Slowly, tentatively, a few identity politics activists are starting to question their current scorched earth tactics and the unforgiving way that they tackle “heresy” within their own ranks. But will it make a difference?
Everyday Feminism may be the go-to site for all things Social Justice, but at least one writer there has started to display some unusual self-awareness, questioning whether the constant backbiting, jockeying for position and competitive victimhood within the activist world might actually be doing more harm than good.
Kai Cheng Thom, a self-described Chinese trans woman writer, poet, and performance artist, writes:
When I found activist culture, with its powerful ideas about privilege and oppression and its simmering, explosive rage, I was intoxicated. I thought that I could purge my self-hatred with that fiery rhetoric and create the family I wanted so much with the bond that comes from shared trauma.
Social justice was a set of rules that could finally put the world into an order that made sense to me. If I could only use all the right language, do enough direct action, be critical enough of the systems around me, then I could finally be a good person.
All around me, it felt like my activist community was doing the same thing – throwing ourselves into “the revolution,” exhausting ourselves and burning out, watching each other for oppressive thoughts and behavior and calling each other on it vociferously.
Occasionally – rarely – folks were driven out of community for being “fucked up.” More often, though, attempts to hold people accountable through call-outs and exclusion just exploded into huge online flame wars and IRL drama that left deep rifts in community for years. Only the most vulnerable – folks without large friend groups and social stability – were excluded permanently.
Like my blood family, my activist family was re-enacting the trauma that we had experienced at the hands of an oppressive society.
Credit where it is due – this is a mature and thoughtful observation, especially from somebody in the thick of the Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics. It cannot be easy to admit such a glaring flaw in one’s own social movement, so kudos to Kai for doing so.
This is actually one of the aspects of the whole social justice phenomenon which fascinates me the most – the dual scrambles to both climb the victimhood pyramid and claim the most “oppressions” while also seeking to be the most fastidious observer of the new rules laid down to govern how people speak and interact with one another.
For me, it crystallised with the story in Britain of NUS LGBT officer Fran Cowling, who sanctimoniously and publicly refused to share a stage with lifelong gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, on the grounds that he was insufficiently enthusiastic about banning the speech of people who disagree with the current orthodoxy about transgender issues.
As I wrote at the time:
It is obvious that NUS LGBT officer Fran Cowling is attempting to gain a vast amount of social currency and standing from her peers by trying to take down Peter Tatchell, an A-lister in activist circles. By refusing to share a stage with him, Cowling is effectively declaring to the world that she is morally superior to Tatchell, he having failed the latest racism and transphobia tests. Thus, she can bank all of Tatchell’s personal accomplishments for herself, add the fact that unlike him she is not a “transphobe”, and Win the Game.
And that’s the rotten core of today’s student identity politics movement. A constant, bitchy, backbiting game of snakes and ladders, with one insufferable petty tyrant rising to the top of the Moral Virtue Pyramid only to be brought down by their jealous rivals, either for no reason at all, or for having unknowingly violated one of the many red lines that they themselves helped to draw across our political discourse.
Too often the internal machinations and politicking of these activist movements seem to vastly overshadow any possible good that they may seek to accomplish. Too often it seems that social justice warriors are more interested in enforcing arbitrary rules and squashing dissent than actually making tangible efforts to help the people on whose behalf they claim to speak.
Kai Cheng Thom goes on to quote an anonymous writer:
There are no activist communities, only the desire for communities, or the convenient fiction of communities. A community is a material web that binds people together, for better and for worse, in interdependence…
If it is easier to kick someone out than to go through a difficult series of conversations with them, it is not a community.
At present, social justice activists are very proficient at excluding and excommunicating those who stray from the One True Path. Never mind agnostics or opponents; many SJW communities will excommunicate fellow members for little more than not being fully up to speed on the latest terminology – a constantly changing glossary of “correct” and “incorrect” words.
In other words, as Kai puts it, many activists currently operate according to the philosophy that “if I could only use all the right language, do enough direct action, be critical enough of the systems around me, then I could finally be a good person”. It is almost a points-based system. Attend enough protests, share enough memes on social media, parrot enough orthodoxy and avoid committing too many mistakes and in time you will “level up”. Fail to keep up with the herd, however, and you will be left in the wilderness.
Kai Cheng Thom’s article at least suggests that there are growing glimmers of awareness that this approach is a) not working, and b) hardly an appropriate way to live the values that they preach.
For in truth, the social justice movement is a symptom of the only real kind of privilege left out there – rich, Western country privilege. That’s not to say that racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia have been fully vanquished – clearly not. But the fact that so many people in the English-speaking Western world are now able to devote such significant amounts of time to activism tackling the remaining vestiges of oppression in their own back yards is itself a sign that we live in unprecedentedly prosperous and egalitarian times.
In large part, social justice activism is nothing more than a luxury pursuit, indulged in primarily by those people who have the fortune to be attending college or university in one or other of the richest and most prosperous democratic countries on this Earth. Anyone marching in a campus protest to restrict the rights and freedoms of other people to say things which they may find offensive would, if they actually took the words “social justice” remotely seriously, immediately redirect their anger toward those benighted parts of the world where racial minorities, women, gay, transgender and disabled people face overt and often physical hostility. Yet for some reason the social justice community often has little negative to say about many of these places, while remaining ever-ready to criticise the good-faith efforts of those closer to home.
And the online obergruppenführers of this petty, thin-skinned self-actualisation cult, this morally lost movement, have grown accustomed to consolidating their power by doing the one thing they claim to be most against – oppressing and marginalising other people, in this case those who step out of line and deliberately or accidentally say, think or do the “wrong” thing.
It is wonderful that some of these cultists may be starting to realise the error of their ways. For as Kai says, “only the most vulnerable – folks without large friend groups and social stability – [are] excluded permanently”. And why is that the case?
Because at its rotten heart, the social justice movement can be most likened to that quintessential bastion of “white privilege”, the suburban country club. The club has many strict rules. Arcane rules which are often incomprehensible to outsiders. Rules which must be acknowledged and obeyed, and only ever flouted if one has sufficient social currency within the group to get away with it.
That is what the social justice movement has become. A virtual, worldwide country club for privileged young millennials and some aged hangers-on in academia, easy to join (so long as one passes ideological inspection) but swift to exclude those caught breaking the finicky, ever-changing rules. A club in which anyone and everyone is ultimately disposable in the neverending competition for power and status.
Can the social justice revolution ever stop eating its own? I don’t see how. Most of those at the country club’s core seem motivated primarily by the desire to feast on the shortcomings and innocent mistakes of others. Take that inducement away and they may as well just join their nearest fraternity or sorority, fully embracing the “social” aspect and ceasing to feign an interest in “justice” altogether.
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