Matters of social justice have, over the past several years, become a more and more prevalent matter of discussion in online forums and on social media sites. This is great; the willingness to discuss subjects of sexuality, race, gender, and class represents a great mark of progress for our generation. However, much of this discussion is taking place in spaces that are specifically designed to have no room for debate or consideration and by people who actively discourage dissenting voices and incorporate language and rhetoric that undermine the overall purpose of convincing people of the dire importance of issues such as gender equality.
Even if you’re an active social justice advocate, you may not recognize this as a problem that exists. The most rampant instances of this concern take place in highly-sequestered dens of impenetrable language run by individuals that are hostile to outsiders, but these people are a vocal minority and represent a relatively small sample of the social justice community. However, their methodology and rhetoric, through persistent usage and demonization of opposing voices, trickles into the larger community.
I’ve made some bold claims here, so it’s time to put my money where my mouth is and demonstrate that this is a real phenomenon.
This is Redzos, a 13 year old boy. For context, in this tweet he is defending a comedian’s right to make offensive jokes. This is a contentious issue with a lot of room for debate and I think that most people can understand. But debate isn’t what happened.
This individual found the kid’s Facebook photo and leaked it to Twitter.
These individuals chose to tell this kid to touch their genitals. Jeb Lund is a columnist for The Guardian and Rolling Stone.
solikebasically is a popular Twitter account known for humor and social justice activism. I don’t know if the irony of joking about a child’s penis as a way to berate him for defending offensive jokes was lost on her or not.
And these people are threatening to kill a kid for a tweet.
This is an article about how a tumblr user who drew fan art for the cartoon ‘Steven Universe’ was bullied and harassed into attempting suicide. She was targeted because the fan art she drew was perpetuating “racism/stereotyping, transmisogyny/transphobia, apologism, incest, pedophilia, fatphobia, and ableism”.
For example, when Zamii drew a Japanese character from the popular anime Yowamushi Pedal, she came under fire for giving the character yellow skin and slanted eyes; when she drew a black character, she came under fire for removing her Afro and giving her blonde hair
How did we get here?
How did a movement based on tolerance and acceptance become so hateful and exclusionary? It’s difficult to say exactly, but I believe the increased prevalence of sequestered internet communities and ‘identity politics‘ play a large part. Neither of these individual components are necessarily bad things in and of themselves, but can lead to issues such as this.
In a fantastic article by Freddie deBoer, he speaks to how rhetoric plays a part in this:
I meet and interact with a lot of young lefties who are just stunning rhetorically weak; they feel all of their politics very intensely but can’t articulate them to anyone who doesn’t share the same vocabulary, the same set of cultural and social signifiers that are used to demonstrate you’re one of the “right sort of people.” These kids are often great, they’re smart and passionate, I agree with them on most things, but they have no ability at all to express themselves to those who are not already in their tribe. They say terms like “privilege” or “mansplain” or “tone policing” and expect the conversation to somehow just stop, that if you say the magic words, you have won that round and the world is supposed to roll over to what you want.
deBeor writes this in reference to the esoteric terminology frequently used in social justice communities, but I think it may also be applicable to the hateful and toxic language often seen- that this language may be less indicative of actual hatred and toxicity, but instead a ‘rhetorical weakness’ and inability to express oneself in a more thoughtful and considered manner.
This “passion” that deBoer speaks of is certainly present, but unkempt and untrained. Past the hate there is a want and desire to be good and to do good.
How do we fix this?
As deBoer said, rhetoric plays a huge part; even if we see social justice as a cut-and-dry good thing, the world at large doesn’t, and we need to be rhetorically prepared to defend it and ourselves. Its an important issue and deserves that much, at least.
A key component to this is known as the Rogerian argument. This argumentative style focuses on finding common ground and not viewing whoever you’re debating as your adversary. Treat them kindly, treat them like a human being, and find compromise. Admit your argument’s flaws, consider why it might be hard for them to swallow your argument, and sympathize with them. You don’t need to agree with them, just see where they’re coming from. Stay calm and don’t let your passion, however well-intentioned, get the better of you.
Social justice is important because everyone deserves to feel included and valued and we shouldn’t lose sight of that. In the words of Freddie deBoer,
I would like for people who are committed to arguing about social justice online to work on building a culture that is unrelenting in its criticisms of injustice, but that leaves more room for education. People have to be free to make mistakes, even ones that we find offensive. If we turn away from everyone that says or believes something dumb, we will find ourselves lecturing to an empty room. Surely there are ways to preserve righteous anger while being more circumspect about who is targeted by that anger. And I strongly believe that we can, and must, remind the world that social justice is about being happy, being equal, and being free.
If we demonize everyone we disagree with or everyone who makes a mistake, we’ll be “lecturing to an empty room.”, effectively nullifying the entire purpose of what we’re trying to accomplish.
I realize that, as a heterosexual white male, lecturing minorities and marginalized individuals about the need to “stay calm” could be seen as problematic, and I don’t disagree. I’m more detached from the issue and have less of a stake in it so it’s much easier for me to speak about the importance of rhetoric and considered debate rather than pulling my hair out over how utterly ridiculous and unfathomable it is that issues of race and sex and gender are still a prevalent problem in the year 2016. That being said, I don’t think I’m wrong, and it’s much too important of an issue to sweep under the rug.