@AristoNYC I wanted to write a longer — and hopefully more thoughtful reply — to your piece as well as to my brief follow up in which I posed the question: how to we overcome identity politics, which, I believe, are one of the main reasons that some millenials are “social justice bullies.”
I should start with a few admissions of my own. For starters, like you, I am a heterosexual, white male. Moreover, I’m a middle class, heterosexual, white male, whose parents both had advanced degrees and therefore placed a high premium on education. So I lucked into winning the genetic lottery — which doesn’t make me good or bad, just lucky — and then on top of that had a family that was supportive and invested in my education.
My second admission is that there are times when I can be something of a social justice bully. For example, on the issue of gay rights, there is — as far as I’m concerned — nothing to talk about. It’s not that I go trolling people on twitter if they are opponents of gay marriage, but I dismiss that point of view as antiquated and unjust. That is to say, as I see the world, there are a few things there are black and white, but if taking a firm stand on those issues makes me a social justice bully every now and then, so be it.
Having said that, anyone who is really examine the world understands its complexities, and even a middle class, heterosexual, white male like me doesn’t necessarily fit the textbook stereotype of the oppressive maintainer of the status quo. I often find myself trying to find a balance between acknowledging a history and ongoing reality of injustice directed against “minorities” — whether that is racial, related to gender or sexual-orientation, or even based on religion/ideology (hence the “minorities”), while also seeing that we have made progress towards creating a better world, and trying to point out that while people like me have often been the historical oppressors (especially given that our history is written from a Eurocentric point-of-view and therefore doesn’t focus on injustices such as the Armenian massacre or the genocide in Cambodia), but that just because white people wiped out Native American, engaged in the slave trade, and did all the other horrible things white people have done, DOESN’T mean that is my heritage or my destiny (not that I believe in either of those).
This brings us to the notion of identity politics, which, on the one hand is a natural phenomenon, while on the other hand, seems to boil down many of the complexities of modern problems into simplistic us vs. them, black and white scenarios (no pun intended). This trend is exacerbated, I believe, by modern communications technology which allows members of any demographic to react to and galvanize around events that even a few decades ago might have remained off the radar. This obviously isn’t an inherently bad thing. That African-Americans around the country are able to protest about Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Walter Scott adds power to their movement and their voices. But as your article touched on, what does that mean for people who defended George Zimmerman or Darren Wilson. For the record, I do think George Zimmerman was guilty — there is reasonable doubt in my mind about who threw the first punch, but Zimmerman is guilty of starting the confrontation by stalking Trayvon and therefore doesn’t get to claim self-defense, and while I think Darren Wilson absolutely should have gone to trial, I do think he would have been found not guilty.
As I said, galvanizing more people around a movement, particularly one with noble aims, isn’t a bad thing, but when one of the side effect is the creation of social justice bullies who decry the other side of the argument — particularly given that most situations are nuanced and complex — there is a problem, and as much as I do not seek to maintain a status quo that has historically benefited people who look like me at the expense of others, I don’t seek to replace that status quo with a new system that oppresses people who look like me for the benefit of those who don’t. I’d like to think we can create a better world for everybody.
So here is where I will channel my inner social justice bully (to an extent). I find myself somewhat drawn to what I call the “Billy Cosby Mindset,” that dwelling on past historical oppression doesn’t help us move forward or overcome the unfair realities of the past. But of course, those unfair realities are still here in the present, they just look different. So while the desire to move beyond — for example — the horrors of slavey is appealing, the horrors of slavery have simply turned into the systemic oppression of the criminal justice system or housing practices, or whatever it is. Furthermore, and just as important, I think, politically speaking, is that too many white people in this country are unwilling to acknowledge the sins of the past and admit that there is a historical legacy of oppression that have extreme consequences today.
Growing up in MS, this was very evident. I firmly believe my home state has made progress as I indicated in my autobiographical piece linked above, but I knew (and still know) too many people who glorified the “old south” or think the legacy of slavery is dead. Not all of these people are racist (some are), many are simply uneducated themselves — you may have heard that our public education system in MS is not the nation’s most robust…
Regardless of why some white folks back home think this way, they’re wrong, and if I, as a white Mississippian, can see that and be frustrated or annoyed by it, how are black people supposed to feel? What are African-Americans supposed to think when Bill O’Reilly gets on TV and says there can’t be white privilege in America because there’s no Asian privilege or that Jim Crow is dead? Seriously, dude? I mean, fucking seriously?
Yes, the oppressed need to not let themselves be defined by oppression whether historical or ongoing, but neither do the oppressors need to let themselves be defined by the fear or shame of historical oppression. My father can trace his ancestry in this country back to the mid 1700's, and one of the documents he has found shows that in the late 1700's an ancestor left his only slave to his daughter in his will. So I know that a few hundred years ago, some ancestor of mine owned at least one slave, and it’s likely that there were others. What am I supposed to do with this knowledge? Does that make me a racist? Should I fear that tidbit of information, hide it in a closet, and hope that no one will ever find out for the shame of it all? Should I wear it proudly as a badge of “look what I’ve overcome?”
Consider larger examples. Despite carrying out probably the greatest organized atrocity in history, Germany has refused to let the Holocaust define its present and future. In fact, Berlin is becoming a new haven for Jews in Europe. Meanwhile, China goes in to an uproar annually when Japan honors its war dead from WWII and refuses to admit to such horrors like the Rape of Nanjing. Saying “Armenian Genocide” in Turkey can get you put in jail. Why are some people so terrified of being defined by an ugly past? Is this like a pseudo-religious hangover, a secular version of original sin?
So to an extent, I see social justice bullies being a byproduct of dialogue gone wrong, or perhaps never happening in the first place. Let’s pretend I’m a black guy talking about how the legacy of Jim Crow hurts African-Americans, and you dismiss that a la Bill O’Reilly. How am I supposed to feel and react? In all likelihood, that only hardens me, causes me to dig my trench deeper. This is a two way street, of course, dialogue must run both directions, and I personally think that while the legacy of Jim Crow DOES hamper opportunity and success for African-Americans, that they shouldn’t define themselves by those roadblocks anymore than I should define myself by a history of slavery propagated by people who look like me.
But I have to acknowledge it. I have to be willing and able to say that people who look like me have done shitty things historically, and not just to black people. I have to understand that ugly history, and be willing to help deconstruct its modern manifestation. I think too many people who find themselves subject to “social justice bullying” aren’t willing to do that. My experience — while not quantifiable as data — has shown me that many white people ignore this legacy, are unaware of it, or simply reject the history of it altogether. Even if this doesn’t make them opponents of the quest for justice, it makes them roadblocks, and again, I believe that it hardens the mindsets and language of those “social justice bullies,”
who find themselves largely unable to engage in dialogue, and therefore resort to the phenomenon you’re talking about.
I’ll conclude by trying to answer my own question: how do we overcome identity politics? I think the first step is to create room for dialogue, and I think that involves some willingness to look in the mirror from everyone. For many groups who see themselves — and rightfully so — as historically or currently victimized, I think it means viewing that systemic oppression not as an excuse, but as a roadblock, For people who represent the “status quo” whether we (as white men) support it or not, I think that means willingness to admit that history is not just history but has current ramifications that are unfair to too many. From there, I think the question becomes, how do we — ALL OF US — create a word that is better for ALL OF US. I think this becomes much easier if we acknowledge that history has played a role in shaping where we are today, but that we are not shackled to its legacy. If this does indeed create room for more dialogue, I think it also force the social justice bullies into something of a retreat.
Ultimately, our identities are important. They shape how we grew up, how we see the world, and therefore how we interact with it. But I firmly believe that when we engage in dialogue with those whose opinions differ from ours, that far more often than not, we will find that whichever aspects of our identities might separate us, we have something far more powerful in common: our common humanity. I wish more people would identify with that.