Feminism: The Point, It Is This

[Content Note: Marginalizing Language]

Hiding Cat by Shari Weinsheimer
Being a feminist blogger has its ups and downs. There are the good times: the great conversations, the feeling that you're enriching people's lives, the wonderful friends made over the internet, and all the experiences you wouldn't necessarily have had if you weren't churning out 2-3 blog posts a week for almost as many years. But there are also some less good times: the stereotypes that being a feminist equals angry, unhappy, and constantly offended; the fans who feel that any criticism of a work is a personal attack against their favorite author; the readers who respond to attempts at gentle correction with a hurt flounce.

And the latter impulse I understand, I really do, but here is the point.

I am not angry, or unhappy, or constantly offended by everything on earth. I am in this gig, this Criticizing Of Things On The Internet pastime, because I want things to be better. I am in a lifelong quest for constant and continuous improvement, particularly in the way that we treat and talk about minorities: women, people of all sexual orientations, people of color, people with disabilities, and so forth. And that quest for improvement doesn't begin and end with published authors and mainstream movie-makers; it also extends to those of us on this blog and the larger society around us.

We have a strict safe space comment policy here for a lot of reasons. One reason is for my own health: I don't need a constant stream of problematic language in my email inbox. Another reason is for the health and growth of the community: I don't expect people to stay in a toxic environment where they are in danger of being triggered by misogyny or racism at any given moment. But what this strict safe space policy means is that, at one time or another, pretty much everyone here is going to experience gentle correction from a moderator.

This isn't because the comment policy is so strict that no one could ever hope to safely adhere to it. It is because we all -- each of us -- live mired in cultures that normalize misogyny, heterosexism, ableism, and racism, and because it is flat-out impossible to live in that toxic stew without being affected by it.

The whole point of this blog -- the whole reason I spend hours every day creating new content, reading and moderating every comment, and discussing things at length in the threads -- is because I think that education is the key to helping society to become better. I am an emoter by nature, and I believe that sharing my experiences and my viewpoints as a marginalized person will help others to look past the privilege that was gifted to them by society and will learn to do better in the treatment of the marginalized people around them.

It is very, very hard to impart this education when I know from experience that any attempt at gentle correction and careful education will very likely be met by one of the bottom two choices (#2 and #3) out of the (roughly) three choices everyone has available to them when they're shown how privilege and bias was unexpectedly effecting their language:

1. "Oh! Huh! I never thought of it that way. I'm not sure that I fully understand or even agree with that, but I'll try to keep it in mind and express myself better in the future. I'll also see if I can't research what you say in my own time in order to educate myself better. Thanks."

2. "I had no idea that was a bad thing to say! That worries me, because what other offensive things could I be saying that I don't know about? I think I'd better leave here forever and never talk to any feminists and/or marginalized people again, just to be safe."


Number 3 is pretty easily disposed of, despite being a common offender. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, no one said you were a Bad Person. They very likely said you did a Bad Thing, but doing bad things does not make someone automatically a bad person -- it makes them a fallible person who makes mistakes and needs to be open to learning and doing better. If you are living under the impression that you are a Special Snowflake who has been totally untouched by a lifetime of misogynist, heterosexist, ableist, and racist messages and therefore cannot-by-definition do or say anything that is misogynist, heterosexist, ableist, and/or racist, then you have much bigger problems than what I or the people here think of you, because that self-fantasy is not sustainable forever.

Number 2 is a little more complicated, because it stems from a good place and I really do understand the impulse. It's frightening and worrisome to hear that something you thought was innocent is, in fact, not. Learning for the first time that using "crazy" to mean "ridiculous" is harmful to people with mental illness, or that "gypped" is a racist term can be very disconcerting: how many people have you offended or hurt in the past without realizing it? How many other unintentionally hurtful things are in your vocabulary right this very minute? And how will you remember to purge this word from your vocabulary for the future? What if you slip up? What if you fail?

Better to just go hide under the table forever and ever. Right?

But, no. Wrong.

First and foremost, you can't go hide under the table forever. You are going to have to come out and interact with someone eventually, even if it's just the mail carrier or the grocery check-out clerk. Hiding under the table forever and/or never speaking or typing anything ever again is not a tenable solution and probably wouldn't be healthy for you even if it was.

Furthermore, no one is asking that of you -- nor is it helpful to the feminist cause for you to do so. And if you really care about helping (and not hurting) marginalized people, then you need to see you that hiding forever so that you don't have to feel guilty or risk failure is ultimately a selfish act that really only benefits you and does nothing to help anyone else. And since you do have to come out from under the table eventually, if you haven't been trying to improve all this time, then you will hurt people -- you just won't have to feel guilty about it because you always have the table to retreat to. And that is selfish.

Growth is hard, and usually painful -- and that's true whether you are an author or a movie-maker or just some random person on the internet. Yet we ask authors, movie-makers, and above all "regular people" to make the significant effort to grow because that's the only way that society can become better. We can't become a less misogynistic, less heterosexist, less ableist, or less racist society by having everyone hide under their desks because that's easier than growing and less frightening than the realization that you're going to sometimes fail because you've been steeped in a toxic culture.

Everyone messes up. Everyone. There are no exceptions. There is no way to hide from it, and no way to avoid it. The only thing you can control is how you respond when someone points out that you've messed up. There's the "huh, okay, noted" response that is actually helpful to the feminist cause, and there's the "flee in terror and/or anger" responses that are not helpful and are ultimately not healthy, neither to yourself nor to society as a whole.

Self-flagellation about how you are so, so terrible and will maybe Leave Forever and Never Speak To Anyone Ever Again is also harmful to the person pointing out your mistake. Because marginalized people know that pointing out privilege is an inherently dangerous act because people who are having their privilege pointed out tend to lash out with emotion. You may think you're trying to help by threatening to Leave Forever -- after all, it's not like you attacked the marginalized person, or argued with them -- but you're sending a clear and strong signal that having your privilege pointed out is unacceptable to you and that if anyone dares to do that to you again, they will be Be Sorry because you're not going to stand for that sort of thing.

You may not mean it that way -- I've already noted that finding out you have hidden privilege and bias is naturally painful and upsetting -- but your intent isn't magic. Threatening to withdraw from conversations forever merely because you've been corrected once reinforces a social message to marginalized people that every attempt at education carries the risk of Drama and Emotional Outburst. And for marginalized people who find dramatic emotional outbursts upsetting or triggering, it can make them feel like education and sharing will only end in hurt for themselves. And being robbed of their unique viewpoints because a few privileged people can't bear to take the news that they Aren't Perfect with quiet grace and dignity is not a net gain for anyone.

The point of this blog, its whole purpose, is to educate people about the privilege that they hold. When you, personally, have it pointed out to you in comments that hey, you hold privilege, and here is an example, you have a handful of ways to respond. It's helpful for me, and for the community here, and for society at large, if you can accept correction without speculating that maybe everyone would be better served if you went and hid under a table forever. Because that kind of attitude isn't going to make society any better, and it's just going to further discourage marginalized people from speaking up.

At the end of the day, there's really only two reasons to Hide Under The Table Forever. One reason is to protect yourself from ever feeling any guilt or from ever experiencing any failure. The other usually-stated reason is to protect marginalized people from being hurt by your carelessness. But if you really, honestly care about not hurting marginalized people, then listen to me when I tell you that the act of threatening to hide under the table forever because you were confronted with your privilege hurts marginalized people. Which means that you're hurting marginalized people in order to soothe your own feelings. And you need to cut that out.

Hurting others to help yourself is a natural impulse, but it's one that needs to be consciously overcome if you really want to be an ally to marginalized people as opposed to a privileged person marinating cozily in their society-granted privileges. Please keep that in mind moving forward, and try to remember that correction is (a) inevitable, (b) impersonal, and (c) part of an on-going attempt to improve the society we live in.

Thank you.


Gelliebean said...

My thoughts, possibly not very well organized, and all in "I" statements -

I have said things in face-conversations that have caused me embarrassment, either because I realize that what I said was absolutely incorrect or because the person's reaction evidenced that it was hurtful to them. I think it's normal when embarrassed to want to run away and hide. Online, though, nobody can see my face turn red or my hands pop up over my mouth; reactions are all delayed, and therefore I can take advantage of that time to think about how to handle the situation appropriately.

I have said things in online conversations that were pointed out to me as incorrect, ill-informed, or not-well-thought-out. I have said things that were hurtful to someone else in ways that I didn't even conceive were possible - that's an aspect of my own privilege that I'm still developing my awareness of. I have to be able to apologize for the hurt without becoming defensive about what I "meant" to say, or implying that the person who was hurt is "wrong" in their hurt because my situation is different from theirs and is the only one that matters in the discussion.

This means that I should be able to remove myself from an online discussion without making a Big F'ing Deal about it. Nobody's going to look around the room and say "Hey, where'd Angela go?" I don't have to explain my lack or participation to anyone, and I probably shouldn't. It also means that I can continue to eavesdrop, as it were, and learn other people's points of view without it feeling as awkward as it would in a real life conversation where effectively, my silence would feel like I had been smacked down and told to shut up.

All that being said, an online public flounce feels to me like it's probably intended to accomplish one of several things.

1) to make the person who they're flouncing away from feel like they're just as culpable in creating hurt feelings as the initial offender;
2) to justify themselves as a well-intentioned person who is willing to sacrifice their own participation to "save" others' emotions;
3) to get the person they're flouncing away from to say "No, come back, really! Don't go!"

J. Random Scribbler said...

TRiG: The wonderful thing about the Internet is that you can still lurk, and get your education that way.

Indeed. And you can even improve your education by reading discussions after they are finished. ;-}

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