My fellow liberals, my fellow social justice warriors, this message is for you.
I’m a big fan of bold, shocking claims. Please, shatter my worldview anytime you’d like. Keep in mind, though, a truth about people. We’re not followers: before we take your side on any issue, you’ll have to patiently explain, discuss, or demonstrate. If you jump immediately to using your words to patronize, you’ll lose our attention pretty quickly because we’ll be too busy feeling belittled to truly listen.
Because we can be a little hypocritical sometimes. We often call for dialogue, for people to listen to those of different backgrounds, for openness. But we don’t always practice what we preach.
Certain social justice warriors assume that everyone comes to the conversation from the same place. They jump right to big, controversial claims without fully explaining themselves, then guilt-trip or belittle people who don’t accept their views.
Let me illustrate with a positive example. I once had a professor state that “all white people are racist.” The claim made sense given several readings, discussions, and lessons about the social/political/economic structures that allowed white people in the United States to reap benefits from a system that oppresses people of color.
Additionally, having known my professor for some time, I understood the meaning of her statement; I realized that she wasn’t suggesting that all white people are blatantly or deliberately racist, only that they do necessarily hold certain advantages. Finally, importantly, she made the comment as a part of a conversation in which I was invited to ask questions and learn.
But if she had made this claim before providing some background, or without providing space for dialogue, her statement would have completely alienated me. If someone were to suddenly make such a claim to a white person who had never thought much about race, they would naturally resist. Nobody wants to be labeled as racist by a stranger.
Yet social justice warriors can sometimes get into the habit of argumentatively pronouncing views that they forget may look quite bold to people who have no previously been introduced to an issue. In essence, they attempt to convince by guilt-tripping people or acting as if they are simply intellectually. In doing so, they forget that many people simply haven’t been exposed to certain issues in the same ways before. People can always learn more about issues, so long as we are mindful of the way we go about presenting our points.
If the critical dialogic step is skipped, the social justice warrior can act as if they are simply “more educated” or “better” than their conservative counterpart when, in reality, they have simply been educated in different areas and ways. Truly, it is nobody’s job to explain the intricacies of oppressive systems to people who are resistant. However, we can’t really expect someone with no background in our issue area to adopt our positions without some conversation. If someone is willing to listen and wants to learn, why shouldn’t we start a dialogue instead of an argument?
I also don’t suggest that we accept prejudicial comments, actions, or beliefs. Instead, I call my fellow liberals to remember that people who hold different views are also complex people with whom we can engage in dialogue. If somebody says something problematic, are they the problem as people? Or are they people who hold a problematic view? Troubling views can be addressed when we respectfully dialogue with the people that hold them.
The Onion published a satirical video last spring that demonstrates the elitism that has alienated the social justice community from many well-intentioned Americans.
The bottom line is this: if we truly want to convince people to become more tolerant, framing arguments from a position of supposed superiority is highly counterproductive. If we are to call for a society of love, we should approach advocacy with love. Make your bold claims, but make them with an understanding of and love for the complexity of your audience.