The Unpopular Work: The Importance of Continued Critical Engagement

Neetzan Zimmerman is a web curator who works for Gawker, though he previously ran the very popular news aggregate site The Daily What. In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Zimmerman commented that truth kills virality: “When speaking truth to Internet culture doesn't result in traffic … when that happens, I may lose my edge and I'll have to find something else to do."

Justice isn’t popular. It never really is. When it gets some traction in the mainstream, it’s not long before it’s been co-opted into a viral marketing scheme. Macy’s pledges to donate to children in need – but only if you bring your Santa letter to Macy’s and hopefully do some shopping while you’re there. TOMS will give shoes to people in need – but only if you buy a pair first. PetSmart will help homeless pets, but you have to donate to them at the check out counter before they can do it. Justice now comes with strings attached, with capitalistic bargains and hopes that you’ll help the company turn a profit and save its reputation at the same time. Billion dollar companies depend on you, the buyer, to consume compassionately before they'll make the world better.

In the meantime, while you bring your Santa letter to Macy’s to assuage your guilt about buying that nice sweater, factory workers in Bangladesh burn their workplace to the ground to protest their working conditions.

“Justice” is packaged, sold, and marketed just like any other product. We know what businesses we should support, without stopping to question the capitalist system that creates the need for justice in the first place. We are at its mercy, as it were, and worked to relieve some of our problems by buying better, shopping smarter.

I’m as bad at this as anyone – we don’t have local bookstores, so I end up shopping at mega-corporation Barnes and Noble. Local clothing shops are far too expensive, so I go with Old Navy and JCPenney and Kohl’s. I don’t have a lot of money, and live in an area that’s very limited as far as what my options are.

The truth, it seems, is complicated.

Part of this is because the quest for justice implicates our very selves. It’s a broken record by now, but one that must be continually stated – as a white person, I participate in a system that prioritizes the white experience. As a middle-class person, I participate in a system that tells poor people that poverty is their fault. As a cisgender person, I participate in a system that is actively violent toward trans* people.

And I didn’t do anything to participate – I participate simply by existing and attempting to live my life.

So we find ways around it – we cry about empathy and justice on our blogs, hoping that it removes a little bit of the guilt we feel about the system we were born into. We give speeches, attend seminars and conferences, write books – all to move forward in this cause for justice. “My voice is welcome,” we tell ourselves, “Because I am an ally, I am talented and have a platform. I can speak, and so can they.”

The most recent example of this was Tony Jones’ “schism” furor. In his follow up post of “Field Notes from the Schism,” he defended his actions by talking about how the Internet is a great equalizing force of meritocracy. He says that privilege still exists, but it is somewhat negated by the effects of the equalizing power of the internet.

Just a few months ago, I may have agreed with him. The internet does open itself up to further voices and makes the table of discussion far larger than it was before. But, meritocracy is also a fundamentally capitalistic system, and caters to those who can play the game – which means those who are already conditioned to having people listen to them and whom society sees as authorities. This means, in the “meritocracy” of the internet, white maleness still reigns supreme.

I’ve watched white men say what feminists had been saying for literally years, and get more praise than a woman who literally said the same thing two weeks ago.

What’s more, white feminists frequently co-opt, without credit, the arguments of black womanists and use them to further their platforms. Straight people co-opt the campaigns of gay people. And so on and so forth.

This is the truth that will never go viral, because it challenges the very idea that we should be speaking at all: justice is never easy, nor is it as simple as creating a blog post and declaring a schism or a rift or a fight back. It has to translate to action. It has to become a part of your daily life, lived over and over, day in and day out, changing how you treat the people around you, how you engage with the news, how you engage with the system itself.

Too many of us have too many investments tied up in the system. And that’s okay – that’s what a capitalistic patriarchy forces us to do. I have to restructure my book to make it more palatable to sell more copies so I can write more books and do my work. I’m okay with that.

What I’m not okay with is uncritical promotion of the idea that level playing fields actually exist without the hard, engaged work of people actively taking control and fighting back. That the internet, by some magic of mere existence, is somehow a great equalizer.

We must engage with our world critically, on a daily basis. This sometimes makes us the wet blanket – okay, it often does. It means always questioning, engaging with our doubt, and deferring to the people who are experts on their own experience. This means a careful combination of both silence and speaking - a balance that is hard to get right. I fail on this just as anyone else - rushing to speak when I should stay silent.

But this is what justice work means. It isn’t pretty. It isn’t marketable. It isn’t fun, most of the time. It’s work. But it is necessary if we hope to survive.