Am I A Social Justice Coward?


As a generation, we millennials are very concerned with ‘wokeness’, the desire and duty to be on top form when it comes to social and political matters: knowing and using the correct terms, supporting progressive stances and listening to marginalised voices. Because of this, we can often be drawn into confrontations – colleagues victim-blaming, relatives misgendering or a stranger spitting out a slur. I have found this can trigger a version of the flight or fight response: speak out or be silent. Do you jump to someone’s defence and challenge an outdated view? Or, like me, do you err on the side of caution, maybe even cowardice, and say nothing? After all, our parents always taught us to ignore bullies. I confess that I see myself as a Social Justice Coward. While I continue to educate myself as issues arise, I back away when faced with calling someone out. I cringe and bite my tongue under the weight of, let’s face it, complicity and pray for water-cooler small talk. I’m a coward and want to change this.

Like misery, cowardice searches for company so I reached out to Twitter, asking what they thought, why we might be too hesitant or cowardly to challenge people. Overwhelming, anxiety of the response seems to be the main reason – how will they react? Am I going to get laughed at or attacked? One friend advised that when calling her parents out, she was told she was ‘rude and had to apologise’. Calling someone out can be perceived as a personal attack because the personal and political aspects of our lives are so enmeshed, conversations that might otherwise be productive escalate into playground name-calling. If it’s not the anxiety of personal criticism, many fear being called out themselves. “If you speak out on one issue, there is an expectation to speak out on all issues”, Bella, a 26-year-old social media coordinator, mused, having seen this play out on social media. The authenticity of the challenge is scrutinised because you haven’t called out every example of sexism, racism or homophobia – why should you be listened to now?

If it’s not the quality of your ‘wokeness’ that is prodded and poked, it’s your knowledge. We’re afraid of stepping on people’s toes, encroaching on socio-political territory that we either don’t belong on or only have a very basic knowledge of. ‘So, I can’t say that – why not?’ These blind spots can be turned into ammunition, “those who stay silent have it easier”, Bella said – being a coward is easy. There are also the reputational repercussions that can inhibit being vocal about a cause: the words ‘sensitive’, ‘touchy’ and ‘snowflake’ are quickly bandied about. Few want to be friends with that person.

To overcome my personal cowardice, I needed to figure out how best to go about challenging and confronting people; I needed the theory before the practice. Calling out is like watching a child cling to their parent’s leg on the first day of school, refusing to untangle themselves from their outdated opinions. We have to do our best Miss Honey impression by coaxing them into the classroom of political correctness. While social media has become the principal battleground for call-out culture, this lends itself to shame rather than education, which should be at its heart. In the workplace “the options are quite extreme…an apology or a disciplinary” Nicholas, a 28-year-old counselling student, told me. Framing these conversations as punishments is ineffective and unproductive; it lends itself to resentment, even stubbornness to not change. Any challenges would be more effective if constructed as a private teachable moment.

Meeting an individual on a high confrontational level also makes the conversation likely to escalate. Rather as Holly, 27, said, it would be more effectual to meet them on a medium level: no less passionate or insistent but avoid appearing morally superior or opening yourself up to criticism. “Fear of being corrected in an inexcusable reason to not discuss”, Joanna, 26, said. While being able to recite the history of the gay rights movement or dissect rape culture in under two minutes might help, not having all the answers should not stop you from challenging someone’s behaviour. Admitting a gap in your own knowledge confers a sense of equality, the challenge and successive learning a joint experience. If you summon up the bravery to dismiss the coward within and remark on a slur but don’t know the correct term, discuss this, suggest looking into it together. The work, responsibility and result of the call-out is shared: everyone can do better.

Calling out is not one size fits all; calling out a co-worker might bear no resemblance to challenging a relative. Though it may feel like entering the lion’s den, we can develop strategies to conquer our Social Justice Cowardice and productively, vocally, confront people’s bigotry and biases. The greatest disservice we can do is nothing at all, giving in to our cowardice. I, the self-confessed coward that I am, know I have work to do: to face my own cowardice head-on and put what I’ve learnt into practice. I’ve seen positive questioning along the lines of ‘what is non-binary, can someone explain?’ in response to Demi Lovato’s coming out. While these are bookended by virtual snipes at correcting pronouns, call-out culture is improving. People are more open to asking and answering questions, without shame or cowardice and we should all work to be instruments of that improvement.

Words by James Reynolds

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