Once Upon a Time, I was a Social Justice Warrior

I think I’ve made it relatively clear that I am on the left side of things in regards to politics. For those new to this, back in the olden days of Disorderly Politics, with my very first post about why I wasn’t a feminist, I mentioned rather offhandedly that I used to be far more entrenched in social-justice brand leftist politics than I am now. I decided to use this blog post to explain the reasoning behind why I was a part of that crowd and the reasoning behind why I left it. I think it’s important to have this kind of narrative out in the ether to combat the notion that anti-SJWs are inherently hateful borderline bigots, born and raised on conservative Reddit forums.

This’ll be a long one, and a lot of it’s background. So skip on down to the half-way point if you don’t want to deal with that. It’s about time that I ranted for 3,000 words again.

* * *

For some background, I am from the rural South. Southern Baptist church on every corner, sweet tea drinking, Confederate flag flying from the back of every other pickup truck-brand, Bible Belt South. I have many younger brothers, and my single mother and grandmother raised me in a trailer park. Most people around me were politically conservative, as is typical of the area. And the ones who weren’t politically conservative tended to be Southern Baptist Democrats–mostly African-American extended family who liked Billy Clinton and social safety nets and thought the gays were going to go to Hell.

My mother and grandmother are life-long Democrats out of habit. For the most part, like most poor working people, they are apolitical in the practical sense. We never talked about politics, and what they know about the political scene typically doesn’t go past what is gone over in mainstream ABC Channel news segments. There are things of more immediate concern in their lives.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been more socially liberal than most of my peers, something that can be significantly attributed to me realizing that I was an atheist at a very young age. Once you start thinking church is stupid and God doesn’t exist, it’s kind of hard to think that homosexuality or drugs or premarital sex or abortions or any number of other things are sinful. And being in some way “sinful” is the main argument you hear against most of those above topics when you live in the Bible Belt. There are other arguments, of course, but I didn’t hear those until much later.

So me and my small group of more liberal friends grew up with a bit of a chip on our collective shoulder regarding small-town conservatism. It’s to be expected. I’m of the opinion that small towns exist as a test to see if you leave when you get the chance to. I was desperate to pass that test, like many other small town kids are and forever will be. I’m sure that if my town was full of moralizing liberal hippies, I would have a knee-jerk negative reaction to that. But as it stands, my town was full of people who thought Obama was an evil Muslim socialist who wanted to take our guns, and by the time I was eighteen years old, I wanted to get as far away from that as humanly possible.

While I was looking for colleges, a liberal atmosphere was one of the main things I was after. Granted, I wasn’t gay save for a solitary girl-crush my senior year. My friends and I didn’t do any drugs, and we weren’t fans of drinking. I wasn’t promiscuous. But I already identified as a humanist at that point and was very concerned with not automatically judging anyone who indulged in any of those things as long as they weren’t harming themselves or others. I was tired of the hypocritical small town conservatism where they hated marijuana but didn’t seem to care about their neighbor being addicted to meth, and where God loved all His creations but still didn’t care much for the homosexuals. I wanted to be in a place that accepted gay people. I wanted to be in a place where I could talk about being okay with legalizing marijuana without getting yelled at about the inherent moral depravity of drugs. I wanted to be in a place where I wasn’t afraid to admit that I didn’t believe in God.

I wanted to be at a liberal arts college. So that’s where I went.

I took the ACT and a few subject tests, aced my advanced placement courses, got a full-ride to an impressive liberal arts college a 2-hour plane ride away, and I was ecstatic. Going to college was the first time I’d ever flown on a plane or taken a taxi. I was out of my element, to say the very least.

* * *

The title is a bit intentionally click-baity, as I don’t think that I was ever a full-blown SJW. I say that because the atmosphere of my new college was really great . . . for a week. Yes, this is truly one of those “the grass is always greener on the other side” stories, as cliched as that moral is.

I knew full-well about how hyper-liberal my chosen college was. This was not an example of my family being afraid of an evil Northern college rotting my brain and turning me into a Communist. My family highly values education in a very blanket sense. They don’t know what the Ivy League is, but they know college is important, and I showed them my school’s spot on the Forbe’s college list, and they were impressed. So as soon as they figured out that I got a full-ride, they had no qualms with it. They didn’t worry about the politics of the place at all.

No, all my warnings came from the internet. Like any nerdy high school senior with a home computer, I did ravenous amounts of research on the colleges I wanted to go to. I visited the official website and student blogs and web forums and Reddit pages all in an attempt to get the most accurate picture possible of my choices. The general consensus was this: Academics are A+, but its liberal politics are seriously out of hand. Like any nerdy high school senior with a serious case of Desperate-to-Leave-Her-Small-Town Syndrome, I ignored those warnings. I wrote them off as people with right-leaning politics who just didn’t do enough research before choosing their school. Of course it was a super-liberal place, why were they so bitter and surprised about it? They should’ve went to Georgetown or Notre Dame if they wanted a more conservative atmosphere.

I get it now.

* * *

As I said, my fabulous Liberal Wonderland that was everything I had hoped and dreamed of in a college lasted all of a week before I started to get tired with it all. That’s not to say that I missed the politics of my hometown, but I clued in very quickly to what I had previously thought was impossible. I associated conservatism with religiosity and repressive social practices, and I associated liberalism with live-and-let-live acceptance, and I didn’t think you could have too much acceptance. Turns out, I was wrong.

I was much more dedicated to social justice ideas upon entering college. This was mainly because of my fervent support of gay rights. I actually planned on being more of an activist for minority groups in college even though I hadn’t had much experience. Because of that interest, I was accepted into a week-long program that happened before official orientation that was all about social justice and activism and all that cool stuff.

The experience wasn’t awful, by any means. Some of my happiest memories of college–and in general–take place during this program. Despite my fervent support of gay rights, I was very ill-informed about transgender people and had a negative opinion of them that wasn’t all that warranted, and I genuinely do appreciate the program informing me more about what being trans actually meant. With that being said, it was during that seven-day program that I learned social justice wasn’t for me.

I was fine with telling people my preferred pronouns every time I introduced myself. I was fine with talking about gender identity. I was fine with acknowledging white privilege and male privilege, and I ascribed to feminism wholeheartedly. I find it important to note those things, because, on paper, it seems like I should have been all for stereotypical social justice warriorism. But I could never fully buy into it because, from day one, it came across as extremely cynical to me, and it wasn’t an atmosphere that I took kindly to even if I agreed with plenty of its points.

I distinctly remember doing a Privilege Walk on the second day of the program. For those of you who don’t know what that is: You stand in a line, and you close your eyes, and someone reads off a list, and every time a point pertains to you, you take a step forward. The idea is, the people who take the most steps have the most privilege, and vice versa. So there were questions like “My family owns our house,” “I’ve never been followed in a store,” “I’m a man,” etc. etc. I didn’t mind the walk itself as much as I minded the discussion afterwards, where we were all told to open our eyes and gaze upon our disparate amounts of privilege. It was all very somber and sad and self-pitying, and I eventually just had to make a comment about how I was actually very encouraged by what I saw because, no matter how far behind or ahead people were at the end of the Privilege Walk, we still all wound up in the same place: at a good college, with people who support us, and good prospects ahead of us. My optimism was apparently a surprising thing to hear.

The rest of the week was like that. It was lots and lots of encouraging people to navel-gaze about how bad they had it in the most cynical way possible. I remember going to a small caucus group for black students that could essentially be summed up as: “Tell us about all the even slightly racist things that have ever happened to you, and tell us about how awful they made you feel, and if you can’t think of anything or it didn’t make you feel bad, we’ll convince you otherwise.” At one point another girl, who has gone full SJW four years later, questioned the need for racial affinity groups on-campus, and she was essentially told never to question how necessary they were again because they obviously were, end of story.

I wasn’t a fan of the cynicism. I wasn’t a fan of the automatic disregarding of ideas that didn’t fit within our little liberal bubble. I wasn’t a fan of the superfluous social niceties that had you feeling like you were walking on eggshells whenever you were talking to a new person. I wasn’t a fan of the “intent vs. impact” idea they enforced that treated people’s intentions as irrelevant. So I couldn’t buy into it entirely, even back then.

* * *

 It still took me some time to become totally disillusioned, but I had already decided that the social justice activism scene just wasn’t for me. It came across as incredibly histrionic and exclusionary from the get-go. There was lots of internal drama, and lots of molehills being made into mountains for our brave campus activists to surpass, and it seemed like a very toxic environment that I didn’t want to be around. So I had to find some other way to be a good liberal.

Early in my college career, I decided to look into Democratic Socialism as a potential political label. I wound up taking a train to a four-day long Democratic Socialists of America conference in New York. I still have the pin they gave me, I still get DSA emails, and the conference convinced me that the DSA wasn’t for me either. It’s largely for the same reasons. I feel like I was privy to one genuinely productive discussion for the entirety of those four days (It was about helping the working class.), and the rest was once again a whole lot of overly-negative naval gazing about how bad we all had it for various reasons. I even mentioned to one of the friends I made there that I thought the conference’s habit of breaking up people into demographic groups to talk to them separately seemed really unhelpful, and I didn’t and still don’t think his justification for it was all that satisfactory.

In addition to that, though, there was a healthy dose of the casual straight white male hatred that is so common in SJW circles nowadays. Sitting in a room full of people having a hearty laugh about how disappointing it was that a good book was written by a straight white guy made me extremely uncomfortable, to say the very least. These were not bad people. And they weren’t stupid people. What I learned from that conference was that Democratic Socialists throw awesome house parties, and have very rousing conversations over dinner, and are willing to leave their house at 1am during a blizzard to find you after you accidentally get lost on the subway and wind up in Harlem. And their social politics are extremely off-putting when you put them all together in a room to talk about them.

* * *

My final disillusionment ultimately came during the two times when I genuinely tried to give social-justice-style community work and social activism its chance. I was already mainly against it. I thought it wasn’t nuanced. I thought it divided people more than it united them. But I was still willing to give it a chance if I thought it could do some good.

Since I care about education, I joined a tutoring program that tutored low-income, mainly minority students in their after-school programs. We helped with their homework, and went over their quizzes, did cool science experiments, all that jazz. I enjoyed doing it. I found one nerdy black elementary schooler and took him under my wing, and it was all going great. Then my location changed, and I no longer had my little mentee, and I had a new site coordinator–one of my classmates.

While going to my new location with her and the new batch of tutors I was working with, I witnessed the most ridiculously racist conversation on the face of the planet that made me drop the tutoring program entirely because there was no way I was going to work with a bunch of raging racists even if I did like helping kids study. Essentially, my Latina site coordinator thought that she’d go off on an unsolicited rant against two strangers who worked at the community center we were tutoring at. It was a rant about how she hates white people, and about how she’s so glad that all of us were people of color, and about how those horrible white boys need to get out of our way because they ruin everything and don’t care about minorities, and about how she wished white people just weren’t around. This is not paraphrased, by the way.

Those “horrible white boys” turned out to be locals in that low-income community who volunteered as coaches for a program that taught kids various sports in an attempt to keep them away from drugs and other illegal things. When she found out that they cared about minorities after all and weren’t just two white boys hogging the gym to shoot some hoops, she begrudgingly acknowledged that maybe they were okay but she still hates white people in general. That disgusted me. My fellow tutors’ reaction to it–to nod and agree–disgusted me. The fact that that racist cunt prided herself on how she was able to teach children disgusted me. And the fact that she felt perfectly comfortable telling me that she hated a race of people and wanted them gone all because my skin tone apparently dictates that I agree with that sentiment disgusted me.

Needless to say, I never talked to any of them again.

The final nail in the coffin was something very similar: me, trying to give a group with a good premise a chance and quickly becoming disillusioned with the entire thing because everyone around me was an asshole. I decided to join the new club that helped and advocated for low-income students. I’ve been very open about how I don’t think elite institutions care about class or the hardships being low-income places on students in those academic environments. I thought the club was a great idea. I signed up for it. I became a Big Sibling to an underclassmen. I participated in panels and talked to the administration about things they could do to help people who don’t have any money to spare.

Then, one night, I met the girls in charge of the group. We were sitting around a table putting candy in plastic bags and talking about the group dynamics of the club. It was at that point that the two girls who formed the group decided to–you guessed it–go on an unsolicited rant against a random person who had done nothing wrong. In this case, they overtly laughed at a white guy who didn’t appreciate people on campus constantly telling him that he had privilege because he was a straight white guy–and, as a side effect, providing him with less help and support than the “oppressed” people. This was a boy who was forced to go “home” every winter break to the backseat of a car, to live off of McDonald’s coupons for a month, whose parents abused him, who didn’t have a penny to his name. And apparently the very notion that he didn’t want to be treated like he was privileged when he so obviously wasn’t was laughable. His concerns were stupid and could be dismissed without a second thought.

And those were the people who apparently cared about low-income students. Those were the people who wanted to help, who wanted to make a group that wasn’t about racial demographics, who wanted to focus on class for fucking once. But apparently white men can still go fuck themselves. They don’t deserve any sympathy. They’re given enough of it from everyone else.

* * *

That was the point that I gave up on “social justice” and its very conditional sympathy for the downtrodden, rivaled only by the small town conservatism that cared about all of God’s creatures unless they were fags. That was when I gave up on the political ideology that kept trying to censor art and media, like it was the 1980s again and they were the pearl-clutching Christian mothers afraid that D&D and Frank Zappa would turn their children to Satan.

And maybe you could say that I’m throwing the baby out with the bathwater when I reject social justice as a concept. But I don’t think so. They had good ideas that were difficult to object to–acceptance and diversity and social support. I’m not denying that. And I’m not denying that there are many people who ascribe to social justice who are still holding onto that vague set of genuinely good ideas as principles to uphold. But social justice as a copyrighted, trademarked political institution with leaders and interest groups that lobby the government and speak on television and make course syllabi for college students . . . that social justice is ruined, in my opinion.

That bathwater is boiling, and that baby is dead.