“You’re just an Internet activist” is a bad argument

I was originally going to write a response to the much-discussed Jon Chait “political correctness culture” essay that so many people have been talking about. But, well, so many people have been talking about it, and I’m not sure I have a lot of points to make that haven’t been made in someone else’s essay already. Instead, I’m going to respond to an argument that I’ve been seeing in the short-form (e.g. blog comments) discussion of Chait’s essay, and that I’ve seen before. That argument goes something like this:

“I work or volunteer in a field where [I work on behalf of oppressed and marginalized people/I am one of the few women, people of color, etc in the field]. I’m a foot soldier in the fight for social justice. But then these people who are merely talking on the Internet argue with me about social justice and are critical because I don’t have all the current vocab down or made a minor mistake. Who are they to do that? They’re all talk and academic jargon and no action.”

Here’s the thing. I used to be one of the people coming from that point of view. I had considered myself a feminist since I was a young kid, because I was a tomboy and a geek, and a lot of the activities and fields that I was interested in were very dominated by boys and men. And I got a lot of flak and bullying for that as a kid, and experienced a lot of isolation and alienation over it. I was sort of a baby second waver, not that I knew what that meant – my feminism was a reaction to the exclusionary or hostile attitudes that I experienced and saw in the male-dominated environments I wanted to access, and to phenomena that I had read about like pay gaps and hiring discrimination (it also included a ton of internalized misogyny, which deserves its own post). As I got older and more aware, it incorporated other issues, like abortion rights and comprehensive sex ed. As I went through college at a tech school and moved in the direction of a science or engineering career, it took on a new dimension because I was now about to enter a male-dominated working world. But I wasn’t very familiar even with the discourses of privilege and oppression that are now somewhat mainstream, let alone anything more radical than that, until perhaps 2006.

When I first discovered the Social Justice Internet, I was confused, and also rather put off. All these people were talking about feminism and the LGBTQ movements and anti-racism, all of which sounded great, but I didn’t understand their words, or their usages of common words (like “sexism” or “racism” referring to power + prejudice, not merely prejudice) and I also hadn’t thought deeply about institutions and systems and power dynamics and how they were relevant here. I couldn’t understand how these talky people with academic-sounding language could be positioned as doing more than people like me who were out there fighting sexist assumptions and the like through our lives.

What got me over this attitude was the fact that a few of my slightly older friends, whom I respected and who were also geeky scientists and engineers, were among these talky Internet Social Justice people (in fact, I’d found the Social Justice Internet through their links). I knew they were smart and reasonable, so I figured I should at least keep reading for a while and try to figure out what was going on. And lo and behold, I did! It didn’t even take very long to get a basic grasp of them, and decide that they made a lot of sense, once I committed to engaging with them! Of course, that wasn’t the end – I still learn new things and adjust or refine my views all the time on the Social Justice Internet (and elsewhere).

I don’t even think this is a particularly unusual sort of story. I know a bunch of people who didn’t know from privilege when I met them and now they do. Few people are raised to think or talk about privilege and oppression (though I hope more will be in the future), or taught it in grade school. They don’t spring from Social Justice Zeus’ head as fully-formed Social Justice Warrior Goddesses. And yet, over the last several years, the numbers of people who think and talk about such things appear to be growing, and their mainstream influence is increasing. How do we think that happened? Magic? More likely, people listened and read, and talked and wrote, and shared works and ideas with each other, and the Internet helped enable this. That doesn’t mean, of course, that we shoudn’t try to make our language more accessible – as someone who trains people who may have no experience with the subject on sexual violence issues, I’m a big fan of having some spaces where people make an effort to make the language accessible and to explain jargon terms – but people do learn this stuff.

So now that I’ve given my relevant backstory, let me explain what’s wrong with the “I’m out there doing things, those SJWs on Tumblr and Twitter are all talk and no action” argument.

1) Talk is action. I – someone who spends a huge portion of my free time on social justice activism, who spent four hours last night talking to sexual assault survivors on a hotline, who will be running two workshops at a social justice activism conference later this week, who has been motivated enough (and privileged enough) to travel to places from Ferguson to Palestine for social justice activism, who’s currently in fact facing charges over my commitment to social justice activism – just got done telling you how I came to my views, and accordingly to this commitment, by reading talky people’s words on the Social Justice Internet. The people who write about social justice on the Internet are learning new things, practicing concepts, refining their views, influencing others.

Chait wrote at The New Republic, possibly the most famous center-left opinion shop in the US, for many years. He’s an opinion writer at the New Yorker. This sort of sociopolitical opinion reading and writing and responding is literally his career. The various social justicey parts of Tumblr and Twitter and the blogosphere are basically opinion shops! They’re just newer, heavily-volunteer-based, decentralized, more raucous opinion shops, with less gatekeeping. How do you say how talk isn’t action while talking about how someone’s opinion piece resonated with you and what you think it means for politics? Why are you taking the time to write your own opinion on the Internet if you think talk isn’t action? Aren’t you figuring, or at least hoping, that what you say might have an influence on someone?

It’s so easy to mock Internet activism as a concept, and it can be so tempting, especially if you do offline activism and you feel like you’ve used so much energy, taken so much risk (because people who talk about social justice on the Internet never face repercussions for that oh wait they do), and sacrificed so much more for the cause. First of all, this feeds into really harmful ideas widely held by both activists and non-activists, about how activists should be martyrs and martyrdom matters more than effectiveness (or is necessary for effectiveness). Second, it’s ignoring the different circumstances in people’s lives that might be preventing them from participating in different kinds of activism. We all, activists or not, really need to knock this off.

2) Just as the people you’re talking with on the Internet don’t usually know about your job and your volunteer work and all the great stuff that you’re doing when you’re not talking on the Internet, you don’t know what they do when they’re not talking on the Internet. Quite aside from everything that I just said in point #1 about how these people are engaging in social justice work whether or not any of that work takes place outside of the Internet, what basis do you have to assert that they aren’t doing any other work? I’ve had people try to assert that with me before. It’s always funny. Assumptions can backfire, it turns out. Most of the people I know who do Internet activism also do some offline activism.

3) However much terrific work you do, that doesn’t mean that you never screw up. It doesn’t mean that you have nothing left to learn. It doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t say something if they think you screwed up. I’m not beyond reproach, the person reproaching you is not beyond reproach, and you’re not beyond reproach. Now, how exactly that reproach is done is another issue – one that the Social Justice Internet has been talking about for years. But your work shouldn’t exempt you from criticism, including criticism from people who are at earlier stages of their lives or work or haven’t (yet) accomplished as much as you.

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