“confronting racism, sexism and all the underlying structural oppressions of our system is never easy, and taking a good, hard look at our own privilege is inevitably a painful process. but there’s a harshness in the air now that is more intense than i’ve seen in fifty years of involvement in social justice struggles.”
–starhawk in building a welcoming movement
“solidarity can look so many different ways.
i have been in movement spaces for a long time, and we have a way of doing things that is so steeped in critique that i have often wondered if we would stangle movement before it could blossom. sometimes i think we put up the critiques to excuse ourselves from getting involved, and sometimes i think we do it to protect our hearts from getting broken if it doesn’t work out. critique, alone, can keep us from having to pick up the responsibility of figuring out solutions. sometimes i think we need to liberate ourselves from critique, both internal and external, to truly give change a chance.”
–adrienne marie brown in emergent strategy
this piece grew in response to france lee’s brilliant viral essay ‘excommunicate me from the church of social justice’. i have deep gratitude to frances and all the other leaders who have spoken out before me, about toxic social justice culture. i hope this piece can act as one more stepping stone on the route we’re weaving back home.
i turned 20 in poznan poland. my family was back home in the pacific northwest, keeping vigil beside my little brother, who had recently woken up from a coma after a devastating car accident. i skyped with my boyfriend most days, while i was away. he was muscular and handsome, a scorpio with a warm smile. he supported me every day through my family’s trauma.
he also didn’t believe in climate change.
at that time, i didn’t know i was a #queerfemmesurvivorspooniewitch.
shortly before we broke up he shut down a tar sands oil mine for 2 days with me.
i was in poland at the united nations climate change conference. i spoke directly to the man who was negotiating on behalf of canada, in front of a crowd.
i told him i was ashamed to be canadian.
i told him he was hurting the younger generations.
i told him he was taking away our hope.
i was young and there was so much i didn’t know, but i was trying. i wanted to help make change. when i arrived in poland i really believed we could save the world. when i left, i was deep in my first wave of burnout. i felt heartbroken and helpless.
millennials like me are coming of age on the threshold of the climate crisis, despite being born in a time where environmental collapse still felt theoretical. things feel different these days. young ones attending school for the first time have only lived in a world with a deeply uncertain future. it’s no longer unusual to be stuck in commuter traffic under a smoky sky and neon blood moon, as the forest burns all around us.
eating grief is the sacred calling of our generation.
when in doubt, listen to whales.
if you are alive and aware in the world today it is impossible to not feel anxious.
endless grief is the norm, dissociation becomes a survival skill.
we ache with uncertainty.
numbness and denial are popular too.
safety and hope feel perpetually out of reach.
coming to terms with being alive on a dying, unjust planet easily lends itself to existential crisis.
why am i here?
where do i belong?
what do we do with the time that remains?
is there anything i can do to make this to actually make this better?
what is the point?
the millennial experience is etched with yearning. we care deeply about each other. we support and witness each other. we feel, generations of buried feelings. we feel it all.
we feel called to each other, because we can’t bear the purposeless, the numbness, the aching aloneness of it all.
we aspire online. we learn about the world. we consume more stories than our bodies can hold. we shake. we take anxiety medication and we smoke weed. we struggle to digest. our news feeds shake our dreams. we give money. we ache. we drown.
we keep posting and liking, posting and liking.
and somewhere along the way, we discover social-justice-intersectional-everyday-feminism.
finally the world starts to make a bit more sense.
for the first time, it feels ok to say no.
it feels ok to be openly crazy/magical/queer/broken/fat/etc.
it feels safe to collect all our fragmented pieces and start to weave them into wholeness.
we ache to belong, so we learn the jargon. we take a women’s studies class. we walk in rallies. we sleep at occupy wall street, at least we consider it. we #smashthecisheteroableistcolonialpatriarcialracisthegemony.
we spend a lot of time online, keeping up with the joneses.
quickly, we learn to be careful what we say.
modern social justice culture can be a toxic mix of academic feminism and trolling.
academic feminism appropriates black feminism and feeds it to (mostly white) insecure, privileged young people. these impressionable young people feel deeply unsafe, both in the world and with each other.
i was one of those impressionable young people. i did academic work in women studies. i became cruel and critical because it made me feel safe. all my prompts at school started with “critique” “problematize” “deconstruct”.
More Radical Reads: 6 Unhelpful Comments That Gaslight People in Conversations About Social Justice
i lived from the neck up only. i smoked cigarettes and ate only occasionally. i slept with queer people who were abusive. i couldn’t see our harm because we were #smashingthepatriarchy.
i became a killjoy feminist, who secretly wondered about ecstasy.
i cared about the world and social justice made me feel safe.
not safe like warm. safe like alone with a knife.
i would have sacrificed anything at the altar of social-justice-intersectional-everyday-feminism.
and i did, because i didn’t want to lose my elusive “community”.
have you seen wild wild country on netflix?
if not, go ahead and watch the trailer.
make yourself a cup of tea.
don’t worry, i’ll wait.
watching ‘wild wild country’ was profound for me. witnessing the throngs of desperate, mostly white, people seeking to belong to something bigger than themselves, it reflected back a lonely piece of me.
i recognized the longing in their eyes instantly.
wild wild country involves a massive global cult that made millions feeding off the spiritual insecurity of mostly wealthy, mostly white westerners. the central leader of the cult is the bhagwhan: an abusive and lazy criminal kingpin. he experiences tremendous racism as his power grows in america.
the bhagwan’s right hand woman is ma anand sheela. like most powerhouse femmes, sheela is the true brains behind the operation. sheela’s a community organizer and she carries herself with tremendous ferocity and grace.
sheela is a complicated character. when i watched this show for the second time with my mother, she was horrified that i identified with sheela. sheela’s list of morally dubious choices includes attempted murder, bio-terrorism, voter fraud, and just generally bullying and manipulating people. at one point in the show she is described as having ‘no empathy’.
but sheela is not simply just a criminal, she’s also a victim.
it’s very clear from watching sheela that she did these things because she was being abused and brainwashed. she was only 17 when she began to follow the bhagwan. everything she did was motivated by a craving to end suffering. she believed the bhagwan was the way of change, that he was enlightened. he was her guru, after all.
and more than just a victim sheela is also a survivor.
by the end of the show my mom was also rooting for sheela. i bet most survivors of violence would find solace in sheela’s voracity as she stands up to her abuser. one of the most powerful moments in the show is when sheela confronts the bhagwan on live television. she is not able to meet him in person because of the risk it places to her personal safety, so instead she chews him out through a live recording, with her face on a tv screen.
sheela is a femme who knows how to protect herself. she’s a hero. she’s terrifying. and she’s also deeply relatable.
like most millennial social-justice-warrior-types, i have martyred myself for a cause. i have given my power away through over-caregiving and enmeshment. i have been thrown under the bus by the very people who helped me believe that a more just world is possible.
i have been cruel and manipulative in the name of justice.
i have done things i could only justify through the lens of toxic social justice culture.
much like sheela i have been the leader who rises from the ashes: damaged but still brilliant, with eyes that are sometimes clear, and eyes that sometimes glaze over with remembering.
#imwithsheela because i am sheela: both victim and mastermind.
many would say i’ve made it.
don’t get me wrong: i love my work. truly, i do. working for myself is one of the most liberating choices i’ve ever made. my work allows me to be more embodied and to step into my power. my work has taught me how to never betray myself again. i hope i never give up on working for myself.
i’ve met true friends: allies, inspirations and mentors, through my online work. people i look up to and rely on, people i am weaving interdependence with.
i wouldn’t be here without my loved ones.
one of the most common conversations between us these days is how done we feel with toxic social justice culture. we’re quitting facebook, getting diagnosed, working with healers, hanging out in our bodies, and learning the necessity of connecting somatically.
we’re exhaling, stepping back and wondering: there must be a better way.
right now i’m in the midst of stepping away from facebook.
this choice has felt both impossibly difficult and undeniably necessary.
when i was still on facebook every day i would wake up in the morning, roll over and turn my phone off airplane. i’d reload my facebook just to make sure there were no notifications or messages to tend to.
i called this practice “daily damage control”.
i justified checking facebook before feeding myself, brushing my teeth or noticing that i have a body, because i didn’t believe i could feel calm through my morning unless i knew i hadn’t been called out over night. i truly believed my livelihood was dependent on this practice, because in some ways it was.
when i first locked myself out of facebook using this chrome extension i felt like i was going to throw up and i felt relieved. the longer i’m offline the more i realize: being online with this kind of vigilance doesn’t feel safe.
not safe like warm. safe like alone with a knife.
in the process of promoting my course hawthorn heart – boundary skills and protection magic i have been attacked and pressured in a number of different ways online.
people have told me to kill myself. they’ve told me that i’m a fraud. that my work is killing them.
i’ve been asked: ‘how dare you charge money for something that is so desperately needed?’
i’ve been told that i must give scholarships to someone or else i am oppressing them, while i have struggled with homelessness and meeting my basic needs.
people have made posts saying that my work is a scam. they say i’m taking advantage of traumatized victims, that i am manipulating and stealing from people. when i have stepped in to resolve conflict in the facebook group attached to my course my qualifications have been questioned and my words ridiculed. folks who have not taken the course, who were invited to join the group for free, are often the harshest critics.
the piece that is scariest to talk about is the callouts. i’ve been sent numerous call outs that utilize cruel bullying tactics. i’ve been pressured to participate in these callouts.
i teach a class about boundaries and i have felt scared to assert much needed boundaries, because i fear the tactics in these callouts will be used on me or my business.
More Radical Reads: A Note on Call-Out Culture
i have been threatened and gaslit repeatedly, mostly implicitly, but explicitly too. i can’t help but notice how often we try to get our needs met through critique. i can’t help but notice how infrequently this actually works, and how much lonelier this way of relating makes us.
these conditions are not conducive to liberation.
or healing or deeply needed visionary leadership.
these conditions are coercive and eerily similar to witch hunts.
these conditions lead young visionaries to burn out, give up and sometimes even kill ourselves.
these conditions have lead me to want to kill myself.
yes, i spent most of this past winter battling suicidal ideation.
yes, i’m feeling more stable now.
this is not restorative justice, which we deeply need but largely don’t know how to practice
– this is lateral violence.
i know i’m not the only one who is ready for something new.
i know that me and my loves one are not the only ones having hushed conversations, confessing to each other what we’re scared to say in public:
what do you want to see bloom?
here’s what’s giving me hope these days:
if you feel lost after read this, it’s ok.
just breathe, feel your body connecting to the earth and remember:
i believe in you.
i believe in us.
we’re going to get through this.
we’re going to create something new: together.
poplar rose is a mystic, author, folk herbalist, pole dancer, gourmet kombucha brewer and goat psychic with a grand fire trine. they are also the empress hermit witch of @witchcabinet: a #digitalapothecary. rose listens to whales and teaches hawthorn heart: boundary skills and protection magic.
[Featured Image: Photo of a group of people standing in a kitchen talking as they prepare a communal dinner. Source: Pexels]