The double bind of activism: to change or reinforce

Let’s be real. If you’re a progressive thinker or care about humanity, we’re living through exciting times (despite the overarching fears of COVID-19 and climate change). Social movements are making a comeback and having a more substantial impact than that of the civil rights movements of the 1960s.

This is in some ways due to social media outlets such as Instagram. The app which once taught young people how to master fakeness – has had a revamp. For me, Twitter feels like a family meal gone wrong where you’ve broken rule number one – mentioning politics. Never a good idea, going to end in an argument and you’ve upset at least one family member. Instagram, on the other hand, is like being with your friends who you agree with. You learn from one another, and the end result is not a disaster.

Don’t get me wrong. Instagram too is full of disagreement. That’s human nature. But, there are many accounts educating people of all ages about social justice movements. The use of social media to disseminate information means that young people are becoming interested in issues which affect society, but not necessarily them on a personal level.

Ideologically, this is great and a diversion from institutional structures which benefit specific groups of society. For example, if you’re a white, middle-class, Christian male, living in Britain – history lessons must have been a blast. To sit in a classroom and delve into characters which reflect yourself is a dream that so many can only ever dream of. For others, history is undiverse and doesn’t reflect themselves and their upbringing. This, in itself, is deeply problematic and needs to change.

But – through sites such as Instagram, a deeper, more diverse form of education is taking its ground. Different accounts are sharing historical facts about women of colour, what it means to be an ally and how to stand up for Trans individuals – just to name a few.

It’s been a long time coming, and I am thankful that people are engaging in matters which extend further than themselves. However, while they are mostly informative, valuable and lead to more educated individuals – there is a typical pattern that reappears.

A theme often reflecting the reality that marginalised groups face – epistemic exploitation. Without turning this into a university essay, the term refers to when privileged individuals pry on marginalised persons to explain instances of their oppression.

An example I saw over the weekend was about Wiley’s antisemitic rant. A ‘has been’ rapper decided to bring his antisemitic tendencies to the forefront. In a wave of allyship and support towards the Jewish community, Instagram accounts were showing how to be an Ally for non-Jews. So far, so good.

However, epistemic exploitation occurs, when these so-called accounts tell you to ask your Jewish friends about their experiences of antisemitism. As with any form of racism, sexism, homophobia etc – this is mostly, not ok.

Yes, we all slip up, myself included – but, without putting that individual through the emotional labour of recounting their experience of oppression, there are other ways to learn about their discrimination—methods which don’t include triggering friends about potentially traumatic experiences.

You might believe you are engaging in discourse and trying to put yourself in their shoes. And yes, that doesn’t make you a bad person. However, going out of your way to question someone about their experience – whether consciously or subconsciously – can lead to the same person having less credibility because they belong to a marginalised group.

A classic illustration is during the 2019 British general election. People would continuously teach me, the Jew, about how Corbyn wasn’t antisemitic. “He’s the most anti-racist person, he loves everyone of all races, religions, genders” bla bla bla. I can also guarantee that the same people who removed Jewish people’s credibility about how they saw Corbyn as antisemitic, will be the same one’s asking to hear about their experiences post-Wiley.

And this is a phenomenon which happens to people from all different marginalised groups. You may be panicking at my words. And I will repeat, being guilty of engaging in this behaviour does not make you a bad person. It’s just important to understand boundaries and to think about the harm that people have endured before putting them on trial regarding their experience.

If you benefit from privilege (as I do, in many ways), it is about being mindful when trying to learn. Knowledge is power, yes. But – there are multiple ways of gaining that knowledge – ways which don’t put those of the receiving end of hatred and discrimination in a corner.

Go on the internet, read many of the non-fiction blogs and books which focus on the topic you’re interested in. All I ask is that you refrain from questioning minorities about experiences you don’t understand. You can find out in ways where people are voluntarily giving their time and emotional labour to talking about such topics.

Don’t put people on the spot and make them feel uncomfortable when there are resources out there designed to give you the education you are seeking.

About the Author
First-class politics degree holder from the University of Leeds. Interested in politics, global society and Israeli-African affairs.