Commission for Two-Year Colleges

The Theater of Social Justice Part Two

Many of the problems that have afflicted resistance movements in recent years can be attributed to the theatrics often associated with social justice – the tendency toward confrontation and performance that frequently coincides with embracing activism and advocacy as a lifestyle, as part of one’s identity. Symptoms of this orientation include an eagerness to identify others’ infractions and to demonstrate one’s knowledge and enthusiasm for various issues, even when abstruse or tenuously related.

These performances require adversaries with whom to verbally joust, which means that in the absence of a willing opponent, anyone whose position deviates from our performers’ principles and perspectives, even slightly, may find themselves being taken to task.  It is clear enough that those who have been singled out and berated for their views, however misinformed, are not likely to change their minds. In many cases, this intransigence constitutes a simple desire to disassociate oneself from one’s antagonist and the group/s that are perceived to be guilty by association. Consequently, most people would almost certainly not even consider the veracity or value of an argument that casts them as culprits.

The poor but profoundly human logic goes something like this: “If that patronizing intrusive individual thinks that argument A is true, then I want absolutely nothing to do with argument A. In fact, argument B is probably correct because it defies argument A.”  Let us say that we are on a committee that is charged with holding a large event. There is one person on this committee whose views are problematic. Are we likely to bring him into accord by systematically denigrating his views? Of course not. We know instinctively that this would drive the dissenter into a defensive position and make progress much more difficult to achieve. The common-sense approach would be to accentuate the merits of the superior strategy and try to explain it in a way that elucidates its strengths. Obviously, there are stubborn people against whom patient logic would be largely ineffectual, but as a tenant of common sense, we know intuitively not to confront or belittle the dissenting, lest we make an enemy and exacerbate a polarized environment. So then, why does this basic logic that we regularly employ in other domains fail us so profoundly in social and political discourse?

            The “theater of social justice” points to the way in which many value the identity, culture and process of social justice work more than they desire the all-important results. In other words, there is a confusion of priorities and objectives. The opportunity to display one’s range of knowledge or passion for a given subject often trumps the desire to engage in potentially constructive dialogue and activities. The desire to have one’s photograph taken protesting in radical attire often takes precedence over more effective forums of communication. The way that we formulate arguments, and when we choose to engage in them, can be very telling about the immediate objective. It’s not uncommon for folks who care deeply about social change to engage in behaviors that are all but guaranteed to preclude observers from considering an alternative point of view. An additional adverse consequence of these encounters often comes in the form of an ostensible affirmation of what “intellectual types” and “radicals” are really like.

One symptom of this mentality often manifests as an overly zealous desire to expose others for minimal infractions against an elevated set of ideals which may be quite foreign to the individual in question. These censures are often applied without consideration for what the source of the infraction may be, or worse yet, the worst possible motive is assumed. For example, as a force of habit, I often refer to a group of mixed gendered company as “guys,” as in “hi guys” or “where are you guys going?” I have been chastised for these absent minded remarks as if I had just given an impassioned speech about the inferiority of women. This type of posturing is almost always counterproductive.

Another harmful token of the theater of social justice can be seen in the efforts that are tirelessly invested in conflating series of tenuously connected issues. A fairly simplistic algorithm for building constructive dialogue is to avoid piling every issue about which you have a conviction onto the table the moment that a discussion begins. The more that is placed on the table, the more potential there is for deadening dialogue. In other words, more issues means more to disagree about and higher prospects for division. An all or nothing mentality is guaranteed to elicit spite and alienate potential allies in the process.

 If those of us who are serious about creating change hope to build bridges rather than burn them and to communicate our messages clearly to those who are disadvantaged and marginalized, we must meticulously critique the ways in which we present ourselves and our perspectives. We must remember that victories are won at an interpersonal level and that every encounter with a possible ally has the potential to affirm a stereotype or to connect on a human level. We must put our appetite for a better world ahead of our egos and identities. We must treat progressive change as an end that must be seriously worked toward rather than an opportunity to star in the latest production of the theater of social justice.