When I first started this project, I said I would try to keep my writing free of politics, not because politics aren’t important and something I live and breathe daily, but because my current struggle with depression was (and is) inextricably linked with the outcome of the 2016 president election, and I want this project to get me out of familiar ruts and hopeless spaces. Just this once, though, I am going to break this agreement with myself.
Last Thursday I mustered up the courage to attend an event alone. My usual wingman (my wife) was out of town, which doesn’t normally stop me from going somewhere I want to be, so long as the event is something familiar to me. In the case of Thursday night’s Beer and Your Ballot campaign event for Lisa Brown, this was not at all territory that I was happy to peruse alone.
Lisa Brown is running against longtime incumbent Republican Cathy McMorris Rodgers in the 5th Congressional District race in Washington state. There is no doubt that I’m going to vote for Brown, a former state legislator with a good voting record, particularly when she’s up against a lawmaker who says shit like, “Let’s move from poverty to opportunity, from racism to gracism, from divisiveness to security.” (If you’re shaking your head wondering what the hell that garbage even means, you’re not alone.) But my support of Lisa Brown could not overcome the anxiety brought on at the thought of attending a campaign event with strangers in a brewery I’ve only been to a handful of times.
However, social anxiety wasn’t the true crux of why I was nervous to be there, and as I’ve spent the past few days ruminating on what the truth of it was, it’s become clear: I’m afraid of my allies.
In the 1960s the slogan “the personal is political” became a rallying cry for feminists and queers alike whose humanity, desires, needs, and wants were and continue to be systemically denied. As I’ve aged and been exposed to the lived experiences of more people of color, trans people, people with different abilities, etc., this concept has taken on a new, deeper meaning for me. It has shaped me and how I operate in the world, particularly in the United States, where the intersections of power and inequality are palpable.
I’ve spent most of my adulthood fighting in some way for a better, more just society, using my privilege and my very loud voice to stand up for and with those who need it. In college that meant that I worked with victims of relationship and sexual violence, organized Take Back the Night Marches, called out racism and homophobia, wrote letters and picketed outside the offices of college officials who were complicit in the oppression of students of color. I joined unions, spoke to legislators, and lived and taught on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation.
In my first year of teaching I was assigned to be an elementary librarian. I unsuccessfully tried to take out historically racist, so-called “beloved” children’s literature like The Indian in the Cupboard. When I lost that fight, I used my budget to stack the shelves with the works of writers of color and queers. As an educator, I’ve spent the past ten years learning how to communicate to students what systemic oppression is and how institutional racism is infused into every facet of American life. I also intentionally teach empathy. Every day. Every minute. To every student.
Social justice isn’t just about one Women’s March for me, or posting yet another sharply written critique of Trump on Facebook. I’ve walked my fucking walk for more years than I can count. My first recollection of a social justice cause I took on was when I was seven years old and I asked my mom for a spool of red ribbon. When she asked me what I needed it for, I lied and said it was for an anti-drug activity at school (those were very popular in the ’80s and ’90s, thanks to Nancy Reagan’s useless “Just Say No” campaign). The next day she received a phone call from the principal asking why I was handing out AIDS ribbons to my classmates.
I promise this isn’t a post written simply to toot my own horn. Instead, this is about feeling as though we’ve reached a point in which people who think like me are scaring the living shit out of me.
It’s probably no surprise to you that I spend a lot of time on the internet, particularly on sites, Facebook groups, and comment sections that have to do with the topics I’ve touched on in this post. Because I’ve spent a lot of time in these particular online spaces, and have done so for many years, I have a distinct vantage point that has allowed me to see the ways in which many of those spaces have devolved into increasingly hostile and homogenized environments.
Calling people on their shit, especially when it comes to blind privilege, is necessary and helpful. While it always stings to be on the receiving end, especially at first, call outs can push people to be more self-critical of their language and biases before speaking or acting. It can prevent harm to others. Even more so, calling out someone’s shitty words or behavior can help a bystander figure out why they shouldn’t say or do something before they do it.
But I have seen this productive and essential form of communication be used as a tool to intentionally and specifically hurt people, or to elevate the status of the one doing the calling out. I confess I’ve done it, too. I liken it to the childhood game of King of the Hill–someone always wants to be the bestest, most woke one in the bunch.
Sooner or later, though, that holier-than-thou attitude was bound to come back to me. And it has. Lately I’ve tried to engage in a few conversations online in which I question or push back on something, and am suddenly subjected to an onslaught of hostile comments and pile-ons. I’ve started censoring myself, or simply deciding to keep quiet and scroll past, rather than engage or challenge a position or idea that I perceive to be myopic or needlessly severe.
One day a friend posted a piece written by a writer named Frances Lee that captured what I’ve been experiencing in a much more eloquent and educated way than I’ve done here. In Why I’ve Started to Fear My Fellow Social Justice Activists, Lee says, “In response to the unrestrained use of callouts and unchecked self-righteousness by leftist activists, I spend enormous amounts of energy protecting my activist identity from attack…I self-police what I say when among other activists…On social media, I’ve stopped commenting with thoughtful push back on popular social justice positions for fear of being called out. For example, even though some women at the 2017 women’s march reproduced the false and transmisogynistic idea that all women have vaginas, I still believe that the event was a critical win for the left and should not be written off so easily as it has been by some in my community.”
Word, Frances. Word.
I’m absolutely mentally and emotionally exhausted almost all of the time lately because of this intense pressure to be perfect. I’m also disheartened by the inability of many of us to recognize that someone might be partially right and partially wrong–that yelling at a politician at a public event can be both rude and ineffective, but also a necessary expression of anger and grief for those who feel powerless and disenfranchised by one of the most powerful people in our government.
So what am I going to do about this self-immolating monster taking over social justice spaces? Complaining about it, or, in my case, writing over 1,000 words about the issue, isn’t going to solve it. More importantly, I’m losing some of the progress I’ve made in my personal struggle with generalized anxiety disorder.
My answer is, at least for now, to start weaning myself of some of the online spaces I’ve traditionally spent too much time engaging on: Facebook, Gizmodo Media sites, various comment sections, etc. I have a feeling that stepping away from these entities will not only improve some of my anxiety, but will also provide more time for me to write and think and breathe. And isn’t that what this whole project is about?
I’ll let you know how it goes.