Dear Prudence

Help! My Friends Think I’m a Social Justice Sellout.

In We’re Prudence, Prudence asks readers for their thoughts on a question that has her stumped. The answer is available only for Slate Plus members.

A handlinked chain of four people reaches over a chasm to help another across.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Pict Rider/iStock/Getty Images Plus. 

Every Thursday on Twitter @jdesmondharris, Dear Prudence asks readers for their thoughts on a question that has her stumped. She’ll post her final thoughts on the matter on Fridays. Here’s this week’s dilemma and answer:

Dear Prudence,

In the past, every activist or action group I’ve been a part of has either fallen apart due to infighting or had people all be on exactly the same page about everything (usually the former). Recently, I’ve been part of creating a practical support network that provides free transportation for people traveling for healthcare. We are helping a lot of people. There have been a few instances where people in the group have clashed over what our policies should be in different situations due to some ideological/personal differences in the group (we are a hearty mix of old school dems, progressive liberals, socialists, and anarchists). What has been amazing is that we have actually managed to work through these issues! I’ve never seen this happen before, and I think it’s because everyone in the group is very committed to the work.

The problem is that some of my friends (not in the group) almost look down on me/the group because of this. I confided in a friend that people in the group were having a heated (but civil!) conversation about gender neutral language and reproductive rights, and she responded “lol f*ck TERFs, burn it down.” I genuinely don’t know how to respond in these situations.
I feel immensely proud that we are able to help people and that any differences we have we are able to find a workable compromise on, but I feel like if I point that out, I’m defending the views of someone I don’t necessarily agree with. Is there a good response? Should I just avoid getting into these conversations in the first place?”

— Is Compromise Complicit?

Dear Complicit,

My first thought was that you are actually doing something to help people, and should tell this friend to go to hell with their critiques about the debates you’re having as you do it. And a lot of people agreed with that:

It all comes down to the work they agreed to do. If this group promised to help people get healthcare, then great—they’re doing the work! Forcing ideological uniformity is not the work. — @HexPositive

It’s easier to digest no-true-scotsfolk arguments from people actually doing the work. I understand the objection, but I’m not the one doing the work. If I had to depend on ideological purity to get social justice work done at my job, nothing would ever get done. — @dex_ruth

The LW is sharing with friends their volunteer work they are immensely proud of and the friend’s response is to no-true-Scotsman them? That’s terrible! — @mboehm214

But I also had another nagging thought: Was my knee-jerk reaction that these debates were not really harming anyone based on the fact that they don’t cause me any pain in my personal life? I had to ask myself: Would my response have been different if the heated but civil conversation had been about, say, the appropriateness of using racial slurs, or scientific racism? Basically, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t, on some level, selfishly deciding that someone arguing against gender-neutral language was no biggie just because I don’t go through life needing people to use gender neutral language about me and being at the mercy of people who refuse to. After all, I’m really not one for celebrating accommodating bigots by calling it “having friends who have different views,” as if there’s something heroic about that.

On this note, @VickyThree made a useful distinction, writing “If everyone who needs to utilize the group is being served but cis-centered language is being used, it seems useful for the LW to keep trying to move the needle on that front and let their friends know that. But if intentionally trans misogynistic language, slurs, etc. are being used or the services don’t extend to everyone who needs them, I can see why the LW’s friends take serious issues with the work. In that case the org needs to change or the LW may find another to work with.”

Also, the responses helped me see that there’s a middle ground between “Your friend is ridiculous, there’s nothing wrong with compromising with people who like to oppress others” and “Your friend is right, you should quit over this.”

Some of the responses that brought that into focus for me—and actually made suggestions about what to say to your friend—were:

Emphasize the great outcomes of the program and talk openly about the frustrations of being part of an org where you have to deal with these issues. Also ask for advice! Ask the friends if they have any strategies to get the org to make headway in these areas. — @nileshshah196

The LW might want to point out that this could be the only space where these volunteers are being lovingly challenged and educated. What should LW do, just let them go and sit with their negativity and ignorance? It could still be worthwhile to engage constructively. Provided, of course, that marginalized folks aren’t taking on disproportionate amounts of that labor or feeling burned out and discouraged from it, which is a real possibility. — @abigailmyers

The absolute best answer came from @WyzeWizard: who, as his name suggests, is very wise and is actually quoted in this column almost weekly: “We need [X amount] of transports per week and our clients go without health care if we come up short. If we have enough LGBT+ volunteers to consistently meet our needs, we can phase the TERFS out. I’ll sign you up right now, how much transportation can you commit to?”

I would love to hear what the answer is! I think the truth is, if your friend really, really cared about the people who are affected by the language she took issue with, she’d be too busy using her time to help them to nit-pick and critique you. So, we basically ended up back at my original reaction, but I feel more confident in it and you have a better script. Use it the next time your “friend” tries to bully you for your efforts to make the world a little better.

Classic Prudie

About six years ago, we moved into a new house after being homeless for a year due to a house fire and a long battle with our insurance. Right before we closed on our new home, my spouse’s youngest brother and wife revealed they too were living in their car after being evicted. My brother-in-law is an alcoholic with a ton of mental health and anger issues, and my sister-in-law was then a full-time student in her final semester at school. We allowed them to move in with us, because I didn’t want them sleeping in their car in a hot summer, and I didn’t want my sister-in-law to have to drop out of school due to a lack of internet. It’s been a nightmare…