Tuesday, June 21, 2016

A moderate approach

Y'all who know me are aware that I have quite a long history of arguing with jerks online.

Most people are of the opinion that I am too patient with jackasses. That I give them too much of my time and that I am too understanding. I think some of the people who say this don't understand my reasons for arguing in the first place; the ultimate goal is not just to "get them to leave me alone," and no, I don't imagine I'll be able to get through to all of them (or even most of them). When someone talks to me a certain way, I have my suspicions about how the conversation will go, and I will usually engage as long as it doesn't seem either deliberately trollish or outright dangerous, but I still recognize that some are doomed from the beginning. They generally make their attitude clear in the first comment; a certain tone, wording, or expressed philosophy will betray what they're really here to do, and I keep that in the forefront of my mind if I talk to them.

However, when I know a conversation is hopeless--whether it's from the beginning or after a couple exchanges--I may still pursue an exchange because I intend to use the conversation as a learning tool for others. If I can't educate this particular person, I can still make it accessible to others who can learn about it from reading our interaction. And because of that, I'll still give these folks respect they have not earned, because I understand my words will be read by people who will want me to look like the reasonable one. It's easier to look like the voice of reason if you're not aggressive or insulting.

But recently, someone in a YouTube comment exchange informed me that "the reason" many people don't support LGBTQ+ is that we're too aggressive about our activism, and they doubled down on this being the crux of our lack of acceptance when I offered perspectives and requested clarification. Actually, according to this person, the world is already accepting and almost everyone has no problem with us anymore, but because we keep pushing and making them feel bad, any remaining rejection and harassment we're experiencing is just backlash from a straight population that feels attacked BY US.

And that person went on to say if we would just be more moderate in our approach, The Straights wouldn't feel attacked, and we shouldn't do stuff like . . . label their attitude "heteronormative" and whatnot. That's the real violence, you know. That's the real problem. That we react incorrectly to oppression, prejudice, and discrimination, and that we make the people dishing it out feel bad for not thinking about it before. What we really need to do is center the perceptions of straight cis people in our activism, because they weren't and aren't against us in any way except when we hurt them by claiming we're hurt.

Oh, and they said straight people can be legally discriminated against now because there are LGBTQ quotas for stuff, and therefore the straight people who can't help their traits are being punished. Can you believe straight discrimination is legal now? Strangely, they did not reply again when I asked them to link me to this LGBTQ quota legislation. They also had no reply to my comment about how if you feel punished and stolen from if LGBTQ people are guaranteed something, you must have thought you and yours were entitled to it. It can't be "taken from you" without you believing it was yours. 

And what we're saying with quotas, where they exist, is that maybe we should consider that it isn't automatically yours, since at the point a quota is introduced, it's been assumed that nothing except prejudice or discrimination explains a group's absence from a field. But in this person's world, trying to adjust for systemic oppression is not worth the risk of taking 4% of the opportunities away from straight people. That's just not the answer, and that's why straight people don't accept us. Why should we examine why we'd need a quota to get up to 4% represented in the first place even though more than 4% of the population is LGBTQ+, right? Stop asking the straights to accommodate you or you'll make them uncomfortable and then that will be the major reason you have the problems you do! Surely you didn't actually have these problems that were behind your whole purpose in pursuing activism and visibility in the first place, right?

Obviously, I completely reject respectability politics and the idea that we do not deserve basic rights/accommodation/respect unless we prioritize the majority's comfort over ours. I find it laughable that some people present how we react to being hurt as the reason we're getting hurt. It comes up a lot in racism discussions too: gosh, if only people would stop talking about race so much, racism would go away! The only reason it's around still is that you people won't let it go! The majority of the problems you experience are because you won't stop reminding us that you have them! These kinds of statements are rooted in erasure and invisibility, because the people making these claims cannot see the -isms that affect your group until your group makes enough noise, and then they believe the problems started existing when you kicked up enough dust that they coughed. They actually believe the problems weren't even around before that, and are completely oblivious to the forces that caused other groups to kick that dust in the first place.

But here's the thing. Because certain language sounds to me like it's coming from fully indoctrinated status quo worshipers who think the problems will stop existing when I stop complaining about them (because to them, that's what happens!), I have an immediate emotional reaction when I see it in my YouTube comments. And I have to hold back from assuming certain phrases, beliefs, and expressions automatically indicate a person who wants to hurt me. I mean, that's usually the case, and they are usually laying down tired, overplayed talking points that they think a) are logically airtight zingers and b) have never been considered by me before. But every once in a while, taking them at their word instead of assuming what's probably beneath results in a learning experience.

This morning, I got a YouTube comment from a fellow who was upset that I complained about getting propositioned in a grocery store. I had a YouTube video detailing the way I was approached--that the man employed trickery to make me take his phone number, claiming I'd "dropped" the note that actually contained his contact details and written opinion that I was hot--and the video went on to discuss how I also feel about people expecting me to enjoy and appreciate that attention (or at least not ask men to stop doing it). The YouTube comment I got this morning contained a paragraph of scolding about how I should not blame the entire male gender for this behavior. He, after all, has never done this to a woman, and would not. Therefore, I am wrong when I say all men behave this way, and I am wrong to ask all men to accept responsibility for how some of them act.

As you probably guessed, there was not a word in my video about "all men," and as you probably guessed, this is a very very very common derailing tactic people sometimes use to center themselves in conversations that are not about them if they were not the people engaged in the behavior we're complaining about. By hijacking the narrative, these #notallmen folks demand that conversations women have about their experiences become about prioritizing their feelings. When we talk about experiences we have, we must automatically be directing our commentary at them, and if they feel bad, we need to answer for it. The YouTube commenter did not acknowledge that I experienced it; he just wanted to bleat that he had not caused it.

And, like, I know that.

If you didn't do it? We're not talking to you.

But we do want you to acknowledge that you may contribute to enabling this behavior if you refuse to agree that our feelings are appropriate and refuse to concede that these other men's behavior is deplorable. We would find it baffling if someone who didn't commit a crime needed to point out that he did not and would not commit this crime just because it was a man who committed it. So unless you do see yourself somehow in this man's actions, why would you feel the need to defend men in general? Why do you see yourself as part of the group that's accused if you would never? Why do you see a woman complaining about a man's behavior as reflecting on you--even if she says zero about men in general--unless women speaking about their experiences is never about them and always about you?

So. Being that I've seen this over and over and over and over again . . . being that the video was about having the negative experience and then other people making noise about how awful it is that I feel the way I do about it . . . being that the video comments on that video go on to distract from my point and blather on about men's right to hit on women and not be criticized . . . being that #notallmen has been a hashtag for a long time and some guys are apparently hurt about that too . . . 

being that I had to go insert "some" into that sentence because I know there are guys who would butt in to say "excuse me, but actually, you need to say some men or else you are logically implicating all of us . . ."

being that the world is this way, I figured this notallmenning man makes a habit of interrupting women's conversations about themselves to tell us what's really important. (Answer: him and his feelings.) I had a knee-jerk reaction when I saw his declaration on behalf of men, defending them against an imagined insult. I wanted to talk to him like he knew what he was doing. I wanted to assume he's done it before, that he believes women's conversations about their experiences should still tiptoe around him and devote equal time to distributing cookies to the good guys, that he is actually talking to me the way he is because he wants there to be a punishment for women being mad at men-I-mean-SOME-MEN when they are mistreated by them.

I wanted to assume all that. But I decided it would be better to engage him as if this was the very first time either of us has had this conversation; take his words at face value; treat him like he'd misinterpreted my words by accident through a poorly reasoned association instead of a deliberate attempt to hijack a woman's experience.

So I explained, in a paragraph slightly shorter than his, that I hadn't blamed "all men" at all and that he's already doing the right thing if he's not behaving like this--and that when women say what's happened to them, the "good guys" do not have to pop up and say "well I didn't do it!"

Something practically unheard-of in a YouTube comment happened then. The man told me I was 100% right and apologized.

And I thanked him for listening. And the conversation ended there.

I didn't shame him. I didn't call him a name. I didn't accuse him of doing or thinking anything in particular. I didn't sarcastically ask him if he wanted a participation ribbon and fifty-dollar savings bond in reward for not being an asshole to women. I kind of wanted to, because #notallmen but most men who say these things DO say them because they do not care about our problems and believe we're exaggerating or complaining about something that is not actually a problem. (Also known as "I'd LOVE it if strangers told me I was so hot they'd have sex with me!") But since all he did was say #notallmen, all I did was point out that I had not #allmenned in the first place, and that he would do well to avoid assuming that women are #allmenning when they talk about A Man or Things Men Have Done To Them.

I took a moderate approach. I assumed he had the worst in mind, but I treated him otherwise partly because people who do think like that frequently accuse us of being illogical, overemotional, and hostile. There's nothing in my response that was as hostile as or more hostile than his. I did that on purpose. Because that way, if he had been one of the bad ones, he would have "seen" that I had "gotten hysterical" or "seemed bitter" just based on the fact that I replied at all, and he would have escalated his derailing and chalked the interaction up to another unreasonable, excitable feminist. Instead, he probably learned something, and everyone reading the conversation can still see that my points were solid.

What it also does: it shows that sometimes you might be talking to someone who has never thought of taking themselves out of the center of a conversation before, and they're not necessarily starting crap with you as a means to an end (that end being "getting more ammunition to prove the Oppressed Group actually deserves the harassment they get because they brought it on themselves by not being nice enough"). If I treat the people with poor intent as if I don't know where they're coming from, any conversation with them can still be upheld as an entry point for later readers who might have agreed with the guy until they saw what I said about it.

No one is obligated to treat attackers with gentleness. Especially when you see right through them and you know they're going for your throat. I completely support anyone's right to react with outrage and sarcasm when they're demeaned this way. But most of the time, when I take a minute to remember why I do activism, I try to frame my responses so people who are actually here to learn will be able to take what I want them to from my reply, even if they arrived primed to judge me and sympathize with my opponent. I want later readers to walk away thinking "Hm. She had a point." Even if the person I'm arguing with deserved to get a new hole drilled in his ass. That's who my messages are really for. The ones who are here to learn. (And once in a while when I have an inexcusably vile comment, I save my text-based axe murder for those. That way even they can serve a purpose: entertainment.)

If your interaction with a detractor is personal, and you're doing it for you, you should react however you feel is appropriate. You should not have to toe some line of respectability to object to how you're being treated; they hurt you first, so how you act in response to being hurt is not what should be on trial here. (And despite what the first commenter I discussed above insisted, these incidents do not occur as a direct result of us being too angry and intolerant ourselves.) 

We will hear tons of advice with sentiments like "don't fight fire with fire" and "rise above" and "be the bigger person" and "turn the other cheek." Which all go hand in hand with the supposition that our behavior upon being attacked is descriptive of our character and worth, while the people who attack us unthinkingly or deliberately should not be judged. We may be led to believe we deserve poor treatment if we cannot gracefully bear attacks, and that we in fact cause the attacks somehow by not letting them roll off our backs in a way that's pleasing to the watchful eyes of our persecutors. Don't accept that YOUR tolerance of intolerance should determine whether other people should get to keep being awful to you.

I say all that because no one should feel like they HAVE to behave the way I choose to. I'm very privileged in many ways; I live a relatively safe and comfortable life, and I engage these folks on my terms. It does not wound me the way it would wound some people who weren't basically given armor at birth. (That's oversimplifying it but it'll do for now.) I do what I do because if I'm being unnecessarily gentle to someone who is explicitly out to harm me, he probably will not succeed, while I will get what I want out of that conversation: a nice representation of what kind of dick you should not be, with "but you were mean back!" removed as a potential reason for another reader to discount my argument. I am sometimes still told I'm too hostile (you know, because I'm responding at all), and I am sometimes assigned other problems that aren't so easily addressed, but I know exactly what I'm doing and it does not cost me the way it would cost many others.

And once in a while, like this morning, it turns out I'm talking to someone who can be educated.

Who walked away from our conversation apparently realizing he'd jumped to a conclusion he did not belong jumping to, and said he was sorry without any qualifiers about how I should have behaved toward him. It was a real apology too--not "I'm sorry you got upset," which is another way they claim you're "emotional" and put the blame on you for feeling a certain way instead of them doing something reprehensible to you. I'm glad it turned out how it did, though it does so so rarely that when it does happen I end up writing 3000+-word rambles about it. This reminded me that I am indeed making my message accessible for people who might be oblivious to others' disadvantages but who mean well. The people who want to learn.

They're out there. And sometimes they're just wrong because nobody told them what was right before.

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