Or, an incomplete list of responses I get when I talk about the things I care about.
“Yeah, well, what did you expect?”
That’s an easy one to answer. I expect better.
“So what, are you surprised?”
I’m not surprised. I’m angry. Those are not the same emotion.
Often people seem to think that just because you “should have” expected something, you no longer have the right to be upset about it. This is false. First of all, guess what–people get to feel however they feel about things. Second, the fact that this is “just how the world is” does not–and should not–mean that we shouldn’t care anymore.
In fact, if something unjust happens so often that you think I don’t have the right to be surprised about it, doesn’t that make it much worse than a random, one-off act of injustice?
“You’ll never change that anyway.”
Man, people have said that to literally every activist, every group, every cause that’s ever existed.
Sure, some failed. But most of those have simply not succeeded yet.
Besides, when I’m old and my kids and grandkids ask me what I liked to do when I was young, I’d like to say that I did something other than make money, go to the gym, and go out drinking sometimes. I hope I’ll be equally proud of the failures as I am of the successes, because as disappointing as it is to fail–as an activist or as anything else–trying really is better than sitting on your ass.
“But that’s just human nature.”
People often say that social justice isn’t worthwhile because it’s “human nature” to create unjust institutions and societies. Humans are naturally biased, they are naturally tribalistic and selfish, and so on.
I’m not sure I agree that “human nature” can be defined, but even starting from that premise, I don’t see how it leads logically to “social justice is a waste of time.” Even if humans are “naturally” one way, wouldn’t it be interesting to see if we can shape our natures and societies into something different?
After all, it’s “natural” for rivers to occasionally flood, but we build levees. It’s “natural” for humans to have disputes that they need to resolve, but we have a court system to help them do that. It’s “natural” for fires to sometimes happen, but we have firefighters to help put them out. It’s “natural” for some climates to be inhospitable to humans, so we use technology to make it easier for people to live there. It’s “natural” for people to get sick, sometimes fatally, but we have doctors, surgeons, vaccines, antibiotics, painkillers, MRIs, and all sorts of ridiculously high-tech stuff I’ve never even heard of to help diagnose and treat them so that they can live longer and feel better.
There isn’t a single other domain of human life and society in which we’ve decided to just throw our hands up and let what is “natural” control our lives. So even if sexism, racism, and other forms of bigotry are “natural”—which is, again, a premise I do not accept—I don’t see a reason to let that stop us from finding ways to eradicate or circumvent them.
“You’re just gonna make yourself miserable!”
This is a red herring. If these people really cared about my mental health–or knew anything about it–they’d listen to me when I say that what really makes me miserable is doing nothing to work on the issues I care about. How do I know? Experience.
I think we all sometimes have difficulty imagining how or why someone would hate the things we love or love the things we hate, but people are different. I cannot imagine a life in which I find activism boring or depressing, and I’m sure some people can’t imagine a life in which they find it inspiring, meaningful, and fun. But if you’re one of those people, you’ll just have to trust us when we say that caring about things doesn’t make us miserable. It makes our lives worth living.
Disregarding that, though, I’m not sure why it’s anyone’s business whether or not activism makes me miserable (unless they’re someone who’s actually close to me, in which case they’d know that it doesn’t). Plenty of people are sometimes miserable because of what they do, and as long as they knowingly and willingly chose that path, I don’t see a problem with it. It’s when people have no choice but to be miserable that I see a problem.
“Why are you making such a big deal about it? X Issue is more important.”
It seems to be a common misconception that if someone’s advocating about a particular issue, it means that they think that that issue is The Most Important Issue Of Our Time or whatever. Actually, no. For instance, you might be surprised to know that I don’t consider gender inequality to be The Most Important Issue Of Our Time, and I don’t think mental illness is it, either. If I had to choose, I’d choose environmental degradation and climate change.
But I don’t advocate on those issues because, frankly, I’d be shit at it. I don’t have the educational background for it, and I can’t get it because I’m spending my time studying what I need to for my career. More importantly, I just don’t have the passion for it. I care, to be sure, but I’m not that interested in the specifics of biology, chemistry, and physics involved, and I can no more force myself to be more interested in them than I can force myself to lose my passion for psychology and sociology. Why do I have this set of interests and not that one? Hell if I know. But I do know that I’ll be the most effective activist in the areas for which I have the most passion. I do a lot of activism around social issues primarily because I’m intensely curious and perceptive about the way elements of societies and cultures fit together and produce our lived experiences.
I’m sure there are activists who do think that their niche is the only one that matters, just as there are probably those mythical feminists who hate men and those mythical vegans who shove veganism down people’s throats (whatever that means). I don’t think that these people are nearly prevalent or influential enough to generalize from.
So, I don’t really care which issues are more important and which are less, not that there’s any objective way to tell, anyway. I’m going to do whatever I’m most suited for based on my skills and interests, and I know that there are bright and passionate activists working on the causes that I can’t work on myself.
“You’re just looking for things to be upset about.”
I can see why people might think this way. The more privilege you have on various axes, the less injustice plays a role in your daily life. (Or, perhaps, injustice plays a huge role in your life but you don’t realize it because you’ve been taught to blame yourself.) In that case, for you to see injustice in the world really does require going out looking for it.
But for many people, it doesn’t. A person of color need only get followed around in a store or stopped by the cops for spurious reasons or avoided by passerby on the street to witness racism at work. A trans* person need only get yelled at or attacked for using the “wrong” bathroom. A woman need only find that her insurance plan won’t cover birth control while male reproductive needs get covered. Do any of these people really have to “look” for things to be upset about?
Besides, so what if we are?
Telling an activist that they’re “just looking” for things that are broken in society is like telling a computer security specialist that they’re “just looking” for vulnerabilities in a piece of software, or telling an editor that they’re “just looking” for writing errors, or telling a surgeon that they’re “just looking” for tumors. Of course they are! Looking for them is how you fix them.
But so great is the bias toward “looking on the bright side” and being “positive” that people pressure each other to avoid the sometimes-unpleasant but absolutely vital process of exposing the ways in which we fail each other and finding ways to fix those failures.
Ultimately, these responses, this shit people say to people who care about shit, are all really ways of saying the same thing: “I don’t care.” “Yes, but I don’t care.” “Ok, maybe that’s a problem, but I don’t care.” “I don’t know enough about this to really have an opinion, but I don’t care.” “You can’t change this anyway, so I don’t care.” “This is too hard to change, so I don’t care.” “You have compelling arguments, but I don’t care.”
I actually wish people were more willing to come right out and admit that they don’t care, because then they can put it either of two ways: “I don’t care; can you explain to me why I should?”, or “I don’t care, so you might as well stop wasting time talking to me.”
I can work with one of those.