Sunday, June 26, 2016

"More Radical Than Thou"?: A Toxicology of Social Justice Advocacy

I've been meaning to write this post for some time, even before my departure from UU-dom. By doing so now, I'm sure I'll face accusations of betrayal, even personal attacks and insults. More's the pity.

What I've observed in so-called progressive circles – both secular politics and theological communities – is a poisoning of language and relationships that is driving too many individuals to disillusionment and desertion. Just as many women have abandoned the feminist label while still embracing its basic values and goals, I foresee an increasing number of folks leaving the organizations and networks established by social justice advocates, not because they have given up on the ideals of social justice, but because they find the means being employed as harmful to both the collective ends and individual psychology.

The major tendency behind this toxic environment is an increasing demand for perfectionism. It's no longer enough to work for a better world; activists must now work for utopia, and settle for nothing less. The mentality of the "Bernie or Bust" tendency is an obvious example of this, but I've witnessed even more insidious manifestations. As one former activist recounted to me: "Nothing is ever good enough. The slightest thing will get you thrown under the bus, even the way you apologize for what you've said or done, or failed to say or do." This attitude, I believe, stems from the goal of "overcoming false consciousness" – first promulgated in Marxist circles, then within radical feminism, and now more widely. Gone, however, is the patience required to facilitate such changes; just as utopian goals must be achieved all at once, utopian consciousness must be similarly adopted.

This has in turn led to a culture of constant criticism within activist circles. I'm not speaking of criticism in the academic and political sense, but the vernacular sense of negative fault-finding. This is employed not only in seeing the outside world almost entirely as "intersectional systems of oppression," but directed internally at one another, even at oneself. Nothing escapes such persistent fault-finding, and rarely are constructive alternatives given. Regardless of the intended political and/or theological goal desired, such an environment inevitably causes psychological harm. For one thing, the barrage of criticisms eventually begin to contradict one another, leading to double binds and cognitive dissonance. This is assuming, of course, that the individual in question hasn't decided: "If nothing I do or say is ever good enough here, why am I bothering to stay?"

Just as criticism may be well-intentioned, excessive use of jargon by social justice advocates is rooted in the intention of expressing this community's ideas and values in convenient shorthand. Unfortunately, just as technical language in other areas may create a barrier between its users and those "outside," so the jargon of social justice tends to set them apart from so-called "ordinary" folks, especially when using words and phrases which sound overly academic. Even worse, when combined with the tendencies of perfectionism and constant criticism, certain terms of art become used to attack, belittle and silence people. Thus "privilege" may be misused as a synonym for "arrogant" or "clueless"; any male who attempts to answer a question put to them may be accused of "mansplaining"; or merely leaving to go to the bathroom gets one "called out" for their "microaggression", and the explanation rejected as "white/male/cis/hetero/ableist fragility".

In the past, I've half-jokingly referred to religious liberals embracing the idea of "protest as sacrament"; now, I fear it's become all too serious. Engaging in protest has become less about strategy and tactics, or even about sending a message – it has become an end in itself, and participation in protest an essential test of commitment. Thus the contradiction is created when someone who uses their connections and influence to affect genuine change are ignored or even looked down upon, while those who picket and chant are lifted up even if their actions lead nowhere or serve only to alienate.

I don't question the intentions or desires of those in the social justice community who have fallen into these traps. I believe they are sincere in their shared vision for a more equitable and sustainable society. Why, then, have these issues come about, and why do they persist? If I may hazard a guess, they are rooted in three problems of approach:
  1. a lack of understanding of human psychology, especially regarding motivation and communication;
  2. a lack of patience, leading to high demands for both personal and social change;
  3. a confusion of means and ends, specifically where adopting the terminology and behavior of other activists in order to fit in diverts attention and resources.
Over thirty years ago, I was sitting in a room of other progressive student activists, listening to a seasoned grassroots organizer sharing experience and insight. "Always remember," the elder activist imparted, "that your goal is a better world, not competing to see who's more radical." If those who seek justice and acceptance are not more just or accepting of one another, and less willing to question the effectiveness of their methods, how is that better world to come about?