Before you claim to be effective in any kind of systemic anti-abuse work, you need to understand the concept of complicity. Thankfully, it’s not a very hard concept to understand. Even better, there’s a very simple test for whether or not you actually understand it as deeply as I think you need to in order to do effective anti-abuse work.
That test is this: if you think you understand complicity, but you don’t often experience or have rarely, if ever, experienced an almost paralyzing terror when you think about it, then you don’t really understand it.
When I talk about “complicity,” what I’m talking about is behavior that fails to lessen the impact of abuse. That’s an intentionally broad definition, and I use it because it’s a much higher standard of ethical (“anti-abusive”) behavior than the gold standard of such behavior in even self-proclaimed “anti-oppression” communities. For instance, this definition of complicity explicitly includes inaction as part of complicity with abuse.
Let’s look at that test again: if you don’t feel completely, utterly, gut-wrenchingly, physically sickened when you think about your complicity with abusive dynamics, you don’t actually understand your complicity in said abusive dynamics. Since most people, even and perhaps especially most “social justice” bloggers, don’t understand their complicity in abusive dynamics, very few people actually experience this. Further, when most people, even and evidently most “social justice” bloggers, begin thinking about this, what they invariably do is publicly broadcast that they feel guilty about their previous “uneducated/ignorant” state and the actions they took at that time.
Feeling guilty is certainly an understandable and valid emotional response to examining one’s own complicity in abusive dynamics, but it’s not a very useful one. Moreover, broadcasting your personal guilty feelings as part of a public confessional is worse than useless. Doing that shifts attention away from minimizing complicity and refocuses attention on how bad you feel and aren’t you a good person for feeling so bad, which is one way people prevent social change; it’s a derail. In cultures where minimizing complicity is actually prioritized, guilt-focused behavior in response to one’s complicity would be socially dissuaded. In ours, it’s hegemonically encouraged.
In fact, how you feel and what you do when examining your own complicity—what you experience about yourself when you face your own abusiveness—is a good indication of how dangerous you are to others due to your complicity. The more your complicity frightens you, the less likely you are to act in ways that abuse other people or in ways that enable abusive social dynamics. On the other hand, you may feel so confident, so self-assured, so utterly and unwaveringly certain that you’re in no way complicit that you proudly, publicly, and unabashedly decree that you “have never commited…any kind of abuse” like Cliff Pervocracy has done; such people are downright predatory.
One way to understand awareness of complicity more fully is by contrasting it with a related and equally misunderstood idea: “being accountable.” Frustratingly, “accountability” has become an all but meaningless buzzword for social justice hobbyists (that is, people who engage in what I call “pop social justice”), such as those on Tumblr.
In the pitiable Internet social justice filter bubble where you may currently be having most of these conversations, “being accountable” means publicly accepting responsibility for some abusive or otherwise oppressive behavior. It’s also used to mean acknowledging a privilege (such as “male” or “white”) through a rigidly prescribed set of social rituals. Importantly, this “accepting accountability for” is definitionally something one does after one commits some abusive act or claims some oppressor identity. This is in sharp contrast to “awareness of complicity,” which is definitionally something we are trying to do to prevent abusive or oppressive behavior from existing in the first place as much as possible.
It’s also important to understand the purpose of these rigidly prescribed social rituals, because they are one way many people are complicit in abuse. The rituals that activism hobbyists perform together was perhaps best summarized by Andrea Smith in her essay, The Problem with Privilege:
In my experience working with a multitude of anti-racist organizing projects over the years, I frequently found myself participating in various workshops in which participants were asked to reflect on their gender/race/sexuality/class/etc. privilege. These workshops had a bit of a self-help orientation to them: “I am so and so, and I have x privilege.” It was never quite clear what the point of these confessions were. It was not as if other participants did not know the confessor in question had her/his proclaimed privilege. It did not appear that these individual confessions actually led to any political projects to dismantle the structures of domination that enabled their privilege. Rather, the confessions became the political project themselves. The benefits of these confessions seemed to be ephemeral. For the instant the confession took place, those who do not have that privilege in daily life would have a temporary position of power as the hearer of the confession who could grant absolution and forgiveness. The sayer of the confession could then be granted temporary forgiveness for her/his abuses of power and relief from white/male/heterosexual/etc guilt. Because of the perceived benefits of this ritual, there was generally little critique of the fact that in the end, it primarily served to reinstantiate the structures of domination it was supposed to resist.
By performing the confession ritual Smith describes happening in these workshops, people who fancy themselves “social justice activists” engage in a transaction that temporarily trades whatever systemic power they may have had outside of the workshop’s context (such as the ability to command more cultural and social attention as a result of their whiteness, or to more forcefully direct community governance processes as a result of their maleness, etc.) in exchange for some social accolades (such as acceptance to the workshop space, friendships with the workshop participants, and public recognition from those who already command respect) within the workshop context.
This is a fundamentally corrupt, and corrupting, process.
In the case of many public “social justice” and “activist” communities (what I call a “Scene”), these “workshops” are always happening, all the time, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, three-hundred-sixty-five days a year. Since the people in these communities (people I call “Scene’sters”) are living their entire existence within the context of this ongoing workshop, the workshop’s rules are constantly in effect, and they begin conforming to—policing themselves under—the social norms they learned from others when they began attending said workshops. Much as many adults immediately gender infants and subsequently police them so they conform to their assigned gender’s role, social justice clicktivists reflexively label people and subsequently police them so their behavior will conform to their assigned identity’s subcultural norm (i.e., “ally” or “marginalized person”).
Twisted by the hubris and ignorance of these “pop social justice” enforcers, their anti-oppressive ideas stop being interpreted as suggested ethical principles (if they were ever understood as such) and are perverted into yet another system of social control through authoritarian law. This is no different than how every major religious doctrine has been used by overzealous rule-worshippers who held themselves above reproach to oppress “non-believers” throughout human history. By prioritizing adherence with the rules of social norms—any rules of social norms at all, for there is no universal set of social norms that are inherently “anti-abusive”—over minimizing complicity in abusive dynamics, these activists ignorantly re-enact the very same abusive dynamics they claim to be resisting.
Worse yet, the “rules” of “correct” social justice-y language were not created in an anti-oppressive vacuum themselves, and yet they are rarely examined for their impact on people who must still survive in a world oppressing them. Time and again, the people social justice Scene’sters most forcefully police within social justice Scenes are the people with the least amount of power both inside of and outside of that Scene’s context. One of my friends tells a story of a youth organization wherein trans young women of color were most strictly policed for behaving in ways that were seen as “oppressive” by the white cis adults who were themselves given the most leeway for the very same behavior.
Moreover, since these communities are also living under the specter of capitalism, the constant enforcement of this social ruleset inevitably results in some social justice Scene’sters caricaturing themselves as “professional but struggling activists.” And just as capitalism ensures happens in other industries, it’s virtually without exception that these “professional but struggling activists” are also the social justice Scene’sters who already have the most resources (the start-up capital) to devote to the growth of their popularity and online following. Like their kin, the “professional but starving artists,” the people behind these public personae quickly become invested in, and thus indebted to, this corrupt social-capital economy; they have relatively little investment in effective social change than they do in prioritizing their activist career path because radical social change would functionally obsolete their self-employed business goals. Social justice Scene’sters are simply a federation of individuals acting like one-person NGOs participating in what they stupidly believe is a benign analog to the Non-Profit Industrial Complex.
Continually performing the expanding set of pre-approved and increasingly arcane social rituals, in the right way, with the right words, becomes an integral component of their reputation as activists. This obsession with these correct expressions is both explicitly used to define the borders of “safer spaces” even while that very same function (policing others’ language—i.e., its use as a tone argument) is simultaneously denied. Publicly flagging “accountability” primarily serves the purpose of preemptively “confessing” privilege to an unknown and ultimately unknowable public they hope will continue to expand as they gain increased favor within the petty circle-jerk of their Internet social justice “community.”
One place you can observe a great example of such an aspiring professional activist doing this is self-proclaimed “Consent Culture™ Warrior” Kitty Stryker’s Patreon.com profile. There, as part of a fundraising effort, she describes herself as “an adorable glittery tornado of personal growth & accountability who writes stuff.” In fact, she’s even got a tag on the Consent Culture™ blog for “accountability.” In contrast, there is literally only one instance of her ever explicitly addressing “complicity,” and, of course, it references other people’s complicity (in a porno review, no less), not her own:
“I do like that there’s not that horrible trope of “you’re not a real man”. The men shown here are city boys and sports lovers who are there to address, via their flesh, their crimes of complicity in the patriachy (sic.)…”
Note also her unexamined legalism, i.e., her hyperfocus on the adherence to a set of rules. In this way, she frames complicity first and foremost as a “crime” for which those responsible must be held accountable to some external authority figure. That’s to be expected coming from the authority-fetishists so many BDSM practitioners like Kitty Stryker really are, but it’s nonetheless worth explicitly criticizing.
One way Scene’sters like Kitty Stryker deflect this criticism is by paying extensive lip service to the idea that “we’ve all been abusers.” Yet, by intentionally remaining in permanent brainstorm mode, she only addresses the concept of complicity with vague bumper sticker slogans (like “Consent Culture™”) using half-formed ideas that have no internal logic whatsoever and simply mirror a reader’s incomplete articulations back at them. That sounds good, and it sounds even better when delivered with such confidence, but it’s not novel, or interesting, or even relevant; Kitty Stryker’s blog, along with her fellow Scene’sters’ writings, is full of (sh)it.
In some ways, another example of such an aspiring professional activist with a public persona is me. Take a look at the website I use to ask you for money, but also for shelter and food, since that’s what I use money for: Cyberbusking.org. The salient difference is that the contents of my public works and analysis are self-critical without expounding on my personal feelings of guilt, as opposed to Kitty Stryker’s and other Scene’sters’ writings, which are mostly criticisms of other people and still riddled with performative angst. I mean, fuck, I’m writing a blog post as a critique of social justice activists who use blog posts to talk about social justice. If this doesn’t seem inherently self-critical to you, I can’t imagine you’d interpret anything I ever write that way. Moreover, readers who have even the tiniest bit of perspective can also clearly observe a radical shift in my political stances over the years; this kind of personal and political upheaval is what authentic self-criticism is supposed to do. Unless you, dear reader, spend the majority of your energy intentionally trying to shout me down with derailing tone arguments, it should be obvious to you that my entire blog is a project centered on the practice of self-critique.
Now, if you feel some kinship with someone you observe critiquing their own beliefs, it is likely that you will also experience their critique of the beliefs you both share as personal criticism against yourself, too. But rejecting ideas presented in other’s self-criticism because questioning your core belief structures frightens you is the height of personal cowardice. So it’s no surprise that many who read my work respond with violently irrational rejection. I suspect what the cowards living out their fantasy of a 24/7/365 “social justice” workshop are really interested in reading are my confessions of sins of privilege, or how I confess to the realization that breaking this rule or that rule they’re still policing themselves under was bad, and wrong, and oppressive of me. *boo-scary-ghost-hands*
Constant self-critique is the core discipline we must practice in order to effectively mitigate our complicity with abusive social dynamics. Taking a really close, even brutally maso-fucking-chisticly honest look at what actions we take, in what context, and why, and then making a judgement about ourselves and our behavior that’s grounded in an ethical system we hold ourselves to is what examining complicity looks like. There is no greater authority than yourself who you can or should turn towards to do this work for you, and obsequiously seeking one out is pathetically lazy. Further, it is valid for you to conclude that supporting other people, or staying inactive and thus allowing an abusive status quo to reassert itself is the right thing for you to do, but just because you choose what’s right for you does not magically absolve you of your complicity.
The arbitrary rules (social norms) of any given community (like “it is never okay to intentionally trigger people”) certainly inform my personal inquiry into what behaviors I believe to be moral, but they do not define my ethical sensibilities. Likewise, the principles of any ideological frameworks I find valuable (like anti-oppression’s foundational idea of “for any given sociological facet, a person is generally categorizable into a distinct demographic group that is either privileged or oppressed”), also inform a greater understanding of the context in which my behavior has an impact, but I do not hold them as inviolable edicts from which every action I take regardless of individual context must be determined. Treating any rule (or “standard of accountability,” in the language of pop social justice) as inviolably sacrosanct because it is a rule enables abusive social dynamics to mutate with such overwhelming speed that even “anti-abuse” advocates do not realize how what they are doing enables abuse.
Clearly, most abuse enablers—regardless of their privileges and experiences of oppression—do so without premeditated intent to harm others, but this does not make their behavior harmless. In the case of anti-abuse rule-worshippers, their rule-worship is itself an enabling behavior that they do not recognize as such until they are given (often from some trusted rule-writing authority) some different ruleset or framework or rhetoric that changes their behavior. However, without an understanding that rule-worship is itself an abuse-enabling behavior, it’s only a matter of time before the new ruleset is also perverted into another system of social control through authoritarian law, just like the old one. That’s why intentional, mindful rule-breaking is a fucking moral obligation.
So in other words: examining my own complicity does not look like self-flagellating in public using my conclusions as some kind of ritualistic confession for the benefit of people I don’t even fucking know exist. To those of you who still feel ready to cast the first stone (and I know you’re out there), I would quote a passage from the Bible.
To many self-proclaimed activists, “Doing Social Justice Right” often matters more than (or is incorrectly believed to be the same thing as) actually making people’s lives better. This is because, in the context of our various communities’ corrupt rule-worship, “Doing Social Justice Right” has more easily quantifiable benefits—and resources ranging from money, to social accolades, to a self-gratifying self-image are all benefits—than growing personally meaningful, mutually beneficial, and autonomous relationships with individual human beings. But the whole fucking point of “social justice” is supporting individuals (not demographics) through their personal hardship. Just because you aren’t seeing someone do this doesn’t mean they aren’t doing it.
Failing to support others in ways they find personally supportive is complicity. Society’s public squares (such as the open Internet) won’t be a good place for supporting individuals unless and until we all meaningfully support one another when we publicly display vulnerability, or ask for help. And to do that, we must internalize the important distinction between directing our precious anger at “strangers” versus directing it at “the public.”
It may be tempting to level negative emotions appropriate to big, horrible, amorphous things like structural oppression at individuals who don’t follow your specific Social Justice Ten Commandments, and it’s certainly safer to do that as part of a dog pile when many other “social justice warriors” are doing the same. But that doesn’t make you virtuous. It makes you a bully.