Last spring, I got to spend a couple weeks in rural Ontario giving a few dozen (!) talks, assemblies, and shows at schools and organizations around the province. Every time I visit the Ontario countryside, I’m struck by how much it reminds me of my now-home state of Texas, in ways that are equal parts comfy (lots of hospitality) and uncomfy (lots of camouflage and usage of the word “lifestyle”). But this trip was different.
In years past, the ideas I was presenting (i.e., social justice and anti-oppression concepts, centered around gender) were mostly received as new. And the questions aligned with that. But this year, a lot of the questions I was hearing weren’t responding to what I was saying on stage, as much as they were addressing things that were already bouncing around students’ minds before I got there. I just became the first “spokesperson” for social justice they were able to confront IRL.
For example, in years past I got a lot of questions about things like “What do you mean gender and sexuality aren’t the same?” Or “What do you mean a woman can’t ‘oppress’ a man?”
But this year, a bunch of times (double digits) during Q&As I was asked something that amounted to “So gender is a social construct, and so is race, so why are we accepting of Caitlyn Jenner but not Rachel Dolezal?” By high schoolers. In rural
Hold that thought. I’ll return to it, but first I want to take a step back.
Over a Decade of a Creeping Feeling
I’ve been involved in the social justice movement (SJM) for most of my life.
In high school, I did what I could to protest the Iraq War (made signs, tried [failed] to organize big “walk outs,” etc.), but my first big leap into activism happened when I drove out to Washington DC to turn my back on Bush at his re-inauguration in 2005. I wasn’t old enough to vote when W. was re-elected, so I decided I would express my voice another way: by driving 642 miles from Indiana to D.C. in my beat up old car with about $50 to my name for gas and food so I could symbolically turn my back on him when he passed me in the parade.
I have zero regrets.
I didn’t know the phrase “social justice” then, but those protests in high school were when I first waded into this world — a world I’ve occupied in a dozen different ways since.
In the past decade, I’ve participated in tons of social justice activism, art, and education — as both learner and educator, consumer and creator.
And all the while, as I became more and more invested in this movement, eventually dedicating my life to it, there was something floating around in the ether I couldn’t put my finger on — a message that only existed in the lines between the written words on the page.
Sometimes it felt like a tug, or a nudge, or a push. Other times it felt like a whitewater rapid, sweeping me out from beneath my feet and carrying me downstream, to a place I couldn’t quite recognize, without a sense of my bearings.
I realized only a few years ago that I wasn’t the only one feeling it, as I started to have (private, sometimes-scary) conversations with fellow social justice educators, activists, and colleagues about this creeping feeling.
The subjects of the conversations were always different, but the theme was consistently one of “are we the only ones?”
Are we the only ones who are struggling with, don’t fully agree with, or don’t understand [X]? ([X] being some new belief, stance, or action we were seeing a lot our friends in the SJM advancing)
In the past few years, these hush-hush, “are we the only ones” conversations changed from being something I would rarely have, maybe with 1 colleague in 10 (usually after a conference, workshop, or controversial current event), to 3 out of 4. The feeling kept coming up.
As these conversations started to add up, and in the past two years really started to weigh on me, it became helpful for me have a label to define them (maybe in a “name it to tame it” sense?). A couple years ago, “Social Justice Dogma” is what I came up with.
The First Rule of Social Justice Dogma is You Don’t Question the Social Justice Dogma
Before I move forward, I want to define what I mean by the “Social Justice Dogma,” so we’re all on the same page:
The social justice dogma is the set of beliefs, stances, and acceptable actions laid down by the authorities within the social justice movement that we hold as incontrovertibly true.
It’s just a slight tweak on the standard definition of dogma, but in ways that have been really helpful in my understanding of this phenomenon. Let’s break it down.
The beliefs show up in the SJM as accepted facts, truths, and principles that we learn as we become part of the movement, and work to teach others.
Stances show up most strongly as things, ideas, or people that we are — or should be — against. They also show up as things we should be for.
Acceptable actions are the tactics we should use to put our beliefs and stances to work — all the ways we’re supposed to show up, interact with others (both inside and outside of the movement), and advance the cause.
The authorities part is the trickiest, because within the movement we have a lot of different authorities, but you can think of authorities generally as anyone, or any source (platform, org, publication, etc.), who is writing the rules above that we follow, and enforce amongst ourselves. Authorities are the “they” when someone says, “They said you shouldn’t say/think/do that.” Authorities as sources show up when people say “I read on [source] that we should now say/think/do this.”
And all of this adds up: “[Authority] said [belief] is true and we should show [stance] by [acceptable action].” What’s implied, but not often said, is “or we’ll be part of the problem.”
Now, let me just take a hot second to say something loud and clear (I’ll even bold it, and make it really big):
A lot of the beliefs, stances, and acceptable actions we’re taught by authorities within the SJM aren’t bad; in fact, a lot of them are good, healthy, and helpful.
The stickiest, prickliest, and most important part of the above definition is the “incontrovertibly true” part. The part of dogma that forbids the tenets from being challenged.
I haven’t written about this, or spoken about it onstage, because talking about this publicly scares the hell out of me.
And it scares everyone within the SJM I’ve talked with about it, to varying degrees.
I remember one convo I was having with fellow social justice educator two years ago, where we looked around the room, in which we were alone, and eerily half-joked “Doesn’t it feel like someone is listening?” And another with the executive director of a national queer rights organization who said to me “If this conversation was public, it would be the end of me, and my organization would probably never recover.”
What were we so afraid of? The three of us all believe that systemic oppression is real, horrible, and something we should work to dismantle — indeed, we are doing that work daily. The thing that scared us was the feeling that even just questioning a certain idea or tactic (that’d we’d been told by some SJM authority to accept or embrace) was crossing some invisible line. An indelible line.
And if people found out that we had those questions we’d be out. Alienated. Isolated. Alone. A pariah at best, a target at worst.
I have those thoughts a lot. It’s why writing this is so hard, and has taken so long.
Taking a new leap.
A few days after I was getting those questions in Ontario, a feminist philosopher argued the same parallel the students had highlighted in a journal article, and was met with virulent backlash. Whether we, or I, want them to or not, we can’t confine these conversations behind closed doors any more — they’re out in the world. And the decision I had to make was whether I wanted to participate or not.
Talking about social justice dogma is going to be messy and challenging, it’s going to test my relationships (with fellow social justice folks, readers, and supporters of my work). It might be the end of me, and my organization may never recover.
But I think that, at this point, I see more at stake by being silent than I do by wading into the inevitable mess. I care too much about this movement, the folks I’m stewarding into it, and the goals of social justice. I’m done with the whispered conversations and closed doors. I need to talk about this, y’all, and I’m going to work through the fear.
Consider this the beginning of my part of this conversation.