If you are reading this article on a site like The Body is Not An Apology, I cannot conclude anything about you with any certainty — beyond the fact that, in this moment, you have the ability to access my work. I don’t pretend to know you personally or to speak with confidence about your background or, indeed, regarding anything else about you. A major tenet of the radical self-love that we preach, after all, is the value of one’s own experiences.
That said, if you frequent us here, I can probably guess a few things about you. You probably care about social justice. You probably recognize and loathe some isms and phobias — sexism, racism, ableism, classism, healthism, homophobia, transphobia, and just so many more. You probably care about the experiences of your fellow human beings. You probably even believe that your heart is on the right side of history in combatting all of these horrors (and you’d be right). It’s wonderful the kind of person you are, and you should commend yourself for it.
You’re also inevitably going to get it wrong — and you almost certainly have done so at some point already.
One of my favorite axioms in progressive circles is, “The very fact that you can read/hear/access these words in this moment shows that you carry a certain amount of privilege.” If anyone can tell me where this line originated, I will personally buy you an inexpensive beverage. It’s an astute assessment and, no matter how much we may want to play the hero and deny whatever privilege we may have, doing so is only to deny reality. We all have privilege, no matter how downtrodden we are; it’s one of the very few commonalities of all living people. Breathing is another. And getting it wrong when you mean well is one more.
I was in high school when the controversies surrounding Chick-Fil-A and its owner’s vocal and horrendous opposition to homosexuality came out. The chain was popular in my community in Central Florida. The sandwiches were even regularly sold out in our public schools. I never cared for the food much (burgers and burritos were more my thing), but I thoroughly enjoyed guilting my friends who did — and who struggled with giving it up as they acted in solidarity with boycotters. Admittedly, some were religious and applauded the stance, while others grew up eating at Chick-Fil-A and felt as though they were turning their backs on some piece of their childhoods. Either way, I chided them all.
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Then one day, while scrolling online, I saw this graphic:
Full disclaimer, I don’t recommend taking behavioral modification cues from outdated memes, but I do believe in interrogating my own beliefs whenever they are challenged.
Not everyone responds well to condescension or rudeness. (I often do, but I can be stubborn like that.) That one nasty little joke, however, opened me to the realization that I didn’t have every answer. At the time, I considered myself an enlightened liberal who defended Bill Clinton as a bastion of liberalism while ignoring his war crimes, NAFTA, and the Defense of Marriage Act. I didn’t think that Daniel Tosh’s rape jokes or Eminem’s free use of homophobic slurs were at all troublesome. I was a flag-waving defender of free speech, after all.
I got it wrong. I was plenty enlightened, but I still needed perspective and knowledge. I still do, and still will, and so do all of you. And even more important than all of this? It’s okay.
Last year, I read the fabulous book Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay. In the second of two title essays in the book, she makes a statement that I would tattoo on my own forearm if I didn’t think it would require more explication on a daily basis than I’d be willing to give:
When I drive to work, I listen to thuggish rap at a very loud volume even though the lyrics are degrading to women and offend me to my core. The classic Ying Yang Twins song “Salt Shaker”? It’s amazing. “Bitch you gotta shake it till your camel starts to hurt.”
(I am mortified by my music choices.)
I owe that book and that essay a lot. They helped me through a good deal of shame over just getting it wrong.
I tie a lot of my identity into being progressive. The communities I move through, the activism I engage in, and the principles I use to guide my life aid in defining me as a person. As such, getting it wrong cuts deeply. I’m no longer so inexperienced that I think casual use of certain slurs amounts to being “edgy” — though I do still need to catch myself from throwing out “that’s gay” when I mean foolish or ridiculous (ongoing personal battle). But as anyone who’s been embroiled in the social justice struggle is aware, these are the easy points. It’s the microaggressions that are difficult. It’s getting over your past and present tastes and choices that can truly challenge you.
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Like Roxanne Gay, I think the Ying Yang Twins are a lot of fun to listen to. A solid third of this essay was written while blasting some truly problematic Jay-Z and N.W.A. lyrics. Despite horrible histories of transphobia, troubling Libertarianism, and Islamaphobic rhetoric, I haven’t missed an episode of South Park or Real Time with Bill Maher in years. I love the movies of Roman Polanski and Woody Allen.
When I admit these preferences in certain circles, I’m often looked at derisively. Sometimes, I’m asked if I’m at all ashamed or sorry for them. The answer has often been, “A little bit, yeah.”
Progressive folk too often treat their progressivism like a points-based contest. Shame is collateral in a game of one-upmanship. If any of you read the admissions I just made and felt a certain distaste for my statements, I don’t hold it against you. But I do ask that you look at yourself, recognize where you might be getting it wrong, and forgive not me, but yourself.
It isn’t possible to do it right all of the time. It’s critical that, in circles fighting oppression, we be willing to criticize the people within our groups. That’s one of the great tools of intersectionality. White-based feminism needs calling out when it ignores the struggles of trans people or people of color. Black and brown activist communities have had (and in some cases, still have) deep-seated issues with homophobia. Atheist and Christian groups are too often Islamophobic. LGBT groups often forget what “B” and “T” stand for (and omit pansexuals, asexuals, omnisexuals, and a slew of other just-outside-the-binary groups). And most importantly, we as individuals, with our actions and our dollars and our words, are often backing powers and social structures and people that are terrible for the causes we believe in. We need to recognize these problems, but we also need to treat ourselves with grace.
It’s okay if you get it wrong. It’s okay to be complicated and messy and not have every answer.
But it’s not okay to shame.
A lot of the development of radical self-love is bound up in forgiving ourselves for our self-inflicted wounds. Maybe our self-image is tattered by unreasonable expectations of how an attractive or “normal” body looks or moves. Maybe in living our lives affected by these expectations, we’ve reinforced them within ourselves, and it takes self-forgiveness to get over that hump. But we also need to be willing to forgive ourselves for getting it wrong in the world at large. I encourage starting with forgiving others their flaws.
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[Headline image: The photograph features a masculine-presenting person, covering their face with their hand out of guilt.]