In what I hope will be a masterful feat of self-awareness and self-effacing irony, I’m going to critique someone else’s critique, largely to make the point that the critique wasn’t helpful. And! Somehow! That I believe my doing it now will help.
Today’s focus is on a comic that you’ve probably already seen, if your social media filter bubble is shaped at all like mine. I’ve seen this shared about a dozen times in the past week:
I’ll be (lightly) critiquing this comic itself, but my main gripe is with someone else who – in the name of doing more social justice – picked it apart. So I’ll be spending most of my time on that meta-critique.
Here’s a screenshot of that criticism (I’ll include the full text in a bit):
I’m not going to link the Facebook post here (unless the author reaches out and asks me to – hmu Ted!). Despite it being public, with 10K shares and likely 100,000 or so views, I’m going to air on the side of not contributing to a dog pile that I’m sure the author is experiencing to some degree right now.
As someone who has had social-justice-advocating social media posts go viral, I know it can be hell, despite seeming like a win to an outsider. We can discuss what Ted did as representative of a lot of dogmatic, problematic activism, without directing any vitriol to their inbox.
I’m also someone who is all-too-familiar with a comic or creation going mega-viral, and all the uninvited (though sometimes really wonderful and helpful!) ‘constructive’ criticisms, demands for changes, and asks for slightly different versions of the thing you made.
So, as a full disclosure, I relate more to Neal’s experience (him being creator of the thing) than Ted’s (as the backseat “fixer”), and I’m sure that’s coloring my lens here.
Not that I’m seeing red, but my view of this is far from rose-colored.
What Ted Said:
Here’s the text of the criticism of the comic:
I’ve seen this image making the rounds, particularly among my white friends and when I first saw it, I thought it was a great image of what Defund the Police means. But it’s not. In fact this image seems to miss the point entirely and actually causes harm. Let me preface this by again stating I originally liked this image and am still growing in my work around police abolition. But I think I have some insights, gained from listening to and reading the work of Black leaders (particularly Black women) to nudge my white friends to reconsider this idea:
1. Centers Police - This image centers police as the main protagonist of the story and completely ignores Black/Indigenous People of Color and their repeated calls to defund and ultimately abolish police. Police are literally in the center of the images.
2. Removes Police Accountability - This locates the problem outside police and actually makes them appear to be victimized by society. “Look at all the things we expect police to do, no wonder they are so troubled.”
3. Disregards Police Violence - It completely removes holding police accountable for their acts of violence. In fact it outright ignores violence all together. Violence perpetrated by police isn’t even part of the image! And addressing police violence is the impetus behind defunding calls not that police are over worked or asked to do too much in our community. It also subtly assumes that violence from police is somehow expected or natural, and if that’s the case then a call for abolition would be more appropriate here.
4. Disregards Police Militarization - The image completely ignores the chemical weapons (tear gas just sounds nicer but it is a chemical weapon), assault rifles, and literal tanks that many police departments own. These military weapons are used in the name of “keep the peace,” and this image ignores them and infers that police should be able to keep and use all those weapons against people!
5. Perpetuates Violence - This image perpetuates police violence because it centers police as “peace keepers.” Keeping the peace does not involve killing Black people (full stop). Black people should not be killed by police for having a mental health crisis AND yes police should not be the first responders to a mental health crisis AND Black people should not be killed for committing a crime by police. Black people should not be killed for selling loose cigarettes, Black people should not be killed for a moving violation, Black people should not be killed for committing a robbery, and Black people should not be killed for committing murder. That’s not how our legal system is set up! That’s not keeping the peace! So I’m asking my white friends to rethink this idea and focus on defunding in at least two different ways:
- Eliminate militarized weapons from police departments and stop funding these weapons.
- Eliminate police funding for internal oversight and move oversight and accountability outside the police force and into the hands of civilians with subpoena power.
- And ultimately while we have this moment let’s have a discussion about abolishing the police force, not simply defunding, not simply reimagining, ABOLISHING.
I should say that I don’t disagree with pretty much anything Ted says there. It’s mostly spot on. What I disagree with is the saying it, here, in response to this comic, and the idea that this is somehow helpful, necessary, or even actually contradicting the comic itself, and not just going on a related rant.
Everything is Wrong with What is Wrong
I’m going to spare you from going through that critique line-by-line and annotating what is basically a Social Justice Dogma Greatest Hits album.
I don’t think that’s necessary, or helpful. (But if you want that tedious text, hmu!).
And I’ll also start by saying, honestly and unironically, that I’m impressed: Ted is a sponge, an obviously great learner, someone who clearly cares a lot about social justice, and they’ve perfectly honed the messaging of social justice dogma.
Unfortunately, as is often the case with the social justice super fans, what we’re seeing here is creating a lot of barriers in the name of dismantling others.
What barriers, you ask? Let’s count ‘em off.
1. I learned from this, but you shouldn’t.
Ted starts their criticism in a way that is so often the case when people are coming from a dogmatic angle: This helped me understand that this wasn’t enough.
Two issues are wrapped together there whenever we make this move:
- We’re glossing over the fact that we learned from something. Or found it insightful. Or eye-opening. As if that – itself – is an unimportant detail. But it’s THE important detail. The experience we had when first encountering something is part of that thing.
- We’re making the (generally incorrect, somewhat condescending, and entirely paternalistic) assumption that other people can’t or won’t grow in regards to this idea the same way we did. We must protect them from this problematic misconception (that we had ourselves).
This is like telling your friend, “You shouldn’t take Physics 101. A lot of the stuff you learn in that is way too basic to be useful. You should start with Physics 602 if you actually want to build a rocket.”
That’s only good advice if you secretly hate your friend, and want to watch them catch on fire. And die.
We can’t start at the end, or demand other people to. We have to start at the beginning.
2. Not only is this not enough, it’s actively harmful.
Ted makes it clear right at the beginning, that the problem isn’t an issue of the comic being too concise, or not representative of the entire issue of defunding the police, criminal justice reform, or police abolition.
Phew. That would have been a tall order for a comic with like 50 words on it.
Nope, that’s not the problem: “In fact this image seems to miss the point entirely and actually cause harm.”
Oof. That’s much worse.
Ted says this comic “disregards police violence” and actively “perpetuates violence.”
This is a thing we do a lot in social justice spaces to get people to care about what we’re saying, because if they don’t they’re supporting violence. It’s an escalation of language to try to get people to care about something they otherwise might ignore, but it’s completely overkill (phrasing) in a situation where you’re addressing people sharing an image that shows they obviously care.
As is clear if you read the supporting arguments, none of what Ted says is actually about this image. It’s about what the image isn’t: a repetitive list of different ways of saying the comic ignores all the ways police are violent. But, again, this is in the context of arguing for defunding the police, amidst an international movement against racialized police violence.
I mean, OBVIOUSLY the comic is a response to police violence, racism, and the murder of Black citizens at the hands of the police.
Denouncing the comic as “perpetuating violence” is aimless whataboutism at best, and the dilution or desensitization of violence at worst.
3. Everything, or nothing.
Ted’s counterarguments of the comic aren’t actually responding to the comic itself, they’re arguing with what it isn’t. And because it’s not all those things, it’s bad.
To paraphrase, “This is bad because it doesn’t list all the ways police are harmful, enact violence, and our society enables them.”
True. Yep. That would be an entirely different comic.
The vast majority of Ted’s text is, essentially, an entirely different topic. It’s actually like 20 different topics. And instead of framing it as that (e.g., “If you dig this, I bet you’d love this blog post, and this video, and this entire library of books."), it’s framed as everything or nothing.
This thing is bad because it’s not ALL of the things.
What Ted is obfuscating, is that if the hypothetical future the comic is depicting were to come true (like a Lifetime movie where Neal’s pen possessed the power to recreate reality), a LOT of the “violence” Ted is whatabouting would be disappear.
Ted is taking on the task of trying to convert everyone’s hearts and minds to the absolute 100% match to a socially-just worldview (anything short of that is problematic!), while this comic perfectly depicts a bunch of chutes and ladders we could build to usher in that world.
The “keeping the peace” burden isn’t what is leading to the vast (vast, vast) majority of cop / citizen interactions. Decriminalizing common behaviors, providing healthcare, housing, and social services, and etc. would drastically reduce violence.
Would it solve everything? Nope.
But it’s not all or nothing.
However, ironically, framing it as though it is – and painting this comic as “perpetuating violence,” not being “enough,” and therefore being actively harmful – is more likely to result in nothing.
And to do nothing is, literally, perpetuating violence.
4. If you have a problem with this, take it up with Black women.
I doubt this was Ted’s intention, but there this post was basically SJD-argument judo.
This post could be followed like a recipe for the perfect social media share to protect you from criticism from within Social Justice Land:
- Start by calling attention to the fact that the thing we’re about to shit on is “making the rounds, particularly among my white friends.” (Is that true because I mostly/only have white friends on Facebook? How many POC friends am I erasing here? Are these questions inconvenient, and am I hoping you won’t wonder them? Let alone ask?)
- Explain that these aren’t my insights. I gained them from “Black leaders (particularly Black women).” (Why am I not linking you to these leaders instead of centering myself? And which Black leaders or women offered me insights, in particular? And what makes me think it’s okay as a white person to cherrypick their insights to represent the Black voice, instead of considering everyone’s? Polling data showing where Black people stand on this issue?)
- Address this to white people, only “asking my white friends to rethink this idea”, and focus on the having the correct beliefs. Because if they have a problem with it, they’re problem isn’t with me, it’s with Black women.
This is a classic example of sockpuppeting the vox populi of identity– only, in this case, it’s a particularly cynical one, because we have the data. You don’t have to look very far to see what Black people think about the police.
There are tons of different studies over the years. And they all tend to say slightly different versions of the same thing: most Black people don’t like the police, but most also don’t want to defund or abolish the police. That is a tiny minority perspective, even among Black people.
(Not going to link so you don’t think I’m cherrypicking myself: just search. Pew. Gallup. Everywhere. You’ll find this same result.)
But Ted can’t really say that. And they might not even know that. Because the people in Ted’s bubble are probably very similar to mine, and it’s really easy for us to think everyone, especially Black people and people of color, wants to abolish the police, if you’re in our bubble.
That’s a problem in itself.
5. You must be this woke to enter.
Finally, this critique, and critiques like this, raise the bar to entry. But not in the way that I think the people who share them think.
Here’s my guess: Ted thinks they raised the bar here in the sense that this analysis will lead to better, more effective, and ultimately successful activism. The original comic wasn’t good enough to get us to defund (or abolish) the police, but with the bar raised, now maybe we can all work together to make that happen.
That guess is informed by me having been the Ted in this situation thousands of times.
Here’s what will actually happen: the bar that was raised was the one at the door to this world of activism. Instead of increasing our effectiveness, all this did was increase people’s feelings that they’re not enough, don’t know enough, aren’t “woke” enough, aren’t radical enough – aren’t enough, period, themselves. And they should show themselves out.
This post is the rhetorical equivalent of those statues at the beginning of a line to a roller coaster. It doesn’t raise the bar, it just shows where the bar is. If you’re not already tall enough, or can’t tip-toe to make it seem like you are, you’re not allowed in.
It’s a bold-faced, red-lettered “Keep Out” sign, slapped on top of a comic that artfully said, “You are welcome here.”
The One Problem Ted Didn’t Mention
Here’s my issue with Neal’s comic, and something I’ve talking with a lot of activists about lately in organizing calls:
The order is wrong.
If we defund (or abolish) the police before we fund all of those other social services, decriminalize those crimes, and reorient away from criminal justice toward restorative justice (or something similar), we’re setting ourselves up for a nightmare scenario.
Those boulders all need a home before they’re removed from the pile, or they’re bound to crush us.
But, if I’m being honest, this isn’t a problem with the comic as much as a problem we need to solve with our activism. And the comic does an elegant job of depicting it. Of showing us the society we need to be building. The direction we should be heading in.
That’s not easy for a comic to do, but this comic makes it easy to imagine. Props for that, Neal.