Sometimes social justice is about staying silent

I’ve been thinking about the kinds of things I get asked to write, and am expected to write. There’s a particular matter I’ve been asked to comment upon for FWD/Forward a number of times, because it concerns a particular intersection of disability and something else of which only I and one other member of the team have experience. It’s a very important issue, but I just cannot stomach writing about it. Thinking about it sends me into a panic, so I am being very gentle with myself in writing what I am writing to you now. There’s no way the people who have asked for writing on this matter could have known just how much this is a no-go zone for me; I’m definitely not trying to inspire guilt here! What I want to make you all aware of is a wider phenomenon that these instances have represented for me.

Okay. Deep breath because I’m still a bit panicked from thinking about that. Taking care of myself, taking a break, and coming back when I feel better.

Okay. I’m bothered by the idea that one has to comment on certain things, or a certain range of things, in order to be a good person or to be doing social justice writing properly. Sometimes there are gaps that need to be resolved, and sometimes this is a big problem, but there are other factors at play here. And I especially don’t like this when it requires parts of us – experiences or identities – to be put out there for the examination and edification of an audience. That’s just not right.

One of the many, many reasons I don’t like prescriptivism in this instance is how it requires certain bits of who social justice writers are to be put on display. Lay out your pain so we can all gawk, so we can all learn to become better people. But just like I don’t care to be the amazing mythical non-white person whose culture you can interrogate me about, or the brave little disabled lady who you wouldn’t want to be, or the charming teenager who is so much more articulate than all those other young people, I’m not here to tear myself apart in the name of social justice.

So while I feel bad that this particular matter doesn’t get covered in the spaces in which I write as much as it deserves to be, I – I won’t speak for the other person at FWD who shares this with me – know that I am doing the right thing by at least one person who has a history with it. Requiring myself to go through that kind of pain to put on a display of doing the right thing would be a terrible thing to do to myself.

I think the most important thing to keep in mind when reflecting on social justice work, whatever kind of work it is, is not whether someone or a group ticked all the boxes, but what’s actually been contributed. Sometimes that contribution isn’t work rendered unto the world at large, or a community, or a blog. Sometimes it’s focussing on what’s going on for a marginalised individual, and that marginalised individual acting on what they can do to heal themself, make themself feel okay. Sometimes exposing yourself to the world is harmful, and I don’t think it’s kind to demand that someone choose between their wellbeing and fulfilling someone else’s idea of social justice. And, as in my case, it’s not always easy to tell what those hurtful places are in advance.

The most healing thing, the best thing to do in the name of justice, can be letting yourself be still. Sometimes social justice is about staying silent.

8 thoughts on “Sometimes social justice is about staying silent

  1. I agree Chally. Trying to fulfill the idea of what others think of as social justice is just impossible. Sometimes the best one can do is to do tiny things either for oneself (v. imp!) or others. These things are under the radar but still critical to moving oneself forward.

  2. I really appreciate this and agree wholeheartedly.

    I do feel pressure to lay a lot of painful stuff out for people to look at because it does good. There is a certain kind of pressure at work there, and I think of it as a positive pressure, sure, but it’s still stressful, and it’s still hard, and sometimes I just can’t.

    For me personally however, even more than discussing it as an outside pressure, there’s the element of it that is internal, the pressure I place on myself. To talk about things, to share, to help, to reach out, to do hard things, to have the same discussions over and over, to put up with people saying hurtful and obnoxious things when they don’t know better, and worse, when they do.

    I spend a lot more time reminding myself that I don’t need to do this all day every day at full throttle than I do reminding other people of my non-obligation to do whatever it is they wish I was doing.

    I (personally, I am not disagreeing with you in any way, just in case any of this could be interpreted that way) don’t feel that I’m being asked by others to tear myself apart and scatter the pieces around. I feel like they want and sometimes need to understand what I am sharing when I do that, but that they wouldn’t necessarily want me to cause myself harm or pain to do it. Which leaves me primarily with my own desire to help, to use my voice, which I must balance with the energy required to repair myself after I spill my guts.

    Done properly, I come out of those episodes stronger. It can be amazing and healing. Done at the wrong time, I come out with more wounds. Sometimes that’s worth the helping others, and sometimes it’s better to wait for another time, or to seek out someone else talking about those issues and directing people there instead of trying to do it myself.

    Right now, and for the past few months, I’ve been contemplating doing something extremely difficult, because I really think it needs to be done and that the information needs to be out there. What I’m considering is going back and pulling a bunch of entries from my handwritten private journals from back when I was having major problems with disordered eating and harmful behavior, and from the time just before, during, and after the mental collapse that precipitated my diagnosis as bipolar.

    For various reasons, I truly think this stuff needs to be out there.

    And I haven’t done it yet, because even though I am in a much better place, doing the legwork of choosing and transcribing those entries is brutal. I don’t think I could handle putting it out there for everyone to look at and comment on just yet. I hope that one day I can, but I have to recognize that this is not that day. And that’s completely all right.

    Sometimes the most important work I have to do is caring for myself.

  3. Thank you so much for writing this post!

    I flip flop between being okay with not being the kind of person who can put myself out there, especially when it comes to the nitty gritty of my disabilities. However, I admire and appreciate those who can so that their are voices out there speaking for the various disabled communities. Thanks for reminding me that I can stop beating myself up for not wanting to put myself on display.

  4. I agree completely! I wish I’d realized the things you write about sooner.

    A few years back, I used to do non-profit work with teens and whenever we discussed sexuality or mental health in groups, I would gladly use myself as an example. I answered lots of 101-type questions, because, well, somebody’s gotta answer them, right?

    Now I feel just endlessly tired and anti-social. If I never have to answer “Why did you get depressed?” again, it’ll be too soon. But, well, at least I’m not the only one with this problem.

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