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Social Justice and Self-worth: Everyone should get cookies

July 13, 2017

It seems that we are finally starting to reach a place in social justice discourse where some of the more extreme forms of callout culture and purity policing are being questioned and challenged. As an accomplished procrastinator, I’ve been sitting on my own thoughts on this subject for so long that someone else has come along and expressed many of them better anyway (please read this excellent Autostraddle piece, “Excommunicate Me from the Church of Social Justice”). As I wrote in a comment on that article, I see an additional parallel between certain puritanical SJ communities and repressive religions – namely, the condemnation of pleasure – that I would like to expand on here.

I’m not talking about sexual pleasure, which is of course rightly celebrated as normal and healthy in most progressive circles. Instead, the pleasure that activism-purists denounce is that which is derived from being an activist and helping others – in other words, your morals, motivations and character are called into question if it’s clear that you want to feel good about being an ally.

No cookies?

I do understand the root of this impulse. “Don’t expect cookies” is a common theme in social justice circles – the idea that people should not be fawned over for doing the right thing. Nobody likes it when allies are clearly seeking pats on the back, for the same reason nobody likes people who talk endlessly about their charity donations; it betrays a distasteful insincerity. And worse, it centres the conversation around the ally rather than the marginalized group.

This kind of blatant attention-seeking is rightfully criticized, but as with everything, sometimes the pendulum swings too far in the other direction. I have seen potential allies totally shut down in conversation at the slightest hint that they might be seeking some kind of encouragement. This is not helpful to anyone.

Expecting people not to seek any approval or feel good about their actions completely defies what we know about human psychology. When faced with criticism instead of positive reinforcement, most people will simply shut down and stop trying. So this kind of purity gatekeeping effectively limits the ally pool to the very, very small percentage of people who are actually willing to do tireless and selfless work on behalf of others with no apparent benefit to themselves.

Pleasure and self-worth

Angelic selflessness of this kind is held up as an ideal outside of SJ communities as well, and I would argue that it comes from the same core belief systems that our society often expresses in religion, charity work, volunteerism, and other domains – a belief that we as individuals are unworthy, that our needs are not as important as the needs of others, and that self-care is equivalent to selfishness. Maybe on some level we feel that we are all so hungry for approval to fill our void of self-worth that it seems safest to clamp it down entirely before it devours everything around us.

Interestingly, the more I start to experience my place in the world as a member of an interconnected whole rather than a separate individual, the more emphasis I start to place on taking care of myself, and honoring my own human need for pleasure in its varied forms. If I’m a part of something bigger, like a leaf on a plant or an organ in a body, allowing myself to wither and sicken does not help any part of the greater system.

Can excessive focus on the individual self lead to selfishness? Of course it can. It’s a balance, as everything everything everything is. I’m glad to see activist communities inspiring people to act on behalf of others, and I’m also glad to see a correction happening to the impulse to deny people any sense of self-satisfaction. Cookies are delicious; let’s share them freely.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. July 14, 2017 10:06 pm

    Another thing I’ve noticed in SJ circles which kind of runs along this line is this kind of “all-or-nothing” mentality to being an ally. Like the “Your Fave Is Problematic” type stuff. “You can’t really be an ally if you like X” or “You like Y so you must be racist/homophobic/sexist.” Not everyone can live and breathe The Good Fight 24/7. I can say from experience that it gets exhausting and depressing.

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