I recently followed someone on Twitter because a friend had recommended them as a voice to listen to if I wanted to learn more about a particular political issue. But just a day or two later, I found myself unfollowing this new person. They relied heavily on the types of guilt trips and emotional manipulation that I can no longer tolerate, but that are so insidious in activist and social justice circles.
I get it. We want to do the right thing. We want to help people. We get frustrated when we see people ignoring issues that are important to us.
But we can’t use guilt trips and emotional manipulation to motivate people into political action. For one, it opens the path to further toxicity and abuse that feeds off a foundation of anxiety and vulnerability that disproportionately afflicts already marginalized people. For another, I just don’t find it an effective way to form lasting relationships where people are internally motivated to provide support.
Besides, there are many reasons why I may not have taken action, why I might not have made a statement, or why I haven’t retweeted something. I might not have seen it. It might already be all over my timeline or discussed in private. It might include graphic images or recordings of violence, and I don’t want to retraumatize people with that. None of that means that I don’t care about the issue.
These guilt trips take many forms, but these are some of the most common structures I see, along with how I’d phrase the sentiment without relying on emotional manipulation, as well as an explanation of why I think it’s shitty to use that particular framing.
Instead of “If you support x, then you must do y,” try saying, “Here are some ways to support x.”
Even many experts disagree on the best course of action for remedying social issues. Besides, victims may not all agree on what constitutes “justice” for them. Acting like there’s only one way to support a cause puts undue pressure on people to take that particular course of action. That pressure is especially problematic when the support goes toward an organization that doesn’t have a good track record, or when an article to be shared is couched in oppressive rhetoric that further marginalizes people.
Instead of “If this were happening to x group, everyone would be outraged, but because it’s happening to y group, no one cares,” try saying, “This issue is underrepresented in mainstream media.”
Almost every time I see this rhetoric, it’s not even true: that terrible thing has likely happened to x group, and people still don’t care. I see this leveraged a lot against Black people in particular, which is shitty for a couple reasons: (1) It assumes that hypervisibility is a privilege when it is in fact another form of erasure and is not actually preferable to invisibility, and (2) It’s used as a wedge to drive marginalized communities apart, when we should instead recognize our common humanity and struggles and work together to dismantle oppressive structures.
Instead of “No one is talking about this,” try saying, “I’m boosting the voices of some people covering this issue and providing justice for the victims.”
It’s easy to say that no one’s talking about something, but the truth is that most of the time, someone has been talking about it—it’s just that people haven’t been listening. But by saying that no one’s talking about it, you’re erasing the work and effort of activists already on the field. By shifting the focus to boosting voices, you acknowledge the work that’s already been done while bringing the conversation to the forefront.
I believe the best allies are people who are internally motivated to help because they have been given the agency to make that decision for themselves. They aren’t acting out of a fear of consequences, but rather a genuine belief in the cause. Emotional manipulation and guilt tripping only serve to make people act out of anxiety. It’s a shallower understanding of the issue that leads people to feel burnt out and make fear-induced mistakes.
Much as social media has made it easy for opinions to be polarized or turn into all-or-nothing arguments, the truth of the world is that it’s hardly ever that easy. It’s okay to take your time listening, learning, and familiarizing yourself with the nuances of a situation before providing your viewpoint, if you decide to enter the conversation at all. In fact, if it’s not something that affects you—if you are acting as an ally to the community, rather than an affected member—it’s okay to stay in your lane. It’s even the best course of action a lot of the time. You can still do a lot from that position.
Social issues are complicated, tangled, and emotional for many people. It’s fine and normal to feel emotional about an issue. Anger is okay, and using that anger to fuel your support for justice can be productive. But if you’re outraged all the time or angry for the sake of being angry, you can burn out very quickly. It’s okay to tap out for self-care. And because these issues are so emotional, it’s okay to take some time to parse through the nuances and have no opinion or a nebulous opinion as you’re evaluating the situation. It’s okay to take the time to learn. The most effective community support comes from listening to what the affected people actually want and learning about their situations, rather than jumping in assuming you know what’s best for people.
In the end, I still return to the common metaphor I’ve heard for engaging with social justice: You need to put your own oxygen mask on before you help someone else with theirs. You’re no use to anyone if you’re stretched so thin that the lightest touch will snap you apart. We can’t fight every battle or understand everything perfectly; in fact, the more different an experience is from yours, the harder it will be to understand. But it’s more important to listen than to fully understand: You don’t need to empathize with someone so deeply that you can feel their exact experience; you simply need to ask, “What do you need?” and provide that for them.
You have skills, energy, and resources that are more efficient in some places than in others. It’s okay to direct yourself toward certain causes where your support can provide the biggest impact and boost other causes where your energy and resources have less of an impact.
It’s okay to learn, to take breaks, to turn off the outrage machine. You may feel guilty sometimes when confronted with your own privilege, and that’s part of understanding what privilege means and how to use yours to help others. Just beware of people who try to leverage that guilt and manipulate it. It’s hard to spot and would be the topic of an entire book if I had the time and energy to devote to the topic, but I’m still learning, too.
What I can say now, though, is this: It’s okay to take care of yourself. It’s okay to listen instead of speak. It’s okay to learn and make your own decisions instead of doing things only because you feel pressured to.
You got this.