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I have something to get off my chest: I no longer consider myself an intersectional feminist or an anarchist. I am concerned about the excesses of leftist identity politics and anti-oppression frameworks that are being implemented in organizations both private and public. That being said, it is my deep desire to participate in an effectual, reinvigorated left that has compelled me to write what follows.
Confessions of a Former SJW
This is part one of a four-part series called “Finding and Losing Identity Politics.” You can find part two here: From Hopeful Teen to Social Justice Fanatic, part three here: Why I Left Social Justice, and part four here: Leaving Wokeworld, Finding Hope. I’ve also published a list of resources for Thinking Critically About Social Justice.
I was a social justice warrior: the white supremacist capitalist cisheteropatriarchy was my all-consuming enemy and I was going to overthrow it, with the help of my like-minded friends. At the peak of my zealotry, I was consumed by hostility, paranoia and arrogance. I was a member of a tiny vanguard who was convinced we could solve the world’s ills, if only everyone else would do exactly what we told them to. My vigilance was relentless—I constantly scanned my environment for perceived threats and oppressive behaviour and found both, often. There was a sinister foundation of hatred underneath much that appeared innocent at first glance, from books to television shows to policies to the opinions of people around me, and I became an expert at uncovering it. If an individual said something that I found offensive (I had a mental list of oppressive terms and phrases that was ever-growing), I would correct them, and if they disagreed to any extent whatsoever, that was proof enough for me that they were racist, or sexist, or -ist of some other kind. I was so convinced I was right that I considered the mere act of disagreeing with me tantamount to bigotry.
My health was abysmal during this time—I ate poorly, slept little, had no meaningful hobbies and rarely sought out leisure. Thankfully I biked to get around or I wouldn’t have been exercising either. I had significant, untreated depression (I was convinced psychology and psychiatry were evil) and bouts of anxiety that, at their worst, jolted me from sleep in the middle of the night. I also developed chronic pain and fatigue. The evils of the world were always pressing in on me, and it was terribly distressing. My baseline stress was so high that I could start sobbing or yelling at the drop of a hat. I felt that my politics, my values and my right to exist were under constant attack and that any way I might defend myself was not only justified but righteous. Rage and fear controlled me, yet I was convinced that my actions were helping to build a world more just, more peaceful and more respectful than the one I currently lived in.
I participated in an accountability process that was anything but. My friends and I had zero training in conflict resolution, but we responded with fervour to a friend experiencing upsetting but normal relationship difficulties. By the time we were done, our target had lost nearly all of his friends, and he’d been banned from most groups, events and spaces that he’d been involved with. In the end, he had to leave the city altogether for a chance at a regular life. He never escaped the cloud of suspicion that we cast over him, even if no one could say exactly what he’d done to justify near-total shunning.
Friendships within this subculture were often unstable. It was common for someone to turn on their friend and publicly denounce them. As much as we developed a suspicion of the world around us, that suspicion was magnified as we attempted to root out the immoral and disloyal within our own ranks. Simply being accused of bad behaviour (ranging from criminal to inconsiderate to fabricated or imagined) could leave a permanent mark on one’s social record. The accuser was not required to provide evidence, and there was no such thing as innocent until proven guilty. People who defended themselves against what they felt were unfair accusations only proved their guilt by doing so. People who apologized were frequently told that their apology was inadequate or insincere. Only total grovelling gave the accused any chance of avoiding becoming a social pariah, and even then, the wrongdoing could be used as ammunition in any future conflict. I frequently developed an unflappable impression of someone through gossip, or through my perception of their body language and tone of voice in a brief interaction. I listened to see if they used the correct buzzwords and avoided the taboo ones; I would ask questions to see if they recited the correct response. Anyone who didn’t behave as part of the in-group would be a waste of time to get to know. I had zero interest in spending time with people who didn’t already agree with me, and I actively avoided anyone who might try to change my mind.
I put incredible effort into trying to maintain purity of thought. Anytime an assumption or stereotype bubbled up in my mind, I replaced it with a positive stereotype I’d been taught. I believed it was possible to control my intuition, my emotions and my cognitive processes, despite the fact that I was always falling short. I treated this as evidence that I hadn’t yet rid myself of an oppressive mindset and that I should work even harder.
I shut down my ability to think critically. I would sometimes dismiss the entire body of work of an important thinker based on a vague rumour, or a single word or phrase. I tried to stay loyal to the right people amidst an ever-shifting web of alliances. I avoided taking in any media that would challenge my beliefs, and I thought that this made me dedicated and superior.
I let people treat me terribly, because if I hadn’t, I could’ve been accused of tone-policing, which would’ve doubled the seriousness of my original offence. I would justify my distress afterward by telling myself that discomfort indicated growth. I suppressed emotional responses so I couldn’t be accused of manipulating an interaction with white tears. And there were times when I joined a pile-on targeting my friend so I wouldn’t go down with them. Even if I didn’t join the mob, I would only express support for my friend in private.
Writing this now with the benefit of hindsight, I am baffled by the clear contradictions between my supposed beliefs and my actions. I am aghast at the behaviours that this subculture considered normal. Most of all, I am amazed at how long I stuck to a way of life that was profoundly miserable and isolating. But it was a self-fulfilling prophecy: the more miserable and isolated I became, the easier it was to believe that I lived in a sinister, oppressive world that was actively working against me. This was a profoundly helpless belief to hold, but it was comforting in a strange way: it allowed me to take zero responsibility for my well-being. My problems were everyone else’s fault, just as their problems were mine.
Looking through photos of myself during this time, I’m startled by how unwell I look. I have entire sessions of self portraits in which I am sobbing. Although I can’t remember exactly what was going through my head when I shot those photos, it seems clear that I felt the need to document my extreme anguish. What I do remember is putting a yellow sticky note on my bedroom wall that said, “how do I contribute to my own misery?” I didn’t know it at the time, but in writing that note, I’d opened a crack that would eventually let the light back in.
In the remainder of this series, I will discuss what drew me into this subculture, how I became disillusioned, why I ultimately decided to leave, and what fuels my hope for the future of the left.
Pet of the Week
Taryn sent us a beautiful picture of 9-year-old Pike, who they've had since he was a kitten. He's sweet, chatty and demanding of his daily walk down the road. He loves making human friends & snuggles Taryn through the worst chronic pain days. What a charmer!
I want to feature a subscriber’s furry, feathered or scaled friend in every issue of kier here! Please email email@example.com with your name and a picture and short bio of your animal companion so they can be the next Pet of the Week.
This past Saturday, The Bookcase hosted a launch for Nate Nate Nainer’s debut book “It’s Gonna Be Sick As Hell.” Pictured above from left to right are Nate, Wharfinger’s Press publisher Jaimen Shires, and Channy B, illustrator extraordinaire. Congratulations to all involved!
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Wow. I'm appreciating the clarity with which you described this experience! So much of this is exactly like what I went through.
This really hit home--I've watched cherished online communities get torn apart with recriminations which no apology however sincere or abject could satisfy. The sheer speed at which relationships which had lasted years could collapse--the way people could have their entire value as a human being seemingly judged on the basis of a single comment that they didn't understand might cause offense; or to be reviled as worthless or evil for trying to repair relationships or turn down the heat and rebuild the community. It was astonishing how much pain people were willing to inflict in their pursuit of righteous justice--humiliating others and causing real psychological damage to people who had been their friends. Most of my friends from those days refuse to talk about it because they fear it will fuel bad-faith right-wing narratives. I am so grateful for your courage and honesty in exploring why otherwise good people were willing to inflict so much pain, and how much this behavior can limit our pursuit of true justice and healthy communities and movements that can build authentic power for those who most need it.