I think online social justice work has been a blessing in the sense that it has given a voice to many peoples and communities whose voices were often missing, excluded, or silenced in sociopolitical discussions. Additionally, the Internet has made it possible for many more people to have access to these debates and discussions, such as disabled people/people with disabilities who are often unable to access on-the-ground events because many organizers are unwilling to make accommodations, or poor peoples who simply cannot afford to travel to these events.
There are many absolutely amazing and brilliant online social justice activists doing work that honestly, truly matters, and are, despite narratives to the contrary, affecting the discourse and changing minds.
But like everything else, there is a deeply disturbing dark side to online social justice work.
One of the things I deeply dislike about certain aspects of the social justice activism and social justice spaces I’ve encountered is how intentionally vicious they can be. And I’m not talking about viciousness between social justice activists and trolls. I’m talking about the viciousness between peoples with the same goals, but who might have different strategies for obtaining those goals. I’ve seen some really hateful, ugly, deeply dishonest and self-serving stuff happening in conversations in these spaces-including my own. I’m not talking about disagreements or even heated disagreements. I’m talking about full-on attempts at destroying each other–from credibility to personhood. I’m talking about people who truly get off on making others feel as small as possible so they can feel big.
I’m talking about intentionally committing violence against and silencing other people. I’m talking about people lying and slandering others with the intent of spiritually murdering them as though they were opposing a concept rather than a person. The Internet often helps with the depersonalization of people.
When you think you’re arguing with, and trying to obliterate, digitized images and typed words instead of a living being, it’s easier to be joyfully inhumane, spiritually toxic, and intellectually genocidal, then reward yourself by calling it “social justice.” It’s easy to be gleeful about shitting on an opponent (an opponent that you, yourself, manufactured for your own dubious purposes, by the way) and high-five each other about the havoc you wreaked when you can treat the carnage as a concept rather than reality.
I’m talking about people who wear the cloak of victimhood like a Trojan horse in order to sneak into the village, get close to you and–surprise–become the victimizers you never expected. There are people who use their marginalized identities and communities not for the purposes of liberation, but as a hustle, as masturbation, as a way to elevate themselves to a place where they are above reproach. I’m talking about the people who have the audacity to use “trigger” not as a real expression and sign post of lived trauma, but as a strategic pretense to silence any opinions they don’t like.
It’s like they play this game where the more marginalized identity boxes they can check off, the more they can’t be criticized for any behavior they engage in, no matter how abusive and counterrevolutionary. Therefore, the goal is to check off as many marginalized identity boxes as they can-even if they have to invent them or pretend to belong to them. Whoever has the most, wins.
To me, that’s the original pimp strategy and I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t like pimps. But I have discovered that there are many of them in this arena. Some folks are out here big pimpin’ and calling it “radical” of all things.
I don’t know why, but that shocked me. I did some research to determine whether this was a new phenomenon brought on by the anonymity of the Internet. What I discovered is this behavior pre-dates the Internet. Shirley Chisholm, for example, was the target of disgusting attacks by people who should have been in solidarity with her. Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison said such despicable things about James Baldwin that it would make your skin crawl. Much to my dismay, I learned this in-fighting and hostility isn’t novel in any respect.
Sometimes, I’ve been accused of being egotistical, which, okay, fine if that’s your opinion. But the truth of the matter is that I’m not trying to be a pimp at this stuff. Part of why I don’t do public speaking gigs, etc. is because I’m not trying to become some kind of object of celebrity or fame. I’m not trying to become some kind of commercial figure or commodity.
I’m not, for example, trying to be that person who maneuvers themselves closer to the president in group photo opportunities because they are trying to climb some political ladder. Those people want to be “The One.” Not me, though. I’m not trying to be the “go-to” expert. I’m not trying to be in the spotlight. I’m not trying to be anyone’s leader. I’m not trying to make money off of this work. I’m not trying to play like I’m perfect and have all the answers. I’m learning right alongside everyone else. I’m not here to be worshiped like some god-thing, but regarded as a human being who is growing and evolving, falling down and getting back up again with increased knowledge. I’m a participant in this conversation.
But increasingly, these aren’t conversations anymore. Increasingly, these are encounters with people with not-always-legit agendas trying to push those agendas as liberation strategies. These people are about switching places with the oppressor and will use whichever of the “master’s tools” (as Audre Lorde called them) is necessary to do so. However, I’m not interested in being chained and I’m not interested in chaining anyone else. That, for me, is the politics of inertia and I’m interested in progress. I want everyone to be liberated.
Part of the genius of this violence-strategy that some people who call themselves marginalized employ is that it’s difficult for the victim of the violence to discern whether the violence is legitimate or illegitimate. Because many of the people in this work are so committed to justice, they err on the side of it being legitimate even when it isn’t. So they endure the emotional, psychic, psychological, spiritual, and sometimes even physical abuse because they’re afraid if they don’t, they will be labeled as a part of the problem. Speaking for myself, I’ve allowed people to abuse me, even flat-out lie about me on an ongoing basis, just so I wouldn’t be perceived as an oppressor and anti-justice (because of the ways in which my identities intersect, in and out, with privilege and oppression and marginalization). To save my “reputation” among the social justice crowd, I’ve been a masochist. It’s so incredibly complicated. And I do not have the answers for it. But I do have the bruises.
So, I’m no longer engaging the brutality. I’m moving away, not from the difficult and needed conversations, but from the egotistical violence. If your concept of social justice is about amassing power at the expense of other victims of hegemonic abuse, I cannot be down for your cause. And if that makes me “bad” at doing this social justice stuff, then so be it. If you need me to be the villain so you can feel like the hero in your own story, play on playa. But you’ll be playing sans me. I won’t give you the attention you’re seeking. I will absolutely refuse to see you no matter what tricks you employ. I’ve got other work to do.[Headline image: The photograph features a stage with a spotlight shining on a line microphone and stand.]
Robert Jones, Jr. is a writer and editor from Brooklyn, N.Y. He is the creator of the social justice media brand, Son of Baldwin. He is currently working on his first novel. Follow him on Twitter @sonofbaldwin.