The above is a popular image macro amongst my friends and more generally a popular image for social justice orientated people to post. The character in this macro is Garnet from the animated television show Steven Universe and is well known for her rather blunt and forceful ways of making her point. Given that Garnet also has black and pink (which is known as the anarcha-feminist colors in some circles), they seem even more appropriate in this context.
Being the naturally skeptical person that I am, I tend to question how much we should make “discomfort” the center of our options when trying to making folks unlearn oppressive behaviors. It’s true that expanding our comfort zones is a good way for us to grow, but growth is sometimes a painful and complicated process.
As such, it may not be wise to rush it, much less try to fit the necessary amount of growth that you think the other person needs to go within (for example) the span of a single conversation. This may not even be the explicit expectation that folks have about others but sometimes people treat these complex situations as if they can be boiled down to their own personal project. Whether for the admiration of their peers (“Look, I helped dismantle oppression!”), for social capital (“Look how great I am!”) or simply for the pleasure of proving themselves right (“Look, I was right!”).
Which isn’t to say that these are always the motivations that are involved when discussing these issues, but sometimes they are. Sometimes the motivations of discussing your ideals is less pure than you might like to think it is. For all it matters, you could be right that systematic racism is born out of X social phenomenon but trying to convince someone of that with the expectation that you’ll get some sort of reward isn’t the best way to keep the well free of poison.
Generally, people are either coming into The Discourse, with way too many expectations (“I can change the world!”) or way too few expectations (“This shitlord is gonna get his racist ass handed to him!”).
Tangent on Aesthetics and The Discourse
In either case the principle of charity would probably call upon us to resist these temptations and try to go something like, “Well, I probably won’t change their mind, but hopefully we can both walk away learning something.” Which isn’t so coincidentally my train of thinking when I engage in The Discourse about social justice issues or anything else. The only matters I tend to over-extend myself rather habitually is aesthetics where I like to pretend I’m an objectivist and have a Supreme Knowledge of what is Good and Proper about “art”.
It’s actually a somewhat interesting dynamic to create because it makes me take intellectual discussions of art a bit more seriously than I might otherwise. I mean, sure, there’s the people who hate The Force Awakens who I just can’t take seriously (the worst you can say is that it’s too similar to an amazing movie from 20 years ago or so, really?). But generally, I like conversations about aesthetic concerns because the matters often seem less loaded with expectations.
This is partially because the stakes are inherently lower, for better or worse. Art is inherently a “subjective” thing and a matter of “taste” so people bickering over it just seems preemptively silly to anyone around the bickering. But to me, this means that the stakes can be upped so as to make it seem like so much more is on the line.
On the other hand, I do also feel like people underestimate how important these “subjective” conversations can be, simply because they are subjective. Just because there is no One True Way doesn’t mean the discussion can’t be lively or interesting in some way, there are plenty of ways to make subjective discussions appreciable.
Tangent over, back to social justice.
We can Rebuild the Discourse, Make it Better
This essay was promoted by besides the aforementioned image macro) April Daniel’s Social Justice Discourse Fallacies (SJDF), which is just brilliant. Read it before you keep reading this post and make sure to read the geek version that she drew inspiration from, it’s got some good points as well, particularly the first part.
In particular a mixture of SDJF1 (“Tone Arguments Are Bullshit, Therefore I Can Treat You Like Something I Found In A Sewer.”) and SDJF2 (“Intent Isn’t Magic, Therefore It Is Irrelevant.”) can be, as April explains:
…explosive, and for the person who stepped on the landmine, bewildering. Nobody comes away from one of these incidents a better person, aware of their shortcomings but committed to change. They come away from it with the idea that people who use the word “privilege” are dangerous drama bombs who must be avoided.
I’ve seen this happen, as I’m sure many of us have at this point.
Person A is a well-meaning white person who thinks that Black Lives Matters might not want to use X tactic because it seems to be doing more harm than good.
Person B feels like the first person must be some sort of racist who is simply using this sort of language so they can safely criticize people of color.
In this scenario, I wouldn’t say that B is unreasonable for thinking about this as a possibility but actually acting on that possibility without finding out more can lead them to Nowhere, very fast. It’s especially bad with a mix of dismissing intentions to the extent that you see them as irrelevant and thinking that “tone policing” is such a monstrosity that it must be snuffed out in (ironically) through the most vile tones possible.
But again, I don’t blame B for thinking this because we’ve probably all also seen the white person who is just using their idea of respectability politics so they can more safely criticize activist movements they strongly disagree with. The problem is that because this is such a heated issue, they try to cloak it up in these tactics that’ll make their dissent seem less hostile, which is disingenuous at best.
In any case, whether I blame B or not, I think that SJ activists are sometimes too quick to jump on the train of presuming the worst in others. I think there is a lot to be said for the appeal of pessimism and fatalism regarding people, but I don’t think that in the end these are approaches that are conducive to helping folks unlearn oppressive, behaviors, if that’s what you’re looking to accomplish.
On the other hand, some folks might not feel like some people are worth educating. Perhaps they think they’re only worth derision, mockery and general bullying at a certain point because the ideas of the other person are in fact so ludicrous that they can’t see any other viable option than to engage in bullying.
Ironically I recently had this experience not with a “Social Justice Warrior” but with a libertarian. He decided that because one of my friends is fairly vocal about conspiracy theories, anti-vaccine ideology and so on, that the only way to get them out of the movement is to simply bully them out of the movement.
Now, I think anti-vaccine theories are ludicrous and conspiracy theories are often a waste of time. But neither of these things gives me the time, energy or drive to harass my friends (let alone total strangers). I don’t really understand how a movement could be said to be successful if it relies on truth-telling via bullying.
The point of this anecdote is to illustrate that anyone can engage in these SJ fallacies, even if SJ folks are more likely to engage in them. In this case, my friends intentions of protecting children (even if in a very wrong-headed way via anti-vaccine ideas) was thought irrelevant because its lack of scientific credibility.
I don’t have any argument against pushing these sorts of parts out of the libertarian movement, but that “push” should revolve around folks discussing ideas freely with each other, not constant and vigorous harassment.
When I asked how effective this had been on my friend, they said,
Best Practices for the Uncomfortable
But the effectiveness doesn’t matter for the bully, the bullying itself is what matters. This feeling that you’ve got something sacred and by gum, you’re gonna protect it from them, the out-group!
Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex actually had an interesting concept of the “fargroup” which makes use of the near/far distinction that I think is relevant here. The people who are strangers might be in the “fargroup” (AKA less of a threat because they’re more alien to you) but people you know (and especially within your own movement) are a threat that you can much more visibly recognize as a threat and so your response to this is likely to be much more hostile.
One particularly good example of (historical) “farness” is the Boston Tea Party vs. Basically Any Modern Riot, Ever. You can see the hypocrisy when a woman is interviewed during the documentary If a Tree Falls and asked what she thinks about the people during the Seattle protest. She says (paraphrasing) that it’s horrible but when asked about the Boston Tea Party (a protest that caused over 1 million dollars in property damage) she smiles and says, “Well, I think it’s lovely!”
And of course we can just dismiss this woman as some sort of nationalistic stooge but as I’ve hopefully made clear, it’s a little more complicated than that. Not only is it more complicated but it’s also a pretty relatable scenario. For example, most people would have a knee-jerk reaction that The Boston Tea Party was nowhere near as destructive as the recent flooding in Louisiana.
And while this is true (in case you were curious), it’s something that people wouldn’t even consider because of the near/far distinction. And it’s that lack of consideration that I think is worth highlighting and criticizing. The fact that the Boston Tea Party happened more than a few hundred years ago and its intentions were supposedly “noble” doesn’t erase the fact that anyone who did that today would be vilified as a “hooligan” and some sort of destructive element in society.
So what to do when your in the Nationalist Lady’s spot? What are some good ideas when you’re experiencing your share of cognitive dissonance?
It’s a hard question in part because those experiencing cognitive dissonance often don’t realize they are, which is part of the problem to begin with. But keeping these biases and concepts in mind beforehand can help us recognize when we’re acting on irrational biases instead of legitimate concerns. It’s not perfect by any means but identifying our biases and what helps us be more rational can get us better at practicing our social justice concepts during discussions.
On a somewhat related note, some people tend to think that “rationality” is just a concept made up by The West and The Enlightenment and there’s some truth to that. But the concepts of reason, logic and so forth aren’t uniformly informed by those historical currents and to posit that would be reductionist. There are many forms of logic to get from point A to point B and chalking the ones you don’t like up to some sort of abstract concept like “The West” can often just lead to dismissing folks instead of actively engaging in conversations with them.
Granted, there are plenty of “logical” things that predominantly came out of Western (by this I mean North America and Europe) styles of thought and came along with the notions of imperialism, Manifest Destiny, Trial of Tears, etc. The logic of othering people and putting them in places of subjection and exploitation didn’t exactly originate in Europe, much less North America, but they certainly weren’t helped by these continents either.
Which brings us back to discomfort and unlearning oppressive behaviors because recognizing this history, is obviously an uncomfortable fact. Look at all of the white people who start getting nervous once you discuss things like reparations for people of color or Native Americans for instance. But is the discomfort part the important thing or is the recognition by itself the important thing?
If I feel uncomfortable about the fact that most of the ground I walk along was once owned by Native Americans who were slaughtered by people possibly related to me, what does this accomplish? This sort of exercise in discomfort reminds me of the stereotypical feminist meeting where everyone goes in a circle (it’s always a circle) discussing their various privileges that they have and how they’ve used those privileges (consciously or not) to harm others.
While I think recognizing our various social privileges is important, even vital, to having better communication, it’s not the only part that matters. Recognizing our privilege doesn’t stop us from exercising it in really harmful ways. A friend who commits various emotional harms and soon after apologized isn’t much better of simply because they recognize they’re being an asshole, that’s not enough.
Consider the show BoJack Horseman (better yet, go watch all three of the seasons and then come back to this essay) where the main character, BoJack, constantly messes up in very big ways and constantly recognizes that, lambasts himself for it…and then just does it all over again. How much does this really do for those people around them that BoJack happens to be in tune with his mistakes?
None of this is to say that recognizing your privilege is unimportant or makes you similar to an emotionally abusive talking horse but recognition of your privilege is necessary but insufficient to actually challenging oppression in society. Recognizing that the land I walked on was largely a product of colonization and expropriation from the indigenous people is vital to getting a historical context of my surroundings…but what does it do besides that?
It might inform my disposition towards native folks, it might inspire my to do certain actions of advocating for some sort of reparations program for natives, etc. These are all (potentially) great things and come from the root recognition I keep discussing but that’s because that recognition is treated as a jumping off point and not just the beginning and end of the conversation.
When I come into a feminist meeting, I’m not sure I want to discuss all of the privileges I have. There are plenty of things about me that are privileged (I’m white, for one thing) but it doesn’t seem especially productive to belabor all of our privileges in some sort of collective cleansing process. It doesn’t get us, as SJ activists, much further within dialogue and action to keep rehashing our obvious historical contexts just to simply say, “Hi.”
There’s a constant refrain from other people that SJ communities and conservative Christian ones seem to share the idea of “original sin” which I always thought (and still somewhat do) is a bit of a forced metaphor. The notion of us all being privileged and born with it isn’t the same thing as it being inherent to people. If SJ activists really felt the same as Christians do about original sin, then there would likely be no point to be an activist to begin with.
On the other hand the way that privilege is sometimes treated…yeah, I can get the metaphor more than I used to be able to when it mostly came from outside SJ circles. Now that this idea has had some time to be shared around a lot (even if often in a wrong-headed manner) it’s been recounted by SJ folks in much more convincing ways.
And by all means, if your privilege is relevant, bring it up! I wrote a poem about police brutality about a month ago and presented it at a poetry slam. It was entitled I love you like the police loving beating the shit out of [insert marginalized group here] which, in retrospect was a shitty and inconsiderate title that comes off as trivializing the experiencing of marginalized folks. I was trying to put some humor on the situation and obviously came up flat (in my mind and others).
But even so, I recognized before I even started doing the poem that the fact I am white means my experiences with police are going to be much different. And the poem reflect this preface. It’s a very abstract poem and in many ways it really was a love poem that I wrote about someone who had recently broken up with me. I had just decided to give it a political edge because of very recent political events that I had heard about and decided I was tired of being silent on the matter.
Even in this case though, my poem wasn’t seen as “appropriate” even though I prefaced it because, as one (white) trans woman said, “You just sound like you’re rubbing your privilege in other people’s faces who aren’t white.” Which, yeah, it may have some off like that, I’m not sure. But then it’s a no-win situation where even if I recognize my privilege and use this recognition as a way to challenge oppression in some sort of abstract artistic way (that doesn’t claim I share the experiences of PoC) that I’ve still said too much.
To me, this is absurd. It’s basically telling white people to stop recognizing their privilege, or else we’re throwing it in PoCs face. Which means, ostensibly, that we should remain silent and let PoC handle everything. And given the fact that we’re the assholes who put them in that spot to begin with, that hardly seems reasonable to me.
Not that I want white folks to dominate PoC spaces or movements (as if we need another space to dominate…) but it seems to me that if white people had even minorly reflected on their privilege that maybe racism for the past few hundred years wouldn’t have been as horrid?
Is that so awful to think about?
Gendered Discomfort and Uncomfortable Genders
In other news: I’m trans.
So, in case you didn’t know, now you do.
I was going to write a whole Thing about it (exploring gender as a maze, etc.) before I wrote this essay but I’m skipping around and now I’m combining another idea I had (separate from the maze one), so whatever.
My everyday is filled with discomfort, anxiety and whatever else my mind can throw at me in response to a world that sees me as what they’ve been told to see (male) instead of how I wish I was seen (a non-binary femme person). So that’s super fun and so is being called “sir” a million times at work (I work at a convenience store).
The point being is that I go through discomfort rather daily and it hasn’t exactly helped me unlearn my oppressive habits in the most conducive way. Notice I didn’t say that it hasn’t done that at all because that’s probably untrue. I used to (weakly) argue that preemptively saying “they” for people was harder for me because I already have so many communication issues, but really, it’s fine and it goes a long way for the few people who it means a lot to, so why not?
Years ago there was someone at the Boston (A) Book Fair who I was referencing and I presumed they were “he” and they (in a large group setting during a talk) corrected me on their gender (I don’t remember what it was but I’m going to say it was “they” for right now) and I immediately went, “Oh! I’m so sorry! Well anyways, as they were saying…” and just moved on with my response.
After the talk though they came up to me and thanked me for respecting their pronouns and I was simply baffled. Why wouldn’t someone respect their pronouns? Especially in an (A) space why wouldn’t someone respect the simple request of someone not identifying with the way they were (forcibly) categorized when they were younger? Isn’t (A) all about encourage self-expression and individual freedom? Given all of these presumptions in my mind it simply seemed like the decent thing to do and I shrugged it off and said you’re welcome.
I then proceeded to walk off while talking to a friend and make a somewhat ableist joke (not relating to the aforementioned trans person) and then feeling like a dick more acutely than I had before. But it hadn’t come from any sort of discomfort (well except the usual social anxiety that comes with People, but I don’t think that counts) but rather a simple acknowledgement of an action I did.
Now, years later, as a trans person myself I can see why it meant so much to this person. That I would simply recognize their agency as they saw it without question or hesitation may have been something they never really got in their day to day lives. Who knows, maybe that was the first time they really asserted their identity to someone and felt really grateful to me that I helped it go so well? I can’t say for sure but I can say now, as a trans person, that I get it a lot more.
The constant discomfort in my life and the sort of cognitive dissonance that SJ activists want folks to feel aren’t the same thing. But they’re both types of discomfort and they’re both ways that we can unlearn ways of oppression.
On the other hand, discomfort is a paradigm that (like many SJ conceptual frameworks) can work against the most marginalized. I brought up my identity as trans and this larger discussion to address this frustrating article written in November of 2015 about rape survivors and trans folks in bathroom.
When I first read it, I was irate. It was using the paradigms of feminist rhetoric such as rape culture as a way to keep transgender folks out of the bathrooms that they feel like they belong in. Why? Because predators might misuse these policies to their own advantage and rape women or, worse still, little girls.
And as we all know as feminists, rapists are almost never “properly” (a misnomer, but I digress) punished for their crimes against women. And as well all know as feminists, women’s liberation means they must not live in fear and so we can’t just simply give a free pass to predators in the name of “progress”!
On and on this article continues to use feminist rhetoric or concepts to justify the exclusion of transgender people based on the authors discomfort. Discomfort has therefore in this case gone from a tool for oppressors to unlearn their behaviors to actually reinforce them and make them think they are even more correct.
How does this happen?
For starters, the emotions involved with discomfort are tricky and manifest differently among different folks. This is especially the case with different preconceived biases and certain experiences in our lives that may have made a large impact. In this case the author has many feminist biases (by that I only mean a predisposition towards feminist notions) and has had a common experience for women (being violated by men) but then uses the consequence of the second thing to justify certain conclusions. In essence, the author decides it is justified to punish transgender individuals for the crimes of other people.
She is using her own discomfort as a way to write off the discomfort of others, it becomes a “discomfort Olympics game” made up of saying that the feelings of the “minority” (transgender folks) isn’t as important as the majority. Never mind that this same logic has been the driving force behind many repressive laws such as the Jim Crow laws in the 60s where people of color were often barred from entering the bathrooms with everyone else because of the possibility for “predators”.
But then if the author was as familiar with feminist rhetoric with regards to rape culture she’d also likely know the fact that most rapists are not strangers. Most rapists and people who engage in sexual assault are going to people you are intimately connected with in some way.
And the people she tells us about in the article to explain why we should all feel uncomfortable about trans folks using the bathroom?
I’ll let blogger Libby Anne handle this one:
Not a single one of them pretended to be transgender or claimed to be transgender.
In actual fact, all three were cisgender men who donned women’s clothing and went into women’s restrooms pretending to be cisgender women. While there they engaged in illegal activity—in one case, public exposure, in another, voyeurism, and in the third, videotaping.
In fact, it turns out that there is a long history of cisgender men dressing as women and going into women’s bathrooms to ogle women—and worse.
Anne’s whole post is great and makes many good counter-points to the common conservative claims about letting transgender folks simply using the bathrooms we’d prefer to. On a sidenote, I’ve also made points about this at C4SS here, here and here if you’re interested in my own thoughts on the matter.
There’s plenty of studies (also see here and here) showing that transgender folks are the ones who are going to suffer under a lack of non-discrimination laws. There’s plenty of data that shows that when men pretend to women they’re already either violating business rules, violating the law in the ways Anne mentioned or they had nothing to do with the anti-discrimination laws existing or not existing, people just did it anyways because laws aren’t magic.
But because people feel like they aren’t safe, they feel they can dismiss the experiences of transgender folks. Take this article for instance on whether the level of sensation transgender people feel is “bathroom discomfort or oppression?”:
Oppression is a word that has been used to great effect in America’s history. Slavery, Jim Crow laws, socially-ingrained homophobia, all of these include some aspect of real oppression. People were beaten, abused, and forced into subpar and unequal conditions because of bigotry and hate.
These instances stand in stark contrast to the most recent epoch of oppressive behavior in our history, the Age of the Gendered Restroom. Those little signs on the bathroom door in malls and gas stations are now, somehow, oppressive.
This is a classic example of the fallacy of relative privation, take it away Wikipedia:
Fallacy of relative privation (“not as bad as”) – dismissing an argument or complaint due to the existence of more important problems in the world, regardless of whether those problems bear relevance to the initial argument. For example First World problem.
So, in this example, because oppression has historically been used for things like people being beaten, enslaved and homophobia that means that these complaints about gender-segregated bathrooms isn’t actually oppressive. But hold on, if “socially ingrained homophobia” was something we can call oppressive and the past (and presumably now) then why not this display of socially ingrained transphobia? Because it’s inherently a transphobic statement to say (much less institutionalize) that that there are (somehow) only two genders.
And why wouldn’t it be? It’s inherently an invalidating statement about our existence and shows a foundational lack of respect for their identities. It tells us, as trans people, that we don’t actually exist and are just figments of our imagination.
Not only that but it reinforces to other people that that there are only two genders and significantly lowers the costs of giving trans folks shit for going in the “wrong” bathroom. Which, by the way, is a big part of why this practice is probably oppressive because it does lead to the beatings of many trans people.
Ya know, because they’re in the “wrong” bathroom.
I’m trying to wade carefully here between the “Offending My Deeply Held Convictions is Indistinguishable from Material Harm” fallacy April Daniels mentions in her previously referenced article on SJ discourse fallacies. But at the same time it’s obvious to me that denying folks their personhood is a great way to have them inflict violence on themselves if nothing else.
But again, our own feelings of discomfort and more generally “discomfort” itself is taken and used as a weapon against marginalized people. Hell, in this case the author isn’t even arguing against trans folks in the bathrooms. They just don’t think referring to it as “oppression” is correct because it’s obviously much more about our feelings than the fact that we’re getting beaten and sexually assaulted.
Even their definition doesn’t really strengthen their argument at all:
Oppression, as defined by Merriam-Webster, means an “unjust or cruel exercise of authority or power” or “something that oppresses especially in being an unjust or excessive exercise of power.”
I can’t see what could be more cruel or unjust then institutionally burying our heads in the sand and furthering the ignorance of trans folks in popular culture. It seems excessive to me to see bathrooms that are so tightly regulated around lines of gender instead of letting everyone enter as they please.
And in case you think my claim about relative privation is a bit too tenuous for the first example, I provide Exhibit B from the same article:
We can have this discussion on the basis of discomfort all day long, but as soon as we equate discomfort with oppression, we’re hurting people. People who are actually oppressed need that word to remain powerful and unsullied by “first world” contrivances.
They don’t need to fight against our conception of oppression as a bathroom sign when trying to relate their real, everyday struggles against dictators, military regimes, social paradigms, laws, or whatever power is actively unjust or cruel to them in their world.
Here, they literally use the textbook example that Wikipedia uses in its example that I cited before. Our struggles of identity and personhood are boiled down to mere signs and compared to literal dictators and military regimes.
And against that, I mean, who could say we are truly oppressed?
Lastly, with regards to this article I wanted to highlight this horrifying passage:
I would submit the following: If you have a single minute of a single day to consider the discomfort a bathroom sign causes you, you are not oppressed.
Imagine the sort of life you must live to fulfill this kind of special condition.
If you have a minute to think about the pain, suffering and harm that so many trans folks have gone through because of those “little” signs then you probably have any number of things going on your life.
The fact that this author would make this sort of prescription about oppression is more likely harmful than simply conflating oppression and discomfort. Because they are telling us that if we even have 60 seconds to consider the effects of gendered segregation in society we must not have to deal with crippling debt, or issues of sexual assault, no we must just have a lot of goddamned time on our hands or something.
I can’t think of a more privileged statement then telling people that the amount of time they can spend thinking on something directly correlates to how much privilege they do or don’t have. This is such a 1:1 correlation that needs some real hammering out and defending before being accepted, but the author gives us no such thing, instead they just say it matter of fact, as if it’s obvious.
All of this is to say that the issues of “discomfort” are real and that they shouldn’t be used carelessly. Especially because we’ve seen folks use it carelessly for their own harmful ends, whether intentional or not.
Discomfort and Mindfulness
I’m not uncritical of mindfulness (for example this video is a good criticism of it) but there does seem to be benefits behind meditation and trying to live in the present moment, etc. Generally then, there might be some benefits to mesh the SJ concept of “education through discomfort” and encouraging mindfulness.
Before we continue, let’s review a definition of mindfulness:
Mindfulness is about being here, fully present with all our activities and thoughts, with body and mind united, and not in a state of dispersion (Chödrön, 1997; Thich Nhat Hanh, 2000).
It means paying attention in a particular way: in the present moment and non-judgementally .
The definition there is provided by Yuk-Lin Renita Wong who was an assistant professor at York University in Toronto, Canada.
Wong integrated these ideas of mindfulness with a course they were teaching entitled Identity and Diversity in the Summer of 2000. They decided that it might be worth incorporating these ideas because of the various feedback they got from students (many white) about how she was teaching the class previously and how it constituted “white bashing” despite her focus on gender and class as well.
Here is how Wong described their experience:
In the first class, I prepared the students for the discomfort the course might bring up for them. I told the students that this course would probably be very uncomfortable for many of them because it would unsettle many of their old beliefs and conceptions about themselves and the world.
Integrating the practice of mindfulness, I asked the students to stay in touch with and embrace their feeling of discomfort, not to judge it wrong and push it away. To encourage the students to relax into and befriend their discomfort, I invited them to take their feeling of discomfort as a teacher and a friend – as a precious opportunity for learning and growth – by greeting their discomfort with a gentle smile and a friendly hello.
I encouraged students to “stop” and “rest” when they felt uncomfortable, to listen to what their feeling of discomfort may tell them, instead of busying themselves with reacting, defending or hiding: “What is my feeling of discomfort trying to tell me, about myself, about my social locations in the society?” I also suggested the students to see the place of discomfort as a place where change begins.
Only when we feel uncomfortable would we begin to feel the need for change.
That last part feeds back into the opening image macro: When we feel a sense of discomfort with the world around us, do we really feel as if the world needs to be changed. But even if this is necessarily true that doesn’t mean we have to experience discomfort purely in a negative way. There are many ways for us to deal with our emotions in positive and healthy ways.
For example, there was a thread where a few women got together and put on some sort of facial mask that resembled black face. None of them intended any harm or thought that it would be perceived as anything but makeup. But instead of simply accepting that it could have been taken the wrong way (and for good reason) one of them decided to lose their cool at everyone else.
They exclaimed they should be trusted to not do something so racist even though many people in the group didn’t really know them. They also seemed to be saying that other people were wrong for feeling discomforted and commenting, instead of simply moving on. But people were being very respectful during their call-ins and there was no real reason to lash out, besides the fact that they felt uncomfortable.
This doesn’t mean that the call-in folks (including myself) were wrong but that, in this case anyways, the individual in question had no real coping skills to deal with this call-in through. So teaching these sorts of coping mechanisms seems like a beneficial thing for social justice people to do, if discomfort is such a vital tool to affecting change.
As I’ve hopefully made clear by now, I’m a bit ambiguous about using discomfort as a tool to cause change in folks dispositions. I think, coupled with mindfulness and other ways of thinking about discomfort, it could be more effective. And even without those things I think it can still have beneficial side-effects, but those effects are less likely to be totally received and effectively interpreted by the person.
It’s also worth returning to my earlier point that the way SJ folks use the “discomfort teaches anti-oppression narratives effectively” is to basically treat people like utter shit because they’re “privileged’ and therefore have the mental capacities of an Elder God or something.
I think these sorts of attitudes can stem from lack of intersectionality in folks analysis, i.e. thinking that just because you’re white you can deal better with stress even when you work 40 hours a week, are poor and don’t get to see loved ones much.
I’m not saying this excuses white people (including myself) for being ignorant of racism (white privilege doesn’t either) but it makes sense why white folks wouldn’t have as high of a threshold for stress if you’re just seeing their racial identity and not thinking about issues of gender, class and so forth.
Anyways, back to the classroom and the methodology:
Throughout the course, I introduced simple breathing exercises to facilitate students to pause and go back to their body after some intense class discussions or disturbing videos about systemic oppressions, to allow room for their feelings and for insights to unfold in the moment of “listening silence.”
Asking student s (sic) to stay fully in touch with their thoughts and feelings as they arise in a gentle and non-judgmental way, and to look deeply into what the feelings reveal to them is in fact mindfulness practice. Mindfulness, as Pema Chödrön (1996) puts it succinctly, is about “diving into your real issues and fearlessly befriending the difficult and blocked areas and deep-seated habitual patterns that keep us stuck in ignorance and confusion” (p.301).
Just to be honest about my biases, I’ve done meditation before. Never for long periods of my life (I think the longest I’ve ever gone is about a week straight or a few weeks straight), but enough to certainly think there’s something to it.
I do deep breathing at times when I am very stressed (lately especially) and it seems to marginally help. It doesn’t clear my stress away but it makes it more understandable so I can figure out what I might want to do next, instead of, you know, just continuing to cry and breakdown.
So all I’m really claiming here is that these methods have done some things for me and I could see them aiding other folks as well. I don’t think it’s some sort of cure all and the popularization of meditation and mindfulness more generally hasn’t been a clear cut victory for the movement.
But at the same time, I think it’s been good to get people to see that they don’t always have to act with judgement towards themselves. I know that I struggle with these things myself and know many other folks who do the same.
Here were the results from the classroom, if you were curious:
In this course, a number of students expressed in their reflective journals how they engaged with their discomfort and noticed their emotional and mental reactivity to the course materials, lectures, and discussions.
A student talked about her growing awareness of how she had always tried to run away from her discomfort, rather than facing the challenge of looking into what made her reacted in certain ways.
Another student recounted her “uncomfortable” feeling and even “resentment” at “having to rethink her notions” after watching a video which intensely deconstructed the stereotypes of Muslim women in North America. Learning to befriend and engage with her feelings, this student was gradually able to appreciate the experience as “an excellent learning opportunity.”
Another student took her uncomfortable feeling as “a good thing” when she was confronted with the relations of oppression between the aboriginal people and the dominant (white) Canadians. One student began to recognise how her failing to critically examine the policies and institutions of the society had allowed her “to find comfort in ignorance.” For this student, the teachings in the course “have removed the security of ignorance and have illustrated that ignorance is not bliss.”
Another student recognised how her saying to herself that she had no culture when she felt uncomfortable with class discussions and activities related to culture and race was “just an easy way to escape feeling uneasy with racism.”
Instead of pushing away her feeling of discomfort, she took it up as “a good place to be in” and opened herself to the questions about her social locations. Her discomfort thus became a “learning opportunity” for her to move out of her “protective cocoon” towards “taking personal responsibility” for her growth as a person and a social worker by inviting her to examine the power and privilege which she “pretend[ed]” she did not have.
Obviously this isn’t a proper study and I’m not claiming this is some sort of “end” to any discussion, ever. But it’s an interesting experiment with promising results (granted it was done back in 2000) that I hope will spark more experimentation in how SJ folks decide to cultivate their anti-oppressive messages.
Utilitarianism, Oppression and Discomfort
I used to have a friend who got me thinking about a lot of these topics. They would explain that, from their perspective as a utilitarian, it seemed like it was fool hardy to reduce people’s pleasure of the world in order for them to enjoy it more.
Granted, this was a while ago and I’m not sure if I’m completely and accurately reconstructing this person’s opinion. But regardless they were a utilitarian who seemed to be of the opinion that focusing on displeasure within SJ discourse could have negative effects on the people we’re trying to talk to.
At first, I was slightly defensive about this but over time I began to see that they at least had some sort of point. How much of a case can you really make if people can’t feel comfortable in their own skin every five minutes?
And especially if you’re talking to people with mental health issues within the depression, anxiety and low self-esteem ballpark, it seems counter-productive to edge around these feelings they may already generally feel in their lives.
I’ve discussed utilitarianism before as well as my preferred theory of virtue ethics through the philosophy of anarchic egoism. I have done so in a rather lopsided way admittedly because my bias is heavily against utilitarianism for both philosophical and personal reasons that likely color the amount of focus I give towards it as opposed to deontological theories of ethics or other theories.
Which isn’t to say I don’t think those theories are worth discussing in similar fashion but I see a lot more of my friends getting sucked into the appeal (and it has real appeal) of utilitarianism and the larger consequentialist family of theories.
But to me, doing otherwise would be like if I focused on the anti-work movement’s tendencies to focus on post-scarcity instead of focusing on its ability to get locked into the reformist notions of Universal Basic Income (UBI).
Sure, both ideas have their issues and their prominence within the anti-work community but (at least in my own experiences) I see many more anti-work folks getting sucked into UBI ideas and it seems potentially much worse to me given its very real and obvious appeal.
Despite my large amounts of personal experience with utilitarianism the sample size therein is rather small and it’s heavily tinged with personal biases and other things that weight my opinion in my mind. Even so, while I think this particular interpretation of the utilitarian philosophy makes some sense (as I often think of various things utilitarians are wont to say) I don’t think it goes very far.
Most of our lives are made of various pleasures and displeasure and situating ourselves within this vortex of different feelings can be a tricky process. It’s certainly worth our time to be careful with how we approach making people feel uncomfortable in the pursuit of some larger goal, but at the same time there’s no actual wrong-doing in using displeasure as a way to further conversation.
Especially if you already have social anxiety or any of the other mental health issues I previously mentioned conversations are already likely a minefield for you. And yeah, making that more difficult probably wouldn’t help things but it’s also possible for you to have devised various coping mechanisms (like mindfulness or various CBT and DBT theories of mental health) to deal with this inherent discomfort.
For example, I go to a poetry slam on Thursday nights and it’s a great time. I know a handful of people there and often I actually have a group of friends who I go with and hang out. But it’s also unbearably uncomfortable because my social anxiety gets triggered really badly when the center state is on someone and it’s not a formal (read: routine orientated) presentation.
If someone’s doing a prepared speech and has been approved by their peers to do so and there’s some sort of process to all of it, I’m usually fine. And even when I’m not I can using various coping mechanisms like looking at my smartphone, thinking to myself about what I want to do or simply listening and trying to keep myself calm.
Sometimes, when I know I’ll get more displeasure than anything else, I decline going. If I am already in a bad mood due to anxiety, depression or something else then I can tell that going there is going to be more trouble than it’s worth.
So it’s totally valid to make decisions based on levels of pleasure but there’s also considerations of character. What kind of audience would you prefer? An audience that is there because they feels some sort of misinformed obligation to show up because their friends do or one that is there because they want to be there?
There’s a form of utilitarianism called negative utilitarianism which argues that instead of maximizing happiness we should think about minimizing suffering and that seems to be at least part of an argument against the SJ tactic of using discomfort as a main strategy (at the very least) to affect social change.
It’s a relevant question of whether there’s too much or not enough discomfort in the world as it is. We’re always being shown new experiences that are largely out of our control to one extent or another and furthering those processes may or may not be a good idea given on what framework you are using.
If you are a utilitarian it might be easier than others to say that causing people significant amounts of displeasure just for the chance of influencing their opinions is wrong. On the other hand I could also easily see the counter-argument from other utilitarians that the oppression that these people may be inflicting on others could be far worse than the discomfort you are making them feel.
But again, this can be taken to bad and dehumanizing places where we take folks individual privileges and substitute that with their general identity. We presume, based solely on their oppressor identity, that they can simply take whatever we dish out and goddammit they deserve every bit they’re going to get anyhow!
This might not be a very good idea for many reasons as I’ve argued at length by now. But the discomfort question particularly around levels of discomfort and what sorts we should see as good or bad reminds me of a tangential question of whether “the system” (that is to say the current political system) is “fixed” or “broken”.
Some people think the political system is “broken” because it doesn’t work for “the people” (whatever that means) and some people think it’s supposed to be that way so it’s “fixed” to be like that. It seems to be a matter of perspective how things balance out and one of the issues I find with utilitarianism (and I by no means am original in this critique) is its ability to properly calculate these levels out to just proportions.
Because while I (now) somewhat sympathize with that friend, I don’t think there’s any useful way in which we can think about this through consequentialist or utilitarian reasoning. At least not without involving some levels of deontology too and thinking about the sort of individuals we want to be.
Do we want to be people who stand up to injustice even if it’s difficult and makes other people’s lives slightly more difficult? Or do we want to resign ourselves to incalculable processes whereby we enter a sort of epistemic paralysis?
I try to go as long as I can with these posts because I want to get out as many thoughts as I can on a given subject. But at this point I feel like I’m rambling and I think I’ve said all I can say on this part of social justice rhetoric for now.
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I also have a book coming out next month about anti-work, so look for that!