Talking about Social Justice Dogma is Anti-Viral

For over two years now I've been publicly writing and talking about social justice dogma. I've noticed the weirdest thing.

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I’ve been working on the internet for about a decade now, but I hadn’t encountered this before.

Don’t get me wrong: I’ve created lots of duds. I’ve made stuff people don’t care about. Things that by no means “went viral.” And I’ve written, published, and created resources that were either before their time, after, or maybe there never would be a “their time.” All that goes to say that I’ve seen my share of making unpopular content for the internet.

But this isn’t that.

I’ve also created lots of firecrackers. Resources, essays, websites, and more that took off instantly, going truly viral, reaching tens of thousands of people in a few days, and over a million in a few weeks – all without any financial backing, advertising, or dodgy internet clickbait manipulation. Just enthusiastic of mouth.

And this has certainly not been that.

What has happened with the content I’ve created about social justice dogma (SJD) has been different from either of those outcomes. It’s not been a dud. And it’s not gone viral. But it has been kind of both those things, and at the same time the opposite of both of those things. It’s in some third, hard-to-name bucket: it’s popularly unpopular. It’s anti-viral. It’s weird.

I can explain.

For a baseline, here are a few things I’ve come to expect when I publish things on my other [and far more popular] site, It’s Pronounced Metrosexual, where I’ve done a lot of writing about SJD:

  1. Most posts, regardless of whether or not they’ll eventually take off, get 200 - 300 social media shares within a day of being published.
  2. Posts that end up being popular usually have over 1,000 social shares within their first week. If that doesn’t happen, odds are it’s not going to take off.
  3. The general math for traffic on a post is 15X whatever the social share count is. So if a post gets shared 50,000 times, that generally means about 750,000 people will visit it (give or take a few percent). This has been true on that site for years.
  4. Also, despite every post going out to over 10K mailing list subscribers, I almost never get a reply back. Sometimes I’ll get one or two direct responses. Rarely more.

To recap: social media shares drive traffic to the site, usually it happens fast or not at all, and I almost never get replies to the emails I send. Got it?

Now for the weird.

Here are a few of the things I’ve noticed as I’ve been trying to create conversations about “social justice dogma” for the past couple of years:

  1. Basically nobody shares SJD posts on social media. None of the SJD posts I’ve published have gotten that 200 - 300 social shares I expect (but non-SJD posts published in the same time frame still do).
  2. The people who do share the SJD posts, do so via email. Like a lot of sites, IPM has little buttons that enable you to share what you’re reading. One of them is an “email to a friend”-type button. That button gets very little usage in general, but on SJD posts it’s the most popular option.
  3. The traffic to SJD posts is slow at first, but steady and growing. Uncorrelated from social media shares, the SJD posts get a lot of visits over time, bring consistent traffic to the site, and continue to get more popular over time.
  4. I’ve gotten more emails about SJD than any other topic I write about. And not just more per article (but that’s also true: Every SJD thing I publish I get email replies to). More period. In the past year, more people have written in to reply to my SJD stuff, or give me ideas, share their story, or thank me for working on that project, than anything else I’ve created.

To recap: despite basically nobody sharing my SJD stuff on social media, it’s received disproportionate traffic, mostly via people emailing things to other people, and I’ve gotten a ton of emails in response as well.

So, that’s weird, right? At the very least, there’s something interesting going on here.

Let me add a few more variables into the mix before I draw my conclusions. And if you can, I ask that you hold off doing the same before you weigh in with your replies.

My talking about SJD started with a long essay, but we moved quickly into trying to produce a podcast about the subject. And not just because podcasts were so hot right now.

Our thinking in creating the podcast was really anchored by two core ideas:

  1. We knew that talking about SJD was going to be difficult and controversial, so humanizing it with voice and adding context with long-form dialogue would help us get beyond mere controversy and into something productive – the hope, anyway.
  2. From talking about SJD with people privately for many years, I knew that it wasn’t something people felt safe or able to talk about publicly. So a podcast, that one could listen to on their own, would probably work better than trying to create articles and edugraphics for people to share.

I already knew, and this is obvious if you read that first essay I wrote, that we had a Fight Club situation on our hands: the first rule of social justice dogma is you don’t talk about social justice dogma.

What I underestimated was how powerful that silencing pressure was.

Trying to produce the podcast ended up being impossible. I wrote about this on the Heretic site about a year ago, asking for help. Nobody whom I really wanted to be on the show as a guest felt safe talking publicly about SJD. Instead, I kept hearing responses to my requests that went something like:

“Sounds like something we need, and I’ll be listening. But I couldn’t be a guest and talk about social justice dogma, and continue doing the work I’m doing. I can email you my thoughts, but it would have to be anonymous.”

Over and over and over again, I heard that. The people who said “Yes,” no surprise, weren’t “social justice people.” They were adjacent people, or outsiders with experiences of SJD, but nobody who put that moniker on themself would be a guest on the show.

In a last-ditch effort, I recorded a prologue series to the podcast to explain what was going on, hoping that might imbue some of my fellow social justice people with the courage (or insanity) necessary to be on the show. Alas, it did not.

So a podcast wasn’t going to blaze the trail. That format was still too public, just in many different ways from sharing articles on Facebook. That’s when the idea of an online course / community started to seem appealing.

The Social Justice, Minus Dogma Course + Community was something I was really stubborn to create. I had several people ask me to make it, which is usually all it takes to nudge me into doing something, but I resisted.

To me, a private online course seemed antithetical to dismantling SJD because it didn’t break the silence, or require people to disrupt the pluralistic ignorance that seemed to be so prevalent amidst the dogmatic activism.

But the other things I’d tried weren’t working, so I figured I’d ask my community if they wanted a course. The results were staggering: 1,000 people quickly pre-registered for the course, and ten-fold that had signed up by the time I finished creating and published it.

To put that in perspective: more people signed up for a 6-week course and gave me – a stranger on the internet – their email address than shared an article about the same subject on Facebook.

In the six or so months that the course has been active, I’ve been able to read hundreds of people’s perspectives on SJD. Short recap: it’s a thing. All over the US, and in about a dozen countries around the world. SJD is a helluva thing.

And despite thousands of people signing up for the course, we’ve also seen just how powerful the “don’t talk about it” pressure is. Because most of the people who complete the course don’t change their stance on that front. If they were afraid to talk about it before, they tell me they still are – maybe even more so – after completing the course.

People take the course, it gives them a lot to think about, they generally like it, then they go back to not talking about these things in their communities.

It’s like everyone is waiting for someone else to go first. They know the first one through the wall gets bloody.

As soon as I started publicly talking about SJD I privately stopped accepting gig requests that I felt were advancing SJD. What I mean is that if someone wanted to bring me in to speak or perform on their campus, I wouldn’t say “Yes” if what I thought they were asking for would contribute to dogmatic activism.

This was a hard decision for me for many reasons, chief among them are my livelihood for almost 10 years has been speaking and performing. It funded all the other resources I created, and has fed me (and my pups!). I also loved doing those shows and keynotes, and traveling and hearing from people about their struggles and successes in social justice land all around the world.

But it felt like a plain and simple ethical boundary: I couldn’t keep being part of the problem.

I did a couple of gigs with that caveat, then I realized that I wasn’t going far enough. My keynote, or my show, was often sandwiched between two things that were laced with SJD, and in that context I knew that everything I was saying could easily be interpreted as Tenets of SJD.

Like so many things, it’s not enough to opt out of being part of the problem. I realized that unless I was actively trying to solve it, my complicity was enabling its momentum.

That’s when I stopped doing my shows and started to only accept gig requests that were directly about SJD, or, even better, about dismantling SJD (i.e., I would do “Social Justice, Minus Dogma” gigs).

In the past year and a half, this has resulted in me turning down about 400 gigs. I’ve accepted 2. Big yikes.

In my mind now, all of these twists and turns feel obvious. And the underlying currents affecting all three endeavors – the attempts at writing articles, the podcast, the gigs – aren’t just interconnected, they’re one in the same. Hindsight combined with all the things I’ve read about SJD since starting this – all the emails and form responses and comments and research – has me confidently saying “How could it have gone any other way?”

I think I know exactly what’s going on here. What’s behind all the weird.

When I started talking about SJD I felt like I was beginning a journey to a particular destination. But instead of getting anywhere I just kept hitting dead end after dead end.

And now it feels like those dead ends were the destination. I had to hit them, each of them, to see how they felt and looked and sounded and more. I had to know, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, there wasn’t a there there.

That exploration has moved me from being an answer-less wonderer to someone who has a lot to say. More than can fit in one article, or be crammed into a single episode of a podcast.

I still don’t think I have all the answers regarding SJD, or the idea of moving beyond the dogma to living social justice. I do, however, have a few. And, more importantly, I know what questions we need to be asking.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be using this blog as a platform for just that. I’ll be asking the questions about Social Justice Dogma that I think we need to start answering – as a community, movement, and/or group of disparate people bound together on a path toward equity.

I’m doing this here because it’s a better place for public thinking than It’s Pronounced Metrosexual. On IPM, I have a much larger reader base, I more often publish finished work where I’m sure I know what I want to say, and therefore it’s a place where the risk of my own ideas being received and shared as gospel are higher than here.

With a big election this year, and the feeling that we’re teetering on the cusp of either a tremendous cultural breakthrough or horrendous cultural backslide – and seeing social justice, intersectional feminism, and all the dogmatic activism spreading like a virus within both playing a large role in that fate – I’m filled with a sense of urgency to collect all of these thoughts and get them into the world.

So by writing and publishing a new post every day here for at least this month, I’ll be taking my own advice, and publicly blogging a book about Social Justice, Minus Dogma.

If you want to follow along, you can subscribe to get every post as I publish it (or a weekly digest).

I’d also love to hear what you think is going on with all this SJD stuff in the replies. My hope is that this is a big conversation – the beginning of the public conversation I’ve been struggling to start for two years.

Because while all my efforts to talk about Social Justice Dogma have so far been anti-viral, I also believe that talking about Social Justice Dogma will be anti-viral. If that doesn’t make sense now, it will soon.

👋 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.