I want to be very candid this week about my own personal journey and struggles with social justice as a whole. Along the way I will venture some tentative thoughts about why I (and people like me) have believed and acted as I have and what my future might hold. Any edifying thoughts you might have would be appreciated.
Essentially, my personal history is one of gradual (and grudging) liberalisation and increasing comfort with social justice. I used to be one of those people who jdowsett perfectly identified in his blog post on the subject who felt personally attacked by talk of “white privilege.” I used to believe that simply rising above seeing race, gender, etc. (like Stephen Colbert) would pretty much solve all of the problems of oppression. I really disliked things like affirmative action and nothing bothered me more than identity politics. As far as I was concerned, the only groups worth identifying with were groups of people who shared your beliefs or interests. Feeling connected to people just because they happened to be the same race, sex, etc. as you seemed silly, and I was sure that talking in that way simply reinforced problematic divisions.
I have since moderated those opinions. I have come to recognize that there are systems of oppression which operate largely independently of individual, prejudiced people and have come to examine my own privilege more closely. But I’ll leave hashing out the correct approach to social justice as a whole and to particular issues for another day. I want to think about where my resistance came from (and to a certain extent continues to come from).
First, I think part of it comes from social sorting. When I used to come across people who were firmly committed to social justice… I usually didn’t like them. They often seemed incapable of thinking about anything else; everything which happened was another example of oppression. They were also the people who sometimes actually did use privilege talk as a weapon. I still maintain that there are some very angry people who make it difficult for the sympathetic but ignorant person to engage. Of course, I have since met many wonderful people who are very committed to social justice and are so committed in an engaging and thoughtful way. I also understand the anger I sometimes encounter better – as a natural response to immense unfairness and not as an attack on me personally. That understanding has been key for me.
Another source of my ambivalence about social justice is the emotional burden I associate with it (perhaps this partially explains the irritable people). People complain about the general populace’s lack of commitment to social justice – they say with derision that things like the Ferguson shooting and the New York strangling will soon be forgotten as a fickle public turns its attention to the next entertaining thing. I understand that lack of commitment. It’s exhausting to be outraged all the time. There is plenty to be angry about, and that is sustaining for some people, but I can’t do it. I understand the desire to just go about one’s daily life and not feel beholden to a broken world. Even though… that’s probably what’s necessary. Even though the world really does need more sustained attention from more people to affect real change. I think what has helped me most in this regard is shifting my thinking from a negative to a positive focus. Instead of focusing on what is wrong, I fix my gaze firmly on the world I want to live in. I think more about the solutions than the problems. It’s a small change, and it certainly doesn’t mean I get to ignore terrible things, but it has helped me.
A third part of my resistance comes from my (and I think many people’s) difficulty in wrapping my mind around indirect causes. I used to make a distinction between what I called “cosmetic” issues and “real” issues. Cosmetic issues were things like politically correct terms for various groups of people and the Bechdel test, while real issues were things like police brutality and the way drug laws disproportionately and arbitrarily put way more black people in prison than they do white people. I still think there is something there and that some people do focus too much on issues which have a relatively small impact on people’s actual lives. But deep down I know that this is an inadequate explanation. All of these issues matter, its just that the causal chain is much harder to see and to deal with in some cases. Take, for example, the representation of minorities in film. Is it a bad thing that Film X has an all-white cast? Certainly not. Is it a bad thing that the vast majority of films have an all-white cast and that minorities are usually presented in a stereotyped way? It certainly is. It influences the way minority children think about themselves and sets them up for failure in subtle and far-reaching ways. But here we have a disconnect. The problem is in the system as a whole but not in any particular part. What are we to say about Film X? How much energy should we invest in making sure that Film Y features minorities in the right way? This kind of problem shows up a lot, and I am still at a loss about how to resolve it.
Relatedly, the fourth source of resistance I identified was a lack of a personal connection. This is partly the oft-made point that privileged people don’t care about others’ troubles because they have never experienced them. But a personal connection, not just to the injustice, but also to the solution, is also important. At the end of the day, I find it easiest to relate to issues where there is something for me to do. Discrimination is a problem? Ok, that’s easy: don’t be a racist dick. There is a lack of representation of minorities in film? What do I do about that? Stop watching my favorite directors? Start watching minority directors I’m not independently interested in just because they are minorities? Both of those seem obviously unsatisfactory. So what do I do other than feel vaguely sad that some people are being oppressed in this indirect way that I don’t understand very well?
There are some things that I’ve been convinced are worth doing. One thing is to recognize and examine one’s privilege. I think this personal work is important and it is a necessary prerequisite to anything further. It only does so much, though. Political and other social action are important. I’m probably not going to become a hard-core activist anytime soon, but I will try to pay more attention than I used to when issues of social justice come up. I may go to a rally or sign a petition I think looks worthy. When I vote, I’ll try to keep everyone’s good in mind, especially those who are oppressed in one form or another. I don’t know that you have to be a hard-core activist to be helpful. I’m hopeful that just keeping these issues in the back of my mind, being aware of them, will help me make the right decisions when decisions are to be made.