Social Justice Warts and All
CW: depression, suicide
I was raised in a very conservative, fundamentalist Christian church. Nowadays, I rub elbows in the online halls of the social justice movement. So it might sound strange to you that as different as those two environments can be, I find myself in a similarly untenable position as when I was the most adamant of Christians.
Growing up, I remembered my two older brothers fighting a lot. There wasn’t really room for anymore rebellion or strife, so my identity became fixed in being the “golden child” of the family. To an extent, love from my parents was dependent upon my good behavior and passion for righteousness. Prayer, Bible study, Vacation Bible School, and church attendance were my outward proof of the work I was doing to transform myself and the world. The peace in my family was kept for as long as I could keep up the illusion of Godly perfection.
Now that same fiery passion I felt for God has taken root in a deep connection to the marginalized and oppressed. I work for their equal rights, for a world that sees them as full and valuable people, for healing of the wounds we have inflicted, for a purification of our culture so long poisoned. Protests, Facebook posts and shares, public comments at board meetings, and volunteering with groups that foster growth and healthy perspectives in our youth are my new sacraments. And yet I still feel the love I get from this community comes with a crown of lead which I will surely collapse under soon enough.
In his book, Facing the Dragon, Dr. Robert Moore sketches a framework of the human psyche which revolves around the idea that we are all flooded with numinous energy which must be dealt with. It used to mainly be projected and carried in myths and gods, but now just as often it can be projected onto group identities and even mere humans. But humans (even groups of them) can’t contain this numinous energy. We can’t hold the Sun in our hands — we just burn up.
I see this dynamic playing out in social justice circles. We elevate someone to a position of honor or power for the work they’ve done, singing their praises. But the pedestal of social media can easily turn into the stool kicked from under your feet and all that height that let everyone see you now works to collapse your windpipe.
Moore explains this is nothing new:
When you put the king on the throne, you must totally control them… Many of the sacred kings were… not allowed to see the sun. Why would that be?… If the “Sun King” saw the actual sun… he would realize that he doesn’t shine nearly as brightly as the real sun does. Once the self-esteem of the king drops, the crops won’t grow, and the cows won’t have their calves. Then what happens? They have to kill the king. If the king gets too depressed, you have to kill him. He must be replaced. Today we call this “traumatic de-idealization.” [emphasis mine]
I can’t say how many times I’ve seen this process of idealization followed by crucifixion at the first sign of humanity. No one who is deeply invested in the social justice movement and highly visible gets to just be a person. They are holding our ideals, our worth, and our righteousness. As soon as they prove themselves unworthy of those, they are “garbage”: called out, cast out, and smeared all over the same halls that used to echo with their praises.
Last week, I wanted to beat you all to the punch. Wednesday was one of the worst depressive episodes I’ve had in the past few years. And I felt like the Eris that so many of you have come to know through social media was incompatible with this hidden Eris: the depressed, unmotivated, self-loathing, barely functioning self I know too well. I felt not the levity of my moderate social media elevation, but the gravity of it. I looked at how far I could fall and I became sick and dizzy with the distance. The cracks in my armor seemed to glow brightly, like neon signs flashing “FAILURE.” And in what was already a terrible morning, I had a thought that made sense to my depressed, frightened self:
Maybe I should just kill myself now so that everyone can remember the happy, productive Eris and not the hollow shambles of a person that I have once again become.
Every time I enter a depression, I never know how long it will last or how intense it will get, but anyone who has been depressed will tell you it feels like it will literally last forever. For someone who has lived with it for as long as I have, sometimes it feels like your “normal.” It’s like you can’t even remember feeling any other way. In that certain light, this rationale held water. “When everyone realizes I can no longer carry their idealization of me, when the human, flawed, depressed, and mundane Eris dethrones ‘Goddess of Social Justice' Eris,” the inner voice told me, “I will be ritually murdered in the same space I was enshrined.”
And so I wanted to preserve that self. It seemed my greatest accomplishment — people saw and appreciated the work I was doing. My voice not only mattered to people, it was desired. Whereas to my parents, I am invisible because they refuse to see my trans identity, people saw, appreciated, and loved that same identity. I felt that all of my passions and interests and talents let me belong somewhere. So to keep that, I wanted to destroy my flawed self, and the only path I could see was to get rid of all of me before I was found out.
I wasn’t in any immediate danger of following through with my suicidal ideation. Concern for my safety is not the point of this post.
I am willing to own that I took on all the responsibility I felt projected onto me. I tried to shoulder it, though it’s an impossible task. And that’s mine to change. But I want to plead for a new culture of social justice where we give each other a little more grace, where we allow our fellow activists to fail instead of trying to nail each other to our crosses with whatever limbs haven’t been impaled yet. I long for a world where the flaws of our leaders are seen, acknowledged, critiqued, but ultimately allowed and accepted.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t call out or call in problematic language and behaviors. I just wonder if anyone would listen to me now if I had social media when I was a fiery fundamentalist Christian homophobe and transphobe. Is there room for change? For growth? Isn’t that what we are fighting for? But if we don’t believe our “leaders” are capable of change, if all we can see and acknowledge now are their failures, what hope is there for those who are so far outside these circles they can’t even understand our jargon? It reminds me of a line from a play about theatre folk ~ “We don’t go to plays to enjoy ourselves. We go to see what went wrong.”
Our leaders and role models are bound to disappoint us. I will disappoint you (if I haven’t already). And, yes, I need you all to keep me in check and let me know where I slip up and how I can improve, but I also need room to be flawed and somewhat broken. It is childish to believe our leaders are perfect, but it seems equally childish to insist that a different leader would solve all our problems. There are no easy answers to the limits of grace or the cost of a dethroning our idols. And I’m not saying we should just take what we have and never demand better, but I am asking we all remind ourselves as soon as we choose a leader or role model, we are settling. They are flawed. They will disappoint. They will break. But that doesn’t make them bad leaders, it makes them human.
When they stray from the path, can we guide them back instead of torching the forest they’ve wandered into? When they break, can we see our own brokenness in them and hold them as a community? In their dedication to us and our betterment, can we also dedicate ourselves to them and theirs? I think it’s time to treat our leaders as members of our community and welcome them into the fold.