With the rise of internet activism, you find a lot of people who are incredibly book smart. Sometimes they talk about street or social problems and fall into repeating some of the power relations activists try so hard to break apart. I wanted to take a second to voice what may just be my opinion — but what I really stand by — and explain about how to speak about social justice.
In order to be an activist, it is pretty much crucial to let go of your ego. Having went to Brock University, I have been surrounded by the academic world for 4 years straight. Though it is where I got a lot of my “knowledge”, I found the most important lessons were outside the class room. They were writing for The Brock Press and interviewing real people. They were talking to people about experiences. They were in the friends I made, the struggles I saw, the struggles I had, and the lives around me. For example, I could read all about Indigenous solidarity and the biodiversity offsetting going on in Niagara. But it was not until I really attended the meetings, rallies, heard from the Native residents myself, and actually took time to look at my surroundings and privileges that I felt I could truly educate others. Or another example, I read so many pieces on the Ontario welfare reform. Statistics and paragraphs and political references. But what shook me was the accounts of the actual single mothers on welfare. This is not something I had to read or dig for. This was not difficult or wordy or tricky to understand. This was real people’s lives. Scholarly sources and books only fostered a little bit of the understanding. The rest was reality.
This being said, the first way to talk about social justice is with accessible language. This accessible language is making sure you don’t fall into the trap of speaking with mainly the academic jargon you were taught. This means writing and speaking in ways that people can actually understand. All people. If you are writing or speaking for social change, chances are you are talking to the public. The public does not consist solely of students, teachers, elites, and academic figures. The public consists of people of all education levels, intelligence levels, and vulnerabilities. Big words could intimidate some people, and in turn discourage them from thinking they are not “qualified” or “smart enough” to join in on the movement. It is wrong to assume everyone will understand one way of saying things. This does not mean “dumb yourself down”; it really just means to be aware of how you talk. Do not perpetuate power or hierarchies simply by speaking like you are smarter than everyone. It suuuuucks.
The next point is to talk with accessible knowledge. This refers to not assuming that everyone is willingly ignorant. Some people just do not know what you know. Some knowledge is just simply not accessible. Sometimes this is a result of a systemic thing, such as people of power keeping knowledge out of the public’s ear. Or this could be as simple as someone having went to a different school than you or growing up in a sheltered house and not being exposed to controversy before. Knowledge is not just books, school, reading, and writing. There are all different forms of knowledge, and if someone does not have the same as you, you can educate them in healthy ways — not just tell them to get educated and consume knowledge, and then leave them to fend for themselves. If they don’t understand — put it in a metaphor or example that will help them understand. Expose them in healthy ways, rather than shaming them or blaming them for not knowing something. Give them the full story and allow them to create their own conclusion. The word knowledge itself carries a heavy weight, with connotations of academia and books. Knowledge is more like the image of a tiny lightbulb — no one alone has the right to say that there is one way to give the bulb electricity.
Lastly, to talk about social justice and social change, you must have empathy. This can seen through accessible language and accessible knowledge. However, it deserves a little explanation of itself. Empathy is not sympathy. While sympathy means “I feel sorry for you”, empathy is a little more passionate. Empathy means “I feel strongly for you, and I may not understand fully but I want to help create change”, or at least create understanding.
Talking about social justice is tricky. There is always someone waiting to call you politically incorrect, throw a scholarly citation at you, ask for your sources, or just straight up argue just for the sake of arguing. The great thing about life is that you do not always need 5 scholarly sources in MLA format on a page to hand in. You can look at the world around you for proof. You do not need formal education to be an activist. You do not need to slam down books to make the world a better place. You just simply need a cause you feel strongly for that does no harm to any group of people. An inclusive and healthy goal. Some smart and unique strategies on how to get there. You need to be mindful about your tactics, your words, and what could come of your actions. And you need to have heart. You do not need to know everything. You need be humbled in knowing that you never will know everything. And while educating others, be open to being taught something in return.