how we talk about social justice

March 25th, 2014 by |

In pretty much every social justice debate, once things have flared up and we’re off at the races, someone in the conversation is going to say something about how people are just mad to be mad, something something lynch mobs (with varied or veiled phrasing), blah blah the negativity of the internet, and yada yada some people are just looking to be offended. Sometimes they mean well, sometimes they want to defend their friends, and sometimes they’re just jerks. It happens. This commenter always frustrates me, because those remarks work to undermine the point of the argument, and the burgeoning movement, in what feels like very dishonest and cruel ways.

This kind of semi-support often acknowledges that harm was done and mistakes were made, but then positions the person who did the harm as the victim of an angry, lying mob, and the mob’s sin as greater than the original offender’s sin. The problem becomes the (so-called) mob and not the person who actually did the thing that kicked off the whole conversation.

We treat the concept of racism as this awful, verboten thing that’s defined largely by cartoonishly bigoted historical figures and anecdotes. The problem with that is that when it’s time for someone to acknowledge the iota of poison that might have been instilled in them by a poisonous status quo, they reject the idea entirely. Racism is strictly defined as something without, not within. And nobody wants to be a bigot, so we sympathize when someone gets hit with that brush and our first instinct is to prove that they aren’t racist, irrespective of whether or not they did a racist thing.

Treating the application of the racist label as being worse than the original offense is a problem. It removes the responsibility and attention from the person who did the thing and pushes it onto the people who reacted to the thing. The conversation becomes “Is this guy racist or nah?” instead of “Was this hurtful, and why?” It’s a fine point, but one worth standing your ground on. It paints the people as folks looking to smear someone’s reputation instead of anything approaching the truth of the matter, and once you pair that with the idea that they’re just a mindless mob looking for trouble, you’re in even hairier territory.

The idea that people are really into dog piling, with the implication that they receive some type of cred for getting at somebody, is the part of this phase that grates the most. I can only speak to my lived experience and my time writing about this stuff at excruciating length, but being offended? Getting mad at somebody for saying or doing something? It sucks. It’s not fun. It doesn’t get you any cred. Being offended is like having something really frustrating happen to you, and every choice you can make in that situation to make yourself feel better—to answer the offense, to ignore the offense, to even acknowledge the offense—has a psychic toll that is positively draining. If there is an upside to being upset, I definitely missed a memo.

Are there people out there going super hard for dubious or nebulous reasons? Sure, anything can happen. But why would you assume disingenuous motives with no proof at all? Why would you attempt to discredit, instead of accepting and rejecting? “I disagree, here’s why” is one thing. That’s a discussion worth having. “You made this up,” no matter how many layers of faux-politeness it’s buried in, could and should get you slapped.

The vast majority of people believe we should all be treated equally and that the various -isms should be eradicated. But when we are faced with a situation where an acquaintance or someone we like has messed up, we’ve got to be careful. Our first instinct is to defend and deflect instead of examine, but in something as complex and important as social justice, that’s not the best route.

We’ve got to be more compassionate. We’ve got to try to be understanding about where people are coming from and why they might be hurt, especially if it’s utterly baffling to us. You don’t have to agree or like what they’re saying, but please respect it. Be very careful with the words you choose and what they imply. If you disagree, disagree with words and thoughts of substance, instead of throwing veiled stones about “social justice warriors” and “lynch mobs” in an attempt to discredit them.

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18 comments to “how we talk about social justice”

  1. While the article’s sentiment is good, I think the problem has more roots in issues with internet discourse and maybe some aspects of US culture. A LOT of people fucking hate actually discussing things, actually conceiving of conceding, actually giving some substance of their opinions to others, presenting the assumptions/information that make up most of the differences between the arguers’ opinions, etc.
    In contrast, people LOVE judging people immediately as shit and then moving on. Thus, you get a lot of situations where when someone says something(usually something actually problematic) that someone negatively reacts to “for social justice reasons”, the resulting exchange has no resembling to discourse. The usual result is that the offended people(who are usually in the right when it comes to being offended) immediately write off the person as 100% shitty with indignation at maximum, and the person who offended them and their friends write off the people who were offended as 100% shitty. Its only rarely “Hey, this thing you did was wrong, and here’s why. Have some empathy.” and “Oh. I disagree in this respect./Oh. I’m sorry, i should’ve .” Most of the time its “Youre a fucking bag of shit” “what the fuck fuck you too”

    Just as people tend to lack a nuanced sense of

    “I can be wrong and fucked up in a way that relates to words like “Racist” and “Sexist” and its ok and i can admit that and improve”,

    people also lack a nuanced sense of

    “Other people can be wrong in ways that relate to words like “sexist” and “Racist” and that’s ok and people make mistakes due to the environment they are in and a lack of introspection, they can improve”

    And many people just dont really want to honestly engage. They just want to reign their superiority based on their narrative of the argument, throw insults and mockery and never actually discuss. And when you do try to honestly engage, your 4 tweets get called an “essay”.

    I hate transphobic shit. Transphobia has personally hurt people I care about repeatedly. But I also really hate when someone simply insults someone when the problem just seems to be that the person in question has never had the difference between gender and sex explained to them. While being offended isnt fun, being able to immediately judge someone else as garbage and then ignore them is satisfying to a lot of people. They want to call them shit and move on, which just increases antagonism and usually doesnt help people realize how they are probably racist to an extent or the difference between sex and gender, etc.

  2. @fugs:
    Small adjustment: by “and thats ok” in “Other people can be wrong in ways that relate to words like “sexist” and “Racist” and that’s ok” and the other quote i meant “this doesnt eternally mark that person as a rolling ball of shit that can never improve,” not “people should just accept that some people are racist/sexist and not try to change that” or any other passive garbage.

    People think of the way they are as a result of some sort of inherent self. If some part of their self conflicts with the way someone perceives they’re actions, ie “Im not racist, but they said these actions must be racist” then they’re gonna defend themselves instead of try to adjust themselves. This sort of behavior even extends to when someone’s opinion gets criticized. Similarly, people think their opinions are some sort of inherent, immutable result of their magical notion of “self” instead of their opinions being mostly a result of their environment.(The information they’ve received, the narratives they’ve been exposed to, the things theyve been psychologically conditioned to love/hate/defend/attack, etc) Because of this, people don’t try to change/improve their opinions, they have no moral push in their minds to change their opinions because they already consider themselves not racist/evil/sexist and so their opinions can’t be.

    god i fucking hate this culture

  3. What you argue against here is a problem when complaints are actually framed in terms along the lines of “this is hurtful to me, and here is why”. here’s the thing though: you write that it’s troublesome when the application of the “racist” label is treated as worse than the original offense, and also end your piece with a plea to “disagree with words and thoughts of substance,” and to be careful about the words one chooses. These sentiments are not in perfect harmony.

    Talking through an issue and deploying pejorative labels are not things that overlap neatly. One sentiment engages the other party in good faith and focuses on the substance of a given subject matter. On the other hand, accusing racism, sexism or some other nasty ism goes with negative implications just as the “social justice warrior” dismissal does, except the charge is fundamentally more serious since the implications have to do with someone else’s belief system, moral code and character. At best it’s a way to dismiss a person offhand, at worst it’s an attempt to stamp another with a proverbial scarlet letter as a precursor to a shaming campaign that has nothing to do with actually persuading or changing anyone – and let’s not pretend that an anger-based vendetta culture isn’t out there just because we don’t want all complainers painted with the same brush. It does exist, be it on the Gawker network or subcultures on tumblr or wherever else I thankfully don’t know about.

    None of this is to justify casual and lazy dismissals or insist that no “ism” be uttered ever. It is to say that respect, empathy and careful consideration of the language you use is something that needs to needs to exist on more than one side if there’s going to be any serious conversation. If the goal is real dialogue about an issue as opposed to avoiding making it about the person, well then: it helps to be sure to not make it about the person. And when the accusation *is* made, the accused party is under zero obligation to just shut up and accept whatever gets thrown his or her way under some bizarre unspoken agreement that the complainer, by default, must surely occupy the unassailable moral high ground.

  4. This gets to a lot of what bothers me about the conversation around “internet outrage” as some kind of hive-mind mentality, which always seems premised on an assumption of disingenuousness or inauthenticity on the part of the outraged. The “social justice warrior” is the same thing — like some mercenary internet leftist (part of an “anger-based vendetta culture”??), just looking for any oppressed group to identify with — and at this point I think a lot of people just use “Tumblr” as a rhetorical stand-in for “women, LGBT, and people of color.” I think we can all be smarter about this coded language, but I think your point about compassion is vital in identifying the work this language does.

    And I mean, there are absolutely important conversations to be had about how the structure and political context of the web shape the content and tenor of our public discourse — conversations that can’t be productive if they’re framed in terms that are implicitly dismissive of the concerns of marginalized groups. We can talk about echo chambers and filter bubbles without assuming that people are getting offended for the sake of getting offended.

  5. i think social justice conversation tends to be very deeply flawed on both sides though. i’m not saying anyone is being disingenuous or false. and the idea that people just like getting offended is wrong. more to the point, it doesn’t even attempt to address the argument it’s responding to. and it’s clearly false that anyone who cares about social justice just likes dogpiling. but also? i think there are probably some people who are really into dogpiling. that doesn’t mean they’re being insincere – people are complicated. but i think that’s an element of some peoples’ behavior – it’s a part of social activity on the internet.

    discourse on the Internet tends to be really awful. you have massive echo chambers and immediate responses and things tend to get caught in vicious circles and feedback loops. that’s true across the board and its equally true in social justice circles – it would be weird if it wasn’t. but there’s a point where conversations do turn into “this person said something awful, and is therefore awful forever and ever, racist piece of shit”. and, well, how the hell are you supposed to respond to that or approach it? even if person said something racist (as is often the case) it’s difficult to approach that conversation in a useful or empathetic way. and i think that’s part of where the kneejerk opposition to ‘social justice warriors’ comes from. i think it has as much to do with ‘extremist’ as with ‘disingenuous’. and i think there’s some validity to that.

  6. @Sam: I think that’s right. If someone thinks another is being unfair the default response should be a reasoned explanation why, not to make a dressed up “whatever haters gotta hate” response as if everything were a bad youtube comment. The more animus gets removed from the equation the healthier that usually is for a conversation. When assumed or present from the start, dialogue is liable to tank quickly. I’ve seen it happen time and again in many different venues.

  7. @Todd DuBois (@GWOtaku): Todd, I’m honestly pretty frustrated with your response, because it seems like you zapped right past my point and launched into The Problem With Social Justice and The True Way To Have A Real Emotionless Dialogue.

    You describe racist as a pejorative label. You’re right, it is an insult, but it is also a valuable descriptor. But the way you describe it here, a person can’t say “This is racist” and be seen as arguing in good faith. By describing it as a scarlet letter—which it objectively isn’t, let’s put that to bed right now—you suggest that applying it is worse than being offended by a racist thing. You do the exact thing I’m talking about in the post. You’re prioritizing someone’s hypothetically lost face over someone else’s hypothetical pain.

    You’re right that “racist” is a more hurtful phrase than “social justice warrior,” but that doesn’t mean we cannot or should not use the word when and where it applies. It has use outside of the insult, and I would argue that its use outside of the insult far, far outweighs any insult that could be taken from it. By taking “racism” or “racist” off the table, you’re kneecapping the conversation. Those two words mean things and don’t have worthwhile alternatives. We have to be able to use racism in conversation and discussion, because otherwise we’re all dancing around the point in favor of protecting someone who wasn’t even hurt.

    “That’s racist” isn’t a dismissal any more than “That’s problematic” is. They’re descriptions, not insults. “This thing resembles other things that have been used to harm others.” “I like this thing, but this aspect is hard to reconcile.”

    And any discussion of a social infraction is going to necessarily involve both the person and the act. The point is that we shouldn’t have to prove how racist a person is in order to talk about a racist thing that they did, not that we should ignore the person entirely.

    No one’s saying everyone should roll over whenever challenged because the subaltern is righteous, so there’s no point in you debunking that, except to further attack the idea of “social justice warriors” and toxic discussion. Why did you include that, when it has nothing to do with my post?

    Finally, you don’t get to decide whether or not animus has a presence in the conversation. The presence of anger does not imply that the points being made are emotionally or intellectually bankrupt, and pleading for calm dialogue in the face of someone taking part in things that have been used to demonize and brutalize folks is pretty laughable. Emotions are going to be high, and you don’t have to respond, but people have a right to their anger.

    You said I subtweeted you online. I didn’t. Your scarlet letter phrasing reminded me of other dumb things white men have said to me in this arena. A friend once told me that saying “racism” or “racist” or “white supremacy” is like lobbing a live grenade into a conversation, because they’re so charged and people reject them out of hand. I pshawed him at the time, thinking that I could figure out some way to write about this stuff that wouldn’t bring in defensive white people.

    But I’m starting to realize he was right, because whenever I so much as mention race, a white guy shows up to tell me why I’m wrong. When I pointed out how weird it was that two of Marvel’s highest profile black characters were relegated to a subordinate role within the same narrow time frame, a white man told me that no one is racist at Marvel and I shouldn’t say they were, even though I didn’t. When I joked about blackface cosplayers appearing at a con I was attending, two other white men had the nerve to tell me that I should have told them why it was wrong instead of cracking jokes. At a party, after a friend told a drunk white man that white people shouldn’t say nigger, the white man proceeded to try and tell me a list of white musicians who he thinks used the slur well in the past. The pattern is white men choosing to be the final arbiter of what is and isn’t racist, as well as how racist racist things actually are, despite the input of the people actually affected by the racism.

    You might not be white, I dunno a thing about you. But this post says, “Please be careful how you talk about social justice and those who care about it, and please be compassionate when evaluating someone else’s motives for taking part in an argument.” It does it with no animus or beef, no all-caps, no hyperbole… “(so-called)” is kinda pointed, but there’s not even any cuss words in this one. This post is well in line with what you say discussions should be like, but here you are, telling me what the real problem is and talking about how people shouldn’t roll over just because and how racist is the real smear.

    Do you not see the problem there? You read a post that says “be kinder to these people” and your response is “well those people aren’t kind back, using words like racism and being angry.”

    Basically: I know a lil bit about sexism, but if a woman tells me “Wow, this is wild sexist?” I shut up and listen, I don’t tell her why she’s wrong and why getting called a sexist can mark a guy for life. You would do well to listen to what people are saying and digest it, instead of leaping to attack.

    For fairness’s sake, here’s what I tweeted after I read your original post. It isn’t about you, as you assumed from Twitter, but “scarlet letter” is your phrasing, and I springboarded from that to talking about other people like you that I’ve interacted with. It was five tweets, and I’ve turned them into a paragraph and added punctuation where it was missing, but these are otherwise unedited.

    I should have put money on how long it would take somebody to argue that calling somebody racist isn’t playing fair, but that’s a sucker bet. I don’t get why people think “racist” is a scarlet letter in a country founded by racists and built on explicitly racist principles. Oh no! Someone called me racist! Now I’ll never get to run a national conglomerate/hold office/be on tv/write books/get away with murder/etc. Greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing himself that a descriptor was worse than the act itself. I’m joking, I know why, and I hate it, because it means that simps and fuckboys worldwide can derail any conversation to defend their honor.

  8. The whole concept of “internet outrage” is just a fancy way of blaming the victim.

  9. @david brothers: Well, first off, I take your point and word on the subtweet matter and am sorry for jumping the gun on that. As for the rest, I feel your frustration in equal measure. I’ll assume that my irritated tweet inspired this idea that I was “leaping to attack” that pervades your reply, as otherwise I’m flummoxed on how that came up. As to that, I’d note that the tone and language of my reply was just as civil as that of the blog itself.

    Big parts of your response are based on the idea that I believe racism, sexism, etc cannot ever be used no matter how awful, immoral and / or outlandish someone is. That would be ridiculous, and I acknowledged just the opposite in paragraph 3 of my response. That’s common sense. So, you ask why I made the response that I did then. It’s not because I felt a need to say your be-kind-please message is “wrong” or that somehow it’s not something you should have said in the first place. The reverse is true, I think you have a good point. It’s because I thought there was more to this issue that was worth airing and that the root of the problem isn’t a one sided affair. In your response to me you talk about the right to be angry when the situation calls for it. I don’t dream of forbidding this, I just think everyone benefits if there can be more thoughtfulness all around. It’s not about shifting blame from one place to another.

    Here’s why I think tone is important and not just a topic that’s a convenient excuse for knaves to turn their brains off, aside from the numerous examples of online anger that are out there. You say in your post that some of the commenters you take issue with mean well while others are “just jerks”. If so, well, odds are there’s not much to be done about the trolls and jerks. The former group, however, consists of possibly persuadable people. So, how can they be reached? I’m not seeing an argument on this page that they can be won if only there were more unchecked anger on the internet. Asserting the righteousness of it doesn’t do that job. It may be true that good reasoning and intellectual heft can be behind anger, but it counts for little if emotion obfuscates that and it is not seen. I also don’t want the utility of important terms damaged from misuse or overuse. Godwin’s Law is bad enough.

    An aside – no, I will not put to bed the idea that there are serious stigmas against being a racist in America in the year 2014. As for racist founding principles I defer to the Declaration of Independence, which I would see us live up to better with every passing year, and leave it at that.

    A big part of your reply vents frustration at unsavory people I’m glad I don’t know, as if to project your problems with them onto me. I have no interest whatsoever in whether I get the “last word” with you or not, which is impossible in a free country on the internet on *your blog*. The rest of this digression ties into points already addressed.

    Near the end you give me a hypothetical situation where a woman is talking about something she considers to be sexist as a case study taking someone’s “pain” and / or feelings seriously. You say that my role there should be to shut up and listen instead saying anything about why she could be wrong – as if the two are mutually exclusive. This comes after you tell me “No one’s saying everyone should roll over whenever challenged because the subaltern is righteous, so there’s no point in you debunking that,”.

    But let’s reason out this concept of deferring to the party speaking from experience as a member of group X. Let’s say I talk with two women. One of them explains why, speaking as a woman, she thinks the movie “Frozen” is pretty progressive and approves of its two lead characters. The other believes the reverse and deems the movie “problematic” and a bad influence for a host of reasons (these divergent perceptions really exist). Which perspective do I favor? Your scenario and this whole “look, why can’t you just listen” meme doesn’t speak to how a real conversation works. Of course listening is critical. It’s also one step. After the listening and digesting is done, the next step comes along: I am obliged to actually use my own brain and respond to what was said in some way and ultimately draw my own conclusions. I might agree, I might disagree, I might fall somewhere in between. In the latter two scenarios, it doesn’t follow that I am gainsaying the merit of the one I’m disagreeing with to speak just because I’m not in full agreement. It doesn’t have to mean my privilege is inhibiting my cognitive functions. It can just mean that we disagree, and that’s it.

  10. Thank you for this post.

    It’s so baffling that so many people are more willing to believe that a cluster of folks are out to get them for some made-up “witch hunt,” as if they were chosen arbitrarily by lottery to be a victim of contextless bullying. Why would this be more likely than than people being finally get fed up with being abused by the perpetrator’s output, and/or seeing others be the recipients of such treatment?

    I guess it’s the logical conclusion when the world revolves around you enough to give you the self-importance to imagine that people actually care about your pitiful self-identity as Not A Racist.

  11. people overrate their own interest in issues and other people know that

  12. Nobody anywhere thinks they’re racist; by definition, racism means misunderstanding the world, and how many people will cop to that? So nobody thinks they’re racist, they are simply calling things like they really are, and are bold enough to say what nobody else is willing to.

    There are all kinds of levels of racism. Can we talk about the one where, if you see a black kid in a hoodie at night, you assume he’s up to no good? People defend that notion passionately, even long after it’s been shown that the kid was just getting Skittles and an Arizona beverage. Hell, even the Skittles and beverage are held to be proof of wrongdoing (in that, if you also had cough syrup, you could get a high from the cough syrup … wait, huh??). It takes a special kind of stubbornness to see your assumptions in action, those assumptions result in a kid dying needlessly, and still you don’t consider that grounds to reassess your assumptions.

  13. honestly? i find the idea that certain words should get people slapped way more offensive than almost anything else.

  14. @ltkenfrankenstein: How precious of you.

  15. @Todd DuBois (@GWOtaku):
    Why do you assume that the racism and sexism he refers to have to be awful, immoral or outlandish?

    Why does it not occur to you that what is offensive often stems from what is taken for granted as innocent or received wisdom?

    If you are so sure you get what he’s saying why do you keep falling into the same deflective stance?

    Even if the dialectic isn’t, how exactly is the root of the problem not a one-sided affair?

    Don’t you see that suggesting otherwise implies that the aggrieved are responsible for initiating prejudice simply by reacting negatively to it?

    You are not capable of forbidding anger so why do you not see that problematising it is just as bad as what you’re suggesting?

    Why are you so intent on divesting anger from the dialogues that engender it?

    How exactly would telling somebody you’ve angered to be thoughtful make them less angry?

    What exactly makes you so certain that the levels of anger are the issue here?

    If somebody can’t accept the anger of the aggrieved how could they even begin to understand its source?

    If I have to be less angry about racism for somebody to give a fuck, at what point do you think that I just stop giving a fuck?

    How do those stigmas materialise for so called racists?

    Can one actually be deemed a racist if one doesn’t identify as such?

    If so where are all these racists living out the ill consequences of their racism?

    And what exactly does serious mean?

    Serious compared to what?

    Serious like the stigmas associated with being black?

    How exactly does things not being as bad as they were before make things better for those still experiencing injustice?

    Do you think they wake up every year and smell less prejudice in the air and grow happier incrementally?

    Was David maybe drawing a parallel between those who try dictate the parameters of offence and those (like you) who seek to police tone?

    Are you sure that the woman in that anecdote had not already agonised about whether or not she was wrong?

    Does it not occur to you how acutely paranoid one might becomes in an environment that constantly seeks to undercut cast aspersion on your responses to it?

    And do you not see how listening to somebodies story and looking for holes in it are very often mutually exclusive?

    Is there not a massive amount of room for maneuver between rolling over and immediately seeking to subvert or challenge?

    Do you realise that positioning yourself as central to neuter the confrontational element in your anecdote results in it not being a dialogue, but you receiving two separate discourses that only interact in your interpretation of them?

    Is that how real conversations work?

    Why does their dialogue have to be filtered through you for your point to make sense?

    Do you seriously think that privilege functions on an iterant basis?

    When has anybody ever described privilege as an inhibitor of cognitive function?

    Is that really what you think people are saying when they refer to it?

    Do you really believe that any argument be boiled down to “We disagree and that’s it”?

    Why not just skip all the bs and just start there?

  16. @Todd DuBois (@GWOtaku): In a sterling example of bad timing, I’m working a comic show this weekend, and I probably won’t find the time to respond to you the way you deserve. But I wanted to say I appreciate your thoughts, even though I think we disagree on the finer points, and I’m going to give them some thought this weekend. Thanks for writing.

  17. This post is weirdly/expertly timed in coincidence with that whole #CancelColbert thing going on right now.

  18. Trying not to be racist seems like common sense nowadays, although sadly, to many, it probably isn’t.

    I’d hope “social justice” would still mean, at least to some, the struggle against economic inequality. But if it needs to do double duty to make people behave civilly, so be it.