Advocating for Change in Social Justice Communities
Speaking My Truth
Lindo Bacon, PhD
This essay is intended for people who want to think critically about social justice communities and how we can most effectively advocate for change.
It’s for people who feel scared to speak out on social justice issues, or pressured to speak out to demonstrate their righteousness, or anyone who is too afraid to say what they really think or to ask questions. It’s for people who are scared of call-out culture, or scared to publicly support their friends who have been called-out, or those who feel discomfort for having taken part in call-out culture. It’s for people who want to see our movement grounded in solidarity and responsibility, rather than fear, coercion, ostracization and other forms of punishment.
It’s also for people who have can’t make sense of the dissonance between their impression of me and the negativity about me online.
This is the most uncomfortable piece I have ever written. When I think about who I strive to be in the world, it’s someone committed to empathy for others. And when I think about the legacy I want to leave, I’d like to have contributed to making this a kinder, more loving world. Knowing that hurtful behavior stems from being hurt oneself, I try to always offer compassion and kindness to others, regardless of how they show up. I don’t always succeed, but I continue to examine my behavior, instincts, and efforts. This situation—one of the more painful in my life—is no exception.
I realize that when I judge people, when I speak with derision about their behavior, I am merely responding in kind. I don’t want to be that person whose woundedness plays out in anger at others. Yet, it’s hard to find or maintain empathy when I feel I’m the misplaced target of their pain. Even with conscious awareness, I don’t know how to edit the anger out of this writing and at the same time speak my truth.
This essay could possibly have taken on a very different, perhaps gentler form had I given myself more time to heal. Yet I feel a certain urgency to publish it now, as too many people have witnessed a spectacle I’m a part of and feel wounded by what is and isn’t getting said. And as I have been taking time to absorb and digest the words that have been spoken about me, I also feel the need to self-advocate and correct what I feel are some egregious misrepresentations and harms.
I’m also aware that what I have experienced is increasingly common in social justice communities, and if more of us don’t start naming it, we will continue to erode efforts for justice.
Abstract: click here for 3 paragraph summary
Public shaming. Dehumanization. Exile.
Everything I know about belonging says that removing someone from belonging is the worst possible thing you can do to a human being. We are neurologically wired to need connection.
This is a topic of my book, Radical Belonging, but I didn’t understand it viscerally until March 8, 2022. It was on that day that, in a well-publicized public letter, I was banished from the Health at Every Size (HAES)* professional organization, the Association for Size Diversity and Health (ASDAH), where I had been an active member for about 16 years. On that same day, a blogger released an alleged transcript of a conversation we had, along with inflammatory commentary calling me out for racism.
Brené Brown’s words resonated for me, as she relates in her documentary, The Call to Courage:
You can study shame and yet you can never be prepared for the terrible stuff online. It’s like the cesspool of humanity. The best way to describe shame is the feeling you would get if you walked out of a room filled with people who know you and they start saying such hurtful things about you that you don’t know whether you can walk back in and ever face them again in your life…
It happened. Everything I have ever feared my entire life. I vacillated between two states: Let me die right now. And, I am trained for this crisis. You know what to do: peanut butter and Downton Abbey.
While I never considered dying (and mint chocolate chip ice cream is my go-to much more than peanut butter), like Brown, this felt like my worst nightmare coming true. Watching the drama unfold on social media, I went down a deep and painful shame spiral.
So I grabbed on to all the tools I know from my training in mental health and mindfulness and did the hard work of sitting with my shame and learning from it. I’m happy to report that I came out on the other side—recognizing that I’m human, flawed and complex, just as other humans. I’m able to hold onto the awareness that I didn’t deserve the treatment I received; no human does. I do know the pain will continue to resurface and I’m also holding tight to confidence in my resilience.
Fortunately, like Brown, I also gained what she describes as a beautiful freedom, learning that I have survived my worst nightmare and I no longer have to fear it or protect against it. Until recently, the fear of shame and unbelonging was so great that I sometimes stayed silent on issues where I differed from the prevailing social justice dogma of the communities I was a part of. With nothing left to lose, I now feel free to write this essay, with ideas I wasn’t courageous enough to publicly post earlier. I have stepped back into my integrity. I can own what’s mine from the shame storm and leave what is for others to take responsibility for (or not).
What I experienced is like an intensified parody of what is happening in social justice communities all over the world today, a bullying campaign masked as a demand for accountability. Public call-outs are a means for marginalized people to stand up to those with power and a valuable tool for justice, as movements like #MeToo demonstrate. But when that process is abused, it demeans what call-outs can accomplish and weakens social justice movements. Instead, it creates more fear, stops discussion, and keeps people with shared goals mired in in-fighting. I echo adrienne maree brown’s concern, in her book We Will Not Cancel Us:
Social justice movements, which were originally about freeing marginalized people from oppressive institutions and social structures, have become imbued with their own narrow framework of morality.” “What I fear is mostly that we will be unable to stop turning against each other, that under the pressures of change and of having difference, that we will emulate the practices that capitalism and patriarchy and white supremacy and other kinds of supremacy have trained us to practice, which is to turn against each other, to tear each other down, to publicly shame and humiliate each other. I fear that we will keep doing that until we can’t trust our belonging in any space. And I think belonging is something we need to feel as a species in order to have a reason to continue to feel compelled, to continue.”
Brown’s fears are valid: we eat our own.
Instead of destroying belonging, I want a culture that cultivates belonging. I want a culture where our top priority is taking care of one another, especially those victimized by social and systemic injustice. A culture where we fight systemic injustice in the most effective way we can. Where we support one another in showing up for justice.
This bullying campaign was rife with unethical behavior, violations of trust, and misrepresentations. It began with the simultaneous release of two public posts. One of the posts was by an individual who I had contacted to discuss the possibility of her co-authoring a revised edition of a book I had published 14 years ago. I believe she misrepresented her interest in collaboration and that her intent in our third phone call was to get material for her blog and a follow-up harassment campaign. Without my knowledge or consent, she recorded the conversation and published a transcript which doesn’t match my recollection of the conversation, with the addition of inflammatory and manipulative commentary and without context that would have changed its meaning.
Her online harassment began just 24 hours after her public posting, and what followed was a shitshow from her and others—all along supporting her fundraising campaign—which went so far as to petition for money to hire an attorney. (To protect her from her own behavior? I have not considered legal action. To sue me? For what?)
The Association for Size Diversity and Health (ASDAH), a professional organization I was a member of for 16 years, released the simultaneous post, banishing me and claiming they went public because I refused accountability (for unsupported claims), when, by the very data they released online, they had never been in contact with me previously. (I did get an email from an individual who said it was from her alone, not as a representative of ASDAH, and that the Leadership Team would respond to my request for community feedback at a later time.)
Their defamatory letter was not only contradicted by the “evidence” they held up, but their contentions could have easily been dispelled had they not deleted the blog post interview with me that had been published just 18 months previous. I have responded to ASDAH’s call for accountability, in detail (link below).
The blogger, ASDAH, and others quickly incited a mob frenzy, spreading the word that I was not being accountable and goading others to hold me so. This is the same old tired story adrienne marie brown writes about:
The call outs generally share one side of what’s happened and then call for immediate consequences. And within a day, the call out is everywhere, everywhere, the cycle of blame and shame activated, and whoever was called out has begun being publicly punished. Sometimes, there are consequences—loss of job, community, reputation, platform. Sometimes there is just derision, and calls for disappearance. The details of the offense blur or compound as others add their own opinions and experiences to the story… It feels like a feeding frenzy…
Sometimes we even do it with the language of transformative justice: claiming that we are going to give them room to grow… We are publicly shaming them so that they will learn to be better.
The toxicity of this “call-out” went further than any I have observed: not only was the word put out to broadcast my “wrongdoing” and hold me accountable, but people were targeted and attacked for not participating in my demise. Those with a public platform were goaded to make a statement. Some, now apologetic to me privately, did not agree with what was happening, but felt coerced because they feared the consequences others faced from not boosting it. They didn’t feel the option to stay on the sidelines.
People were also pushed to come forward with their own stories of bad interactions with me. It felt like a runaway train, though this isn’t the best metaphor as it was very skillfully orchestrated. A narrative got created and suddenly, some people who had had good interactions with me were no longer trusting the perception they had formed, but instead reinterpreting those interactions to see me in a negative light. Morals and compassion were tossed aside. Self-righteousness, cyberbullying, and manipulation were rewarded in the name of social justice.
Anyone wishing to even discuss the process, let alone challenge the negativity directed towards me, was shut down and personally attacked. Strangers who called out the process or commented in my favor told me people must have been searching my name, as the individual(s) attacking were unlikely to have otherwise visited their social media site. I couldn’t find any public comment providing perspective that challenged the bullies’ contentions which wasn’t followed by derision and attack. When one person wrote a rather benign comment encouraging people to see me as a human being, she was not only attacked, but the comments devolved into calling her a sex trafficker. Whenever there was a #lindobacon slowdown, baseless rumors were disseminated, like the one implying I was using non-disclosure agreements or other means to prevent people from speaking out against me.
I can appreciate the righteous motivation of some people who joined the vigilante mob: supporting a marginalized person puts them on high moral ground―and it was easy to pile on with a simple click. Echoing a tweet proves they back a community they want to belong in. Not showing their virtue could prove dangerous: there is always the fear that they could wind up on the wrong end of a Twitter-storm and find themselves jobless if they don’t perform right. But: what connects them to the group is shared fear or anger, not shared trust or respect. They never really are part of the group because fear holds them back from showing their authentic self. That’s not true connection.
My initial response to this was to follow the expected “accountability” script—and it was not performative. I did (and will continue to do) the deep reflection to consider the criticism and where my conscious or unconscious bias manifest. I paid marginalized people to help me in this process, did the exercises to consider my history with racism and anti-racism and how I can do better. All of these were valuable processes, and I consider it a lifelong journey.
I also responded to the demand for a public apology. Yet, I knew: I could not have written an apology that would have satisfied those harassing me, not just because I don’t believe in feeding bullies, not just because some charges levied against me were unfounded, and not just because I’m committed to healthier forms of conflict resolution, but because it’s clear that it was my destruction they were after, not justice.
And yet still, I try to find empathy for the bullies, recognizing that whether they show it or realize it themselves, they are likely just in flight from their pain and in search of belonging. Injustice, being treated as if we don’t matter, sets us up for that pain. Tending to that pain was the goal of my most recent book, Radical Belonging, which is why it is subtitled: “How to Survive and Thrive in an Unjust World (While Transforming It for the Better).”
What went wrong in that transcribed phone conversation? What is mine to take responsibility for? What I heard her saying is that I should not be speaking or writing―and that I should even turn my past work over to her―because any time a thin white person takes the stage, the voice of more marginalized people is suppressed. Bam. Career over. I’m ashamed to say I took the bait. I was angry, reactive, and flustered. That said, I stand by my words in the context in which they were delivered. The widely circulated notion that I suggested I speak for fat people is a misrepresentation.
I felt crappy about the interaction. I could hear that she felt my actions prevented people of her race and size having a voice and I know that’s a legitimate and important issue to discuss. I recognized that I could do better and wanted to acknowledge that. I also felt misunderstood, that any harm I had done was overstated, and that her suggestion that I step down entirely was not going to rock the system. Nor did it respect me. The weight of a large systemic travesty had been placed on my shoulders and I wasn’t willing to hold it.
I e-mailed, hoping we could discuss this, that I could apologize for what was mine to own. I also suggested we collaborate and write an article together, address the complexity and nuance, show different (and conflicting) perspective, see what could be learned.
No response, although she later ridiculed my suggestion for further discussion in her blog post. Apparently, her solution was to control the narrative. To use me to stoke moral outrage. Who I am got lost in the picture, buried under the weight of the systemic problem, yet the face of it. My name, the respected reputation I had built, was used for clickbait.
The issues raised need to be discussed. I wanted to discuss them, and I wanted to do that publicly, as I stated in my email follow-up. I didn’t need to be dehumanized to bring them to the table.
That said, I’m not interested in defending my views. I didn’t consent to supporting the views that have been projected onto me, nor do I want to take on the weighty task of separating fact from fiction. Look to my most recent book to see my values on social justice. Valuable discussions can happen when there is trust and respect, not dehumanization. What you are seeing in this “call-out” is a caricature of a person, not me. Besides, I don’t engage with bullies. I know better than to offer up my vulnerability to people who won’t respect it.
Even when harm has been done, I believe it’s a failure of imagination to think that punishing another person protects Black or fat people or benefits those most marginalized; that, in my mind, is supremacist thinking, recreating the carceral system of punishment and ostracization. Doing so requires you to use the very systems that oppress us, and particularly oppress Black people.
I don’t want us to weaponize suffering. Anger at injustice is certainly appropriate. However, it saddens me to know that rage is the sentiment that travels fastest online. Also concerning is that our curiosity is triggered more by anger than by any other human emotion―and it is these stories that we are most likely to share. This algorithm for engagement can make divisiveness and drama profitable and the revenue stream of many “influencers” depends on it.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We can focus on healing rather than moral outrage or unleashing our trauma onto others. We do not serve marginalized people when we support them in hurting others or forsaking a diverse community. Instead, we can support marginalized people—and all of us—in adopting therapeutic ways of processing experiences and emotions, centering healing for individuals and for the community.
I am harboring too many stories from people who cheer me on for expressing these ideas yet understandably don’t want to publicly show support or to share their own stories, as they are protective of being exposed and targeted. They are not willing to make themselves vulnerable to being treated as I have. They talk about how they are attracted to HAES community specifically because of the principles of compassion and non-judgment, yet they find these same principles are not always present within the HAES community. They find it heartbreaking to witness the online shaming directed towards individuals from within the HAES online community—contributing to a “terror” around being active in our community, feeling stuck and silenced.
Opposing racism and weightism is not a fear- and shame-based practice; it is a practice of integrity and respect for the personhood of every human being. I encourage people of privilege to take their opposition to racism very seriously—as a commitment to their own integrity and to the respect and dignity of human life. As a collective, I believe we have a responsibility to treat no one as disposable and to let no one have their boundaries violated, as mine were. It concerns me that not one person publicly noted the ethical and boundary violations, the meanness and harassment, or how that reverberates to create fear for others and limit the discussion needed for growth.
We won’t end systemic injustice by picking off individuals. Instead, let’s change the culture of replicating the supremacist values we unintentionally absorb, forging new ways to engage with one another. Instead of fighting one another, let’s pool our energy and fight oppressive systems.
I am walking away from this experience with one particularly painful residual, which I hope will heal over time. I noticed it vividly when I received an email from a friend, very kindly checking in with me to see how I’m doing. That person has always been wonderfully supportive in the past and there is no (rational) reason not to believe their sincerity. Yet, I couldn’t hit the send button with a response, fearing that any vulnerability I might express may end up public and mocked on the internet. I know that’s a typical trauma response, our body wires for self-protectiveness when our trust has been violated. It’s sad that at a time when I need my extended community of friends, I have trouble letting their care in.
As I’m editing this essay, I came up against this again in a different form. I had previously shared a work-in-progress privately and some helpful discussion that ensued caused me to change my views. However, in this bullying campaign someone leaked that work-in-progress and I’m now subject to considerable social media attack for ideas I was never confident enough to stand behind and abandoned long ago. It would have been helpful to get more review on the controversial ideas I write in this essay before posting it, but seeing the moral standards of those involved in this bullying campaign, it no longer feels safe to reach out to my extended network. I do recognize the need sometimes to share private communications, but it was just inappropriate in this instance.
What concerns me even more than the violations of my trust is how many people―friends, acquaintances and strangers―have emailed to tell me they share this feeling of distrust as a result of witnessing this exchange. Many people, not just me, are losing sleep. Several reported feeling “sickened” and many “traumatized.” Two therapists with clientele from the HAES community independently told me they had clients needing to process the emotions brought on by the bullying they witnessed and the pressure from colleagues and friends to participate.
There will inevitably always be unresolved differences of opinion among us. Disagreements about what constitutes injustice and how to fight it will always be intensely evocative and personal. I want to challenge us to accept that, and to grant one another some grace. Key to this is the recognition that not all marginalized people have a universal experience of oppression, and none of us has the one and only right perspective. You can at once hold onto your belief system and also recognize that it is not an objective truth applicable to everyone. Also key is the recognition that we don’t all share identities in common, but one thing we do all share in common is our humanity – and our need to belong. Loving one another, frailties and all, might just be the best defense against injustice.
* Health at Every Size and HAES are registered trademarks of the Association for Size Diversity and Health and used with permission.
Open Letter to the Association for Size Diversity and Health