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Skepticism, Resistance and Social Justice

For many years, on the internet board and in my own work, I have witnessed the collective push and pull of social justice movements, where people who identify as allies often feel frustrated and angry at being questioned for their (our?) motives when engaging in fights that are not about their own oppression. Things like "Not all Men" or "Not all white people are like that" are evidence of these types of push back when claims of solidarity are questioned. I have a couple of quotes here that may serve to remind people of ways that skepticism and resistance are a vital part of being part of a social justice movement. To put into simple parlance, if you can't manage people repeatedly questioning your motives, you simply aren't ready to engage in social justice movements, especially when you consider the empathy required to at least imagine why skepticism would be a healthy adaptation for people who have experienced oppression.

Richardson and Reynolds (cited below) say this on p. 7

Healthy skepticism can help us engage with ethics by questioning our assumptions and generating our desire for something different. Skepticism also invites community workers to look for evidence of the doing of the ethical positioning we claim, and not to smooth over the discomfort we experience when we transgress our collective ethics. In this sense, skepticism is in relationship with hope, and onside with staying alive in our work. "Cynicism might be an appropriate reaction to injustice that cannot be changed. Hope is an appropriate response to a task that, while difficult, is imaginable" (Jensen, 2001, p. 2). Cynicism can be simple. Bringing a reasonable, believed-in hope to our work with clients is more complex and more difficult.


The differentiation between cynicism and skepticism is important— I think that suspicion of motives isn't always a call to walk away from an endeavor. As a social worker, I've had many people tell me that my clients would have no reason to trust me. I have to build that relationship and by continuing to monitor my own work—which requires significant levels of criticism every step of the way, I could help build trust, foster collaboration and instill hope. Trust me, I've had many people spend months and years questioning my motives and while it is emotionally difficult (I'm human and want people to like me implicitly and so I will have a response because I have my own stuff), it is a normal part of relationship building, particularly when there is a power differential. But you have to start out with the idea that the criticism is warranted and adaptive.

Later in the article, they are quoted as saying this:

In saying we honour resistance, we are acknowledging that whenever people are oppressed they resist. Resistance is linked to repairing dignity when people's lives and identities are under attack.

There are three main assumptions we make about resistance:

1. Whenever a person is oppressed they resist.

2. Resistance ought not to be judged by its ability to stop the oppression.

3. Resistance is important for its ability to maintain a person's connection to humanity, especially in instances outside of human understanding. (Wade, 1997; Reynolds, 2010c)

While resistance to oppression is ubiquitous, without a purposeful commitment to witness resistance, it can be disappeared, or be constructed narrowly, so that only that resistance which successfully stops oppression is acknowledged. Coates and Wade (2007) point out that language is used to either conceal or reveal violence and resistance. In clarifying real events in the world, we look for the person's own account of their sites of resistance, their resistance knowledges (Wade 1996, 1997), and the meanings these acts of resistance hold for the person.

Acts of resistance can draw attention to oppression that can go unnoticed and unchallenged or can pass for normal. In fact, acts of resistance can be indicators of safety and draw attention to the often ignored stories of the victims' efforts to protect themselves and others (Richardson & Wade, 2008). Resistance may not stop violence or social cruelty, but it does connect us with our sense of humanity and collective dignity. However, we are careful to not fetishize resistance, and certainly, not every act is an act of resistance. Our hope is to transform our communities and society so that people can experience justice, not to witness acts of resistance for their own sake. When we (professionally, collectively) organize our community work around uplifting human dignity and contesting socio-political acts of oppression and cruelty, we demonstrate that our practice can offer social esteem and a kind of liberatory engagement, affirming life.

And for me, this quote helps to better solidify what acts of resistance are and what they mean. They are often not dramatic or immediately facilitating an action but are subtle and allow us to see acts (big and small) which reduce people and community's feelings of self worth.

I'd just say it's a good thing for me and anyone else to be reminded that at times when our intentions are questioned, it can be a call to do better rather than a rejection. And while we all fall short at times, perhaps we can work towards reevaluating and reexamining our own position vis a vis the social justice work we find important.


Richardson, C., & Reynolds, V. (2012). " HERE WE ARE, AMAZINGLY ALIVE": HOLDING OURSELVES TOGETHER WITH AN ETHIC OF SOCIAL JUSTICE IN COMMUNITY WORK. International Journal of Child, Youth & Family Studies, 3(1).

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