Sunday September 17, 2017

'Excommunicate me from the church of social justice': an activist's plea for change

(Photo by Chris Hopkins/Getty Images)

Listen 8:22

By Frances Lee

There is a particularly aggressive strand of social justice activism weaving in and out of my Seattle communities that is troubling me, silencing my loved ones, and turning away potential allies.

I believe in justice. I believe in liberation. I believe it is our duty to obliterate racism, patriarchy, transphobia, ableism, imperialism, and the like.

But I worry that this current culture of activism actually restrains us, and is slowing down liberation movements.

Frances Lee

Frances Lee (Photo courtesy of the author)

As a Cultural Studies scholar, I am interested in uncovering the ways that culture does the work of power. And as someone who has spent the last decade recovering from a childhood conversion to evangelical Christianity, I see a disturbing parallel between the authoritarian dogmas of orthodox religion and social justice activism.

It is a terrible thing to fear my own community members, and know they're probably just as afraid of me.

What am I talking about?

I'm talking about the quest for purity.

There is an underlying current of fear in my activist, queer, and trans people of colour communities. It is separate from the daily fear of police brutality, discrimination, or street harassment. It is the fear of appearing impure. I've had countless hushed conversations with friends about this anxiety, and how it has led us to refrain from participation in activist events and conversations because we feel inadequately radical.

When I was a Christian, all I could think about was being good, and proving to my parents and my spiritual leaders that I was on the right path to God. All the while, I was getting messages that I would never be good enough. Perfection was an impossible destination.

A decade later, I feel compelled to do the same things as an activist. I self-police what I say in leftist spaces. I stopped commenting on social media with questions or pushback because I am afraid of being called out. I am always ready to apologize for anything I do that a community member deems wrong, oppressive, or inappropriate — no questions asked.

I use these protective strategies because these communities have become a home, and I can't afford to lose them.

Activists are some of the judgiest people I've ever met, myself included. We work hard to expose injustice and oppression in the world. But among us, grace and forgiveness are hard to come by. It is a terrible thing to fear my own community members, and know they're probably just as afraid of me.

And it's exhausting. The amount of energy I spend demonstrating purity in order to stay in the good graces of fast-moving activist communities is enormous. Often times, it means that I'm not even doing the real work I am committed to do.

I'm talking about the reproduction of colonialist logics.

Wretched of the Earth

Cover of Frantz Fanon's book "The Wretched of the Earth" (Ballantine Books)

In his 1961 book Wretched of the Earth, black Caribbean philosopher Frantz Fanon writes about the volatile relationship between the colonizer and the colonized, and about the conditions of decolonization. Fanon sharply warns the colonized against reproducing and maintaining the same oppressive systems of colonization after a successful revolution. I hear him.

As a queer and trans person of colour (in my world that's the acronym QTPOC), I have experienced discrimination and rejection because of who I am. I have sought out QTPOC-only spaces to connect with others like me, to heal, and to celebrate. Those spaces and relationships have saved me from despair,time and time again. But I reject QTPOC supremacy, the idea that QTPOCs — or any other marginalized groups — deserve to dominate society. I want a new society that doesn't revolve around power and domination — by anyone.

I'm talking about Preaching and Punishments.

Telling people how to live their lives is central to dogmatic religion and dogmatic activism. Both create an environment that encourages people to tell each other what to do. This is especially prominent online. Scrolling through my Facebook feed sometimes feels Iike sliding into a pew to be blasted by a fragmented, frenzied sermon.

I want to spend less time antagonizing and more time crafting alternative futures where we don't have to fight each other for resources and care. 

And when dictates aren't followed, punishment ensues. Punishments for saying, doing, or believing the "wrong" thing include shaming, calling out, isolating, or eviscerating someone's social standing.

This pattern of controlling and destructive behavior coming out of movements that claim to be about liberation is deeply worrying. We all have made serious mistakes and hurt other people, intentionally or not. We get a chance to learn from them when others respond to us with kindness and patience. Where is our humility when examining the mistakes of others? Who of us came into the world fully awake?

Have I extricated myself from one church to find myself confined in another?

Earlier this year, Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza gave an explosive speech to a roomful of brilliant and passionate organizers. She urged us to set aside our distrust and critique of newer activists and accept that they will hurt and disappoint us. Don't shut them out because they don't have the latest analysis on oppression, or they aren't using the same language as us.

If we are interested in building the mass movements needed to destroy mass oppression, our movements must include people not like us, people with whom we will never fully agree, and people with whom we have conflict. That's a much higher calling than yelling at people from a distance and then shutting them out.

I want to spend less time antagonizing and more time crafting alternative futures where we don't have to fight each other for resources and care. For an introvert like me, that may look like shifting my activism towards small scale projects and recognizing personal relationships as locations of transformation.

It may mean drawing attention to the ways in which other people outside of movements have been living out activism, even if no one has ever called it that.

Telling people how to live their lives is central to dogmatic religion and dogmatic activism. Both create an environment that encourages people to tell each other what to do.

It may mean admitting that speaking my truth isn't a free pass to be mean. It means tapping into the joy and pleasure of pursuing justice. It means cultivating authentic, long-term relationships with those outside my exclusive communities, honouring their humanity, and understanding I will learn from them.

I want to do this. I have to do this.

Otherwise, I'm not sure how I can sustain this work for the rest of my life.