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Are You For The Cause, Or Just Using The Cause?

Earlbecke and jedmunds have each posted recently about incidents in which an ostensible anti-oppression ally used sexist language, got called on it, and then became self-righteously defensive. They claim that they're innocent because their intent was not to hurt their allies (indeed, in the case jedmunds points to, his intent was to advance the cause by using a sexist slur against one of its enemies). Fine -- claiming lack of intent gets you out of the first use. But let's look at what your intent is if you fail to apologize, and insist on continuing to use the language in question (this is applicable to non-verbal behaviors as well). It shows that you intend to ignore the feelings and needs of your supposed allies. It shows that you intend to avoid questioning your own complicity in the problem. It shows that you intend to elevate your own habits over the judgments of those you claim to be helping. You intend, in sum, to use the cause rather than fight for the cause.

Any cause with a strong social justice element is liable to attract users (most, but not all, of whom come from the group whose privilege is being attacked). The "Us vs. Them" heuristic is a strong one in the human psyche, and social justice causes provide a great opportunity to indulge it. You can divide the world into two camps, the good guys and the bad guys. Then, as one of the good guys, you can attack the bad guys with all your might. And you feel justified, because what makes the bad guys bad is something that really is bad. You come to see sexism (or racism or ableism or whatever cause you've joined) to be something that They do, and since you're against it, you must be innocent.

But users fall afoul of the real world. Social injustices are pervasive, and everyone -- especially those of us in privileged groups -- has been trained to participate in them. If you really care about eradicating injustice, and not just about using the injustice as an excuse to attack a perpetrator group, you also have to be willing to examine and eradicate it close to home. This is not to advocate a navel-gazing obsession with purity that comes at the expense of the larger picture. But most cases in which an ostensible ally gets defensive when called on their complicity in oppression are cases in which cleaning up your own act requires little more than paying attention to your own language.

So don't say "come on, can't we get back to the fun of fighting the big villains where I get to be on the right side?" Say "sorry, I'll try harder not to trip up the cause with my thoughtlessness." That's the difference between using the cause to identify enemies, and fighting for the cause's values.


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