I’m Not Sayin’ I’m Batman But…

“Deep down you may still be that same great kid you used to be. But it’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you.” – Rachel Dawes (Batman Begins)

batmanYeah, yeah, I just started with a Batman quote, and I tried to make it look all important and flashy-like. It isn’t the first time I’ve stolen lines from Nolan’s film, and it won’t be the last (because…wait for it…).

This post is really meant to be about social justice (again). Batman and social justice sort of go together, or rather, in my comic-book influenced pop culture brain, I can make them go together because it’s my blog and I get to do things like that. The part of the quote I’m focusing on is the “what you do” phrase, as this is what I get asked most often: How do you DO social justice?

I also realize I’ve written on that theme in prior posts. So spoiler alert: this post concludes by stating in giant, bold letters that there is no magic formula for “doing” social justice. There is no step-by-step method, there is no correct action, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Sorry peeps, that’s just how it goes sometimes. I realize writing the summertime blockbuster, 7 Steps for Dramatic Social Action, would probably be an easier and more lucrative way to make a living than what I do now, but it’s not going to happen.

There is, of course, a place and time for talking about specific action points – for example, when you have a Stalin-esque presidential candidate making a real bid for the White House, concrete plans need to be written. But this post is more about looking at the day-to-day work of social justice, the “behind the scenes” work if you will. The stuff some of us have figured out is essential to getting anything done, but also the stuff that many people overlook and even forget.

I’m talking about relationships here, the art of making connections, especially with people you might not like or agree with.

Recently I found myself speaking to a group of people in a workshop setting. I have been doing things of this nature for many years, which means I am no stranger to our version of professional heckling: the wide range of odd, unusual, and sometimes blatantly arrogant questions that can come our way. While all seasoned teachers learn various useful and not so useful ways to respond, most of the time what you don’t want to do is get into an argument. And I can say that as someone who got sucked into at least one argument in my greener years, and regretted it fully (another spoiler: the teacher always looks like an idiot when arguing with a student, even if the student said something remarkably stupid. Because you’re the teacher, and you will look like a raving adult lunatic who decided to yell at, say, a puppy).

The hard part is some people do seem to have it be their goal to generate the most irrational and controversial commentary to plop on your lecture doorstep, particularly during the last 5 minutes of your presentation because they know full well there will be no time for you to offer even a bemused grunt much less a thoughtful acknowledgement. Yet when the topic is related to social justice, it is also often the case that this curiously timed remark carries suffocating undercurrents of privilege which will also undermine and dismiss just about every other person in the room who isn’t, for example, a rich white heterosexual male. And let’s just say that in a room of thirty mental health professionals, there aren’t too many rich white heterosexual males running around,wile_3366650b which means your educational train has just crashed Wile E. Coyote-style into a ravine.

This sort of thing happens to me a lot. But this is also supposed to happen, because if I’ve created a room where people can freely speak their mind, it means people will be able to disagree with me. So to shut down such comments contradicts my purpose, which is to open space for dialogue. However, I am also in a dilemma of how to permit comments that also have the potential to get a lot of people very, very angry in a very, very short amount of time. This is the balancing act that has no formula; it is felt and experienced and sometimes you tip the scale in the wrong direction. But balance is essential to creating any hope of the “successful resolution” we all crave at that moment.

So while my ego would prefer I say something along the lines of, “shut your face,” I know that would add a lot of hydrogen to this bomb. Instead I acknowledge this will take a few minutes, but would the speaker permit me a few questions in the hopes of understanding better the purpose of their message?

In other words,  you took the floor, so let’s take a moment to find out what you are really trying to put out there. Are you feeling ignored? Are you trying to “level the playing field?” Are you responding to a history of being accused? Do you fear your voice will be diminished? Is this simply not for you? The point is, I have no idea what drives someone to do this, but I must attempt to find out – which means setting aside all the irritation, frustration, and even justified anger I may have at what they did. Because the only hope at that moment in returning the room to a place of understanding is to do just that – create a connection with the person who feels out of place.

Will this solve all the social justice problems out there? No. But does it work? Yes – well presuming I am trying to understand and not simply appease. But that’s the very thing we’re trying to get across in building community – I am baffled and curious at what is being thrown at me, and I am more interested in the person behind it than the weirdness of the words. I don’t want to reject the person, I want to connect with them, because perhaps in our connection there is more potential to recognize the many lies our walls have been built on; to see how our barriers were not erected by us, but rather by those who profit when walls are maintained.

That’s the moment in the room though. What happens next? That’s the work most people never see. The part where the person and I meet, have a conversation, get to know each other. The part where we share a joke. The part where we share about our lives. The part where we walk away knowing behind those initial comments rests a person, someone with fears and hopes, someone who is reconsidering their “certainties” now that there is a face to replace something that once existed only as a stereotyped caricature. The part where we ask each other for help. The part where we start working together because we want others to realize that it is through exploring our differences that we develop a true appreciation and interest for each other.

It’s social justice work, conversation by conversation. Yup, it’s slow. There is no magic formula for “doing” social justice. Go figure it out, one person at a time.

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Let’s Go, Tarantino

As usual, life continues to present many opportunities to talk social justice. While my work world is opening more avenues for continuing the work of social justice, the news presents plenty of chances to embark on a social justice-themed dialogue. I shall take a little journey here…

Enter good ol’ Quentin Tarantino. Full disclosure – I don’t know him personally and I’m not inclined to buy into media representations of any public figure’s personality. The press likes Tarantino because Tarantino makes headlines. He also makes a huge pile of money doing what he does. Not bad for an indie guy. While I know there are die-hard fans as well as die-hard critics, I don’t have any particular allegiances to him or his work. He’s made some things I really like (e.g. Reservoir Dogs, which I still think is the best thing he’s ever done for many reasons) and some things I couldn’t take (e.g. Django Unchained, except for the pre-lynching scene which was brilliant). I do suspect he’s pulled a publicity stunt from time to time. I also think he needs to come up with a better response about the whole violence-in-movies thing. And chances are he’s been highly misquoted on a fairly regular basis.

Even though I don’t really know him, I do know he’s a highly influential white male who commands the attention of many, many people in the USA. People give him money – producers, investors, and the general public. If someone in the USA doesn’t know his name, likely they’ve been buried in a concrete bunker for the last 20 years. Status? Powerful? Representative of the ideals of dominant society (i.e., the “American Dream”)? Unquestionably. Which is why this latest mess he’s caught up in is so important to look at as an expression of what happens in the USA when someone tries to confront this thing called Oppression.

So here’s the synopsis: Tarantino goes to rally about police brutality, makes comments about calling “murderers murderers” and now has at least 4 different police unions rallying to boycott his upcoming Hateful Eight as well as any other productions he makes in the future. Weinstein Co. originally called for QT to apologize for fear the film will lose money at the box office. Several news outlets have condemned his actions and the headlines are all about whether or not this spells “doom” for his latest film and career. Let’s add to this a plethora of comments on twitter and other websites calling him, “irresponsible,” “anti-police,” and especially the “we will come after you and scare you into silence” threats.

What’s really happening here? We could get into the semantics, where he’s accused of saying “all” cops are murderers, even though that isn’t actually what he said. We could get into whether or not he’s displaying some double standard as his films feature almost cartoonish violence yet he’s condemning police action. We could get into how some think a Hollywood director should stick to his day job and not have an opinion. We could get into the debate about whether or not he’s a jerk or an opportunist.

We could do all that, but we won’t. Because all of that is yet again an attempt to point the finger back at the individual, to put all the blame on the person who is trying to do one very clear thing: voice an injustice. Let’s look at the purpose of the #RiseUpOctober rally in the first place: like many other similar movements, it’s about bringing attention to the corruption and abuse of power displayed by mechanisms of authority in this country, namely the police. It does draw attention to specific officers who committed crimes (yes let’s remember these are crimes) by raping, beating, bullying, or (gasp) murdering those they were supposed to be protecting. It has also exposed serious, deliberate systemic measures employed by high-ranking officials in police organizations to exploit various communities they serve, which also just happen to be communities composed of largely Black and Latino populations. Essentially these rallies are efforts from various movements to change the system of power that has allowed such abuses to be built, implemented, and supported. (And if you happen to think none of these abuses have ever occurred, pull your head out of the deep, dark, wet pit of sand you’ve smothered yourself with and take a look around. Even members of the police are able to identify that such atrocities have occurred.) Un-“American” you say? Sorry, but protests of such nature are about as “American” as you can get. It is one of the ways a system of democracy offers its people (the governed) an ability to affect change on a power structure (the governing) that grows too strong (e.g. fascism).

Enter The Tarantino, a powerful white man who speaks out against a corrupt system. Now interestingly, when a person of color does this, we are also told to basically shut up and stop complaining. We are also told idiotic things like, “well if you’d just go along with what the police tell you, you wouldn’t be in such a mess.” The end result is to support the status quo and tell the person of color that they made the mistake in the first place. It’s a great use of modern power to render the mechanisms upholding power invisible while pushing the subjects of such power into center focus. It makes us responsible for our own hardships as well as keeping each other in line. As long as the person crying out is turned into the problem, society never has to examine itself. It is, to make the analogy, very much like what happens when adults abuse children; once the child tries to say “stop it,” the reply is, “shut up or I’ll give you something to really cry about.” Such a system also tries to convince the child that the abuse is therefore 1) the child’s fault and 2) something only the child can do anything about. Notice who no longer gets paid attention to: the adult who did the abuse in the first place.

What’s so interesting (for lack of a better word) in this Tarantino situation is that now we get to see what dominant society does to members of dominant society when they try to point out systemic injustices. To translate: “You must apologize” is really like saying, “how dare you point out that we’ve done something racist. Shame on you for making us feel embarrassed.” But steps are taken beyond that: pull support for his film, boycott the movie, threaten to “keep him in line”, and so on. It is a strong reaction that also communicates that stepping out of line will bring harsh consequences and we will take away all that privilege that you seem to have forgotten we gave you in the first place. Notice the message that gets supported if we stay in line – the current system is blameless, which includes making it okay to perpetuate things like racism, sexism, classism, and so on. I mean really, Police, is this really what you want to stand for? Are you meaning to say, “Yes, I want to be a racist cop?” It’s like watching a toddler in a corner throwing legos at babies while yelling things like, “but I want to kick the dog!”

I suspect the real reason though dominant society may fear a Tarantino-like figure making such a statement is exactly because the message is coming from not just a white male, but again a highly influential white male. Many people will pay attention to what someone like him says, which is an expression of the kind of power that comes with possessing multiple aspects of privilege. Someone who may not have paid attention to accusations of police brutality might now take a second look. And that means those who stand to lose something if the current system is challenged might actually lose something. It also communicates the idea that someone who does have greater access as a result of this privilege should act, should employ the power that comes with it towards making social change. Because the reality is that someone with a Tarantino kind of power could actually get something done, even in spite of the backlash. Those who already hate him will keep hating him, those who already love him will keep loving him – but it’s those in the middle, the undecided, who might get swayed, and that’s what we mean by power: the ability to influence. Power also means being able to exercise the choice to participate and to have your voice heard, things that get stolen as one loses access to privilege (oh yeah, that’s another way to define, “Oppression.”).

Do I think he should apologize? Normally I am all for reconciliation. This time though, I don’t think so. I am actually very happy to watch someone of his status take on this fight. Because in the end he will survive and we know it, whereas many others who fight, particularly people of color, don’t. So rock on, Tarantino. Make your actions match the caliber of your movies. Whether or not someone goes to see The Hateful Eight is immaterial. But if someone decides to get up and learn something, maybe even take action about the social inequality in this country as a result of what you’ve done – well that would be Oscar-worthy indeed.

What the heck is social justice, anyway…

It is probably an oddity that, coming up on almost 3 years of blogging about a social justice-themed film, I am just now putting out the question of “what is social justice.” I teach it, study it, practice it…yet I find myself back to the place of asking that question. Will I answer it here? Unlikely. But as is my habit, I write here to try to work this stuff out in my head…

Social justice gets a bad rap. When it is talked about on the news, it is usually paired with words like, “communist” and “progressives” and the newly-made bad word, “liberals.” Detractors try to associate it with anarchy and chaos, government overthrow, and the dismantling of society.

So in fairness, that’s because when social justice work is happening, it usually is calling out forms of oppression that occur at larger levels, such as in law, institution, policy, government. Social justice will look at educational systems, business practices, social practices, and just about any other existing system and how it serves to empower and disempower. Social justice attempts to address systemic injustice that results in the oppression of historically marginalized groups; thus it tends to focus on people who have experienced racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, and so on. When social justice activism works, you get things like marriage equality, which is a pretty big upheaval of the status quo.

So yes, social justice workers do tend to be loud rabble rousers who get people riled up. That’s because when you’re pointing out that someone is benefiting at the expense and exploitation of others, that person usually gets kinda pissed off. And they work really hard to shut you up, especially by trying to make you look like the crazy one doing all the shouting.

However, social justice workers can get pretty confused about their purpose too, which leads me to why I’m writing this today.

In my particular field, I’ve recently seen lots of work connected to social justice. What exactly is social justice? I think that question has a varied answer right now. It has referred to altering systems and the status quo to promote equal access to resources. I’ve also seen it connected to the process of dismantling harmful expressions of privilege and promoting privilege for those historically denied that status. Most closely associated with my own work, social justice emphasizes the reclaiming of voice that was robbed from communities rendered impotent from colonizing processes.

That’s a lot of big words. I think a simple point of view is that social justice attempts to correct social injustice. It requires acknowledgment that injustice does and will occur at systemic levels – social, political, governmental…injustice can be executed through law, policy, social discourse, normalizing practices, interpersonal dynamics…In other words, injustice can be enacted by a single individual, but it is also enacted by many individuals making up a larger social sphere. The injustice occurs because the acts undertaken maintain power for certain groups while diminishing the power of others. And this is not based on a merit criteria, but rather arbitrary distinctions like race, gender, class status, etc.

Really, I don’t think it’s that hard to understand. My students will kill me for saying that, because it’s one thing to understand the concept and another to see it live, and then even more to recognize that we are all affected by this process.

So the real question is “how do we do social justice?” That’s a much harder question, one that I’m struggling to find the answer to.

Here’s a snapshot of recent events in my life: Led a workshop for counseling students/new professionals about a process of reclaiming identity from oppression. Those participants created work that demonstrates their preferred identity and we held a gallery exhibit showcasing the work. Our student social justice organization has decided to become a regional organization to include people from many different fields and backgrounds. I’m working to change a professional organization from the inside out so it better reflects social justice principles. I recently went to Ferguson, MO to show the film and launch a project for declaring personal truths. Oh and I have that other job, the one where I teach class, interact with students, and occasionally supervise and counsel people. Am I “doing” social justice? There’s a big part of me (likely my inner rebellious punk that sits lazily in a chair flipping everyone the bird) that just isn’t interested in proving whether or not my work is work. So perhaps the real question for me is, does the work that I do accomplish what I hope it accomplishes?

Is there any one way to do social justice? Is it just one big act that gets lots of attention or is it lots of little acts? Does it matter if everyone follows your lead or if the few you’re affecting have experienced a change for the better? How do you do social justice in a way where it doesn’t inadvertently rob the voice of those you’re trying to support? When does social justice tip over back to just another form of colonization? How do you make sure the focus of social justice is on people and communities who need and want that support, instead of on the need for the worker to become the great “savior” of those people? Who “owns” social justice?

I don’t think those are easy questions nor do I have ready answers. I do think that whatever the method, we have to make sure that the people we think we are serving actually want what we’re offering, and that their voice is front and center in the process. Does what I’m attempting to do fit the context? How do decisions get made? Am I invited or intruding? Does it matter if it’s me who is required to get the job done, or is what I’m doing something that the community can take, learn from, and then build upon to suit their changing needs?

I used to shout a lot. Now I realize sometimes you need to shout, and sometimes you can do something else. Sometimes you can even do nothing. So while I’m still figuring out the answers to these questions, I’ll keep experimenting, I’ll get it wrong and maybe I’ll get something right. I’ve complained in the past that I feel like my generation of social justice workers is having to re-invent the wheel. It’s a complaint rooted in the desire to have someone help, have someone guide us. But now it seems it isn’t really a complaint; perhaps it is actually stating the obvious. We’re not “re-inventing” but inventing, because the context of today is different than it was 20, 40, 100 years ago. Racism still exists, but it looks and acts different and we have grown up getting to know it in a way that our ancestors did and didn’t. So we are finding our way, trying to learn from the past while plotting our own course. Maybe the real trick is to accept we don’t have all the answers and likely won’t.

So what is social justice? Still working on that one…