The Good-Bad Lie
On morality, hero worship, and why judgment isn't helpful
This week, I saw a lot of judgment over people joining Facebook's team. In case you missed it, Facebook subverts democracy, mistreats its human moderators, and if those aren't enough, there is an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to the harm it conducts.
A lot of the judgment I saw was for Black women, specifically Kristy Tillman, whom I admire very much. A lot of the judgment I saw was by white men and women. I don't know Kristy personally, and I imagine many of these people don't either. So why do they feel the authority to judge a stranger's major life decision?
Hero worship kills communities 📌
I imagine many people felt disappointed by seeing an idol or hero do something they didn't morally agree with. I imagine some pedestals fell. I think this is a danger of hero worship. We expect our heroes to be better than us in all ways and in a sense, we dehumanise them in the process. We don't allow them to be complete humans. We expect a monolith not a person.
Power also comes into play here: We're far more forgiving of majoritised heroes than we are minoritised ones. I see this even within our own communities. We expect better from each other and don't allow each other the richness of being 100 percent flawed. The power becomes further something to examine as to who is criticising whom: A white man criticising a Black woman needs to be understood as a power differential.
I imagine that a large career decision like this isn't one that she took lightly. I imagine she considered Facebook's past and present. I imagine I lack all the context that only Kristy has to have made this decision, one that is her right to make. Only she has enough context to judge this decision.
On judgment 📌
Seeing this judgment of Kristy and others made me think about the nature of judgment and morality. Who are these people to judge her? What authority do they have on her life? Are they themselves living morally perfect lives (spoiler: a cursory look at their histories would show that they are not morally perfectly beings according to my moral system!)? Are their moral standards hers? Where do they draw the line for partaking in capitalism? Is it just Facebook? Would they work at Palantir? Would they work at PayPal? GitHub? Stripe? Shopify? Which kind of harm are we okay with? What do they think being loud about her decision on the internet accomplishes?
It wouldn't be right if I didn't assess the way that I fall into this trap too. I'm definitely guilty of judging people I don't know for their decisions. Every time I see someone unmasked or at a large gathering on IG or getting on a plane I usually mutter something unkind. I feel a moderate amount of judgment for all the Amazon packages in my mailroom. I am not proud of the judgment I have for others.
If I'm honest with myself, whenever I judge someone for something, it's more often than not a judgment of myself. We often judge others the harshest when they do something that we ourselves feel insecure about. Sometimes it's jealousy because we'd like to do that "problematic" thing (but don't out of shame) and other times it's us feeling shame for doing that thing too.
The thing is: None of us are entirely moral beings. The premise, moral absolution, or the idea that all actions are morally good or bad, is a bit ridiculous to maintain. Whose moral system are we using to judge people? If we're just as flawed, what authority do we have to judge others? Do we have enough context to be effective judges? What is considered good and bad and for whom? (If you're curious about my feelings about the good-bad binary, may I suggest my talk, Our Banal Binary?)?
I don't know about you, but I do a lot of shit that I'm sure someone judges me for:
- I live in a "gentrified" neighbourhood in Portland that pushed out Black Portlanders for white-placed Black Lives Matter signs.
- I use GitHub, Twitter, Instagram, etc, knowing how they impact ICE, democracy, harm mental health and social movements.
- I love Karen Walker understanding how her character often said racist, anti-queer, anti-fat, and disableist things.
- I use Caviar/DoorDash/Lyft knowing how they exploit gig labourers and public transportation infrastructure.
- I regularly go get coffee in the morning because I'm too depressed to make it, which is an unnecessary exposure during a global pandemic.
- I've done work for Google, Shopify, and numerous other big tech companies with some pretty bad track records.
I feel some guilt over all these things, which might be banal to some and offensive to others. I'm sure I do a bunch of things I don't even realise are "problematic" yet. The saying, "there is no ethical consumption under capitalism" exists for a reason. I see many people quoting it, but I still see people trying to parse out what is ethical consumption for each other. I know I've done it.
Judgment isn't particularly helpful because we're all forced to partake in a bunch of really shitty systems that then inform other systems. How do we extract ourselves from society for long enough to justify ...living? What mental gymnastics do we have to do to justify some decisions over others, when the reality is that most of tech is contributing to majorly problematic systems?
The reality is that while we build something better, we still have to live and hopefully derive some joy in the process. How would I like to proceed, then, is what I have to ask myself?
A path forward for myself 📌
Moving forward, when I catch myself judging others, I'm going to do the following:
Share resources to extract ourselves from capitalist and colonist systems as much as possible 📌
Amplify groups that are building something outside of this disableist, anti-trans, anti-queer, anti-Black system. Shift my resources from soul-sucking, pro-capitalist, pro-colonist global resources to smaller, community-focused ones. Recognise the limitation within this given the power that some organisations have, but still continue to push myself and my communities to do better.
Be honest with myself when and why I am being judgmental 📌
What value do I feel this has compromised? How would I like to behave to honour my own value? Would I join Facebook's team? How would I like to operate?
If I feel the need to interrogate someone else's decisions: Do I have enough mutual trust with this person to ask them more about their decision? Am I willing to offend them in the process? What is the impact I want to have in having this conversation?
Invite curiosity and leave room for missing information 📌
Judgment implies that I have enough information to form a decision about a situation. But we are often missing so much critical context about other people's lives and are working off of incomplete information. Instead, I can use this opportunity to learn more:
What information could I be missing? What biases are at play? Why do I feel so strongly about this? Where might I be able to direct this energy more productively instead?
Remember that the universe is grey and to live in 'and' not 'or' 📌
The oppressive systems we live under mean that sometimes we have to make really difficult decisions that sometimes seem in direct conflict with our own identities and our own liberation. Some of us might be more impacted by the disableism, others of us by the racism, and others by the anti-transness—some of us by all three.
The systems force us to fight against each other for finite resources. Meanwhile, the ruling elite are hoarding most of the world's wealth. By nature of our identities, we will protect and care more about our own causes and fight for them. The moral conflict we often enter and grapple with is by design. The system's most harmful perpetrators are able to do this without losing any sleep guilt-free since the system was made for their success at our collective exploitation. The longer we fight with each other about who will win the Oppression Olympics, the less time we all spend collectively fighting them.
Avoid nihilism and continue to do better even if it's hard 📌
I think with lines like "there is no ethical consumption under capitalism," it can be easy to become nihilistic and give up altogether. I think that we have to both accept that we can only do so much and that we can also always do more.
Only I have all the context of my own life to recognise where these blurry lines lie and assess them as they shift. Morality is a currency we love to spend for others. The key, I think, is in focusing what I can do better, not what they can do better.
Live by my own moral compass, nobody else's 📌
I have 30 plus years of trauma, memories, education that all inform where my own morality lies. With each passing year, I learn something that shifts my north star a little bit. I hope that I will continue to make adjustments as I learn to do better and to be better. My moral compass won't be rigid, and instead will be fluid and evolve as I continue to learn how to dismantle oppressive systems and extract internalised disableism, racism, and genderism from my own mind.
Recognise my finite time and energy and offer forgiveness for myself and for others 📌
Colonisation and capitalism (and before that, mercantilism) have hundreds of years on us. Activists who are far more effective, knowledgable, and practised than myself have come and gone and not been able to dismantle these oppressive systems. I won't use that as an excuse to quit, but I will use it as a humbling reminder that living a pristinely moral life is nearly impossible so long as these systems dominate.
I will continue to work to reduce the harm of the most vulnerable people and of the planet and its sentient inhabitants. I forgive myself and you for doing what we need to do to survive in these difficult systems—I forgive us for the jobs we take, the products we buy, the media we consume—and hope you will forgive us too.