I used to feel an immediate, implicit trust in people who use or identify with social justice language and/or social justice labels. If someone called themselves a (any gender other than cis men)’s rights activist, I’d take it on faith that my lived experiences would be relatable to theirs, and that we’d be more compatible as friends, lovers, and/or colleagues.
And, sure, this has been the case, at times, but things have changed a bit. Late in 2014 it became clear that due to complications arising from an invisible disability, I could no longer participate in the workforce.
It was disappointing, five years out of university, having worked various jobs and floundered in all of them, to know that it was time to throw in the towel. I became very depressed and spent most of my time in my room, brooding.
I spent a lot of time on Twitter, and thanks to the StopAbleism2015 hashtag, connected with a lot of people with disabilities. From our conversations, I began to notice uncomfortable things.
I started to notice how people with whom I share progressive beliefs routinely use mental illness as an insult. We don’t like Stephen Harper, so we use words like crazy, unstable, lunatic. (He’s in his right mind, friends, that what makes him scary)
I started to notice it when able-bodied, neurotypical people who identify strongly with social justice labels use words like r*tard, id*ot, and m*ron to describe people with whom they strongly disagree.
More disturbingly, I noticed how some of these people, while being happy to adopt a position of pointing out other people’s pockets of unawareness, would either shut down when being called on their ableism and classism, or nod in agreement but continue to use the same problematic language.
My respect for their activism didn’t waver, but I did perceive an unwillingness to grow further. People who say “I just try not to be a douche” re: social justice started to look a lot more attractive.
I thought about how I once dated a self-identified activist who wouldn’t view the problems I had finding employment due to my disability and mental illness as stemming from a legitimate axis of oppression, simply because I am a man.
I realized what able bodied/neurotypical privilege is, and I realized how she was failing to be intersectional in her approach to social justice.
And yet, I also appreciate her underlying need to be focused on her own corner of the world; on her own lived experience of being marginalized. She was learning what it is to be a woman in a world organized around men’s needs, and she had to focus on finding her own place within that structure.
I realized that I had been, unfairly, assuming that people with very different experiences of oppression would necessarily and automatically relate to mine, and that a person with a social justice label is necessarily going to be a better match for me than a person without one.
And then I began to notice how some people in my (offline) life who don’t identity with a particular social justice label were being very open to examining their use of ableist and classist narratives. Some people who identify as activists were too, of course, but it really crystallized for me that someone doesn’t have to wear a badge of advocacy in order to be an amazing listener and complement my growth as a person.
So I’ve come to the conclusion that while someone’s identification with a given form of activism totally raises my opinion of them, I’m done looking for whether or not such an identification is present as a primary mechanism of indicating whether a person is right for me.
Instead, I look for a general and habitual sense of oneself as a work in progress. Because that’s what I am, and that’s what I want to be around.