In college, I worked against apartheid in South Africa and nuclear power in the US, protested US involvement in Central America, volunteered at a battered women’s shelter, and marched for reproductive rights. As a working adult, I did interfaith work with Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists, and I introduced my homeschooled kid to the realities of imperialism, union-busting, the Transatlantic slave trade and the Native American genocide. In my 50s, I became a disability rights activist, and I currently work serving disabled, homeless, and hungry people.
For most of my life, I’ve worked against hatred and oppressive systems. And, even with age coming up to greet me, I have never wavered in my outrage. If anything, I’m more outraged than I ever was, because I’ve lived through so much, and so much has become worse in the world around me. Yes, same-sex marriage is on the way to being legalized all across the US, and we’ve elected an African-American president, but the systems under which we live are just as entrenched as ever, the level of denial is higher than ever, and the hope that we felt for a brief moment in the 1960s seems to be long gone.
Despite my ongoing work and my continuing outrage, I can no longer participate in online social justice spaces. It’s not that I don’t want to. Given the level of inaccessibility out in the world for people with disabilities, online spaces are sometimes the only places in which I can participate in political discussions. So I want to remain, but I simply can’t. My body and spirit can’t sustain further participation. There are many reasons I’ve moved away from these spaces, and each of my posts this week will explore them.
One of the primary causes is the verbal violence that flows through nearly all of them – violence that replicates the violence in the larger American discourse.
When I use the term “verbal violence,” I want to be clear about what I don’t mean:
1. I’m not talking about anger or about expressions of anger. I love anger, and people have plenty of good goddamned reason to be angry. Anger, like all emotions, is very useful. It’s a signal that something is wrong and needs to be made right. It’s a signal to protect the boundaries of the self. It can be life saving. I owe my anger a great deal. It has saved me many times over. When I was assaulted as a child, the anger in me kept me from harming myself in the aftermath of my pain, because I knew I deserved better.
So I’m not one of those folks who sees anger as a negative emotion. To the contrary. You’ve got anger? Me too. Let’s talk.
2. I’m not talking about making people uncomfortable by challenging them on their bigotry or complicity in oppressive systems. People need to be challenged on a regular basis. In fact, they need to get woken up on a regular basis. A little discomfort is a small price to pay for waking up and working to keep people from being assaulted, excluded, and killed.
3. I’m not talking about the use of profanity. I swear like a fucking trucker. Unless we’re talking about slurs, I don’t believe in bad words. I just believe in words used badly.
4. I’m not talking about being nice and polite, because nice and polite people are not necessarily people who do good. Nice is a patina. Good is what you do. I will acknowledge that I’m a very polite person, but only in certain contexts. When I’m giving out food to homeless people, I’m polite out of respect. When I’m walk through a door in a public place, I hold it for the next person out of consideration. I say please, thank you, you’re welcome, and excuse me when it’s called for. When it’s not called for, I respond appropriately. (See #3, above.)
So what do I mean by verbal violence? I draw a very definite line between anger and violence. Anger is an emotion; it can be expressed in a myriad of ways. It need not take the form of violence. It often does, but that’s not inevitable. It’s a choice. Any emotion can be used for good or ill; people can hurt you out of love just as surely as they can hurt you out of anger, with results that are just as devastating.
So when I talk about verbal violence, I’m not talking about anger. I’m not talking about making people uncomfortable. I’m not talking about profanity. And I’m not talking about not being nice. I’m talking about verbal assaults. I’m talking about people launching ad hominem attacks, calling one another morons and assholes and other assorted epithets. I’m talking about people attempting to tear down one another’s dignity and cause one another pain.
Whenever I have made this critique, I’m generally told that I’m being oversensitive, that words are only words, and that they aren’t as important as systemic racism or ableism or misogyny or any other form of oppression. But this response is based on a false comparison. I am not saying that what happens on a social justice thread is comparable to being incarcerated, shot by the police, or rendered homeless. Certainly not. What I am saying is that words have impact, and that the impact can be destructive on the people who are present.
If words are only words, then there would be no reason for people to respond with upset to anything anyone says. If words are only words, and someone attempts to verbally provoke another person, those words will roll off that person like water off a duck’s back, and no one will respond in kind and escalate the situation. But I’ve seen the situation get escalated on a regular basis, because words have tremendous impact. They can either help or harm, build up or tear down. When people feel their dignity threatened, they most often respond in kind. They become aggressive, they defend themselves, or they just leave.
The idea that we should somehow be strong enough to bear up against verbal violence is not only, at its basis, deeply patriarchal and ableist, but it also replicates the hideous discourse in the larger culture. There is no reason that we should have to be strong at all times and absorb verbal abuse; there is no reason that we cannot be vulnerable, that we cannot say you’re hurting me, that we should not listen to one another, that we should not care about one another’s feelings and one another’s pain.
I find that feelings get a very bad rap in social justice spaces. To some extent, I understand why. People use their personal feelings to derail discussions all the time. How many times have I seen a majority person show up and say things like, “Hey, not ALL white people are like that!” And then they talk about how much the critique hurts them personally. I understand the frustration over these kinds of conversations; every time I see one, I feel the frustration rise in me. To my mind, the only variation on “Not all” that I want to see is, “Not all the people in my group are like me, so I have work to do in my own community.”
But the problem here is not feelings; the problem, once again, is that feelings are being used badly — in this case, to take the focus off of the issues of oppressed people and onto the issues of majority people. In these kinds of situations, there is an entitlement to speaking your feelings, in all times and in all places, that is altogether foreign to me. Who shows up in someone else’s house, refuses to abide by the terms of the household, and expects to get a warm welcome? A lot of people, apparently. The answer, though, isn’t to dismiss feelings as unimportant, especially in a highly emotional discussion. That only replicates the disrespect for human feelings in the larger culture. The answer is to speak to how badly feelings are being used.
Many people in social justice spaces have been traumatized outside these spaces – by someone they know, or by the larger systems that work to grind people down, or both. And when I see people retriggering one another’s trauma, I just want to run. I cannot be there, because watching people be attacked traumatizes me.
Have I always been perfect at any of what I’m talking about? Certainly not. No one ever will be. We are all works in progress. But I have spent a lot of time learning how to be angry and respect the dignity and the feelings of other people at the same time. I don’t want to give trauma to already traumatized people, and I don’t want any more trauma coming to my door.
The bottom line is this: We need to change oppressive systems because if we don’t, people will continue to die before their time. We need to do this work so that people can live. That truth is beyond critique; it is a fact. What I don’t see being addressed is how do we make life worth the living. Yes, we need to save people’s lives, but we need to do more than that. We need to create a world in which people are treated with love, with kindness, with concern, and with gentleness, because no matter how much we change oppressive systems, everyone needs to be treated with respect for their dignity. If we don’t get some control over how we talk to one another, we will have changed systems, but we won’t have created a world that is much more habitable for human beings than the one we’ve got.
For me, the dignity of every human being is non-negotiable. If my words are spoken without respect for the dignity of another person, then my words are working very much at cross purposes with my goal. It takes discipline and restraint to be able to speak my rage without letting loose with my words. It’s difficult. But I have found it necessary.
The world we are creating now is the one that we will have when all of our work is done. So let’s make sure it’s the one we want.[Headline image: The photograph shows the feet and lower legs of a person walking. The person is wearing blue jeans and red sneakers. The sole of the left sneaker is red and visible in the foreground of the image as it comes up from the ground. The person is walking on pavement, with an outdoor structure, trees, and a house visible in the background.]