I have become sort of well-known for my walls of text in conversations of privilege and marginalization, and one of the reasons I post them is because simply telling people to educate themselves doesn’t work. I mean, realistically, we are all grown adults who know how to use The Google. Given sufficient interest in not hurting each other’s feelings, a person so motivated could just… go find one of the many many places on the internet where this has been explained and just learn how on their own.
Realistically, though, people are kinda lazy… particularly when the only thing at stake is someone else’s feelings.
Consequently, while these insufficiently-motivated people are not entitled to any more expended energy on behalf of others than they’re willing to give, I actually happen to care about what’s going to happen the next time they run and act a fool and hurt somebody, and right now I have the spoons to… well, spoonfeed some people.
So let’s start with the spoon theory. This is geared toward living with a disability like Lupus that increases the cost for everything you do, and decreases the resources you have available to do it. It’s become a broader metaphor for anyone who is dealing with constant energy taxation that someone not facing this resource management won’t even see happening. If someone does not “have the spoons” to have a particular discussion with you, it is probably because of the people who got here before you walked in the door, and the demands those people made.
Sometimes different stuff happens to different people. Learn why.
Now that you understand at least in principle that there are things which might be taxing some of your friends and forum-mates that you aren’t seeing (even if you are there while they’re happening), you need to start figuring out what exactly you’re missing. I’ll start you with the most famous 101-level explanation of what it means to have a thing we call “privilege.” It’s about white privilege specifically, but I’m sure as you read you’ll be able to figure out how it generalizes to race, gender, orientation, level of ability, and socioeconomic class.
I decided to try to work on myself at least by identifying some of the daily effects of white privilege in my life. I have chosen those conditions that I think in my case attach somewhat more to skin-color privilege than to class, religion, ethnic status, or geographic location, though of course all these other factors are intricately intertwined. As far as I can tell, my African American coworkers, friends, and acquaintances with whom I come into daily or frequent contact in this particular time, place and time of work cannot count on most of these conditions. (…)
I see a pattern running through the matrix of white privilege, a patter of assumptions that were passed on to me as a white person. There was one main piece of cultural turf; it was my own turn, and I was among those who could control the turf. My skin color was an asset for any move I was educated to want to make. I could think of myself as belonging in major ways and of making social systems work for me. I could freely disparage, fear, neglect, or be oblivious to anything outside of the dominant cultural forms. Being of the main culture, I could also criticize it fairly freely.
In proportion as my racial group was being made confident, comfortable, and oblivious, other groups were likely being made unconfident, uncomfortable, and alienated. Whiteness protected me from many kinds of hostility, distress, and violence, which I was being subtly trained to visit, in turn, upon people of color.
Now, this conversation may already be getting you feeling a little attacked, because it may feel like I’m telling you that you’re a bad person because your very existence is hurting people and you are a seeping wound on the face of humanity and you should totally hate yourself and junk. Consider whether these hurt feelings, this sense that you are somehow bad and wrong and unwanted for factors you cannot control, and wonder what it would be like to actually feel like this all the time, and not merely when somebody is asking you to consider their feelings.
Basically, I’m asking you to imagine what it’d be like not to be able to navigate away from this page and go anyplace else to feel better under the assumption that there even are places that will not make you feel this way, and whether that might build up over time and change how the world feels to you overall. Probably sucks, right?
This is the real situation for a lot of people.
But maybe you don’t want to think about that. Maybe you just want me to stop talking. Luckily for you, in a lot of places you actually can make me do that. In a lot of places, your right not to think too hard about the impact of your actions is more important to the people running it than the actual impact of your actions. Those places are probably really comfortable for you, and I’m sure you would fight to the death to keep your thought-free verbal theme park free of consequences or accountability for your heedlessness.
After all! Why should anyone care what you think? It’s not like you have any reason to care what they think. Why can’t they ignore you just like you like to ignore them? The answer is because your situations are different. Some people have to care what other people think. For some people, what other people think actually affects their ability to live their life in peace. To give one example, a cisgendered straight person really doesn’t need to worry about what LGBT people think of them, but if you think that LGBT people don’t have actual high-stakes reasons to care what cis straight people think of them, I don’t know what universe you are living in but I want to go to there.
So okay, some people go through different stuff. But sometimes… they will TALK TO YOU.
So okay. Maybe by now you get the concept that some people have no choice but to care what you think about them, and as a matter of survival are going to try and get you to think about them in a certain way because of the way that’ll impact how you treat them. But why do they have to get into your funtiemz?! My god, I mean… what if they think that something you like to read is kinda sexist? What if they think that you’re on a board whose setting is thoughtlessly transphobic? What if they tell you something you are writing this very second is actually pretty racist?
OBVIOUSLY NOW YOU SHOULD EXPLODE.
Liking problematic things doesn’t make you an *sshole. In fact, you can like really problematic things and still be not only a good person, but a good social justice activist ™! After all, most texts have some problematic elements in them, because they’re produced by humans, who are well-known to be imperfect. But it can be surprisingly difficult to own up to the problematic things in the media you like, particularly when you feel strongly about it, as many fans do. We need to find a way to enjoy the media we like without hurting other people and marginalised groups. So with that in mind, here are my suggestions for things we should try our darnedest to do as self-confessed fans of problematic stuff.
By now, hopefully you understand that being pulled aside for a conversation about something you have said or done or something that you really like is not the end of the world. Still, I’m sure that you feel like anybody who wants you to listen and actually work on not hurting them has got to be as polite as possible and really just sit you down and gently seduce you into figuring out the ways in which you are unknowingly slapping them in the face and then sweetly cajoling you into at least considering the possibility of stopping. I mean, why would you listen to someone who wasn’t doing that? Your feelings are the most important ones involved, after all. If they want to get heard, they need to set their feelings aside so that you don’t have to.
Except that this actually is a really awful thing to do to that person.
The Tone Argument
This bit may not be perfectly intuitive, but the “be nice to me or you’ve given me free license to completely ignore you and continue the behavior that hurt you” argument is called the Tone Argument, and among social justice peeps this is pretty much universally treated like its own fallacy. You are automatically wrong for doing it. It’s sort of like Godwin’s Law, in that whoever goes there first loses, and even if the Hitler comparison is valid… you need to find another one, because Godwin’s Law.
It probably isn’t immediately obvious why the Tone Argument is so bad, and I understand that, so let me give you some of the resources that helped me out when I was still trying to figure out how I, as an able-bodied cisgendered white person, could hurt people’s feelings less.
Here is what you are really asking of people when you tell them that being more considerate of your feelings than you are of theirs is some kind of prerequisite for being heard. You are responding to someone who is saying, “You hurt my feelings,” by attempting to remind them how much more important yours are. Here’s something that I end up posting in most threads where the necessity of politeness comes up.
What these people fail to understand is that if you’ve said something racist and f*cked up you’ve already been rude to me. You’ve already offended me and ignorance is no excuse because you are a grown person, you can read, you can research, you can figure out how to treat people with respect and equality.
The question I always ask in these situations and no one ever answers: Why do I (or anyone) have to be polite when we are offended? If someone offends me with racism (either unconscious or deliberate) why should I be nice while confronting them? No one has given an answer to me yet because the answer is for the accused’s comfort level, which brings me back around to the title of this post. It is a privilege to expect someone to confront you on any kind of prejudice politely! I go through every day knowing that I will be offended and there is no politeness when it happens but in return I have to be nice? I have to be polite? I have to be willing to teach you is what is really being said.
No matter how nicely and calmly and reasonably you make your points some will still say you are whining or angry or full of hate. In their heads whites are so wonderful that to say anything bad about them can only come from hatred – no matter how many facts back you up. So a bad tone can get read into your words whether it is there or not.
If it were as simple as having the right tone then racism would have died out ages ago.
So screw tone. No reasonable person is going to fault you for being angry about racism. Those who do, those who expect you to be not only sweet and calm but to value their feelings over your own are closed-minded jerks. You might want to give them a piece of your mind, but do not fool yourself into thinking you can reason with them: they have already placed themselves beyond reason. (…)
When a clueless innocent hurts you and you tell him, he wants to know what went wrong so he can stop it and make it right. He apologizes and means it. Because he never meant to hurt you in the first place.
But a person who uses the tone argument does the opposite: he refuses to face up to the wrong he has done or do anything about it, much less apologize. Instead he turns it on you, making it not about what you said but how you said it.
(As an aside! When I see more people responding with a good honest self-evaluation when called out on their prejudiced behavior, I’ll accept that it’s minorities who need to grow a thicker skin, but the biggest hissy fits by far that I’ve seen have come from super defensive people who are just aghast that they’re being expected to adjust their behavior all of a sudden. Maybe when that’s not the case I’ll be willing to focus on the oversensitivity of minorities.)
Okay, Xenologer, I thought of a revolutionary new thing that means I don’t have to listen after all! BEHOLD.
There is a lot that I can’t cover here, but I wanted to emphasize in general terms that these conversations were going on long before you got here. Some of us have been having them for a long time, and you know what? The conversations started before we got here. Part of participating constructively is learning whether a question or concern that you have has already been addressed. Part of making only fair demands on other people’s time and energy is trying to fill at least some of the gaps in your knowledge or experience on your own, without requiring them to drop whatever it is they’re doing and recenter their life on you.
One quick way to do this is to get your comment, objection, question, or concern clear in your head, and then see if it is listed on Derailing for Dummies. If what’s on your mind is listed there, you can find a reply to it there. Additionally, think about what it means that your brand new shiny reason why you shouldn’t have to listen to the other people in the thread is even on that list. You may not have stumbled on the game-changing argument you thought you had. Please save everybody else the effort of replying to that statement or sentiment for the thousandth time, because the less patience they have, the less consideration you get.
Consider the possibility that you really are just a jerk and nobody should like you.
If at the end of all this, you are still left wondering, “Why should I care?” then let me make something abundantly clear: Caring about the impact your actions have on others is not social justice activist field training. It’s a basic skill that you need to coexist with other people. If there is any circumstance in which you would respond to a friend who is sitting you down because you’ve hurt their feelings with grace and politeness, then this is a skill you already have. If there is no circumstance in which you would respond with an honest appraisal of your own actions and a willingness to change how you behaved so that you aren’t a cause of pain to someone close to you, then your problem is way bigger than how you deal with accusations of bigotry. You’re just a jerk in general.
No, really, you are. Maybe some of your friends will take longer to realize it, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned listening to POC, LGBT people, disability activists, and feminists… it’s that people with an experience of marginalization are the canaries in the coalmine. They’ll be the first people you drive away, but they won’t be the last, and you’ll deserve every abandonment just as richly as they deserve a personal community without you in it.
As a note for people who moderate or administrate communities of any kind:
You will have members of your community whose experiences you cannot understand and whose objections seem to come out of nowhere. This is because you and they are not experiencing the same sides of your community. You could be standing in the same digital room with the same people and having the same conversation and not understand that their room is different from yours, and that this is normal.
Imagine, if you will, a small house, built someplace cool-ish but not cold, perhaps somewhere in Ohio, and inhabited by a dog and a lizard. The dog is a big dog, something shaggy and nordic, like a Husky or Lapphund – a sled dog, built for the snow. The lizard is small, a little gecko best adapted to living in a muggy rainforest somewhere. Neither have ever lived anywhere else, nor met any other creature; for the purposes of this exercise, this small house is the entirety of their universe.
The dog, much as you might expect, turns on the air conditioning. Really cranks it up, all the time – this dog was bred for hunting moose on the tundra, even the winter here in Ohio is a little warm for his taste. If he can get the house to fifty (that’s ten C, for all you weirdo metric users out there), he’s almost happy.
The gecko can’t do much to control the temperature – she’s got tiny little fingers, she can’t really work the thermostat or turn the dials on the A/C. Sometimes, when there’s an incandescent light nearby, she can curl up near it and pick up some heat that way, but for the most part, most of the time, she just has to live with what the dog chooses. This is, of course, much too cold for her – she’s a gecko. Not only does she have no fur, she’s cold-blooded! The temperature makes her sluggish and sick, and it permeates her entire universe. Maybe here and there she can find small spaces of warmth, but if she ever wants to actually do anything, to eat or watch TV or talk to the dog, she has to move through the cold house.
Now, remember, she’s never known anything else. This is just how the world is – cold and painful and unhealthy for her, even dangerous, and she copes as she knows how. But maybe some small part of her thinks, “hey, it shouldn’t be like this,” some tiny growing seed of rebellion that says who she is right next to a lamp is who she should be all the time. And she and the dog are partners, in a sense, right? They live in this house together, they affect each other, all they’ve got is each other. So one day, she sees the dog messing with the A/C again, and she says, “hey. Dog. Listen, it makes me really cold when you do that.”
As a member of community staff, you are the one with your hand on the thermostat. Think about this. You set the tone. You make the rules. You decide who has broken them and what the consequences ought to be. Consider that you are setting the temperature so that it is comfortable for you, and consider how willing you are to listen to the geckos on your board when they say that your comfort is coming at the expense of their mental health.
An important thing to remember, though, is that you cannot please everyone. What you must sometimes do is curtail one person’s behavior–even at the risk of alienating them and losing their membership–because if left unchecked, they’re going to alienate someone else. We cannot always have everybody be comfortable in a community, because not everybody is going to be cool with the standards and shared values of the community. For me, I’m not terribly worried about losing the activity/patronage of people who are unrepentant jerks to my other members.
I know that we’re all super nerdy social outcasts here who probably believe that ostracism is necessarily the worst thing anybody can do and it makes you basically Hitler, but if we aren’t willing to set and enforce clear boundaries for how members are going to treat each other, we’re going to lose members anyway. So whom would you rather lose? People who refuse to cut down on their prejudiced conduct, or people who refuse to subject themselves to that prejudiced conduct? We can’t have both of them. We really cannot.
By deciding that anybody can say anything they like as long as everybody is detached and polite, you have created a situation favorable to people who are casually bigoted and don’t see a problem, because those people are going to have the easiest time having a detached and polite discussion. Why? Because this conversation is already about someone else’s pain. Remember what I said earlier about “the privilege of politeness.” By institutionalizing the Tone Argument, you have made it harder for the people feeling the pain to participate in a discussion than for the people causing it.
This, in my opinion, is bad.
It is gigantically problematic in my opinion to prioritize the feelings of people posting prejudiced material over the feelings of people who’ve already been slapped with someone else’s prejudice, just for the sake of keeping the peace. If our peace is bought by allowing sufficiently-civilized bigotry to go unchallenged because it might hurt a prejudiced person’s precious delicate feelings to be told in no uncertain terms to straighten up their act, I’m not sure it’s worth the price.
If it’s worth the price to you, maybe you too should consider the possibility that you are just a jerk.
I am not saying any of this because I think that everybody reading it is a bad person. If you were a bad person, nobody could ask you to do better. I am asking you to do better because I know that you can. I am asking you to do better because there is a good chance that I have a higher estimation of your ability to learn and mature than you do.
If you can’t believe in the you who believes in yourself, then believe in the me who believes in you. I know what I’m talking about here, and I know you can do this. I’m not just speaking in general terms here. I know you can do this, because it’s a skill I had to learn, too. If you think I wriggled out of my mother’s cesarean incision with these skills, you’re wrong. If you think I don’t still have work left to do, you’re wrong. Odds are that we are not so different that you cannot do what I did, and am still learning to do.
You won’t be perfect. You’ll stumble a little, and that’ll be awkward because it’ll mean that you’ve hurt someone’s feelings that you didn’t want to hurt, but even if you have messed up, all is not lost. Here’s why:
Messing up gives you a valuable opportunity that you won’t get any other way. Messing up gives you the opportunity to show how you deal with messing up. This is vital to earning the trust of people whom you have personally hurt, or who are just afraid you will. You cannot prove to anybody that they can bring their hurt feelings to you and have you be decent about it until you hurt someone’s feelings, so treat it as an opportunity to show the quality of your character. Maybe you didn’t want that opportunity, and maybe nobody else wanted you to get it either, but you’ll inevitably get at least a couple such chances, so use them for all they’re worth. People will notice.
All you have to do is care, so give a crap and make it happen.