kier here is a free digital newsletter sent out every Friday at noon PST.
This is the final instalment 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 three here: Why I Left Social Justice. I’ve also published a list of resources for Thinking Critically About Social Justice.
Throughout the course of writing this series, I’ve talked to numerous people who have left, are leaving, or are considering whether to leave, the social justice subculture. Most of them are still supportive of progressive public policies such as raising taxes on corporations and the rich, building affordable housing and a low-cost childcare system, providing safe supply, increasing funding to healthcare, education and public transportation, strengthening the social safety net, and creating democratic oversight of the energy, finance and resource extraction sectors.
Slip’n’sliding to the Right?
Regardless, many SJWs fear that leaving this subculture would mean that they are right wing. Although some people do turn toward conservatism after leaving, there’s nothing organic or predestined about this. Those people found that the right wing offered them the best explanation for, and solution to the dilemma they found themselves in. I have personally not found right wing perspectives to be adequate or convincing.
People within the social justice subculture believe that they are the only true leftists, but that’s only because they place the utmost importance upon tiny choices such as which words to use, what clothes to wear, what foods to eat, what books to read, and most more importantly, what to avoid. Many of them confuse this for activism, and as far as they’re concerned, people who don’t toe the constantly shifting line might as well be Alex Jones (that’s how you end up with white people calling black people white supremacists). But guess what? They’re wrong! There is no contradiction between rejecting cynical and dysfunctional social norms and supporting a politics in which we all pitch in to make sure everyone’s needs are met. The more the left becomes associated with kind, reasonable, committed and capable people, the more likely we can succeed.
A Song for the Lonely
Another common concern is: if I openly renounce this subculture, will I lose all my friends? While I can’t predict what will happen for you, here’s what’s been true for me.
First of all, before I publicly announced my leaving, I spent time nourishing friendships where I could think out loud, be silly and sarcastic and wrong. These were the people I first shared my treacherous thoughts with, and their openness and curiosity pushed me to keep going. When it came time to start writing publicly about my leaving, I took comfort knowing that these friends weren’t going anywhere. How did I know this? Because they told me so.
So far I have only lost one friend, other people have lost many. If your friends cannot tolerate any degree of political disagreement in their life, they will probably not stick around, and they may not be nice about it either. I’m going to hazard a guess, however, that such friendships were built on a rickety foundation that was never meant to last, and that letting them go might bring relief and freedom alongside sadness and grief. We deserve to be cared for and loved for who we are, outside of and beyond our political affiliations.
I’ve had some friendships deepen, as old pals have revealed to me that they, too, have left. Most are doing so without telling a single soul; that’s how much people fear social abuse. One of the benefits of speaking publicly on this topic is realizing, through a multitude of private correspondence, just how many of us are well and truly done with this nonsense. How beautiful will it be to watch our paths branch out, as we watch one another log off groupthink?
There are also some new friendships that have come into my life as a result of this series, and since I am no longer self-censoring or people pleasing, I take pleasure in knowing that these people like me for who I am, not who I try to pretend I am. I’m starting to believe that it is good and healthy to have friends with a diversity of opinions. Stepping out of our echo chambers can be an excellent way to hone our beliefs and discover unexpected common ground along the way. Fearing and hating right wingers will only get us so far, if anywhere at all.
Some people struggle to leave the anger, the despair and the hopelessness behind, even after ditching the ideology. It’s not a quick or easy process to deprogram from such a helpless, raging worldview. But I’ve found a number of things that helped. My top suggestions are to prioritize good sleep hygiene, proper nutrition, adequate hydration and a sustainable exercise regimen, and hobbies or activities that are fun, social and low pressure. If you have physical or mental health needs that you’ve been ignoring, it’s time to take care of those. Learn how your stress presents itself—impatience, frustration and a need for control—and tend to it promptly. Why do I mention these basic health factors? When I was an SJW I neglected almost all of them, and so did many of my friends.
There are also a number of changes I’ve made in how I relate to myself and others:
-I assume people are engaging in good faith unless I have evidence to the contrary
-I communicate earnestly, and respectfully end exchanges that have become fruitless
-I consider all thoughtful feedback, while knowing that what I do with it is up to me
-I regularly ask myself if I know what I’m talking about, and am no longer afraid to say “I don’t know”
-I own my opinions, rather than pretending they are obvious, mandatory or universal
-I read, watch and listen to whatever the heck I want
-I stay open to the possibility that I am wrong
-I actively seek out opposing viewpoints on controversial topics so that I’m not relying on mischaracterizations
-I fact check information I see on social media
-I am learning to live with being misunderstood and agreeing to disagree
-I’ve decided it’s better to do something imperfectly than not at all, which is why this newsletter exists!
Having made these changes, I feel much more calm, stable and capable than I did before, even as the same culture war outrage machine whirrs around me. However, the quality I’ve been most delighted to rediscover is curiosity! After so many years of censoring my media intake and treating most thinkers as suspicious, I feel like a kid in a candy shop whenever I go to the library. Nothing is off limits! It’s fascinating to try to understand how people entirely unlike myself think and live. I get a kick out of reading books that I have mixed feelings about, and pinpointing where I converge and diverge with the author.
Another step I plan to take is to sit down and identify my personal values. There are tradeoffs to nearly any choice we have to make, whether it’s personal or political, and knowing what my values are will give me a way to evaluate those decisions. I’m not exactly sure what I will find and I look forward to doing this. The one value I feel certain of is integrity: aligning my speech and behaviour whenever possible. Leaving a dogmatic subculture is an excellent time to ask yourself: what matters most to me? What principles can I rely on to guide my actions? There’s a simple, brilliant thing that gets lost in the web of social justice ideology. It’s not the case in every context, but it is certainly true in choosing the values we live by. Once you are an adult, no one can control you, unless you’re allowing them to.
Back Into the Fray
For a long time after I left, the entire realm of politics was poisoned for me. I’d felt so manipulated and misled for so long that it was easier to imagine running away to the woods and to talk exclusively to squirrels than it was to imagine re-engaging with activism of any kind.
However, I eventually realized that, whether I like it or not, I am a highly political being. I feel best when I am engaged with ideas or actions that attempt to improve the material circumstances and quality of life of struggling people. Although I don’t have the temperament to be a community organizer, I know there’s a way to be politically active again and make it work for me. I don’t need an organization to be perfect in order for me to volunteer, but I do require my time and energy to be respected. I want to have a hand, however small, in shaping a better future. Whether I join a grassroots campaign, a political party, a book club or something else, I want to meet new people, exchange visions and see what we can do together. I will never be able to avoid all anger or frustration or disappointment in this work, but I can make sure it doesn’t pull me under.
There’s one trajectory I am certain I want to reject: the anti-woke crusader. As much as myself and many others have struggled profoundly under the banner of social justice with very little to show for it, I do not want to build a career or even a hobby around this one issue, and I don’t think it’s advisable for anyone to do so. It would be so easy to turn that hostile, paranoid SJW energy back on itself: to point fingers, to rant about the harm, to obsess over how horrible everything was and how it’s about to get so much worse. In other words, to learn absolutely nothing from my experience, to change absolutely nothing about how I behave in the world, and to simply choose a different target. No thanks! While I find it important and worthwhile to speak about how dysfunctional this subculture is, there are other threats to free speech, democracy and working class people. Let’s find that plot, shall we?
There’s a short phrase that’s currently running laps in my head: reject cynicism! It’s silly, it’s boring, it’s incredibly useless! If you find yourself thinking that getting involved in politics is pointless, that nothing will ever change and it’s futile to try, take note. Because that, my friends, is a truly conservative outlook, whether it’s being championed by afropessimism or Fox News.
One technique is to use cynicism as a jumping off point. Has nothing really ever changed? Pick out a history book, download a podcast on the big philosophical questions, watch that documentary on that obscure political theorist. Replace boredom with curiosity. It is WAY more fun.
Hope, Baby, Hope!
When I was 20, I got my first tattoo: a butterfly with an aviator cap, surfing on a leaf. It’s from 1982’s The Last Unicorn, also known as the best movie of all time, and my parents separately said the exact same thing when they saw it: “it’s bigger than I thought it would be.” This butterfly is a character that speaks in rhyme and riddles, poking fun at the somber magician. But he also gives the young man the information he needs. I remember exactly why I got this tattoo: to remind my older self to 1) not take myself too seriously and 2) remain stubbornly idealistic, no matter what. After many years of scoffing at 20 year old Kier, I’ve decided to accept her advice.
What do we have if we don’t have hope? It is the fuel that makes everything worthwhile run. Since I decided to seek out hope, I’ve started seeing it everywhere. Two coffeeshops in my area recently unionized. My winter vegetable garden is sprouting. Tiktokers have built a coalition with Amazon workers. My crush liked the salad I made. A whole bunch of Americans are getting their student debt reduced. It’s going to rain tomorrow. Salman Rushdie is alive. I have bunnies!
Life is chaos, but cupcakes exist. There’s a person who’s absolutely thrilled you’ve read this far. Keep going.
Kier Here finally cracked and joined social media! You can find me on Instagram, Twitter, and in various gardens, libraries and living rooms sprinkled around the Salish Sea.
Thanks for reading Kier Here! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
You've really got a very clear-thinking head on your shoulders, having come out the other side, and to have that kind of clarity for a vision of your own happiness, health, self-worth and effectiveness in the world is impressive. In your newfound optimism, I wholeheartedly agree about your admonition of the role of "Anti-woke crusader"—that road is equally false, and it has consumed some good minds who have been corrupted by what began as a legitimate rebellion against the accepted narrative of the "Religious Left", as I have now taken to thinking about them.
And I'm glad that you now get to write your book. Everything I read so far (I linked from a mention by Andrew Sullivan) is very well written and I wish you success with it. All the best.
This series is brilliant writing!
As the classic film said: "Peace be da journey".