This, then is the crucial problem with the rules-based thinking we’ve become inured to as feminists and social justice activists online. It forces us into one-size-fits-all thinking where we are actively discouraged from recognizing the unique circumstances of individual conflicts in favor of judging others according to standards they may not even understand.
Frequently, this is done for the performative benefit of other activists one wishes to impress above all else. The rage we so love, the expletive-laden injunctions against judging tone or intent, is often as not meant to convince others that we are kindred, that we are one of them, and that we are not a threat. And often, in an irony that reveals the underlying moral bankruptcy of the entire rules-based enterprise, we do it in hopes of forestalling our own turn in the stocks. Hoping that we ourselves, through the performance of this rage, might never be on the wrong side of it. Meanwhile, there is a never-ending supply of bigots, clueless people, folks making innocent mistakes, and fellow activists from a diverse array of backgrounds that we can practice against, sharpening our tools for their dual offensive and defensive purpose.
And then there are those who most benefit from this sorry arrangement: those who get a rush from being abusive, from clawing their way to the top of the invisible activist hierarchies we like to pretend we don’t have, and who cannily manipulate our honor-system-based rules, parleying them into weapons and armor alike to win a social game only they fully understand.
–Katherine Cross on toxic activism.
Cross’ piece is about the toxicity that’s entered online activist culture in recent years, fuelled by misuse of anti-oppression voxpops like the tone argument and “intent is not magic”. Cross’ point is that these soundbytes are tools distilled down from much more complex concepts, and that to use the tools without understanding where and why they originate is to risk perpetuating the very oppression and violence social justice activists are (one would assume) trying to fight. At worst, it turns “activism” into a kind of rules-based purity policing, concerned more about identity and form of language than it does about reducing harm in the community or, yanno. Actually achieving some sort of semblance of social justice.