Righteous Callings: Being Good, Leftist Orthodoxy, and the Social Justice Crisis of Faith
“Ideology is a sick fetish” — Porpentine Charity Heartscape
Deep down, I have always believed that I’m a bad person and that the world we live in is an awful place. Maybe that’s just what happens when you grow up an effeminate boy (and secretly a trans girl) in a Chinese-Canadian Christian-ish (not religious enough to go to church but enough for threat of eternal damnation to be used as a motivator to do household chores) family with class trauma and inherited mental health issues, you know? One of my first memories is of crawling on the kitchen table in our rat-infested house and thinking to myself “I’m spoiled. Mommy and Daddy have such hard lives. I wish I wasn’t so bad. I better work harder.” #migrantkidmentality
Flash forward to me in a hospital bed in the psych ward, post-suicide attempt at 16 years old, still thinking the same thing. (DOUBLE flash forward to me at 26, typing this essay through chronic pain and brain fog in bed on a Saturday morning, STILL thinking the same thing.)
So in retrospect, it’s easy to see how I got into the whole social justice/radical queer activism thing. Like most of us, all I wanted was to be good — or, in the fashionable parlance of various political moments in the past ten years, “rad,” “down,” or “woke.” Like, my mentally ill transsexual ass was never gonna hack my parents’ idea of goodness (unlike my Harvard-educated, biodegradable plasticizer-inventing, engaged-to-a-hedge-fund-manager, psychiatry resident older sister); but what the rad queer community offered me a whole new set of norms for performance and lovability that at least on the surface gave value to the identity factors (transsexuality, effeminacy, mental illness, general bad attitude) that had caused me so much childhood shame.
It was a whole new chance to be Good, to be Righteous, to Do Good Works and become Lovable at last. Oh yeah, and I was a crazy trans girl of colour living in a white, cis-dominant society. What else could I go? What else could I do?
These days, a friend of mine (we’re similarly jaded) likes to jokingly/not-so-jokingly call me a “High Priestess of the Movement.” Putting it another way, my boyfriend calls me a “microcelebrity.” What this means is that I have two books published that are well-regarded in the social justice art/activism scene, I’m occasionally stopped on the street by strangers, and I get a lot of likes on Facebook. Also some money for speaking engagements, articles (not this one though), and book royalties (it works out to a tiny fraction of minimum wage, if you break down the money received per hour worked).
In other words, I made it. I’m Good/Rad/Woke™, at least for the moment. And all I had to do was incur a mild disability via burnout and post traumatic stress disorder to get here. Hooray.
Beneath all this cynicism, I hold a genuine curiosity: How did we, the loosely-defined North American/Turtle Island social justice left, get here? I say “we” and not “I” because I think that the above piece of my life story, besides being deliciously self-indulgent, is illustrative of a general dynamic that a lot of folks in my cohort of Social Justice Warriors are experiencing in some form:
In general, there seems to be a wave, if not a sea change, moving through the online and IRL leftist communities/scenes, a ripple of dis-ease (if you will) with the ways in which affect (the experience and performance of emotion) and orthodoxy (the creation of norms of political thought and action) are currently playing out.
You can see this ripple being articulated in several pieces of contemporary social justice writing, each of which has been met with some level of notoriety and controversy, among them:
· Sarah Schulman’s book Conflict Is Not Abuse, in which Schulman analyzes and critiques what she calls the “overstatement of harm” as an activist tactic that breaks community bonds and reinforces the power of the State to control and imprison people.
· Porpentine Charity Heartscape’s essay “Hot Allostatic Load,” an account of how the author was bullied, exploited, and traumatized by queer scenes that weaponized social media call-outs against her
· Trent Eady’s McGill Daily article, “Everything is Problematic” in which the author draws parallels between student activism during the Quebec Student Strike and dogmatic cult thinking
· Frances Lee’s article, “Excommunicate Me from the Church of Social Justice,” a comparison between the virtue signalling and shaming dynamics of right-wing Christianity and similar dynamics in the Social Justice Left, and an appeal for greater open-mindedness in the movement
· Angela Nagle’s book Kill All Normies, a monograph arguing that the current rise of the alt right and neo-nationalism in American and to some extent global politics was largely inspired by the political polarization of the culture wars and the alienating politics of the American progressive left
Note: I’m not attesting to the quality/importance or lack thereof of the texts listed above. I agree with some of them, disagree with others, and feel generally complicated about all of them. The common thread is their critique of the social justice left from within the social justice left.
More popularly, the YouTube vlogger Laci Green, a feminist-identified sex educator who accrued mainstream acclaim and several hundreds of thousands of followers, initiated a subcultural scandal by “taking the red pill” and recanting many of her former political ideas, among them the argument that the male/female sex binary is socially constructed and oppressive to trans people. Green also started hosting “dialogues” with vloggers “across the political spectrum,” starting with trans and sex worker-exclusive radical feminists and “anti-SJWs”/the alt right. On Twitter, Green has decried the extremely negative reactions of many of her former fans as regressive, thought-policing, and discursively violent.
I know, right? Blargh! What’s up with the social justice crisis of faith? Why is it happening? And what’s an overachieving yet politically disenchanted, attachment traumatized East Asian tranny who wants to survive and also be a decent person in the world supposed to do with all this?
Well, she could write her own article trying to make sense of it all, for one.
I’m expecting the majority of readers of this essay (if anyone reads it, that is) to be from the social justice movement (why else would you be interested? Are you an anti-SJW/alt-righter trying to use this as fodder for your masturbatory Reddit thread? Ew! Please go away.)
So it will probably come as no surprise to you when I write that, in my experience, there are many leftist and marginalized folks who are not always comfortable with the direction of the social justice left and in particular its focus on increasingly fragmented identity politics and the performance of virtue. In fact, most of what I do now when hanging out with friends “in the Community” is complain about the dynamics of “the Community.”
Let me just pause here to assure you, dear readers (if indeed you exist), that this essay is not going in an “and NOW I am a classic liberal! Both sides are wrong! I’m not like those other progressives” direction. Fuck that noise. I hold the following truths self-evident, AND I ALWAYS WILL:
· We live in a world fundamentally shaped by the systemic exploitation and abuse of many oppressed peoples
· Capitalism and ableism are dominant systems of oppression that reduce the worth of individuals to their ability to work and produce goods for the privileged classes. In reality, everyone deserves access to life resources, dignity, and self-determination regardless of ability.
· For the past several centuries, European capitalism and imperialism have resulted in the ongoing colonisation and in many cases genocide of Indigenous peoples across the globe, as well as the enslavement and indentured servitude of people of colour. Black people particularly have been and continue to be disproportionately targeted for racist exploitation, violence, discrimination, and imprisonment to this day
· The repression of women and gender-nonconforming individuals, as well as so-called sexual minorities, plays a fundamental role in upholding the structures of oppression at large.
· People who live at the intersections of oppression, such as trans women of colour sex workers, have unique and intensified experiences of marginality
· TRANS WOMEN ARE WOMEN
· The work of contemporary movements such as Black Lives Matter and Idle No More is vital and necessary and must be supported
· Oppression is rarely if ever overthrown through peaceful demonstration alone. Economic and social pressure, as well as direct action and violent protest are all essential parts of revolutionary movements
So maybe let’s just proceed from there, okay?
The mainstream critiques of social justice culture are many, vicious, and largely rooted in either liberal appeals to the status quo (“SJWs are undermining their own cause by being so angry and idealistic! Incremental change FTW!”) or outright misogyny, racism, and neo-fascism. I’m not going to bother deconstructing these arguments, mostly because this has already been done rather spectacularly. I’m much more interested in the more complicated “grey area” within the Left itself, which is where yours truly spends most of her time these days.
The following list is a summation of struggles I have with social justice culture broadly speaking, acknowledging that “The Community” and “The Movement” are not in the least monolithic, or even necessarily a politically united body. I am talking in generalities taken mostly from my experiences of activism and rad queer community in major cities on Turtle Island, as well as from that venerable birthplace of revolutionary thought, the Internet. While I claim responsibility for expressing the following thoughts, I know that they are for the most part not original. And undoubtedly, I am oversimplifying certain issues or presenting an unbalanced view of them. My goal here is not claim the credit for a sparkling new piece of analysis, but rather to capture the spirit of my own thoughts and feelings as informed by readings, experiences, and conversations with friends.
And So! Some struggles I (and maybe others) have with the social justice movement’s internal culture:
· Fragmentation of Identity Politics and Essentialism: In case all the references to myself as a “crazy East Asian transsexual” didn’t get this across, I am an Original Identity Politics Girl™. Social justice ideas about identity, particularly race and gender, empowered and liberated me as a teenager and continue to do so today. The language of identity politics allows us to describe social power dynamics like that would otherwise remain invisible, such as white privilege, shadeism, and transmisogyny.
However, as resources dwindle under late-stage capitalism, I think we are seeing increasing fragmentation and oversimplication of identity politics via the Oppression Olympics: harsh competition for resources like funding, attention, and legitimacy based on the number and type of oppressed identities one can claim. This happens on an individual level a lot of the time — simply put, in Social Justice Land, we emphasize our marginalized identities and downplay our privileged ones in order to seem cooler and more important, and to shield ourselves from critique. Online, I sometimes see arguments in which people try to shut each other down using identities as weapons, ie “You can’t talk to me that way! I’m trans and you’re being transphobic!” “Oh yeah? Well I’m a femme and you’re a masc! Shut your misogynist, femme-phobic mouth!”
This type of identity politics is based on a level of essentialism that I am uncomfortable with; it assumes that all people of colour, trans folks, etc, have the same experience and that identity categories apply uniformly across the board. It also reduces people to a very restricted set of “relevant” identities and erases the rest of their life experiences while fetishizing the pain of the oppressed. Strategic essentialism — the ability to talk and form groups based on generalities — is an important tool for activism. But kind of identity politics that discomforts me is not strategic so much as disingenuous and self-serving. It often feels like we are far more interested in diversity of identity rather than diversity of thought.
· Reliance on Binaries: With essentialism comes the reductive categorizing of people and systems into false binaries: oppressor/oppressed, surviver/abuser, problematic/pure. Again, these terms are all useful in particular moments but also obscure the nuances and fluidity of any person or situation — as in, how a white, working class person may in some moments experience more material struggle in the moment than, say, an Asian middle class person and vice versa in another moment in time.
· “Safety” and Regressivism: The concept of “safety” has come to dominate a particular strain of social justice practices, perhaps most famously the use of trigger or content warnings before discussing or showing potentially distressing material. However, the politics of safety grows more broadly from the movement’s emphasis on personal consent in general — consent to touching, to social interaction, and to exposure to ideas.
I am a trauma survivor (quelle surprise), and the thought of safety consumes me on a day to day basis. I am sympathetic to the need for safety, because I don’t feel safe most of the time. My struggle with safety politics is when the safety of an individual or group comes at the expense of another individual or group’s freedom. Alt-righters like to whine about the loss of freedom of speech to the politics of safety, by which they mean white dudes’ freedom to be virulently misogynist/racist/transphobic/ableist, but I am more concerned about vulnerable individuals who stand to actually lose social access and bodily autonomy. I am thinking, for example, about queer community centres where I have worked that restrict the access of mentally ill trans women and homeless people because their very presence makes middle-class queers feel “unsafe.”
Safety is, I believe, an inherently classed, raced, and gendered experience that frequently runs the risk of being used for regressive ends — for restricting the freedoms of the vulnerable, those who ironically are never really safe. Often, we see the call for safety actually reinforce the presence of oppressive institutions like the police and the prison system in our lives. When we choose safety over liberation, our movements fail.
· Performance of Virtue: The social justice internet is rife with peer pressure to repeatedly and consistently demonstrate one’s adherence to the norms of thought and belief that are currently in fashion. We strive to out-do each others’ comments, Tweets, and statuses with political critiques and take-downs, all while using the latest, most perfect unoppressive terminology. I have heard friends describe this as “activist theatre” where goodness is performed and absolution for the original sins of privilege and ignorance is temporarily granted. Perceived problematic-ness is frequently, ferociously dragged, and meaningful dialogue is rare in comparison (though it does occur). The cultural atmosphere is thus more conducive to anxiety-driven attempts to prove one’s goodness through faith to the dogma than it is to the creation of authentic relationships in which we are allowed to be imperfect (which is to say, human) or the development of meaningful social change. The performance of virtue often relies on adherence to startlingly simplistic political slogans that are applied rigidly to across situations regardless of context. As though wokeness were a factory line through which all the same thoughts must be endlessly produced, each just the slightest variation on the one before.
· Righteousness and Exclusion: The moralizing paradigm of social justice Discourse (as the kids are callin’ it these days) when unchecked also leads to a frankly unpleasant tone of superiority and self-righteousness. Those who are not “rad” or “woke” are considered either unworthy of respect or treated as unenlightened potential converts. Frequently, these unworthies are elders, working class/poor individuals without access to the language of social justice, or whose cultures of origin hold differing belief systems. Social justice movements, then, become counter-productively centred around white, middle-class, university-educated Millenial Anglophone North Americans and those of the rest of us who are able to force our way in.
When I think about this issue, I tend to think about my grandmother, a working class woman who moved to Canada in the 1960s while experiencing severe psychosis and speaking no English. She certainly could have benefited from a liberatory movement, but she would never have made it into today’s social justice circles as I know them — no one would have understood or tolerated, much less helped her.
· Bullying and Call-Outs: A lot of public debate has already been had about the benefits and drawbacks of call-out culture in activism, so I won’t go too deeply into it. Suffice it to say, a culture in which the majority of political education is done through public shaming neither all that socially transformative nor psychologically healthy. Call-out culture, in my experience, can also spin into dynamics of punishment through bullying and intimidation, ie doxing, online harassment, etc.
· Celebrityism and Mob Mentality: In the absence of formal leaders, social justice culture has built a system of micro-celebrities (and in a few cases, not-so-micro-celebrities) from which to take inspiration and direction: Artists, academics, prolific users of social media, public speakers and charismatic organizers, for the most part — including a certain essay-writing, spoken word-performing, East Asian transsexual. Such individuals occupy a place of high respect among their followers, as well as disproportionate access to the development of political opinion in the movement — their Tweets and status posts, writings and videos, are liked, reblogged, and shared extensively as a part of the performance of wokeness in activist theatre. Their names and quotes are invoked as a part of the gospel of social justice holy texts. They are lionized as living at the cutting edge of activist thought (though it should be noted that some such mini-celebs are only tangentially or not at all connected to actual grassroots activism work), and they are pedestalized as living examples of activist purity — of the righteous calling of our movement. In the United States, there is an entire small industry of social justice celebrities who make their living on the speaking/performing tour circuit, funded mostly by student groups with access to college and university funding departments.
Yet the standing of such celebrities is also precarious, as the moment inevitably arises that one of them says or does something “problematic” — whether through ignorance or malice, careless thinking/speaking, or a failure to keep up with the shifting landscape of politically correct language. What follows next depends on the egregiousness of the problematic offense, the social capital of the person in question, as well as their adherence to social justice norms of “accountability,” a word which here means “ability and willingness to follow a script regarding the proper way to apologize.” For those who rely on the proceeds of their art, writing, or speaking to survive — usually marginalized trans people and poor people of colour — such a callout can be devastating to one’s economic and social security. This makes true accountability an elusive goal, since accountability is ostensibly based on personal integrity and true willingness to learn, which is hard to achieve when one’s livelihood is under threat.
What strikes me as particularly interesting, and disturbing, about celebrity culture in the social justice movement is its relationship to mob mentality and capitalism: We are happy to take political direction from celebrities within the masked hierarchy of the movement, at once elevating and scrutinizing them — that is, until they say something that we do not agree with. The result is an atmosphere in which individuals are not encouraged to engage completely authentically with the complexities and ambiguities of our politics, either because we “are not important enough” to do so, or because we have been raised too high to fall. Even more disturbingly, what celebrity culture does, in essence, is encourage us to view people’s value — their right to resources and social participation — as contingent on their ability to produce things.
· Critique vs Compassion: My final struggle with social justice culture is its tendency to centre critique at the expense of creative thinking. The strength of social justice ideology are its sharp eyes and tongue, its ability to reveal and tear open the hidden logic of oppressive systems — a powerful and important revolutionary tool. My fear is that the valorization of critique, and the central role that criticism plays in the performance of goodness, has resulted in a rigid way of thinking that prioritizes the endless re-enactment of outrage and conflict while preventing us from developing strategies for reconciliation, necessary compromise, and collective action.
So there you have it — 7 Reasons Why I, An Asian Transsexual, Am Questioning the Social Justice Movement. Too bad I don’t work for Everyday Feminism anymore so I could turn this into a viral listicle and get paid seventy-five bucks for twenty-five hours of writing.
You may have noticed, you clever Reader, that struggles I shared above are actually largely unrelated to the “self evident truths” I listed just before them. I am not really arguing against the basic ideology of the movement so much the ways in which the movement oversimplifies ideology and creates toxic relationships between people. And yet, as any SJW worth their salt can tell you, personal relationships are the most important political building blocks: The revolution starts at home. If you don’t have healing relationships, you probably don’t have a revolutionary movement.
The problem with leaving a movement, of course, or with rejecting its primary modes of thinking/behaving/relating to people, is that you have to have somewhere else to go. Exile isn’t much fun even when it’s self imposed. And in the current polarized political climate, what with rise of neo-nationalism and fascism and the most powerful military state in the world currently being ruled by a narcissistic man-child despot, the only place to go seems to be to the rather far right (I’ve been fooled by so-called centrists before, only to realize to late that they were all just right-wingers without the backbone to call themselves that).
As for Liberalism, that good old ethic of “whatever you do is fine by me as long as it doesn’t hurt others” — well, Liberalism is in its practical form is mostly just an appeal to maintain the status quo (since “hurting others” gets defined as doing anything that upsets the privileged class).
And the problem with the calls for “freedom of speech,” “collegiate debate,” and “open dialogue” that come from such liberals is that “open dialogue,” usually turns out to be a platform for regressives and trolls on the right, rather than an invitation to those whose voices are shut out of both the left and the right. Here again, I think of women like my grandmother.
This, I think, is how you get a Laci Green — a social justice celebrity with a lot of social capital who experienced some of the relationally unpleasant aspects of the movement — scrutiny, hyper-criticality, mob mentality — and then threw up her hands and took a long, sliding step to the right. As a pretty white, young, cisgender woman, she and her desire for “open dialogue” were welcomed with open arms (duh) by the TERFs and alt-righters of the Internet.
Kinda don’t think that’s gonna happen for me.
So where do we go from here? More selfishly put, where do I go from here? To those with stable access to “mainstream” (read: Not the Radical Left) communities, all this analysis might seem like so much navel-gazing — like maybe I and all the other snowflakes should just go and get a life. (Trust me, I’ve thought about it many times, this Getting A Life business).
But here’s the thing: I became a High Priestess of the Radical Left not just because I wanted to be Good — it was also because I needed to be Good, at least to someone. Needed it so I could get friends, and along with them, access to housing, employment, and health care. I doubt that I would have any of those things, and certainly not at the level that I currently enjoy, without the assistance of the social justice movement networks. Because, you know, I am a transsexual, and without the help of “the Community,” I am trapped at the untender mercies of The World.
Had I lived all my life in mainstream community — if I had never run away from home and never found the queer scene — the expectations for my survival would have been to play the part of second-rate woman, to swallow my voice and my needs and perform gratitude in exchange for scraps. In the social justice movement, the price of a trans woman’s presence is to play the part of a revolutionary figurehead, to raise her voice like a Valkyrie leading an army into battle, and to perform survivorhood in exchange for praise.
And my crisis of faith, I suppose, is the realization that maybe I’ve escaped an iron cage for a softer, more sparkly one. With rhinestones.
“I want to be an extremist for love.” — Martin Luther King, Jr
When you’re a child trapped in a situation of physical or psychological deprivation, you learn shame as an efficient, elegant mechanism of survival: Shame at once shields you from the reality that danger is out of your control (since the problem is not that you’re unloved and deprived, it’s that you’re Bad) and simultaneously prevents you from doing or saying anything challenging that might provoke a threat.
As adults, shame makes us curl away from the intensity and potential danger of authentic, compassionate relationships. It tells us to run away from ambiguity and to either submit or lash out at those whom we think might threaten us.
Shame rules community, and not only the social justice kind: In every tight-knit, ideologically steeped community that I have known — Chinese-Canadian, Christian, queer — shame and judgement pervade. In the movement, privilege is our original sin, and the doctrine is our Hail Mary. The political workshop and the protest are our church, and the organizers and speakers are our priests. Shame and judgement are the twin faces of trauma, and we are trained to see ourselves and others through their eyes.
And cynical, crazy East Asian transsexual that I am, I have to believe that another way of seeing, of speaking, of being with one another is possible. That compassion and forgiveness and generosity might join justice and accountability and survival as the core values of our movement. That we might learn to develop tools for reconciliation even as we hone our tools for battle.
But here’s the thing: Dear Reader, if you’ve made it this far, then I have to ask you to think for yourself. To consider the parts of this essay that made sense to you, and to consider also the parts that didn’t (you can always throw them out later). A friend said to me once that my words carry extra weight because of my “celebrity status,” well, they shouldn’t. I’m no High Priestess, I’m just a fucked-up girl who writes essays in a manic haze.
But I know what I want now.
To paraphrase Emma Goldman: If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution.
If I can’t fuck up and learn from my mistakes, then it’s not my revolution.
If I can’t disagree with you, then it’s not my revolution.
If I can’t ask questions, then it’s not my revolution.
If I can’t decide for myself what tactics I will use, then it’s not my revolution.
If I can’t be femme, then it’s not my revolution.
If I can’t choose my own friends, then it’s not my revolution.
If I can’t bring my family, then it’s not my revolution.
If I can’t bring my culture, then it’s not my revolution.
If I can’t bring my ancestors, then it’s not my revolution.
And if it’s not our revolution, then let’s build a new one.