The Limits of Social Justice Blogging

[E] Sally LawtonOp Ed13 Comments

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Alternate titles for this piece are: “Playing Nice in the Social Justice Sandbox,” “Social Justice Ain’t a Singular Concept, Folks,” “Mom! She’s Touching Me! Social Justice Blogging’s Elementary Playground,” and “Stop Being Such a Jackass.”

Social justice blogging. It can be a clusterfuck. Say one thing wrong when you were 18, and you’ll start receiving death threats because you were once young, didn’t know any better, and used a word that marginalizes certain groups. Being older, you apologized, but social justice doesn’t know how to forgive and really doesn’t know how to forget.

This, in large part, is due to a very underdeveloped idea of the term “justice.” I doubt few have ever really sat down to think about what they mean when they write that. Nor, I doubt, have they really sat down to think about the word “oppression” and how it intersects with justice.

Privilege, on the other hand, is a word social justice bloggers know very well. White and blogging about people of color? Check your privilege. Cis and blogging about transgender people? Watch your privilege. If you slip up and say something silly, well, your privilege is showing, and you shall be banned. Indeed, it’s almost as if one can only be a social justice blogger if one is completely and utterly lacking in privilege. The perfect social justice blogger almost must be trans, female, a person of color, lacking in at least one limb, carrying at least 50 extra pounds, and possibly suffering from some sort of learning disability to be allowed to even think about social justice.

There is a certain element of cannibalization here. The feeling among many social justice bloggers is that you eat your young until there are only the five people who agreed with you in the first place remaining. Instead of addressing issues, we sit around in circles and try to out-radicalize each other and one-up everyone else with our social justice purity.

This position is hardly helpful. The thing is, everyone’s got their baggage, and some people more so than others. I’ve written before on the importance of confessing the things that privilege us in the social justice blogosphere, and I stand by that. But I’d like to take a little time to talk about what we mean when we say justice and oppressed and how much more productive we can be as writers and activists when we stop eating away at every ally for having said a dumb thing in their time. Doing this can help us avoid clusterfucks like what happened with Laci Green or any tumblr pile-on in the history of tumblr pile-ons.

Justice was for a very long time relegated to a very philosophical sphere outside of what most of us experience. This is not the justice of Judge Judy, instead, it is the justice of a thought experiment. How can we create an idea of justice we can all agree on and that is fair to everyone around us? John Rawls is the most prominent philosopher here, claiming that the “principles of justice are chosen behind the veil of ignorance.” Behind the veil of ignorance, you don’t know if you are privileged, so you’re going to choose principles for a just society that will benefit you even if you do happen to be a person of color or trans or a part of some other marginalized group.

Of course, this type of justice is highly problematic if you’ve spent any time in the real world. In reality, no one makes decisions this way. Our laws were not chosen behind a veil of ignorance and instead were developed under the bright light that shows everything that will benefit you in the long run.

Iris Marion Young makes a good point about people like Rawls in describing their work as monological. The way they construct the origin of justice creates a place in which everyone is the same. Young explains: “The veil of ignorance removes any differentiating characteristics among individuals, and thus ensures that all will reason from identical assumptions and the same universal point of view.”

Young later goes on to explain, “Reducing difference to unity means bringing them under a universal category, which requires expelling those aspects of the different things that do not fit into that category. Difference thus becomes a hierarchical opposition between what lies inside and what lies outside the category, valuing more what lies inside than what lies outside.”

In other words, the moment that you say that justice must be developed in some vacuum of ignorance, in which no one knows what the other is doing, one begins to reduce people down to a monolithic unity. This is dangerous because when you unify people in this way, it pushes that which is not part of the monolith outside. In your pursuit of a perfect form of justice, you’ve created a category of Other and in so doing, have undermined the justice you sought to create.

All this is to say that the social justice blogosphere has a bit of a problem. I’m not saying everyone is thinking of Rawls or claiming they developed a perfect idea of justice under some sort of veil of ignorance, but I am saying that there is an assumption on the part of everyone within the blogosphere that their idea of justice is THE idea of justice, which is inherently marginalizing to anyone who wants to talk about justice. To put it another way, when people start saying, “She can’t blog about feminism because she’s cis and white,” the thought behind this statement becomes, “You can only blog about social justice if you have ALL of the characteristics of marginalized groups. We must be one group of marginalized individuals always.” That is both unrealistic, and a great way to create even more categories of Other.

So how does one write about justice without shutting everyone else out? One listens. One talks. One interacts. One learns. And one accepts that everyone else is doing something similar and allows for shifts and change within the definition of justice.

Jean-François Lyotard has a very inspiring quote to describe this process: “For us, a language is first and foremost someone talking. But there are language games in which the important thing is to listen, in which the rule deals with audition. Such a game is the game of the just. And in this game, one speaks only inasmuch as one listens, that is, one speaks as a listener, and not as an author.”

Because, see, justice is not ever a given or an absolute ideal or truth. You must listen to another’s idea of justice as if you will never speak. It is only then that you will really engage and enter into the game of pursuing justice.

Or we can be even sassier. As the tumblr Is This Feminist so rightly put it:

Real feminists come out of the womb quoting bell hooks, and come complete with a force field that keeps them from absorbing negative cultural ideas. Indeed, feminist theory and analysis are irrelevant to personal growth because real feminists are born perfectly politically correct and never need to learn and grow. We just write those analyses for fun; they certainly aren’t there to educate. Everyone should always be treated like who they were at their worst moment. PROBLEMATIC.

No one is ever perfectly just. And even if we could ostensibly be so under a veil of ignorance, doing so would be PROBLEMATIC because it would assume a whole when really there can’t ever be that whole without creating an Other. To be at all just, one must listen to everyone else as they try to parse out what they mean when they blog for justice.

This is not to say that some limits to this process of listening exist. The dudebros who claim misandry or the people who cry reverse-racism are not in the business of social justice because they are not working to the benefit of the oppressed. There is, I think, a big difference between someone who is trying to promote the status quo and being an ass about it and someone who is trying to blog in the name of justice and stumbling occasionally when it comes to language.

Which takes us to the next important part of social justice blogging: oppression. Social justice happens only when these two terms work together.

Iris Marion Young is again useful here. She says, “In the most general sense, all oppressed people suffer some inhibition of their ability to develop and exercise their capacities and express their needs, thoughts, and feelings. In that abstract sense all oppressed people face a common condition. Beyond that, in any more specific sense, it is not possible to define a single set of criteria that describe the condition of oppression of the above groups. Consequently, attempts by theorists and activists to discover a common description or the essential causes of the oppression of all these groups have frequently led to fruitless disputes about whose oppression is more fundamental or more grave.”

And she was writing this before tumblr even existed. Many people are oppressed in some way. And you’re going to be stirring some unnecessary shit by claiming your oppression is worse than someone else’s or that someone is not respectful enough of your oppression. Oppression must not be reduced to one thing, such as class or even gender, it must be painted with broad strokes to encompass its many faces. Young defines five (exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism, and violence), and I won’t go into whether or not I think those are the best criteria, but I will say that her fundamental argument that oppression is everywhere, rampant, and expressed in many different groups is what is particularly critical. What’s more, her idea that we can’t go arguing about which is the worst oppression is important because we’re wasting our time in making the world a more just place by trying to arrive at a monolithic concept or a rigid hierarchy.

When we say, “You are oppressed in some way and I have sympathy for that, but can you also recognize my oppression,” we suddenly make the pursuit of justice more intersectional and less cannibalistic. What’s more, we avoid the monolith of a single justice or a single oppression and invite everyone to work through their baggage.

So where does that leave the social justice bloggers of the world? It leaves us with a few principles that I think we could al do well to follow:

  1. Avoid thinking of justice as one thing that you created. You are not a special snowflake and nor is your concept of justice. No one owns justice and your idea of what justice means may very well hinder someone else’s idea of justice.
  2. Let’s listen to each other. Let’s stop this bad habit of writing, “I didn’t really read what you said, I’m just so offended that you said that earlier thing so I’m going to skip over everything else you said and tell you what I think about that other thing.”
  3. When we listen, let’s allow people to change their vocabulary. Because justice cannot be just if it is a finite concept, we need to make room for people redefining their idea of justice.
  4. Be accepting of other people’s oppression and don’t try to one-up it. I will forever quote Flavia Dzoden on this, “My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.” Oppression happens to many different types of people, and some people who are oppressed in one way may be privileged in another way. This does not mean they are not oppressed and deserving of social justice.
  5. This should go without saying, but as recent tumblr events have born out, we have to say it: if someone upset you with something they said. If someone trod on your oppression or your idea of justice, don’t issue them with death threats. That is not listening. That is not justice. That achieves nothing. And yes, I am well-aware that PoC and trans people receive death threats everyday and being upset about some white lady receiving a death threat seems insensitive to that, but you know what? Issuing death threats against ANYONE is problematic, and it is especially problematic when that person is trying to be an advocate, and occasionally failing.

Above anything, social justice requires the empathy to see another’s oppression in addition to your own. It also requires the empathy to know that we live in a fucked up society that has put a burden of violent, oppressive systems in place that marginalize many different types of people and because of that, we often use language that is problematic, but we don’t get anywhere by shooting the messenger of messed up structures. We get someplace by investigating the systems, working to parse out that language, and listening to everyone else in this debate.

For further reading, I suggest Justice and the Politics of Difference by Iris Marion Young.

Special thanks to Coco Papy for her feedback on an earlier draft of this.

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Avatar of [E] Sally Lawton

[E] Sally Lawton

My food groups are cheese, bacon, and hot tea. I like studying cities and playing with my cat, Buffy.
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[E] Sally LawtonThe Limits of Social Justice Blogging

13 Comments on “The Limits of Social Justice Blogging”

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  1. Avatar of sequined
    sequined

    I was wondering about this on Tumblr the other day, because the internet preserves all the personal thoughts you’ve had since you got a Tumblr/facebook/LJ/etc. What if I was stupid and blind to my privilege 10 years ago, and then I learned a lot and started a blog about being nice and inclusive, and people starting publishing dumb shit I said a decade prior as evidence of why I was a hypocrite or an asshole or whatever? Since the internet doesn’t change, it’s like we can’t ever change. It’s kind of scary.

  2. Avatar of Bryn Donovan
    Bryn Donovan

    Fantastic article. I’ve been thinking a lot about this. I’ve had it with a lot of the hatefulness on tumblr lately.

    I think any social justice blogger should consider what her objectives really are. If you want to right injustice, airing less commonly heard perspectives and sharing calls to action (write your senator, protest this abuse, etc.) seem really productive.

    Spending an hour decrying one wrong thing one individual on tumblr said and talking about what a fucking moron s/he is, not so much. It may result in a self-righteous feeling you find pleasant, but it’s not effective in bringing about change.

    I feel like there’s this flattening of moral outrage that happens, where people will jump on small things people say and nuances as readily as really big offensive things.

    The best and most ethical practice in conversation is to assume someone is basically a decent human being and to give some benefit of a doubt rather than jumping to conclusions. On the internet, most people don’t seem to feel this kind of restraint is necessary.

    Instead, a flawed individual who said one wrong thing becomes a proxy for everything that is wrong in the world, and she must be destroyed! The stronger terms you use, and the more rage you vent, the more people will applaud you and follow you! (This is exactly Rush Limbaugh’s winning formula, too, by the way!) You are speaking truth to power! Except you’re really just yelling at some ordinary, not particularly influential person on the internet.

    Threats of violence, even metaphorical ones, make you look like a stupid bully and rob your cause of legitimacy.

     

  3. Avatar of [E] Hillary
    [E] Hillary

    One of the reasons I’ve mostly stopped using tumblr was that the social justice brigade was exhausting and I started to get paranoid about writing the tiniest thing “wrong” and getting slammed for it. I’m glad people are bringing awareness to the concept of privilege and oppression, but there has to be a line where you recognize that not everything written on the internet is going to be 100% to your liking and you can’t throw out an entire argument over one ill-chosen word or phrase.

    One of the issues where it stood out to me most on was the war on reproductive rights. There were a few tumblrs that threw a hissy fit every time something crossed their dash that talked about “women’s” health or “women” who were pregnant or the war on “women” because that excluded people who were genderqueer or trans* but still had a functioning uterus. I absolutely agree that trans* issues tend to get overlooked and that discussions should be as inclusive as possible, but writing “uterus-bearers” over and over gets really cumbersome and anyone not fully conversant in trans* issues isn’t going to know what the hell you’re talking about, so the message is going to get totally lost. Besides, the people doing the oppressing are probably only thinking in terms of controlling women since most of them probably reject the concept of anyone not being cissexual. Which is hugely problematic, obviously, that they would insist on misgendering people, but it’s largely a separate issue. And I never once saw anyone on tumblr exert the same pressure to include all “penis-bearers” in discussions of men’s issues.

    Sorry, that got kinda rambly and I really hope I didn’t say anything unintentionally offensive.

    1. Avatar of [E] Sally Lawton
      [E] Sally Lawton

      If you did, it’s okay. You’re allowed to say things that step on people’s toes. BECAUSE THAT’S HOW WE FIGURE OUT SOCIAL JUSTICE. Bah.

      And it’s just that sort of thing that pisses me off about social justice blogging. The fact that I have a uterus shouldn’t prevent me from talking about whether I want kids or don’t want kids or if my period sucked last month. That’s part of life. Just as my choice to buy more expensive organic foods is clearly from a point of privilege, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t buy organic food because I can afford it and want to simply because some people can’t (but I’m also not going to say EVERYONE should buy organic foods).

      The SJ blogosphere is exhausting sometimes.

       

      1. Avatar of Silverwane
        Silverwane

        Definitely. One of the things stressed in the very first class I took on feminist theory was, you are going to say wrong things sometimes. We all will. However, it’s better to say them and take to heart the discussion that comes afterward rather than say nothing at all. It’s hard to begin to break down your privilege if that isn’t how we approach it.

    2. Avatar of Linotte Melodieuse
      Linotte Melodieuse

      No, you’re not saying anything wrong.  People make mistakes and learn from them.  That’s what makes hashing the idea of social justice out so messy.  Sometimes all people want is acknowledgement and validation that x is a problem, and for you as a person of privilege to recognize/now recognize things you have seen or heard that may have been that.

    3. Avatar of Stephens
      Stephens

      You have no idea how many times I’ve typed out a comment or a post on a social justice issue, only to delete it because I don’t want the stress of a shit storm if I accidentally piss one person off and it the post gets reblogged ad nauseum. So I just don’t say anything. As Linotte said, you work through legitimately wrong assumptions by hashing things out, but in an environment like Tumblr, it can never happen.

    4. Avatar of sequined
      sequined

      I think it would be very stressful to have a large Tumblr following for that reason. I made a passionate post about how the Tosh rape jokes stuff made me feel really shitty about the role of women in our society, and at the end I went through and added a lot of caveats and apologies for not being inclusive enough of other oppressed groups victimized by such jokes etc. etc., and even though I am glad that I do think of those groups/people, it’s hard to ever say an opinion on the internet. I DO want to be inclusive, and I DON’T expect the people who are oppressed to educate me whenever I misspeak or whenever I don’t understand why what I’m saying is wrong, but most people posting stuff on the internet are just people, trying to do their best. So it’s hard.

  4. Avatar of DrMrsJamesCole
    DrMrsJamesCole

    This is an area in which I’m trying to learn more, but the challenge typically is being surrounded by people who have a vested interest in not learning, and whose goals/objectives are typically to ‘win’ and ‘be right,’ which means making their interests/needs/beliefs the ‘default’ and ensuring that everything remains All About Them. It’s very difficult to avoid getting into the trumping ‘my hardship is harder’ game. Sometimes I think that people who are more oppressed are expected to also be stronger (and therefore more capable of dealing with hardship); privileged people are expected to have a lower threshold for what is a hardship to them because, well, it’s more rare.

    1. Avatar of [E] Sally Lawton
      [E] Sally Lawton

      And I think that’s the main critique of an article like mine: when you are more privileged, your capacity for b.s. is much lower. If you are less, your ability to roll your eyes and move on is probably much great by necessity. And that’s definitely worth delving into. I think where I get frustrated is when an advocate is a great advocate most of the time, but occasionally slips up. And I think it’s not productive to say, “Well, you can’t be an advocate anymore because of X.” That just seems against everything SJ is trying to do.

      1. Avatar of DrMrsJamesCole
        DrMrsJamesCole

        Yes, I agree; it’s one thing to point out to someone ‘that’s wrong, and here’s why’ or ‘that term is offensive,’ but it does seem that, too often, people are looking for a ‘gotcha’ rather than looking for learning and, well, actual SJ. For me, this typically comes up in gender issues, and it typically comes from men (and some women) who feel a need to tirelessly focus on the plight of men (so, if I am speaking purely about women, it’s a sea of ‘but men’ this and ‘what about men’ that). And yes, it gets worse in spades if I say something like ‘women’ and not ‘some/most’ women or anything other than The Perfect Language; you can fill a Derailing for Dummies bingo card in seconds then.

        It’s true that I don’t often speak to, say, trans* issues, because I don’t feel it’s my place to do so; that’s an area where I listen more. But there are a lot of issues where I have direct experience with being oppressed (for various reasons) or with an issue that may not be evident, but I’m told that my experience doesn’t matter at all because I am straight and white. I get that people don’t want the white-knight silencing them in the name of ‘rescuing’ them, but trying to ‘one up’ each other and dismissing the experiences that allies DO have helps no one (other than perhaps the person who feels better from trying to shame and bully someone trying to do good). The less we have people trying to silence us, the more voices we have.

  5. Avatar of Silverwane
    Silverwane

    Great article. It’s a hard line to walk sometimes when you want to engage topics of oppression in areas you are privileged in. On one hand, you need to be aware of your own privilege on the matter, as well as the fact that your privilege means you are viewed as a greater authority on the matter than the very people who live it. On the other hand, if you don’t talk about it, you’re aiding in the silencing. This is why I try to bring up things like race issues where I see them while deferring to people who know more than I. (Also, I try to be open so people will call me on my bullshit if I say something wrong)

    I also wanted to go into John Rawls a little bit. It’s not that Rawls thinks that the principles of justice are really chosen through the veil of ignorance. Rather, he thinks that this would be the best way to do it, if it was possible. The situation Rawls sets up is something he calls the Original Position, which is supposed to be humanity before any society is set in place. Rawls views humans as self-interested, so he decides that the best way to ensure a more or less “just” society is to put in place the veil of ignorance, which means they would have no knowledge of what their place would be in the society they are creating.

    The idea is, since the stakes are so great, any inequalities the people in the Original Position would decide to accept would have to be better for the entire whole, including the individuals who are disadvantaged by these inequalities. This is because they wouldn’t want to risk being in a position that suffers from said inequalities if it didn’t benefit them in some way.

    Rawls of course recognizes that we can’t possibly be in the Original Position, but he thought that this would be a good way to go about thinking about what we decide to be just.

    Something that should be said is that Rawls viewed his ideas as more or less “complete,” which in philosophy-ese means he viewed the theory as more or less airtight. Another thing that should be said is that this theory is in many ways a response to utilitarianism, which can more or less be summarized by the statement “a rule or act is better if it increases overall human well-being.”

    I could go into it more if anyone is interested, but those are some of the more general finer details I recall about it. It’s a very complex theory. I don’t know if I’m a big fan of it, especially since I’m a utilitarian at heart. It does have some interesting aspects, as well as plenty of problematic ones, such as your mention of the fact that it insists that everyone in the Original Position must be more or less the same in order to make these decisions.

    1. Avatar of [E] Sally Lawton
      [E] Sally Lawton

      I’ve always thought as Rawls’ completeness as something of a straw man. I agree that he knows the O.P. and Veil of Ignorance is the IDEAL, but he’s set up something that is necessarily exclusive and not acknowledging of all the b.s. that comes along with it. I think once you start to drop into those theories of original positions (which is, to my mind, just a fancier way of staying State of Nature) you need to be able to say something more than “My theory is complete.” You need to say, “I’ve found a way around the b.s. in society and here’s why,” but he can never, ever say that because, and this is Young’s argument, he’s not allowing for recognition of groups and saying we’re all this whole who makes a decision.

      What’s more, flexibility of basic principles of justice and change within those principles is not a simple matter with Rawls. He allows for very strict methods of change (through amendments to a constitution, for example), but he is actually very conservative where it comes to change. He never really proposes any specific grounds upon which changes to a system of justice might be made, which means he’s not really willing to address the fact that justice is very often fraught with injustice.

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