justice

Happiness is not consent to injustice

Sometimes manipulative people will use someone’s happiness to justify mistreating them. It works something like this:

  • Sometimes people force or pressure someone into a bad situation.
  • Then they tell them that it’s really a good situation.
  • And that they’ll like it if they give it a chance.
  • They’’re treated badly, in ways that no one should have to put up with.
  • Then they, through effort and creativity, manage to enjoy some things even though the situation is bad and they’re being mistreated.
  • Maybe they even find a way to be reasonably happy a lot of the time.
  • Then the manipulative person says: See? You gave it a chance, and now you’re happy!

If someone with power over you plays this kind of mind game, it can be very disorienting. They may be able to simultaneously make you feel ashamed of objecting to their injustice, and also ashamed of any happiness you might find. But actually, it’s ok to enjoy things, it’s ok to object to mistreatment, and it’s ok to do both of those things at the same time. 

It can help to keep in mind that the world doesn’t actually revolve around the people who have unjust power over you. You do not belong to them. Your ability to enjoy things isn’t a gift they’re giving you; it’s something you’re creating even though they’re putting you into a very bad situation. Your life is yours, and so are the things you have found ways to care about. 

If people treat you unjustly, dehumanize you, or otherwise mistreat you, that is wrong even if you manage to build some good things into your life. They’re in the wrong even if you are ok, and even if you are happy. If you make the best of a bad situation, that is an accomplishment that belongs to you. It doesn’t make the situation ok, and it doesn’t give others the right to treat you badly. You don’t have to earn the right to object to mistreatment by being constantly miserable. You have every right to object to injustice and wrongs being done to you even if you are happy.

Finding things you can value and enjoy is not consent; it’s resistance. That’s why manipulative people try to co-opt it.

Tl;dr Sometimes people forced into bad situations find things to enjoy, and maybe even find ways to be happy. That doesn’t make the situations good. Some people may try to convince you that injustices done to you aren’t really unjust if you are happy. Those people are wrong. It’s ok to enjoy things, it’s ok to object to injustice, and it’s ok to do both at the same time.

On coming in third in the oppression olympics

Some groups and individuals are marginalized in ways that others are not. Some groups are overall more marginalized than others. Some individual people are overall more marginalized than others. Often, it depends heavily on context (including where you live, what you’re doing, and what the people you interact with regularly care about. Among other things). 

For instance: Some people are perceived as mentally incompetent, and may be at risk of being put under guardianship and deprived of adult rights. Some people are perceived as threatening, and may be at risk of being imprisoned or killed by the police. Some people face neither risk. Some people face both. The degree to which someone is in danger depends on a number of things, including which marginalized groups they are part of. 

And once it’s actually happened to someone, they’re someone it happened to — regardless of how likely it seemed that it would happen to someone like them. And these are just two examples — there is a lot of injustice in the world, and there are any number of other examples.

It’s important to be able to talk about this. If we only approach justice from one angle, we will probably overlook things that we haven’t experienced personally. If we assume that everyone is facing the same thing, we can very easily end up disregarding the needs of those who are in the most danger. No one is immune to this; when injustice doesn’t affect you or someone you care about personally, and doesn’t make the news in a way you can understand, it’s natural to remain unaware that it’s happening. It can help to cultivate in yourself awareness that others experience things you don’t and that you won’t always know what those things are. And that some people know things that you don’t know.

It’s very difficult to talk about these differences productively. It can often end up devolving into a contest over who is the most oppressed, or whose oppression is the most real, or who is suffering enough to matter. This is counterproductive, because even one form of injustice is too much. Whether someone comes in first, second, or third in the oppression olympics — or barely seems to even qualify — no one should face injustice. We don’t need to fight over who is the most dehumanized or the most deserving of justice. It’s much better to focus on what the problems are, what’s causing them, and what can be done.

It’s also hard to talk about the problems with oppression olympics. Sometimes people say “don’t play oppression olympics,” and mean “I don’t want to hear about any forms of injustice that I’m not already fighting.” That sort of dismissiveness does a lot of harm. People who are being harmed are often treated like they don’t matter;  people with legitimate criticisms are often ignored. It can be excruciating to face up to what you’ve missed in your work to make things better. It’s also vital.

Some people and groups really are oppressed in ways that others are not. Some people and groups really are subjects to worse things than others. When we refuse to face up to this reality, people get hurt badly. These differences matter, and the truth about them needs to be speakable. Not all injustice is equal, but it is all important. Even one form of injustice is too many. When people work towards justice, their work is important even though it does not address everything, There are a lot of problems that need to be addressed, and lot of people work that needs to be done. Mistakes matter; so do accomplishments. We can all take things seriously, learn from people who know things we don’t, and keep building.

Disabled people have the right to be religious

So, I hear this a lot:

“People think we’re all religious fundamentalists, but actually the disability rights movement is secular and not based on religion.”

And there’s an important sense in which that’s true. Secular voices exist and are important. A large percentage, perhaps the majority, of the disability rights community is secular. (And hardly any of us are fundamentalists or affiliated with the pro-life movement.)

But, at the same time, some of us actually are religious. And being religious isn’t a bad thing - and religion can be a powerful force for justice.

Those of us who are religious should not renounce this power. Religious outrage is powerful. Naming sin and calling for repentance is powerful. Those of us who believe that it is an affront to God to murder people with disabilities can say so, without being embarrassed.

Religion is not the only source of power or moral authority or spiritual strength. (Outright rejection of religion can be powerful in related ways.) But religion is important to many of us, and we have as much right to it as anyone else.

We have been excluded from and devalued in the same religious communities that ought to be championing our humanity. And it’s ok to be outraged by that, too. 

It’s ok to be secular. But, if you’re religious, that’s ok too. People with disabilities have the same right to freedom of conscience as anyone else. We also have the right to speak the language of our culture and our beliefs. 

Living with our anger as marginalized or abused people

When you’ve been mistreated for a long time, it can be hard to notice that something is wrong. 

Even if you do know it’s wrong, even if you hate it, even if it makes your life awful, it can be very, very hard to realize that it’s ok to object. It can be hard to be upset or even actually *mind* what’s going on in any active way. (And, if you’re like me, you might feel like the problem is that you’re just too broken, and try to shame yourself into becoming someone else)

And then maybe you finally start to get angry. And maybe you meet other people who are angry about the same thing.

And maybe - you start to say so. You find ways of expressing anger. You say the angry things and you even tell people they’re hurting you and that it’s wrong. And you yell and express yourself in emphatic terms in other ways. And you don’t die. You learn that it is, in fact, actually possible to say these things out loud and actually press the issue and win from time to time. And that even when you lose, you survive.

And at first it’s exhilarating and liberating. Because it gives you really, really important things that you’ve never had before.

But sometimes, for some people, this can lead to a place where most of what you have access to is rage. And.. that’s not a great place to be in either. It’s dramatically better than not being able to get angry and express it, but it’s still pretty horrible.

And, a caveat here. Do not even think of using this post to shame people for their anger, or for the amount of time they spend being angry. People have damn good reason to be angry, and sometimes anger is all you have and it is a terrible, terrible idea to try to stop being angry in those circumstances. Anger is important.

Anger is also exhausting and draining.

And anger is not the only way to be able to say what’s wrong without backing down. It is possible to get to a place where you can do that, *even without being actively enraged*. It’s very, very hard to do that, and it’s not always even remotely possible. But it’s a useful skill to acquire and use sometimes, because it means you can sometimes fight these battles without it costing you as much all the time.

It doesn’t mean you stop getting angry. We all get angry, even enraged, sometimes. Trying to eliminate anger is incredibly destructive. Don’t do that, and don’t pressure others to do that. We need anger. We have reason to be angry. Anger is not a failure.

There are other tools, in addition to anger, that we can use to protect ourselves and fight these battles, for instance:

  • Avoiding or limiting emotional entanglement with toxic or dismissive people
  • Spending time explaining things to people who are worth talking to and actually give a damn
  • Spending time with peers who understand and face the same things, and doing things other than being angry about the things
  • Emphasizing and appreciating the value of people like you, even when everything in your world is trying to tell you not to. (Eg: celebrating your culture, eating your food even when it’s stigmatized, body positivity, supporting businesses run by marginalized people, seeing unique value in the perspectives you have)
  • Saying no to things that hurt you even when you’re calm
  • Telling people that they’re hurting others and need to stop even when you’re not enraged by what they’re doing

These tools do not replace anger, but they are also helpful. And so are others. There are a lot of reasons it’s worthwhile to learn additional approaches, for instance:

  • Anger is expensive. It is not as expensive as seeing yourself as someone who isn’t entitled to anger and suppressing it at all costs, but it is expensive and being angry takes a tole.
  • Anger can center the villains more than the good guys. We have damn good reason to be angry. But, push come to shove, good is more important than evil and sometimes it’s worthwhile to center the worth and lives of our own rather than focusing on those who seek to harm us (we can’t ignore them; this is not about positive thinking or pretending that if we don’t acknowledge evil it will go away or any of that BS. What it’s about is making sure we’re remembering to value the people we’re fighting for)
  • Sometimes anger isn’t as effective as something else could be. (It’s more effective than doing nothing, and it’s absolutely legitimate so don’t even try to use this to tone police people. And sometimes it *is* the most effective available tool. But it is not *always* the most effective approach, and it’s good to have other options sometimes)

This is hard. It is also worthwhile.

Don't turn all your tools into weapons

i sing sometimes like my life is at stake ‘cause you’re only as loud  as the noises you make…

….i sing sometimes for the war that i fight 'cause every tool is a weapon - if you hold it right.
-Ani Difranco

I think most of y'all who read this blog are fighting some battle or other. Maybe it’s a battle for justice, on behalf of many. Maybe it’s a principle. Maybe it’s mostly your own life you’re fighting for. One way or another, I think most of you are fighting.

And the thing about fighting is, it’s *hard*, and it wears you down.

And some of you are fighting more or less alone, or with limited support. And you have to take your weapons where you can find them.

Maybe it’s your words. Maybe it’s your affect. Maybe it’s your hands. Maybe it’s relationships. There are all kinds of things. And it’s important; you have to take weapons where you can find them. 

And every tool is a weapon if you hold it right. And when you’re fighting, and looking for weapons, it’s possible to start seeing everything as a weapon first and foremost. That’s dangerous. It can destroy you. 

If you see everything as a weapon , it can be hard to use tools in other ways. There will be times when you have to fight, there are times when hurting people is unavoidable. But when fighting is the center of your life and all your tools become weapons, it can cost you absolutely everything you care about. 

Even when you really need weapons; sometimes especially when you really need weapons.

When all you have is a hammer, then all problems look like nails… But it works in reverse too. If all your problems look like nails, all of your tools will like like hammers. It works that way with weapons, too. If you see everything in terms of physical or social struggle and violence, it’s hard to see your tools as anything but weapons. And that can end up costing you everything you care about.

You have to fight the fights; but it shouldn’t be the only thing you do.

Your hands can make fists. Sometimes you have to make fists; sometimes you have to fight. But don’t let the people you’re fighting make you forget that they can also make bread. Or whatever else. Hands can do many things, and the fight is necessary, but it’s not enough. Don’t let your enemies deprive you of all the other uses of your hands.

Similarly - Your words can be weapons, you can use them to hurt people when it’s needed, and to assert power when power is what’s need. But don’t let them make all of your words into weapons. Because you need them for other things too. Words aren’t just for tearing down oppressors. They’re also for honoring people you respect. They’re also for love. They’re also for telling stories.

You’re probably singing sometimes like your life is at stake. But don’t forget that you can also sing love songs. When you’re singing like your life is at stake, make sure that you don’t forget to value your life as an end in itself. Don’t make your whole self into a weapon. 

Don’t forget that patterns and beauty and love exist, and that we can build worthwhile things even in this messed up world. Life is worth fighting for; it is also worth living.