In 2017, “Joy Policing” Can Go Fuck Itself

Emily Nagoski
4 min readDec 5, 2016

2016 has been… well.

So when a win came along in the form of a halt on the North Dakota Access Pipeline, my Facebook timeline filled with videos and newsclips of people celebrating and saying, “Yay!” …

Which was followed — inevitably — by a bunch of people holier-than-thou-splaining why we shouldn’t celebrate: The pipeline will still be built, Obama was just kicking the can down the road, blah blah fucking blah.

This dynamic of “Yay, a good thing!” being shut down instantly by “LOOK AT ALL THE THINGS THAT STILL AREN’T GOOD” is something I’ve been trying to understand since long before the same sex marriage ruling and the subsequent celebration/shutting down. Remember this Op-ed: You Can’t Cheer for Laverne and Boo Jennicet?

At the time, I wrote this about it:

If we’re in a dysfunctional family that’s been in therapy for years, and it’s one of our sibling’s birthday, you can imagine that a lot of us in the family would want one day — or even just one hour — when we could use that birthday to celebrate each other and pay attention to how much less fucked up we are than we used to be.

And if another sibling chose that particular day — or even just that particular hour of the birthday party — to bring up a bunch of the shit we still haven’t fixed, I’d be pretty disappointed and frustrated. Right or wrong, I’d be like, “Can’t we just have ONE DAY of celebrating our progress, however incomplete? ONE HOUR?”

That doesn’t mean I don’t agree with and support my sister. It just mean I have the human desire to be joyful with my family sometimes, dysfunction and all.

tl;dr: wanting to celebrate progress and being disappointed when someone brings drama to the party, is not the same thing as not supporting the struggle of the person who brought the drama.

This pouring of cold water on the flame of joy is a reason people drop out of movements. If people who work for social change aren’t allowed to experience and express pleasure in achieving something through their action, they don’t stay.

And things have gotten too difficult (and are about to get even more difficult) for us to tolerate anything that gives people an excuse not to participate in social justice action.

So let’s put an end to it. Won’t you join me?

I hereby name this dynamic “joy policing,” and I intend it to take the cultural role of diffusing the power of joy police, just as “mansplaining” diffuses the power of mansplainers.

We name it. We deride it. We move on — while the joy police splutter in objection.

Fuck ’em.

“Joy policing,” because it’s really another form of “tone policing.” You can’t tell a person they’re not allowed to express their rage; their rage belongs in the movement. Especially if you’ve got privilege that the enraged person doesn’t, your job is to hear the rage, see where it’s coming from, and honor it.

And you can’t tell a person they’re not allowed to express their joy; their joy belongs in the movement. Hear it, see where it’s coming from, and honor it.

We need every reason in the world not to give up right now. Rage doesn’t mean a person is giving up or is blind to solutions; it just means something happened that enrages them.

Joy doesn’t mean we’re giving up or are blind to the remaining problems; it just means something happened that gives them joy.

Life is messy. People have feelings. Their feelings are welcome in the movement. People can feel differently than you do about things, and their feelings are just as welcome as your are. People can feel multiple things at the same time, and all the things they feel are welcome.

It’s not your job to explain to the person why they should feel differently, and it’s not your job to remind them how much more work remains to be done. Nobody thinks, having graduated from high school or college, they are now DONE; on the contrary, they’re already in the process of transitioning to the next thing, even as you congratulate them for the thing they finished. It is not necessary for you to remind them how much farther they have to go, or how imperfectly they reached this particular benchmark. You just say, “Congratulations! You made it this far!”

And the harder it was for them to make it this far, the more you congratulate them, even if they just scraped through it. You don’t say, “Well, your GPA wasn’t great and you’ve still got anther degree to go before your education is finished. I don’t know why you’re celebrating.”

We celebrate incremental wins, because it energizes us to keep moving toward the next win. Celebrating doesn’t mean we think we’re done; it means our efforts resulted in change in the right direction. And if we don’t feel pleasure in that, we’re dead. We’re literally dead.

So shut the fuck up, joy police. You’re wounding movements, because people drop out of social justice action when they’re punished for being glad that their contribution made a difference.

Joy doesn’t mean we think we’ve arrived. It means we’re glad to be on the road.



Emily Nagoski

sex educator, author, researcher, and activist. also: nerd. and @emilynagoski