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-FranÃ§ois 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:
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.