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.