If you’re a social justice activist and we’ve been having an exchange on social media, it’s probably ended in a number of ways. If you’re reading this then you’ve not immediately labelled me a variant of misogynist/bigot/racist/homophobe and blocked me. I applaud you for that and being more open to dialogue than some.
I’ll limit this response to one possible context: you’ve told me that I should read more before I reply to you or express an opinion on our topic of discussion. This is usually based on one of two assumptions:
1. I hold the opinions I do because I am ignorant of the context/issues involved and if I simply read more I would see the world and the topics discussed as you do. Because, what reasonable, caring, intelligent person could do otherwise?
2. You haven’t quite worked out where I am coming from and are one step away from labelling me a misogynist/bigot/racist/homophobe at worst, or a cold-hearted, privileged, white he-devil socialised into prejudice and hatred of women and minorities by the colonial patriarchy. One slip, misunderstanding, or inconvenient fact will, of course, see me blocked. Disparaging comments about me may, or may not, be exchanged about me behind my back with others sharing your world-view, after-the-fact.
If you’re an SJA and have read this far, count me impressed. I’d like to offer a third possibility: I am not completely ignorant or uncaring regarding social and economic disadvantage facing some individuals and sections of society because their life circumstances are less favourable than some of mine. Nor am I a vile person without morals or an ethical/ideological framework through which I perceive the world and act. It’s just my viewpoints and beliefs differ to yours.
You operate, unless I’m misrepresenting you, from a collectivist/systemic/Marxist socio-political position. (To those unfamiliar with it, it is better-known, pejoratively, as being a social justice warrior or a member of the regressive left. Cultural Marxism also features as a common descriptor. Google is your friend.) I, after 18 months of reading and watching this belief system play out in the real world and on the internet, do not. To repeat myself, this does not make me objectively vile or immoral/amoral. My views, using labels for simplicity if not nuance, can be summarised as classically liberal. I value individual free expression and agency and responsibility. Accountability to various groups of strangers with arbitrary and sometimes contradictory value systems is where I diverge from your narrative. As is the held belief that I, through some genetic magic, are responsible for others’ actions who just happen to share my sex and/or skin colour and/or orientation.
This post is based on many exchanges I’ve had personally and watched online. Specifically, this particular topic of discussion was the social responsibility of white, ‘colonial’ writers to avoid cultural appropriation in their work. This was the ‘trigger’, but I will frame the discussion through individual and group responses/actions that often result from differences of opinion over all types of creative media. This one just happened to be about a book.
So, let’s assume:
An author writes a fictional work that a minority individual feels misrepresents them and their heritage/culture. Or, as is common, it’s a white individual speaking on behalf of members of a minority, expressing opinions they think a minority member would express but is too oppressed to do so on their own. From eighteen months of watching social media, the gaming, atheist, music, writing, film illustration, academic and other communities, certain social justice ‘outrage’ patterns emerge. But before we go to those, let’s assume, for the sake of argument, the aggrieved had a classically liberal value system and contacted the writer of the offensive book. They may:
- contact the author privately by email, politely expressing a wish that in future works the author would research the subject more thoroughly and be more accurate in their representation;
- leave a review online, either on a blog or online bookstore, stating the positive things they liked about the book but with a note about their dislikes regarding the author’s take on/ representation of the culture etc.;
- simply not read anything else that author writes;
- share their feelings with friends who ask about the book, or in the context of a discussion about what they’ve read.
Simple critique; nothing more.
I think that’s how most readers deal with aspects of fictional work they dislike. Seems reasonable? I think so.
However, if someone held social justice values they may try the above first but things would quickly escalate… or any preceding steps would be skipped altogether; a keyboard-warrior’s time is precious, after all. So, now in full-on social justice mode we have:
1. Comments on social media, often referencing a public blog post listing their grievances against the author of the contentious work. They would contact the author, directly and publicly on social media, demanding an apology, even alteration They would also contact as many like-minded online activists as possible, passing on links to the blog post and the author’s social media presence. Being familiar with the procedure, other activists would contact the author expressing their outrage, hurt feelings, and disgust at what the author had done. Many would likely be white and not from the ethnic group involved. The exchanges would escalate through their networks resulting in something known as ‘dog-piling’ – a wave of strangers, usually knowing nothing of the author or their work – ‘shouting’ and re-tweeting their disapproval in less than 140 characters.
2. The original blog post would, of course, spell out the detailed apology the complainant wanted from the author. Others entering the ‘discussion’ would repeat calls for a grovelling submission, adding more chastisement and ‘reasons’ why the author was so wrong to have done this and what a terrible human being they were.
The author now either ignores (rarely) the flurry of posts; replies with a reasoned, ‘I don’t care’; or publishes a statement expressing their regret and ignorance and promising never-ever-ever to commit such heinous sins again.
3. If either of the first two options are chosen, the complainant and allies will continue to ‘reason’ with the author, upping the anté with ‘ist’ labels and threats to contact any publications the author contributes to, and the publisher of the book. Far from benign, these will be calls for the publication to openly disassociate itself from the ‘ist’ writer and not offer them more work. Emails will likely be sent to the book’s publisher asking them to remove it from sale, accompanied with threats to boycott not only the nefarious author’s work but everything the publishing house produces. And they’ll tell all their friends to do the same.
4. Negative reviews of the book – and sometimes many of the author’s other works (often not read) – will be posted on review sites and online vendors in an effort to punish the author for not backing down. Any writer friends/associates the author has will also be contacted with a: ‘Did you know so-and-so said this?! How can you stand to be linked to such a hateful person? I/we will be boycotting your next books too unless you show you agree with us.’ (Again, even though many are unlikely to be actual fans of either writer.)
So we have public, community shaming and a concerted effort to ruin peoples livelihoods simply for not towing the social justice line. But, because it’s on behalf of oppressed minorities, it’s all just fine. Individual outliers must be pressured into acquiescing to the wishes of the self-appointed ‘correct’ group. Acting like a lynch mob is perfectly acceptable because anyone who disagrees is ‘othered’ (to use their term). Not of the social justice collective, they are vilified, de-humanised, and any damage done to relationships, family, or income is justified: ‘All they had to do was what we wanted. That makes our actions their fault, not ours.’ Interesting, isn’t it, how those advocating respect for the agency of people will disavow their own whenever it’s convenient? Because, in the minds of many a social justice activist, the ends justify the means – in the name of justice.
As the reader, I’ll leave you to choose which stance most closely allies with your own. I’ll add only this: doesn’t how you react to things you hear, watch, play or read – and that you disagree with – say something about you as a person, an individual? Or are you just going to cite ‘justice’ and hide behind your group?
Because the end just-ifies the means.