“You can’t call yourself an environmentalist if you eat meat.” Sound familiar? Virtually every social media post about climate change will have countless calls to “just go vegan!” in the comment section. This is a manifestation of a number of phenomena affecting social justice and climate activism spaces in 2021 – black and white thinking and purity politics for a start. We are at a critical point for the survival of humanity on a heating planet and there is no time to waste. We are also living through a time when we have never been more divided. How do we move past the finger-pointing and come together to rise to the challenge?
As earth hurtles towards irreversible tipping points, large sections of the environmental movement are allowing purity politics to take over the discourse. While we fight amongst ourselves, those who do not care about the consequences are carrying on with climate-wrecking business as usual. We know that the environmental movement is not exempt from all of the issues in society, like racism and ableism, and that ongoing critique and growth within our circles is vital. We also know that while the ecological crises are dire, there is still time to do something about it and prevent the worst effects of climate and social breakdown. How can we ensure we are directing our resources into change-making and avoid the temptation of purity politics?
Finger-pointing and purity politics
Most people want the world to change for the better and increasingly people are looking at the ways in which they can be a part of that change. Climate change is the biggest challenge the human race has faced. We are staring down the barrel of the gun, at extinction. Thanks to the fossil fuel industry, our collective understanding of what is happening (and how we got here) has come decades too late. Also thanks to the fossil fuel industry, we have been convinced that the responsibility for turning this calamity around lies with the individual. While we have spent the last few years trying to reduce our individual carbon footprint, we have missed opportunities to work together and take on the real culprits – the fossil fuel industry, big business and the 1%. This centring of individual lifestyle change has led to two unhelpful trends. A focus on conscious consumption, where individuals see their activism as simple ‘buying better’, and purity politics. Purity politics is what we get when individuals are constantly calling one another out for not being perfect at *insert sustainable lifestyle choice here*.
Add social media to the mix and you have a practice of individuals focussing on personal lifestyle changes and judging or shaming others who do not share their viewpoint or take the same actions. ICYMI, there is no ethical consumption under capitalism. You may have opted for an organic linen garment to reduce plastic pollution and the amount of carbon in the atmosphere but can you guarantee that the workers who grew the flax were fairly treated and paid? Or the garment workers who made them? And what about the owner and investors of the store you are spending your money in, what are they investing the profits of their business in? Is their clothing accessible to different body types? Do they have diverse leadership? Are their models diverse? How about the packaging their items are sent in? Is it reusable? And how does it get to you, do they ship internationally? You get the picture. We are all constantly weighing up Catch 22 decisions and attempting to catch one another out at every turn is unhelpful.
Activism isn’t a competitive sport
Once we start on that environmental and social justice track, we find the information coming in thick and fast. There are infinite infographics on every subject doing the rounds on social media and a person can find themselves going from ‘plant-based for the planet’ to ‘eat the rich’ in a surprisingly short amount of time. With that speed, though, we can forget that it wasn’t so long ago that we were eating McDonald’s on the regular, and find ourselves judging those around us for not being at the same place in their journey as we are. No one was born an environmental activist. For each and every one of us, there was a time when we did not understand the impact of all our actions. The ways in which we have learned about the climate and ecological crisis will be as individual as each person – through friends and family, through our local communities, through lived experience, on social media, at school or university. We have not all had the same information, nor have we all processed it in the same way.
In Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times, author Alexis Shotwell explains that “personal purity is simultaneously inadequate, impossible, and politically dangerous for shared projects of living on earth. Focusing on maintaining your own innocence or goodness is counterproductive”. Our individual perfection is not the goal, a thriving planet is.
Discourse in the digital age
The internet has changed everything. Never before have we had remote access to all the knowledge humankind has gathered to date. At our fingertips 24/7. This has had a profound effect on how we discuss important issues. Firstly, we have entered an era of intense polarisation. There is a tendency to judge one another on our stance on a single issue like, for example, “you voted Brexit therefore you must be racist, uneducated and gullible.” Everything is black and white, packaged up in an aesthetically pleasing graphic, and the shades of grey are thrown out the window. In reality, we live in the grey.
Outrage and reactionary activism
Glued to blue-lit screens, we are reminded on a loop that there is so much suffering in the world, so much to fix. It’s natural to want to react to every instance and our impulse to help is one of the most beautiful parts of the human condition.
During the Trump era, a trend of ‘rage donating’ or ‘actigiving’ emerged when outraged citizens made donations to causes they felt were especially at risk under the Trump Administration. Planned Parenthood, for example, reported receiving a staggering 80,000 donations just three days after the election. Rage donations feel good, you see a problem you are passionate about, you identify an organisation that can help and you contribute to their work. Job done.
We’re now witnessing a new iteration of that drive; reactionary activism. The news cycle is focused on yet another devastating conflict or extreme weather event. Giving a donation feels too far removed we want to do something. The problem is that nothing we do ever feels enough because the next call to action is hot on its heels. We feel trapped in a cycle of outrage and helplessness. Writing for Bad Activist Collective, Tammy Gan speaks so beautifully and succinctly of “reactionary activism that’s like a sparkler being set off: making a lot of noise when it first burns, then fizzling out without a sound”.
Another element of online culture that can impede progress is ‘cancel culture’ and public shaming, a first cousin of purity politics. There are many instances where a call to ‘cancel’ someone, excluding them from professional and social circles as a consequence of harmful behaviour is justifiable. What we are starting to see though, is a rallying cry for cancellation for minor or even trivial transgressions. Take Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s (AOC) much talked about Met Gala look, for example. Whether you think the statement gown was performative or provocative, the energy going into the commentary truly would be better put to use actually working out how to make necessary changes to tax legislation. The internet has us in its grip, summoning us to chime in on every news story so we spend more time online (watching ads…) which equals less time out in the real world channelling our outrage into solutions.
Of course, politicians, activists, NGOs and grassroots groups are not immune to problematic behaviours, and some form of call out or cancellation is really just accountability for that behaviour. Rather than branding them problematic in perpetuity, there needs to be space for people to apologise, grow and change. We are all still learning and unlearning and we all deserve a second chance.
As Mikaela Loach mused on the Yikes Podcast, “How can we expect society to be transformed and changed, if we don’t allow space for individuals to be transformed and changed?”
White Supremacy and Privilege
OK, so this is the one that might get me cancelled but I am putting it out there anyway. The ego-driven, purity politics crowd is primarily made up of white, privileged people. The judgey vegans are mostly white as are the holier-than-thou zero wasters. The inclination to turn activism or philanthropy into a competition or an opportunity to ‘one up’ each other is rooted in a White Supremacist-Christian-Colonial value system. You know, those patriarchal “I know best” vibes. And I’m not the only one, just hours after I noted that down I was listening to The Guilty Feminist podcast and guest Nova Reid, author of The Good Ally, stated that “perfection is a product of white supremacy”.
Those of us wrapped in layers of cosy privilege, our view of the world obscured by said privileges, see ourselves in an almost parental role, entitled to critique every business, every NGO, every individual to the enth degree. The finger-pointing seldom comes from the frontline where activists are not just fighting for “the planet”, they are fighting to save their lives, their communities, their livelihoods, their food sovereignty.
Critique belongs in every social justice movement
This is not a call for less critique, rather for better critique – considered, constructive and compassionate. Purity politics comes from a place of ego, it is imperative we replace that with more something more collaborative and empathetic. More constructive critique will help us to foster an atmosphere of trust that encourages transparency. When people are afraid of being judged or cancelled for their shortcomings, they are less likely to want to own up to their own moments of bias or harm.
What can we learn from the #DefundthePoliceMovement movement?
#DefundthePolice and the Abolitionist movement aims to eradicate police violence and mass incarceration by diverting funding away from police and prisons and into communities in the form of education, social welfare, healthcare and other services that allow communities to thrive. The Abolitionist movement has grown since the Black Lives Matter movement gained traction and supporters began to look for solutions to the broken relationship between the police and the Black community.
In most nations, our approach to criminal activity is a punitive one. A person commits a crime and then they receive punishment for that crime. The punishment is meant to act as a deterrent but overcrowded prisons tell us that it’s not working. Incarceration itself causes harm. It takes away a person’s human rights. Prisons can be violent, they remove parents from their children and criminal records affect a person long after their time has been served through policies that prohibit them from working in a host of jobs or from living in particular areas. This keeps people trapped in vicious cycles of poverty and crime.
The theories of restorative and transformative justice take a different approach. Instead of treating a crime as an isolated incident, restorative and transformative justice ask us to look at the context too. The focus of transformative justice is on healing; healing survivors, healing perpetrators and healing communities.
Rather than a culture of blame and punishment, transformative justice is about accountability. The goals of transformative justice are:
> Safety, healing, and agency for survivors
> Accountability and transformation for people who harm
> Community action, healing, and accountability
> Transformation of the social conditions that perpetuate violence – systems of oppression and exploitation, domination, and state violence
There is a lot we can all learn from this philosophy, particularly the lessons around accountability. In transformative justice, when vengeful punishment is off the cards those who perpetrate harm have less need for defensiveness and are encouraged instead to be accountable and then given the space and the resources to heal themselves too. Purity politics is not too dissimilar in that it creates defensiveness in the person who is being judged and closes them off to accountability and transformation.
No-one says it quite as beautifully as Adrienne Maree Brown, author of “We Will Not Cancel Us”. She describes cancel culture and the punitive justice system, “Canceling is punishment, and punishment doesn’t stop the cycle of harm, not long term. Cancellation may even be counter-abolitionist…instead of prison bars we place each other in an overflowing box of untouchables – often with no trial – and strip us of past and future, of the complexity of being gifted and troubled, brilliant and broken. We will set down this punitive measure and pick each other up, leaving no traumatized person behind.
We will not cancel us. But we must earn our place on this earth.
We will tell each other we hurt people, and who. We will tell each other why, and who hurt us and how. We will tell each other what we will do to heal ourselves, and heal the wounds in our wake. We will be accountable, rigorous in our accountability, all of us unlearning, all of us crawling towards dignity. We will learn to set and hold boundaries, communicate without manipulation, give and receive consent, ask for help, love our shadows without letting them rule our relationships, and remember we are of earth, of miracle, of a whole, of a massive river – love, life, life, love.”
Making Positive Assumptions
So, BP and Shell are fair targets for some green-trolling and well and truly deserving of cancellation. But, imagine how different conversations with individuals who have different beliefs to you would be if you believe the best about one another? Positive assumption asks us to go into a conversation with the assumption that the other person has good intentions. Until they categorically prove you wrong. Rather than approaching a conversation as an opportunity to assert our own opinion and showing up to battle with an arsenal of supporting evidence, could we shift to a goal of understanding the other person, armed only with genuine empathy and curiosity?
Take the example of someone who is in favour of keeping their diesel-guzzling vehicle and cynical about public transport or EVs as an example. Rather than deciding this is a person who only cares about themselves and is ignorant to the realities of the climate crisis, decide instead to ignore those niggling negative assumptions and simply ask them about their experiences and what makes them sceptical. You may discover that they live in a rural area, where public transport is unreliable. Or perhaps they live with a lot of anxiety and mass transport is triggering or uncomfortable for them. Scratching beneath the service will unearth what is behind their views. At this point, you can empathise with them and validate their experiences and fears and then continue a discussion about how transport in a green future could accommodate someone with these concerns. This is much more likely to encourage them to think differently than an accusation of selfishness or a dismissal of their lived experiences.
Response, not reaction. Campaigns, not comment sections.
The world isn’t going to be changed by one individual drop in the ocean, we need to organise collectively and make waves. The question we should be asking ourselves when we find ourselves confronted with something we want to change is “how do I want to respond to this?”. Our immediate reaction will likely be a strong but fleeting emotion like anger, frustration or sadness. Where anger might prompt some finger-pointing, sitting with ourselves a little longer while we allow the anger to wash over us might inspire something more or it may even lead to the decision to let this one go. Resorting to purity politics might feel good in a heated moment, but it doesn’t lead to satisfactory outcomes and may even worsen a situation.
Whether it is the latest fast-fashion greenwashing campaign, a heinous new government policy proposal or your favourite influencer sharing a not so great take, if you see something that you passionately believe needs to be addressed, chances are you are not the first or only person to feel that way. Find out whether there is already a collective effort like a campaign or group you can join forces with. Or if you are already part of a group, you could add it to the agenda.
Ordinary people always have risen up to fight unjust and inequitable systems through strategies like protests, strikes, boycotts, politics, charity and revolution. Activists are not only striving for climate justice and nature restored, but we also to create a joyful world. And we don’t have to wait until we reach any campaign milestones; we can start all of that right now by rejecting ego-driven tactics, like purity politics, and instead being softer and kinder to ourselves and each other and lifting each other up so we can heal and build that world as a collective.
IMAGE: via MSNBC | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: Three black and white images of Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez at the 2021 MET Gala Ball. The images are separated by two thick red lines. The first image is a close up showing one side of Ocasio Cortez’s face and one, showing just a small part of her white off the shoulder dress. She is tilting her head slightly to one side and smiling. She has her hair back in a slick bun and she is wearing simply hoop earrings. The second image is a full-length view of Ocasio Cotez showcasing her gown in full. She has her back to the camera to show the back of her dress which has the words ‘Tax the Rich’ emblazoned across it. Her face is looking over her shoulder at the camera and she is smiling. The third image is a close up of AOC’s purse and shows just her hands and purse, the purse also has the words ‘Tax the Rich’ written on it.
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