The Current Approach to Social Justice is Harming our Cause

I’ve been thinking about how social justice is approached by many of my colleagues and folks I look up to. This last year I’ve done a lot of work into how people respond to criticism and social transgressions and I can’t help but think we’re approaching social justice wrong to an extent that we might be harming our cause and our communities (at least in the context of pedagogy).

Today I’ll talk about how we need to understand human nature when addressing structural discrimination and those that perpetuate it (whether knowingly or not).

Changing or Harming?

Researchers June Price Tangney and Rhonda Dearing wrote a book called “Shame and Guilt”, a book I have heavily relied on in terms of examining sociocultural issues on Indigenous communities. While exploring this literature I realized that this knowledge could also be applied to issues in Social Justice. In a nutshell, the book talks about how shame and guilt are distinct emotions but are emotions that can occur in similar situations, particularly situations where there is criticism or social transgression. Anything socially related where a person is being corrected can cause one of these emotions to arise. The book emphasizes how guilt emphasizes the “Made” word in “I made a mistake”, and that shame emphasizes the “I” in “I made a mistake.” Guilt is a focus on behaviour (made=the behaviour of doing something), and shame is a focus on self (I=a personal pronoun, the self). If the person being criticized views the criticism as a reflection of self “I made a mistake, I’m the problem” opposed from viewing the criticism as a reflection of behaviour “I made a mistake, that was not appropriate behaviour”, the outcome will be defensiveness.

Brené Brown explains this very well in her TED Talk “Listening to Shame” where she says that shame is “I’m not good enough” or anything “I’m not ____ enough” (fill in the blank). Shame is a painful emotion and brings up the fight or flight response, but guilt is an uncomfortable emotion but not painful and much more adaptable for behavioural change. It makes sense if you think about it, if I think you’re telling me that I’m a bad person I’m going to get defensive or find someone to blame, or simply withdraw. My behaviour can change, I as a person cannot — and we’re not differentiating the difference between person and behaviour enough. I know many folks in anti racism who think that if you do racist things, you are a racist, and therefore you are no good and should be outcasted.

How do we improve our society with this paradigm? We don’t. We’re not considering human nature and therefore we are harming our cause and our communities.

Social justice is filled with social rules and expectations that are overwhelming in an increasingly diverse western world. I’m not advocating that we give up or that we need to be softer and gentler with the racist systems and structures that we live under, but we ultimately need to understand shame and how it makes people defensive and has, as Brené Brown puts it, an inverse relationship with accountability (i.e. people who feel shamed, or feel their self is under attack, will be unlikely to take accountability for their actions and will either find someone to blame, withdraw, or fight back, and in the end, no change has occurred).

We often call this “White fragility” because people who react defensively, cry or withdraw are upholding the racist institutions that they benefit from because no change happens when they take on those reactions. This is true, but what’s also true is what I’ve talked about so far, that shaming people will create this reaction to begin with.

So what, are we in a catch 22? This is where I’m open to debate and where I’m constantly thinking about what our next steps should be as activists.

My concern didn’t arise only by considering white, binary cis and/or hetero folks, my concern for our approach to social justice arose when I seen how marginalized people shame other marginalized people or members of their own group. This shit happens in our own community under the guise that we’re holding each other accountable, but if you’ll remember what I said about shame and accountability, they don’t usually go together. Shame is the least effective means of holding each other accountable.

So how do we approach things with a guilt approach? Is there a way? Some researchers say people are guilt-prone or shame-prone and will react with that emotion regardless, as long as the person transgressed socially (i.e. made a mistake, did a taboo or insulted), and that it depends highly on their upbringing as children. If this is strict, then I would say our approach doesn’t matter and that we are in a catch 22 where our communities will continue to fight, create conflict, and one side will prevail and others will have to submit in what is, for all intents and purposes, a culture war of the 21st century.

Maybe there is no answer but I think, at the very least, activists need to understand the difference between the person and their behaviour. Humans can be bad, they can be good, but it depends on what they’ve done, what their behaviour has been. If we focus on how the person is no good, whether we know it or not, we are dehumanizing that person or their social group which is exactly what happened to us by the folks who marginalized us in the very beginning (white folks to POC, men to women, etc.). How dare we talk about social justice when we can so easily dehumanize another person? Didn’t our ancestors fight to have us humanized so that we could live the lives we currently have today? Would they be proud that we began to do to others what they had done to them by their oppressors?

In Indigenous languages there are no bad people, there is only the consequences to bad behaviour that affect the community. We have much to learn from how Indigenous nations corrected behaviour and how English has strayed us afar from human nature.

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