How We (Over-) React to Pushback in Social Justice Contexts

Nuance is the enemy. Questions are a gateway drug. You must hate tacos.

12 min. read Replies open ↓

Imagine you’re going out to dinner with some friends. Everyone is sharing ideas for where to go, and you suggest that new taco truck that just opened up.

One of your friends replies, “I don’t think that’ll work. Are they open? I’m pretty sure they’re closed today.”

How do you react?

Let me venture a few guesses for how you don’t react. I’d be willing to bet all the tacos in Austin (i.e., give up roughly 13 of my nutritional sustenance) that you don’t say:

  1. “I guess you don’t want to go to dinner after all!” or
  2. “So… you hate tacos?” or
  3. “You don’t get to weigh in on whether or not we have tacos – you’re white.” or
  4. “Lol you believe they’re closed? You’ve clearly been brainwashed by the burger chain.”

Hopefully, those reactions are sufficiently ridiculous that you can’t imagine yourself – or any other person who has at least one frijole of emotional intelligence – saying any of them. It would be absurd.

That said, if any one of those four is how you’d typically respond in that situation, the rest of this post is going to be really frustrating for you. Consider yourself warned. (I’m also sorry for everyone involved in your dining life.)

And just so we’re all on the same page, before I start connecting dots between taco trucks and social justice dogma (SJD) – betcha you saw that coming – I’m going to briefly explain what is ridiculous about each of those replies.

The first reaction is mistaking pushback to a particular idea within a larger plan, as pushback to the plan itself. You’d be saying, “If you aren’t 100% supportive of every aspect of this, you must be 0% supportive of it.”

The second reaction is making a big leap and insinuating an intention for why they expressed any pushback at all, and manufacturing it out of thin air. It’s saying, “I know you didn’t say anything remotely similar to this, but you must be thinking this if you feel that way.”

The third reaction is good ol’ fashioned race reductionism with a side of dismissal. It’s saying, “Because of this immutable characterstic you possess or embody, your opinion is invalid.”

And the fourth reaction (my personal fav, for those keeping track) travels back into imagination land, but instead of merely assume-creating an intention, we are tracking the source of their intentions we made up to misinformation from some biased third-party. It’s saying, “You don’t even know what you think, but I do, and it’s wrong.”

Okay, so what’s any of this have to do with SJD?

Well, what we’d all agree are inappropriate responses to taco truck pushback happen to be totally appropriate responses to social justice pushback. And not only appropriate, but encouraged! In fact, depending on your setting or who you’re surrounded by, you might be looking at the only three options you’re allowed by SJD.

I’m going to explain what I mean by “allowed,” and I’ll also walk through how each one of those examples is paralleled in social justice conversations, but first I want to clarify what I mean by “social justice pushback.”

What’s “Social Justice Pushback”?

When I say “social justice pushback” I’m using it as a shorthand way of describing:

Pushing back is disagreeing with, reacting negatively to, or not responding affirmatively to a social justice idea, strategy, tactic, belief, etc.

To be clear, I don’t mean pushback in the name of social justice (e.g., disrupting an oppressive system). I mean pushing back against something done in the name of social justice. (But – and I’ll get to this later – I don’t think there’s as much of a distinction there as you might be noticing.)

The ways social justice pushback shows up are countless. Here are some examples I see a lot:

  • Disagreeing with a statistic (or citing a different stat, from a different source)
  • Saying that a tactic, plan, or strategy might not work, or that a better one exists
  • Asking “Why?” questions about a theory or other social justice concept, trying to get to the bottom of it, or what’s behind it
  • Requesting that someone explain where their information is coming from
  • Pushing for nuance when someone frames something in absolute terms

I trust that’s enough examples to give you a decent boundary for what I mean here, but I’ll go one step further. Here’s what I don’t consider social justice pushback:

  • Dismissing social justice as a desirable goal for society or the world
  • Arguing in favor of some oppressive system, or for continued subordination of certain people

Push-back, not shove-back. Or set-fire-to-back.

How We Respond to Social Justice Pushback

Let’s get back to those examples from earlier.

I rank-ordered them not just in “response to the taco truck is closed” ridiculousness, but also based on the frequency with which I notice each one being deployed in social justice spaces, where #1 is by far the most common.

Let’s start there. I’ll be moving away from the taco truck language and giving you some examples of actual social justice responses to pushback.

1. “I guess you don’t care about social justice.”

This sentiment gets expressed a lot when people pushback against anything social justice, question an idea, or even hint at a lack of 100% blind faith support.

Feel free to swap “don’t care about” with different flavors of opposition (e.g., “aren’t in favor of,” “don’t believe in”), but the important distinction here I want to highlight is that we’re interpreting pushback to an aspect of social justice as pushback to social justice itself.

With that in mind, you can also swap out “social justice” for other liberation movements or activism goals (e.g., “feminism,” “environmentalism,” “racial justice”).

The move here is to say that if you don’t like this one part of the thing, you must not like the thing.

It’s moving the conversation a level up, like saying, “You don’t like pepperoni? I guess you don’t like pizza.”

2. “So you hate trans people?”

Like with the first example, the verb is here interchangeable from “hate” to lots of different negatively-valenced actions (from more extreme examples like “want to murder” to more mellow ones like “don’t validate”).

And the target of accused hatred can be swapped for other groups of people (e.g., “people of color”, “muslims”, “poor people”), social justice ideas or goals (e.g., “reparations”), or other entities held in high regard in social justice spaces.

The move here is imbuing the person who is expressing pushback with an intense animus about something connected to whatever they were pushing back against.

They aren’t just unsure about that idea, or misunderstanding that theory: they are intentionally and maliciously trying to hurt the people implicated by it.

It’s saying, “You don’t like pizza? I guess you hate Italians.”

3. “You don’t get an opinion. You’re a man.”

As per the examples above, you can sub out “man” for other dominant group membership or majoritized identities (e.g., “White,” “cisgender,” “middle/upper class,” “straight”).

And sometimes the first part is about not getting a say or being allowed a voice, while other times it’s more about the incorrect-ness of the person’s opinion because of who they are.

In all cases, the only way this reaction passes muster is because of the social justice power inverse. If those rules aren’t followed (e.g., the identity being dismissed is minoritized or a target group membership), this will read as some Daily Stormer bullshit and be thrown out immediately (e.g., SJD doesn’t permit a “You don’t get an opinion on this. You’re black.” response to pushback).

This reaction is saying, “Of course you don’t like pizza – you’re Christian.”

4. “You disagree? White Supremacy is a helluva drug.”

This reaction is basically saying “your social justice pushback is invalid because its rooted in[unconscious] bias.”

Here, you can sub “White Supremacy” for any other oppressive system of dominance, or unconscious bias (e.g., “ethnocentrism,” “cisnormativity,” “patriarchy”).

This reaction comes out, in contrast to #3, when the person who is pushing back against a social justice idea doesn’t hold a salient (or relevant) dominant group identity (e.g., when a person of color is pushing back against a racial justice concept).

This reaction is saying, “The only reason you like pizza is because of the Dairy Industrial Complex.”

Four’s Company

Each of those responses are really the same response, just in four different packages. Here’s what all four are saying:

  1. The thing you’re pushing back against is correct.
  2. You’re wrong for pushing back.

Now, I’m going to say something that I’m probably going to say again (and again):

Those two things aren’t necessarily not true. Or, to avoid a double negative: it’s possible that both of those things are true.

Regarding number one: It’s certainly, obviously, totally, 100% possible that the thing people are pushing back against is correct. That the stat is right. The tactic will work. The theory is sound. The taco truck is open!

But here’s the thing: one by itself is fine. It’s not the problem. The one-two punch, however, isn’t fine. And deploying it carelessly is a problem.

Because it’s certainly possible that someone is pushing back against a social justice concept for the wrong reasons, but using that possibility as a rationale for dismissing any pushback is a problem in itself.

And all of the above reactions do just that: they use #2 (you’re wrong for pushing back) as evidence for #1 (your pushback is incorrect).

Why We Push Back So Hard Against Pushback

If you’re still with me, let me say something reassuring, because I don’t think most of this is reassuring: everything I’ve said so far, I believe, is coming from a good place.

Here’s the view from that Good Place:

  1. A lot of people are cynical, recognize the world is broken, but can’t be bothered to try fix it;
  2. People regularly tell us that we’re stupid, idealistic, naïve, or worse, when we say we want to live in a socially-just world;
  3. Plenty of people – more and more every day, it seems – actively reject the goals of social justice, and want to return us to some golden heyday of oppression; and
  4. It’s hard to not peg anyone who is resistant to social justice concepts as one of the three above, or all three combined.

Add in to that all the individual trauma people have experienced, or internalized from others’ experiences, as well as the historical legacies of oppression and domination that pervade many of our perceptions of the present, and it’s easy to understand why a lot of social justice people don’t give others the benefit of the doubt.

Now for the hard truth: as we often say in Social Justice Land, intentions aren’t enough*.

(*We are actually way more hard on intentions in Social Justice Land, but I’ll save that topic for another day)

The pushback to the pushback ultimately can be summed in in two ways:

  1. Questioning a social justice idea, tactic, belief etc. makes you suspect for questioning yourself.
  2. Advocating for nuance, or anything other than a dichtomomous black & white, right & wrong, is the same as advocating for oppression.

These, I should say now, in case it wasn’t assume, aren’t the beliefs of all (or, I believe, even most) social justice people. They are the dictates of the Social Justice Dogma, that all of us are subjected to. And rewarded or punished against.

We’re told that if someone questions something social justice-y, they’re questioning the goals of social justice. Or if they say that some stance or belief being laid down by authorities within the social justice movement is too absolute, and begs for nuance, they’re implicitly supporting the oppressive system that belief purports to dismantle.

Here’s the thing, y’all: that’s true some of the time, sure; which means it’s also not true some of the time.

Pushing Back Against the Pushback to the Pushback

Sometimes people are questioning social justice ideas to be antagonistic, subversive, dismissive, or worse. True.

And sometimes people are questioning social justice ideas because they believe in the goals and want to better understand their role in relation to them, or have sure footing for conversations with other people, or because they don’t understand what’s being asked of them and want to be able to show up in authentic ways.

Sometimes people push for nuance because they’re uncomfortable with the extreme of a position and want to bargain it down, or complicate it to oblivion, or slippery-slope it into nothing-ness. True.

And sometimes people push for nuance because that’s the most honest portrayal of a situation, or it makes room for their personal experience (or the lived experience of a loved one), or because only the Sith deal in absolutes (sorry not sorry).

We can’t keep collapsing all questioning and pushing for nuance into “this person doesn’t support our goals” or “this person is part of the problem.” For so many reasons, we can’t. We can’t because it’s often not true. We can’t because it’s not working. And we can’t because we can’t – we just don’t have the bandwidth, energy, or life-force to continue treating potential allies as disposable targets.

And I don’t think most of us want to.

We just do it because it feels like the only thing we’re allowed to do. We shut people down when they ask questions, and question people when they push for nuance, because it’s what we know we’re supposed to do. It’s what we know we’ll be rewarded for, patted on the back for, or will get us hearts and thumbs up and retweets on social media.

Here’s what I propose instead:

We invite questioning and calls for nuance. Because working to answer the questions and considering all the different angles and shades of gray will, in the end, strengthen our efforts toward living social justice, and help us better understand the struggles we’re engaged in.

We recognize that people who are willing to devote time and energy to pushing back are integral to accomplishing the goals of social justice. Without people to double check our math, there’s a good chance we’re making mistakes. If we truly believe in the goals of social justice, and think we’re advocating for steps toward those goals, it’s a staggering act of hubris to think we don’t need as much help as we can get.

We move from dismissing, castigating, or making pariahs of people who pushback, and instead create norms of gratitude and appreciation. When people are incorrect (not because of who they are, or because they dared question the concept), then we can move on. But when people ask questions we don’t have good answers for, or beg for nuance in ways we’ve been woefully absolute, we should appreciate that energy.

Or, to put it all another way, what I’m proposing is that when our friend says the taco truck is closed, our reaction is to google it.

And if it’s closed, we thank them for the heads up, then find another place to eat.

If it’s not closed, we eat the tacos with our friend. They’re not the enemy. They still deserve tacos. It’s that evil burger chain we need to look out for.

👋 Hey! This is part of a book that I (publicly!) wrote all throughout January about Social Justice, Minus Dogma. Do you want to join the list to get an email when it's coming out?

How do I sign up?

Bonus: You'll get a .PDF of select chapters (over 100 pages 👀) of the work-in-progress book as soon as you sign up 📩

What do you think? 🤔

I opened up replies on this post because I'd love to hear your thoughts. I'm @Killermann on Twitter if you'd rather talk there.