We Need All Four Arts Of Social Justice Bending

bending arts
Image from Nickelodeon's "Avatar: The Last Airbender"

“Water. Earth. Fire. Air. Long ago, people used to live together in harmony. Then, everything changed when oppression attacked…”

I spend a lot of time online following and participating in conversations about social justice activism. One of the persistent debates is the effectiveness of various strategies and tactics. Some say that “SJWs” (Social Justice Warriors) are too strident, complaining about and protesting against things that, to many, seem trivial. Others say we’re not pushing hard enough to make the changes we want to see.

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I don’t generally comment on how well this protest or that direct action works for a few reasons:

  1. The people who are protesting know their specific situation far better than I do.
  2. Me critiquing them from behind my laptop to like-minded friends and associates isn’t likely to reach their ears or eyeballs.
  3. It takes all kinds of approaches and actions to change things.

Let me draw an analogy that most people can understand. Have you seen Avatar: The Last Airbender? No, not Legend of Korra. LoK is a different series that explores different themes (but, YAY KORRASAMI!). I’m talking about the original: the one with Aang and friends.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]We have to appreciate what everyone offers.[/pullquote]There’s a lot that I love about this series; one of the biggest is how heroism takes so many different forms. There’s nurturing, protective Katara and intense, volatile Zuko. Peace-loving, spiritual Aang and competitive, confrontational Toph. Even Sokka, who’s not a bender, brings strategy and inventiveness as well as humor. All of them have valuable skills and personality traits that are essential to ending the Fire Nation’s attempt at world domination.

Waterbending gives us the ability to forge deep connections and heal the damage oppression doles out. Photos from Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Just like the Gaang stopping the Fire Nation, it takes all kinds of approaches to pursue social justice. All four arts of social justice bending, if you will.

  • Social justice waterbenders’ adaptability and deep connections with others give us the ability to flow around obstacles when more direct methods fail and provide us with a deep well of love and community to sustain us through the good and bad.
  • Systems of oppression are stubborn and resist change, and you need the uncompromising stubbornness of social justice earthbenders to make them move. Social justice earthbenders are strong and enduring, giving our movements longevity and substance.
  • We need the passion of social justice firebenders to jolt people out of complacency and bring energy and zeal to the fight for justice, freedom, and equality. The world doesn’t change for the better by itself. It needs the light and heat generated by fire to bring attention to what’s going on and a sense of urgency to what we do.
  • Freeing ourselves from systems of oppression requires the ability to perceive and understand the overarching truth of what’s going on. We need clear-thinking, analytical social justice airbenders to place experiences and events into their broader context.
  • Then there are the social justice nonbenders whose creativity and versatility offer a variety of innovative ways to undermine oppression.
Earthbending gives us the tenacity that gives our movements substance and longevity. And there’s no such thing as too much Toph.

One of the things I really like about the show is that it doesn’t really judge them for being who they are, nor does the narrative demand them to be less themselves in order to be an important part of the team. The story doesn’t treat Zuko like a less evolved version of Aang, nor does it present Toph as a flawed Katara. That’s not to say that the characters don’t grow or change, but that growth hinges on them becoming better versions of themselves, not watered-down versions of someone else.

Some social justice airbender reading this might think that there’s an imbalance among the elements that needs to be addressed, but the answer to the imbalance is not to get, say, social justice firebenders to shut up and calm down (which won’t happen and is probably detrimental to both the individual and the movement), but to bring in more social justice waterbenders, earthbenders, airbenders, and nonbenders, then train them to be awesome at what they do best.

Do some people use their social justice bending in a harmful or counterproductive way? Absolutely, and those individuals need to be shown a better way or be shown the door. At the same time, that doesn’t mean that there is something inherently wrong with being, say, a social justice firebender.

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Airbending provides a clear understanding of the systemic nature of oppression.

On the show, even when the Fire Nation was actively trying to take over the world, the story made a very explicit point that firebenders or being from the Fire Nation in and of themselves don’t make a person more evil or dangerous than anyone else.

Part of Aang’s quest to become a fully realized Avatar is learning the truth about fire: that it is energy and life, not just destruction.

The same can be said for social justice bending. We have to learn how to appreciate what everyone offers, not reduce them to crude stereotypes or dismiss them as inadequate or ineffective.

Firebending gives us the passion and energy to bring light and heat to issues that affect us.
  1. Social justice waterbenders’ concern and care for others isn’t lacking in political meaning. They nurture and heal communities harmed by oppression.
  2. Social justice earthbenders don’t seek conflict for its own sake. They nip oppression in the bud by refusing to give it any ground.
  3. Social justice firebenders aren’t getting worked up over nothing. They are bringing attention to things that often go ignored which we normalize and naturalize without even knowing it.
  4. Social justice airbenders’ focus on concepts and ideas isn’t because they’re eggheads afraid of direct action. They’re providing the necessary frameworks we need to conceptualize how oppression works.
  5. Social justice nonbenders are more than cannon fodder for social justice movements. They can give us a variety of tools, resources, and strategies for effecting change.
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    Non-benders bring creativity and versatility to our efforts at undoing oppression.

Looking at different social justice temperaments in elemental terms, what needs to change is not what those elements are or what they do, but our own understanding of them.

By letting others do what they do best and focusing on what we do best, we come closer to fully realizing the change agents we wish to be.