A popular image of the SJW is that of a self-appointed, brutal and totalitarian thought-policing dictatorship, completely opposed to free speech and any expression of dissent. It’s not a well-liked representation.
However whilst student activists exercising their democratic right to protest is hardly an abuse of power, there is a grain of truth to this despotic representation.
I know this, because I’ve been there, and come out the other side.
First, let me acknowledge that it’s always clear that there is a problem.
Your well-intentioned policing usually goes down like a lead balloon.
It is obviously uncomfortable for others. They feel called out, challenged, judged. It is less obviously uncomfortable for yourself. You are the “villain” causing trouble, and that isn’t a great place to be. You run a real risk of social isolation for your beliefs.
At the time, I thought this was because I was so special and dedicated. It didn’t matter that I was tragic and misunderstood; all heroes of history are.
Nonetheless, it is lonely, and unlike heroes of history, you aren’t influencing people, only driving them away.
Small victories did occur. I treasured them, like the time I very slightly got a men’s rights activist to agree with me after hours of hostile and calculated internet debating.
I didn’t realise I was looking at a dangerous habit as a worthy struggle. Nothing I did was enough, so certainly nothing anyone else did was enough. Everything was problematic, and it stung desperately.
I was deeply uncomfortable with mistakes and unfairness in the world. Social justice required constant pressure, was an uphill task, was an unpopular job. It was the perfect job for someone who was convinced that they and the world was not good enough.
Perfectionism drives the hostility of the social justice “warrior”. Well-intentioned and passionate, yet simultaneously brittle and unforgiving.
Perfectionism comes from being uncomfortable with mistakes and yourself. To try to quell the anxiety, you put more effort into correction, in a self destructive cycle. However, this does not resolve the anxiety, because you are a human in a human world, so you inevitably encounter more mistakes, resulting in more correction, and ultimately, an overwhelming power-struggle.
Changing the self destructive pattern of perfectionism was not obvious, because I was worried I would lose the only truly good thing I had; my ethics.
The narrative seemed clear; be a good person, or be a bad person. To me, the lonely perfectionism of the social justice warrior was the only “good” option. It appeared black and white with no other choices.
Being a keyboard warrior legitimately took a large portion of my time, including when I should have been sleeping, or eating, or studying, and it felt outside of my control.
It would be great to say that I saw the damage this was doing and the lack of progress and realised I had to stop, but that would have required self awareness I wasn’t ready for.
At uni I’d been immersed in the liberal student union and loud yet ineffective activist societies, with tonnes of free time.
Suddenly, I was working retail, and there was no space for this side of me any more. Practical limitations stopped me in my tracks.
I didn’t have the energy any more to be that good person, defending justice every waking second.
But I still felt guilty that I should be doing more. I looked for hope, and for ways to change the world. I worked in ethical jobs, doing care and support, thinking that at least I was helping other people directly, even if I wasn’t stamping out worldwide bigotry.
It is very hard to navigate perfectionist space. Almost every step by definition is wrong. Moving forward is a treacherous sport; every step could be taking you even further into the wrong direction.
In my (tired) perfectionist haze, I saw the same messages again and again: perfectionism is bad, pushing yourself too hard is bad, you cannot take responsibility for everthing.
I couldn’t move forward. I had moved sideways and let go of a lot of the policing, but I was still punishing myself. I needed to let go of that in order to truly start “winning” the power-struggle.
It was a slow year. I realised I needed professional help, which I’m still having, and still struggling sometimes with. I had to learn to accept myself as a whole person; letting go of childhood guilt and inadequacies.
I had to change my entire concept of “good” into something realistic, and attainable, that could include myself.
This works to quell the anxiety by refusing to perpetuate the cycle of correction. For different people, this might look different, but it is all about finding healthier coping mechanisms. That could be mindfulness, meditation, counselling, finding new interests, or any other form of holistic and kind self-improvement.
Ultimately, it results in looking internally for your barometer of “good” instead of externally.
Once you genuinely believe in yourself, then you do not need to blare out onto the world for validation and reassurance, or for punishment and atonement.
Instead of fearing flaws and mistakes, it needs to become acceptable to work through them safely.
Safety was the missing ingredient to my activism when I was peak “Thought Police”.
I was petrified of an evil, bigoted, cruel and unfair world, and petrified of not doing enough to “stop” it, even though that was an impossible task.
Being terrified did not make me effective. It made me hostile, aggressive and judgemental even though I was relentlessly fighting for the “right” things.
Growing internally was not something I did in order to control my social justice demons, but it helped.
It is slow, but I’m learning to genuinely accept the “real world”, whilst still wanting to change it. Both are possible, and both need to be possible in order to allow ourselves reasonable forgiveness.
Giving up the fear of the big complicated imperfect world has been terrifying, but now I’m less scared than I have ever been.
With my new sense of safety, I can take more steps. I’m starting to make better connections with people around me, without fearing being an accidentally awful person.
I’m imperfect and complicated, by virtue of being human, but that this doesn’t make me or anyone else inherently “bad” or dangerous.
My decisions to engage in activism are now my own. I can put down a campaign that is too much for me.
I can practise kindness in the actions for myself, then others, creating a sustainable circuit that ensures I do not burn out.
I can be kind to other people’s faults, because I’ve practised being kind to my own.
High ideals are exhausting and unsustainable. Holding yourself to near-impossible ideals isn’t necessary in order to be a good activist.
Ideals should be something that can be reached that will make the world a better place, like being kind.
Being perfectly up to date on offensive terminology might help you to be kind, but the exhaustion and negativity of that awareness probably isn’t.
Being kind might start with yourself. Peace might need to come from within to have any meaning.
It is easy to judge those who judge others, and harder to just be kind. People are complicated.
With kind self-improvement people can change for the better without sacrificing their ideals.
In fact, being gentler is more effective activism and healthier than being harsh.
Have you had a therapy journey that has affected your activism? I know I’m not alone in this, if you have a story like this please comment, I’d love to check out more blogs from activists who’ve had this journey!