Justification, Entitlement, and the Nature of Education in Social Justice Work

Posted: October 20, 2015 in Uncategorized

When I first heard activists say “it’s not my job to educate you” my initial response was “that’s not a helpful approach“. I mean, if a person of good will genuinely doesn’t understand, why wouldn’t you take the time to educate them, make an ally, and take another step toward changing the culture one person at a time? It may not be the activists’ job, but it seems like a good strategy – right?

And then I read some of the “requests for education.” <sigh>

What a pile of passive aggressive confrontation masquerading as ignorance! Deliberate obfuscation of issues, false equivalency, refusal to acknowledge privilege, and denial of lived experience. I’m sick of it, and I’m not the one getting the “requests”. No wonder activists are saying “it’s not my job“.

I get it now – my mistake was assuming good will on the part of the people requesting “education”.

John F. Beckett, Oct 20, 2015

Frequently in conversations about social justice work, activism, and change-oriented discourse pertaining to human rights, privilege, oppression and oppressed demographics, the question comes up about the responsibility of education. People outside of justice work and change-oriented movements often bemoan this by complaining that, “Activists keep telling me it is not their job to educate me! How can I learn if those people won’t educate me? Isn’t that what they’re SUPPOSED to do?” The following is my response to this, written before having a cup of coffee and while listening to Rage Against the Machine.

The ultimate goal of activism is “the vigorous actions campaigning for change“.

It is not that ACTIVISTS are not responsible for education, but rather, that marginalized and oppressed parties — e.g. POC, LGBTQ, Trans*, Women, Sexual Assault Survivors, religious minorities, etc — are NOT required to educate in order to be involved in the work to achieve, or expect to receive freely, the rights which should already be guaranteed them. Further, this topic isn’t so much about “education” as it is about justification.

Let me explain:

When the majority of people who are demanding to have “it” explained to them go about demanding that it be explained to them — “it” being the operative mode of activism or rights related change in question at a given time, such as women’s rights — they are rarely asking for actual education. They are asking for justification.

When somebody says, “explain this to me”, they are generally not saying, “please educate me so that I can be a vehicle for social change and righteous progressive movement forward as a society in the recognition of universal rights for all humans”. What they are most often actually saying is, “prove it, bitch.”

Education is NOT justification, but the words “education” and “explanation” and “proof” are synonymized in the parlance of the oppressors, who act with prejudice because they have permission from their peers in a society that does not want to change. This is more or less statistical fact, and is a model (explored below) of control utilized by the complacent privileged within the oppressive rank-and-file in order to prevent the change which would afford rights to the oppressed.

Education comes about through modeling and through helping to build allies and alliances up through genuine engagement. In other words, relationship.

Most allies to these changes had a period during which they were not allies: when they themselves were part of the problem at least insofar as a complacent component of the machine of oppression, instead of an active part of the resolution moving forward. What changed for them wasn’t “proof” or “justification”, it was an eventual experience and perception that penetrated through their socially-encouraged veil of ignorance, “made it real”, and then they actively sought their own education. The research, the data, the numbers, the fatalities, the lack of freedoms, the brutality, on any given topic? It’s freely available. Further, the process of “becoming an ally” is an ongoing and gradual one: the education never stops, it is not a mere explanation, it is by nature a constant process of learning and at times re-learning or learning from more and more different angles and approaches. The very nature of the beast of permissive prejudicial disregard for the humanity of others in a society rampantly sick with such casual degradation as a standard stock model is that allies are not magically “cured” of those tempting ignorances and impulses to retreat back into the safety of the many from the fringes of the few-who-would-be-seen — e.g. activists and vocal advocates for change — because it turns out that working as an ally for progress is exhausting, sometimes frightening, and always difficult. It pits a person against their own community’s complacent stated needs and desires, and puts all roads at a slant of uphill and in the muddy rain, because progress is not merely a slow march up the mountain side but one which is constantly thwarted by peers who don’t own dictionaries and haven’t bothered to look up the words “rights” or “progress” or “decent”.

The year is 2015 and we have the sum total of all human knowledge ever, updated every second, in our back pockets.

It is not the responsibility of a sexual assault survivor to explain — justify — consent to a rapist’s mother or a molester’s police-chief uncle. Why?

Because that’s sick.

Education doesn’t work that way.

An important nuance here is the distinction between “activist” and “marginalized person”. Not all marginalized persons are activists. Not all activists are marginalized persons, or come from demographics of subjugated or injurious experience. This is why activism encourages alliance, recognizes privilege: not in the condemning sense, because privilege also represents some of the fastest vehicles for achieving social change and upward mobility in the pursuits of activism, through allies-with-privilege working to empower, strengthen, and stand OUT the way of the marginalized voices who are needing to bring about an increased visibility and voice. Education comes through modeling, not through justifying, and when justification-type banter comes up — e.g. when the assholes demand an explanation or “proof” — that DOES NOT FALL on the oppressed parties to answer. That’s troll-bait. It falls on allies to correct that shit, and it falls on people to not fall into justification seeking troll-traps, born entirely of entitlement and complacency seated in a self-righteous throne of competitive adequacy.

In my experience, people who genuinely want to learn through being taught — rather than demanding justifications — are not going to ask in an online forum, website or social media comments section, or similar.

When something comes up in my work or approach that I’m uncertain about, I tend to reach out privately and respectfully to the appropriate parties whose knowledge, experience, and expertise I respect and have discerned as valid for reasons beyond assumptions. In other words, I don’t assume that all women magically have critically informed training in the nuances and systematic process of women’s rights, nor do I assume that all LGBTQ people are rampant activists marching in the streets and studying social justice at the doctoral level, or employed as social workers for trans* youth. That would be an objectifying set of assumptions. Instead I respect marginalized voices and in the process of activism and in my role as an ally I stand the fuck back so as to not by my presence or ignorance inadvertently silence or speak over or obscure the voice and visibility of a demographic that the work is all about providing equal platform to. That’s justice work. Part of it is recognizing who the experts are, and knowing who to turn to for advice or counsel when a question arises.

For example, if I have a question about a news story or a topic relating to a current social unrest or activist engagement in the nation or world, I do not assume that I can utilize “tokenism” to turn to a random member of the relevant social group or demographic in order to shake them like a tree of justification knowledge that will rain down on my entitled ass. Instead, I work to build relationships more generally with communities, and I work to recognize the skills and specialized knowledges (or biases) in the people who I know so that, when questions arise, I can do better than ask dumb fucking questions on a forum.

Distinctions between people attached to a movement or demographic is part of the process of engaging respectfully: not all people who are part of “Group A” or “Demographic B” or “Activism Oriented Movement C” are themselves teachers; some people are wrecking-balls for inspiring discourse, opening ways of visibility and passionate voices or visible displays, and are NOT specialists in teaching. Others have the bed-side manner of a timid cat or a confused retired race-horse and are similarly not prepared for that, but have other areas of excellence to bring to the front. Activism for social change is made up of all sorts. There are educators within every movement. Not every movement is made up solely of educators, as that would imply that their sole purpose was to cater to the needs of the oppressors, rather than the oppressed.

The focus on education — or on writing, or on “wording things in calm and comfortable manners” or on wording things “in accessible non-erudite manners” or “not using all that super-educated language because it is condescending” or “not using all that colloquial non-specific passionate language because it is intimidating” — is about controlling the message of change pertaining to the rights of the oppressed by forcing them to comply with the needs or whims of the oppressors, who can parlay these demands as a means of further oppression via passive-aggression and feign at “wanting to learn” when really they just wanna watch people “dance the puppet dance” by shooting demands at their feet like .45s with casings cast up to delightful display to showcase their own marksmanship. Whether they realize it or not. Because social dynamics and their intersection with power dynamism.

Part of the control mechanism is to demand that activists comply with a certain tone or look or format in order to “warrant” change or “deserve” rights, and these metrics are constantly changed because they’re fabricated whims, not real needs. This limits “who can be an activist” or by reverse tries to undermine activism by calling everyone who wants change or is part of a marginalized group “an activist”, which makes people without the training or focus of activism grouped similarly with them, which… further hurts the progress of real activists working with real focus.

Different people bring different skills, specializations, focuses and flavors to the work. And some people are merely allies to the work, and are not themselves activists, and that’s totally okay.

Again, not all people in a marginalized group are activists, for a whole slew of reasons, including the fact that not everyone is good at being an activist.

Being involved in social justice work is hard. Not everyone involved is an activist. Not every activist is an educator. Being involved in social justice work and/or activism does not magically make somebody a member of an oppressed group, just as being a member of an oppressed or marginalized group does not magically make somebody a social activist. Sometimes a person from a group is just a person trying to live their life. Their involvement or lack of involvement in the rights-oriented work for that group is intrinsically separate from the pursuits of their own individual life goals, interests, and choices, although the focus of social justice work is to afford rights and liberties to all persons whether they are engaged in that work themselves or not. Social justice work is NOT merely about education, nor is it limited in scope to affording rights to those who have fought for them: that isn’t how rights work. There are ways to support activism without claiming to be an activist, and not everyone who claims to be an activist (or is described that way by those who are dragging society’s heels on social justice change oriented work) is indeed an actual activist. (This is where the term “armchair activist” comes into play, derogatory though it often is.)

Late author of the New Wave Science-Fiction movement, Roger Zelazny, once wrote in a novel that “the universe did not invent justice. Man did. Unfortunately, man must reside in the universe”. While I find the atheist quality of this disagreeable in essence, it is nevertheless an important statement about the nature of social justice work in a society. It is the responsibility of societies to find within themselves the means to navigate these issues of justice and rights and move ever forward.

Society — in the most intrinsic and primal sense — is humankind’s answer to the question of survivability through the dark of night, when monsters loom and freezing cold snaps toothy maw at exposed and soft skin. Society began around the fire-pits, where our ancestors harnessed progress — perhaps stolen for them by one divine agent from other divine agencies — for the first time, and in this way, answered the call of survival… together. And so the first steps forward begin, for fire burns as equally as it warms and illuminates, and so those who would benefit from its life-saving properties needed to abide certain normative guidelines in order to ensure the continued safety of all the others in their band, wrapped as they were around those stone-circled embers.

And so we stand today, wrapped as we are around the stone-circled cities and road-circled countrysides and a digital data circled globe forever changed by the instant connection which acknowledges no distance as too great: we must abide the basic tenets of hospitality and human rights, or else we wield the fires of survivability not for the betterment of our band but as weapon and brand to mark harm and cast out, a violation which will only ever be met with one staggering response: burning revolution, which sends those circled stones to the air against the walls of ignorance that kept some in power over others.

P.S. Some of you may wonder how any of this relates to Polytheist religious considerations. As I’ve stated, and written, I like to be clear that the work to restore polytheistic religious practices, theologies, communities, and pious praises for the gods — in one’s own tradition and in/for others! — is social justice work. Religious minorities are a marginalized group, and the rights, freedoms, liberties and progressions of religious developments are absolutely social justice oriented, and are even included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as authored by the United Nations. Often today “social progress” is considered a secular pursuit only, and so religious considerations are cast out from it, as “religion” is synonymized erroneously with abusive power structures of the mainstream “big” religions. Discussions rarely consider marginalized or minority religious demographics, and further, religious beliefs and practices are far-too-quickly turned on as being agents of conservative anti-progress, backward superstition, or literally described as devolved dalliances detrimental to social change… as that social justice only has room for clean-cut well-groomed secularly acceptable ultra-modern facets and groups and identities and modes of living. It is not progressive or an expression of social justice to “write out” a group’s freedoms or rights based on popular prejudice against them, and so, religious minorities — as with all oppressed and suppressed demographics and expressions of being — must have amongst them visible voices of social justice, and allies (within and without) to support their continued survival in a society that would pretty clearly see them erased.

Demands for “education” justification are a form of erasure and silencing, whether this is done to a group for its religious identity, racial identity, sexual identity, gender identity, etc. Do not erase people, groups, or rights, and then try to call that progressive. Do not attempt to offer your demands for education as proof of your willingness to consider social justice; social justice and the distribution of universal rights are not a thing you should have t consider, without at least acknowledging that this very statement is proof of prejudice. At least have the decency to admit that you’re a cultural supremacist and that you clearly believe yourself to have the superior way of being and believe yourself the appropriate choice for making decisions on behalf of “those people”, whosoever they may be in any given topic. You fuck.

In other words? Part of my work is the social justice of religious rights and freedoms for polytheistic pursuits — because as Markos Gage has pointed out to us, it’s hard to even use the names of our gods freely today — and so I am a social justice worker in addition to a devoted Polytheist, working as an ally to various important issues and furthering the work of my own focus and specialized area. Understanding what social justice is, and what marginalization, privilege, oppression, entitlement, alliance, and true education are… is essential to the task of pushing our societies forward toward progressive change that allows for the rights of our religious traditions, lineages, and practices, alongside the rights and liberties of all those who are oppressed and marginalized and erased and actively harmed or even killed by the complacent powers-that-be — the masses — based on their skin color, ethnicity, social class, income level, sexual preferences, gender identities, mental health status, cognitive processing styles, culture backgrounds, national affiliations or religious identities and practices.

However, as I have pointed out above: just because a person is involved with or identified as a member of a marginalized or oppressed group — for example, based on race, religious identity, or sexual preferences — does not automatically mean that they are a social justice activist. Being a Polytheist does not mean that you are also an activist or a social justice worker or an anti-capitalist, as has been directly stated or suggested elsewhere: this is an IMPORTANT distinction. Social justice never removes or bypasses the legitimacy of agency and consent, which such automatic and unilateral identifications — almost entirely applied from the outside — would entail. In short? I am not saying that polytheism is social justice work, or that all Polytheists are involved or must be involved in activism, only that the cause of social justice work specific to the needs and rights of polytheistic religions are benefitted by the involvement of those who are, and similarly, that there is a natural alliance and solidarity to be found between different demographics of oppressed or marginalized groups, within social justice consideration and true progress.

  1. Thank you for this…I was just talking with Crystal Blanton about this on Sunday, and also with one of my work colleagues a week or two ago…

    I am writing from the Salt Lake City airport, about to return home from the World Parliament of Religions. I have some stories to tell you about how utterly disrespected polytheists were/are at that event, which involved violation of some of my gessi in the end, for which I’m still ritually impure at present, and which mean that I am going to be repudiating the organization as a whole in the near future. I plan to write about the things that went well first, though, which was pretty much anything and everything involving indigenous/First Nations people, that without exception were instructive, important, and valuable, and it is for all of that which I’m most glad that I was able to attend. But, for Antinous and His servant, it was a total loss…and for polytheists generally? I don’t know, but there was some very active and deliberate marginalization going on in several instances (possibly due to the questions of gender and sexuality I was also raising), and given that there are more Pagan representatives on the Parliament board than several other religions (including Buddhism), I find this even more problematic.

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