"I want to be a member of a thriving, diverse social movement - not a cult or religion"
An interesting piece from a "queer, trans, Chinese American, middle class, and able-bodied" activist, writer, designer, and public scholar called Frances Lee. The opening paragraphs lay it out straight:
As an intersectional activist who is concerned about the future of our movements, I’m really worried that social justice activism in the West is stuck in a dangerous state of disrepair.
Ideological purity has become the norm. Social justice movements, which were originally about freeing marginalized people from oppressive institutions and social structures, have become imbued with their own narrow framework of morality.
Our knowledge base is made up of reactionary think-pieces, self-righteous social media posts, romanticized narratives of movement histories and prescriptive checklists of how to stop being problematic.
Activists who are deemed “woke” are praised and accepted, while others who are judged not to possess a sufficiently layered analysis of power and oppression on the axes of race, gender, sexuality and disability are demeaned or excluded.
In many social justice communities, fear and shame are regularly used to control other people’s behavior and shut down contentious discussions.
As someone who is deeply embedded in activist communities in Seattle that organize around anti-racism, prison abolition, and queer and trans folks of color this affects me every day.
I’m so afraid of being called out in this way by another member or group—and possibly losing access to my networks of belonging and support—that I am very, very careful about the political opinions and ideas I put out into the world, especially if they are still in development.
"Oh we who wanted to bring about friendly times/Could not ourselves be friendly" (Bertholt Brecht, 'To Those Born Later'). The tests and stresses of character that an angry radicalism enacts on the activist are well known. But what are Frances' remedies to an over-zealous "power and privilege" culture?
I believe that social justice activists must be committed to rooting out supremacy, dogmatism, and unhealthy behaviors inside themselves while fighting for justice in society. And that means prioritizing the building of healthy relationships both with ourselves and with others, choosing alternatives to rage, and honoring ourselves as whole beings.
So much of modern activism is a public performance, amplified by the lightning-quick churn of the internet. What does it tell us about the condition of our hearts when we are reactive and not engaging in slow contemplation?
The ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tze reminds us that “knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom.” Tending to our internal landscapes and cultivating wisdom and character is paramount to maintaining integrity as an activist.
Whether through practices steeped in spirituality, religion, movement, ancient texts, nature or any kind of higher power, some sort of internal practice is necessary for sustaining ourselves.
For example, Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza goes against popular opinion and espouses an attitude of welcome and forgiveness towards newer activists, especially toward white feminists who are still trying to grasp the uniquely harsh struggles of Black women.
As she says, “if our movement is not serious about building power, then we are just engaged in a futile exercise of who can be the most radical.” This means setting aside the desire to be seen as the ‘most woke’ or the ‘most correct’ and accepting people at all stages of their activist journeys, no matter how outdated their politics may appear.
Another internal quality that strengthens and grows activist movements is compassion. So often, when we as marginalized people are disregarded and abused by society we respond with rage and fighting back.
How can we challenge ourselves to cultivate care and compassion for those we perceive as our enemies, so that they can be transformed into accomplices and allies? How can we hold anger and love in balance at the same time in our hearts?
One great example is the life and work of Civil Rights elder Ruby Sales. In a recent radio interview she called for a ‘liberating theology’ for poor, white people that shows them that they worthy of recognition. She understands that speaking to the redeeming parts of white people is essential for bringing them along in the fight for racial justice.
My new book, Toward An Ethics of Activism: A Community Investigation of Humility, Grace and Compassion in Movements for Justice, maps out a whole range of ways to address the relational problems of progressive activism.
For example, trans activist and law professor Dean Spade outlines a toolkit for resolving interpersonal conflicts within activist organizations so that they can stay intact.
He draws on the embodied practice of Generative Somatics to lead the reader into a set of self-reflective questions when feelings of anger, hurt or disappointment arise towards another person.
This includes taking space to recognize how you are feeling in your body, identify past wounds that are being triggered, ask yourself what else is true about the person who harmed you, and attempt to seek reconciliation privately.