I had a huge epiphany this morning about why self-proclaimed “social justice warriors,” such as myself, are often negatively received by the people they spend the most time with. You know, the groans. “Ughh, are you talking about that again?” “Seriously!? How is there a problem with this?” The defensiveness. “Stop attacking me!” “I don’t understand why you have to question me all the time.”
I’ve been lumped with the “snowflakes” who are all “sensitive” about everything nowadays.
And I have experienced my share of heartache. I don’t get it. All I’m trying to do is present an alternative perspective. I’m just trying to point out that there’s more to this. That this impacts other people. That there are real issues in the world and we all need to take responsibility. It’s so obvious (to me) that my motives are good, and they are justifiable. Championing justice, advocating for the marginalized, naming oppression… it’s not a part-time hobby for me. I believe in it with all my heart. Social change is both a passion and a calling. Therefore, when a need or an opportunity arises in my daily life to speak up about something… I do it.
And I wonder why it doesn’t go over well. Even when I think I’m being non-aggressive and rational, calm, receptive… it derails. A debate about ideas escalates into a heated argument, which escalates further into deeply personal territory. Of course, this is mostly only a problem when you know the person well. Family members. Old friends. That person you’ve worked with at the office for over five years.
I had such an episode with my mom this morning (one of many), which led to me shedding some tears and trying to figure out why this always happens, which led to my epiphany: my mom is not my project. In fact, no one is.
I realized that in situations like these, my mom (you can insert any person here) becomes a representation for me of what I’m trying to change about society at large. If I can just get you to see this… If I can just change your mind about this… If I can just show you why this is so important… I begin to channel all of my passion (and let’s face it, my frustration), all of my tools (studies, statistics), and my desire to make a difference into this one conversation with this one person. Unconsciously, I get the mistaken idea that in order to change society, I need to change this person’s views. Right here, right now. It shouldn’t really be that hard, right? I mean as soon as I explain the history and the science and the ethics involved with this issue, there should be no argument, right?
Well… no. For whatever reason, no. And no matter how nicely I might start out trying to do that, such a premise is doomed to fail. Because what I have done then is to make this person my social justice project, and they feel it. No wonder they are overwhelmed, or become defensive, or shut down the conversation. Nobody wants to be a project.
And I’ve realized that I need to let go of that. Yes, change happens in everyday conversations and everyday life. Yes, change happens at the individual level. Yes, it is important to use your voice and it is important to let your life and relationships and conversations reflect your values. But reflecting my values is one thing, and “projectifying” another person is something else.
I’m sure it’s going to take some trial-and-error figuring out how to do this. I’m sure it’s going to take time and practice. But I already feel a sense of relief. I’m not a failure if I fail to convert the people around me into fellow social justice warriors. There are other — more effective — outlets where I need to channel this energy, this passion, where I can use my voice and my education and my tools. And now that I’m clear on that, I think the way ahead will become clear as well.