Why I Left Social Justice
Finding and Losing Identity Politics, Part 3
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Why I Left Social Justice
This is part three of a four-part series called “Finding and Losing Identity Politics.” You can find part one here: Confessions of a Former SJW, part two here: From Hopeful Teen to Social Justice Fanatic, and part four here: Leaving Wokeworld, Finding Hope. I’ve also published a list of resources for Thinking Critically About Social Justice.
When I reflect on my story of leaving the SJW subculture, the first thought that always comes is, I didn’t want to leave but my body made me. In the summer of 2014, after years of living in a chronic state of stress, I became incredibly sick. I was nearly housebound for several months, and unable to continue my involvement in the various social justice groups in which I’d been involved. It was the first time in many years that I had distance from the scene, and I was heartbroken and terribly lonely. That distance, however, allowed questions and doubts I’d long suppressed to rise to the surface.
I started to wonder why most of the groups I’d been involved with had fallen apart or been destroyed by their own members. I started to wonder why we adhered to so many double standards and ignored blatant contradictions. I started to wonder what exactly we were accomplishing. I started to wonder if shunning people was an effective way to get them to change their behaviour. I started to wonder how everything and everyone could be so Bad. I started to wonder if I was bravely revealing hidden oppressions or just paranoid. I started to wonder why I couldn’t tolerate basic questions about my beliefs or political opinions. I started to wonder if there was anything, any career path, course of study or artistic practice, that would be Good and unproblematic and could shield me from the cruelty of my peers as well as my own self-judgement. I started to wonder why it felt impossible to create anything. I started to wonder why it felt so terrible to build a better world.
I remember lying in bed that summer, listening to an NPR segment on a queer music scene that had been torn apart by abuse allegations and a subsequent “accountability campaign” that amounted to a mob of people terrorizing their former friends. Seeing my subculture through the eyes of an outside journalist made me realize just how deranged our social norms were: kangaroo courts run by those with the most social clout, who could dole out a punishment of any severity for a crime that could never be too minor, who needed no evidence to find someone guilty, and who would track down and publicly humiliate anyone who disagreed with the verdict, which was determined before the trial began. I cringed as I listened to the reporter describe strangers behaving just as my friends and I did.
Over and over again, I’d find myself in a quagmire with no way out. Here’s an example: I wanted to write fiction, and I wanted to write in a way that would further the cause of social justice (something I would now call propaganda). I tried to apply the tenets I’d learned: write what you know. Stay in your lane. Beware of cultural appropriation, tokenizing and fetishizing other peoples. Step back. Pass the mic. Silence is violence.
It was clear I had to write a protagonist that was just like me, because that was the only experience I was qualified to write about. I should have characters of colour in the book because otherwise it won’t be diverse enough, but since they wouldn’t be main characters, I could be accused centering the white experience. Perhaps I shouldn’t create anything at all, and leave art making to more marginalized people. But wait—wasn’t it my duty to create for the movement? What was I missing? How was it possible that years of dedicated study had left me unable to apply what I’d learned?
It might sound like I’m being a contrarian, but I was painfully earnest in wanting to remain loyal to the movement in my art. The more I thought about it, the less sense it all made. I stopped wanting to create anything at all. It felt impossible that a story could be both good in the literary sense and also follow each of the subculture’s rules, including the ones that contradicted each other, including the ones not yet invented but that nonetheless would be used to judge my work in the future.
Hall of Mirrors
Remember, though, that every single one of my closest friends and nearly all of my acquaintances were in this subculture—these norms ruled the venues I frequented, the events I attended, even the books I read and the news I consumed. As I allowed myself to entertain the doubts I’d long suppressed, I concluded there must be something wrong with me: I must be misunderstanding or misapplying the anti-oppression framework. It was unthinkable that the problem was the framework itself. Leaving wasn’t going to happen overnight because first, leaving had to become possible. For leaving to become possible, I’d have to realize exactly what I’d gotten myself into.
First, I was able to admit to myself that some people “misapplied” the anti-oppression framework, or “appropriated” its language for nefarious purposes. This allowed me to dismiss certain individuals without having to question the subculture itself.
The appeal of this approach was that I could use my identities as a shield against criticism while calling it manipulative when other people did the same. I had shut down my critical thinking skills so long ago that I had no clue how to win arguments on the basis of ideas. What I did know was how to shut down a conversation by calling my opponent a bigot, and then convince myself that I’d won when they fell silent.
Eventually, however, my hypocrisy wore me down. I couldn’t keep telling myself that my behaviour was always justified and the behaviour of those who disagreed with me never was. It just didn’t make sense, and deep down I knew this. I held no coherent values—I had one set of rules for Bad people and another set for Good people, as determined by gossip and emotional impulsivity.
The gears truly started shifting as I experienced moments of joy. I was no longer miserable all of the time. It became easier to tell when I was deceiving myself or being manipulative, because I would feel bad. And not in a suffocating, all-consuming, self-loathing way—I would just feel icky after saying or doing something that contradicted how I wanted to behave and treat people. It was no longer tempting to be an insufferable know-it-all, because I realized that no matter what the other person had said or done, the only dependable outcome would be both of us feeling awful.
Another moment that stands out in my memory was when a friend read my Instagram profile aloud to me, starting with “white settler.” I remember physically cringing when I heard this; why was my race the most important thing for people to know about me? Wasn’t this what white nationalists believed? I never wanted to lie about or hide who I was, but what did my race really tell people about my life, my history, my values, my dreams or my work? What was race shorthand for? I edited my profile that night.
When enough of these moments had piled up and I finally realized I needed to leave the SJW subculture, I did so silently. I was worried I would lose all my friends and be labelled a bigot or even a white supremacist. I didn’t know who to talk to about my shifting politics and beliefs, and so I kept them private for years.
For awhile, I tried to leave politics behind me altogether. I got into tarot, astrology, and witchcraft, hungry for a framework through which to understand the world. After I got sick of the self-centredness and the historical revisionism, I dove into pop psychology, self-help and Instagram-flavoured wellness. But all that did was convince me my personality was a pile of flaws.
I was still desperate to be different, exceptional, special. Being an outsider was my most cherished identity, and I was convinced the solutions that brought stability and happiness into the lives of normal people wouldn’t work on me. Until I tried them, that is. I began to practice good sleep hygiene, eat nutritious food, and exercise. I took psych meds for awhile. I started gardening and took in a relative’s pet rabbit. I spent time doing activities that I enjoyed, ones that had no measurable effect besides pleasure. I made friends who hadn’t known me at my most dogmatic, some of whom had never been sucked into the SJW world at all. Emotional intensity was no longer my default—my therapist told me I didn’t need to keep coming. I felt my life stabilize, and even hard things started to get a little easier.
This was when I was able to reconnect with politics again, in a way that felt hopeful. I realized how much my brain had been craving intellectual stimulation and started studying history, critical thinking and political theory. I was finally able to see the SJW subculture for what it was: a cynical, hyper-individualized reaction to decades of leftist losses that chose symbolic representation over coalition-building that could meaningfully improve the material conditions of normal people’s lives. No wonder I felt so hopeless for so long.
When I was still an SJW, I thought that we were the only true leftists, but that was nothing but a myth meant to keep me from leaving. As much as we talked about diversity, we despised diversity of thought. As many types of oppression as we considered, class was never one of them.
I have been delighted to discover how many brilliant leftist thinkers, organizers and groups are working from a place of good faith, coherent values and evidence-based solutions. I am still getting my bearings after years of deliberately avoiding non-SJW perspectives. That said, what I’ve seen so far gives me hope beyond the wildest imaginings of that depressed, hostile, paranoid Kier, who thought saving the world started with hating it.
In the final instalment of this series, I will share what fuels my hope for the future of the left. I’m also considering compiling reading lists, holding discussions and hosting ask-me-anythings to provide resources to people who are still finding their way after leaving social justice. Leave me a comment or drop me a line at email@example.com to tell me what you’d like to see!
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