By Angela Lemus-Mogrovejo
If you have been exposed to my writings prior to this point, you would be hard pressed to find an occasion where I haven’t been critical of something people have celebrated openly and proudly.
Whether this is activist men (of color) who try and better the world around them, liberal organizing in protest of the Trump administration, or people’s attempts to be supportive of disabled trans folk struggling with life stability, I will usually have something to say. I will be the first to admit, I am at times a too critical about the world. I have lived only twenty three years and (hopefully) have many years ahead to experience more joy in my life. Enough perhaps to allow for more healing and more chances to see the world positively. I’m sure my therapist would also take me to task for not always giving myself space to feel the good in life.
So, why do I focus on things so critically and, to an extent, in such a negative fashion? Why spend so much time critiquing what people enjoy or, at least, tend to view as signs that goodness still exists in the world?
Blame it on my anxious and depressive ways of thinking about the world, but I am at times wary of getting too caught up in goodness for too long. Not because of what is present in moments of joy or the positive meaning people derive from these moments of presumed goodness.
It is because what is taken as goodness scares me at times...
It is because goodness, at times, merely means what is easy and comfortable to take in, what allows us to simply feel good rather than do good.
It is this feeling of goodness, both for individuals and for people overall, that leads me to wonder what feelings of goodness can hide when people accept these feelings at face value.
Now, to be clear, I am not saying every single occasion of happiness one experiences should necessarily prompt hard, cynical, internal reflection. To expect this of others, let alone of myself, would be to ask people to engage in tiring work that frankly this world doesn’t allow people the luxury to make time for.
Commenting on a recent string of videos circulated on social media of police officers pulling over drivers for random acts of kindness, Ijeoma Oluo notes a disturbing commonality between these instances and her own history of interpersonal violence. In watching these videos (often endorsed by police departments), she describes an element of lingering abuse in them, a feeling that these videos always remind viewers who is in charge (the police), and that so long as people are “good” and the police are “benevolent,” no one’s lives will be taken.
More importantly, these incidents are a “friendly warning,” a reminder that real abuse can’t be happening and, if it was, the person pulled over would be dead and there’s ultimately a “way [they] brought it on [themselves].”
Writing along similar lines, Gillian Giles details an analogous thread of violence when discussing her own experiences with disability, productivity, and the toxic expectations the two prompted when interacting with her Blackness. Reflecting on years of stigma and isolation, Giles talks about a sense of shame that accompanied her due to failing to meet “expectations of productivity” under capitalism because of a lack of accommodations for her disability in school settings. Not only this, but she elaborates that much of the trouble with processing this shame had to do with the realization that this shame was not only her own, but part of something much more commonplace. The key for her and other Black, disabled bodies in breaking the cycle of isolation and “body terrorism” was (and is) a need to learn that a person does “not exist to be used.” People ultimately do not exist for the purpose of serving racist functions that must be “normative, expectable, or reasonable.”
Why do I focus on these examples so extensively?
Because of what goodness can be used to hide in the background.
Because of the violence that “feel good” emotions can be used to propagate without anyone giving a second thought to the consequences or the people hurt.
As personal a reaction as Oluo had to the cop videos being circulated, the platform on which she encountered them was not. Rather than the videos being solely a personal experience of Oluo’s, social media instead allowed for several people to mass distribute the videos, as well as spread expectations regarding the appropriate reactions to have to them. The videos of cops handing out free ice cream, playing basketball with children, or giving hugs to young kids allow people to feel happy and good.
“Look at that cop being so sweet! Isn’t it nice to have such a good person in charge of keeping us safe from the bad people?”
This kind of thought would be absurd if it weren’t so close to how people react to cops in general.
Yet there is never quite the same enthusiasm when police violence is documented time and time again.
Never quite the same emotions when police are shown killing or inflicting violence on Black bodies time and time again.
Because, as Oluo states,victims of police violence “brought it on [themselves].”
Similarly, Giles’ experiences with shame around her disability and Blackness reveal something profoundly disturbing about the kind of goodness expected around disabled bodies. Despite all of her effort and time put into her schoolwork, Giles remarks that assumptions of laziness and ineptitude followed her everywhere. No matter how hard she tried, nothing she did would prove sufficient for a school environment that expected her to have a level of ability that she could not perform without accommodations.
And yet, there is an implicit assumption that this was to be expected of and accepted by Giles.
There is an assumption that such negative expectations were not only okay but were had out of sense of knowing what was best for Giles’ own good. It was as if only by accepting them and adjusting herself accordingly could she become her best self.
Because otherwise she was just bringing it all on herself.
Perhaps that is what most profoundly unnerves me about how often people focus on good feelings and the goodness they associate with it: not the experiences themselves but the ethics of those good feelings.
These aforementioned cases of violence reveal (in my eyes) how much people don’t want to look at the pain of others if it means breaking the facade of goodness of the world. Because, if it is the case that people actually know about their own experiences, feelings, needs, etc., then it means that we as people in general can’t assume we know better.
And saying that people may in fact know their own experiences best, that iis a dangerous claim to make.
It means we can’t make the assumption that something that is good for one doesn’t mean terror for another.
It means the stability of our own personal reality will not necessarily mean comfort or happiness for those beyond that personal bubble.
In all likelihood, our own comfort and stability rests precisely on ignoring how much pain we expect others to take for us, because we think we know better.
Because we think, at the end of the day, that they must have brought it on themselves.
This is in no way to make any kind of profound statement that hasn’t already been said a myriad of others in a hundred of other ways in a hundred other pieces. Asking people to not make assumptions and to better care for one another is an almost cliché topic at this point. Even more so when I think of the organizing and anti-oppressive circles I try and create in my own life.
No, what I am interested in is making space for fleshing out what the ethics are for “good feelings and goodness” when they center those facing oppression.
What does a just world look like when joy is evaluated from the perspective of marginalized bodies, rather than those who want to ignore their accountability in denying joy to these bodies?
What does providing care for people engaging in acts of self-harm look like without shame? What does it look like to see self-harm as a valid means of coping with violence in a world that constantly shames survivors, ignoring how people also have a relationship to those dealing with such violence?
Can we imagine chronically ill people enjoying themselves on higher energy days without justification? Can we imagine supporting chronically ill folks facing accusations of “faking it” or being “not really ill” and allow them to exist with complex human needs?
Is it impossible to stop asking fat people to provide reasons for why they are fat and allow them to exist peaceably? Is it feasible to imagine a world without dichotomies of “good/bad fatties” that ascribe morality to bodies and simply stop asking for excuses for fatness?
These are varied topics and varied conversations that will need to happen. Not all will carry the same level of importance to every single person and not all of them will appear to be worth consideration to those in more established/developed circles of activism.
But perhaps that is the point.
They don’t have to be relevant conversations to your personal reality to have an impact in other people’s lives. More importantly, you don’t have to believe they are important for you in order to be accountable for what harm your assumptions cause.
You don’t have to feel good about an issue to know you are still involved in the pain and joy of other people’s lives.
If there is goodness to be found in the world, it can’t rest on the backs of other people’s suffering, let alone on one’s own self-righteous view of what they think they know about other people.
Because what is this, if not everyday abuse in the disguise of complacent happiness? What is this, if not just resting comfortably while others suffer?
I’m not sure denying people’s suffering is something to celebrate.
At least, not in a way that feels good to me.