The response to my previous article has been overwhelming and humbling; indeed, the various social media responses left me with vertigo as I looked down mile-long threads. To everyone who shared the piece, who added their experiences to its abstractions, who disagreed thoughtfully and respectfully, who vowed to speak up more often, I thank you.
There’s always more to be said, of course, and I wanted to take this opportunity to clarify my views and what I am advocating. A noteworthy critique marshalled against my article and the others like it was that we are advocating “niceness” in lieu of robust advocacy. I cannot speak for my friends and colleagues, naturally, but in speaking for my own intentions, nothing could be further from the truth.
There can be no doubt that our political discourse– at all levels– suffers from a rapidly oxidising corrosion; in response many “civility” initiatives have appeared, constellating around what one might fairly call “a cult of nice.” In their way, like the extremists they oppose, they toss the baby out with the bathwater. They abjure nastiness, but also the forcefulness that must define advocacy, which must attend any effort to challenge or change an ossified status quo. They eschew vile and childish rhetoric, but also drown in false-equivalences; as a result they are utterly allergic to the exercise of their own judgement and discernment. Most mainstream pleas for civility are little more than a supine relativism, utterly unequal to the tasks of politics.
But for my own part, I have no interest in allowing facile false equivalences and relativistic handwringing to stop us from doing our work. I sincerely believe that we can be more than either rage-fuelled or down on bended knee.
The Shape of Rage
This brings me to a second major criticism, which is that articles like mine are long on abstraction and short on specifics. There is some truth to this. By necessity, one has to avoid the appearance of airing out personal grievances in order to keep the focus on the big picture, rather than individual episodes of bad behaviour. If this sounds familiar it is because it is the mirror of my point about how activists ought to approach politics generally– keep focus on structure rather than individual “bad people.” Through these articles, I do not wish to punish people in this community that I believe wronged me or my loved ones.
This being said, I could certainly clarify what I meant to criticise in general terms, and that will also hopefully allow me to distinguish my proposals from mere “niceness.” That word is often used by my fellow activists to demean pleas for civility, for they perceive “niceness” as weakness and as the death of empowerment. They aren’t wrong–many mainstream “civility” initiatives threaten to do just that– but some activists often miss the mark with what they tar with the “nice” brush. Being nice is, let me be clear, a good thing to which we ought to aspire, but politics is not always nice. Telling someone they are wrong, or calling power-holders to account rarely entails niceties.
On the same token, however, it can be done without wishing suicide or violent death upon one’s opponents, without aimless and expletive laden ad hominem irrelevant to the issues at hand. Many feminists and anti-racist activists have been at pains to tell people they have accused of prejudice that they are attacking actions or words, not people. “I’m not saying you’re a bad person,” goes the old refrain, “just that you said something bad.” For many activists, that is indeed what we are doing. We are not saying that individuals are rotten to the core, irredeemable, evil, or inhuman; we are questioning and challenging specific acts.
Regrettably, however, we too often forget our own hard-won wisdom and allow a slippage between attacking behaviours and attacking people, allowing “you are an inherently bad person” to be said too often. I hoped to challenge the logic amongst activists that allows this to happen, and the indulgent us-versus-them thinking that seduces us into making caricatures of opponents, entirely in line with a well worn patriarchal and neoliberal playbook. I am not challenging criticism, I am challenging an invidious manifestation of it. When we begin attacking people rather than ideas, that is when we begin to lose ourselves.
There have been a number of episodes where forthrightness laced with a healthy dose of anger have helped to make change this past year. But there is a difference between an unapologetic and uncompromisingly firm piece of writing, and one that subsists on wanton cruelty. When I wrote a rebuttal to the flagrant transmisogyny evinced by Julie Burchill in her now-infamous Observer editorial, I was careful to keep the focus on what she said while also ensuring that her fundamental humanity remained in the frame of my criticism. I spared her no critique, but I targeted what was fair game: the written record of her words and ideas, the very things she had submitted to a public forum. To tell her to kill herself or worse, as some did, was unaccountably out of bounds.
What I am calling for is a nuanced ethic of action that is responsive to individual circumstances. To treat things on a case-by-case basis, and to be forthright without being “nice.” Empowered and merciful. We need that nuance to judge the infinite variety of quotidian issues we are confronted with– from microaggressions to international law. Yet we too often have a hammer and nail problem; each case is treated with the same blanket ruleset and the same system of call-outs. The lack of a “middle gear” is a major problem here. There are some people whose records are such that they could indeed be justly called “an unrepentant racist” or “pathological transphobe,” but there are many more whose mistakes deserve far, far less fire in response. Some may not have made prejudicial mistakes at all. So what is going wrong here?
Punishment and Justice
As I wrote in my recent article criticising internet mob justice of a more general variety, the impulse to act as judge, jury, and executioner all at once is a dangerous one. In the hands of, say, 4chan or angry Redditors, that impulse is obviously dangerous, even frightening. But we must cease pretending that social justice activists are somehow above the temptations to misuse that power. We, too, yearn to punish. That is an impulse that must be resisted with every fibre of our beings. It is a dangerous, bloodied path to dehumanisation.
In the spirit of the nerdiness I share with many of my fellow commentators on this issue I thought concluding with a Lord of the Rings quote might be apt. I always loved this bit from Gandalf in Fellowship:
“Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”
I suspect, especially in these hyper-connected days where many of us participate in the internet’s mass anarchy, that every single one of us– regardless of our views– could learn from this. I myself am still struggling to take it to heart. We must, by all means, judge and use that judgement to decide what needs to be changed and how; we must, then, put our shoulders behind it, stand tall and speak truth to power. But few of us are equipped to punish justly, and too many of us are all too eager to try. That is what we have to think on: this is not about “niceness,” it’s about humanity and what we are prepared to lose en route to a better future.
I vote that we lose nothing of that humanity.
Thank you so much for writing both of these posts. They are so thoughtful, and so necessary.
Excellent analysis. I’veften observed that the dogmatically ‘nice’ people are often the ones who secretly want to rule with an iron fist.
Or perhaps those are the people with anxiety disorders. We are the forgotten group in this debate, despite making up about 10% of the population. I find anger and hostility deeply traumatising, but am tired of being shut out of debates because of it. I am equally tired of being told to go away get treatment or medication and come back when I am better because it doesn’t work that way. Mostly I am just tired of only those who shout the loudest being heard.
I have multiple anxiety disorders and likewise find anger and hostility (and thus a lot of online social justice) to be deeply traumatising, but I never thought to relate the two until now. It makes sense, though, and that fear has been the driving force behind my frequent pleas to people to be ‘nice’; concentrated hostility gives me panic attacks. But that only got me accused of tone-policing and caring about the poor feelings of privileged people.
That is one of my favorite LOTR quotes. I use it a lot myself.