasons. Yet if someone wants to learn, and is asking for information, it’s possible to share rage at injustice and information about it without attacking the person who wants to know.
The recipient must also be willing to listen, to accept that rage and internalize it not as an attack but a measure of the power of what they are learning, and of the labor of the person sharing. It means that anyone who wants to share should be mindful none of us can ever speak for everyone.
All of this can perhaps be included in the idea that we should assume good intentions. Good intentions don’t excuse impact, they provide the possibility of a dialogue. Our dialogue must have space for the anger and hurt of the oppressed, and requires patience and willingness to be educated.
These are the problems of our generation of activists, a generation that has to contend with internet harassment and the inability to unplug from constant reminders of the struggle. The solution isn’t to throw nuance out the window or refuse to accept dissenting ideas. That will just lead for a fight to replace one power imbalance with another. It’s to break down the need for power struggles entirely, especially within our communities. Most importantly, it will require us to acknowledge that we cannot ever be 100% right and make space for that.