3 Reasons It’s Irrational to Demand ‘Rationalism’ in Social Justice Activism

A person, appearing exasperated, holds their hands to their forehead.

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The scenario is always the same: I say we should abolish prisons, police, and the American settler state — someone tells me I’m irrational. I say we need decolonization of the land — someone tells me I’m not being realistic.

Whenever I hear this, I stop and think about the world we’d live in if previous European colonizers were berated with the same rhetoric about rationalism as we abolitionists are today.

Would it have been enough to stop them in their tracks?

What if someone had told them that the creation of the American nation-state of settler-colonizers who displace and murder the Indigenous inhabitants — and the development of the white supremacist, anti-Black, capitalist, cisheteropatriarchy — was a project too hefty to accomplish?

What if those imperialism-driven Europeans, all passionate and roused about Manifest Destiny, were encouraged to stop and reconsider whether their violent plans were rational?

We might possibly have a world that isn’t filled to the brim with oppression.

There may not have been the centuries-long (and still ongoing) ravaging of every continent and the development of anti-Black chattel slavery.

We many never have had the tentacles of the white supremacist patriarchy spanning the entire globe, regulating gender along a binary and fostering rape culture.

We may never have had carceral forms of justice that render certain people disposable.

And the Earth’s lands, skies, and water definitely wouldn’t be irrevocably devastated.

But it makes sense why many of those who are committed to social justice subscribe to the same language of rationalism as their oppressors. Marginalized folks are taught from infancy that they need to behave in a respectable manner to be treated with decency. We face so much violence, to the point where the violence becomes the norm and our resistance is what feels extreme.

We’re painted as aggressors even when we are consistently the victims. The media treats Black victims worse than white killers. People see trans and gender non-conforming people in bathrooms as threats rather than as targets of abuse.

When we are told repeatedly that everything we do is an attack, we internalize the idea that we need to quiet ourselves, to take up less space. And so we begin to limit ourselves to tactics of resistance that are easy to digest — and we create those limits under the guise of being rational.

Not only is this urge to be rational holding us back, it unintentionally validates the logic of white supremacy as natural and positions the desire to fight oppression as excessive and outrageous.

For those of us who are trying to burn the colonial project to the ground and build a new world, we have to stop placing limits on ourselves in a world that is already at our throats.

Abolitionists, those who are invested in abolishing police, prisons, the settler colonial nation-state, cannot afford to be held back by what is deemed rational. In fact, rationalism has no place in abolitionism.

This is not to say that there are many roles to be filled among those who resist, none of which should be placed in a hierarchy of value. People come from different places of knowledge, ability, and history which makes each person equipped to participate (if they so choose) based on their unique position in society.

But when those who are the loudest, the most disruptive — the ones who want to destroy America and all of the oppression it has brought into the world — are being silenced even by others in social justice groups, that is unacceptable.

Pushing the boundaries of how we can shape our resistance beyond what’s rational is urgent and necessary.

And here are three reasons why.

1. Being Rational Has No Inherent Value

When I talk about abolition, whether that be of prisons, immigrant detainment centers, the police, or the government, I am instantly derailed by strangers and even friends. They tell me that it isn’t rational.

They say this as if everyone seeks to be rational, as if prisons, themselves — which have grown more than 400 percent since 1970 and which has predominantly impacted communities of color, especially Black and Indigenous communities — are rational. As if being rational has indisputable value.

At first, I took their reactions to heart. I thought maybe being rational really is necessary if I wanted to achieve my goals of eradicating oppression.

If I’m not rational, then I must not be thinking correctly, which makes me incompetent and unqualified to even have political opinions.

Or so I thought.

The truth is, this constant emphasis on rationalism is a load of toxic garbage (and this is me being gentle with my words). It reeks of the rancid odor that develops when we squeeze our vast imaginations into tiny boxes labeled “pragmatic,” “rational,” and “reasonable.” Being rational can often mean being willing to accept some aspects of oppression and watering down my politics.

In fact, by American standards, my very existence is irrational. For many, I simply do not exist as a queer, Vietnamese femme who is neither a man or a woman. Living in my body, wading through my truths, is not a rational act. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Based on my experiences as a marginalized person, being rational just means going easy on my oppressors.

The narrow bit of room that rationalism gave me wasn’t enough for me to envision new possibilities for my gender, to escape the confines of impending manhood. It wasn’t enough for me to understand my personhood as infinitely more complicated than the models of personhood fed to me by white cis people.

From my vantage point, rationalism — or whatever you want to name it — did more harm than good.

Some of us place so much value on being rational that we’re unable to recognize that when someone tells you to be rational, they may just be telling you that their ideas weigh more than yours.

The rhetoric of rationalism can be used as a seemingly benign disguise for social control.

2. Rationalism Is a Tool Made to Hurt Us

In the context of anti-oppression work, limiting ourselves to rational thinking means that we’re choosing to use the tools that make sense to our oppressors, which are usually tools made to hurt us.

Rationalism means we’re working within the framework of a system that was built to harm us in the first place.

And that, for me, is completely irrational — and it’s violent and oppressive to expect that of anyone who suffers from the exploitation and abuse of this system.

But to take it a step further, rationalism is subjective.

For those who are most impacted by the prison industrial complex Black and Indigenous folks, trans and gender non-conforming folks, people with disabilities, those who are undocumented, and those who sit at the intersection of multiple identities, among others abolitionist politics are entirely rational.

When your life and the well-being of your family, chosen and otherwise, is under attack by the prison system, for instance, abolition is common sense. Investing in prisons only makes sense for corporations, for governments, for oppressors whose power is fueled by the abuse and deaths of marginalized people.

In a world truly committed to justice, nothing would be more rational than abolitionism.

Yet, social justice liberals who spew negative rhetoric about rationalism tend to be against abolition, instead preferring reformist politics over anything deemed too “radical.” Why are we trying to be steady and gentle with systems of oppression while the systems get to inflict violence among large masses of people?

When we limit ourselves in our dreams and our goals, the oppressor has less work to do.

When we restrict ourselves in the name of being rational, we create barriers for ourselves — we place the world we want to live in farther from reach.

Since what’s rational is subjective, it is thus indefinable. The only reason why rationalism is believed to have inherent value is because it echoes the oppressor’s way of thinking.

When oppressors have the power to decide what’s rational, they get to commit irrational acts and claim them as rational justifications for oppression.

Take colonialism as an example: Colonizers enjoy claiming that those they’ve colonized are less civilized, despite the fact that colonized peoples often come from older and more complex civilizations than those of the colonizer.

And non-binary people are told their whole identities are irrational, even though non-binary people have existed much longer than the American settler state.

When the state gets to decide what’s normal enough to be rational, they get to decide who becomes the reviled Other – the groups that are subjected to targeted abuse.

Moving beyond the logical confines of our oppressors is necessary for us to envision a world free from the systems that kill us.

3. We Are Enough Without Rationalism

As Assata Shakur has said, “No one is going to give you the education you need to overthrow them.”

We should be constantly interrogating why being rational has been presumed to hold inherent value, and we should be asking ourselves where we got that idea in the first place. The institutions that taught us what we know should be placed under suspicion.

For many of us, schools are where many people are conditioned to become either complicit or complacent to systems of oppression. In fact, one could argue that institutions of education are not to make the people more empowered, but to stomp out their autonomy and make them more likely to invest in their downfall.

And before school, we are socialized into being obedient through the ways that oppression influences the way we raise children and build interpersonal relationships.

This is exactly why people believe that police and prisons equal safety, when that is not the case.

People have been conditioned to believe that prisons will keep their communities safe, when carceral state is the very thing hurting them. And more police does not mean more safety, especially when the police get to murder people with impunity. What does it mean when we feel an inclination to trust the institutions that are killing us?

The extent to which we’ve been led to love and trust our oppressors is so deep that we’re entrusting ourselves to our murderers.

The longer we postpone abolition based on “logical” arguments, the longer we’re denied basic autonomy. It’s a fallacy to believe that we’ll be given a more opportune time to abolish prisons and decolonize, because the role of the state is to never provide that opportunity.

When we frame abolition and decolonization as “long-term” goals, we operate under the belief that these goals can only happen in the distant future. We need to instead reframe abolition and decolonization as urgent, immediate goals.

If we look back at history, we would recognize that there are tons of examples of movements that may have been deemed irrational but ended up succeeding, the Montgomery Bus Boycott being one of them.

Many people know the Rosa Parks from learning about the boycott but don’t recognize how radical is was for around 42,000 Black Americans to boycott the public transit system for over a year.

Their goal was to ensure that Black people had the same treatment under the public transit system as whites and they never compromised their goals, even as transportation was denied to them over the course of a year. Without transportation, Black lives were completely disrupted. They had to either walk (for those who had that physical ability), or they had to find other forms of transportation.

As a result, they found a new way of operating — they relied on one another.

Black taxi drivers lowered their prices dramatically, Black people with cars began supplying rides to those without cars, and churches bought cars and station wagons to help those who didn’t have access to a vehicle. They organized carpools and collectively established on pickup and dropoff locations.

That was how Black community members developed their own autonomous, sustained transportation system for thousands upon thousands of people that didn’t involve the American settler colonial government.

How rational do you think that was?

They of course encountered backlash and horrific violence throughout the boycott. Leaders were arrested and laws were created to justify their imprisonment. Homes, churches, and cars were riddled with bombs and bullets from snipers even after the boycott ended.

It’s important to recognize that there are people who face so much violence in their lives that they simply don’t want to subject themselves to the violence that comes along with protesting oppression. It’s important to understand that some people are so marginalized and have so much trauma that they may not have the capacity or desire to engage in ways that may trigger unwanted memories and emotions.

And the conditions of those of us who are farthest in the margins are another reason why these abolitionist goals are so necessary.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott didn’t intend to abolish the nation-state, but it had goals that were unheard of and it created its own system of transportation that allowed Black people to take care of each other without the state. The boycott is a model of possibilities. And there are many others.

There are possibilities that we haven’t dreamed of yet because we are too invested in resisting in a rational way.

Sure, there are ways to hold space for both the smaller policy changes and the large-scale structural changes. But when we choose to tell ourselves that destroying a violent system is too big of a task for right now, we willingly give up both our time and our power.

Every minute under the carceral, colonial project is inconceivable violence. We too often place abolition as something only possible in a far-off future, which means we’re allowing the right-now to be stolen.

The only logical time for abolition and decolonization is now.

Rather than spending time and energy worrying about whether our movements are rational, can we direct that time and energy towards recognizing our brilliance?

***

When we invest in ourselves, in our own power, we have no need for the oppressor and their rational politics. We can be strategic without holding ourselves back. We already have the tools we need in us to win.

We are already lovers, healers, artists, creators, and so much more.

We have the power to think far beyond the education we’ve been given, beyond the carceral state, beyond the gender binary, beyond capitalist relationships, beyond the colonial project.

We are dreaming up ourselves, each other, and the world we want to live in. We can’t let rationalism steal our dreams.

And we have to trust and love ourselves enough to make those dreams a reality.

xoài phạm is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. They are a Vietnamese femme. They are tender and dangerous. They love mangos. They have places to be and people to scare. Read their articles here.