Individualism twists our understanding of injustice

Hi friends,

Ally Henny was an (online) classmate of mine in seminary, and I’ve appreciated her voice on social media ever since. But I hadn’t really read much of her (non-social-media) writing until now. 

I just read her recently released book, I Won’t Shut Up: Finding Your Voice When the World Tries to Silence You. It’s a good one.

Ally identifies herself as a “loud Black woman.” 

I, in contrast, am…only one of those three things. Definitely not the other two. 

So I loved how much I related to a lot of the book anyway. Which is not to say that it was primarily written for me as a white woman. But Ally has a way of drawing the reader into her stories and reflections that’s really beautiful. 

I feel like she’s speaking specifically to Black women’s experiences, and advocating specifically for Black women to be heard—while also writing with open arms that embrace a whole world of people and voices. At least that’s how I read it.

I thought about sharing a few quotes and thoughts that stood out to me, you know, “super chill book review” style. (And maybe I’ll still do that another time.) But then I realized I had enough to say on one train of thought for a whole post, lol. So here it is: Individualism twists our understanding of injustice.

In the most recent thing I wrote for Feminism and Religion, I was trying to get at the way our society casts incidents of men’s violence against women as a set of isolated events. A handful of bad men. A handful of vulnerable women. Surely not part of a broader societal issue of deep-seated misogyny that impacts us all, whether victims (or perpetrators) of physical violence or not.

Ally addresses something similar, in a really insightful—and expansive—way:

“American society’s addiction to rugged individualism and toxic positivity has resulted in an inability to name and adequately reckon with injustice. Individualism twists adversity and harm into isolated incidents and makes the outcome of such incidents the sole responsibility of the person experiencing them. When people experience harm, there is pressure to quickly ‘get over’ what happened and find some kind of happy ending that ties everything up in a perfect bow and places it on a shelf not to be remarked on again (except to talk about how ‘beautiful’ the situation ended up being). What we’re left with is a broader culture that understands very little about collective harm, collective grief, collective injustice, and our collective responsibility to build a just world” (pp. 50-1).

There’s a lot here, that Ally names so well. I think this is something of what I experienced but didn’t quite know how to put my finger on at the conservative evangelical church I was a part of in my twenties. 

I wanted to help people think about justice and injustice—and not just think, but also do something. 

And for me, the desire to work toward justice came from simply learning more about the injustices that exist in our world.

I was raised in a wealthy community. In a family that always had enough financially. In schools primarily full of white and East Asian kids. 

My main concern was to do a lot of things well so that I would do well in college admissions. (Okay, and I also wanted to make some friends and date some cute boys along the way.)

I wasn’t really exposed, as a kid or teenager, to people for whom life was much more of a financial struggle. I was taught, however implicitly, that racism was a thing of the past. An ugly history that we have now moved beyond.

In college, I had some experiences that helped me understand that there’s more to the picture. I learned about the histories and present-day realities of racist policies and systems. Basically, I became aware of some of the forms injustice takes in our world.

Before that, I simply didn’t know. But once I knew, I cared. It was clear to me that God’s people should care.

It came as a gradual but deeply jarring shock, then, in my twenties, to slowly realize that many of my fellow churchgoers were not like me. For them, the issue wasn’t that they didn’t know. It was that their theology did not predispose them to prioritizing justice as an important part of their faith.

For many people, their theology was steeped in, as Ally calls it, rugged individualism. If salvation is just between me and God, all about me living a personally righteous life and then going to heaven when I die, what does social justice have to do with it? The “inability to name and adequately reckon with injustice,” as Ally puts it, ran deep.

And, as Ally writes, “we’re left with…a broader culture that understands very little about collective harm, collective grief, collective injustice, and our collective responsibility to build a just world.” Culture, church, everything. 

I join Ally in wanting us to see all the collective things. Harm, grief, injustice. And responsibility. To see that violence is not a series of isolated random events but a symptom of mindsets that prioritize some people’s experiences over others. Of systems that value some people’s lives over others. Of worldviews that imagine we’re all here to compete for limited resources, as opposed to seeing that we can all thrive together—and that this is the only way we can thrive.

Individualism twists our understanding of injustice. It keeps us from seeing the patterns that underlie everything. But those patterns are there. And it’s those patterns—not just the individual expressions of them—that we’re aiming to disrupt as we hope to build a different kind of world.

Peace and collectivist vision to you this week,


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *