From Hopeful Teen to Social Justice Fanatic
Finding and Losing Identity Politics, Part 2
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From Hopeful Teen to Social Justice Fanatic
This is part two of a four-part series called “Finding and Losing Identity Politics.” You can find part one here: Confessions of a Former SJW, 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.
The Privilege Walk
I went to my first anti-oppression workshop when I was nineteen years old. It was part of a non-violent direct action training camp hosted by Greenpeace. During high school, I’d postered the hallways to spread the word about an illegal student fee, marched in an anti-stereotype parade, co-created and screened an agitprop film, and performed a poem at the social justice week assembly. I’d also attended rallies against the war in Iraq with my dad. By the time I graduated, I was desperate to start my adult life, and I moved into an apartment that was a quick skytrain ride from Vancouver. Before long, I began working as a street fundraiser for non-profits, which is how I found my way to this workshop.
The old hall we were in was brimming with nervous excitement, and the facilitator, R, was warm and kind. One exercise in particular had a profound effect on me, and I would go on to experience some version of it at every anti-oppression workshop I would attend (and co-facilitate) in the coming years. It was called “step forward step back,” or “the privilege walk.”
R had all the participants stand in a line, shoulder to shoulder, our backs to a wall. He told us that he would read a series of phrases, and each time a phrase was true for us, we were to take a step forward. If not, we were to stay still. And with that, he began reading. An example of a phrase would be “my parents had the time and ability to help me with my homework.” Here’s another: “growing up, I never had to worry about whether there would be food in the house.”
As the exercise progressed, I moved closer and closer to the opposing wall, as most statements were true for me. Once R finished reading, he invited us to look around the room. I noticed that some people had come as far as I had, and a couple had gone even further. There were also a number of people way behind me—some had barely made it off the wall. R used this activity to introduce us to the concept of privilege: the idea that some people are born with advantages that give them a head start in life, and others are born with disadvantages that create obstacles to their success1. There was then a group conversation in which people shared vulnerable parts of their life stories. To my memory, these tales were met with quiet reverence. It felt like everyone left with a lot to think about.
This workshop was a powerful and moving experience for me. I’d more or less grown up with the belief that hard work and personal responsibility were what set apart people who succeeded from people who failed. This exercise brought me face-to-face with a whole list of advantages that I’d never even realized I possessed. It gave me a new perspective on a world I thought I was familiar with. It demonstrated that I knew a whole lot less than I thought I did. Perhaps most of all, it made me much more curious about how other people lived. At that age, I was both determined to make the world a better place, and convinced that I could do so. I believed this new knowledge would help me achieve this.
How I got from here, this place of hope and possibility, to what I describe in Confessions of a Former SJW, is a story for another day. What I’d like to do here is explore why I found this subculture so compelling, and why I committed to it in such an extreme fashion.
A Wound Is an Opening
Imagine you were born with a quality that is a source of profound shame and embarrassment for you, and you’ll never be able get rid of it. This quality keeps you from feeling capable or confident or hopeful. It’s hard to relax and be yourself around other people, and you feel confused when they take an interest in you. What’s there to like? You may forget about this quality for an hour or a day, but it feels like a constant companion that you will never be able to leave behind.
Now imagine you discover a school of thought that offers to not only neutralize this source of shame, but transform it into a source of pride and power. You learn that many other people have experienced a similar type of pain, and you come to believe that if they managed to put it down, you can too. It is possible to love yourself, to be loved by others, and to strive to achieve your hopes and dreams. You deserve happiness and success just as much as anyone else does. There’s nothing wrong with you—it’s the world that needs to change.
Would you walk away from such a promise, or run towards it? I found it irresistible.
Having grown up in a high-conflict family with significant mental health issues, I came into adulthood convinced that there was something very wrong with me. I was desperate to figure out how to be good, and I was searching for someone who could teach me. I also had a fierce anti-authoritarian streak, so I was more likely to trust the person with the loudspeaker at a rally than a professor or a faith leader or a mental health professional.
Anti-oppression told me I could take pride in my sexuality and my androgyny. Perhaps my depression was really a sign of intelligence, creativity and compassion. I didn’t need to go to school because lived experience was just as valuable. Besides, universities and mental health clinics more or less existed to train people how to conform to an oppressive status quo.
In the beginning, this framework was a revelation to me: it revealed the hidden truths of power and society. Not only did it explain why there was so much suffering in the world—this framework could explain anything and everything. Anti-oppression gave me a set of tools to assess any conflict through the lens of power as determined by identity. How remarkable: a relatively simple way to figure out who was right and who was wrong, in any given situation.
I was attracted to this subculture for the same reasons many others are:
It promised I could turn sources of shame into power and wisdom.
It provided guidance on how to behave myself and interact with others.
It spoke to my hope for a world free of violence and subjugation.
It gave me a simple formula to sort the good people from the bad.
Without a close extended family, membership in any group, or a source of mentorship, my young self hungered for the comforting promise of such structure and certitude.
I often wonder why I became a full-on social justice warrior. Why wasn’t my relationship to these ideas more casual and measured? Do I have a tendency to take things too literally and too far? Is there something about this framework that encourages such strict fidelity? Have people distorted an otherwise useful framework by turning it into a dogmatic belief system?
As a small child, I found it incredibly distressing when someone around me was in pain, especially if I couldn’t make it better. I felt emotions incredibly strongly and they burst out of me whether I wanted them to or not. In time, I grew into a fiercely passionate and stubbornly optimistic teenager. I felt deep rage and despair that I lived in a world with so much violence, inequality, and suffering. I also had an overblown sense of my ability to change things.
A limitation I had in common with every other adolescent was a still-growing prefrontal cortex, which influences attention, impulse inhibition, prospective memory and cognitive flexibility. This part of the human brain is not fully developed until one reaches 25. Putting aside my melodramatic personality and the specifics of my childhood, I was a pretty typical young person: grappling with the values of my family of origin, striving to figure out who I was, wanting to make my mark in the world, and diving into this before I’d developed the ability to emotionally regulate myself, communicate effectively, evaluate new ideas carefully, or control impulsive behaviour.
Perhaps the very nature of growing up makes young people vulnerable to influence, and perhaps this is at root a neutral phenomenon. However, there seems to be a particular subset of youth who are drawn to this particular subculture: those whose childhoods were turbulent and who dealt with high levels of conflict and mental illness in their families of origin. Why would this be the case? Are these youth more likely to mistake punishment for justice and accept cruelty in their relationships, to miss the red flags that keep others away? Or rather, is it that when people with a history like mine attempt to apply the anti-oppression framework, things tend to get out of hand?
Although I am still in the midst of separating the baby from the bathwater, let’s not lose sight of the fact that this subculture has transformed into a global Diversity and Inclusion industry, which was valued at $7.5 billion USD in 2020. This was not created by a small cabal of disadvantaged youth. Spectacles of cruelty performed in the name of social justice have become commonplace, and many people have witnessed reasonable, kind, intelligent friends and relatives became hostile, paranoid and cruel when they joined the fight for social justice.
Here is a list of social justice culture norms that encourage zealotry:
The reversal rather than the elimination of social hierarchies in order to allow people with marginalized identities (e.g. people of colour) to control the speech and behaviour of people with privileged identities (e.g. white people.)
The allegiance to such phrases as “impact matters more than intent,” “white tears,” and “believe women”that strip away nuance from complex human interactions.
The constant search for subtle, hidden acts of racism, sexism, etc, and a rejection of the notion of simple misunderstandings.
The dismissal of disagreement as either ignorance, internalized oppression, or bigotry.
The belief that discomfort leads to growth, that public call-outs of interpersonal conflict are appropriate and effective
The acceptance of abusive behaviour if it is performed in the name of justice.
A hostility toward facts, evidence, debate, expertise, critical thinking and diversity of thought.
The belief that social identity categories are real, unchanging and can be used to infer who someone is and what they want out of life.
Is it possible to subscribe to these norms in a healthy and well-adjusted way? My answer is no. This list is a recipe for alienation from the larger word. And when you start denouncing your family, your friends and your colleagues, the only place you will find solace is with others doing the same.
In the remainder of this series, I will discuss how I became disillusioned with this subculture, why I ultimately decided to leave, and what fuels my hope for the future of the left.
I realize that people working in the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion industry will probably feel that I am misunderstanding or misrepresenting concepts such as “privilege.” I spent the better part of a decade grappling with the definitions of anti-oppression vocabulary terms and I’ve consciously chosen to give simplified explanations in this essay. This is because I’m more interested in discussing what I took from these trainings than analyzing how correct or incorrect those takeaways were.
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