Just over five years ago, there was a short essay called “Liberating Iraq” that resonated with me a great deal, and has informed a great deal of my thinking since then:
During this conference, there was a recurring disagreement about the role of violence in fighting deeply unjust regimes. On one side were the women from India, who argued against the use of violence, generally on Gandhian grounds. On the other were many of the women who lived under deeply unjust regimes; I recall, in particular, the South Africans arguing that however laudable nonviolence might be, their situation was sufficiently desperate that they could not afford the luxury of waiting for nonviolence to work.
It seemed to me that at the heart of this disagreement was this one fact: that the women from India were from a country that had already achieved independence, and were living with the problems that came afterwards, whereas the women from South Africa were trying to achieve that self-government in the first place. The South Africans seemed to think that the women from India had forgotten what it was like to be subjugated. We need to win our freedom as quickly as possible, they seemed to say. We realize that it would be preferable to win that freedom in the best possible way. If we could win it just as quickly through non-violent means, we would surely do so. But you would not ask us to wait if you really understood what it is like to live in slavery.
By contrast, many of the arguments made by the Indians turned on the effects that achieving self-government through violence had on one’s own people. Don’t do this, they seemed to be saying: once you win your freedom, you will find that you and your people have grown accustomed to settling disputes by force and to demonizing your opponents. Think now about how to use the struggle you are waging to teach yourselves how to become citizens and to practice self-government. Do not wait until you win your independence to discover that self-government requires not just political power, but political responsibility.
What made this argument so fascinating and painful to watch was that it was so easy to see both points of view. Who could possibly deny the justice of either side? And yet I thought the Indian women were right. I did not think that they had forgotten what it was like to be oppressed. I thought they were warning the others off a mistake that they knew would be tragic, however comprehensible it might be. So one thing I thought that the Indian women saw was this:
Violence is not a way of getting where you want to go, only more quickly. Its existence changes your destination. If you use it, you had better be prepared to find yourself in the kind of place it takes you to.
And another was this: liberation is not just a matter of removing an oppressive government. It can seem that way when you live under tyranny. Nothing is more comprehensible than people living in apartheid South Africa, or under Saddam, thinking: if only that government were removed from power, things would be better. They would have to be. After all, how could they possibly be worse?
Unfortunately, there are almost always ways in which things could be worse.
Methodologies and tactics are important: the destination can’t be fully separated from the means used to make the journey. This is something that worries me considerably when I look at Tumblr and its social-justice advocacy crowd. Fortunately, it’s not the foremost thing to worry about - but it’s worth keeping in mind because one of the surest ways to take tactical roads that can’t lead to the desired destination, is to ignore that possibility.
Putting it another way: when we strive to overthrow a toxic structure (of any kind!), we contend with the Scylla of ineffectual action and the Charybdis of overthrowing the toxic structure and then immediately re-creating it. Both are more than capable of devouring us and our fellow-travellers.
Fortunately there is almost no-one in the social-justice movement advocating violence itself. I am acquainted with anarchists who are willing to raise the possibility, but who rightly find it very suspect, and while I identify as part of the anarcho-whateverist spectrum, generally that crowd isn’t the crowd we’re talking when we talk about “the social-justice movement.” What worries me is that the social-justice crowd is willing to use tactics that do not demonstrate a commitment to its professed values.
One of the most important things that the Internet has offered those of us striving for a better world, is relief from isolation. When I first found the blogs and discussions of these topics, I was hugely relieved: it’s not just me: these problems are real! And there were people that I could talk to who took it for granted that the problems were real and important and urgent, where you didn’t have to trudge yet again through pointing out that women are human, patriarchy exists, and the US Government lies routinely. You could just start the discussion there and talk about how it impacts your life, how you feel about it, and what to do about it.
This is a powerful thing drawing folks to the Tumblr scene: I see many people having that exulting, joyful, mind-warping transformation, having their lives and selves and lived experiences validated. It is a powerful thing. But like many ecstatic experiences, it’s hard to dryly explain it to someone who has not had it - and to inhabit it all the time, is counterproductive.
I notice this most with anger. Anger at the Current Arrangement is valid and healthy: without it no one would be striving for change in any direction. It is likewise important to have a place for that anger: if you cannot speak the anger, you’re carrying Buddha’s hot coal. So that’s another good thing that the Internet does for those striving for change: it has many places where it is safe to speak your anger, radiantly, passionately, with all your pain and tears and rage and blood and claws and fangs and hoarse throat and scraped skin and aching head. Places where you don’t have to be sorry for pointing out your own pain, pointing out how fucked-up the world can be, pointing out how much pain someone can cause by not seeing you as a real person.
That voice is crucially important. That voice, however, is not the voice of persuasion. Persuasion, especially when we venture into Sinclair-esque “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” zones, is very, very difficult. I have a theory that many people who have been held down by the Current Arrangement as though by the heavy lid of a giant cast-iron slow-cooker pot, find the places where it is safe to be angry, safe to hurt, safe to be instead of unsafe to exist as one’s own self, and say: why should I again hide my anger, my pain, my own self?
Because, tragic as it is, that doesn’t persuade people.
Persuading people who don’t already agree with you is hard enough that it is called by science’s dryly humorous term “Outstanding Problem In The Field.” Simplifying tremendously, we are unlikely to change our opinions in a vacuum because it’s expensive, likely to rationalize whatever we’re already doing in terms of our professed beliefs, and unlikely to change our opinions when we’re not applying our rational-verbal-analytical minds to doing so. A rational-verbal-analytical mind is costly to operate, so most of the time we don’t do that. This is why, for example, the economics profession erred so greatly in assuming that humans are rational economic actors: we kinda-sorta are in aggregate and over significant time, but when it comes to individuals in day-to-day life we’re not at all purely rational utility-seekers; we’re just people, people who can be fatigued, frightened, and rushed.
So that’s a major part of why it’s so hard to persuade us: most of the time we’re not persuadeable. Persuasion stems from trust, safety, and calm. It’s tricky to create these conditions, and the most reliable routes take quite a bit of time. Part of why “we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it” worked so well for the queer-rights movement despite its confrontational tone was that it took advantage of this dynamic: once someone was here and visibly queer for long enough, people did get used to it. People saw that queers are just another group of people, not the frightening and mysterious Other. The success that I would really like hasn’t arrived, but the trend is clear and positive.
An aside: as with the post about escalation, I am not advocating that you do or cease doing any particular thing. I am advocating that you adopt my view of the risks of certain behaviors and adapt that to your own particular circumstances; I accept that doing that in goodwill, will probably lead to decisions that would make me say WTF, because your circumstances are not mine and I can’t fully know them because I’m not you.
The Tumblosphere in particular, likely because its demographics trend young, tends to have a strong dose of this. It comes in form of “wait a minute, shouldn’t my being right be enough to persuade people?” When you say this, a thousand grizzled engineers shake their heads ruefully, remembering the times when that didn’t work for telling management what’s right; a thousand politicians do likewise, thinking of their campaigns, and so too do a thousand evangelists, activists, and salesfolk. Persuasion is totally (and tragically: this is why Cassandra is interesting) unrelated to being right.
Ideally, having the affirming, supportive space that Internet social connections give, would give us a stable place on which to stand, from which we can build a way of persuading people who do not experience the same pain to work together with us to build a better world. We fail, though, if we take the voice of anger and pain out of that safe space and use it to shout at those people. Again, this is not to say that the anger is unmerited, but only that it is not persuasive, for the same reason that you don’t talk to your boss at a meeting the way you talk to your friends over coffee - and for the same reason that you probably don’t like it when other people are shouting at you with the voice of anger and pain.
I believe that it’s crucially important that we continue to support one another, to create safe spaces, and to give people a space to legitimately and productively speak with voices of anger and pain. Yet at the same time we will have failed if that is is the only thing we do or the only voice we empower people to speak with. When we are pulled between that Scylla and Charybdis of ineffectuality and self-subversion, we must use a wide variety of tactics to preserve ourselves and our ideals.
On the whole, I’m optimistic about Internet communities of activists, deviants, and strivers for better worlds of various kinds. They subject many ideas to a harsh but necessary test of survival in the small. If I can’t build a vibrant Internet community of any size on my ideas, can’t build a circle of a couple dozen talkative people improving their lives with my ideas, can’t build a chatty long-term email thread of friends debating my ideas and enjoying them, then my ideas certainly have not hope in the larger world. Of course there’s flex: not every idea that has a small passionate Internet community is destined for mass-audience traction. But if an idea can roam the Internet and not find any community at all, that’s a profoundly bad sign for its future as a mass-audience making-a-better-world idea.
We in the social-justice advocacy stream of thought fail when we make our ideals into just another form of tribalism, when we adopt and enforce rigid hierarchies among ourselves, when we assume that just because we’re right, others will be persuaded towards our vision of a better world. Our challenge is to balance our mutual support, our places where it’s safe to express anger and pain without fear of being punished for being vulnerable, with the practical necessity of persuading others towards solving the problems we see by the courses that our ideals demand.
These are both very challenging things! They’re ridiculously hard, and many of us say to them — I am already weary from my anger and pain, how is it that I am expected to take on this task as well? That is a totally reasonable dismay to be stricken with. But the task is ours, us in the social-justice line of thought, because the vision is ours: if someone else does the work of social change, they will work towards their vision. This is another reason that our infrastructure of mutual support is so important: we acknowledge that the pain can come from one another, and we work towards our own community modeling the solutions we’d like to see enacted in the world at large.