5 Toxic Ideas About Social Change to Abandon in 2024

Andre Henry
6 min readDec 30, 2023

Consider these ideas when making your resolutions.

Our decade may become the new roaring twenties, but with a new meaning. History will remember this era for its global protests. But our movements for social change are missing something.

Tomorrow-makers often forget that the very society we “resist” shaped our common sense. This means, if our minds don’t change, the world won’t either.

Old habits of thinking and acting weaken our movements for social change. If we are to create the world that ought to be, we have to confront this baggage.

Here are 5 toxic ideas about social change to abandon in the new year.

1. Identity is a politic.

The Black Lives Matter era mainstreamed standpoint theory. This theory says a person’s place in society shapes their perspective about society.

Consider a Black teenager and a white boomer. Both of them live in New York City during the stop-and-frisk era. But one lives in Brooklyn and the other in a highrise by Wall Street. Their different experiences with police give them different perspectives on policing.

Standpoint is important because:

  • It undermines notions of superiority. It helps us see that our way or perspective isn’t “normal.” It isn’t better than or superior to other people’s ways or perspectives.
  • It helps us see how people outside our social group experience oppression. That enables us to stand with them in solidarity.

When we weaponize standpoint, it becomes toxic. We often do this by assuming inevitable links between identities, politics, and perspectives. We arrange these assumed links in a hierarchy of perspectives. We base that hierarchy on reading people’s bodies. The stories those bodies hold are irrelevant. Only our interpretations of those bodies matter.

Example. You’re reading this blog. So, I assume you trust my perspective on racial justice more than Candace Owens’. But isn’t she a Black woman? And haven’t men oppressed women throughout history? So then, wouldn’t that make her perspective more trustworthy than mine? After all, it is written from a male perspective.

I use an absurd example like the one above to make the point blatant.

A privileged body doesn’t mandate an oppressive politic. An oppressed body doesn’t always yield a radical politic.

Bottom line is we should take standpoint seriously. But playing a version of rock, paper, scissors with identity has nothing to do with social change. We should avoid attaching notions of superiority or inferiority to different bodies. That’s Empire’s game.

2. Rude = Radical

Social justice culture is harsh. Its adherents are competitive. Sometimes I’m not sure if many of today’s activists are as interested in getting free as they are in being right. They assert their rightness and impose severe punishments on each other.

They do all this in the name of being radical.

“[This culture] compels us to search ourselves and others ruthlessly for flaws and inconsistencies…It is hostile to difference, complexity, and nuance. Or it is the most complex, the most nuanced, and every­one else is simplistic and stupid. Radicalism becomes an ideal, and everyone becomes deficient in comparison…

The anxious posturing…the way that critique becomes a reflex, the sense that things are urgent yet pointless, the circulation of the latest article tearing apart bad habits and behaviors, the way shaming others becomes comfortable…the clash of political views that requires a winner and a loser, the performance of anti-oppressive language…” [1](emphasis mine)

The toxic behaviors listed above come from an obsession with image. People care more about a radical reputation than practicing a radical politic. “Radical” in our culture is more of an aesthetic.

But the term “radical” comes from a Latin word meaning “root.” So radical social change is about transforming society at its very foundations. We want to transform this cruelty-based society into a care-based society.

We must remember that radical isn’t about performing for other social justice warriors. There are many ways to embody and practice a radical politic. Dare to defy dogma and leftist orthodoxy for shallow sectarian approval. Find the courage to pursue a truly radical vision for tomorrow.

3. Strategy is a luxury.

The mass demonstrations of our time are some of the biggest in history. Yet, the gains achieved from them are nowhere near the scale of our protests. There are too many factors that explain that discrepancy to name here. But one of those factors is relevant because its within our control: the lack of strategy.

In an unreleased podcast conversation, renowned civil resistance researcher Erica Chenoweth told me,

“These days, we’re losing more battles through nonviolent struggle than we’re winning.”

She further explained that nonviolence isn’t the problem. Rather, we aren’t using the strongest nonviolent tactics available to us.

I file Dr. Chenoweth’s statement away with a broader trend of reactivism. Most activists I’ve worked with have been reluctant to do strategic work. They just want to protest. I’ve had activists go as far as calling strategy non-revolutionary. Some even say it’s a luxury for privileged people. Those same types like to invoke the name of Malcolm X or the Haitian Revolution. But anyone who thinks the enslaved liberated Haiti on vibes hasn’t read The Black Jacobins.

“This is a power struggle,” movement strategist Hardy Merriman once explained. “The one who out-organizes the other wins.”

Pure spontaneity and passion rarely — if ever — win revolutions. They’re the exception, not the rule in history.

4. Wellness is a privilege.

The conversation about wellness and social change is often compartmentalized. Many activists put “the struggle” over wellness. Some even see prioritizing wellness as a betrayal of the cause.

But wellness is the foundation of liberation. That’s because the first terrain of oppression is your own body. Several scientific studies show that oppression causes wear and tear on body cells. This causes chronic disease and even early death. Oppression is also linked to mental health challenges.

Wellness is also the goal of revolution. When we don’t have a clear vision of what we’re fighting for, the struggle can become an end in itself. We’re fighting for a world where we can all be well.

We shouldn’t need this information to care for ourselves (as though we need an excuse for that!) Nevertheless, this information shows us that wellness couldn’t possibly be a luxury or privilege. It’s linked to our freedom.

5. We’re the good guys.

We’re used to watching movies and TV series that assume a good-bad binary of heroes and villains. Growing up, the bad guys in these stories were so bad they weren’t worth saving. The hero kills them and we all applaud.

Our stories have only recently become more nuanced. They explore what motivates some people to do bad things. If only our movements for social change caught this wave.

Many social justice spaces operate on an us-them mentality. This good-bad binary keeps our movements small. It also makes the in-group vulnerable to the dehumanizing delusion of self-righteousness.

If perfection is the standard for belonging and doing justice work, none of us qualify. And if self-righteousness serves as a license for cruelty, we’ll all soon be monsters.

Like our oppressors, we’ll justify our cruelty — though we’ll tell ourselves it’s for better reasons.

Superiority is thrilling and addictive until you’re on the receiving end of it.

It’s also a delusion. My friend Ben McBride often says “None of us are one thing.”

None of us are all good. Few of us are all bad (if any). We should remember that if we want to break free of the cycle of dominance and violence.

Historically, the notion that we’re the good guys and can do no wrong has justified tyranny. So if we want radical change, we have to do something radically different.

We’re not the good guys. We’re just imperfect people.

We’ve all been part of the problem. All of us are learning to be better.

We’re waking up.

We’re on a journey. We haven’t arrived.

Our comrades are also on a journey. It’s not to fair to judge those behind us, as though we’ve never been where they are.

They deserve the same compassion and grace we would want for ourselves.

Finally…

At some point, we have to decide if we want a new society or if we just want to be the new leaders of the status quo. If we truly want the former, we’ve got to do more than shout about what structures and systems should change.

We have to become the kind of people who can build and maintain that type of society. Prejudice, cruelty, self-righteousness, reactivity, grinding, and martyrdom are not the building blocks or tools for a different future. Leave them in 2023.

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Works Cited

  1. “Joyful Militancy” by carla bergman and Nick Montgomery. AK Press.

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Andre Henry

Best-selling author, award-winning musician, and activist writing about resilience and revolution.