Fairness Fatigue

By Hope Adair, originally published at The Modern Socialist


Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of attending a national Democratic Socialist leadership retreat in (of all appropriate places) Bolivar, Pennsylvania. This retreat brought together representatives from DSA chapters nationwide, with the intention of helping us unify our efforts, brainstorm and share information, and also further develop leaders within the movement. Overall, it was a tremendous success, but throughout the conference I was plagued by a condition I have recently dubbed “fairness fatigue.”

It may seem pretty self-explanatory, but in the interest of clarification I’ll say that in my case, fairness fatigue was characterized by the stress, extra work, self-censorship, plain ol’ censorship, and rolling eyeballs that accompanies an excess of in-group policing regarding actions, words, and attitudes.

Can you relate?

I have been dragging my feet on even publishing this blog post, because I know that this is such a potentially loaded topic and also because I know that this policing was well-intentioned and is in fact needed in many situations (this particular one being a rather obvious exception). Basically, my complaints are with the following:

  • a disproportionate amount of time spent outlining/underscoring rules for group discussion, including how often each person should participate
  • unnecessary repeating of rules and guidelines about how to speak to minority participants (correct gender pronouns, etc). We were gathering together as active democratic socialists, so there was already some degree of agreement on the importance of the equal treatment of individuals and groups
  • a demonstrated intolerance for divergent viewpoints regarding “political correctness” … even if the person expressing that opinion was a member of the minority group in question
  • at a retreat aimed at developing leaders, heavy emphasis on restraint and caution in regards to participation, without any cause to suspect that minority groups felt hesitant to participate in the first place (in this case only – I concede that this can definitely be a problem in other scenarios)

Essentially, there was so much emphasis on the correct way to talk about things, and so much group think happening, that I found it became both exhausting and challenging to express myself freely and authentically. In several of my conversations both at the evening bonfires and just after the retreat, I found others who felt similarly. No one wants to be called a racist, or a misogynist, or any other derogatory term, and so they self-censored to the point of not communicating. This is not to say that it’s a bad idea to protect others from hate speech, but when opinions are the same and just the speech is censored, discrimination goes under ground where it is much more difficult to address.

I also think that this kind of policing causes us to miss an opportunity to teach activists an essential skill that is in scare supply – how to talk to people we disagree with in a civil and effective way! I can’t tell you how many progressive meetings I’ve been at where anyone who identifies with another group is cast out as the enemy. When we engage those with opposing viewpoints, and when we encourage people to share unpopular opinions, we create space for real, dynamic change to happen.

So there you have it – my dirty little socialist secret is out. I hope that is the start of many conversations on this topic. I am all about encouraging challenging communication and bringing things out in the open in the most productive way possible. The only way forward, the only way to bridge gaps in understanding, reach compromise, and even dispel myths is to allow people to speak their truths. And then tell them why they’re idiots.

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