The Small Circle Problem of Social Justice

So, I’m terrible at having circles of friends, and I think one of the problems is that I’m a fairly progressive and radical liberal, and I also really hate groups of people that splinter easily. I’d rather have one really close and long term friend and some acquaintances than a group of fairly good friends who might explode sometime in the next few months. That preference does not go well with While socializing with politically radical types, I’ve been witness to a fair bit of cliquishness and drama. I left a trans support group because they had a way of freezing out anybody who wasn’t completely on the same page as them politically at all times, which made me feel uncomfortable. Even though I did agree with them on most major issues, and the areas where I disagreed I didn’t consider inherently important, the fact that I actively feared causing an explosion if I ever disagreed with one of the group leaders made me leave.

I’ve also witnessed some schisms caused by outright abuse. Thankfully I’ve been able to stay away from the heart of the drama explosions, and dodged the bulk of the drama shrapnel, but I’ve been close to people who weren’t so lucky. This post by my awesome brother-in-law Shaun has reminded me of how close I’ve been to some wolves in nice conscientious not-wolfy-at-all clothing.

Now, drama and the breaking up of social groups is just a fact of life, hardly unique to social justice or liberalism. The same goes for assholes, sociopaths and abusers who successfully gain the trust of good people in social groups with good intentions. Sometimes I feel like they happen unusually easily in social justice circles, but then I don’t have a lot of experience in other environments to compare them to. I have noticed some dynamics, however, that I think lead to their frequency. This post would ideally have some advice on how to avoid or break them. I’ll tell you right now, I don’t have any. I’m identifying the problem in hopes that as I think more about this topic, I’ll be able to think of solutions.

I think that when you get into intense, radical social justice, you become extremely aware of the way little things that are generally assumed to be benign actually lead to real problems. For example, cornrows, dredlocks and many other styles common to black people are widely considered “unprofessional,” while the styles that are “professional” are overwhelmingly easier to have and maintain if you are white. Many people would tell you that this is just how it is, but it’s an entirely arbitrary social convention, and it sets people up to think of black people as being less professional for reasons that have nothing to do with their capabilities or conduct. Jokes told in the gym and the locker room create a normalized attitude of homophobia, transphobia and a tendency to see women as sexual prizes before they are seen as people. The use of “retarded” as an insult is just the latest in a long string of appropriating medical terminology for playground mockery, leading people with disabled children unable to speak frankly about their everyday lives with their kids without sounded like they are insulting them. On and on it goes. As you become aware of these things, you start to feel guilty every time you hear such a microaggression and let it pass without comment… but if you do, you quickly alienate those around you.

Three things happen. First, you become less and less comfortable around people who aren’t already educated in all the ways that you are, either because you feel like you’re censoring your own discomfort around most people, or because you haven’t censored yourself enough and you’ve become known as the pedantic busybody of the office. Second, you become thrilled to find people you don’t have to deliver endless 101s to, people who already speak your language and share your values. Third, you begin to imagine a world where we have gotten culture right. We have evaded anything that accidentally oppresses anyone, eliminated all microaggressions, found the rules that are never unjust to anyone, ever. You really want that utopia to exist someday, and being surrounded by people who feel the same way you do feels like living in a miniature version of that utopia.

This creates dangers. For one thing, the more isolated you feel, the more attached you feel to the integrity of your little utopia, where you feel safe and comfortable. This makes you feel uncomfortable letting anyone new in unless they have proven that they won’t disturb the peace of your consensus. This in turn makes you judge people by what they say before getting to know them through what they do, and makes you overly attached to people who deliver the correct shibboleths. That is an environment ripe for abusers and manipulators to take over.¬†Just because you can say our shibboleths doesn’t mean that you’ve absorbed our ethics, much less our morals. If you’re charismatic and you know the right morals to spout, you can create a large enough group of people who like you to have a ready barrier of advocates to fend off accusations of defense. Furthermore, people like that can use everybody’s tribalistic concientiousness to kick out anyone who raises too much of a fuss, creating false accusations if need be. I really wish I was basing this on conjecture, rather than things I recently observed. Finally, this may actually create barriers to further education. When you feel your social circle is dependent on consensus, you feel afraid to question your own beliefs. Such questioning might lead to changing your mind, and that might lead to your friends rejecting you.

Does that sound bleak? Here is the counterpart. Many of those people who say bigoted, ignorant, microaggressive things are not actually bad people. Sure, they make mistakes, and they might be defensive when called out on them, and they might be totally blind to the real world effects of what they say. People are products of their environment, and we don’t change fast. We do not adopt a new worldview the moment we are presented with a spreadsheet of new liberal terminology. We assemble our points of view like a thousand piece jigsaw puzzle of a pile of leaves that are all more or less the same color, and we keep putting them together over the course of our lives. Sometimes people jam together a few peoples that look close enough, and when somebody else comes along and tries to point out that it’s wrong, it won’t fit with any other pieces until you swap this one for that one, they don’t want to do it, because taking out this piece means taking out those two other pieces, which in turn means they didn’t have the right pieces next to those, and goddamn it they had a picture that mostly made sense a minute ago and it’s not like you have all your pieces together so don’t lecture me! Just because they lost their temper when you were trying to disassemble their puzzle doesn’t mean they are actually bad people. Sometimes they are, but I do believe that most people aren’t.

Now, my analogy fails because worldviews, unlike puzzles, do affect how people treat each other. But that said, the interaction between belief and action is more complicated than many people seem to think. What a person says they think and what they will actually do don’t always line up. See once again; abusers camouflaging themselves by knowing the right words to say. Similarly, a person’s actions can show them to be compassionate or kind even when their words sometimes make you cringe. Learn about people based on how they treat others, and interact with them based on that. Talk to them about issues as two people trying to figure out this whole complicated puzzle thing together, not like someone you have to instruct in your doctrines before you allow them into your circle. You’ll find them more receptive, you’ll find yourself better able to criticize your own beliefs, and you won’t be quite so at the mercy of an abuser running your clique.

I guess I did sort of have a solution after all. That’s encouraging.

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