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A few weeks back, I was having a conversation with some classmates about historical sexual slavery. There was a thread in the conversation that had really been bothering me: the idea that “nobody cared” about those who had been trafficked. Well, I pointed out, at least one group of people cared, namely those who had been trafficked themselves. Pushing the people we were supposedly trying to defend and highlight into the oblivion of “nobody” was dehumanising. My point was noted, and then the conversation went right back into the language of nobody.

That’s quite telling: there is that ingrained dehumanisation of those supposedly being defended on the part of privileged people doing the defending. It’s why I get so uncomfortable about Westerners being the named heroes in photographs full of anonymous Vietnamese orphans. It feels good to pretend you’re the only one who has ever cared about a given group, but you’re not. Not only are you discounting others in their community, you’re discounting the agency, feelings, and capacity to care of the people to whom you’re referring. “Nobody cares” is a creepy kind of rhetoric that vacuums out personhood and replaces it with a victim-shaped vessel of privileged goodwill.

And I think that’s the starting point of where so many activist endeavours go wrong. Supporting orphans, for example, is great. But it’s not so great to be a Westerner going to a country you think of as exotic, running in there and dampening the economy by taking away work from locals who would have liked to build the orphanage themselves if they’d had the chance. It’s not so great to be building relationships with those cute little kids who will be devastated when you up and leave. The starting point of wrongness is starting with the activist. Because maybe it would have been better to ask that community what they needed, and then left them alone or supported them in the ways they wanted.

Remember that ad from Australian Marriage Equality in which was cited the statistic that ’80% of young Aussies want their gay and lesbian friends to finally be treated equally by the law’? Well, I got a bit annoyed wondering why the treatment of other queer people under the law didn’t seem to matter, but Hoyden commenter Emily had another point to add.

I’m also wondering if they only surveyed the straight friends of young ‘gay and lesbian’ people? does that 80% of young people not include the non-straight people themselves?

The framing of the statistics like that – essentially othering the actual people they’re trying to support – troubles me.

That really captures it, doesn’t it? Whose support, whose care, gets to count? That only the most normative and privileged people get to speak and act perpetuates these problems. This state of affairs makes it more palatable, sure: lots of people don’t want to listen to Actual Queers or Foreign Brown People when they could be looking at a shiny, clean, white person trying to do the right thing. But it draws social justice that much further back.

It’s not that nobody cares. It’s just that supposed social justice rhetoric shouldn’t be calling marginalised people nobody.