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Sometimes social activism has a 'dark underbelly'

Frances Lee at the KUOW studios.
KUOW Photo/Matt Martin
Frances Lee at the KUOW studios.

Frances Lee recently asked to be excommunicated from the church of social justice.

Lee, who is queer, trans and Chinese-American, was trying to point out the intolerance of the social justice movement. In an article that went viral earlier this year, they chose the headline “Excommunicate Me from the Church of Social Justice.”

Lee wrote that headline for a couple of reasons. First, they said the progressive activist community sometimes feels a lot like growing up in an evangelical Christian home, where purity and goodness are the ultimate goal.

And second, Lee was fed up.

“That title was kind of a tongue-in-cheek title,” Lee told Bill Radke on KUOW's The Record. “I wanted to name the article that because I was just really fed up with all the things I talk about in my article … I wanted to kind of dare people to kick me out for saying something about it publicly.”

So far, Lee hasn’t been kicked out of the activist community. But they have received a deluge of private messages from fellow activists who say they feel the same way.

In the article, Lee wrote:

“There is an underlying current of fear in my activist communities, and it is separate from the daily fear of police brutality, eviction, discrimination, and street harassment. It is the fear of appearing impure.

"Social death follows when being labeled a 'bad' activist or simply 'problematic' enough times.

"I’ve had countless hushed conversations with friends about this anxiety, and how it has led us to refrain from participation in activist events, conversations, and spaces because we feel inadequately radical,” they said.

Lee said there’s a lot of social anxiety in progressive activist communities, all centered around that fear of being labeled a “bad activist.” And Lee said those who are new to the community might also be intimidated by the complex culture and language of activist spaces.

“There’s just such a rich culture of language and norms and behaviors in those spaces,” Lee said. “If you’re not familiar with those things going in, it can feel really daunting and exclusionary and alienating. And, you know, might turn you off from collaborating with people with whom you actually share a lot of values.”

Lee wants to focus more on what activist communities have in common.

“I think that we also have a lot in common and recognizing that we have the capability to do good, and that we love other humans, and that we care about people other than ourselves,” they said.

Lee said they want to see activists explore differences respectfully through more in-person conversation.

“I think it’s so hard to work through those things online because everyone’s behind a screen and kind of responding in a way where they’re just kind of performing 'wokeness,'” they said.

Lee said they’re familiar with the “dark underbelly” of those groups because they’re part of that community. But critics on the right also contend that progressives are intolerant of ideas that don’t exactly mirror their own.

Lee said there’s some truth to those criticisms, and that aggressive behavior is appropriate sometimes — but not always.

“There are specific tactics that are useful for specific situations,” they said. “You can’t just say a blanket statement, 'never be aggressive, never stand up for yourself, never say anything,' right?”

Lee added: “The more I thought about it, the more I realized it really is important to kind of have a sense of how the rest of the world is understanding what we’re trying to do.”

That’s one reason why Lee is facilitating an ongoing conversation about creating positive and inclusive activist spaces.

“We all have our hearts in the right place, but maybe some of the things we do to get to those goals are maybe a little suspect,” they said. “And I think it’s important to separate our methods from our values.”

Produced for the web by Amy Rolph.

Year started with KUOW: 1985 – 1986, 1991 – 2004, 2012
Year started with KUOW: 2015