There’s a lovely and thoughtful op-ed about “Sex at Wesleyan” written by an alumna with whom I must be roughly contemporary (I graduated in ’95). She articulates this:
As much as you may read about the angry cries of “social justice warriors” in current news, today’s students discuss sexual assault in a completely new way. Their primary concern is sexual ethics. Debates about what is consensual and what is not, what type of sex is fair and what is immoral, are essential to life at Wesleyan, I learned during visits to the campus a few semesters ago. “There’s a difference between illegal and unethical,” Chloe, a neuroscience major, told me, firmly. “Life is not about doing whatever you can do. It’s about not doing what is traumatic to another person.”
What few older people see in today’s “P.C.” students is their overwhelming urge to be kind to each other. They may have spent their middle and high school years being bullied, or bullying others; for kids in their low-to-mid-teens, the internet is a bullying machine. But by college, their sense of morality has blossomed. And many adolescents want to sort the world categorically into good and bad, at once eager to draw boundaries and empathize with whatever others might possibly feel.
PC can go awry. It often does. We humans are fallible creature. This viral “excommunicate me from the church of social justice” article from Autostraddle makes some good points about how we flawed creatures in fact function. Social justice easily becomes a new orthodoxy in which the goal is to seek opportunities to tell others how impure they are. Call outs rarely work (but often demonstrate to those watching that they are not alone). Call ins often work, but many alleged performative call ins are in fact public displays of purity (there is no “call in” on a public Facebook thread or on Twitter).
The amount of energy I spend demonstrating purity in order to stay in the good graces of fast-moving activist community is enormous. Activists are some of the judgiest people I’ve ever met, myself included. There’s so much wrongdoing in the world that we work to expose. And yet, grace and forgiveness are hard to come by in these circles. At times, I have found myself performing activism more than doing activism. I’m exhausted, and I’m not even doing the real work I am committed to do. It is a terrible thing to be afraid of my own community members, and know they’re probably just as afraid of me. Ultimately, the quest for political purity is a treacherous distraction for well-intentioned activists.
This is all also true for me.
But we need to tease out these flawed human social dynamics and work on them (and because they are what they are, I cis-male white guy cannot really do much work on them) without losing the core ideas behind the set of behaviors now demonized as “merely PC run amok.” Be kind to others. Recognize that words and images have power and try to use better ones that do the least damage. Listen to others. Listen especially to people who are rarely listened to.
Lee’s Autostraddle essay on excommunication gets this – it’s about the “church” they propose has emerged. Not about the work.
Back to work.