the problem with social justice: the tumblr wave
so there’s a thing that i’ve been thinking about, when it comes to social justice and activism
see, a lot of things really bother me about tumblr sj, and it seems like at least some of them can be explained by “the tumblr social justice community has forgotten the difference between activism and venting.”
i have really strong feelings about social issues and activism! i believe in a better future. i think a lot of things are fucked all to hell in the world, and i want to change them, no matter how discouragingly improbable that might seem at any given moment. i still believe in the human potential for change and kindness.
but what i see, in the tumblr social justice community, is a lot of venting and a lot of complaining about what’s wrong with the world, and very little doing anything about it.
i’m not saying everyone who’s frustrated with racism or homophobia or misogyny should either go out and join a protest or shut the fuck up. i’m not saying there’s no value to venting on its own merit. i’m saying that there is a difference, a very important one, between making a blog post saying “ugh white people are the worst” and activism. and the social justice community on tumblr has created a general impression that they are the same thing.
activism is trying to change a societal situation for the better. activism is not only recognizing that something is wrong in the world, but trying to improve it. and the cold hard truth is, decrying an oppressor class for the bad things they’ve done does not ultimately change the fact of the oppression.
but venting is useful! it raises awareness! that’s the backbone of activism!
yes, awareness-raising is extremely important. but tell me, at what point does “i don’t have to educate you” become awareness-raising? it’s not like i haven’t said it myself, but at what point does “fuck rich people” become awareness-raising? at what point does “men will never understand this” become awareness-raising?
(and don’t even get me started on “die cis scum.”)
if your approach toward awareness-raising involves death threats, blanket condemnations of entire demographic groups, or the phrase “it’s not my job to educate you,” then i’m sorry, but you’re not raising awareness at all.
if it’s “not your job” as a minority to educate others about the experiences and oppressions you face, then you’re leaving it to members of the majority. because either no one does the educating, and no one learns; or majority people do the educating and may or may not get it right (and if they don’t, they may drown out the voices of the actual minority); or you do.
if you personally don’t want to talk to someone about a social issue, that’s fine! but then don’t call yourself an activist. because that’s what activism is, is the long hard repetitive work of educating.
not every member of a minority has to do the educating. but don’t frame it as “minorities don’t have to educate,” because that at best robs minorities of their voices and at worst perpetuates the very oppressions you face.
but not everything an oppressed person says has to be activism! they have the right to be angry!
yes, you’re right. people who have suffered oppression do have the right to be angry about it. in fact, some time ago i made a (relatively popular, by my standards) post that i can’t find now about the right to get angry as a privilege—since many times, oppressed people cannot get outright angry at their oppressors without risking dire consequences, from a lack of money to getting fired to getting killed.
but that is unfortunately true, however sad or angry you might be about it: getting angry can put you and the groups of people you speak for in danger. and, you know, forget danger! getting angry is not an effective activism tactic. it does not help your cause. if you’ve done debate; if you’ve ever tried, desperately, to convince your parents they’re doing something wrong; you know that. it can be satisfying! and it is important for you to be able to get angry in a relatively safe space (the internet) and commiserate with other people who may be angry about the same thing. it is important for members of marginalized groups to be able to say “fuck white people” among themselves. that might even raise awareness within the group of the oppressions they suffer!
but as soon as you’re dealing with “the outside world,” as soon as you’re dealing with people who are not members of your marginalized group, that stops being helpful and starts being outright hurtful—both of people, and of your cause.
you know what the methods of the tumblr social justice community accomplish?
they make people who are not personally members of marginalized groups—white people, cis people—feel petrified of doing something wrong, of accidentally offending or hurting the queer/trans/black/etc. people they love, but unable to know for sure how not to, and afraid to or even guilty for asking. (the answer should be, in any sane world, simply to try to be a decent human being, not hurt anyone for no reason, and talk to people about what you can do to help them. but it’s not, in a world where they could just as easily be vilified for those exact actions.)
they make people who actually are members of marginalized groups, but may be young, anxious, or otherwise vulnerable and unsure of themselves, sure that they could not possibly be allowed to be queer or trans or depressed or w/e, because surely they have not experienced as much oppression as other people, because they’re white and middle-class there’s no way they could be marginalized, and they should just keep their mouths shut and not try to claim the pronouns that would make them comfortable or the medical care that could make them happy.
they make people who are not marginalized, but want to help those who are, out to be villains simply for not knowing the latest change in preferred terminology, or for having more money than their brown friends, or for being interested in how to wear a sari properly.
and this leads to a rapidly widening gap between people on the internet who are busy criticizing the gay rights movement for its focus on marriage or the girl who reblogged your post for her usage of the word “assigned” as opposed to “designated,” and people irl who still think white people shouldn’t intermarry and haven’t seen a gay person (or so they think) in 54 years of life. the tumblr social justice community is so busy condemning their fellow marginalized sisters for not using the right words in their attempt to make the world better, that they’re not actually even coming into contact with the world they’re trying to change.
ultimately, tumblr social justice vilifies people for ignorance while simultaneously spreading misconceptions, alienates the very people we need on our side in order to jumpstart any real societal change, forgets about or devalues the experiences and contributions of activist movements in our past that were not intersectional enough but were nevertheless necessary to get to where we are today, claims to have no responsibility to raise awareness, and then has the audacity to call itself a social movement.
tl;dr? tag your venting posts with venting, not “social justice.” and once in a while, get away from the internet and realize that in order to make any difference at all, you’re gonna have to temper your internet idealism with the awareness that the world around you is 50 miles behind, and as long as facebook comments are still burbling about immigrants’ lack of personal responsibility and people are still saying “faggot,” no amount of “fuck you and the horse you rode in on, how dare you not know what intersex means, i don’t have to educate you, kill yourself”-style activism is gonna do one goddamn bit of good.
trust me, as someone who got activism-trained by trying to convince their parents for five+ years as a kid that censoring queer stuff on the internet was a Very Bad Idea and also unfair, changing the world is a matter of changing people’s minds. and changing people’s minds is a slow, arduous, gentle process. it does not happen by treating your dad like a white guy you’re kicking out of your safe space.
if you actually want to see a world where all the different-colored kids on the playground get along and have the same opportunities? talk to every new well-meaning straight white cis person as if they were your grandfather who you really really love, but who still thinks you’re gonna get straight married someday, and really isn’t ready yet for the realization that some girls have dicks. or that you read porn on the internet.