Excommunicate Me from the Church of Social Justice

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There is a particularly aggressive strand of social justice activism weaving in and out of my Seattle community that has troubled me, silenced my loved ones, and turned away potential allies. I believe in justice. I believe in liberation. I believe it is our duty to obliterate white supremacy, anti-blackness, cisheteropatriarchy, ableism, capitalism, and imperialism. And I also believe there should be openness around the tactics we use and ways our commitments are manifested over time. Beliefs and actions are too often conflated with each other, yet questioning the latter should not renege the former. As a Cultural Studies scholar, I am interested in the ways that culture does the work of power. What then, is the culture of activism, and in what ways are activists restrained by it? To be clear, I’m only one person who is trying to figure things out, and I’m open to revisions and learning. But as someone who has spent the last decade recovering from a forced conversion to evangelical Christianity, I’m seeing a disturbing parallel between religion and activism in the presence of dogma:

1. Seeking purity

There is an underlying current of fear in my activist communities, and it is separate from the daily fear of police brutality, eviction, discrimination, and street harassment. It is the fear of appearing impure. Social death follows when being labeled a “bad” activist or simply “problematic” enough times. I’ve had countless hushed conversations with friends about this anxiety, and how it has led us to refrain from participation in activist events, conversations, and spaces because we feel inadequately radical. I actually don’t prefer to call myself an activist, because I don’t fit the traditional mold of the public figure marching in the streets and interrupting business as usual. When I was a Christian, all I could think about was being good, showing goodness, and proving to my parents and my spiritual leaders that I was on the right path to God. All the while, I believed I would never be good enough, so I had to strain for the rest of my life towards an impossible destination of perfection.

I feel compelled to do the same things as an activist a decade later. I self-police what I say in activist spaces. I stopped commenting on social media with questions or pushback on leftist opinions for fear of being called out. I am always ready to apologize for anything I do that a community member deems wrong, oppressive, or inappropriate- no questions asked. The amount of energy I spend demonstrating purity in order to stay in the good graces of fast-moving activist community is enormous. Activists are some of the judgiest people I’ve ever met, myself included. There’s so much wrongdoing in the world that we work to expose. And yet, grace and forgiveness are hard to come by in these circles. At times, I have found myself performing activism more than doing activism. I’m exhausted, and I’m not even doing the real work I am committed to do. It is a terrible thing to be afraid of my own community members, and know they’re probably just as afraid of me. Ultimately, the quest for political purity is a treacherous distraction for well-intentioned activists.

2. Reproducing colonialist logics

Postcolonialist black Caribbean philosopher Frantz Fanon in his 1961 book Wretched of the Earth writes about the volatile relationship between the colonizer and the colonized, and the conditions of decolonization. In it, he sharply warns the colonized against reproducing and maintaining the oppressive systems of colonization by replacing those at top by those previously at the bottom after a successful revolution.

As a QTPOC (queer, trans person of color), I have experienced discrimination and rejection due to who I am. I have sought out QTPOC-only spaces to heal, find others like me, and celebrate our differences. Those spaces and relationships have saved me from despair time and time again. And yet, I reject QTPOC supremacy, the idea that QTPOCs or any other marginalized groups deserve to dominate society. The experiences of oppression do not grant supremacy, in the same way that being a powerful colonizer does not. Justice will never look like supremacy. I wish for a new societal order that does not revolve around relations of power and domination.

3. Preaching/Punishments

Telling people what to do and how to live out their lives is endemic to dogmatic religion and activism. It’s not that my comrades are the bosses of me, but that dogmatic activism creates an environment that encourages people to tell other people what to do. This is especially prominent on Facebook. Scrolling through my news feed sometimes feels Iike sliding into a pew to be blasted by a fragmented, frenzied sermon. I know that much of the media posted there means to discipline me to be a better activist and community member. But when dictates aren’t followed, a common procedure of punishment ensues. Punishments for saying/doing/believing the wrong thing include shaming, scolding, calling out, isolating, or eviscerating someone’s social standing. Discipline and punishment has been used for all of history to control and destroy people. Why is it being used in movements meant to liberate all of us? We all have made serious mistakes and hurt other people, intentionally or not. We get a chance to learn from them when those around us respond with kindness and patience. Where is our humility when examining the mistakes of others? Why do we position ourselves as morally superior to the un-woke? Who of us came into the world fully awake?

4. Sacred texts

There are also some online publications of dogmatic activism that could be considered sacred texts. For example, the intersectional site Everyday Feminism receives millions of views a month. It features more than 40 talented writers who pen essays on a wide range of anti-oppression topics, zeroing in on ones that haven’t yet broached larger activist conversations online. When Everyday Feminism articles are shared among my friends, I feel both grateful that the conversation is sparking and also very belittled. Nearly all of their articles follow a standard structure: an instructive title, list of problematic or suggested behaviors, and a final statement of hard opinion. The titles, the educational tone, and the prescriptive checklists contribute to creating the idea that there is only one way to think about and do activism. And it’s a swiftly moving target that is always just out of reach. In trying to liberate readers from the legitimately oppressive structures, I worry that sites like Everyday Feminism are replacing them with equally restrictive orthodoxy on the other end of the political spectrum.

Have I extricated myself from a church to find myself confined in another?

At this year’s Allied Media Conference, BLM co-founder Alicia Garza gave an explosive speech to a theatre full of brilliant and passionate organizers. She urged us to set aside our distrust and critique of newer activists and accept that they will hurt and disappoint us. Don’t shut them out because their politics are outdated or they don’t wield the same language. If we are interested in building the mass movements needed to destroy mass oppression, our movements must include people not like us, people with whom we will never fully agree, and people with whom we have conflict. That’s a much higher calling than railing at people from a distance and labeling them as wrong. Ultimately, according to Garza, building a movement is about restoring humanity to all of us, even to those of us who have been inhumane. Movements are where people are called to be transformed in service of liberation of themselves and others.

I want to spend less time antagonizing and more time crafting alternative futures where we don’t have to fight each other for resources and care. For an introvert like me, that may look like shifting my activism towards small scale projects and recognizing personal relationships as locations of mutual transformation. It might mean carefully choosing whether I want to be part of public disruptions or protests, and giving myself full permission to refrain at times. It may mean drawing attention to the ways in which other people outside of movements have been living out activism, even if no one has ever called it that. It might mean checking in with myself about how I have let my heart grow hard. It may mean admitting that speaking my truth isn’t justification for being mean. It might mean directly dealing with my religious hangups so that I can come to a place where the resonant aspects of theology or spirituality become part of my toolkit. It means cultivating long-term relationships with those outside my (not that) safe and exclusive community, understanding I will learn so much from them. It means ceasing to “other” people and leave them behind. It means honoring their humanity, in spite of their hurtful political beliefs and violent actions. It means seeing them as individuals, not ideologies or systems. It means acknowledging their agency to act justly. It means inviting them to be with us in love, and pushing through repeated rejection. Otherwise, I’m not sure how I can sustain this work for the rest of my life.


Originally published on catalystwedco.com. Republished with permission. 

Frances is a designer, a thinker, and a perpetual beginner. They are pursuing a masters of arts in Cultural Studies at the University of Washington at Bothell. Frances recently coordinated the creation of the 2017 King County Trans Resource & Referral Guide. You can see more of their work at their website.

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163 Comments

  1. I know you just spent an entire article criticizing zealous activists who persecute each other like Pharisees, but I actually find this whole conversation very encouraging because it has been anything but that. Everyone seems really supportive of each other.

    Articles and comment threads like this are evidence that justice-oriented movements ARE capable of critical self-reflection and compassionate listening, and aren’t seeking to throw all the bad people under the bus.

    I grew up in religion too so I relate to that aspect of what you’re saying. Every movement is vulnerable to puritanical tendencies. As long as there are questions, there is hope.

    Someone above made a really smart comment about how younger people who’ve grown up without religion perhaps have a blind spot and can’t recognize the patterns of dogmaticism. I highly recommend The True Believer to anyone who is interested in the ways fundamentalism can grip any movement. Perspective is everything.

  2. I think you HAVE found the same problem within your former modern christian community and modern academic leftism- the complete inability to accept that you and your loved ones will fail to live up to goals of perfection.

    The bible is a pretty well-worn cultural guide to compassion- and at its core is a pretty simple message about accepting the inherently human fact of ‘sinning’, or failing to live up to your ideals. In your examples, it seems everyone is more focused on APPEARING perfect than actually striving forward and risking failing.

    It seems like most people care much more about seeming the best than about making amends- and it seems most people let themselves be cowed from speaking truth by fear of bruising their ego or fucking up- when they come up wrong, when they have to apologize, and when they have to learn a lesson.

    Justice is not a popularity contest. Why compromise yourself for ‘friends’?
    It seems like most folk don’t want to work at justice they want to pretend where they are at is well-as.

  3. I can’t say I fully agree with this article as there are two sides of the coin, but in favorite of it:

    1. The social justice community do have ground rules that are solid and when it works, it’s an amazing community. But the problem is that it’s become so controlling, it’s the same issue I have with the pro-black community, like for example if I was to date outside of my race then I am no longer “pro black”. I joined to be free from shackles, not aquire new ones.

    2. I honestly could care less about people outside of our circle, but I do think we could afford a bit of kindness for the people within our circle. When we make a mistake, that’s it. We can’t question certain things nor can we disagree. I found myself being performative a lot in my friends’ space. Its like those who felt the most pain could speak. It’s gotten to the point to where I had to use my own personal pain like a badge of honor and that’s shitty.

    3. We’re disorganized, I believe both peaceful and radcialism serve a purpose. If you have the patience and you want to educate then cool, if you want to take to the streets with a weapon and fight against white supremacists that come into our neighrborhoods and hurt us, awesome. The Civil Rights Movement needed both peaceful and violent demonstrations for it to work.

    4. We dig up peoples’ past and use it against each other, on top of that. We could be very abusive and controlling, I have been there more times than I am ashamed to admit. I took a lot of aggression on my more privileged friends. Being on the bottom of the totem pole doesn’t mean we should abuse each other.

    5. We need solutions, none of us are truly working toward that. We come from different backgrounds, but we share the same thing in common in the fact that our parents and their parents before them fucked up and we have to fix it. Working towards that is the hardest thing I have ever done cause I have to battle family and white supremacy. We know the pain is there, we know the injustices are here but what do we do to fight it? That lies with dismantling capitalism not with supremacy which continues the system with new overlords.

    Points against the article?

    1. I think the white people in the comments underestimate just how much we distrust each other. How do my black ass know that one of you won’t pull a Laci Green and backstab us? It happens quite frequently and you have white people who are famous because of social justice that profit off of our pain, get paid for it and refuse to use that money to assist with our communities. You’re asking us to hold white peoples’ hand and be nice, but we have to get over our own and honestly, rightful distrust of you. We have to make ourselves vulnerable to our oppressors and that’s not an easy thing to do.

    2. Again with the comments, you could walk away from this whole thing and either form your own groups away from us or just work with white supremacy. The Alt Right is our enemy, but it has some progressive policies, there are a lot of gay white men and women who are white that’s willing to work against their best interest in order to fight for white supremacy, you could walk away from this fight and work with the system that will at least protect you based on your whiteness meanwhile I can’t even shop without getting anxiety because I don’t know if I will make tomorrow’s hashtag or not. It’s a little hard for me to care about your feelings getting hurt on social media as opposed of that, hell I’ll take a bruise ego than submissiveness out of fear.

    3. You tend to be a little naive, me too if it helps. I want to live in a world where violence won’t be the option where I can nod and smile to an officer cause he’s protecting us from the bad guys where I could chill with anyone regardless of what race they are, where I could tell someone their behavior hurts and they will have the common fucking deceny to chill, but that isn’t reality. I have to wake up then figure which identity will kill me, my identity as a cis black male or my identity as a bisexual((still figuring that one out)) with unsupportive family to boot. I think you guys tend to forget that we’re in a war, there will come a time where we will no longer be debating our worth to our oppressors and we will have to actually get physical for those rights. America would happily see me go to the gas chambers, hell you guys probably would too.

    I think we need to be more united than ever and build those bridges that are broken, it’s do or die. Things are changing, it’s because of our efforts. We have to push by any means nessecary. Those bridges could be the key to connecting us to our new futures, but don’t forget we didn’t fucking break them. We’re living in the mess the oppressors left for us. So uh duh, there is going to be hostility.

  4. This is something that has driven me nuts about the left since the 90s (and I’m sure it was going on before that). The holier-than-thou-ness, the one-upping one another in terms of rightenousness, the forced adherence to an orthodoxy, the proving you aren’t racist by relentlessly pointing out and shaming others for slipping, etc. The internet has only exacerbated these tendencies. It’s also been interesting to see how the concept of intersectionality, ie not throwing other people under the bus, has been weaponized to basically mean that unless you are all things to all people, you are worthless as an advocate. As if there is only one way to think, or as if none of us are ever hypocrites.

  5. Judge not lest ye be judged. It’s still good advice.

    Also, maybe don’t be friends with people you are afraid of.

    And, you know, honestly, nobody listens to activists who never shut up.

    If you never stop crying outrage, then you just get tuned out.

    And then you turn your anger inward, to the only people who listen.

    And you don’t inspire anyone, you just hurt yourselves.

    If you really want to inspire other people, live your beliefs.

    Fight the fights in the actual courts. Not the court of public opinion.

    Appeal to people’s goodness in the court of public opinion.

    Shaming and judging people never works in the long run.

    Trump won in a backlash to resentment over public shaming and condemnation by the left.

    Hillary lost in large part because she was caught calling half of Trump voters deplorable.

    The other large reason she lost was because she was judged not pure enough by the left.

    This country and the world doesn’t need to be judged and condemned and shamed. It needs to be inspired by goodness.

    That’s my 2 cents to people trying to make the world better.

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