Zoya Street, Mattie Brice, and Aevee Bee all put up excellent posts recently reflecting on the status of discourse within the loosely defined social justice “community” that are excellent and deserve a read. There’s not much that I can really add to what they’ve all said, except to echo that I share many of the same concerns, but I wanted to offer some of my own personal reflections on the topic.
I want to say, first of all, that I’ve noticed myself playing into this same toxicity at various times over the past year, which is more or less the entirety of time that I’ve been visible in my advocacy. It’s gained me a reputation within and outside of the circles I run in (both good and bad) and there have been many times where my actions have given me pause. Not to trivialize what has been said at all, but I think the moment when all of this started to crystallize (forgive the horrible pun that that word is about to become) is when I began to watch Breaking Bad with my boyfriend.
If you are one of the people that hasn’t watched the show, I won’t spoil too much in the way of specifics, but basically, the main character, Walt, is a school teacher that learns that he has cancer and decides to spend the last of his days cooking crystal meth to make money to leave for his family. He ends up getting everyone else caught in his increasingly complex web of secrecy and undergoes a massive personality change as a result of his increasing notoriety.
I felt a lot of sympathy for Walt in the beginning. After all, his diagnosis wasn’t fair, and his life was not the greatest. By all counts, he deserved better, and so did his family. His brother-in-law, who was doing far better, was an oppressive jerk. Even when he decided to “break bad” I wanted to see him succeed, because his motives were seemingly pure and his heart seemed to be in the right place. When he was in danger, I would clutch tightly on my boyfriend’s arm and hope that he would get out and continue building his empire.
Somewhere around the midway point of the series, I began to realize that I was cheering for someone to continue an activity that drained the emotional energy of his family and put them in danger of having their lives destroyed. It became more and more clear that even if his motives at the outset were altruistic, that they had become selfish and misguided. I began to see people like his brother in law as human beings and not their oppressive language. I began to analyze the ramifications of Walt’s actions. Finally, I came to look at my own actions in a different light.
Perhaps what caused me to make this connection between Breaking Bad and the pieces by Zoya, Aevee, and Mattie was this recent Thoughtcatalog post:
I was fairly sure that the message that the show wanted to send was that Walt was a sociopath, not a “badass,” and that his behavior shouldn’t be celebrated. Nor should a lot of the behavior that I’ve seen or engaged in.
Rest assured, I haven’t been cooking meth in what little free time I’ve had in the past 6 months. But I have gained a sort of notoriety within the twitter social justice crowd in a very short amount of time. People have told me that they follow me to see me schooling people or tearing them apart. I have become very, very good at it, and to be frank, at times it scares me. It has even caused me problems in my personal life. I won’t go into detail, but as my confidence and “badass-ness” has increased, so has my bitterness, and that’s not at all how I want to be seen.
I think there have been times when others have looked at me and seen that they were cheering on someone to tear another person apart. I’ve seen pieces of that here and there over the past year and I like to think that the past few months I’ve been doing better, and I’ve been vocal about wanting a better environment and discourse within whatever community we have. It’s not just me, however.
The same sort of cheering that people did for me to be more harsh and violent in my rhetoric is directed at others. It’s cheering others to be more visceral, more cruel, and more unrelenting in their assault. I see that, and I see how quickly some of that anger has turned on some of my friends, how it quickly collapses into a black hole of animosity, and I fear that it’s only a matter of time before it’s directed at me. I don’t think that’s sustainable, and when I see social justice language used in a performative act of trying to upstage one another in terms of cruelty towards others, others who should be our allies, I have to wonder what makes us so different from those perpetuating the same social ills that we profess to be fighting against.
Anita Sarkeesian’s TED talk touched on this sort of performative cruelty, where targeting other individuals online has gained somewhat of a competitive aspect, similar to that of a video game, with a rewards system that reinforces toxic behavior. I have to say, as much as I’ve seen directed at me that mirrors exactly what she describes in the threads about me on 4chan, I’ve seen a disturbing amount within the social justice circle.
I don’t want to seem as if I’m preaching from any place of sanctimony. I’ve been caught up in this negativity and perpetuated it. I more or less made national news for a twitter fight with Todd Kincannon.
I still think that a lot of anger is justified, and that righteous anger can be a useful agent for change. It gets people motivated. What I’ve seen hasn’t been anger, it’s been cruelty and brinksmanship, especially that which has been directed at those within the community itself. I have seen people viciously ostracized for reasons that seem petty and in the long run only alienate allies to our cause. All the while it’s been cheered on reinforced in the echo chamber nature of our community.
I’m sure that it feels like that viciousness is serving our cause. I know that I’ve felt the same about my harshness towards others. I have felt at times, a sense of power that is addictive. I’ve had a taste of the weapon that has been wielded against me and kept me subjugated and using it against others has made me feel momentarily revitalized. When the anger subsides, however, I feel a craving for that high again, but it never satisfies me. This is why, in part, I believe that the forces we fight against are so hard to dismantle. They are addictive. They are rewarded by the peers of those who indulge in them. They are a drug, and getting anyone to see that things are better when they aren’t under the influence of a self-destructive drug is a hefty challenge.
If we continue to wield power over one another for personal gain within our community, then we’re not going to last as a community. It’s going to be a group of competing vigilantes staking their claim to a fleeting sensation of dominance, much like the oppressors. I just don’t believe it’s sustainable. And because I want to live and practice what I preach I am making it my goal to try and be a little more humane in my interactions with others online and offline. It may be less theatrical and exciting, but I don’t want to be manufacturing toxicity or dragging others around me down. It’s not worth it. No amount of followers, nor the reach of my voice can justify the long term effects.
For 2014, I’m going to try to use my anger more productively, to funnel it into creative projects and to inspire and build up rather than to tear down. I want to be a different kind of warrior, one who is known for what she creates rather than what she destroys, and known for her nurturing rather than her viciousness. I still believe my anger to be capable of creating positive change, but I must be mindful that the power that I wield is as capable of being used to divide in my hands as it is in the hands of those that wish me ill for existing. I won’t be a Walter White. I won’t tear people apart. I will use my sword much more judiciously, and practice caring and compassion as I work with others to be better, because I too have so much to learn.
The progress that we’ve seen has been fostered by increased dialogue, not silencing others or making them unafraid to speak, or drowning them out with our voice. That is why I am committing myself to doing what I can to not engage in that sort of conduct and to call it out from this point forward. I may be less of a “badass” for it, but I will be much more of a positive force, and that is something that I want for myself and for this community as we work together for the ideal world that motivates us all to advocate for others.