Dying Cats and Single Issue Activism

This week I’ve been thinking about an article by Helen Lewis discussing one-upmanship on social media. To some extent, it covers similar ground to last week’s blog post: ‘Someone is Wrong on the Internet’. She begins with the idea of #whataboutery – “the demand that in order to condemn one bad thing, you must at the same time demonstrate evidence that you have condemned all other related bad things to the exact same degree” – and explains how this can morph into the ‘dying cat strategy’ – where people derail the discussion of one issue by drawing attention to another issue that merits our attention but struggles to get noticed on its own. Lewis writes that “there are now whole subjects that only get widespread attention as a rhetorical shield.” Her article got me thinking about our own community here at Dwight Hall and the ways advocacy issues compete for our attention in social spaces. With the ability to disseminate opinions and information (and disinformation!) available to nearly everyone through the internet, what could be the most effective ways to promote the issues which mean the most to us without feeling the need to undercut the legitimacy of other issues – issues we may think are legitimate in their own right, but distracting from an issue we think is more important? As she notes: “The dying cat strategy is not just irritating; it is actively harmful. It bogs down every potential advance, and poisons any attempt at solidarity.”

At Dwight Hall, we represent so many students who do so much good work. But do we have something to learn from this, as a community pursuing opportunities for service and justice? Are we allowing our passions to operate in silos, where we are unwilling to acknowledge the ways they relate to each other? Do we feel angry or betrayed by other activists who won’t take up our particular passion, or don’t seem to address it? Do we, deep down, think that the work we are doing merits greater attention on some kind of justice hierarchy?

Or, just as we have come to understand the nature of intersectional oppression, are we able to understand the nature of intersectional justice and change when it comes to the ‘big’ issues which don’t seem instinctively connected? The Climate Conference in Paris next week is an excellent opportunity for this ‘intersectional justice’ to be put into action. Climate change and sustainability advocacy has, in the past, suffered from being put in its own ‘issue silo’: For example, labelling those who emphasise buying local, sustainably grown food, or green energy, as ‘classist’, or as a social concern which belongs to an elite group – and one which can’t be collectively taken on until we address issues facing the ‘working poor’. But awareness of the ‘intersectional’ nature of climate change is growing. Increasingly, I’ve seen discussion of the systemic racism inherent in failures to respond to climate change, which has a massively disproportionate impact on black and brown lives, as well as the clear relationship between public health threats and climate change being established. Or links made between the refugee crisis and climate: the struggle for resources exacerbates conflict, threatening a whole generation’s education and mental and physical well-being as they are forced to abandon their homes.

Are we capable of doing this important ‘linking’ work at Dwight Hall, and will we begin to see new value in the work of others as a result? And will it encourage us – or even force us – to begin working together, across our networks?

Hannah Malcolm

Rev. John Magee Fellow, Dwight Hall at Yale
M.A.R. World Christianities, Yale Divinity School

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