Social Justice vs. Outrage Culture

A friend of mine took to Facebook recently and posted “Social Justice vs. Outrage Culture: Discuss” which naturally incurred a firestorm of opinions. A lot of people had really intelligent points, but there was also people who blatantly supported rape apologist’s and loudly slut shamed. As someone who has spent a lot of time reworking my classist opinions into ones that are more representative of the sound from the ground, I would like to share what I have learned.

First and foremost, a little about myself. I’m a loud and proud feminist, I’m also a skinny white girl. I used to believe that voluntourism, humanitarianism, and putting an end to human trafficking were my life calling. Throughout my education, every single one of my opinions have been challenged; many have even been changed. I know that I am privileged to have been able to do all of this. I still make a point of challenging this point of privilege as often as I have the opportunity to do so.

The discussion got onto the topic of rape culture. One respondent discussed how many cases are he said she said and how recently there is a penchant to believe the woman. It held the tone of a Men’s Rights Activist. He called Emma Sulkowicz (the woman behind ‘Carry That Weight’) a liar. This is what I would call the ‘Outrage Culture’ side. The other side discusses how low the rate of false accusations are compared to how many victims exist, and how many women are even heard by the system. They were certainly more pro ‘Social Justice’. The problem I see with this two sided argument is that no one has discussed the link between the two issues.

All too often, Outrage Culture and Social Justice end up being the same thing. Stephen Hopgood does a fantastic job of outlining this idea in his book ‘The Endtimes of Human Rights’. Throughout the book he conflates liberal capitalism with human rights, he says they work together to develop a ‘market of suffering’. What happens here is that people with power and privilege take control of the narrative, claiming that they are helping those in need. What really happens is a switch in narrative that allows privilege to be maintained while survivors are called liars. Slut shaming is a perfect example of this. By telling someone that they should be dressed a certain way, or that they should have known not to go to their rapists home, you are taking the blame off the shoulders of the perpetrator. This maintains the moral balance and refutes any kind of change that may come out of the situation.

In the case of slut shaming, this has been loudly called out. Campaigns like Slut Walk and the White House Task Force that has been called to protect students against sexual assault are beginning to change this narrative. That being said there are still plenty of discourses still controlled by priviledged, patriarchal figures.

Take for example, the Trafficking vs. Migrant Sex Workers debate. The Toronto Migrant Sex Workers Project put on an art exhibit and discussion on this topic. Stories of sex workers were shared between discussions of academics and activists. This is a perfect example where the outrage culture / social justice groups like REED (Resist Exploitation, Embrace Dignity) promote campaigns like ‘Buying Sex is Not a Sport’ which are aimed at shaming women who are supposed victims of trafficking. In reality, the narratives of these women have been completely suffocated by the hype of morally superior activist groups. Professor Kempadoo discussed how anti-trafficking initiatives have historical roots in immigration control, control over sexual norms and control over monetary power. By claiming that sex work is immoral, these women could not possibly have chosen this as a legitimate career, but rather must be victims. By painting them with the victim brush, they become unable to ask for help in ways that would be useful to them. Much in the same light as self defence courses and wearing conservative clothing never helped victims of rape.

In the case of the sex worker, many of the stories shared by women in the industry portrayed strong women who were providing for themselves and their families. There is a demand for the work they supply, men in high positions of authority seek comfort and attention from these women. Yet somehow, even though they frequent these establishments, they are still morally superior. Calling these women victims of trafficking and deporting them does nothing to prevent the potential violence against them or withholding of wages. Tzazná Miranda Leal talked about how labour laws would be perfectly suitable to prevent many of the harms these women go through. As someone who works in the food service industry, sexual harassment and violence on the job and withholding of wages are issues I am all too familiar with. That being said, because I work what is considered by law to be a legitimate source of income, I have a place to voice my complaints. (Something I most certainly never thought I would feel privileged for!)

All of this being said, I definitely think that advocacy work can do wonders for those who are less privileged. Using my voice as a citizen who is protected by labour laws is my way of contributing to this change in discourse. I strongly believe that it is important to think critically about the social justice initiatives you take on and who they are actually helping. As a descendent of British Colonial history I carry the ideals with me rather heavily. Checking your privilege is a a lifelong process of unlearning. Thanks for reading this far and hopefully you’ve learned something from my revelations!


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