Not too long ago, a friend of mine needed to talk about a “work dilemma.” He spent most of his time advocating for condemned men in prison, investigating their cases, learning their stories, building relationships, and finding any mitigating factors that might get them relief.
He said he’d recently begun working with a new client and, despite his best efforts to remain open to the man’s goodness, my friend just couldn’t seem to like him. “I feel so bad saying it,” he confessed, “but the guy really does seem like a jerk. I’m pretty sure he consistently beat his wife before his incarceration, and he doesn’t seem too sorry about it. I’ve never had a client I didn’t like before.”
I nodded with understanding, having spent a significant amount of time visiting that prison, too. But I didn’t see the dilemma.
My friend explained that he worried he wasn’t as radical as he thought, that not liking his condemned client perhaps meant he wasn’t truly “down with the revolution.”
This conversation illuminated an increasingly noticeable pattern, especially among my peers: put simply, the more we get “radicalized,” the more we’re tempted to romanticize. This is particularly pronounced in the work of advocacy and solidarity. We sometimes seem to think that to be true advocates we must believe rosy stories of those we work with or for.
…the more we get “radicalized,” the more we’re tempted to romanticize.
I get where this comes from. When I speak and teach in Nashville, for example, about the injustice of the Israeli occupation, someone almost always pushes back with, “What about the corruption of the Palestinian Authority?” “You know Muslim men oppress their wives, right?” “What about the internal conflicts between Palestinians themselves?” The implication of all such questions is that Palestinians do not deserve freedom because they’re flawed; they don’t deserve equality because they’re not exceptional.
Over and over, I’ve seen this need for a perfect victim. For too many, solidarity seems contingent on excellence; an uncomplicated cause becomes a prerequisite for compassion. It does not surprise me, for instance, that people who’ve never stepped inside a prison tend to believe ungenerous and un-nuanced stories about prisoners. The Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie calls these “single stories.” Part of my vocation has become combating these single stories. I use storytelling to flesh out the humanity of marginalized friends for people living with fear—or, perhaps, underdeveloped imaginations.
Much of social justice work has been and will continue to be challenging single stories. It’s essential we make clear the beauty of those burdened by other people’s bigotry and narrow-mindedness. And yet, like in most historical movements, we may find ourselves swinging the pendulum too far. We can end up operating on the flip side of the single-stories coin.
In a legitimate effort to challenge damaging single stories, we may find ourselves crafting romanticized ones. These certainly contain essential truths that must be heard, but they can also become tainted. I cannot count how many times I’ve heard social justice/movement/woke/ people shut down the first whisper of critique with immediate labels beginning with “anti-” or ending with “-ist.” We then script our own ungenerous and un-nuanced stories of the people we seek to silence. To be fair, critiques of marginalized people do often sprout from racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and a host of other oppressive ideologies. And—sometimes they don’t. Sometimes, and only sometimes, some truth lies in critique.
I believe our hearts and bodies are in the right place. I believe we try to shut down dissent and critique because letting it breathe has literally taken the breath of people we love. We shut it down because we know in our bones that the people in those single stories are more than those simplistic reductions. We shut it down because we’re tired of letting poisonous language win. And we must continue fighting these stories.
We also must take great care not to find ourselves walking unknowingly into another harmful way of thinking: that people’s worth is based on their goodness. We cannot decide that those standing on the other side of the battle lines are less worthy because of their vices, all while claiming that the people on our side are worthy because they have none. If we arrive in such a place, we must finally admit that we are in fact not all that different than what we’ve been resisting. We may realize that all the bigotry, narrow-minded groupthink, exclusivity, and rigid rules we’ve been reacting against for years, we actually brought with us on the journey. We just chose different targets, different ideologies, different parameters and rules.
We cannot decide that those standing on the other side of the battle lines are less worthy because of their vices, all while claiming that the people on our side are worthy because they have none.
Telling fuller, even “romanticized” stories may indeed be a necessary strategy for challenging the sheer weight of the systemic single stories at work in our world. But my fear is that in this necessary work, we unnecessarily internalize such romanticism, attaching belief of these rose-colored stories to beliefs about true radicalness. The revolution will not be won by romanticizing who and what we’re fighting for. And we cannot give in to the belief that to be truly radical we must see no guile, no flaw, nothing suspect in the people on “our side.” Being radical is not standing with perfect people; being radical is embracing their imperfections and demanding their right to life and liberty anyway.
Michael McRay is an author, educator, and facilitator, using the power of personal stories to bring people together and transform division. He founded and hosts Tenx9 Nashville Storytelling, facilitates story-exchanges as a Master Practitioner with Narrative 4, and lectures at Lipscomb University. Michael lives in Nashville with his wife Brittany and their two terriers. You can follow him at @michaeltmcray on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, or on his website, where this article first appeared.