What Social Justice Warriors Are Unintentionally Teaching Us: Part II
From the original two-part series posted here:
My name is Stefan Ravalli, I am a meditation teacher, and the longest thing I have even written on the subject is about Social Justice Warriors (SJWs). Talk about an attention vortex.
In the first part, I discussed how the ego, the body, and its Samskaric records of pain can form a victim identity, and given the right social permission, a rather righteous one. I introduced SJW’s and presented what was hopefully a balanced diagnosis of this phenomenon. We saw how they are modern martyrs in perhaps less noble ways than they were gunning for, sacrificing their dignity to be a mirror of a universal inner human experience. I stated that what they express outwardly is often not even that much different from our tendencies for inner narratives of victimhood when life doesn’t go our way (something SJW’s would probably not be too thrilled to hear considering one egoic thread of their campaign is for a special status). This is a much different picture of social progress than the previous generations: in the 1960’s the more marginalized brands of human fought for the freedom to be considered just like everyone else and now SJW’s fight to be considered precious and fragile. This is a natural progression of desires for an insatiable ego, where equality doesn’t seem to offer as much candy sweetness as actually managing to tailor one’s very environment to ergonomically fit their emotional framework. But why pursue these cheap rewards? And why now and not before?
Here I would like to discuss how to be an agent of progressive change that isn’t hamstrung by its egoic weakness. How confronting the status quo is a powerful transformative practice, but extreme non-negotiable dualism of the desperate ego is simply not sustainable and will nullify the evolutionary potency of their campaign (both for themselves and the society they take far too much pleasure in grinding against).
Things are changing to make wearing the SJW uniform more inviting. Our collective has become more compassionate, but also equally aware of how compassion can be leveraged to advance one’s self-interests. Thus an economy of sympathy has (temporarily?) emerged. Social media has provided a working prototype for this, as the wounded have found they can cull supporters with increasing ease. In addition, this Social Media revolution has heightened the value of the feedback mechanism so herding collective opinion is gaining pull over individual autonomy.
Although SJW’s are willing to sacrifice their dignity for their cause, dignity doesn’t seem to hold as much value as it used to. (And sacrifice is never really the surrender of any gain, just the exchange of an egoic material one for a less material, but probably still egoic one). Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning’s article on the subject outline a progression of our civilization from an honor culture that defined more anarchic periods of our civilization, where a legal system could not defend our sense of bodily security so we had to (often proactively by responding to offenses by challenging someone to a duel so the community knew not to mess with you). We later grew out of this and into a legal-based civilization, “in which people are assumed to have dignity and don’t need to earn it. They foreswear violence, turn to courts or administrative bodies to respond to major transgressions, and for minor transgressions they either ignore them or attempt to resolve them by social means. There’s no more dueling.”[i] SJW’s represents an evolution of our egoic barometer into something much stranger. Campbell and Manning summarize: “we might call this moral culture a culture of victimhood because the moral status of the victim, at its nadir in honor cultures, has risen to new heights.”
How interesting. I mentioned in the first part how self-prescribed victimhood is a platinum-level spiritual obstacle, and here we are alive in probably the best time in history to claim that status. This is a sweet and menacing time, sweet because it demonstrates collective compassion, menacing because egoic junk food is more available than ever before. And the ego forming itself around victimhood gratification will leave it as insatiable as any other kind of destructive greed would. And as a society we reward this greed, just as we used to reward the industrialist, the genocidal imperialist, and the fascist. The victim mentality may not be as socially catastrophic as a fascist regime, but aligns in its need to control their environment as much as it permits, seen by the SJW’s need for a sort of totalitarian influence on their institution’s policies. It all comes from the same sense of bodily insecurity, requiring exaggerated attempts at compensation by the ego.
The victim ego is sustained by its over-identification with the body, and its demands are prone to continual escalation because the world is read by those more mammalian layers of the mind as an endless source of threats to the body’s continuity. This leads to an infantile feeling of vulnerability that requires the world to repeatedly assure it of its safety. In a moral culture of victimhood, this vulnerability no longer has to be hidden behind toughness or even expressed in moderation, but offered to the world in exchange for its energy and attention.
This lack of security will persist until the ego expands out of the body to define itself by its consciousness, which will only become fully established from repeated experiences of this infinite and immutable source of energy and awareness within. This of course takes a bit of work and time. Not complete devotion of one’s day, but at least one or two activities that connect us to our pure conscious selves. This kind of spiritual advancement does not leave the body behind, but reveals its relevance in the larger context of the inner self and the outer totality, enriching its role rather than diminishing it.
It is in this place we will feel stronger and more relevant, less dependent on the cheap chemical substitutes of external validation. Validation for our existence does not get disqualified here, but just sourced from somewhere deeper. Getting it from people saying, “awwwwwwwe you’re so brave to put up with that!” is like spiritual Aspartame. A stable sense of our self-worth coming from our connection to our inner conscious being is what will legitimately nourish that need for validation.
SJW’s can often be seen deliberately baiting dissenting voices to feed their victim identity, shaping any disagreement to their policy proposals into hate for their genre of individuality. They project or exaggerate enmity in people where it did not previously exist and then lament the injury caused by their very provocation of them. If upon witnessing the cries of a demonstration, you hear yourself say “it looks like they’re enjoying that”, it’s probably because they are. An insecure ego creates enemies, deliberately fracturing itself in order to experience the high of simulating its repair. This reveling in negative attention illustrates just how comical of a game the ego can play. Ultimately, the ego wants to feel whole, but we can’t help being drawn into some story of injustice towards us, designing an egoic symptom the world needs to cure it of, trading its strength for the fleeting high of temporary deliverance from weakness. (The principle of Samskara would suggest we aren’t designing symptoms so much as relabeling the pain that is already there and blaming the outside world for it. However, such contentious action could only add to the Samskaric minefield.)
Those of us lacking the revolutionary spirit engage in this game more covertly. Our reasonable mind buries its desperation under rationalization; we tell ourselves that our personal collection of enemies and power struggles are of righteous necessity, not acknowledging just how much our behavior indulges ego-sabotage. It’s the same reward pathway as the child who secretly rejoices at needing crutches so he can cull the doting attention of his classmates. However, it must be understood that moving from dependence on societal coddling to our own empowered autonomy, is really just a shift from infanthood to adolescence. What we radiate into the world is really the point of any inner work so generating outer harmony is not just “of equal importance” to inner harmony, it is the expression of its maturity.
The Systems Thinking model always inspires me to perform the vital task of placing my individual growth in a larger context: “sure, I am improving my individual self, but what is the relevance of this allegedly improved self to the world?” Systems Thinking is like a rigorously technical version of Eastern models of balance and growth, like the Daoist Yin-Yang. So often a partial understanding of an idea results in exploiting it to maintain our unsustainable individualistic patterns rather than realize our nature as a collective being. It is too easy to become self-indulgent, forgetting the need to balance personal autonomy and community integration. Systems Thinking would call this narrow dependence on ego-gratification “pathological agency”, where the Yin-Yang would be warped by a Yang-sided bulge.[ii]
SJW’s have the opposite issue, forgoing their individuality in the service of creating a better whole. In Systems Thinking, this would be called “pathological communion” — too little self, too much whole. They make no bones about surrendering their personal power to a third party (i.e. policymakers who write a school’s code of conduct), which might outwardly seem like a bizarre practice to someone fighting for their uniqueness. You would think autonomy would be high on the list, but an excessively Yin ideology neutralizes this.
So if individuality is being surrendered, one would expect the members of the cause to behave in selfless service to mankind. And yet they seem like the picture of self-absorption. That’s because it’s more like dignity and personal responsibility being surrendered, while leaving egoic neediness turned up to high. But you can’t bring benefit to the whole with totalitarian policies that that cater to the interests of a few. Their unwitting damage to the whole demonstrates symptoms of pathological agency. This is what makes the campaign seem confusing and outright hypocritical — their message is of greater communion and yet they thrive off of dualism, considering whoever represents a diversion from their identity paradigm as innately their adversary (i.e. the standard straight, white, cisgendered, able-bodied factory model American). In any movement, its vision of a better world is stifled when they fail to realize these pathologically autonomous features.
And here we see the unsustainable nature of such an approach: a pathological communion message with pathological agency behavior. This places them in what is systemically a no-win situation — a loss their cause and their self-possession. This also reveals how a more holistically-minded as well as self-respecting approach could bring the progress they hopefully desire as much as they claim to. Spiritual growth enables a more balanced approached to being radical. Balanced radicalism is not a diluted dilettante version of it, but the way relevant and sustainable change establishes itself in natural systems. Remembering our individual selves are undeniably a “holarchy” (simultaneously a part and a whole) means we can exist in a collective as both a harmonious member of it (healthy levels of communion) and a dynamic member of it (healthy levels of autonomy). This would not result in the kind of power subordination the rebel mind may fear, but a smoother, more efficient and thorough flow of change.
The first thing SJW’s could work on is their own psychic health. A divisive cause where its members have lost a sense of themselves is problematic since its members serve as an example of its legitimacy, and people don’t tend to follow ideas, but flesh and blood representations of them. Back we come to the body and its power. If you’re going to fight for the body’s acceptance, one can’t forget to present it with dignity.
A very thorough Atlantic article gets more deeply into the psychopathology of SJW behavior, however the Western medical approach of pathologizing behavior reduces it to something that must be thoughtlessly vanquished rather than worked with. In the spirit of finding an alternative to this dualistic worldview of the SJW, I think its time to explore how to have “power with” not “power over”.
First let’s understand where they are in their journey. As members of a disenfranchised social class, SJW’s are displaying a progression from timid insecurity to an emboldened insecurity, so naturally the ways they put their cause on the table will contradict its very tenets. This can be considered progress: from feeling of less worth and therefore “pre-defeated” by their society, to feeling more deserving and thus able to defeat themselves. That is simply the nature of a voice being born and learning to walk — it is going to stumble as it attempts to claim its agency. Although this righteousness is the expression of confidence and therefore a sort of upgrade, it must be acknowledged as only a necessary transitional phase. As they move from sullenly marginalized to neurotically integrated, every outcry is a demonstration of what they need to resolve within themselves. Think of this as a sense of self that has expanded in volume, but not mass, exposing its fragility.
I guess the question remains: how else is this supposed to go? Great leaps forward require moments of vulnerability. And choices have to be made in the process: either invest in a position of strength and resilience or leverage personal injury in the name of social cause (probably not too different a strategy decision than a footballer choosing how dramatically to respond to an aggressive slide tackle). One has to get emphasized at the cost of the other — but only in a dualistic model.
Let’s look at a more holistic model: Although it is easy to ridicule the SJW’s campaign for their “right to not be offended” since it relinquishes any idea of self-mastery in the face of negative stimulus, it also calls attention to the importance of decent human conduct. And you can’t petition for people to have greater egoic resilience without also sounding like you’re requesting the freedom to be crude and inconsiderate, depending on the strength of others to capacitate our ignorance (let’s recall how obnoxious the person is who brandishes the ol’ “What? I just call it like I see it. Don’t be so sensitive”). That is of course a completely individualistic framework, which creates a dualistic framework of us vs. them in a futile competition of Who Can Achieve Greater License To Be Weak. Ultimately, putting aside all of the individualist arguments of “you need to toughen up for the big bad world you will find yourself in after university”, a holistic argument must be added to this: everyone needs to be strong. Everyone could benefit from treating each other better. It’s just that the process of finding that mutual understanding of good conduct needs to be more fluid than its current state.
Making the holistic approach work requires the mending of a certain paradox: the spiritual journey values greater resilience to the world’s general lack of compassion and courtesy, while prioritizing greater compassion and courtesy in one’s own conduct. Shrug off ignorance like it’s no big deal, yet operate in favor of its eradication. The paradox collapses when we switch from goal-orientation to process-orientation. SJW’s are currently goal-oriented, seeking an ideal world where no one conducts themselves to one another in a way that causes them pain, and rejecting anything that departs from this ideal.
SJW’s will have greater success if they switched to process-orientation, which involves not rejecting the current state of things. I have said before that meditation mechanics don’t necessarily map on to operating principles in life, but this system really work in both life and meditation: set your preference of keeping your attention on one thing, while not rejecting what naturally arises in the mind to pull you away from attention on that thing. Just consistently return to that preference. Eventually the mind integrates and harmonizes and does so more thoroughly and efficiently since no aspect of its nature was rejected in the process. This can be implemented in seeking social progress: simply embody the example of the change you want, communicate it tactfully and compassionately, while not expecting the world to behave any differently than it has set itself up to be. And know that instilling change means understanding and appreciating the present state, which will inevitably not align with that utopian vision. The combativeness, the control-seeking policies, the demands for special titles and treatment, are all trying to short-circuit the natural growth process — a process that is happening faster than we may realize thanks to the nature of the connected age.
That is a fatal flaw of the SJW outlook: they think the world doesn’t already want to get better and therefore miss out on the boon with collaborating with a willing partner. Someone needs to find a way of telling them that most people don’t want to cause them pain, and just as SJW’s have “the right to not be offended”, the average human has the freedom to make mistakes in their conduct as they constantly refine themselves. The people that offend them are humans and when most humans say something that hurts someone, that person’s disapproval, whether vocalized or not, is punishment enough. We are social beings and do not tend to seek disapproval. Reacting by condemning the habits of others alienates those they claim to seek integration with. And persecution will only create taboos and elevate the deliciousness of crudeness.
Our tendencies to criticize need to soften towards SJW’s (especially with people that write two-part 5,ooo word essays attempting to tie their mission to spiritual dysfunction), as we can’t effectively neutralize their unchecked righteousness with our own brand of unchecked righteousness. Know that such criticism is our own self-acquittal from the weakness our target represents. All we are saying is “Look at me, I totally don’t do that!” This very article might be one big self-acquittal. As the old adage goes “we teach best what we most need to learn” (apparently Richard Bach is known for saying that, but I’m sure I will inevitably come across some version of it in an ancient text). I could easily say my work is just as much affirmation as it is investigation. And although we may give people a hard time for trying to sound like a know-it-all, holier-than-thou, or self-righteous to SJW proportions, I also find it endearing how readily they expose their inner process to me. The thought “Oh, you think you’re better than me, don’t you?!” is more often replaced with “Thank you for letting me in on what you’re still working out.” Anyone criticizing an SJW would do well to ask themselves how well they shoulder someone hitting one of their triggers.
And although the status of the victim has certainly experienced some upward mobility over the years, there really isn’t anything new about the importance of conduct. Strict codes of human interaction have presided over so many Asian and European cultures, all designed to prevent one person from offending the other. We design our civilization to protect it from itself. In more ancient times it seems that we were protecting ourselves from our own savage fierceness, and today from our own vulnerability, but ultimately it’s just a different expression of the same egoic wound. Today the violence has sublimated to rhetoric, granting the offended the chance to interface with their aggressors rather than simply annihilating them. Let’s not waste this opportunity. The endless dualistic cycle of trying to shore up “power over” another will never yield as much as “power with” whoever challenges us. For no one can challenge us without teaching us.
Notes & References:
[i] Haidt, Jonathan. “Where Microagressions Really Come From.” http://righteousmind.com/where-microaggressions-really-come-from/. Sept 7, 2015. Web.
[ii] Wilber, Ken. Sex, Ecology & Spirituality. 2nd Ed. Revised. Boston & London: Shambhala. 1995 & 2000. Print.