Choosing Your Influences

A few years ago, when I was a baby SJW, some people recommended Laci Green’s videos to me. I liked what she was saying, but something made me uneasy. I was still finding myself and recovering from my fundamentalist homeschooled background, and all the toxic messages that came with that. I was learning that one of the most damaging things from my childhood was how I felt that disagreeing made me stupid and evil. There was no space to be uninformed, still processing the evidence, or still comparing points of view. My choices were to either accept instantly or be utterly wrong, not just intellectually, but also morally.

Some segments of the social justice community were, frankly, triggering, because they shared that mentality. I don’t use that word to mean “unsettled” or “offended,” which is how many people (mis) use it. I mean it in it’s proper, medical sense; bringing back thoughts, habits or behaviors that interfere with the healing process, or cause symptoms of a mental illness. Laci Green was highly triggering, because even though she was saying things that I agreed with wholeheartedly, she was saying them in ways that made me feel that to continue examining these ideas would made me stupid and evil. At this time, those ideas were new to me, and I was afraid of simply accepting the first thing that came along, no matter how much sense it made. So, despite liking what she was saying, I decided not to follow her.

Even though I had no idea what would happen, I must admit to feeling a big smug, given recent events.*

I bring that up because it was a decision that lead to a habit of carefully choosing who I let influence me. That habit, more than any other, has protected me from activist burnout. I do have finite mental space, and some voices are exhausting, demoralizing, and, yes, triggering. It took some trial and error to work out who actually helped me and who didn’t, but in the end I ended up with a few simple guidelines that have served me fairly well.

First Guideline: Look for People Who Blend Positives and Negatives

Constant angry ranting can be tempting, because anger is contagious, and what do you want from your social network more than a highly shared post?. But it’s a toxic mental diet. It ultimately drains your energy, makes you cynical, and encourages you to spend most of your time putting other people down without adding anything constructive.

That said, I’m not sure nonstop positivity is great either. There are too many problems out there. There is pain and damage and systemic oppression that needs to be addressed. There’s a fine line between positivity and complacency, and an even finer line between complacency and complicity.

When an activist can post something about a systemic problem, and something else praising a solution or celebrating a moment of progress, that tells me they are able to see the world for what it is; a broken place that is still worth fighting for. A world full of people beautiful and precious despite their flaws. It reminds me that social justice is an ongoing, self-experimenting process. It makes me less afraid to take part in that experimentation, even knowing I might fail or prove ignorant. It gives me a hope that is grounded, not ephemeral, and it cultivates patience for a long fight still ahead.

Second Guideline: Look for People Who Evolve

I can’t say it enough; nobody’s perfect, and the people with the most problems are usually the ones most convinced they have nothing to learn.

In the social justice community, we have a bad habit of treating every problematic misstatement as a reason to ditch someone completely, but there are two problems with that. First, sometimes people make honest mistakes, which, given time, they will correct. Second, sometimes it’s not the other person who is wrong, but us. I’ve had times when I thought somebody was deeply misinformed or misguided, but in fact I was missing something. If I had dismissed them offhand, instead of looking closer, I would have missed out on a chance to grow.

This isn’t an easy road for anyone. Nobody has all the experiences needed to understand every point of view. Some of the problems ahead still don’t have clear solutions. If you’re following somebody who hasn’t seemed to change at all, that person is either stagnant or dishonest.

What I look for now is evidence that a person is constantly self-evaluating and re-evaluating. I can never expect to find a person without flaws, but I can expect to follow people who are constantly going through a process of reducing them, and I can hope that practice rubs off on me as well.

Third Guideline: Look for Empathy, Not Consensus

While this criticism has often been misapplied, I think there truly is an echo chamber problem in social justice. Unfortunately, many people seem to think the solution to that is to listen to hatemongers on the far right. I’ve noticed that those who embrace that solution are actually often those who have been least interested in paying attention to inter-community debate. There is so much disagreement among leftists and moderates. Even within small communities, from environmentalism to feminism to LGBTQIA, there are people who see problem A but have no experience of problem B arguing with those are ignorant of A but deeply entrenched in B, and people standing aside, bogged down in problem C, asking “excuse me, excuse me, hello? Anybody hear me?” Then, even when we can all agree that a problem exists, there’s the problem of agreeing on solutions. Clear, straightforward paths are the exceptions, not the rule. Most of the time multiple possible solutions exist, all of which have positives and negatives, all of which have advocates and critics.

It’s dangerously easy, in social justice, to get hooked on one problem you are familiar with, and one solution that appeals to you. But we are all a tiny fraction of the big oppression problem, and while one person’s philosophy might be infuriating because it’s wildly ignorant of your reality, yours might be as infuriating to them for exactly the same reason.

When I’m trying to decide who to engage and argue with, and who to ignore, I find it’s helpful to ignore what they are saying, and instead look at why they are saying it. Sometimes there’s evidence that they are just looking to put others down. There’s no point arguing with someone like that. They don’t really want to listen to you, and it doesn’t matter whether they’re on the far right or only a faint tint bluer or pinker than me. As far as they are concerned, your job is to either puff them up by becoming one of their converts, or puff them up by letting them stomp all over you to the applause of their cheering fans.

Others, however, agree with my basic values, and share my goal of making the world a better place. They just have an idea I disagree with. Those people are worth arguing with, whether the gaps are vast or small, because there is some hope of mutually educating each other.

The only type of philosophy that’s not worth listening to is one that devalues the fundamental worth of a human being. So long as there’s agreement on human value, everything else is just a difference of how we fight for human rights. Don’t engage with people who, with their words or their actions, make a habit of putting other people down. Do engage with people who have different plans to create a world that’s fairer and freer for everybody.

Zeroth Guideline: Trust Yourself

This is the zeroth guide, not the fourth, because it transcends all the others. I didn’t predict what Laci Green would end up doing. In fact, it was only retroactively that I could put any words to it. Even after my vague negative vibe turned into a nameable thing, I never would have anticipated what actually happened. I was just following my gut about what seemed emotionally healthy to me.

Do that thing.

Do challenge yourself. Sometimes you’ll hear something that makes you feel uncomfortable, but that also makes you better for hearing it. It’s worth pushing through that discomfort. But when you feel like you’re becoming a person you don’t like, or your mental health is being negatively affected, you don’t need to spell out exactly why you aren’t comfortable. Nor do you need a reason why nobody on earth should listen to that person ever; you aren’t everyone, you’re just you. Listen to the voices that make you a stronger, happier, better informed and ultimately more loving kind of person. Don’t waste time on all the rest.

*For those who haven’t followed it or haven’t heard of Laci Green; She’s a prominent Youtuber who vlogs about feminism, consent culture and sex ed. In the past she’s received a lot of praise, but also been criticized as an example of White Feminism; the problem of mainstream feminism being synonymous with the issues of white women, or erasing issues and perspectives of Black women. Over the past several weeks, she has announced that she started dating an anti-social justice, “alt right” white supremacist Youtuber. She also has been using her various platforms to legitimize voices of white supremacists, anti-feminists and anti-trans activists. Her defense has been that SJWs are too sensitive and PC and won’t engage with the other side, which, given previous criticisms and my original reason for ditching her, is highly ironic.

An Open Letter to The Piano Guys

Dear Piano Guys,

I don’t listen to your music anymore. This is not a boycott, though it did begin with the inauguration. A boycott would be an intentional decision to avoid some business in order to make a point. I don’t have a point here, nor a desire to convince others to stand with me. It’s only that your beautiful music lost something, and I’m writing this to try to explain why, to myself as much as the world.

At the time of the inauguration, many celebrities saw that Donald Trump was A. dangerous in an unprecedented way and B. prone to seeing their presence at his events as an affirmation of what he stood for. Therefore, most of them refused to appear at the inauguration. Many others cancelled after outcry from fans. You, when you fans objected, wrote your own open letter. When I first read it, it actually made me feel better. You said a good deal about your positive message of love and you affirmed the rights of women and immigrants. I interpreted this as a subtle hint that you were were going to use the performance to engage in active outreach, rather like how the cast of Hamilton had respectfully engaged Mike Pence earlier that year. Perhaps you would point out how many of your hit videos have featured singers who were immigrants, or mention how, as Mormons, your people have a history of religious oppression and you believe no one should be denied freedom of religion.

I don’t think the Trump administration would have listened to that outreach, but I still think the effort to reach out publicly has merit, if only because it inspires other people to stand up. Also, his reactions tend to highlight his temperamental flaws and make it difficult for the media to normalize him. I think that there are many forms of resistance, all with advantages and disadvantages, and the movement as a whole is best if we all do our best at the type of resistance we are most suited to. I might not have chosen to perform, even with outreach, at that inauguration, but I could respect someone’s decision to accept and then use that platform.

But of course, that wasn’t your plan at all. You did nothing newsworthy. You just played for a man who has raped women, incited others to violence and is under investigation for treason. Then you went home with your check.

There is a difference between outreach and validation. Outreach is when you see a person doing something wrong, call them out, but don’t let their wrong behavior stop you from talking to them as fellow humans. It’s hard to do, and not always received well, but when it works the results can be incredible. Validation, on the other hand, is when you prioritize the wrongdoer’s comfort, and refuse to call them out even when your conscience tells you that you should. Your letter indicated to me that you did see and understand all the reasons why the bigoted, hateful rhetoric of Trump’s campaign needed to be called out, but instead you chose the actions that he would see as validating.

This letter comes a long time after the inauguration. This is because part of me has been waiting to see you prove that this validation came from lack of understanding, rather than lack of a desire to affect change. I’ve been waiting for evidence of this. You specifically said you support immigrants and women. If you want to fight xenophobia, why not give a benefit concert for the ACLU? Why not donate a portion of your proceeds to a women’s group, or an interfaith event, or something to benefit refugees? Why not perform for a candidate you actually do believe in? It’s too late to say you don’t want to be political; we all know performing for a politician’s act is at least a partially political act, and you knew that going into this situation. So why not be political in a truly bipartisan, healing spirit? I would still disagree with your choice to perform at the inauguration, but I would at least trust that your letter was honest; that you were flawed, but not disingenuous. At this particular moment, it does not feel like you genuinely care for women and minorities the way you claimed to.

As I’ve re-read your letter, searching a reason to stay a fan, I only see more gaps in your understanding.

You compared yourself to Marian Anderson, who performed at a time when neither party could claim to be supporting Black Americans. But that’s exactly why her situation was different. She knew that to perform at an inauguration at all would be a slap in the face to racists, regardless of their political affiliation. Simply by singing, as a Black woman, she was engaging in outreach to both parties. You performed for a man who spent over a year actively insulting every type of a minority to a degree that even members of his own party would not ordinarily stoop to. You did so as fellow straight cisgender white men. Your presence did not challenge him in any way.

You compared your choice to Barack Obama’s dignified handling of the transition. He only did what he was legally required to, and he did not let democracy’s need for a smooth, peaceful transition stop him from imposing sanctions on Russia, protecting scientific data on climate change and preventing the new administration from erasing all evidence of their Russian ties. You accepted a paying gig that you could have easily turned down. These are not comparable decisions.

Worst of all, you compared the inaugural performance to one you gave in an unnamed country that you perceived as hostile to the USA. Do you not understand the difference between a nation’s leaders and their people? Do you paint a whole nation with their leader’s actions? Performing for the ordinary people of a country we are at odds with should not be different from performing for the people of any other nation. But in your description of this show, you seemed to think that A. the people who showed up were your enemy and B. because your music was so good you had some kind of transformative global impact. No. You played for regular human beings, and it was a good show. That is all.

You used that show to indicate that music changed hearts, and implied that, therefore, it was your duty to perform even for people you disagreed with. I agree that music is powerful and can bind us, but you’re painfully naive if you literally thought an admittedly brilliant mashup of Vivaldi’s Winter with Frozen’s Let it Go could magically un-racist a white supremacist. And if you didn’t actually think that, then your letter was a lie.

But why do I care? Why did the impulse to write this open letter not leave, even after five months? Well, I’m really angry because, to quote the song, you give love a bad name. There’s been plenty of great talk about the power of love to crush hate, and I believe in that power wholeheartedly, but if when fellow activists distrust it, that distrust always seems to originate in the false notion that love is synonymous with pleasantness. The two have nothing to do with each other. Love is a burning force within that drives you; depending on the individual and the circumstances, it can drive you to laugh or cry, embrace or bare your teeth. It can take almost any form, but the one thing it never does is stand by passively when the beloved is harmed or threatened. It might take subtle action, it might bide its time for the opportune moment, but it does not make nice to abusers in the interest of keeping things superficially friendly, then turn it’s back on the abused.

Pleasantness is not a virtue at all. It is something we earn with work, with love, and with willingness to challenge those who would say, “tolerate oppression of others, or I will make your lives unpleasant.” When we skip the unpleasantness of difficult love, in a rush to get to superficial niceness, only the bullies benefit.

You said you wanted to show love. So I waited, but in the end I saw no signs that you were willing to fight, in any way, for me or the people you claimed to support. I saw willingness to co-opt the language of the warriors of love, but no willingness to fight alongside them.

That’s why I no longer listen to your music. It’s not a political statement. It’s only that, where I once heard joy and beauty, I only hear empty pleasantness.

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.