I recently released a personal essay on my experiences being within American leftist activist culture that went viral, reaching over half a million people worldwide. In it, I expanded upon the ways in which social justice culture, with its rich and enduring legacy of resistance to oppression, has largely devolved into operating on dogmatic terms. After I wrote it, I almost did not publish it or share it within my circles. I felt preemptively queasy when considering the backlash that inevitably comes after voicing an unpopular view or pushing back on the status quo in leftist spaces. How could I disrupt knee-jerk hypercriticality by placing myself squarely in front of its firing squad? Wouldn’t that be a social suicide mission? But based on the overwhelming, emotional responses from readers about the essay’s resonance, this internal struggle appears to be a widespread issue in leftist and progressive communities that desperately needs be addressed.
Why are so many people so afraid to raise questions or critique in activist communities? Why is call out culture and public shaming so normalized? If we claim to be for changing unjust large-scale systems, why is there such an acute focus on individual behavior? To burrow into the heart of these questions, I have been sitting with reader comments and consulting additional writings of leading activists and past thinkers. I also recently met with a trusted group of friends and organizing comrades to begin a local conversation on these issues within our communities.
Although I decry the coercive, harmful practices of my particular American evangelical Christian upbringing, the particular church community that raised me stands out to me as an example of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “beloved community” cradling my family of origin. My father was recently diagnosed with tongue cancer, and it hit our tight knit family pretty hard. Luckily, the doctors detected it early and recommended immediate surgery. Following his procedure, dozens of church members organized to bring my parents a steady stream of nutritious food, including stir fry meals, backyard eggs, energy supplements, and cases of fruit every day of his recovery. I went home during this time and was stunned by the abundance of not only good eats, but genuine care from the masses of church members who love my father. By extension, I felt loved, even though I had never met most of these charitable souls.
While I accept that anger can be a potent engine for changemaking, I’m also musing over the idea that 'holding onto anger is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.'
Of course, there are plenty of people in my queer and activist communities who are generous with what they have. On the other hand, what I often detect at the energetic core of social justice activism and communications is largely anger, and sometimes, even hate. I do not judge nor denounce these responses when trying to survive in a world hellbent on obliterating someone, their people, and their ancestors at every opportunity and from all angles. (I am thinking right now of my black and indigenous community members and their longstanding projects in this colonized country to reclaim freedom and joy.) While I accept that anger can be a potent engine for changemaking, I’m also musing over the idea that “holding onto anger is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” I wonder if the long-term effects of activism fueled by reactionary anger and filtered solely through a privilege framework creates unintentional byproducts like toxic, inhospitable spaces. Instead, what would a post-Civil Rights era activism based on love look like? As adrienne marie brown asked her black community members under attack, “What if what’s needed isn’t sexy, intimidating, violent…what if what is needed is forgiveness?” (And unconditional love?)
Unencumbered usage of survival tactics
Living in a society where I am pushed to fight for recognition, respect and scarce resources is a drag. Like many others, over time I have developed an arsenal of social survival strategies as a hard shield. This might include maintaining a razor sharp analysis of how oppression works, shutting down white nonsense, intervening when men take up all the space, being choosy about who receives my emotional labor, etc. These are tools that aid me in navigating new social situations, working for a tech corporation, operating within academia, and living in the super white Pacific Northwest. In this light, I consider myself empowered to speak truth to power.
At the same time, I wish I could take back and apologize for all the times I brandished these same instruments of defense against people around me, and especially to my conservative leaning family members. I had defaulted to a habit of fighting back, thereby losing the ability to detect golden opportunities to lay down arms and authentically connect with others. Besides fight, flight, or freeze as immediate responses to harm, when I have the capacity, I want to allow myself the option to become soft and listen. I understand that I do not have to frame all my social interactions with those outside my communities as potential attacks, and that challenges to my ideologies are opportunities for me to strengthen my understanding of them.
Lack of interpersonal relationship skills
Here, I’m not talking about the skills business people use to manipulate or gain the trust the others as a power-driven, capitalist strategy. I’m referring to our awareness and the ways we communicate with and relate to each other, human to human. When looking back at some of the conflicts I’ve become embroiled in with other justice-oriented people, I believe it was the lack of interpersonal relationship skills that exacerbated the situation. Doubtless, there are countless sneaky ways in which patriarchy, racism, classism, xenophobia etc. infect our relationships. However, I accept that this is probably always going to be the case, and we will continue to hurt each other, despite our best intentions. Knowing this, I might actively learn skills for healthy communication so that I can work through internal conflict with my comrades and not become derailed from the larger group goals. These are life skills like conflict resolution, non-verbal communication, deep listening, and self-awareness. When someone in my community perpetuates an act of oppression, I have to ask, can the relationship be salvaged? Is it my ego that which is most offended? Can the state of things be restored, perhaps even transformed? Am I willing to put in the effort to work through conflict and hurt, or would I rather walk away from the group or dispose of that person?
My ideal healthy self would express a tender response to being hurt or even simply triggered by someone I am in a relationship with.
My ideal healthy self would express a tender response to being hurt or even simply triggered by someone I am in a relationship with. Relationship skills psychotherapist David Richo muses in How to Be An Adult in Love, “Our wounds are often the openings into the best and most beautiful part of us.” Of course, I should not let people trample all over me, and I should stand up for myself when needed. I hold up many personal experiences of pain and injustice as demanding teachers, and yet, they are not defining characteristics of who I am. Instead, they teach me to turn outward and witness the suffering and subjection of others, and allow that regular practice to deepen my compassion and desire for their liberation. When I am in that heartspace, winning an argument or scolding someone is no longer pleasurable to me.
I’m inspired by sociologist Alexis Shotwell’s charge to adopt a “politics of imperfection" if we are to get anything done. As she suggests, the left should reject purity for tactical reasons because it demobilizes movements, and recognize that purity is also an essential value of white supremacy. How would a politics of imperfection manifest in my life? I’d admit my complicity in (and benefits from) oppressive systems while holding a strong commitment to dismantling them. I’d invite my comrades to hold me accountable when I slip up, and not let myself be destroyed when others hold up a mirror to my ugly behaviors. I’d more generously forgive myself and others, especially when I felt most resistant. I envision a shift away from shared identities as a prerequisite for coming together and taking action, and instead, the blaze of shared values. All this I imagine could only sprout up in the rich soil of a community rooted in love.