So this is basically just a roundup of common mistakes people make while out Social-Justice-ing, which I am listing out in the hopes that people will avoid doing that shit.
The Lipstick Argument. I call this the “lipstick argument” because the first time I ever saw it was in a radical feminist essay about lipstick. (Sadly, it was an Internet essay, and I’ve since lost the link.) The radical feminist in question explained in great detail that lipstick was self-objectification that led men to think of women as only important for their beauty and encouraged the sexualization of women’s bodies. For the sake of the sisterhood, the essay concluded, it was necessary to give up lipstick; if a woman wore it, she was clearly colluding with the patriarchy.
It left me wondering… but what about the women who like wearing lipstick?
It is shitty to make people do things they don’t want to do because of their identity. That is literally the whole point of social justice. It is equally shitty to make people wear lipstick if they don’t want to and not wear lipstick if they do.
Let me be clear. It’s okay to critique masculinity and femininity. There’s nothing wrong with “high heels cause damage to women’s feet” or “football causes dangerous concussions in young men”; there’s not even anything wrong with “high heels encourage the equation of femininity with weakness and sexualization” or “football culture links masculinity and violence.” There is a problem when you say “therefore no one should wear high heels or watch football,” because the goal of all these critiques is not a world free of football or high heels (how crappy would that be?). The goal is a world where people can play football or wear high heels as they please, without anyone giving them shit about it because of their gender identity.
Subversivism. That’s saying that genders which fuck the patriarchy are better than genders that don’t fuck the patriarchy: genderqueers are better than binary trans people, who are better than gender-non-conforming cis people, who are better than gender-conforming cis people. I hope I don’t have to explain why this sucks, right? This sucks.
When I was in Catholic high school, I got into quite a lot of arguments with my theology teachers. They absolutely hated me, because I was young and angry and fresh off a Richard Dawkins/Sam Harris/PZ Myers/Greta Christina kick, and thus prone to writing twenty-page papers about how God didn’t exist. However! My school also organized regular food drives for migrant farmworkers.
You could say, as a principled atheist, that I should refuse to be involved in any charity drives run by the Roman Catholic Church. But here’s the problem: if I took that point of view, it would have no appreciable difference on the views of my theology teachers, and the migrant farmworkers still wouldn’t get fed. I don’t know about you, but I care more about farmworkers having full bellies than I do about ideological purity.
In Internet Social Justice Land there’s this habit of balkanizing ourselves into these little groups that all agree with each other about everything, and then anyone who disagrees is stupid and oppressive and probably a Nazi. In the real world, people who agree with you about everything are rare and hard to locate, and people tend to be fairly attached to their ideas and don’t want to be argued out of them. Only wanting to do stuff with people who agree with you, a lot of times, means not doing anything at all.
Note: this post is about beliefs, not actions. If my school was requiring people to pray before giving them the food, I’d be quite right to oppose that. But as long as they’re only doing things I support, I should support them.
People Can Say Bad Things And Not Be THE WORST PEOPLE EVER.
Humans have particular difficulty with this concept– it’s called the “halo effect” in psychology. In general, if you see someone who tells a rape joke, you’re going to assume they’re stupid and sexist and mean and probably smell funny; it’s just how brains work.
However, in the real world, someone can tell a rape joke because they honestly don’t know that it’s problematic, and yelling at him that he’s stupid and sexist and mean and probably smells funny will leave him still telling rape jokes and convinced you are a man-hating feminist. This is a non-optimal solution.
Now, there’s no moral duty to call out kyriarchal shit. If you can’t deal with it without screaming… you don’t have to. It doesn’t make you a bad person. But if you decide to call someone out, take a deep breath and call them out without calling them a sexist bastard.
The same “says bad things, not the worst person ever” principle also applies to social-justice-y writers. With the possible exception of bell hooks, there is not a single feminist writer who hasn’t ever said a fucked-up thing; some of the most fucked-up people are the ones who come up with the most important theory (Dworkin was hugely inspirational to Susie Bright, among other early sex-positive feminists). Take the bits that are useful, discard the bits that are not useful.
Call-outs. That whole “people can say bad things and not be THE WORST PEOPLE EVER?” thing? It applies to you too. In fact, I can 100% guarantee that as a member of the Social Justice League you will say something problematic about twelve times a week. I certainly do. (Hey, guys, my class privilege was totally showing in the World AIDS Day post. Turns out not everyone can afford retrovirals! Oops.)
The important thing is to learn to respond to callouts with grace. Your first reaction, at least if you’re anything like me, will be to explain in a fit of righteous rage that you are not wrong, in fact you are the best ally Group X has ever had, they are getting offended at nothing, and how were you supposed to know that anyway? This is not productive. Take a deep breath, thank the person for bringing it to your attention and stop doing the shitty thing. Or read up on it and, after carefully considering the other person’s point of view, decide that actually the person was mistaken. That’s okay too. The keyword here is polite.