Social Justice on the Macro, Empathy on the Micro
Right now, in this world, in this country, this state, in small liberal-minded Portland, OR–I’ve been thinking a lot. Reading. Meeting people. Listening. I’m in a gathering period. My fingernails, untended, are too long. I feel slow. I’ve turned off all my social media notifications. The fuzziness, I have faith, will give way to focus. Everything feels necessary, and time is always running out. I’m trying to synthesize everything, but I don’t want to write about it, because let’s be clear: everyone is already writing about it.
In a recent New York Times Magazine piece, titled “The Age of Rudeness,” Rachel Cusk examines the current social climate that resides after Britain’s break from the European Union, otherwise known as “Brexit”:
Unlike the victors, the losers are loquacious. They render the logic of their suffering with exactitude and skill, waxing to new expressive heights. The deluge of fine writing that follows the referendum contrasts strangely with the reticence that preceded it. The liberal elite are defending their reality, but too late. Some urge a show of tolerance and understanding; others talk about the various stages of grief; others still call for courage in standing up for the values of liberalism. These are fine performances, but it is unclear whom they are for. I have often noticed how people begin to narrate out loud when in the presence of mute creatures, a dog, say, or a baby: Who is the silent witness to this verbal outpouring?
Britain is—like other parts of the world—much like the U.S right now. The Trump administration’s intellectual platform is based on “alternative facts” instead of actual facts, and as Americans’ attention spans are reduced to sound-bites and 140 character-Tweets and the re-circulation of fake articles through email blasts and social media, there’s a lot of fuckery going on. Everyone has their own platform, everyone wants their own veritable bullhorn, and every one has audiences that believe everything they hear.
Reprinted in the Times, journalist Bret Stephens’ gave a lecture at University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) for the Daniel Pearl Memorial ceremony. He shared these alarming statistics: “Today we have “dis-intermediating” technologies such as Twitter, which have cut out the media as the middleman between politicians and the public. Today, just 17% of adults aged 18-24 read a newspaper daily, down from 42% at the turn of the century. Today there are fewer than 33,000 full-time newsroom employees, a drop from 55,000 just 20 years ago.” The individual of this day and age is a curatorial master – they don’t seek answers, they just seek the answers that serve them.
Admittedly, I have more faith in the power of the written word to move people than Cusk might at the moment, and I don’t necessarily buy into the belief that thinking and writing is as anemic a practice as she paints it “...who is the silent witness to this verbal outpouring?” But that question: who is actually listening? Is a nagging one. A question that has me teetering dangerously close to anguished confusion, but as time goes on, it devolves to generalized anger.
In Stephens’ lecture he warns the students at UCLA (and us) against undermining Trump’s lies:
I think it’s important not to dismiss the president’s reply simply as dumb. We ought to assume that it’s darkly brilliant — if not in intention then certainly in effect. The president is responding to a claim of fact not by denying the fact, but by denying the claim that facts are supposed to have on an argument[...]
If some of you in this room are students of political philosophy, you know where this argument originates. This is a version of Thrasymachus’s argument in Plato’s Republic that justice is the advantage of the stronger and that injustice “if it is on a large enough scale, is stronger, freer, and more masterly than justice.”
Substitute the words “truth” and “falsehood” for “justice” and “injustice,” and there you have the Trumpian view of the world. If I had to sum it up in a single sentence, it would be this: Truth is what you can get away with.
Being thoughtful in writing takes time. It takes me hours upon hours for me to draft these posts, especially when I’m wrestling through the material. The gross advantage that Trumpsters have over us “thinkers” are that lies take no time at all to tell. The other side's derailing insults and complete disregard for anyone else, lead to quicker decision making time and they’re dangerously effective in their execution. Over here, on our side, we can’t just address one lie, before we have to address another, and another, and another. It’s wearing us down. Vice published the “Saddest Calendar on the Internet” tracking Trump’s first month in office, everything coming down the pike like rapid fire––and still, this country has no reasonable gun control laws.
I didn’t want to write about this.
I wanted to write about other things. Like how I don’t eat chocolate bars with lower than 85% cacao, because I will devour an entire bar in one sitting if it has any hint of sweetness. Or the fact that my cat sometimes sits with his front paws zippered up like something proper: here’s a picture of him when he got in a fight, and needed a cone to prevent him from reopening his wound.
But Cusk and Stephen’s were the two articles I read most recently. Then my mind started spiraling. Is this efficient behavior? No. Is it effective? I’m still trying to figure that out.
Prior to Trump’s win of the presidency, many articles were being published surrounding the topic on the rise of authoritarianism worldwide. In the March 1, 2016 Vox article, a group of niche political scientists had predicted that a man with Trump’s characteristics would rise to power in the U.S.:
MacWilliams studies authoritarianism — not actual dictators, but rather a psychological profile of individual voters that is characterized by a desire for order and a fear of outsiders. People who score high in authoritarianism, when they feel threatened, look for strong leaders who promise to take whatever action necessary to protect them from outsiders and prevent the changes they fear.
Let me translate: people who are fearful elect dictators. People who are fearful elect to oppress themselves and others. My friend who is a Vietnam War vet said to me, “when people are scared, they are dangerous.” Even Dictionary.com’s word of the year in 2016 was “xenophobia.”
In 2015, I was reading articles about how hyper-liberalism and political correctness had taken the cultivation of safe spaces way too far. University students had become hypersensitive to “trigger” words, and were policing for political correctness left and right. This had a detrimental effect. It started censoring discussion and oppressed the engagement of complex ideas in classroom settings. Professors were speaking out about the fear of losing their jobs due to offending too many of their students when teaching difficult subjects like race and history. Comedians were divulging how they had to water-down all their risqué material to perform at liberal arts colleges. This gradual erosion of academic discourse, the image of young coeds plugging their ears with their fingers screaming “nah nah nah nah nah” was happening all over the country at reputable academic institutions.
It comes down to the simplicity that what is deemed wrong is unsafe, and what is unsafe shouldn’t be discussed––it’s the easiest way to shut down a conversation, and both the victors and the losers are playing the same trump card.
I’ve seen this behavior play out wholecloth in social justice circles, where the personal is political. Where the victimized individual becomes an extension of the entire socio-political movement. I’ve seen interpersonal disputes raised to that of oppression politics. I’ve seen individuals reduced to the vernacular and dehumanized–it’s fucking ridiculous, misguided, and utterly traumatic–and all the young folks are doing it, not just the old 70-year-old orange faced White supremacist that has taken seat in the Oval Office.
This happened to me last year, where the end of a friendship was all of a sudden heightened to the political. This person, another person of color (POC) in the literary and social justice community, had begun to publicly accuse me, behind my back, of being anti-black, homophobic, and transphobic. Being a cis-Asian female, and carrying all the privileges of that identity, I was being aggressively accused as an oppressor of all of those political identities. The truth was simply that I didn’t want to be their friend because they were verbally abusive to me. When I confronted them, they sent me a multi-page email outlining the ways in which I was wrong, bad, terrible, and evil.
Even worse, when I sought support and confided this to another acquaintance, also a POC and another writer, they responded matter-of-fact: “Yeah, I’d believe that too if I didn’t know you. But I know you. So.” This acquaintance confirmed my worse fear at the time: that people that didn’t know me would think these terrible things about me simply because someone had said so. My acquaintance, had zero ability to discern facts from opinion, and were exhibiting signs of being afflicted with what Stephen’s lecture at UCLA was asserting: that “alternative truth” culture was becoming status quo in this country–it goes back to Cusk’s piece about rudeness. It goes back to how everyone only wants to hear what they want to hear, facts be damned, while shutting everything and everyone else down.
The accuser was a bully, just like Trump. Teams with entirely antithetical values–no matter if you were conservative or liberal, a writer or not, a social justice warrior or a neo-nazi, whether you lived in a city or a rural town–still practiced the same oppressive models.
In a piece titled “The Personal is Political: so what’s wrong with identity politics,” blogger womensfightback17 quoted the German philosopher Hegel:
Hegel stated the case boldly when he condemned “the sort of ecstatic enthusiasm which starts straight off with absolute knowledge, as if shot from a pistol, and makes short work of other points of view simply by explaining that it is to take no notice of them… Since the people of common sense appeal to their feeling, to an oracle within their breast, they are ready to meet anyone who does not agree. They have simply to explain that they have no more to say to anyone who does not find and feel the same as themselves. In other words, they trample the root of humanity under foot. For the nature of humanity is to impel people to agree with one another, and its very existence lies simply in the explicit realization of a community of conscious life. What is anti-human, the condition of mere animals, consists in keeping within the sphere of feeling pure and simple, and in being able to communicate only by way of feeling-states” (Introduction to the book, The Phenomenology of Mind).
I could tell Cusk that I don’t know who’s listening. But maybe the loquaciously inclined of us are arming ourselves by understanding how these systems are playing out, how their poisons are infecting our own communities, so that we can dismantle them.
With that particular individual who had tried to discredit my reputation and my work in the community, this is what I said to them:
I want you to be well. I want you to keep doing your work. There is nothing I would ever do to impede that, unless you come at me personally. You can paint me in any light you want, you can try to silence me - I welcome you to call me out publicly if there's any injustice you see me performing - but you do not speak nor represent all trans-folks, all queer, all Black people, or any other social political category that you yield for your own use - I will keep doing the work. And when it comes down to it, I don't have time for this abuse.
Yeah. I didn’t want to write about this, but I’m obviously thinking about it, and I’ve always been a poor liar. Generalized anger is exactly it. Other days, I’m just really tired. No chocolate or kitties to pull me back.
As I move forward in this work, there’s a line I keep repeating that a good friend imparted: social justice on the macro, empathy on the micro––to everyone working toward justice, we are weary, wary, and worn. Let’s not stop seeing each other for the humans we are, even when we’re screaming––especially when we're screaming. We’re all roiling in these political systems, these oppressive structures designed to divide us. If we keep going at it the way we have been, we’re no better, and we will most certainly be less effective than the assholes that got us here in the first place.
I know this much––that without each other, we all fail.