Censorship, Avoidance, and Groupthink in Social Justice Culture

I don’t write manifestos nor do I lecture people. Usually. I used to mentor a Canadian teenager online for years as he tried to find his political identity. I ended up having to lecture him, then blocked him on Facebook (which is, I understand, a traumatic thing for a teenager). His obsession with his own identity and his self-serving search for the right politics to fit his privileged sensibilities was infuriating and very familiar – it reminded me that I would go back and slap the younger me and lecture her, too.

I’d tell her, “The world doesn’t revolve around your emotional needs. You have to be exposed to some bad shit in order to develop intellect and become a critical person. You have to see the inner workings of the machine to rage against it.”

I’m going to set aside some time to vent about my frustration with the social liberals who are now being called “social justice warriors.” Some well-intentioned critics  identify as SJWs and reclaim that title proudly. But in the past few years I’ve started to feel that I’ve aged out of the social justice movement and become a curmudgeon who yells at young people, perhaps mistaking their exuberance as extremism.

Last week at Pride in NYC, while every person should have felt safe being overly expressive to techno music, this happened:

screenshot-www.facebook.com 2015-07-03 18-43-11

This is one small example that springboarded me into a long rant. Social justice ideology, no matter how vital its aims – such as inclusivity in feminism, racial and cultural diversity —  is not magically unsusceptible to the pitfalls of groupthink.

And it should be okay to criticize the social justice movement. Not for the purpose of dismantling it, but to hold it to its own standards and scrutinize it. A movement should be accountable for the culture it promotes among its members. I’m a person who believes in gender equality, racial equality, respect for culture and diversity, and I’m too anti-war to fit in with either of the major political parties. I’m even sort of a socialist, though I don’t disbelieve in market solutions. I’ve worked with the disabled for 18 years. I eat seasonal produce. I’ve been arrested and have been subjected to the illegal actions of the police, and I’ve been to plenty of protests. I wouldn’t stick a bindi on my forehead and I wouldn’t wear a Native American headdress, nor would I grab one off someone’s head, because I’m white and I know it.

I think it’s far better to be too sensitive than to be insensitive. However, I hesitate to identify myself as a social justice advocate due to the membership politics and overwrought emotion that implies.

And I know there are loads of social liberals, whose hearts are in the right place, who are also terrified of offending SJWs or worse, being labeled an SJW. They don’t want to speak their minds, even in online forums, because they’re afraid of backlash. They’re worried they’d have to explain themselves (as I’ve done in this article, like I need to prove my victim status in order to speak) after overzealous white liberals accuse them of being insensitive to inequality or trauma. They are afraid to be allies at the risk of offending other allies. They don’t attend protests because it would be considered appropriation if they aren’t part of the represented group. These people become the silent majority.

As some social justice advocates make the whole movement into a game wherein we are measured by how offended we can possibly be, more people will shut up. More people will try to be polite. And that means people will be inactive.

This is not okay. We need to march together in order to be successful rebels. The best protests? The ones where we all came together as a community, rich and poor, of every gender, of all races, to demonstrate that we’ll overcome. Trying to regulate and construct the rest of the world to avoid feeling anything upsetting is not the point of social justice advocacy.

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Should we have asked her to leave our 99% safe space?

One of the hardest things for social justice advocates to learn is that it’s not about you. It’s not about your identity or hurt feelings or how sad it makes you that racism exists. Yes, it’s ironic that I’m personally offended by some of this behavior, but this isn’t about me either.

I’m not the sort of person who normally says, “Grow a thick skin.” But when it becomes ridiculously obvious that educated liberal young white folks are becoming offended in order to prove how committed to equality they truly are — beyond what is justifiably offensive — and then expend a lot of effort wailing for the world to kiss their wounds, I want to say, “Grow the fuck up. This is the world. It sucks sometimes. Help out or get out.”

While I’m not against the concept of safe spaces, and I support the dismantling of rape culture, I think that students at Brown University who needed to go to a safe space after hearing a speech by someone whose ideas they disagreed with are doing education wrong. During a public debate on campus, libertarian Wendy McElroy “was likely to criticize the term rape culture,” and Ms. Byron of the campus Sexual Assault Task Force was “alarmed.” She set up safe spaces for students to decompress and escape the negativity of McElroy’s offensive stance on rape. And I’m not kidding, these safe spaces were quiet rooms that included “cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma.” After a fucking debate.

Reading that article in the NY Times, I felt like shaking some college students in their rompers and Keds — but I’d rather not get into a debate with someone who thinks I don’t understand the trauma of PTSD or rape victims. Since it’s required that I demonstrate my social justice “victim” credentials, here it is: I was diagnosed with PTSD at a young age and I was  raped when I was 16. I just don’t think that isolating myself from offensive ideas and concepts is going to help me learn to navigate the harsh world that I live in. I can be a victim who suffered and also be a strong person who can handle hearing an opposing viewpoint. And if I’m lucky, I’ll think up a witty retort.

Being empowered can also mean being naked and exposed before your enemy. Political science students and sociology students should be deconstructing these subjects. Personal discomfort and offense should not become the battle wounds of a true social justice advocate. I call bullshit on this. If you can’t be exposed to ideas you’re not fond of, then how can you ever truly be capable of critical thought? Or be imaginative when coming up with real solutions for social problems?

I think it’s okay to read books by dead European white men. And that not every single college class (especially those in “classic social theory”) should be protested for not including examples of texts by people of color. Classic social theory and most of what we accept as philosophy, from the Greeks on, was written mostly by white men. It sucks, it’s weird (if you think about it) that hardly anyone seemed to notice until the last 50 years, but that doesn’t mean that we should censor it. Rally for inclusion and advocate for entire courses that focus on POC writers and social critics. Read sources outside of your syllabus. Do your own homework on issues that are important to you.

“Occupying” the syllabus and rejecting the course material because it “employed a standardized canon of theory that began with Plato and Aristotle, then jumped to modern philosophers: Hobbes, Locke, Hegel, Marx, Weber and Foucault, all of whom are white men,” is childish and silly. Let the fact that it was all written by white men bother you. And write about it, criticize it, demolish it with your sharp progressive wit. From what I’ve read, it appears that the Daily Californian runs these kinds of op-eds so often that they’re hardly taken seriously anymore.

It’s the wimpification of the rebels that bothers me most. Because some social justice advocates are making social justice into a joke, providing fodder for derogatory hashtags like #SJWlogic. I feel as if we need braver people on the frontlines of oppression. It comforts me that to some extent that a lot of the SJW offense olympics takes place online; better to suffer the drivel of keyboard warriors than have them defending you in front of a line of cops at a demonstration.

Which side are you on, boys, which side are you on?”

Social Justice circles fall victim to the pitfalls of groupthink when dissent or criticism is silenced and avoided in favor of the comfort of familiar and pleasant ideas, discussing only what will please the ingroup and dehumanize the outgroup.  When this kind of exclusivity, valid points and all, is promulgated to the extent that it becomes a requirement to find offense in just about everything in order to qualify as a “Good Person,” — that threatens creative thinking.

The fact that some liberals think they are exempt from criticism is anti-intellectual.

Irving Janis identified the main aspects of groupthink that threaten free speech or the free exchange of ideas. And it’s easy to connect his theories to the social justice movement. Especially when Janis identifies “stereotyping” as the result of closed-mindedness that occurs in tightly knit groupthink situations. And while the examples used to support this theory are usually religious cults and extremist hate groups like the KKK, regardless of what side of the ideological spectrum one’s beliefs lie, this isn’t the right way to effect change. Whether it’s rationalizing any negative or unwanted results that may challenge the group’s assumptions, and stereotyping those who are opposed to the group as, according to Janis, “weak, evil, biased, spiteful, impotent or stupid,” an organizational culture based on negativity is insidious and hard to change.

Even when our intent is good, social justice teaches us that intent “means nothing.” Following that logic, the intent of the social justice “warrior” should be questioned.

Just believing that all people should be equal does not make one a social justice advocate. But it’s my pet theory that the process of identifying and examining one’s white privilege can sometimes lead to a sort of inertia and self-centeredness, which in time pressures people to shut up, sit down, and avoid creative or original solutions or ideas.

take all the seatsI identified my privilege in my late 20’s, like many white women, and as expected, I felt guilty. I didn’t speak up about anything. I, thankfully, realized that my problems were not of equal importance to the problems of marginalized social groups. I had to feel myself as the oppressor and believe that I had hurt others who I did not intend to hurt – how could I have been so blind? — by virtue of being born as a white person in a developed country.

But really, we shouldn’t take privilege for granted. Examine it? Yes. Utilize it to make the world a better place? Yes. There’s nothing wrong with joining coalitions, demonstrations and protests, and working for non-profit organizations – even if you’re just a white privileged kid. Feeling guilty and deciding not to act isn’t the point of examining privilege. It would be pointless if it were.

In college, I joined an African American coalition against AIDS. I did it because that organization needed help. No one else was stepping up to do the hard work of community outreach — pounding pavement, handing out fliers and knocking on doors to inform the community of the free HIV/AIDS services nearby.

If I had been aware of intricate arguments about cultural appropriation then, when I was innocently trying to be of assistance, I wouldn’t have ever joined the coalition. I now fear co-opting someone else’s cause, or being a “bad ally,” or being accused of having a “white savior” complex. Even though the less glamorous work like handing out fliers needs to be done, a white person can be easily suspected of selfishness under the guise of helpful participation.

The significance of the work I was doing at the coalition became more apparent to me while I was among white people in my own life — especially on one awful night at a group couple’s dinner in a Texas Roadhouse. The couple across from me was horrified when they heard that I handed out condoms in Arbor Hill. At first I thought I was entertaining them with the stories about my discussions about AIDS with strangers, who were usually just trying to wait for a bus, and I thought I was being interesting. Then I saw the stricken expressions on their faces.

“When I drive through that neighborhood I lock my doors,” the woman said, while her boyfriend nodded. ”How can you do that? Alone? Aren’t you afraid?”

“It’s not an unsafe neighborhood at all,” I snapped, feeling that burn – how it feels to be offended on behalf of others – but there was no way I was going to sabotage everyone’s pleasant steak and Bud light dinner (with a football game playing in the background) by yelling racism. Wrong context. These people are not going to change because I’m outraged. I’d be dismissed as an ideological fanatic. But I went to work the next day at the coalition with more confidence that this was worthwhile work. And I never went to dinner with those racists again.

During the time I was working long hours at the coalition, I’d come home to the sound of gunshots and claymore blasts as my boyfriend played Call of Duty online with his friends. One of these friends liked to yell the n-word. A lot. I’d be trying to sleep or do my homework and constantly hear the damn word shouted through the television speakers. I finally grabbed the bluetooth and asked him what the fuck he was using that word for. And he actually promised to stop using it, apologized — and really appears to have stopped. We shamed him by saying things like, “We think you’re smarter than that. We don’t want to lose respect for you, man.”

A small achievement was made because I had to be disturbed, to feel upset. There are people who are outright racists who need to be shamed (can’t believe I’m using the s-word so much) — social justice advocates need to spend more time criticizing socially conservative asshats, not picking apart well-intentioned allies.

Yes, I get the irony — I’m criticizing the social justice movement. I’m judging it. I think it will survive.

However, there are people like me who think that if something is not done the right way, it’s not worth doing. Better to not show up at a gay pride parade if you’re straight, or to avoid joining a black protest when you’re white, or not to take that Teach For America job in a low-income school district  – better not to be an ally when there are so many rules for allies that you are bound to break one and end up hurting the cause more than you’ve helped it.

So for the sake of saving the social justice movement, let’s not tear each other’s headdresses off just yet. Maybe we should all take a deep breath. I’m afraid I’ve been too critical, or that I’m going after low-hanging fruit rather than spending my energy writing about “real” social issues. The thing is, I think criticism is a good thing. Censorship isn’t the best way to fight ugly ideas. And moving forward, I have no problem if we continue to argue. As long as we keep our hands to ourselves and our minds open.


Rebecca Chance
Rebecca Chance is a writer and editor living in New York, often referred to as the "dour voice of gloom." Email rebecca@theflounce.com (for a good time) or for more appropriate reasons, like pitching an article, whether it's about irreverent pop culture or a damn serious social issue.
  • http://theflounce.com AlMiller

    This isn’t low-hanging fruit, it’s important, and I gotta tell you, I’m sick of having to explain my “victim” credentials every time I talk about something. That isn’t helpful – and in fact more harmful than anything.

    • Blahblee

      I hate having to say “I was raped” just so as not to offend people. I’d rather not drag that back out of my psyche, but it feels like if you don’t explain, they’ll say “You don’t know what it’s like to be a victim of the patriarchy/rape culture/trauma” and I’d like it if we could move past pointing fingers at one another’s “credentials”

      • DoofMartin

        Yup, totally. It’s like calling a dude out for saying something misogynist and bracing for the “LOL BUT UR FAT AND UGLY SO WHAT DO U KNOW?” retort, then feeling like you have to prove you are attractive to have a valid point, but FUCK THAT SHIT and everybody loses.

    • DoofMartin


  • DoofMartin

    Really well done.

    • Blahblee

      Aw shucks … Ironically I was expecting someone to be offended, but so far it looks like this is actually a really popular opinion.

  • colleen prinssen

    cool, more non troll outlits aginst “Esjaydubbleyous”

    in which progressive world saving justice just looks like a bunch of nagging people who are easily offended. and play opression olympics, and take it to tumblr filling it with nonsence, which brings the POES which makes things worse.

    I know I want to life troll people because of them and put on acts, or nag the do-gooders

    like Lammily. what is so great about the Lammily doll? nothing yet. woun’t she be better if morbedly obesece with various facial deformities?

    because social justice involves policing products
    it tells people how how to be creative(but I’m a bully for telling a kid not to write about sad princesses?)

    sjw, fight for the absurdly opressed

  • Pat O’Neill

    > “And I never went to dinner with those racists again.”

    Being aware that a neighborhood is bad does not make them racists. Being misinformed that it’s bad does not make them racist. You, being unaware that it’s a high risk neighborhood doesn’t make them racist.

    • http://theflounce.com/ Blahblee

      They actually are racists, for lots of reasons. I still see them sometimes in social situations and they’re still racists. Always have been. But this isn’t an article about trying to point out racists and being offended, it’s about the opposite of that. So I’m sorry if this small story (which was rambling, just a mention that I do in fact know a couple of racists) diverted your attention from that point. I’d rather the focus be on this: Being offended is not social justice advocacy. I’m advocating for tougher skin and giving less of a shit about hurt white feelings on topics and issues that have nothing to do with white people. And that the whole “SJW” phenomenon is bad for progressive thinking. Thanks for commenting.