social skills for social justice

Allyship does not mean seeing yourself as worthless

There are people who like to make others feel worthless. Some of them use the language of social justice to get away with it. 

Often, this comes in the form of proclaiming to hate allies and then demanding unbounded deference from allies. This is typically conflated with accountability, but it’s not the same thing at all. 

Hatred and accountability are different things. Accountability as an ally means, among other things:

  • Listening to the people you’re trying to support instead of talking over them.
  • Making good-faith efforts to understand the issues involved and to act on what you learn.
  • Understanding that you’re going to make big mistakes, and that sometimes people you’re trying to support will be justifiably angry with you.
  • Accepting that your privilege and power matter, not expecting others to overlook either, and taking responsibility for how you use both.
  • Facing things that are uncomfortable to think about, and handling your own feelings about them rather than dumping on marginalized people.
  • Being careful about exploitation and reciprocity, including paying people for their time when you’re asking them to do work for you.
  • Understanding that marginalized people have good reason to be cautious about trusting you, and refraining from demanding trust on the grounds that you see yourself as on their side.

When people use the language of social justice to make others feel worthless, it’s more like this:

  • Telling allies explicitly or implicitly, that they are worthless and harming others by existing.
  • Expecting allies to constantly prove that they’re not terrible people, even when they’ve been involved with the community for years and have a long track record of trustworthiness. 
  • Berating allies about how terrible allies are, in ways that have no connection to their actual actions or their actual attitudes.
  • Giving people instructions that are self-contradictory or impossible to act on, then berating them for not following them.
  • Eg: Saying “Go f**ing google it” about things that are not actually possible to google in a meaningful way
  • Eg: saying “ shut up and listen to marginalized people” about issues that significant organized groups of marginalized people disagree about. https://www.realsocialskills.org/blog/the-rules-about-responding-to-call-outs-arent
  • Eg: Simultaneously telling allies that they need to speak up about an issue and that they need to shut up about the same issue. Putting them in a position in which if they speak or write about something, they will be seen as taking up space that belongs to marginalized people, and if they don’t, they will be seen as making marginalized people do all the work.
  • Giving allies instructions, then berating them for following them:
  • Eg: Inviting allies to ask questions about good allyship, then telling them off for centering themselves whenever they actually ask relevant questions. 
  • Eg: Teaching a workshop on oppression or a related issue, and saying “it’s not my job to educate you” to invited workshop participants who ask questions that people uninformed about the issue typically can be expected to ask.
  • More generally speaking: setting things up so that no matter what an ally does, it will be seen as a morally corrupt act of oppression.

Holding allies accountable means insisting that they do the right thing. Ally hate undermines accountability by saying that it’s inherently impossible for allies to do anything right. If we want to hold people accountable in a meaningful, we have to believe that accountability is possible. 

Someone who believes that it’s impossible for allies to do anything right isn’t going to be able to hold you accountable. If someone has no allies who they respect, you’re probably not going to be their exception — they will almost certainly end up hating you too. If someone demands that you assume you’re worthless and prove your worth in an ongoing way, working with them is unlikely to end well.  

If you want to hold yourself accountable, you need to develop good judgement about who to listen to and who to collaborate with. Part of that is learning to be receptive to criticism from people who want you to do the right thing, even when the criticism is hard to hear. Another part is learning to be wary of people who see you as a revenge object and want you to hate yourself. You will encounter both attitudes frequently, and it’s important to learn to tell the difference. Self-hatred isn’t accountability.

Tl;dr If we want to hold allies accountable in a meaningful, we have to believe that accountability is possible. Hatred of allies makes this much harder.

Image description: A sign with text "allyship does not mean seeing yourself as worthless".

The rules about responding to call outs aren’t working

Privileged people rarely take the voices of marginalized people seriously. Social justices spaces attempt to fix this with rules about how to respond to when marginalized people tell you that you’ve done something wrong. Like most formal descriptions of social skills, the rules don’t quite match reality. This is causing some problems that I think we could fix with a more honest conversation about how to respond to criticism.

The formal social justice rules say something like this:

  • You should listen to marginalized people.
  • When a marginalized person calls you out, don’t argue.
  • Believe them, apologize, and don’t do it again.
  • When you see others doing what you were called out for doing, call them out.

Those rules are a good approximation of some things, but they don’t actually work. It is impossible to follow them literally, in part because:

  • Marginalized people are not a monolith. 
  • Marginalized people have the same range of opinions as privileged people.
  • When two marginalized people tell you logically incompatible things, it is impossible to act on both sets of instructions.
  • For instance, some women believe that abortion is a human right foundational human right for women. Some women believe that abortion is murder and an attack on women and girls.
  • “Listen to women” doesn’t tell you who to believe, what policy to support, or how to talk about abortion. 
  • For instance, some women believe that religious rules about clothing liberate women from sexual objectification, other women believe that religious rules about clothing sexually objectify women. 
  • “Listen to women” doesn’t tell you what to believe about modesty rules. 
  • Narrowing it to “listen to women of minority faiths” doesn’t help, because women disagree about this within every faith.
  • When “listen to marginalized people” means “adopt a particular position”, marginalized people are treated as rhetorical props rather than real people.
  • Objectifying marginalized people does not create justice.

Since the rule is literally impossible to follow, no one is actually succeeding at following it. What usually ends up happening when people try is that:

  • One opinion gets lifted up as “the position of marginalized people” 
  • Agreeing with that opinion is called “listen to marginalized people”
  • Disagreeing with that opinion is called “talking over marginalized people”
  • Marginalized people who disagree with that opinion are called out by privileged people for “talking over marginalized people”.
  • This results in a lot of fights over who is the true voice of the marginalized people.
  • We need an approach that is more conducive to real listening and learning.

This version of the rule also leaves us open to sabotage:

  • There are a lot of people who don’t want us to be able to talk to each other and build effective coalitions.
  • Some of them are using the language of call-outs to undermine everyone who emerges as an effective progressive leader. 
  • They say that they are marginalized people, and make up lies about leaders.
  • Or they say things that are technically true, but taken out of context in deliberately misleading ways.
  • The rules about shutting up and listening to marginalized people make it very difficult to contradict these lies and distortions. 
  • (Sometimes they really are members of the marginalized groups they claim to speak for. Sometimes they’re outright lying about who they are).
  • (For instance, Russian intelligence agents have used social media to pretend to be marginalized Americans and spread lies about Hillary Clinton.)

The formal rule is also easily exploited by abusive people, along these lines:

  • An abusive person convinces their victim that they are the voice of marginalized people.
  • The abuser uses the rules about “when people tell you that you’re being oppressive, don’t argue” to control the victim.
  • Whenever the victim tries to stand up for themself, the abuser tells the victim that they’re being oppressive.
  • That can be a powerfully effective way to make victims in our communities feel that they have no right to resist abuse. 
  • This can also prevent victims from getting support in basic ways.
  • Abusers can send victims into depression spirals by convincing them that everything that brings them pleasure is oppressive and immoral. 
  • The abuser may also isolate the victim by telling them that it would be oppressive for them to spend time with their friends and family, try to access victim services, or call the police. 
  • The abuser may also separate the victim from their community and natural allies by spreading baseless rumors about their supposed oppressive behavior. (Or threatening to do so).
  • When there are rules against questioning call outs, there are also implicit rules against taking the side of a victim when the abuser uses the language of calling out.
  • Rules that say some people should unconditionally defer to others are always dangerous.

The rule also lacks intersectionality:

  • No one experiences every form of oppression or every form of privilege.
  • Call-outs often involve people who are marginalized in different ways. 
  • Often, both sides in the conflict have a point.
  • For instance, black men have male privilege and white women have white privilege.
  • If a white woman calls a black man out for sexism and he responds by calling her out for racism (or vice versa), “listened to marginalized people” isn’t a very helpful rule because they’re both marginalized.
  • These conversations tend to degenerate into an argument about which form of marginalization is most significant.
  • This prevents people involved from actually listening to each other.
  • In conflicts like this, it’s often the case that both sides have a legitimate point. (In ways that are often not immediately obvious.)
  • We need to be able to work through these conflicts without expecting simplistic rules to resolve them in advance.

This rule also tends to prevent groups centered around one form of marginalized from coming to engage with other forms of marginalization:

  • For instance, in some spaces, racism and sexism are known to be issues, but ableism is not.
  • (This can occur in any combination. Eg: There are also spaces that get ableism and sexism but not racism, and spaces that get economic justice and racism but not antisemitism, or any number of other things.)
  • When disabled people raise the issue of ableism in any context (social justice or otherwise), they’re likely to be shouted down and told that it’s not important.
  • In social justice spaces, this shouting down is often done in the name of “listening to marginalized people”.
  • For instance, disabled people may be told ‘you need to listen to marginalized people and de-center your issues’, carrying the implication that ableism is less important than other forms of oppression.
  • (This happens to *every* marginalized group in some context or other.)
  • If we want real intersectional solidarity, we need to have space for ongoing conflicts that are not simple to resolve.

Tl;dr “Shut up and listen to marginalized people” isn’t quite the right rule, because it objectifies marginalized people, leaves us open to sabotage, enables abuse, and prevents us from working through conflicts in a substantive way. We need to do better by each other, and start listening for real.

Advocacy is not cute

Sometimes disabled people get treated like they’re not adults. 

This is particularly true when people with disabilities are involved in disability related advocacy. And it goes triple for people who have intellectual disabilities. (Or are perceived to.)

If you’re doing advocacy and someone treats it as cute, they’re being rude. If someone treats your presentation like a game you’re playing, they’re being rude. People should have more respect than that, even if they disagree with the point you are making. 

If you think someone else’s advocacy is cute, it’s probably important to work on learning to respect them more.

How to find out when Jewish holidays are

Jewish holidays (eg: Hanukkah) follow the Jewish calendar. The Jewish calendar is based on the lunar cycle (with an occasional leap-month to keep the months/holidays synced up with the seasons.)

This means that Jewish holidays fall on a different date each year on the secular calendar. 

If you want to know when the holidays are, HebCal.com is a really good resource. It has a list of when all the holidays are, and a lot of other information. It also has a calendar generator that can be exported to most calendar software including Google Calendar to make your regular calendar know when the Jewish holidays are. 

Is it a Jewish Holiday Today? is a website that tells you whether today is a Jewish holiday, and if so, which one. It’s only useful for telling you if it’s a holiday right now when you look; hebcal.com is much better for planning ahead.

Marginalized people are not revolution objects

So, here’s a thing I’ve seen happen:

  • People get really into social justice theory
  • and then they read a lot from people who all agree with each other
  • and then they assume that everyone in that group agrees
  • and then, when they encounter someone in that group who doesn’t think that thing, they don’t know how to deal with them
  • or they’re rude and condescending

For instance:

  • Someone who reads a lot of disability theory is excited about the idea of acceptance
  • And, in particular, the reasons that mobility equipment is liberating and wonderful
  • And they encounter someone who is enduring considerable pain rather than use a wheelchair
  • And then they talk at them about how they just need to accept themself already, without listening to where they’re actually coming from
  • That is not respectful. It can sometimes be ok to express an opinion or offer advice (emphasis on offer; people can say no to hearing your advice), but it’s not ok to try and run someone else’s life, or to take control of their self image, or related stuff
  • Respecting someone has to start with respecting them as people who think for themselves, not trying to make them do what you think self-respecting people do

keep in mind that:

  • No matter how much you’ve read, you’ve never been the person you’re talking to
  • That goes double if you’re not a member of their group, but it applies even if you are
  • Having read a lot of social justice theory, or even being part of that group and having found that it described your experience, does *not* mean that you know better than someone else how they should be living their life
  • Don’t try to take people over, and don’t talk down to them
  • The last thing marginalized people need is yet another person trying to run over them for their own good. They get that enough already

People are complicated, and you are never the expert on someone else’s life. Reading social justice theory, and even being really insightful about what’s wrong with our culture, does not make you an expert on someone else’s life. Their life is for them to live and make decisions about. Marginalized people are not revolution objects.

Thoughts on listening to marginalized people

Marginalized people are, first and foremost, people.

Marginalized people are not a hive mind. Not as a whole, and not by group, either.

Listening to marginalized people means listening to actual people who you encounter.

That means listening to what people tell you, even if it’s not what social justice theory or any other ideology told you that they should think. Listening means listening. It doesn’t mean you have to agree. In fact, you *can’t* always agree since people who experience the same category of oppression believe contradictory things about it).

What listening means is understanding what they are actually saying, without talking over them with your theories about what their life means. Talking over people with social justice ideology is just as bad as any other form of talking over people.

It means, also, acknolwedging that margianlized people don’t all agree with one another, even on really important things. And that, sometimes, you have to take a position. And you have to evaluate what you think, sometimes. But, you never have to be a jerk about it.

And it starts with listening to the person who is actually before you, and assuming that they understand their life better than you do.

Optimism in the dark places

Sometimes, people who want to see themselves as optimistic say things like this to suffering people they encounter:

  • “Look on the bright side!”
  • “Cheer up!”
  • “It can’t be that bad!”
  • “It’s ok.”
  • “Smile, you’ll feel better!”
  • “You have so much to be grateful for.”

Sometimes people who say this kind of thing mean well, but it’s still degrading. It’s degrading because:

  • Sometimes things really are that bad
  • Refusing to acknowledge that doesn’t help anything
  • And when you try to insist to someone who is going through something awful that it can’t be as bad as they think, what you’re really doing is refusing to listen to them
  • Telling someone to shut up is neither kind nor optimistic

This is particularly the case if you’re talking to someone in a bad situation that is unlikely to get better, or which is at least unlikely to get better in the near future eg:

  • Someone who has a terminal illness
  • People who are facing systemic oppression of a kind that isn’t going to go away in their lifetime
  • Someone who is trapped in an abusive relationship they see no way out of

I think that there’s another kind of optimism that is much more helpful:

  • Acknowledge that things really are that bad
  • Don’t try to smooth them over
  • Identify things that make life worth living
  • Work on building and recognizing love (including, love people enough to acknowledge how bad things are without pressuring them to sanitize them for you)

Shutting up won’t get you heard

Tone is important. When you say things the right way, it can increase the number of people who are willing to listen to you. 

But that only goes so far. No matter how good you are at framing things, some things that need to be said will upset people who feel entitled to be comfortable. And, when you upset people who feel entitled to comfort, they will lash out at you. This is not your fault; it is theirs. Tone has its limits.

Also, getting tone right is really hard. No one starts out good at tone; it’s a very difficult skill that you can only learn with practice. And the only way to get practice is to spend a lot of time talking to people about controversial things. Which means that, in order to get good at tone, you’re going to have to spend a lot of time talking about these things while you’re still bad at tone. 

People who mean well and genuinely want you to be heard understand this, and will encourage you to keep speaking up and keep working on your skills at speaking up effectively. People who want you to shut up about the things you’re talking about will try to make you feel horrible about your tone and convince you that your tone means you have no right to say anything.

Sometimes, when people say that you should be more careful about tone so that you can be heard, what they really mean is “I don’t want to hear that, shut up and say something else I’m willing to listen to”.

Don’t believe those people, and don’t shut up. The most important thing is to keep talking. If you are bad at tone, some people will refuse to hear you. If you are good at tone, some people will still refuse to hear you. If you say nothing for fear of getting the tone wrong, no one will hear you.

Shutting up won’t get you heard. Speaking up might.

Something about privilege

I’ve noticed this dynamic:

  • People will learn about privilege
  • And realize they’re doing a lot of bad things
  • And then think this means they should never interact with or listen to anyone with less privilege than they do
  • Like it’s somehow appropriative or invasive
  • And that they should just keep to people who are just as privileged as they are

Some examples:

  • White English teachers who only teach books written by white people, because they think it would be appropriative to teach books written by people of color.
  • People who think it’s appropriative to read this blog or think about what I’m saying because I write from an autistic perspective and they’re not autistic
  • Folks who avoid people with disabilities because they’re worried about staring or using the wrong words
  • Men who won’t hire women because they’re worried that they will be offended by the current culture that has a lot of sexist jokes and pinups on the walls

These kinds of things are functionally identically to the way that people who are intentionally upholding privilege hierarchies behave. Continuing to act that way, but giving different reasons for it, doesn’t actually make anything better.

Don’t hang your legitimacy on ideology

This dynamic happens a lot with autistic or otherwise socially-marginalized people:

  • You’re not treated as fully real, for your whole life
  • And you don’t even realize it, because it’s pervasive. You don’t know that it’s possible to be treated as real. You don’t know this isn’t normal.

And then you discover a group of people who seem to approve of you

  • They’re an ideological group, and they approve of anyone who shares their ideology
  • And their ideology seems plausible, or valuable, or good
  • And it has some concepts that allow you to understand things you never understood before
  • And you adopt the ideology
  • You’re accepted into the group. In a way you’ve never been accepted before.
  • And they treat you more like a real person than anyone else has before
  • And you yourself *feel* more real than you ever felt before

And so you throw yourself into the ideology

  • Passionately, completely, and sincerely
  • And you care deeply about understanding it, and using the concepts, and doing good and right
  • And so you work really hard
  • And then, eventually, this pulls you away from the ideology
  • Because you learn something, or notice something, that the ideology doesn’t cover
  • And that makes you a heretic
  • And you lose your standing in the group

And then they stop treating you as real. And then you wonder if you are real, if maybe you’re just not good enough for anything. And then maybe you find another ideological group, and it repeats over and over and over. Because you think the problem is that you just haven’t found the right ideology, and that if you find the right one, it won’t fall apart.

Until you realize that, actually, you were real the whole time. And that groups that only think their members are real people are never going to solve the problem. And that when they treat anyone as non-real, it’s a threat to you, too. Because you have to think everyone is real, because everyone *is* real. And seeing people as unpeople is always destructive.

And then you realize that the world is both better and worse than you thought it was. Worse, because there’s no ideological group that will solve everything, but the awful things the ideological groups notice are often true. Better, because everyone is already real, and genuine respect between people is already possible. Because you don’t have to wait for a revolution to be a person, and neither does anyone else.

Don’t hang your identity on being counter-cultural.

Don’t hang your identity on being counter-cultural.

It’s better when good things become mainstream.

If something is good and right, it’s best when everyone knows this and it’s not substantially controversial.

Opposing things hurts. 

There is a lot that is horribly wrong with the world, and a lot of fights that have to be fought. There are many lives in the balance (and other things). But the point isn’t the fight, and it’s not being outside the mainstream.

The point is the values and the people.

Serve your values, and your people. Fighting is a means. It is necessary. But it is not an end in itself. And you can serve your values and people best by looking for ways to serve them - and when that is fighting, to fight, and when that is building, to build.

When people make the fighting an end in itself, bad things happen.

Don’t assume marginalized people are safe

Don’t assume marginalized people are safe

Sometimes people who are marginalized assume that other marginalized people are safe by definition. This is really dangerous, and it sets people up for a lot of gaslighting. We need to make sure not to encourage this in activist and otherwise pro-human spaces.

For example, some people do things their stereotypes say they’re incapable of doing:

  • Some women are sexual abusers
  • Some autistic people are manipulative bullies

And also, sometimes people do bad things that are (wrongly) stereotypical of their group. For instance:

  • Some gay people are sexual predators
  • Some members of minority faiths are destructive fundamentalists. 

Some people in marginalized groups do stereotypical or anti-stereotypical bad things, and when this happens, it’s important for activist and other pro-human groups to acknowledge it and not tolerate it.

If you know someone else is in a marginalized group, that’s all you know about them. Don’t assume that they know what it’s like to be mistreated, and are thus safe and trustworthy and would never harm another person. *Especially* when their actions have shown otherwise.