A lot of social justice type people really like the idea of The Revolution. Someday, they say, we will smash white supremacy/capitalism/patriarchy/the state! And then everything will be perfect and rainbows and sunshine and Kumbaya!

Fortunately, this never really gets beyond reblogging “If I Had A Hammer I’d Smash The Patriarchy” pictures, but nevertheless I feel like this is an extremely destructive tendency that needs to be nipped in the bud before people start building barricades.

Imagine that social justice is like climbing mountains. You want to walk to the top of the tallest mountain because… I don’t know, it’s there. But, instead of a normal human, you are a video game character with two powers: Walk and Jump.

If you use Walk, you move to the next square on the board. It’s pretty easy to get to the top of a mountain that way: all you have to do is keep going up. Even if you make a mistake, it’s easy to move back to where you were. Unfortunately, the mountain you’re trying to climb on might not be the tallest mountain in the mountain range.

On the other hand, you can use Jump. If you use Jump, you land on literally any other square on the board. Jump has a chance of putting you in a better position. Of course, a lot of squares are lower than where you started out, especially if you’re pretty high up the mountain already. Even worse, sometimes when you Jump you break your legs and then you can’t move at all.

Trying to reform the system– starting a women’s shelter, agitating for better food stamps laws, educating your friends about racism, whatever– is using Walk. A world without a woman’s shelter is worse than a world with a women’s shelter. It’s still horrible; if it wasn’t horrible, we wouldn’t need a woman’s shelter. But it’s a little better.

Revolutions use Jump. Sometimes revolutions are awesome and you end up with the United States and a democracy instead of a king! But a lot of the time revolutions end up as Stalinist Russia, or Maoist China, or the Khmer Rouge. I mean, sure, you don’t think that your plan to smash the state will lead to mass starvation and murder, but neither did the people who supported Stalin. He did not get into power because he promised to put dissidents into gulags.

I’ll take “guaranteed to be a little better” over “chance that it’s way better, chance of gulags” any day.

The other problem with revolutionary thinking is that it tends to blind people to the stuff that can improve the world right now. A lot of revolutionaries nowadays don’t really have a plan for how the revolution is going to come about, except “everybody talk about revolutionary theory a lot.” To be fair, this is a much better plan than “let’s accidentally make Stalinist Russia,” since discussing revolutionary theory is an entertaining hobby that is unlikely to hurt anyone. But it doesn’t help people either.

One more rape crisis center or one more person educated about good consent and respecting boundaries seems like such a small victory when compared to a world without rape. But we know how to achieve the former and have no idea how to achieve the latter (except that it possibly involves dancing). Energy directed towards “let’s make a world without rape!” is wasted unless it causes actual changes in the actual world that we live in.