the point is to build

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.

Rebuilding what was built incorrectly

Most of our social infrastructure was built incorrectly. It was built on the assumption that everyone is basically physically and cognitively similar, and that people who aren’t need to go away and be someone else’s problem.

People with disabilities have been treated as disposable. Children have been kept out of school; adults have been excluded from higher education. People have been institutionalized, and many are still stuck in institutions. 

People live without freedom, and are kept from their communities. People are forced to stay unemployed rather than supported in finding work that they can do. Disabled people have been harmed in any number of ways.

It has always been wrong to exclude people with disabilities like this, and in recent years, more people have come to understand that it is wrong. Accessibility and inclusion are on the table much more often than they used to be (in significant part, because the disability rights community has insisted that they be there.) 

Part of what we have to do is be willing to be inclusive, and be willing to change things for the sake of access. That’s necessary — and it’s also not enough. There are a lot of access needs that we flat-out don’t know how to meet right now. For some people, nothing we currently know how to do is good enough.
In order to build a more accessible and inclusive culture, we’re going to have to create things that don’t currently exist. We need better infrastructure and support. We need better technology. We need more resources, and more understanding that funding disability needs to be a priority. We need research and development, we need to learn a lot of things that we don’t currently know. 

The only way to get better at accessibility and inclusion is to start from where we are, and to commit to getting better at it. We can’t wait to be ready; we will never be ready. What we can do is understand that the people who are still being excluded matter, and keep building the things that need to exist.

Finding what you can fix; living with what you can’t

Activism and advocacy are emotionally difficult on a number of levels.

One reason is that the problems that need solving are enormous.

No one has the capacity to solve all of them. Everyone has some degree of power to act; nobody has the power to fix everything or address every injustice.

Making the world better is largely a matter of seeking out opportunities to act. Caring about the problems isn’t enough. Being willing to fight for what you believe in isn’t enough either.

It’s important to look for circumstances in which you have power to make something change. If you look, you will find some — and not others.

The opportunities you have to create change are not always the opportunities you care about most. Caring deeply doesn’t always create power.

And there are always tradeoffs. There will often be situations in which there are many things you could do — and only the resources to do one of them.

There are usually compromises. Victories are usually partial. And they often involve complicity in things you’d rather not be complicit in.

And in order to find the opportunities to change things, you have to keep looking — even though this means you’ll see things you can’t fix.

This can be very hard to live with. It can be tempting to believe that if you just tried harder, you’d be able to fix everything. Or that if you cared more, you’d be able to do everything. Or that if you were a better person, you’d be able to avoid making compromises (or working with people who do bad things).

I think it helps to remember that it’s like this for everyone. No one can fix everything; everyone has to make choices and compromises.

I think it also helps to remember that the problems exist whether or not you’re looking at them. Looking at the problems hurts; it also gives you the chance to do something about some of them.

It’s also important to remember that you matter, and that there are things in the world that are good. Not everything is horrible (even though sometimes it feels that way); a lot of things are good. And people matter and are worth loving now, as things are. Activism isn’t about hating everything; it’s about making things better. And recognizing already-good things and valuing people both actually help with that.

tl;dr Activism involves caring about more things than you can fix. It involves a lot of tradeoffs and difficult choices. It’s not your fault; it’s like this for everyone. You can’t fix everything; you can do work that matters and make some things better. Remember that the world contains good things too.

The point is to build

Your last post mentioned “coming to terms with how awful the world is.” When recognize that injustice is everywhere, and that you personally benefit from it, is it ok to find joy in the world even though it’s awful? Things like (in the US) visiting a national park and having a fun hike, when the land was taken a long time ago from Native Americans; or watching a good movie that’s problematic; or enjoying sledding after a snowstorm that was responsible for a few deaths?
 For me it is impossible to keep injustice in mind all the time. So whenever I have fun, or feel happy, I feel guilty later because that fun indirectly came out of injustice, and instead of fighting that injustice I was enjoying it. How can you keep in mind that the world is a horrible place without neglecting your right (is it a right even?) to joy?
realsocialskills said:
 
The world contains much, much more than pain and injustice. It’s important to acknowledge and fight evil. It’s also important not to become so consumed by the fight that you can only see the horrible things.
  
The point is to build and to love. (And, sometimes, to fight battles that need fighting.)
   
Sometimes, people try to seek out some sort of purity by cutting out everything tainted by injustice. That doesn’t work, because everything is tainted in some way. If you go down that road seeking purity, you get stuck cutting out more and more things and not being able to find anything pure enough to like without shame. That doesn’t help. Everything is connected to something destructive. Sometimes particular kinds of destructiveness are dealbreaking, but it can’t be everything that has any connection to something bad. You can’t become pure that way, but you can do a lot of harm to yourself and others trying.
 
Liking things is good. Misery isn’t a moral accomplishment. If you want to make the world a better place, treat people right and build something good. The point is not to be miserable at the horrors of the world. The point is to build.
  
This is not about attaining moral purity through abstinence and misery. It’s about doing the work of making things better and building worthwhile things, and loving others more than our culture hates them. Your purity will not help anyone. Your work can.
   
To use some of the examples you gave:
  
Regarding the snow: it didn’t snow so that you could sled. Enjoying the sledding will not hurt anyone. Just don’t brag about sledding to people who are really upset about the snow. People who have been harmed by the snow might not want to hear how much you’re enjoying the snow, but that doesn’t mean that enjoying it is wicked, it just means it’s important to be considerate.
   
Watching a good movie that’s problematic: All movies have horrible aspects to one degree or another. It’s ok to ignore them and like something; *that’s the only way anyone ever gets to like anything in the media*. 
      
But it’s also important to be willing to acknowledge that the problems are there and not be obnoxious about other people not wanting to hear about the thing you like. Everyone’s patterns of what’s deal-breaking are different. If the ableism in a movie is dealbreaking for someone, respect that, and don’t talk to them about how great you think it is. If someone got badly injured in the snow, don’t talk to them about how wonderful the snow is. Being considerate of other people’s boundaries, and their right to decide what is and is not personally dealbreaking, goes a long way.
 
You are allowed to be happy. It’s good to be happy. There’s a lot that’s wrong with the world, really really wrong, even. But…
  
The point is not to be constantly miserable about it. The point is not to wallow in shame. The point is to build. 
  
Some building is activism and advocacy and fighting injustice. Some of it is just… building. All of it involves identifying situations in which you have the power to act, and finding things you can do that make good things more possible.
  
You can like things; you can love; it is good to like things and enjoy life. Refusing to ever like anything impure will not make the world better; your work can.