Chilling Effects

Recently, I've been writing about antisemitism and strategically talking over people who are actually affected by it.

I try to look over every article I write, because typos are embarrassing and I like pretending to have a coherent train of thought. Reading over what I've written about antisemitism in the UK, I get concerned over such things as:

By writing about British antisemitism, am I erasing the plight of the Palestinians?

I haven't denounced Israeli crimes enough in this article. What if someone accuses me of being an apologist?

Oh man, my total ignorance of critical race theory and postcolonial theory is really showing here and I look like such a fail and I'm being so oppressive and-

The precise details are unimportant. The overarching message in all these thoughts is: be quiet, because you and your privilege are taking up valuable space in this discussion.

Also recently, I've had trouble sleeping and been browsing tumblr, which led me to Old Social Justice from 2012 where graphically threatening people with such wonderful things as acid attacks was common.

(I do not miss Old Social Justice.)

This in turn led me to remembering the absolute worst of the worst, including a notorious troll who harassed several people and was a contributing factor in someone's suicide attempt. To be honest, though, I'm not really concerned about individuals; I'm concerned about a culture which lets abusive behaviour pass without comment.

At this point, someone helpful and passionate about social justice will point out that white cis men still get the best of it. You don't have to look far to find stories about men in important positions abusing their power and being protected. (All of these links discuss sexual harassment, sexual assault, abuse or rape. Just a heads up.)

Just after this point, I would not be surprised if people told their own stories or clamoured for recognition (say, a man abused by a woman). I am sorry I cannot tell all your stories. I am sorry these terrible things happened to you in the first place. I am sorry that the world is invested in telling you to keep quiet and rock the boat. And if you did speak up - all my solidarity is with you. It takes a hell of a lot of courage to do that.

The point I'm trying to make here is that while we have gotten better at self-policing, there's still lots of work to do and still plenty of abusive people lurking within our midst. And why are they allowed to stay? Because of their politics - our politics.

Their politics are superficially good. They make all of the right noises about racism, sexism, colonialism, and whatever the hot-button topic is, appearing to be knowledgeable. In a lot of places they're actually in positions of power, such as lecturers or tenured professors. That's the first part.

The second part is far more scary.

I know it's unfashionable to believe in things like good faith, and it's probably far too idealistic of me, but I truly do believe that the vast majority of people are just trying to get by and aren't truly very malicious at all. I do believe it's true in social justice circles, where we're all falling over ourselves trying not to be oppressive and agonising over whether we're doing the right thing.

Sadly, that doubt and agony can be paralysing. When we get a feeling that someone who has superficially good politics is not quite right, it's easy to wonder whether we're at fault for thinking these things rather than supporting someone's justified anger, and not to vocalise this for fear of talking over oppressed people.

In theory, this is sound politics. In practice, this is excellent for allowing abusers and manipulators to thrive while isolating their victims; these abusive, manipulative people utterly wreck their victims' sense of identity and safety and the rest of the community stays silent, either because they truly believe it was justified or because they're too scared to speak up and suffer the same fate.

I'm going to link this back to what I was originally talking about - antisemitism in the UK. As I've written already, the progressive UK take on antisemitism is a total mess; either it's quietly ignored or alleged to be a Jewish conspiracy the work of the Israel lobby (pro-Israel organisations exist in the UK, yes, but are certainly not the shadowy, omnipresent force presented in rhetoric). The conservative UK take on antisemitism is also a total mess which basically uses Jews as an ideological shield against "those evil Muslims". What all this boils down to is a chilling effect where people with less power - for example, I am a queer mentally ill woman with comparatively little influence - are supposed to stay silent against (in the UK) guessed it...influential white men!

This is a pattern that repeats itself, a pattern of manipulating vulnerable people into staying quiet by implying that they're doing something wrong (particularly something oppressive) by questioning clearly terrible behaviour such as rape threats or racism. And that's not going to go away, sadly, without all of us trying to do something about it.

The next time something feels off to you, trust your gut. Do not make excuses for someone because they have good politics or are oppressed along multiple axes. When someone comes to you and tells you that an activist darling has done something terrible to them, believe them. Spread the word, if they consent. Make it snowball.

Above all, do not let people suffer in silence. Do not excuse their treatment because their politics were slightly wrong or because that poor influential, powerful activist just can't help it. Let's stand together and thaw out these chilling effects once and for all.