An Open Letter to a Broken Community on Art, Language, and Social Justice Culture
“What cannot be said above all must not be silenced but written.”
“Censorship is to art as lynching is to justice.”
-Henry Louis Gates Jr.
I consider myself an activist for social justice and believe that most progressive and engaged people are working toward the same goals. But there is a disturbing trend toward authoritarianism among some calling themselves social justice activists which plants them squarely on the problem side of the equation rather than the solution. It’s important to distinguish this strain of social justice culture from actual pursuits for social justice because the philosophy it espouses and the methodology being utilized is antithetical to the open, free, inclusive society real social justice activists seek to create.
In my hometown of Omaha, two artists I know and respect, Orenda Fink and Noah Sterba, have very recently been the targets of some very public and very personal “calling-out” campaigns. In both incidents, a perceived slight found in a work of art (in Fink’s case, an accusation of cultural appropriation; in Sterba’s, the literary employment of a racial slur) was intentionally taken out of its context by an activist who called on other SJAs in their social media friend groups to spread the news quickly and stop a “racist” artist. In both incidents, the offending artists were simultaneously tried, convicted, and sentenced in public. Any attempt at conversation, dialogue or defense offered in the online theater proved to be a trap only a fool would enter willingly as it invariably led to a further barrage of vitriol and public shaming of the artists. Ironically and unfortunately, many marginalized individuals who felt hurt or offended by either artwork were also not able to communicate their feelings or share in a discussion. The unsavory tactics of the activists who insisted on attacking the artists silenced their voices, too.
The first attack happened to Orenda, who co-wrote and took part in an ensemble women’s performance under the name Harouki Zombi. The performance attempted to address issues of the oppression of women across cultures and over time by including costumes which were a combination of geisha and Victorian cultures--two iconic representations of stringent dress and moral codes for women. In addition to kimonos, Victorian corsets, dress trains and bustles, they wore a skewed interpretation of geisha/Victorian makeup (Victorian white face, rouge, and its characteristic red heart-shaped lips is nearly identical in style to geisha). The ensemble included women of Asian descent as well as white performers. While the music itself was not overtly political, political undertones were obvious as the performers began the evening in the aforementioned restrictive garb and then cast it off symbolically during the performance.
Whatever feminist intentions to reference women’s suffering (and celebrate women’s strength) across the centuries were eclipsed by accusations of cultural appropriation for the use of kimonos and “yellow face” in this art piece. Orenda, the most well-known of the participants, is a noted liberal in our community who has used her voice and her art to raise money and spread awareness for many non-profits and liberal causes. She was the focus of online wrath because she did not respond and apologize expeditiously. The other performers with Facebook accounts apologized quickly after being publicly shamed so forcefully that I assume it was the only way they saw to make the punishment stop. Orenda was called a lot of hateful things in many creative ways, the majority of which boiled down to her being a despicable racist, an accusation repeated over and over.
An open dialogue about what exactly constitutes cultural appropriation (since there isn’t consensus on that nuanced issue) could have been embraced. Some say that it’s a nebulous concept at best since very little in any culture is 100% original, but, rather the result of cumulative borrowing and creative reinvention. SJAs stated simply that anything that a person of color deems cultural appropriation must be respected as such. There was no discussion about which people of color get to decide what’s offensive, the ones performing on the stage or the ones in the audience, or whether an activist or an individual PoC having decided a piece of art is offensive should make it (or its creators) an open target for censorship and character assassination. There was no discussion about whether the positive impact for women (this was a group of women making a feminist statement, after all) may have outweighed the negative impact on PoC or vice versa. And it was certainly not questioned whether or not Facebook was an appropriate venue to try and have a meaningful discussion or a public trial about these issues in the first place. A very complex issue was turned into a black and white one by certain activists and that shut out both the voices of marginalized individuals as well as the artists in question and prevented either side from contextualizing the works.
Revisiting the Facebook comments, one can see the hateful rhetoric displayed in the same inflammatory language which brought so much attention to the far-right supporters of Donald Trump during the election year. For example:
“@OrendaC.Fink IS A RACIST!!!!!
"she must be stopped”
Are these the progressives that our community feels righteous standing alongside? Is this what you call fighting the good fight? Orenda capitulated and issued a broad apology when trying to contain the venom and contextualizing the performance fell on deaf ears. I’m reminded of the coerced confessions extracted from people during long police interrogations. If you repeat over and over the same few codified phrases about someone’s guilt or complicity, they either start to believe it’s true or they simply say whatever you want to hear to make you stop. So, I don’t blame anyone for apologizing during these public shame events; the pressure is incredible, but I do blame those doing the public shaming. Not surprisingly, even though Orenda and the other artists accepted the SJAs terms and apologized, it didn’t change anything about how she was regarded by this community. Her name was brought up again as “Yellow Faced Orenda” and “despicable Orenda” and the same hateful language flowed her way for another round of public shaming when Noah got caught in the moral crosshairs of the same activists a couple of months later.
Noah wrote a poem called The Dark American Rodeo (2017), an optimistic love song about our American culture and our shared humanity. Sterba attempted to de-fang and dismiss the use of hurtful slurs that still exist in our culture by listing them and imploring everyone to face them and reject the thinking behind them. The poem’s prescription is to get to know people, talk about things, see beyond these categories and stereotypes to our essence. A naive fantasy? Evidently so. A social justice activist isolated two lines (out of 146) with the six slurs and posted them disembodied from the work, suggesting it represented the entire piece, thus making it appear like the most heinous thing ever written. It did not matter that Noah, too, is disgusted by the actual use of these words and sees them as anathema to everything America pretends to be, and that he disavows the slurs within the poem. The words were decontextualized and the conclusion was that he is a racist, a white supremacist even. “Othered” by these activists, Noah became the embodiment of white patriarchy as he was referred to as “White man” in posts, just as Orenda was “yellow faced Orenda.” Issues were not being discussed, Sterba was attacked personally and dehumanized by a mob. I shouldn’t have to remind people that othering is a tactic of oppressive regimes to make it possible to do real harm to individuals with a clear conscience. It’s a method which invalidates and dishonors all who participate and is definitely not a trait you’d associate with anyone who claims to care about social justice.
What’s more, it was not enough to attack Noah personally. The online crusaders also went after The Union for Contemporary Art, a non-profit organization which had provided him with an artist fellowship. They pressured a beloved institution and tireless defender of artistic expression, which does a tremendous amount of work in the African American, immigrant, and LGBTQ communities throughout the city, into apologizing for an artist’s work, as if the proper role of an arts organization is to monitor and review art for content, not provide an open environment for the free exploration and discussion of ideas. Activists also threatened to boycott the Reverb Lounge, who merely provided a venue for Sterba’s music to be performed. Activists suggested that the music venue should read through all the words of all the performers it provides a stage for to make sure all ideas are non-harming. Is this the kind of society we want to live in? Where art must pass inspection and be deemed approved by censors before it can be displayed or performed? I shouldn’t have to remind people that forcing art to pass committee inspection on political or moral grounds before the public can experience it is another characteristic of oppressive, fascist regimes.
I’d like to think that most people still prefer that we have freedom of speech and recognize how essential it is to a democratic society. It is one thing to choose to dismiss an artist who has made art you find offensive, it’s another thing entirely to try and silence the art by making the artist a pariah, by exerting pressure on institutions affiliated with the artist so that they have to either disown the artist or suffer the same level of public shaming and protest, perhaps even lose the financial support they depend on to fulfill their community programming. There are many ways to censor speech you don’t like. You can pass laws against it, sure, but targeted pressure by a special interest group is much easier and more effective. Those arguing on Facebook that it’s not censorship to “hold an artist accountable for the impact their art has on others” are not in agreement with how the ACLU defines it:
“Censorship, the suppression of words, images, or ideas that are "offensive," happens whenever some people succeed in imposing their personal political or moral values on others. Censorship can be carried out by the government as well as private pressure groups” (ACLU, 2017).
This particular perversion of social justice activism in question is no different from the religious groups who objected to the sexuality found in Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, for example, and exerted pressure to have that book removed from libraries. The only difference is that what this pressure group finds morally offensive is not sexual. We read about these banned books all the time, and usually it’s moral crusaders on the Right doing the banning. But when an ostensibly “progressive” group goes after words and ideas it finds offensive, there’s no difference. One very important reason we should never suppress art or target artists with our political or moral values is that when you attempt to challenge freedom of expression in any particular work of art, you admit that the same rationale and tactic can be used to suppress the ideas you prefer to see being promoted in other works of art. All that needs to happen is for the winds to change and then it will be your ideas which are fair game for censorship and your character under attack for defending those ideas.
Historically, the Left’s solution to art we don’t appreciate has been to promote art that offers a challenging idea rather than to suppress anything. I never wanted to listen to the racist songs that the white nationalist punk band Skrewdriver created, but censoring their music didn’t make sense to me either. My own political philosophy was shaped by alternate views discovered in the music of The Dead Kennedys, Gang of Four, Fugazi, The Minutemen, and others when I first got into punk rock as a teenager, along with the politically charged music of Nina Simone, Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan, and Woody Guthrie in other genres. When I fell in love with jazz music, especially the Free Jazz movement of the 60’s/70’s, my musical education led to further valuable history lessons. I discovered the soundtrack to all the pain and betrayal and anger and hope of the Civil Rights fight and the alternate reality of the black person’s experience in America. This is how you deal with bad ideas, by putting your alternate views out there and letting them resonate and change how people think about things. If you agree that it’s okay to suppress the “bad” ideas, what happens when the zeitgeist decides your progressive ideas are now the “unacceptable” ones? We can already see an effort on the far Right to depict Black Lives Matter, Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and other progressive groups as terrorist organizations. It isn’t a stretch to imagine the winds changing sooner than later, in fact, and we won’t want an erosion of the First Amendment when that happens.
Fortunately, the majority of people on the Left and the Right still believe in freedom of speech. As Noam Chomsky reminds us, “Goebbels was in favor of free speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you’re really in favor of free speech, then you’re in favor of freedom of speech for precisely the views you despise. Otherwise, you’re not in favor of free speech.” And please keep in mind that the artists I’m discussing are actually on the same general side as their attackers. Their personal beliefs on race are very similar to those of the SJAs who attacked them and the attackers knew that and attacked them anyway. It was a perceived aggression found in their artwork which made them targets so it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that what this group really seeks is conformity to their particularly rigid views, not more allies in a noble quest for a more inclusive society. It’s chilling that these particular activists’ short term goals for identity politics victories undermine the fundamental principle of freedom of speech which makes true social justice possible.
Brigitte McQueen, the executive director of The Union, responded to the uproar over Noah’s poem on the Union’s Facebook page with a powerful stance for freedom of speech in the arts which brought tears to my eyes:
“We believe that the arts are a sacred form of expression… that they have the power to unite people and drive them apart, to insight anger and fuel honest, frank conversations about the world we live in and the experiences we share and don't share.
We would encourage anyone to read the full text of current Union Fellow, Noah Sterba’s piece before forming an opinion on its message. To that end, if Mr. Sterba’s work made you feel something powerful – whether that reaction be a positive or negative one – we would also encourage anyone to seek him out for an open discussion about its meaning and effects” (The Union for Contemporary Art, 2017a).
Unfortunately, by the end of the same day, the pressure on the Union was apparently so great that the organization felt it had to reverse its executive director’s position. Staff and board issued a separate statement on the organization’s Facebook page apologizing for having a role in the art that was made on its property. Furthermore, they announced the creation of new guidelines and expectations for all future artists associated with the Union (The Union for Contemporary Art, 2017b). It was the second time in twelve hours that a statement from the Union brought tears to my eyes. I would expect the staff and board of an arts organization to understand the dangerous precedent of allowing speech to be suppressed and resist the public pressure to do so, on principle. I would also expect other artists (even those who found the words offensive), to defend the Union and Noah on principle. Artists should be much more disturbed by the idea of moral crusaders dictating what art is allowed to do than with one artist’s choice to use offensive language to make a broader point in one poem. Allowing a pressure group with a moral agenda to dictate these terms can lead to the death of art itself. Allowing one artist to make a word choice you disagree with only leads to the success or failure of one work of art for you personally.
No one on these volatile threads seemed alarmed by the way in which they received their information about this poem, pre-packaged and editorialized for them. By the time someone posted the whole poem, Noah had already been tried and convicted in absentia (he’s fortunate to not have a Facebook account). Granted, it’s pretty long. The offending six words don’t appear until the 128th line of a 146 line poem. That means there are 127 lines of context before the two lines with offensive language and 17 more lines of additional context after. Condemning someone, falsely accusing them of being a racist of all things (or tacitly supporting others doing the accusing) without even reading the work in question is not an effective way to convince anyone that you are thoughtful or informed. Before I start discussing the poem in depth, I urge you to take a break from this essay, and read the full poem here .
To illustrate how much context matters, consider the following passage from Sterba’s poem:
“For those terrified of the young
Terrified of anything they don’t understand
Terrified to not know
Terrified to walk out the front door
And for those beautiful and outcasted ones who jump off cliffs into
The unknown every single chance they get
This is for everyone that is you
And everyone that is me
And for anyone who looks with wonder at everything
And sees everything is everyone”
“For anyone who looks with wonder at everything and sees everything is everyone?” That may not be what you’d expect to get from this if you just read one commenter’s post, “fuck this and everyone who thought it was ok to play an instrument behind it tonight at reverb lounge.” Let’s look further:
“It’s for those who try and structure life
And those who tap dance with chaos
It’s for every itch of sadness proving that you are alive
For those days when beauty doesn’t need to be found but just exists
And for those days when all that exists is what will never be found”
“Every itch of sadness proves that I’m alive? Beauty doesn’t need to be found but just exists?” While this sounds more cosmic and existential than political to me, another commenter felt that “... even aside from the fact that this is racist trash, the poem from a technical standpoint is garbage as well.” At least that comment addresses the poem on literary terms. Here’s one last passage to consider:
“For all the lonely planets plagued by insomnia
For all the joy that will never have the chance to weep
For all the answers stranded without questions
And all the certainty without conviction
It’s for life we ask and nothing else
It’s for faith in anything that can keep us afloat as our hearts
Are flooded with grief
It’s for the tears you shed at the loud bombastic sunrise”
“It’s for faith in anything that can keep us afloat as our hearts are flooded with grief,” indeed. If you were only given the two lines near the end with all the bad words and told this is what you need to know about the poem and the author, you’d definitely miss the message of the poem. When read start to finish it’s clear that this is a human being challenging himself and his readers to contemplate ways to behave more humanely and think about things more broadly than he sees happening in America right now. That’s more than I can say of his accusers. Now let’s look at the two lines which were isolated and displayed without any of the context that came before or after:
“This isn’t for the niggers or the faggots or the cunts or the chinks
or the spics or the kikes or the worst of all the white man”
The lines which immediately follow those jarring lines are inextricable and essential to understanding what he’s doing in the poem:
“For all those are nothing more than words
And if we can’t learn to see past them
into the true meaning behind what we are actually saying
then we do not stand a chance”
It’s as if Noah is reminding anyone reading the poem who is as offended by this kind of language as he is that worse than the words used to hurt others are the thoughts and feelings which lead to the use of words like these. The whole poem up to this point is a list of all the struggling humanity that the poem is “for,” and then he takes a stand in this stanza to make it clear who the poem “isn’t for,” namely this list of slurs that are used to dehumanize and separate people. I read the lines to mean that these concepts don’t exist except in our minds (including the minds of those of us who don't say those words). They exist but only as some kind of grotesque Platonic anti-ideals with no relation to real-world people. The reason the poem isn't for them is because they are just ideas. The poem is for actual people. He is explicitly saying there is no room for the ideas behind those words, not in his poem and not in our humanity.
Maybe the poem didn’t work for you but you cannot call Noah a racist for that alone. It is poignant to me that when some unfortunate soul read the whole poem and posted “I like the poem. It definitely achieves its purpose,” that the first reply to this comment was: “You are garbage.” That, in a nutshell, is where we stand, Omaha.
Could it be that context is not only important, it just might be everything when it comes to art and language? That it matters a lot when it comes to understanding what people mean? Isn’t attempting to figure out what people mean a responsibility that goes both ways, regardless of gender or skin color or anything else? I would argue that being “woke” is not a single transformative event like a Christian reborn and saved, that lets you off the hook for everything else so long as you’ve accepted a particular awareness or dogma, but something that requires constant vigilance and maintenance. But how do we make sure that when we urge others to also get woke, it is not a Kafkaesque metamorphosis we have planned for them when they are awoken? If you haven’t read Kafka’s novella, here is my extremely abridged summary of the Metamorphosis:
Gregor Samsa awakes one morning to find he is no longer physically a human being but instead has the body of a large insect. His family and friends proceed to treat him like the hideous, inhuman thing they see before their eyes and are relieved when he dies and they don’t have to think about him any more.
It is one thing to wish for people to become aware of political realities, especially as they apply to social justice causes, but a true program for social justice cannot include dehumanizing those who don’t follow your rules or who disagree with you. And yes, it’s entirely possible to empathize with Samsa (or any marginalized or dehumanized person) and also behave in the same inhumane way as Samsa’s family and friends do in the story to the other Samsas you encounter in your life. That’s where the vigilance and maintenance come in.
The thrust of the social media takedown of Orenda and Noah constituted attacks on the artists, not critiques of their art. The nature of the objections to these artworks was ad hominem and surprisingly vicious, characterized by the now too-familiar qualities of online bullying where a mob piles on and drags the character of a person into the dirt and seems to take pleasure in their character assassination. (But, don’t worry, it’s for a good cause!) That’s apparently the position of the SJAs who participate in this particular strand of political activity. Some of the activists in Omaha even asked followers to support their political “work” by giving money to a posted Venmo account. So, there is now the troubling complication of financial incentive to seek out and expose cultural insensitivities online. We could be experiencing these attacks daily if we give them any credence or social respectability through our silence. The fact that SJAs and their supporters consider themselves liberals advocating for social justice and spend their time attacking other liberals who also advocate for social justice is an irony I am struggling here to wrap my mind around. More frightening to me is the eagerness with which they are willing to target artists and art itself. In the wake of these attacks, we are left to process the damage done by character assassination, apologies made under the gun and dictated by an amorphous special interest group, an endangered non-profit institution forced to disavow an artist they previously supported, hurt feelings, lost friends, and a shocked arts community acutely aware of some kinds of privilege while conveniently ignoring others.
Preaching to your choir on Facebook proved perfectly suited to fuel these raging fires. The SJAs who attacked Orenda and Noah sought third party support in both cases from people who actually believed they were doing the right thing by publicly shaming their own friends. They let political instigators manipulate them into turning on people whose character they already knew in real life and instead of saying, “you’re wrong” or offering any context or dissent, they liked and shared posts by the most vociferous of the activists, most of which was actual incoherent hate speech, reducing the art or artist to the worst thing you could think to accuse either of these people of being.
The echo-chamber of Facebook can certainly make something look like consensus which is usually the opinion of the very few people you are associating with there. So, even though this branch of social justice activism is very small, it wields an inordinate amount of power because of the concentrated narrative it achieves during online attacks. It’s not surprising that belonging to a group that “likes” your posts and pages and comments favorably on your daily observations might add extra pressure to board the Bandwagon rather than compel you to ask for evidence, a whole story, or to think and decide for yourself what constitutes racism before attacking people. And for these activists, there is apparently no awareness of the hypocrisy of their own mantra of “impact trumps intent,” despite participating in activism which does exactly that, creates a devastation which discredits any noble intentions they purport to seek. In The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin cautioned that “Whoever debases others, is debasing himself.” And when Baldwin—whose writing in the 1960s is rarely accused of letting white racists off the hook—said this, he meant anyone. If these SJA tactics are how we seek justice, we will forfeit any moral high ground and alienate desperately needed like-minded progressives in the process. You’ve got to have hearts and minds, you can’t win even a culture war by force alone. The result here in Omaha is a ravaged arts community where no one feels safe, valued, or understood and a level of fear of your own friends and neighbors that reminds this history student of the Red Scare and communist witch hunt of the 1950’s led by Joseph McCarthy and fueled by social police like the John Birch Society.
This new strain of social justice activism divides humanity into two camps, the Victims/Marginalized and the Oppressors/Privileged. If you are in the privileged category, self-reflection is necessary. If you are a marginalized person, there seems to be a view by certain SJAs that your feelings about anything must not be questioned. We must cede authority on any topic to a marginalized person if a disagreement arises on a matter of cultural insensitivity, regardless of the strength of the argument or whether the individual knows what they are talking about. Ignorance, like love, is blind though. No race or gender can claim a monopoly on it. I read recently about activists who objected to the tagline “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave” associated with the film Suffragette, which is about women rebels of England fighting for the right to vote. It is an actual quote by the suffragette, Emmeline Pankhurst, and has nothing to do with Confederate rebels of the Civil War in the United States or with African American slaves in the United States during the Civil War. Activists had the wrong continent, the wrong history, and the wrong usage for two important words: “rebel” and “slave.” Since SJAs and PoC were offended, even though they were offended because of a mistaken assumption, the actors and studio were lambasted for tone-deaf and harmful language and asked to apologize. To defer to the marginalized person’s experience in this case literally meant agreeing that 20th-century English history was in fact 19th-century American history. Identifying with a marginalized group cannot be the criteria for deciding who wins an argument any more than being a privileged white male should have anything to do with who wins an argument. Arguments shouldn’t be won automatically, in fact, they need to be argued first.
While we all feel strongly about things we experience, things are not always as we perceive them. Triggering a strong feeling is in itself a blameless act. If seeing a stained glass window as you walk by a church triggers a memory of being abused by a priest, the window has done nothing to you. Similarly, we are supposed to be reminded of experiences from our lives when we take in art: read books, watch movies, see plays, listen to songs, view dance, etc… That’s basically how art works, it’s suggestive more often than it’s declarative, and we fill in the blanks. Relating something from our life with something we are experiencing through the senses later is a form of empathizing. I assume that’s why most artists resist explaining their art, they know that most of the content is provided by the viewer. Unless you are making art that only you get to see, it’s entirely subjective how it will be received by any particular person at any particular time and point in their life. This is why art you loved or hated at one time in your life can later make you feel another way entirely. It was never black and white. It was always subjective.
Thinking of art in this way, it’s safe to say that every venue where art happens carries an implied “trigger warning.” A safe space was never intended to be a place where you wouldn’t be made to feel unpleasant things, it’s supposed to be a place where you are welcome and included and people won’t be allowed to treat you indecently. In our effort to increase dialogue and include more people, we’ve allowed these good concepts to corrode into narrower, rigidly defined notions which in fact limit dialogue, include fewer people, and hamstring artistic expression. I recently heard of a mutual friend who was so painfully moved by scenes in the film Moonlight that he had to leave the theater mid-film. He said later that the film should have come with a trigger warning. But, the warning was that he chose to go view a work of art. It’s built in. That empathy can happen in any work of art, however anodyne you think it might be. I remember watching “Bambi,” the G-rated Disney film with my kids and having an out of proportion emotional reaction to Bambi’s mother dying, most likely because I brought my own issues of “losing” my mother (she moved to another city when I was in Junior high) to my experience of the film. The lesson being that no art is safe from your empathy! When art is not reflexive, when it fails to trigger empathy, we call it “bad art.”
We should, of course, rely on context and intent to help us understand our feelings and not act on our feelings alone. All of this insistence on respecting and not invalidating feelings suggests to me that this particularly strict movement justifies the abandonment of critical thinking in favor of something oblique and inviolable (i.e. impossible to argue with) because it serves its agenda to make some things not up for debate and some people not welcome in the conversation. It’s easier to extract apologies and score points with your friends if the rules of engagement are exclusionary. Even the performers of Asian descent who participated in the Harouki Zombi performance, for example, were not permitted to defend the use of clothes and makeup as a statement on Victorian and geisha cultures or women’s bondage because all the performers were automatically deemed racist once an activist took offense. If we are to agree that certain people’s feelings are inviolable and critical thinking can’t be used to contextualize an experience, I don’t see any way to view this as anything other than an endorsement of segregation.
Noah’s employment of slurs in his poem The Dark American Rodeo could be defended in the context of the poem except for the fact that in this strain of social justice culture, the words themselves are hurtful, regardless of how they are used. Even though the hateful language was something he was commenting on--not something he was expressing himself--the poem was deemed racist hate speech and the poet himself, also racist. But context is critical here, and banning the use of words in toto is irrational. Take the film In The Heat of the Night, for example, wherein Sidney Poitier plays a Philadelphia police detective opposite Rod Steiger, who is white and playing a racist Mississippi sheriff. The script calls for Steiger to “use” the N-word because he’s playing a racist character. It doesn’t make the actor a racist. It doesn’t make the film racist either. The film’s themes oppose racism. It is a political film and the artists involved from screenwriter to director to the actors, black and white, felt it was important to depict the dark reality of how some people talk and more importantly, feel in this country. The racial conflicts inherent in our society could not have been properly dramatized if they had watered down the language used to oppress and invalidate people.
The same can be said for Twelve Years a Slave and any number of other films, books, plays, paintings, and songs. We shouldn’t confuse the effort to reveal, document, or expose those hateful feelings with the feelings themselves. Not only is the art of In the Heat of the Night non-harming (though it is undoubtedly capable of triggering a painful experience), it makes profound statements about race which it would be unable to make if it were banned from using the racial slur which accurately reflects the language used by actual racists. Feelings are important but we should be very careful not to abandon critical thinking in favor of something we are meant to grow out of, the state of reacting on feelings alone. The whole process of becoming an engaged citizen is to better contextualize our surroundings to make sense of our feelings as we walk through this difficult world. I would argue that art is both the trigger-warning and the safe space we need to do this. That’s what makes it special. That is why I’m writing to urge everyone to work harder to protect it.
I’m also concerned that the only kinds of privilege I see being discussed by SJAs center on race and gender. In this way, a PoC attending an ivy league school can claim to have more in common with the woman who sells homemade tamales out of her pick-up truck in the parking lot by my home in South Omaha than the white male gas station attendant who I see stopping to buy them as he walks home from work. Neither person will be visiting a university campus anytime soon. I’m not suggesting that gender and race are not incredibly important but it is obvious to me that there are other kinds of shared experience which should be considered alongside gender and race for a more complete picture. It would be a particularly fortuitous development for the 1% of this country if the Left abandoned issues of wealth and class to focus solely on divisive identity politics. I am willing to examine my privilege and feel shameful about the history of white patriarchy in a society that continues to devalue and oppress women, LGBTQ and PoC in all its institutions. It’s important that white America does this and fights to change these systems. But I’m also interested in what it means to be a real advocate/ally/accomplice and who are we each allowed to speak on behalf of, even if in many cases they haven’t asked for our advocacy and may feel equally estranged by it.
I’m also wary of doctrines of division which remove people from consideration based solely on gender and race. I suspect there are a few things which some (not all) PoC attending Oberlin have in common with someone like Mark Zuckerberg that they do not share with the PoC I have met in North Omaha and South Omaha. Conspicuous consumption, disposable income, access to higher education, and free time, for example. And while working class people have differences of experience due to white privilege, they also have much to commiserate about which make them natural allies in a country where income inequality is the highest it’s been since 1928 (Pew Research Center, 2013). If the intention really is to figure out ways to move forward with a shared vision of liberation for all and achieve mutual understanding and “unlearn problematic behavior,” it will help us immensely to examine our joint histories as eagerly as our separate ones. All these enforced divisions along identity lines will only keep things exactly as they are, my friends. We will just have more witnesses to our victimhood while the masters of the universe continue to fuel the engines of oppression and line their pockets and deplete the earth in the process as they always have. We are making it much easier for them by dividing so willingly along all the tried and true familiar lines.
This is no time to bring back a new kind of empowered segregation (which most of this militant tribalism sounds like to me) or reproduce colonialist philosophy and punish and rule the oppressor for the next two hundred years to right the scales of the last two hundred years. People on the Left should look for ways to unite because there are real enemies on the other side planning our literal demise while we self-censor and cut each other down to size and insist that disagreements and insensitivities are real harm and real violence. Ask a refugee who has fled machetes or a carpet bombed city if she feels harmed by a white student in dreadlocks or a small business burrito truck owned by white women. It was very likely regimes accustomed to banning things and enforcing strict moral codes that drove her here. Please check your own unspoken privilege that enables you with a clear conscience and a straight face to fixate on minor offenses and turn them into battle cries. In the wake of Charlottesville, where we witnessed real racism, real hate and real violence, it’s an affront which makes it patently obvious you have taken your eye off the ball. How narcissistic we’ve become as a society when we validate the self-righteous rage of people only willing to take a principled stand against the softest targets and usually behind the cloak of social media. Noah’s email address was posted by the Union for Contemporary Art and in his public statement about his poem in an effort to invite productive discussion but he said he only received a few emails, mostly supporters and none hateful, despite scores of people demanding his head online. It’s revealing that nearly every one of the fervent objectors were unwilling to have a discussion with Sterba himself, they were only interested in speaking about him and during a public stoning.
It’s not surprising then that some have concluded that the lip-service some of the activists give about social justice is, in fact, a disingenuous cover for something much less noble, namely the act of taking pleasure in shaming someone. It’s also curious to me that many of the most outspoken SJAs who lead these shame campaigns and feel comfortable speaking on behalf of PoC seem to be white people. While I don’t normally question people’s political motivations, since they are eager to attack and ruin, to falsely accuse friends of white supremacy, I am compelled to ask whether the morally righteous cause of defending marginalized people might be serving as a guise for those seeking various social rewards for spewing this kind of hate. And if so, isn’t that the most demented appropriation of PoC’s experience? Now is the time to better identify the real enemies of social justice. When we attack and condemn like-minded people over minor, perceived offenses, we feed a “boy who cried wolf” type of moral fatigue which will make us too worn down to fight when the real enemies are marching with nazi flags down our streets or trying to pass legislation which oppresses people who count on us for support.
While I think art should absolutely be critiqued and open to criticism via any number of social and political lenses, it shouldn’t be the subject of political activism the way that the actions of government officials and corporations should be the subject of political activism. Art doesn’t legislate reality, it comments on it, and since freedom of speech is one of the fundamental principles of a free society, art needs to be protected like any other speech. We should welcome the contrary opinion and the difficult expression that art often provides to the conversation and save political tactics like boycotts and public shaming for corporations like Hobby Lobby, for example, who invest tens of millions of dollars into far-right legislation to roll-back LGBTQ and women’s reproductive rights.
This call-out culture as utilized by SJAs has become an end unto itself, a reckoning that seems to await us all since it focuses on identity politics and unfortunately delights in devouring its own rather than going after the more difficult to address systemic, institutional problems which are tougher to solve. In their essay “Excommunicate me from the church of social justice,” activist Frances Lee (2017) describes “a disturbing parallel between religion and activism” in social justice culture because the tactics of indoctrination and the expectations of membership, while ostensibly progressive, actually seem to duplicate their Evangelical church upbringing. In Keri Smith’s equally illuminating essay on the SJA phenomenon and how to shake free of it, “On Leaving the SJW Cult and Finding Myself” (2017), she writes:
“I see increasing numbers of so-called liberals cheering censorship and defending violence as a response to speech. I see seemingly reasonable people wishing death on others and laughing at escalating suicide and addiction rates of the white working class. I see liberal think pieces written in opposition to expressing empathy or civility in interactions with those with whom we disagree. I see 63 million Trump voters written off as “nazis” who are okay to target with physical violence. I see concepts like equality and justice being used as a mask for resentful, murderous rage.
The most pernicious aspect of this evolution of the left, is how it seems to be changing people, and how rapidly since the election. I have been dwelling on this Nietzsche quote for almost six months now, “He who fights with monsters, should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.” How easy is it for ordinary humans to commit atrocious acts? History teaches us it’s pretty damn easy when you are blinded to your own hypocrisy. When you believe you are morally superior, when you have dehumanized those you disagree with, you can justify almost anything” (Smith, 2017).
We should be wary of any moral program which utilizes fear and hive-mind reprisals and rewards conformity and obeisance, even when it shows up dressed like our friends and insists it respects individuality and holds progressive values. If your friends are employing the tactics of authoritarianism (othering, public shaming, attacking the arts) and treat minor offenses as if they are identical to institutional, systemic aggressions or actual hate crimes, they have been indoctrinated. If they express an unwillingness to give artists the courtesy of judging their work based on the work rather than a calculated misrepresentation, they really aren’t fighting the good fight but adding to the misery. Please confront them and please have the moral courage to stand up to this behavior and its incoherent logic. It should go without saying that evangelical authoritarianism is not a good look at all for progressives.
I believe we will look back on this confused and fraught time as an unfortunate sidetrack toward actual social justice. Keri Smith pointed out in her essay that Maajid Nawaz, the former Islamist turned anti-extremist activist, refers to this strain of Social Justice Activism as the Regressive Left, which is a generous but apt description. All I know is I’ve seen it up close and I’ve determined that it’s misguided and cruel and it won’t work as a strategy to change things for the better, though it could make things much worse. What is needed now is less condemnation of people and more conversation with people. We need to dig in and listen. The U.S. has a difficult history it is reluctant to face and we need to do that together, all hands on deck. We should do less calling out and more calling in. We need a lot more reading and less dictating. If you are anything like me, you probably want to be on the correct side of history. We won’t get there by attacking people or by allowing people to be attacked. We can’t be brutal and thoughtless about how we express our passion or where we focus our efforts. I urge anyone who actually cares about social justice issues and has fallen into these circles to break free of this methodology now. What is being advocated is not new, progressive, or revolutionary, but yet another trend in oppressive moral posturing and that is as old as the day is long. However, just as the pendulum has swung in the direction of censorship and public humiliation of late, it can swing back the other way. It is important to speak up against these mean-spirited, divisive tactics (especially when they target the arts), to be willing to disagree with your friends, and to challenge anyone who believes that attacking art, artists, and our art institutions through public shaming and public pressure is a satisfactory replacement for open dialogue, debate, and the free expression of ideas. History shows that the more broad, nuanced and open your mind is, the more revolutionary your humanity becomes. It never works the other way.
The American Civil Liberties Union. (2017). What Is Censorship? [Website]. Retrieved from https://www.aclu.org/other/what-censorship
Sterba, N. (2017, November 13). The Dark American Rodeo. [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://jefuntitled.tumblr.com/post/153147648109/this-is-a-poem-called-the-dark-american-rodeo-by
McQueen, B. [Brigitte]. (2017, July 15). A message from The Union’s Executive Director: The Union for Contemporary Art is an organization founded by an LGBTQ woman of color and staffed by a diverse team of community-focused individuals. Our mission is based on a steadfast commitment to [The Union for Contemporary Art Facebook status update]. Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/TheUNIONOmaha/posts/1779958928699448
The Union for Contemporary Art. (2017, July 15). This morning it was brought to the attention of The Union’s staff that one of our fellows, Noah Sterba, gave a performance Friday night where he read an original poem [The Union for Contemporary Art Facebook status update]. Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/TheUNIONOmaha/posts/1780788798616461
DeSilver, D. (2013, December 5). U.S. Income Inequality, On Rise for Decades, Is Now Highest Since 1928. [Pew Research Center Website]. Retrieved from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/12/05/u-s-income-inequality-on-rise-for-decades-is-now-highest-since-1928/
Lee, F. (2017, July 13). Excommunicate Me from the Church of Social Justice. [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.autostraddle.com/kin-aesthetics-excommunicate-me-from-the-church-of-social-justice-386640/
Smith, K. (2017, May 13). On Leaving the SJW Cult and Finding Myself. [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://medium.com/indian-thoughts/on-leaving-the-sjw-cult-and-finding-myself-1a6769b2f1ff
A catalog of related essays can be found here.
As always, I welcome and encourage commenting on and sharing of these essays, especially if you disagree with my conclusions. Their purpose is to stimulate discussion of these issues within the community, and that cannot be done without YOU.