The Elephant in Every Socially-Just Room

For the past year, I’ve been in conversation with folks about what I’ve been calling the “Social Justice Dogma.” I’ve written about it here (read all), tried to interview people about it for a podcast, and I’ve been having lots and lots of phone calls with social justice educators.

In literally every case, when I’d start a conversation about Social Justice Dogma (SJD), the person I was talking with recognized the phenomenon, without me needing to explain what I meant —  even if they’d never heard the phrase “social justice dogma.”

They’d reply with something like, “Oh, I know what you’re talking about,” or “Oh yeah, that’s a big thing in my circle.”

Then we’d get into some particular tenet that they were struggling with. Or talk through a recent current event, using the dogma as the lens.

And the conversations generally ended the same, with them saying something like “I’m happy you’re talking about this” or “This conversation is needed” or “I’m looking forward to seeing more on this.”

But then the conversation ended.

Not just between us, but for that person in general.

They didn’t take it back to their community. They didn’t incorporate it in their workshops, or writing, or speaking, or organizing, or the other ways they were doing social justice.

Some have reported back to me that they’ve had other 1:1 chats with people about it. Others have told me they’re planning on starting to talk about it more openly in their work at some point in the future. But that’s about it.

And look: I’m not blaming anyone for that.

I absolutely, 100%, with-so-much-empathy-and-compassion understand why people aren’t talking openly about SJD stuff.

To name just a few reasons: it’s not fun, it’s not well-received, it makes you a target, it’s isolating, and if social justice is in any way connected to your work, it’s potentially career-ending.

To name a few more: it brings about more questions than answers, it highlights potential negative actions of fellow social justice people in your community, it makes you unsure of what positive steps are available, and it leads to a lot of discomfort.

I could go on, but I won’t. How do I know so many reasons? I’ve experienced most of them first-hand.

And, with all that said, unless we start talking about harmful dogmatic tendencies within our communities, things aren’t going to get better on this front. They’re likely to get worse.

There is some good news.

A lot of the tenets of Social Justice Dogma are susceptible to the “name it to tame it” effect.

Just by surfacing the subject, naming it specifically and explaining how it shows up, people can see how it’s influencing them, ways it might not be helpful, and what they can do instead.

For example, readers have told me that identifying the “only true believers welcome” tenet has helped them confront and move beyond it in their local movement building.

With those tenets, I feel comfortable writing about them, here or elsewhere, knowing that presenting the idea isn’t likely to create more harm than healing.

But there is also some bad news: that’s not true for everything.

There are a lot of ideas, or pushes, or trends, or dictates that seem to be wrapped up in SJD-ness, that I’m afraid to write about. Not (just) because of all those reasons not to above, but because I don’t know how to create a container where discussing them, and processing through them, can result in more healing than harm.

Not everything is tamed by naming, but fueled by it. Like Voldemort.

If you’re not just a fan of the idea of social justice, but someone who’s actively working toward some form or fashion of it, these conversations have to be part of that work:

We need to start having public, open conversations about things being done in the name of social justice, that we’re concerned might actually be obstructing progress toward that goal.

Because here’s the thing: the people in your community are noticing this stuff — just like people in the broader social justice movement, and the “anti”-social justice community are. 

What specific elephants are popping up in your world are going to be different based on the day, what’s happening in the news/culture/zeitgeist, and what specific area of social injustice you’re focused on. But they’re there. Your community absolutely has some elephants.

I’ll give you a few examples of elephants I keep noticing and hearing about, that I don’t think can be named to tame.

Following are a few that I’ve been unable to create a container for. Elephants I’ve written drafts about, or talked with a lot of people about 1:1, but been unwilling to publish anything substantial on, because I don’t know how to work through them in ways that lead to more healing than harm.

These might be some elephants you, in your communities, can work through:

  • Social justice as a literal reverse of social injustice, with all the same power dynamics in place, but the positions/rules/identities reversed, like a light switch.
  • Rules about the people we, in the name of social justice (or as socially-just-minded people), are allowed to associate with, have empathy for, and seek understanding of — based on their identities, past actions, opinions/beliefs, or etc.
  • The idea that anyone questioning a particular social justice strategy — whether or not it’s working, or suggesting different ways to accomplish the goal — is against social justice, and therefore a bigot/-phobe.
  • Encouraging elitism, celebrity, and other hierarchical power relationships as a mode of social justice.
  • Intersectional social justice that doesn’t incorporate class, wealth, income, and/or socioeconomic status.

If you understand what I’m getting at with any of those blurbs, then you get it. No need to ask. You’ve met that elephant.

If you don’t, then it’s probably not a species indigenous to your sub-community within the movement, or in the type of work you’re doing. No need to worry about it. You have other elephants.

The particular aspect of the dogma doesn’t matter; what matters is that we start talking about whatever is showing up, whatever rules and beliefs we’re creating and reinforcing, that might be getting in our own way.

I’m going to be working on finding a container to talk about all of these elephants, and to continue nudging this conversation forward in general.

I hope you’ll — in the next days, months, and year — start creating space for conversations about aspects of Social Justice Dogma (or whatever you want to call it — whatever resonates with you) that are showing up in your communities.

I hope you’ll let me know if there are ways that I can help, if there’s support you need.

I hope you’ll take this leap with me.


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About the Author

Sam Killermann Self Portrait

Hi! I'm Sam Killermann. I'm the author of A Guide to Gender: The Social Justice Advocate's Handbook, and I was featured in Katie Couric's NatGeo documentary "Gender Revolution". I created It's Pronounced Metrosexual in 2011. I write everything here and doodle the doodles myself. Bonus: everything I create is uncopyrighted and freely accessible — I even coded (& open-sourced) this site itself, my gift to you. Read More →

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