Lately, I feel like I keep coming across public figures whom I start out feeling positive about learning from, but then they turn out to have seriously problematic views. Not minor, but serious. Invariably, their audience pushes back, and pow, the public figure does the usual declaration of how cancel culture is so terrible, and how we are all so inflexible about differing views. And then they mention or share examples of death and rape threats, doxxing etc (which are terrible without exception), asking for solidarity from other oppressed folks, but mostly insisting that it is these very oppressed folks who pose a danger to the existence of public discourse.
The thing is, I find some of these people interesting at first because I share some of their views. Some part of my brain lights up as I read their work, and helps me in my own learning and unlearning. So when they turn out to be problematic, I feel suddenly cut off from this source of knowledge.
And this is where people can get stuck, right? We might say things to ourselves like “Come on, who doesn’t have some problematic views, and that shouldn’t diminish the value of their other stellar work;” or “That could be me some day. I might say something out of step with people with whom I wish to be in community, and then what will I do;” or even fall into the trap of “I don’t want to live in an echo chamber, and I need to remain open to the Other Side.” When the truth is, we are trying to hold on for dear life to our heroes despite clear evidence that it is time to move on. When we find ourselves arguing for free speech and lack of censorship in order to support terrible ideas that ruin lives, it is time to hit pause in a big way.
If what follows does not apply to you, that’s cool.
I first want to address the fact that we get trapped by the horror of being associated with issuers of death and rape threats. Few of us want that. We want to be part of efforts to render justice, but that doesn’t mean we want people committing violence in our names.
You know why a lot of us get stuck, though? Because we don’t stick around for the part where activists who aren’t calling for violence make clarifications, ask vigilantes to stand down, and share posts about how to maintain solidarity. We just pack our metaphorical crap and flee. We say Oh, that was bad, I’m just going to sit here and imbibe soup and lick my wounds coz the internet is too mean.
There are many ways to step up that don’t have to involve a public presence. I hate how many spammy people I have to block, and that I have to limit who sees what so that I don’t have to sit carrying other people’s emotions. But I especially hate how horribly marginalized people get treated online. And we get told all the time in one form or another: that’s the price you pay for being in public. Translation: these streets belong to Not You. And you know if people will say this about the internet, they mean it about real life too.
But you know what no one who has a marginalized identity should do? Use their most privileged side to flex, while also insisting that people should allow it because they have some other oppressed side. The most obvious examples would be racial or caste privilege vs gender oppression, neurodiversity, or LGBTQIA-ness. It happens. A lot.
All this takes learning. I am finding that people do not stick around for the education enough. Nuance is exhausting. Feeling shamed for getting it wrong is intimidating beyond belief. I experience all these things too.
But: Lots of us do not enjoy the luxury of quitting. In one form or another, we will always have to be advocates, and work on being better at allyship.
And I expect people who are in my life to never quit too. Stand for something. Don’t hide behind how you just want to bake cupcakes, and your mental health cannot handle the struggle.
Because, if that’s the case, I have to choose. And it won’t be you. Just like you have been avoiding choosing me and what matters to me. People I love are affected by your insistence on being a social justice Blanche DuBois. You want us to be courageous when you refuse to be. To stand for something so you don’t have to. You want to keep your social circles intact. Your social capital matters more than the survival of people I love. And just like with Blanche (in “A Streetcar Named Desire”), your drumbeat of passivity wreaks a destruction which you lack the will to acknowledge.
And you do show up for things that matter to you. Things that don’t, at first glance, look political. But they are. We are all political animals. Every action we take carries symbolic weight. And every moment contains potential for embracing complexity while also moving irrevocably forward. Other people need to be able to depend on you, and for that, you need to be teachable. And willing to support a myriad of causes, which are not as disparate as one would think. We all do.