August 22, 2021

Social justice language widgetry

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , at 4:48 pm by chavisory

I don’t know how many people feel this way.

But there is a way in which people who are very involved at all in social justice culture, who are, ironically, trying so hard to do the right thing, almost immediately change the way they talk to me when they find out I have “multiple marginalizations.” Or “multiple intersections.” Or something like that.

I can hear it coming by now. It’s like a switch flipping.

And I hate it.

And whatever it’s intended to do, or if they even realize they’re doing it, when they switch into heavily SJ-inflected codespeak, it doesn’t make me feel like more of a person, or more “seen,” or respected, when they do it. It makes me feel far, far less so.

Like they decided they know the right language widgets for talking to someone like me.

It’s like they stop talking to me like they would just talk to another person, like they see me as just a person, and started talking to me like a collection of marginalizations. Like an equation. Like a program with a cheat code.

I know how I’m meant to respond, but I can’t.

When people I considered friends start doing it, it feels like a betrayal.

Wait, I’m still the same person, I want to say. Is this how you really think of me? That you have to talk to me this way?

Stop it. I thought I was just your friend.

“You don’t have to talk to me like that,” I want to say even to well-intentioned strangers on the internet.

I know you mean well, but I’m not actually from that world. I don’t function well in that language. Most of my values don’t translate well into it. Truth be told, it makes me want to scream and hide. I tune it out and shut down. Or I attempt to keep conversing with someone as if they hadn’t just… started treating me like a different person halfway through a conversation for some incomprehensible reason.

I think it flattens experience, steals empathy, makes people sound like automatons, and me feel expected to behave as one, and I resent it.

It feels somewhat akin to what Mel Baggs was describing when sie wrote about political ideologies and mental widgets. That there are these language shortcuts, which aren’t wrong in and of themselves, but that have come to be accepted as the correct language for encapsulating certain experiences.

I think it’s gradually short-circuiting our collective ability to comprehend experiences, both our own and others’, if they can’t be easily framed in the narrow vocabulary of this dialect. I think it’s making us all less legible to each other as people, not more.

I think it’s undoing our ability to listen to each other. To really listen. To actually have to parse language for what someone is trying to communicate, and not just internalize dogmas.

I’m just a person. You can just talk.

A couple of years ago I was at a cocktail party held by a pair of friends, and there was a little pocket copy of On Tyranny, on the coffee table. A print version of Timothy Snyder’s collection of twenty short essays on resisting the encroachment of fascism that went viral around the internet shortly after the 2016 election.

The seventeenth was one I hadn’t remembered. “Be kind to our language.” Resist buzzwords and catchphrases. Don’t just talk the way other people talk. Think of your own way of saying things.

I wonder whether Snyder was thinking of groupthink, of newspeak, that might come from within our own movement, and not only from the tyrants who happen to be in power. Whether he was also warning us about the ways our own communities inadvertently use language to do injustice to the complexity of our experiences as humans.

I’m not sure how much this is just an eventuality in any activist movement, or how much anyone else notices or is bothered if they do.

But lately sometimes it feels like there’s hardly anyone I can just talk to anymore. Who I can trust to just…talk to me.

7 Comments »

  1. tagÂûght said,

    An excellent post (and points) worth reading. Thanks for working through on this. I think this is going to be a recommendation on my own blog….

  2. bean_shadow said,

    I can be pretty clueless about how I come across, so I hope I have not disappointed you! I have felt we have good conversations. I also get disillusioned. It sounds silly but I love talking to my cats and doggo Barney. I don’t have to worry about social cues, etc. I feel talking with others is a struggle and like I’m walking in a minefield.

  3. danjodea said,

    Reblogged this on The Dragon Core and commented:
    Worth the read; some great points made here about communication.

  4. I think it has more to do with some SJ spaces having intense hierarchical mindsets, where one’s traits inform where they sit on the social ladder. If you don’t advertise your marginalizations, you’re assumed to be highly privileged and thus looked down upon as the lowest rung of the ladder. And then, if you do, everyone reassesses you as superior and becomes afraid to challenge you even if you indicate you want to just have a conversation. I don’t think talking about the set of marginalizations is where the problem lies but in the overall hierarchical mindset.

    • chavisory said,

      I think that is definitely some of what’s going on, too. And also that, given what some of the social justice ideology is right now, there’s a presumption that if you are marginalized in a one way or another, you share that ideology, and so people flip into talking to you in that language.

      And the thing is, I don’t.

    • chavisory said,

      And like it also feels similar to the way in which evangelical Christians will start deploying language in super specific ways in order to try to figure out whether you’re a Christian like them or not.

      • LustStarrr said,

        As do conspiracy theorists & fascists… there’s a certain lingo, laden with dog-whistles, designed to signal to their fellow in-group members to draw their attention & garner their support.

        I recently discovered a free online course – Social Justice, Minus Dogma – that was created by Sam Killerman, of It’s Pronounced Metrosexual, that goes some way towards deconstructing social justice, discarding dogma, & in the process, remedying some of the issues with it you’ve described here. You can check out Sam’s reasoning behind creating it, & find a link to the course, here: https://www.samkillermann.com/work/social-justice-minus-dogma/ .


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