The Paradox Of Social Justice Culture: We Learned To Be #Woke And Forgot To Be Kind

08/03/2017 12:06 pm ET Updated Aug 07, 2017

This one goes out to myself and my fellow individuals working for a better world. Sometimes, along the way of fighting for our important values, we forget to exercise them in our daily lives.

Photo by Maryum Elnasseh

I was twelve and a half years old when I discovered the world of Tumblr. Tumblr circa 2011, though, was another world entirely. It operated on Rule #1 of Tumblr (also known as the Golden Rule of Tumblr): you should not talk about Tumblr outside of Tumblr; it was home to many fandoms; and it was the peak of hipster culture. It was also really cheesy. Like, really. I’m talking dramatic-pictures-with-inspirational-quote-typographies-on-top-of-them level of cheesiness. Despite the cheesiness, it was, mostly, a culture of kindness. Day and night, when I scrolled through my dashboard, I was constantly flooded with affirmations and an array of reminders to not judge others.

Eventually, of course, Tumblr changed, and so did I. As I grew older, I became more aware of my own passion for justice, as did many of my friends—both online and in person. My dashboard was no longer comprised of heartfelt quotes and note-card confessional videos, but rather educational and political posts that taught me more about current events than any social studies class in my public-school education ever had; and the conversations that I had in person with my friends often landed us into discussions on various social justice issues. We grew more and more “woke,” and we decided we wanted to change the world.

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In my experiences over the course of the past several years of being immersed in this “social justice culture,” I’ve noticed such a sharp contrast in the ways we communicate with each other—frankly, that we quite often just lack kindness. I’ve seen countless social media arguments turn into ugly attacks on physical appearances; Person A makes a racist statement and Person B replies with an “At least I have lips, Becky.” And honestly? I don’t feel awfully sorry about racist Becky’s feelings getting hurt, but what we oftentimes fail to consider is how many other people will see this exchange and be hurt by the comments if they too share physical characteristics—whether it’s lips, eyebrows, ears, nose, body size, etc.—with Said Problematic Person. It’s not that we always have to take the high road and be kind to everyone at all times—if someone says that black lives don’t matter or that all Muslims should be killed, we absolutely do not have to be polite or “be the better person” and waste time attempting to educate them. And if you want to reciprocate meanness to someone who’s being a racist POS, I’m not complaining. However, it’s imperative that in our attempts to fight back against hate, we do not end up unintentionally hurting others.

This extends way beyond our social media presences and how we communicate with each other. It’s about remembering that our day-to-day actions matter too, not just our bigger dreams of changing the world. Maybe you fight for women empowerment and increasing girls’ access to education, but do you spend time with your mother? Do you make her feel important and loved? You’re trying to end world hunger and reduce income inequalities, but do you give money to, or at least smile at, homeless individuals that you encounter, or do you look the other way and treat them as if they’re invisible? You care about safety and security for immigrants and refugees, but do you treat your immigrant father with respect or do you shame him for his accent and mock FOBs in front of him? You want to change the world but are you there for your younger siblings? Do you listen to them?

I understand that I’m discussing different things—kindness and justice are not the same. Getting treated unkindly by others at some point in our lives is inevitable; we are not entitled to kindness from everyone we meet simply because we exist but we should have the right to, you know, not starve to death due to poverty and to have access to clean water and not be killed because of our skin color or religion or gender or sexual orientation. These things are clearly nowhere near comparison. But they should be stemming from the same source—empathy.

I was always surprised at the difference I encountered in the Tumblr community when I was first introduced to it during its remind-people-they’re-valued-at-all-times phase versus its let’s-end-global-injustice phase. I always thought that as we begin to value justice more, we would exercise it in our daily lives and grow to be more empathetic with one another, but it is ironic to see this not be the case.

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I don’t think kindness is necessarily more important than justice. If I had to choose between allocating my time and energy to tearing down oppressive systems and thus saving thousands of lives in the long run versus, say, smiling at a stranger, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose the former. But, fortunately, we don’t have to choose. We not only can, but should, be able to exercise justice and kindness simultaneously. If our love for justice is stemming from a place of empathy, then this should come with no effort—kindness will just be a side effect.

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As the need for justice everywhere increases, may we question our own intentions: do we correct others to truly help them understand, or to feel superior? May we think back to our own ignorance and how long it took us to understand what we now know, and may we use that to be more patient with others. May we be more mindful of the impacts of our everyday actions.

Here’s to hoping that we continue steadfast in our fights for justice and equality, that we stay woke, and that we always remember to be kind.

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