Social Justice activists can be alarmingly fierce in defence of their monopolies on righteous grievance, as Robin DiAngelo’s reference to Emmett Till demonstrates.
The problem is that feminists, Critical Race theorists, trans activists, women in tears at diversity training events, even incels and the alt-right, are all vying for control of the same territory: that of wounded individualism. All are basing their assumptions on our societies’ most fundamental principles: the preciousness of the self and the supreme virtue of eudemonic self-realisation. All believe their inalienable rights, derived from these principles, are being denied.
Activists are highlighting unconscious bias leading to systemic discrimination. They point out how marginalised people can be relentlessly undermined by apparently small things which add up to serious psychological destruction. However, because their focus is on “micro-aggressions”, rather than acts of terrible violence, they can be accused of being over-sensitive flowers who cannot deal with the inevitable frictions we all face in dealing with other people.
No one has time to attend to all human rights campaigns, and the fact that there are so many might suggest to our potential supporters that there is nothing unique about our troubles. Our messages could be lost in the cacophony of other complaints unless we establish a monopoly of suffering, or at least dominate a hierarchy.
So, if a white woman accused of racism bursts into tears, Critical Race theorists fear she is muscling in on their territory of grievance. She is trying to position herself as the oppressed, and the Racial Justice activists as the domineering bullies. Ruby Hamad quotes a panellist of colour at the Sydney Writers’ Symposium, who encountered such an objection: “yet again, a good convo was derailed, white people centred themselves, and a POC panel was told to police it’s [sic] tone to make their message palatable to a white audience. (The Guardian, 07/05/2018)
I assume the convo had been good, up to this point, because nobody had challenged the activist’s argument; the reason it was no longer good was that somebody was interrogating her position, even though such activism works by speaking out in the face of opposition: “speaking truth to power”.
Social Justice activists feel these challenges must be emphatically crushed because they are vulnerable to them. This is presumably why Robin DiAngelo resorts to such an extreme and traumatic example as a racist lynching. She needs to establish people of colour as having suffered more than the women who question her, especially if they are being comforted by black men, her core constituency. Her ingenious solution is to use their very blackness to defeat them, which sounds to me very like a traditional white woman’s put down of her social inferiors.
But all these shenanigans weaken and discredit the social justice movements. Rather than building consensus, they divide groups that should be working together. Attacking each other seems hypocritical. It seems selfish to dismiss any form of inequality other than the one you suffer from. Games of indignation top trumps, involving activists literally saying, “You think it’s hard being a woman? Try being a Black woman…” look embarrassingly childish – playground politics. It sounds pathetic and inappropriate to label tiresome and persistent slights as “trauma” and “pain”, words that are meant for grievous physical harm.
All this is a gift to the far-right. It justifies claims of “Wokery Gone Mad” that are then used to undermine much more serious and constructive attempts to redress society’s inequalities.