When Neutrality Is Really Just The Status Quo

[Content note: sexual assault]

Someone who declares neutrality on a particular question, issue, or debate seems to automatically gain an intellectual (and, sometimes, moral) upper hand.

While there are often social consequences for picking one side or another, declaring neutrality has a very low barrier to entry. Outside of radical circles, nobody will criticize you for not taking sides. In fact, they may admire you because, after all, “the truth lies between two extremes.”

I saw this happen recently after Dylan Farrow published her piece in the New York Times about being abused by Woody Allen as a little girl. Almost immediately there was a collective chorus of dudes being like “Well we don’t really know what happened here I mean innocent until proven guilty right I mean that’s awful if he really did do that but I’m just not gonna take sides on this one and I mean like his films are just so brilliant.”

And this was, of course, presented as the righteous and proper response.

(Ashley Miller wrote an excellent post about why taking a neutral stance on the Woody Allen allegations doesn’t make sense, and Lisa Bloom, who has represented victims of child sexual abuse in court, offers a defense of Dylan Farrow’s credibility here. So, that’s not what I’ll be addressing in this post. Please don’t argue about it in the comments either.)

Another example that may at first seem unrelated: Jessica Valenti found out that TEDWOMEN, a series of TED Talks featuring women and promoting women’s issues, specifically avoided covering abortion in any of its talks. She writes:

When I asked around, the consensus was that the omission was simply an oversight. But it turns out TED is deliberately keeping abortion off the agenda. When asked for comment, TED content director and TEDWomen co-host Kelly Stoetzel said that abortion did not fit into their focus on “wider issues of justice, inequality and human rights.” “Abortion is more of a topical issue we wouldn’t take a position on, any more than we’d take a position on a state tax bill,” Stoetzel explained. She pointed me to a few talks on women’s health and birth control, but this made the refusal to discuss abortion only more glaring. In the last three years, the United States has seen more abortion restrictions enacted than in the entire previous decade; the United Nations has classified the lack of access to abortion as torture; and Savita Halappanavar died in Ireland because a Catholic hospital refused to end her doomed pregnancy. Just how is abortion not an issue of “justice, inequality and human rights”?

The comparison of abortion access to state tax issues is glaring, as is the presumption that refusing to “take a position” on this issue is in any way superior to taking a position on it. As this piece at ThinkProgress points out, there are plenty of reasons TEDWOMEN might make this choice besides a desire to appear neutral on the topic; however, I see this as part of a larger trend in which “hot-button” issues are seen as somehow beneath an esteemed organization or individual, and taking a position on such issues is seen as being petty or pedestrian.

And so TEDWOMEN carefully avoids taking a stance on a major women’s rights issue, and prefers instead to discuss how rich white women may better distinguish themselves in the corporate world, or whatever.

(Apparently the conference itself claims that Valenti took their words “out of context” and that they “welcome” talks on abortion. However, Valenti provided the full text of the email she received, and the fact remains that TEDWOMEN has never hosted a talk on abortion, which is one of the most well-known issues affecting women in the United States right now. If this controversy makes them host a talk on abortion, though, that’ll be great.)

In many cases, neutrality is extremely sensible. That is obvious. I would never deny that.

For example, if a well-designed, peer-reviewed study supports a conclusion you agree with but another well-designed, peer-reviewed study fails to replicate those results or suggests the opposite conclusion, you should probably try to remain neutral until more data is available rather than cherry-picking the results you agree with. If a couple you’re friends with breaks up and Alex blames Sam for cheating and Sam blames Alex for never wanting to have sex anymore, it’s fair to say that you’re not sure whose fault it was and to remain neutral by not taking sides.

But if 98% of the published research supports the conclusion you agree with and only 2% does not, it’s no longer very reasonable to declare neutrality as though both sides have the same amount of evidence backing them. And if Alex and Sam break up because Alex claims that Sam raped them and Sam says that Alex was “totally into it,” remaining neutral makes little sense. Alex doesn’t have much of a motive for lying, and, statistically, false rape accusations that name an attacker are very rare. Saying, “Well, I don’t know what really happened, I’ll remain neutral” means saying, “Well, I don’t know, Alex might be lying about getting raped.”

There is nothing courageous, original, or unpopular about being neutral. While that doesn’t mean being neutral is wrong, obviously, it does mean that you should be wary of people who paint themselves and their neutrality as morally heroic. It’s a cheap tactic, a way to puff up your credibility without having to actually demonstrate any knowledge or understanding of the situation. In that way, it has a lot in common with the related tactic of declaring oneself the True Skeptic/Rationalist, unlike one’s opponent, who is clearly incapable of rational thought, bless their heart.

Neutrality becomes a problem when it becomes an excuse for doing nothing–as it often does. We are neutral on the subject of climate change; therefore, we will not commit to researching ways to slow, stop, or cope with it. We are neutral on the subject of abortion; therefore, we will not invite speakers who advocate for reproductive rights. We are neutral on the subject of whether or not our friend raped you as you say they did; therefore, we will not stop inviting our friend to parties, because that would be rude. In fact, we’ll stop inviting you, because your outlandish claims are making us uncomfortable.

When someone claims neutrality, assess the situation. Whose interests are being served by refusing to take a stance? Is the evidence disproportionately on one side of the debate rather than another? What’s the worst that would happen if you took a side? What’s the worst that would happen if you did not take any sides?

(“Innocent until proven guilty!” is a lovely battle cry until you’re far from a court room and the question is whether or not to believe a woman who says very convincingly that your hero sexually abused her.)

Sometimes neutrality is a reasonable response to a situation with lots of conflicting bits of evidence, none of which is significantly more compelling than any other.

Other times, neutrality is a lazy excuse to avoid engaging with a difficult subject and to do nothing.


P.S. My favorite commentary on the Woody Allen situation is a comment from this post by Amanda Marcotte:

Occam’s Razor:

Thesis 1: A mother who otherwise loves and cares for her children chooses to deliberately implant a memory of painful molestation to get back at her partner, and was so good at memory implantation, better even than Korean War interrogators, that the memory persisted into adulthood and was powerful enough that the daughter felt the need to be dragged through the mud and called a liar just for expressing it.

Thesis 2: A guy who has admitted to having sex with another minor, and who makes movies about how fun it is to fuck minors, actually abused a minor.

Wow. Such leap of logic. Much unlikely. So irrationality.

When Neutrality Is Really Just The Status Quo

I Don't Demand Respect Because I'm Upset; I Demand Respect Because I Deserve It

At some point in my life, probably in college, I decided that I was going to (mostly; when I’m not too scared to speak up; when I can think of the words to say, etc.) stop taking shit from people. So, online, I often say things like, “Actually, I wasn’t asking for advice, thanks!” and “Please don’t use that word in my comments section” and “This is a serious post where I’m asking friends for advice about apartment-hunting; please don’t derail it with inside jokes I don’t get.” You know, standard Captain Awkward-type stuff.

I won’t mince words about it: this is really, really hard to do.

I’m sure I make it seem easy; people often tell me how confident and extroverted I apparently am (I am neither of these things). Every time I make these calm, polite, rather friendly comments, I want to shrivel up in a hole. But you know, it’s absolutely worth it. Because now it’s been a few years in which I’ve been creating a social environment that I find comforting, supportive, and fun, whereas before I had to deal with even my closest friends constantly doing things that I found disrespectful or that conflicted with what I was trying to accomplish by interacting with them in the first place.

And a lot of the time, my worst fears do not come true. People do not belittle and insult me for having the gall to ask them to treat me a little differently. They often politely apologize or acknowledge what I said, and the conversation continues productively and enjoyably

But not always. Sometimes people resist and start defending what they did, as though their interpretation of the events must automatically supersede mine in my own virtual space. And what often happens at this point is that the person completely ignores what I’m telling them and starts to produce drivel like this: “I can see that you’re upset.” “You’re angry at me. I get it.” “You’re very upset about this.” “Wow, you seem to have a thin skin.” “You need to grow a thicker skin.”

First of all, unless you know me very, very well, you know nothing of my emotional state unless I explain it to you. Strong opinions do not necessarily stem from strong emotions. Or, the strong emotions that originally prompted them may have died down a long time ago. Most of the time when I’m writing or having a serious conversation, my mood is very calm and focused; that’s how I work best and that’s the mood that writing usually puts me in. Whatever you did that I considered disrespectful and called you out for was a blip on the radar, and the blip was one of annoyance, not hurt or anger.

It is incredibly patronizing when someone I don’t even know presumes to know how I feel and then conveys this assumption to me, not even as a question or a check-in, but as a statement of fact. “You’re very upset about this.” “You need to calm down, this isn’t such a big deal.”

Nobody gets to label my emotions for me. Only I get to do that.

If you’re honestly concerned that you’ve upset someone and want to find out if your suspicions are accurate, you can say, “I’m sorry, did I upset you?” But chances are, they’ve already given you all the information you need to know. If they’ve said, “Please don’t do this thing, I find it disrespectful,” then you need to either agree to stop doing the thing or leave the interaction.

When you think you’ve upset someone, it’s understandable to immediately want to smooth things over and make them stop being upset at you. But the best you can do is apologize and stop doing the thing, not turn a conversation that was originally about something else into a conversation about You’re Upset With Me What Do I Have To Do To Make You Stop Being Upset.

I understand that my emotional states are of immense fascination to everyone I interact with, so it’s only natural that people will try to derail otherwise-productive conversations to discuss them. However, what would make a lot more sense would be if people would either apologize for doing something I felt was disrespectful and continue with the conversation, or decline to apologize and leave the conversation.

And I understand that makes complete sense that some things I consider disrespectful are not things that other people consider disrespectful. They may feel so confused about why I find those things disrespectful that they don’t think they should have to avoid doing those things to me. That’s fine. But in that case, we’re not going to interact. Nobody has a right to interact with me. Your free speech does not extend to being granted an audience by any particular person. If we cannot agree on how we are going to treat each other, then we are not obligated to interact in any casual setting, like my personal Facebook page or my Gmail inbox.

Second, notice how the comments about emotional state are almost always inherently dismissive. “You’re upset, therefore your opinion about what I said or did and your request that I behave differently is invalid.” Insert your favorite synonym for poop here to describe how I feel about this tactic.

Even if I had the thinnest skin in the world, so thin that it is literally an atom in thickness, which is biologically impossible because cells are bigger than that, that doesn’t matter. You can decide that I am too easily upset for you to be able to comfortably interact with me, and you can stop interacting with me. Or you can decide that interacting with me is worth the added consideration required to not upset me, and you can make those considerations. Those are your two options. Telling me that my emotions are wrong and I need to stop having them is not one of the options.

(For the record, I have known people to have taken that first option with me, although, again, the issue isn’t so much that I’m easily upset as that I have very high standards for what I am willing to accept from people. Of course, it’s always a little sad to lose someone as a friend or acquaintance. But that’s what’s best for both of us. I don’t have to deal with them doing the thing that I don’t like, and they don’t have to deal with getting called out for doing things I don’t like. Perfect.)

It’s notable that none of these grow-a-thicker-skin evangelists are ever any good at telling their would-be converts how this can be accomplished. “Grow a thicker skin!” “You’re too sensitive!” Okay, that’s nice. Now what? Are there special creams for this? A medical procedure? Daily toning exercises? Anything?

No. Because they don’t really care about anyone’s mental health and wellbeing. They’re uncomfortable at being called out for their words and actions, which is understandable because being called out sucks. But rather than sitting with that discomfort and seeing where it’s really coming from, they assume that the problem is necessarily with the other person and their particular skin thickness or lack thereof.

Remember, too, that “thin skin” and “thick skin” are relative terms. There is no skin thickness measuring device. If you think my skin is thin, it may be because it really is, or it may be because you’ve been raised not to consider how your words and actions affect others.

Finally, here’s the crux of the issue. Some people think that anyone who asks them to stop doing something because they find that thing inappropriate/disrespectful is obviously upset.  Why are people like me and my friends so forthright with you when you disrespect us, if not because we can’t mentally handle it? Why would we demand respect, if not because not receiving respect makes us have emotional breakdowns?

Here’s why: because we deserve it.

I deserve not to have people treat me like a pathetic little child who desperately needs their help by offering me unsolicited, patronizing advice. I deserve not to have people demean my gender, sexual orientation, or ethnicity with slurs that promote the norm that it’s okay to demean those identities. I deserve not to have people make jokes out of my pain when I’m feeling honest and open enough to share it with them. I deserve not to have every profile photo I put on Facebook plastered with comments from random men I am not even friends with about my appearance. Interacting with me is not a right granted to you simply because you exist and possess a computer. It’s something you get to do only if I decide that interacting with you is worthwhile for me, and feeling respected is a major component of that. I deserve not to exist for the entertainment of others.

And because I deserve respect in these ways and more, I will tell people–first cheerfully and with smiley emoticons, and then more insistently but still presuming good faith when they ignore me, and finally bluntly and coldly–when they are doing something that I consider disrespectful. My emotions have nothing to do with it.

Whatever twitch of annoyance I feel at the actual thing fades quickly, and I know what it means for an emotion to fade quickly because I have ones that don’t. I have misery that sinks in my gut for hours, days, weeks, years. I have anger–the productive kind, not the destructive kind–that burns for months as I work on projects and fight my battles. I have joy, too, though it’s usually a bit shorter-lived. But not as short-lived as the annoyance I feel at an asshole online. That joy can go on for a few hours or days, and few people see it. Since joy is often a rare resource in my life, I conserve it as much as possible.

But none of that is any of your business until I choose to tell you about it.

I Don't Demand Respect Because I'm Upset; I Demand Respect Because I Deserve It

Unpaid Internships Are Exploitative

It’s that time of year when many people my age are starting to desperately look for summer internships so that they can eventually be qualified for an entry-level job and aren’t screwed and broke forever.

Too real? Maybe a little.

In many fields–journalism, politics, film, social services, and even many areas of academic research–paid summer internships are the exception, not the rule. Being paid to work full-time is the exception.

It is very difficult, almost impossible sometimes, to explain this situation to people in different fields, people who had paid summer internships starting with their freshman year of college, who got recruited and hired in the middle of their senior year, who started with a comfortably middle-class salary and good benefits in their first full-time job. “Just find a paid internship, then!” they advise me, unhelpfully.

Those of you who have never had to navigate this hell will just have to believe those of us who have.

People who otherwise support living wages (or, at least, wages) bend over backwards to justify unpaid internships. One frequent justification is that they provide valuable experience that looks very good on one’s resume. While that’s true, so do most (paid) jobs. Jobs look excellent on a resume and you often learn a lot from doing them. That doesn’t mean it’s reasonable to ask you to do them for no pay.

Unpaid internships are exploitative. I won’t go as far as some do and call them slavery or indentured servitude, but they’re exploitative all the same. Sure, nobody’s “forcing” people to intern without pay, but if you can’t get a job in the field without it, you’re as good as forced.

“Just choose another field” isn’t an answer. An excellent writer who can’t get a job in journalism because they can’t afford to work for free doesn’t necessarily have the skills to get a job in computer science. And why should only rich people be able to work in journalism, politics, activism, entertainment, or social services? (Don’t even get me started on the dangers of having only rich people working in journalism and social services.)

Sometimes people defend unpaid internships by saying that they did one and found it very fun and educational. That’s nice. I don’t mean that sarcastically; it really is. But that doesn’t make it non-exploitative. Enjoying something–finding it useful, even–does not mean that thing is not part of a system that devalues young people’s work and shuts the gates to certain professions to all but those with lots of resources.

I’ve also had people tell me that unpaid internships are great because that’s how they got jobs afterwards. Right, that’s the problem.

Unpaid internships, at least when run legally, can easily be rationalized as “fair.” The idea is that your supervisors expend a lot of time on educating you and don’t really benefit from your being there, at least not nearly as much as you benefit from being there. What does that sound a lot like? Yup, college, which most people who have to do unpaid internships have already done or are doing (and paying a lot for). Except that college students are often eligible for federal financial aid or scholarships from their schools. Very few sources of aid are available to unpaid interns. (College, by the way, is still vastly unaffordable and exclusionary.)

Sometimes unpaid internships offer academic credit in lieu of payment. However, it seems pretty rare that this credit can replace coursework and facilitate early graduation, and as I just noted, the financial support available during the academic year is often unavailable during the summer.

Regardless, in many cases unpaid internships are illegal–anytime there isn’t a substantial educational component. (Anecdotally, that seems to be most of the time.) I’ve heard people be like “Yeah well internships like that are illegal,” as though that matters. (It’s similar to how people try to use “Yeah well rape’s illegal” as an argument against rape culture.) What intern is going to completely destroy their career prospects and spend a fortune they don’t have on suing their employer? Nobody*. Employers know this.

Unpaid internships don’t just suck because it sucks to work without pay. They also suck because they keep important professions full of the sorts of people who can afford to not have to support themselves until their mid- to late-20s. That also means that they’re a self-perpetuating problem, because until more politicians, journalists, activists, social scientists, and social service workers take on this issue, it’s not going to get better, and the people who succeed in these fields tend to be people who didn’t have all that much difficulty working for free.

(We spend a lot of time in my social work program talking about how it’s still not diverse enough, especially not socioeconomically. Of course it’s fucking not. The cost of attending Columbia’s MSW program is $70,000 a year, plus all the unpaid internships it took to get accepted in the first place.)

I don’t know how to fix this problem. Right now, all the parties involved are acting pretty rationally. Of course organizations, especially non-profits, will opt out of paying their interns, cash-strapped as they often are. Of course interns will accept unpaid internships, knowing that’s their only shot at a job someday, although it’s often still not enough. Of course graduate programs and employers will choose applicants who have relevant work experience, even if it was unpaid, over those who spent their summers working as baristas and lifeguards and babysitters. Of course, of course, of course.

I do know that fixing a problem begins with recognizing that it exists. Recognize that unpaid internships are exploitative.


* Not actually strictly true anymore. Some interns have been filing lawsuits. Unfortunately, this seems to lead employers to stop offering internships altogether rather than to start offering paid ones.

Also, read Sarah Kendzior’s fantastic take on unpaid internships.

Also also, I’m going to give a shout-out to two organizations that offer paid summer internships despite being nonprofits: the Secular Student Alliance and the Center for Inquiry. If you know of other secular/progressive organizations that do the same, leave them in the comments.

Unpaid Internships Are Exploitative

Having To See It To Believe It: Men and Online Sexual Harassment

[Content note: sexual harassment]

Jezebel recounts the tale of Reddit user OKCThrowaway22221, who pretended to be a woman on OkCupid and was so dismayed, disappointed, and disgusted with the messages he received that he shut it down after two hours.

OKCThrowaway22221 is pretty clear about the fact that, at the outset, he did not truly believe that women’s* online dating experiences can be really awful, and, in fact, believed that they “have it easy” with online dating:

Last night I was bored and was talking with a friend on skype about her experiences with online dating. I was joking with her that “girls have it easy on dating sites” etc. etc. I had never really done anything in the online dating world but I had set up a real profile a few years back and didn’t use it much aside from getting a few nice messages and decided it wasn’t really for me. But, as I said, I was bored, so I decided that I would set up a fake profile. Set it up as a gender-swapped version of me essentially see what would happen. So I did the username, and I was up. Before I could even fill out my profile at all, I already had a message in my inbox from a guy. It wasn’t a mean message, but I found it odd that I would get a message already. So I sent him a friendly hello back and kind of joked that I hadn’t even finished my profile, how could he be interested, but I felt good because I thought I was right that “girls have it easy”

But soon enough OKCThrowaway22221 is realizing just how wrong he was:

At first I thought it was fun, I thought it was weird but maybe I would mess with them or something and freak them out and tell them I was a guy or something, but as more and more messages came (either replies or new ones I had about 10 different guys message me within 2 hours) the nature of them continued to get more and more irritating. Guys were full-on spamming my inbox with multiple messages before I could reply to even one asking why I wasn’t responding and what was wrong. Guys would become hostile when I told them I wasn’t interested in NSA [no strings attached] sex, or guys that had started normal and nice quickly turned the conversation into something explicitly sexual in nature. Seemingly nice dudes in quite esteemed careers asking to hook up in 24 hours and sending them naked pics of myself despite multiple times telling them that I didn’t want to.

I would be lying if I said it didn’t get to me. I thought it would be some fun thing, something where I would do it and worse case scenario say “lol I was a guy I trolle you lulz”etc. but within a 2 hour span it got me really down and I was feeling really uncomfortable with everything. I figured I would get some weird messages here and there, but what I got was an onslaught of people who were, within minutes of saying hello, saying things that made me as a dude who spends most of his time on 4chan uneasy. I ended up deleting my profile at the end of 2 hours and kind of went about the rest of my night with a very bad taste in my mouth.

I came away thinking that women have it so much harder than guys do when it comes to that kind of stuff.

That’s exactly it. The experiences many women have with online dating* are just so fucking icky that they made a dude who “spends most of his time on 4chan” uncomfortable.

As usual, I have two very different thoughts about the whole stunt.

On the one hand:

I’m tired of this. I’m tired of men getting attention for saying things that women have been saying for ages. I’m tired of the fact that men don’t believe women’s experiences unless they find a way to have those same experiences for themselves. I’m tired of the fact that women’s experiences are constantly being dismissed as overreactions or distortions or outright lies–until a man comes along to validate them. I’m tired of the fact that these men can then delete their online dating accounts or take the women’s outfit off, but I can’t stop moving through the world as a woman.

On the other hand:

Gender certainly plays a role, but so does the fact that most people aren’t that great at imagining how they would feel if they went through an experience they’ve never gone through. Just like appeals to kinship, experiencing something for yourself often helps make it feel more important and relevant to you. I hate the fact that this seems to be the only way this guy learned, but I’m still glad he learned. That’s one more person who’s going to stop spewing the bullshit that women are “privileged” when it comes to online dating, one more person who will hopefully be a little more supportive of his female friends when they get harassed and abused online.

I’ve seen a few comments about how this guy is speaking for women and whatnot, and while that obviously happens a lot, I don’t think that I see it happening in this case. He did a little personal experiment for himself, not for some grand political purpose, and shared it on a subreddit frequented mostly by women. The fact that his perspective inevitably gets elevated above many women’s perspectives is not something that he is responsible for as an individual; it is something that we are all responsible for collectively.

In that way, what happened here–the fact that this man didn’t believe women when they talked about online dating, the fact that he only started believing them when he pretended to be a woman, the fact that the story of his daring escape from the Land of Women Have It So Easy has been upvoted and shared so many times–this is not the problem. It’s a symptom of the problem.

It’s not just with online dating and harassment that this sort of thing happens. A little over a year ago, for instance, Cory Booker (then mayor of Newark, NJ; now senator) made the news for taking the Food Stamp Challenge, in which you live on the equivalent of a food stamp budget for a week. Writing at xoJane, Melissa criticized the stunt:

Dear Mr. Mayor and anyone else: Want to know what it’s like to live on food stamps? Read thisthis or this — or ask the 46 million Americans who do it every day, not as a “challenge” or for publicity but because they can’t afford food.

[…]There’s a big difference between being someone who is “challenging” themselves and has all the immaterial benefits of being not-poor, and being someone who is truly poor, and who’s suffering and has probably at other times in their life suffered from lack of food. It’s like Tyra Banks putting on a fat suit and acting like she gets it.

(Wearing a fat suit is, in fact, not very much like being fat.)

Of course, the difference here is that Booker is a well-known person, not a random throwaway Reddit handle, and was doing this to raise awareness–and probably for political reasons as well. Although he certainly didn’t intend to, Booker did sort of end up speaking for the millions of Americans who are actually on food stamps rather than elevating and centering their voices and experiences.

In her article, Melissa also points out that living on food stamps for a single week can’t possibly resemble the actual experience of a person living on food stamps, who may live in fear of losing what little resources they have and who may be chronically malnourished–and who doesn’t have the comfort of knowing that after the week’s over, everything will be back to “normal.”

OKCThrowaway22221’s experience is slightly more similar to that of a woman on OkCupid than Booker’s is to that of a person living in poverty, but at the end of the day (or at the end of two hours, rather), he could delete the profile and never have to think about it again. A woman can choose not to do online dating, but she can’t generally choose to stop being perceived as a woman by men and treated accordingly. The abuse women get on online dating sites is not unique to online dating sites.

I don’t want guys to stop doing things like this if that’s what helps them learn. In fact, I’ve suggested things like this to men in the past when they’d ask me, “Why do we still need feminism?”

I also want every guy who does this, or who learns something from reading about it, so ask himself why women’s stories weren’t enough.


In case you’re curious, here are some of my OKC experiences:


Screen Shot 2013-06-14 at 6.30.01 PM




*It’s important to note that not all women experience sexual harassment in the same ways or at the same levels. Women who are marginalized in other ways besides gender are often harassed in ways that interact with those marginalizations (for example, this). Some women are largely ignored by men when it comes to sexual attraction, so it’s important not to present online dating experiences like these are representative of all women.

Edit: Heina of Skepchick also has a great post on this, which I didn’t see until after I wrote this because I’ve been traveling.

Having To See It To Believe It: Men and Online Sexual Harassment

Against Role Models

Whenever a famous person does something of which the general public disapproves, much is often made of that person’s status as a “role model” and how it influences the public’s judgment of their behavior, and whether or not it is time to revoke that status.

It seems that celebrities cannot escape being seen as “role models” no matter what made them famous. We expect an athlete or a singer or an actor to be good at not just sports or singing or acting, but at upstanding, ethical behavior, too. The assumption is that children should look up to these figures not just because they represent talent and achievement that (supposedly) comes from lots of hard work and sacrifice, but because their behavior in the rest of their lives is something to emulate, too.

This makes sense to an extent. We know that children learn by modeling the behavior of adults, and we want them to have adults whose behavior they can model. While a parent is normally the one expected to serve that function, most parents hope for their children to achieve more than they (the parents) have been able to in their own lives. Choosing and fixating upon a random successful but unknown doctor or lawyer or scientist or writer seems odd, but famous people already serve the role of entertaining the public simply by existing. So, perhaps some parents hope that celebrities can be good role models for their children and inspire them to both professional and personal success.

In fact, there is absolutely no reason why someone’s success at sports or music should be taken to mean that that person’s treatment of others is just as admirable. There’s no reason why being a great actor means you keep your promises to your partners and respect the law. There’s no reason why being in a famous band means you are very careful about your health and avoid dangerous drugs. Expecting celebrities to be able to model these types of “good behavior” makes no sense.

And even when we try to see someone as a role model in a specific domain only, it never seems to quite work. We fall victim to black-and-white thinking–people are either “good” or “bad,” and if a talented, successful athlete cheats on his wife, he goes from “good” to “bad” very quickly. Even though many people cheat, and even though occasional bad behavior doesn’t necessarily mean someone is a “bad person.”

The expectation of being a role model places undue pressures on celebrities, especially women. Tracy Moore writes:

Critiquing famous (or any) women’s behavior in terms of whether what they do is good for the girls or not is a sticky trap. It prevents them from being complicated, actual people working themselves out — you know, individuals? The thing we want women to be seen as? It keeps us in an endless loop of chasing after this One Correct Way for Women to Conduct Themselves. It’s exhausting, and I refuse to buy into it, and I don’t want to help christen it.

I also think it insults girls, who are more individual, and already far more developed as people than we give them credit for by treating them like blank slates who will copy and absorb every thing they ever see on command. That may be true for fashion, and I’m not disputing that teens copy famous people’s behavior too (and yes I’m staring down a princess phase with a toddler), but that doesn’t mean they instantly absorb the values and ideology of everyone they admire.

What I want is for women to be seen as human, which means, flawed, misguided, shitty, awesome, talented, cool, all of the above. In order to be treated like equal people, we have to have the latitude to have the same range of profound greatness and disturbing awfulness as men. We have to be ordinary, boring, fascinating, idiotic and brilliant.

Moore notes that female celebrities seem to bear a greater burden for Making Sure Our Children Turn Out Okay than male ones do, and male celebrities do seem to have an easier time recovering from Scandals with their popularity mostly intact (see: Bill Clinton, Charlie Sheen, Chris Brown, R. Kelly).

And what about non-celebrities? What happens when they’re expected to be role models?

I don’t know how this plays out in other professions or contexts, but within social work and mental healthcare, there is an immense amount of pressure put on professionals to be role models. We’ve talked about this in my social work classes.

People look to social workers and mental health professionals for more than just “help me fix my brain bugs.” They also look to them as examples of how to live well, and they often expect them to be wearing the same professional “face” even if they encounter them randomly outside of the office.

Our professors ask us what we would do if we encountered a client, say, at a bar or on public transit or even at a party. How would we manage their expectations of us with our desire to behave as we usually would at a bar or on the subway or at a party? Would it harm our relationships with our clients if they saw us acting like, well, normal people?

It’s true that if our clients think that we’re always the way we are in a session–calm, empathic, curious, mature, “wise”–it might disturb them to see us drinking at a bar or kissing a significant other in public or dancing at a party. They might wonder if we’re “faking” when we’re in a session with them. They might wonder who we “really” are.

For some professionals, this seems to be enough of a reason to significantly alter their behavior if they see a client out in public, or leave a bar or party where a client happens to be. They might even consider whether or not doing things like going to bars and parties after hours is even compatible with who they are as professionals.

When we discussed this in class, I was glad that most of my classmates reacted with minor indignation. Why should we be expected to be professional 24/7? Why does everyone else get to take off their work persona when they leave the office, but we don’t? Why is it our fault if our clients judge us as immature or irresponsible just because we go to bars on the weekends?

I think there are two reasons why expecting therapists to act like therapists 24/7 is harmful. One is that, on the individual level, it’s stressful and takes a toll on one’s mental health and freedom to live life the way they want to. Deciding to be a therapist should not be a life sentence to never behave like a normal person outside of work again. That’s too much of a burden for someone whose work is already very stressful and difficult.

Second, part of our role as mental health professionals is encouraging clients to think rationally, accurately, and adaptively about other people and their relationships with them. “This person is drinking at a bar therefore they are immature and I can’t trust them as my therapist” is not a rational, accurate, or adaptive thought. (Well, it could be accurate, but you’d need more evidence to come to that conclusion.) Neither is, “This person is behaving differently after hours than they are at work, and therefore the way they behave at work is totally fake and they’re just lying to me.”

But speaking as someone who’s been on both sides of that relationship, I have to say that we are really, really patronizing our clients if we think that they are incapable of realizing that we have selves outside of the office. We are treating them like children if we presume that they need to be carefully prevented from seeing any part of our non-therapist persona, including kissing a partner in public or getting tipsy at a bar.

But it’s possible that some clients might be confused or bothered by seeing a therapist acting non-therapisty out in public. I think that the best course of action then is to discuss that in therapy, not laboriously alter one’s public behavior so that such an issue never comes up to begin with.

Because our classes are mostly discussion-based and there’s little in the social work code of ethics about situations like this (dual relationships, though, are a different matter), my professor never gave a definitive answer on whether or not we should endeavor to be role models to our clients no matter where we encounter them. His intent, I think, was mostly to spark discussion and let us know that this is something to consider.

The examples of celebrities and mental health professionals are two very different examples, but my conclusion is largely the same for each: being expected to be a “role model” in every context, at work and outside of it, in one’s chosen domain (be it sports or entertaining or counseling) and in every other domain in which it’s possible to judge a person’s behavior, is too much.

A final reason holding people up as “role models” is harmful: the criteria by which we judge them are largely based on social norms, which can be a very poor barometer for determining how ethical an action is. That’s why, when Miley Cyrus was vilified for her performance at the VMAs and reprimanded by many commentators for not being a good enough “role model,” the focus of most of the criticism was not the racism inherent in her performance, but the fact that she dressed revealingly and shook her ass. And she shook it…at a married man! How dare she. The married man, by the way, made a clear show of enjoying it, and he’s the one who’s married. And the one who sings a song about “blurred lines.”

It’s also why, when Kristen Stewart cheated on Robert Pattinson (to whom she was not married) with Rupert Sanders (who is married), it was Stewart on whom the majority of the public opprobrium fell, and who was finally compelled to publicly apologize. (A hopefully unnecessary disclaimer: I think breaking a promise to a partner is wrong, but I also wish people didn’t make promises they couldn’t keep in the first place, and I don’t think cheating is the worst thing a person could do and I don’t think a person who cheats owes an apology to anyone but the person they cheated on.)

And women of color in particular are held to impossibly high standards as “role models,” as public reactions to Beyonce and Rihanna attest.

Sometimes the intersections between the expectation of role model behavior and various types of prejudice affect people’s livelihoods in really crappy ways. To return to the example of therapists, I’ve been reading this blog by a woman who is studying to be a therapist and also works as a stripper. The faculty of her program are pressuring her to either quit sex work or leave the program, because doing both is necessarily an ethical violation. They also told her that being a stripper “contributes to further injustice in the world,”  and is therefore incompatible with her other role as a therapist.

That’s a slightly different type of role model that she’s being expected to perform, but that demand that therapists be perfect in every aspect of their lives is still there. The role of therapist is supposed to take precedence over everything else she may want to do in her life, including making enough money to get by and finish her education. And in this case, these expectations are intersecting with stigma and prejudice against sex workers.

So, whether you’re a celebrity or just a regular person trying to make the world better, it’s rarely a neutral expectation that one be a “role model.” Like all social expectations do, it comes along with lots of baggage. And it’s incredible how often, for women, being a “role model” means having no sexuality.

Children may need adults to look up to and clients may need therapists to learn from, but that’s not a good enough reason, in my opinion, to expect or demand perfection from people.

I think a more realistic view is that almost everyone can teach us something, and almost everyone has done things we probably shouldn’t emulate*.


*And to be clear, wearing revealing clothing and/or being a sex worker are not the sorts of things I’m particularly desperate to discourage.

Against Role Models

On Not Holding Our Models Sacred: Some Feminist Theories And Their Flaws

Social science relies on models. (No, not that kind.) If you’re familiar with social science, you might be used to referring to them as “theories.”

A theory or model in social science is like a theory or model in any other science. It is developed based on evidence and used to explain various phenomena. A model that is not developed based on evidence (but rather introspection or assumption) is probably not very useful, and neither is a model that can’t explain much. (See: psychoanalytic theory.)

In a great post on models that you should read all of before going any further, Crommunist says:

The key to models is this: all models are wrong. All of them. Every last one. However, some models, carefully designed, can help us test hypotheses about the world without having to somehow re-create a process in real life and then observe it directly. But the models are still wrong. They are, as a necessary consequence of their utility, reductive. They omit some data, they make assumptions, they do not explain every single observation, and they force some observations into states that they might not actually belong in the real world.

And so we constantly look to improve models. We strive to use the appropriate model to answer the appropriate question: the nuclear model is perfectly useful for answering questions about electron bonding and valence, but it’s less useful when we want to talk about the behaviour and movement of electrons. Newtonian mechanics is great if you want to predict what a baseball will do, but terrible if you want to predict what a quark will do. In the case where an old model fails to properly predict reality, we develop a more sophisticated model.

It is important to critique the models we use because that’s how we make them better. It’s also important to distinguish between criticism and denialism. People who support and promote models that are often unfairly attacked by denialists who have a vested interest in suppressing those models may start to mistake useful criticism for yet more denialism. Critics should be aware of this and endeavor to avoid using denialist talking points, accidentally or otherwise. (For instance, this is probably not the best time to use snark as a rhetorical device.)

Supporters, meanwhile, can do their part by welcoming smart, useful criticism and by continually seeking to improve their own views and arguments. In fact, sometimes the best critics are supporters who care deeply about making their models better.

So what I’ve decided to do here is to look at three models commonly used in social justice and point out some of their weak spots. I probably won’t get much into actually improving the models or else this post is going to be book-length, but I might do that in the future. I think there’s a dearth of good criticism of social justice concepts from people who actually understand those concepts and are willing to engage with them in good faith and support the idea of social justice in general, so hopefully I’ll be able to do something the MRAs and biological essentialists will never be able to do.

Some caveats:
1. This post contains a lot of intellectualizing and a little bit of devil’s advocate as they apply to a few social justice ideas. If you don’t like these things, please don’t read this post, but please don’t argue with my decision to write it, either.
2. I’m pointing out a few weak spots in a few models. I am not–not–saying that I think these models are completely flawed and should be thrown out. I think privilege exists. I think rape culture exists. I think gender is largely a social construct. 
3. While you’re welcome to discuss strengths of these models in the comments section, please don’t try to do so as an argument against anything I’m saying. If I point out a way in which a model is flawed and you point out a way in which that model works, you’re not proving me wrong (and I’m not proving you wrong, either). If you disagree with my analysis of the flaws themselves, that’s a different thing.

The three models I’ll be looking at are gender as performance, rape culture, and privilege.

I. Gender as performance

The idea that we “perform” gender originates with the feminist theorist Judith Butler, who wrote a rather dense book about it called Gender Trouble that I confess I haven’t read. But most people who use that term probably haven’t read it. It’s a sticky idea.

Gender-as-performance works very well to explain why many people who do not identify particularly strongly (or at all) with masculinity and femininity feel compelled to act in masculine or feminine ways. It also helps explain why someone’s femininity doesn’t necessarily correlate with their sense of being a woman, or their masculinity with their sense of being a man.

However, for the people for whom their assigned gender role feels fitting and appropriate, gender-as-performance doesn’t really explain much. Here someone might argue something like, “Well, deep down, they don’t really feel that masculinity (femininity) is natural for them, they’re just doing it because that’s what’s expected of them as a man (woman). But I don’t know how I feel about making such assumptions about what’s in people’s heads.

Butler’s model is also weak when it comes to explaining the experiences of trans people, particularly trans women. In her book Excluded, Julia Serano discusses this:

The assumption that my gender is artificial or a performance is regularly cited by those who wish to undermine or dismiss my female identity. I refuse to let anyone get away with the cissexist presumption that my gender must be a ‘performance’ simply because I am a transsexual. And I similarly refuse to let anyone get away with the masculine-centric presumption that my gender must be a ‘performance’ simply because I am feminine.

I also find the notion of femininity as a performance to be somewhat disingenuous and oversimplistic. I mean, I can ‘perform’ femininity. I can put on makeup, skirts, and heels. I can talk with my hands or twirl my hair if I want. But performance doesn’t explain why certain behaviors and ways of being come to me more naturally than others. The idea that femininity is just a construct or merely a performance is incompatible with the countless young feminine boys who are not self-conscious about their gender expressions, who become confused as to why their parents become outraged at their behavior, or why the other children relentlessly tease them for being who they are. Many such children find their gender expression to be irrepressible, and they remain outwardly feminine throughout their lives despite all of the stigmatization and male socialization to the contrary. Other femininely-oriented male children learn to hide their feminine gender expression in order to survive, but at a great cost.

I was one of the latter children. I know that for many cis queer women, femininity is something that others foist upon them, an unwanted burden, an expectation that they are unable or unwilling to meet. THis is perhaps why so many cis lesbian feminists have gone to such great lengths to argue that femininity is artificial, a mere artifact of patriarchy. But for me, femininity was like ether or air–it was always there, just waiting for the chance to leak out of me. When I think about gender expression being a ‘performance,’ I think about myself as a kid, watching my S’s when I spoke to make sure they didn’t linger. ‘Performance’ was me fighting back the urge to be more animated with my hands when I talked, or learning never to use words like ‘adorable’ or ‘cute’ nonsarcastically. ‘Performance’ was going to the barber to get my hair cut short like my parents wanted it, when what I really wanted was to let my hair grow long. Like I said, for me, masculinity always felt artificial, while femininity felt natural.

Not all trans women identify with femininity, but Serano shows that the idea of gender as a performance does not resonate with her experience of wanting desperately to be able to express herself in a feminine way, even as a young child. In fact, if all gender is merely performance, the existence of trans identities makes no sense. Being socialized as a boy should make you a masculine man. Being socialized as a woman should make you a feminine woman. End of story.

(I wouldn’t be surprised if the inconvenience of trans identities for certain second-wave feminist theories helps explain, in part, the vitriol and exclusion that trans people have historically faced from radical feminists.)

Of course, it’s possible that, as a trans woman, Serano was born with a sense of herself as a woman, but not with a sense of herself as feminine. The latter might have been part of the meaning that Serano attached to being a woman, given the prevalence of messages in the surrounding environment about what being a woman means. While we usually think of gender roles as something children learn through socialization, they also pick up plenty of not-so-subtle clues about how people of the other gender ought to act. In this way, gender-as-performance might still make sense, in that Serano learned to perform femininity because she thought of herself as a girl rather than the boy that others saw her as.

But that seems pretty spurious. I’d have to see the evidence that children at that age even know what it means to think of themselves “as a woman” or “as a man.”

Further evidence against the model of gender as performance is that inborn psychological gender differences do seem to exist. They aren’t nearly as significant or pronounced as the media and some evolutionary psychologists paint them to be, but they exist. Some studies have shown differences in perception between male and female infants at ages as young as four months. While most psychological gender differences seem to be created as a result of socialization and all the processes associated with it, it seems very unlikely that in just four months, male infants could have learned, through differential socialization, to become better than female infants at mentally rotating three-dimensional objects. Although I suppose it’s possible.

If psychological gender differences that are caused by biology exist, then there may be a small biological component to gender roles, as well.

Butler’s model of gender-as-performance implies a false dichotomy between things that are both natural and genuine and things that are both constructed and performative (or fake). Even if gender is completely a social construction, that does not mean that its expression is always a performance. True, some people must perform gender, as Julia Serano had to as a girl who was expected to behave like a boy. But for many (if not most) people, their gender role does not feel, and never has felt, like a role they have to perform as an actor would in a play. Gender could be a social construction that still feels real to people, because in constructing it, they make it real. The fact that gender feels so natural to most people does not have to mean that it is all biological, and the fact that it is socially constructed (to whatever extent) does not have to mean it is a mere performance.

In her book, Julia Serano rejects both gender determinism (the idea that gender is determined completely by biology) and gender artifactualism (the idea that gender is completely a social construct) and argues in favor of what she calls a holistic model of gender and sexuality, which is based on solid scientific evidence and accepts a role for all sorts of factors in the development of gender: biology (including genetics and other biological factors), socialization, environment, and so on. Her new model is an improvement over the simplistic models promoted by both the most myopic biologists and the most myopic gender theorists.

II. Rape culture

(For reference, here’s a great introduction to rape culture.)

If the central premise on which the model of rape culture rests–that our society trivializes, accepts, condones, encourages, or even at times celebrates rape–were completely true in all cases, you might not expect rape to actually be illegal. And even if it were, you might not expect for there to be any stigma associated with being a rapist. But there is. The problem is that it takes a lot to be considered a rapist. Often, not even undeniable evidence of rape will do it, because we keep shifting the goalposts of what rape is.

But if you do find your way into the rapist category, you might actually face consequences. And, while that infamous study suggesting that atheists are even less trusted than rapists was flawed, there’s a reason the “even less than rapists” part was so significant to so many people.

The prevalence of rape jokes is sometimes taken as evidence of the existence of a rape culture. I’m not sure where I fall on this. Some rape jokes, like the one Daniel Tosh famously made, seem very rape culture-y to me, because the joke is a woman being raped as punishment for not being quiet and feminine enough. Same goes for every time someone threatens to rape someone for having an opinion they disagree with on the internet, and same goes for every time someone makes a joke about prison rape, because again, that joke hinges on the unspoken belief that there are people who “deserve” rape.

Other rape jokes, however, resemble typical jokes about awful things like death or cancer. We (arguably) do not have a culture that trivializes or even promotes death or cancer, and yet we joke about them.

It’s the response that people get when they criticize rape jokes, though, that makes the strongest case. I find it hard to imagine someone saying, “Actually, my grandpa has cancer, so please don’t make those jokes around me,” and receiving anything other than an apology. Yet when women speak up against rape jokes, they are often ignored, ridiculed, or literally threatened with rape. (Because nothing makes the point “I am not a creepy rape apologist” better than threatening your interlocutor with rape.)

Because whether or not rape culture as a model explains the existence and popularity of rape jokes, it explains the fury with which many men respond tot he reminder that rape is a real horror that affects real humans.

Rape culture as a model is also not very useful for explaining the fact that consent and self-determination are devalued in many other contexts that have nothing to do with sex. Children are expected to hug relatives whether they want to or not. Pregnant women are subject to constant belly-touching by random strangers, so much so that laws have been passed against it. People of color have their hair touched without their consent all the time. People who don’t want to drink or go out or try a new food or play a game are often pressured into doing so by their friends. The idea of getting consent before hugging someone is often laughed at.

You could try to intersect this with the privilege model and claim that people who lack privilege in particular ways are more likely to have more powerful people try to override their right to autonomy, but then sex seems like just a subset of that general rule, as opposed to a special case called “rape culture.”

Some people extend “rape culture” to include all situations in which people’s consent is overridden, including non-sexual touching and various social situations. But parents inevitably (and understandably) bristle at being told that when they wheedle their child into giving Grandpa a hug, they are somehow promoting rape. While there are parallels between that and overriding people’s sexual consent, I don’t think those parallels are strong enough to justify claiming that a parent who wheedles their child into giving Grandpa a hug is promoting the very same rape culture that gets promoted every time a victim of sexual assault is asked what they were wearing at the time, or when a man expects sex from a woman because she smiled at him or because he bought her a drink.

Maybe a more useful way to conceptualize all of these patterns together isn’t by calling them all “rape culture,” but by referring to them as evidence that we lack a consent culture. That is, we have a culture that devalues consent in most (if not all) situations. (Here I make a mental note to write about this more later. [Edit: Actually, I sort of already have?])

III. Privilege

(For reference, here’s a great introduction to privilege.)

One problem with the concept of privilege is that it’s not always very useful at the individual level. For instance, say you’re talking about the way that women are taught to second-guess themselves while men are taught to be confident. This is true in a general, collective sense, but you can’t point at a specific man and say, “This man was taught to be confident.” Maybe he was, but maybe he was abused or bullied as a child and therefore learned not to be confident. Maybe he has a mental illness that precludes confidence. Maybe he’s a trans man who was socialized as a woman (and, in fact, whose very stratus as a man is constantly being contested). Maybe he simply missed out on this aspect of normative male socialization.

Privilege may also fail as a model when you try to use it to explain why some people understand certain things and others don’t. For instance, a feminist might claim that a man doesn’t understand why telling a woman not to wear revealing clothes as a rape-prevention tactic is wrong, and that he doesn’t understand it because he has male privilege that prevents him from ever having to deal with this firsthand. But many women also give the same slut-shaming “advice.” I’ve heard many women, including ones I know very well, say that a woman who goes out dressed “like a slut” is “asking for it.” But they also lack male privilege. What then?

Well, then many people use the term “internalization,” which basically means that you’ve accepted the messages our society sends about the group you belong to and assimilated these messages into your own beliefs. This explains why many women believe that women should stay at home and raise children, that “slutty” women “deserve” bad things, that women are less logical or capable of certain things than men, and so on.

But in that case, privilege isn’t doing very well as a model for explaining why many people believe these things about women. The women who believe these things may lack the same privileges as the women who do not believe these things.

(The internalization theory also works particularly awfully when used as a debate tactic. If you’ve ever witnessed a progressive man accusing a non-feminist woman of having “internalized” misogyny, or a white person accusing a person of color of having “internalized” racism, and cringed, you know what I’m talking about.)

Privilege as a model is also less useful in discussions of gender than discussions of other axes of marginalization. Namely, there are very real disadvantages to being male. There are. You’re more likely to be a victim of violence, more likely to end up in prison, more likely to be profiled by the police (especially as this intersects with race and class status), more likely to have the burden of supporting an entire family (at least in certain demographics; this, again, intersects with race and class), less able to show your emotions, more susceptible to certain mental illnesses, more likely to commit suicide (though not to attempt), less able to come out as a rape survivor, more subject to gender role policing, and so on and so forth.

I don’t know if this is sufficient to argue for a so-called “female privilege” (especially since most proponents of the existence of female privilege insist that one of those privileges is being able to get laid more easily), but I do know that there are disadvantages men face because they are men, while there aren’t really any disadvantages that white people face because they are white or that straight people face because they are straight. (Most people who argue that there are seem to think that it puts them at a disadvantage when other people gain access to the rights and resources that they have had for centuries.) The disadvantages that men face also seem to stem from the same screwed-up system of gender roles that harms women as opposed to any supposed “power” that women have over men, or unearned advantages that they receive at men’s expense. (This is why MRAs are so misguided when they point out ways in which men actually are disadvantaged and blame it on women or, more bizarrely, the small minority of women who are feminists.)

Male privilege is also not sufficient to explain the fact that men’s gender roles are policed so much more stringently than women’s. While a (female) tomboy may face some disapproval, she probably won’t face nearly as much as a boy who wears dresses (or even “acts” feminine in some way). But people of all genders who choose not to present as either masculine or feminine face opprobrium, too. Maybe the way to explain this is three intersecting privileges: the privilege of being perceived as a man, the privilege of behaving in a masculine way, and the privilege of having your gender “line up” with the sex you were assigned at birth. But that starts to get very complicated.

Another problem: once you start conceptualizing privilege as a quantity that can be had or not had, people inevitably start quibbling over who has more of it–the much-maligned “oppression olympics.” Not having privilege comes an optimal state, and having privilege becomes bad in and of itself (as opposed to bad if it causes you to be ignorant or hurtful). An an essay on how the privilege concept may prevent collective thought and action, Andrea Smith writes:

In my experience working with a multitude of anti-racist organizing projects over the years, I frequently found myself participating in various workshops in which participants were asked to reflect on their gender/race/sexuality/class/etc. privilege.  These workshops had a bit of a self-help orientation to them: “I am so and so, and I have x privilege.”  It was never quite clear what the point of these confessions were.  It was not as if other participants did not know the confessor in question had her/his proclaimed privilege.   It did not appear that these individual confessions actually led to any political projects to dismantle the structures of domination that enabled their privilege.  Rather, the confessions became the political project themselves.    The benefits of these confessions seemed to be ephemeral.  For the instant the confession took place, those who do not have that privilege in daily life would have a temporary position of power as the hearer of the confession who could grant absolution and forgiveness.  The sayer of the confession could then be granted temporary forgiveness for her/his abuses of power and relief from white/male/heterosexual/etc guilt.   Because of the perceived benefits of this ritual, there was generally little critique of the fact that in the end, it primarily served to reinstantiate the structures of domination it was supposed to resist.  One of the reasons there was little critique of this practice is that it bestowed cultural capital to those who seemed to be the “most oppressed.”  Those who had little privilege did not have to confess and were in the position to be the judge of those who did have privilege.  Consequently, people aspired to be oppressed.  Inevitably, those with more privilege would develop new heretofore unknown forms of oppression from which they suffered.  “I may be white, but my best friend was a person of color, which caused me to be oppressed when we played together.”  Consequently, the goal became not to actually end oppression but to be as oppressed as possible.  These rituals often substituted confession for political movement-building.  And despite the cultural capital that was, at least temporarily, bestowed to those who seemed to be the most oppressed, these rituals ultimately reinstantiated the white majority subject as the subject capable of self-reflexivity and the colonized/racialized subject as the occasion for self-reflexivity.

This way of thinking about privilege creates contexts in which it’s okay for someone without a certain privilege to say a certain thing, but not okay for someone with that privilege to say that thing. Of course, I’m being simplistic; often people without certain privileges are still rightly criticized for saying inaccurate or harmful things. But I’ve definitely come across situations where people have outright said, “If he/she/they weren’t a ______, it would’ve been okay.”

Sometimes this makes sense. For instance, it makes sense that members of marginalized groups can reclaim slurs and use them in a celebratory way while still reading those slurs as insults when used by people outside of the group, because you cannot reclaim a slur on someone’s behalf. And in many cases, our priors suggest that the same argument can read very differently when coming from different people. But this is just a heuristic, a cognitive shortcut that works in many cases but not always. At its worst, it can keep harmful people trusted by those they are harming, or it can cause good-faith critics to be ostracized when their criticism might have been useful.

For instance, when I imagine this blog post being written by a man, I imagine it being read much less charitably than it’s (hopefully) being read having been written by a woman. I’m not sure that I wouldn’t succumb to that bias myself, because I’ve read so few good criticisms of feminist theories written by men. (Which is not to say that men are categorically incapable of producing good criticism of feminism, just that the majority of it tends toward your typical anti-feminist talking points.)

But maybe this is just more evidence that more of us insiders should become critics, like Julia Serano, a feminist, did in Excluded, and like every progressive atheist does when they criticize some of the reactionary threads in this movement.

Almost everyone lacks privilege in some ways (not just the silly and illegitimate ways Andrea Smith mentions in her essay), so it might not be particularly useful to speak of “having” or “not having” privilege in general. It might only make sense to speak very specifically: “You have the privilege of being perceived as white, so cops don’t profile you.” Or “You have the privilege of having been born into a family with lots of money.” (I discuss this more here.)

Absent from my critique of the concept of privilege is the fact that it pisses people off. It’s this criticism I see most often, sometimes from people who actually concede that such a thing undeniably exists, but we shouldn’t talk about it because it’s divisive/makes people feel bad/turns people off of social justice/distracts from the larger issues.

The word privilege offends because the idea of privilege offends. You could call it whatever you want and it would still offend, because people desperately want to believe (despite what your mom told you when you whined that “it’s not faaaair”) that this world is just and that we’ve earned everything good that’s in our lives. Nobody who has not yet abandoned the just world hypothesis will react well when confronted with the concept of privilege. While I wouldn’t call this a feature, I wouldn’t call it a bug, either. Just something we have to be aware of and work around.

I’ve also heard the argument that privilege is a poor choice of name for privilege because in its original meaning, it has a negative connotation. It’s associated with having nice things you didn’t have to work for, like trust funds or inherited manors in the countryside. The negative connotation of the original word comes from the fact that people “of privilege” in this sense often feel entitled to what they have and are ignorant of the struggles faced by those who do not share those privileges.

But, negative as that connotation may be, it is not entirely inapplicable to the social justice context.

Inevitably, debates like these dissolve into arguments about whether or not a given concept’s name conveys its meaning accurately and effectively. I am sympathetic to these arguments at the same time as I find them not especially useful.

Of course I wish that every term we used when talking about psychology or sociology or politics sounded exactly like the concept it describes. If I could wave a magic wand and rename a bunch of these terms, I would. I’d probably even rename “privilege” and “feminism” (though I don’t know to what). But guess what? Plenty of smart people would still disagree with what I chose, and the people who chose the original terms were smart and knowledgeable, too.

Besides, I don’t actually know how to make thousands of scholars, activists, and ordinary folks all over the world stop using words they’ve used for years and use new ones instead. Even if I did, I don’t think that would be the most productive use of my time.

A better use of our time is probably cultivating in people the sense of free-spirited curiosity that will encourage them to look up terms they don’t understand rather than assuming, as many people do, that feminists use those terms specifically in order to blame, guilt trip, or hurt them.

It may feel sometimes that recognizing and acknowledging a model’s weaknesses will make it seem weaker to ideological opponents, but I’d argue that we seem more consistent and intellectually honest if we do so. Yes, privilege may not explain why men are disadvantaged in ways no other dominant group is. Rape culture may not really explain why so many people don’t give a damn about consent whether the situation involves anything sexual or not or not. Gender performativity seems to shrug its shoulders where the experiences of trans people are concerned.

Acknowledging these flaws allows for better, more useful models–which will inevitably have flaws of their own. And we’ll critique them too, and start the cycle over again.


Edit: Awkwardly, I forgot to link to my relevant posts on strawmanning rape culture, parts one and two.

On Not Holding Our Models Sacred: Some Feminist Theories And Their Flaws

In Defense of Conferences #sk6

This morning as I was sitting in my horrifically delayed plane to Missouri for Skepticon, I had this exchange on Twitter.

I don’t mean to pick on Ali at all; he stated his argument well (even though I think I’m right and he’s wrong!) and was really great about listening to my take on it and walking back his statements once he realized where he’d been missing information. (Thanks for being such a great argument buddy, Ali!) However, Twitter being what it is, I don’t think I was really able to adequately explain my view on this and why conferences are so important to me. So I’m going to do it here, not as a jab at Ali or anyone else specific, but just as a response to a claim I encounter fairly frequently.

I guess I take this a bit personally because of the nature of my involvement in social justice, progressivism, and activism (it’s literally going to be my entire career, as well as what I do during a significant portion of my free time) as well as my own history in this community (going to these conferences and meeting these people is probably the reason I don’t have clinical depression anymore). It also stung to read these comments as I was en route to a con where I’d be giving a workshop that’s aimed at preventing sexual harassment and assault. Like, you’re going to claim I’m not doing anything worthwhile? Really?

But I know everyone isn’t me, so I tried to set that aside and examine the claims more objectively (not that objectivity is ever actually achievable). I still don’t think they have much merit.

First of all, basically every professional field and every hobby or interest has conferences. I’ve never heard of one that doesn’t. Researchers have conferences to share their research, tech developers have conferences to show off new products, mental health professionals and educators have conferences to discuss best practices and learn from each others’ experiences, and so on. Writers both amateur and professional have conferences to learn new skills, hear other writers’ work, and network with agents and publishers. When I was a sexual health peer educator in college, we even went to conferences just for health peer education to present our workshops to other peer educators who might provide valuable feedback and adopt some of our methods for themselves.

Nobody, I hope, would argue that a therapist is engaging in a “circlejerk” by spending a weekend sharing their experiences with other therapists as opposed to treating clients. Or that a research scientist is engaging in a “circlejerk” by spending a weekend listening to presentations on other people’s research rather than working on their own project in the lab. Or that a writer is engaging in a “circlejerk” by spending a weekend networking with potential publishers rather than being holed up in the coffee shop with their manuscript.

But activists, for some reason, are expected to always, always be “on.” If we’re not out there protesting or fundraising or educating or arguing or volunteering or otherwise Creating Change, we’re “circlejerking.”

Does this seem convoluted to you? It does to me.

People who criticize conferences on these grounds seem to be making a very similar strawman as people who criticize so-called “slacktivism” (in fact, I’m sure there is significant overlap between those two groups). Does anyone actually believe that changing their profile picture on Facebook is an act of Serious World-Changing Activism? I doubt it. Does anyone actually believe that attending Skepticon or a similar conference is an act of Serious World-Changing Activism? I doubt that too.

From what I gather, people who attend secular/skeptical/otherwise progressive conferences do so for a number of reasons:

  • To learn new things
  • To make new friends
  • To see old friends
  • To network and find new opportunities for jobs or volunteering or other activisty things
  • To feel a sense of belonging and acceptance
  • To feel a sense of hope
  • To have fun

I believe that all of these goals are important. I think they can be as important as Changing The World. And while people might not go to conferences with the explicit goal of Changing The World while they are there, the things they learn and experience at conferences might help them to eventually do so.

And I have to say, Changing The World is very hard when you feel alone, unsupported, and unaware of what else is out there.

Personally, I can speak to most of the reasons on that list. I learn new things at conferences all the time. One of the talks that stuck most with me from last year’s Skepticon, for instance, was Jennifer Oulette’s talk on drugs, their potential health benefits, and the difficulties of researching them since they’re illegal. That was an issue I’d never really thought about! Now I feel much more prepared to seek out even more (scientifically accurate) information on that subject, advocate for more sensible drug policy, and correct misconceptions that people may have about drugs. I might never have run across this information otherwise, because it’s not my field and I can’t read every damn article on the internet.

Sometimes I learn things that are less immediately practical, but still extremely important. Another talk at last year’s Skepticon was Greta Christina’s on grief, secularism, and her own personal experiences with that intersection. I have not experienced a loss like Greta’s before. I do wonder what will happen when I inevitably experience such a loss, and how I will process it without faith. As a future mental health professional considering working with people who are leaving religion (or have recently left religion), helping people deal with grief without faith is extremely important to me. Her evocative talk was valuable both on a personal level (I care about Greta and want to know about her life) and on a professional level (I want to learn how people process grief and how I might be able to help them).

I could go on and on. This Skepticon is my 8th secular conference, and so many brilliant talk and speakers stand out to me from the past year and a half of my involvement in this community. I’ve learned so much. Reading articles on the internet just isn’t the same.

I think people–especially people who consider cons to be “circlejerks”–diminish or misunderstand the significance of learning at cons. Yes, we drink. Yes, we play Cards Against Humanity. Yes, we dress up in costumes or fancy clothes or whatever. Yes, we shoot the shit with friends. Yes, we hook up until ridiculous hours of the night/morning. But you’ll notice that the talks at conferences? They have audience members. Many of those audience members are so invested and interested in what’s being discussed that they laboriously live-tweet/-blog everything so that others can learn too. After the con, people write about their impressions of various talks and what they learned, or they repost videos of talks or even transcribe them so that they’re more accessible.

I don’t think I need to provide any more evidence that people learn at conferences and they value that learning.

But moving on to the less practical stuff. For instance, my incredible friends and colleagues, whom I’ve either met directly at conferences or through the people I’ve met at conferences, or whom I’ve really gotten to know at conferences. These people are 200% there all the time. The people I’ve met at conferences advocated for me when Facebook wouldn’t take my stupid death threat page down. They’ve gotten me speaking gigs and other opportunities. They help me with my writing, which is significant since I had very few writer friends until I got involved in all this. They post “<3” or “*hug*” on my Facebook statuses when I’m struggling with depression or anxiety. They give me things to think about and they teach me every day. They are my lovers and partners. They are the people I’d call if I got mugged or lost a loved one or got a job or got an offer to have a book published. They are my chosen family.

It’s a common practice, especially among self-identified skeptics, to discount the importance of community, acceptance, belongingness, and mutual respect–all that touchy-feely shit many of us would rather ignore or pretend we don’t need. But we do.

Virtually everyone needs these things. But activists especially need them. Activism can be very alienating. Our efforts fail. People belittle or even threaten us. Apathy is pervasive. Nothing seems to change. Burnout is always on the horizon.

But then you show up in a huge building full of people who care about the things you care about*. Who want you to feel like you’re having an impact. Who want you to keep doing what you’re doing. Who come up to you just to tell you that your writing changed their life. Who will laugh at the trolls with you and shake with fury at the people who threaten you with death and cheer for you when you’re speaking and signal-boost for you when you’ve done something cool or you’re in a tight spot and need help. Who don’t make you explain over and over why we still need feminism or what’s so wrong with school prayer. Who don’t say “nerd” like it’s a bad thing.

This is what they call a “circlejerk.”

And if that’s a circlejerk, then pass me the lube.


*I am quite aware that cons do also have shitty people at them, but the point is that the ratio of awesome-to-shitty people is much better at these cons than in the world at large.

In Defense of Conferences #sk6

[guest post] Japan's Not Doing Sex! An Intersection of Racism and Sexism

Here’s a guest post from my friend Mike about the recent news stories on Japanese sexuality.

I remember as a kid laughing at the clownish stereotypes of characters like Long Duk Dong in “Sixteen Candles” and Toshiro Takashi in “Revenge of the Nerds”. What I didn’t realize at the time was how I, as a Korean-American boy, was internalizing a host of images desexualizing men of East Asian descent. Add to that, the hypersexualized imagery of Kim in “Miss Saigon” and Ling Woo in “Ally McBeal”, it came as no surprise to me last week when a story about “Why have young people in Japan stopped having sex?” became such a viral hit on the Internet and mainstream media. Shall we say, I had even expected it at least over a year ago.

Everyone from the Guardian to Bill Maher had their say about those nerdy Japanese men and apparently dissatisfied women. After the story spread for quite some time, there came the derisive counters to this obviously poorly conceived and factually dubious headline. Since the story was predicated on the declining birth rate in Japan (a reasonable story to look into) the critics of sensationalist media noted how quick those propagating this shoddy journalism were to jump to conclusions. Mostly lost in the backlash to this story was how much of what was happening fit not only a narrative of cultural insensitivity and racial stereotyping, but how that stereotyping fit a long historical narrative of desexualizing Asian men and hypersexualizing Asian women for the benefit of the white heterosexist image of power.

Where does this narrative come from?

Throughout Western contact with Asian cultures, there has been this need to assume the sexual proclivities of the inhabitants of these “mysterious” lands, establishing a moral superiority. For Asian men, it was the dichotomy of dangerous predator and effeminate asexual, and for Asian women, the Dragon Lady and the Lotus Flower.

In the 19th century, Chinese immigration became something to fear and despise to the mostly white settlers in the West of the United States. The addition of such cheap labor brought out the very worst of the insecurities in Americans, especially when faced with the emerging hype surrounding opium use. Diana L. Ahmad’s article “Opium Smoking, Anti-Chinese Attitudes, and the American Medical Community, 1850-1890” describes the belief that opium produced the “feminine” characteristics of “introspection, indifference, defeatism, and silence.” Yet, despite coupling opium use with the grotesque patriarchal notions of femininity, the moral panic around the drug and the scarcity of Chinese women in the early immigrant waves contributed to the ultimate of fears: interracial coupling! This ties in very nicely with Victorian religiously motivated sexual policing and temperance. Ahmad continues:

It was difficult enough for the elite classes to consider the idea of women having extra-marital relations or experiment with sex with Anglo-American men; however, Anglo-American women having intimate relations with unknown Chinese laborers and members of the underworld might have been considered unthinkable.

Despite this being specific to certain members of the Chinese diaspora, keep in mind that we live in a society where I’m routinely asked if I’m Chinese, Japanese or Korean (that last one only seems to have appeared on the list after the ’90s). In the U.S., Asian as an ethnicity basically includes a hugely diverse grouping from the Indian subcontinent to the Pacific islands. While lumping all of us together has its uses, it also means dealing with grossly pernicious generalizations.

As time marched on, Hollywood films depicted the outlandishly dressed, inscrutable male villains (usually white actors in yellow face) and the either deceitful social climbers or virginal damsels in the distress to the mostly white audiences in the cinema. Television shows, comic books, and now the news media seem intent on preserving at least some of these shameful notions even to this day. For every Glenn from “The Walking Dead” or Sun from “Lost”, both characters that address and escape from some of these sexist and racist tropes, there are a ton more of a Raj Koothrapali, a character who LITERALLY couldn’t speak around women for six seasons unless drinking and consistently made the butt of gay jokes, on “The Big Bang Theory”, or a Veronica, an Asian girlfriend cajoled into wearing a schoolgirl outfit to “impress” an Asian businessman, on “Dads”.

What is the harm?

In terms of sexuality, there’s a term that covers the problem for both Asian men and women: “yellow fever”, or Asian fetish. The colloquialism is exclusionary to some South Asian, Central Asian and Pacific Islander ethnicities, but it’s an unfortunately popular bit of shorthand (a complicated issue when dealing with such a sweeping term as “Asian”). The concept regards non-Asian men fetishizing Asian women, and why this subject is so problematic has to do with the aforementioned history of racial stereotyping. While I certainly take no issue with aesthetic sexual preferences, this form of fetish takes on a dimension of sexism and racism that certainly sets off alarm bells, as Audrey Zao of Xojane states:

The definition of sexual fetishes tend to relate to situations or objects causing a person arousal. When an entire race of women have become fetishes, it’s an extreme case of objectification.

Basically, a good example of this is that horrific, so-called music video “Asian Girlz”. This form of white privilege also assumes, automatically, that Asian men aren’t in the picture at all when it comes to heterosexual partnering. It’s not a leap to suggest that the litany of stereotyping in media informs this type of objectification, as the fetish in turn reinforces the media’s desire to sensationalize it, making an interesting story about the political, economic and social realities of a declining birthrate into a ridiculing and lurid story about asexual “otaku” and women uninterested in their only partnering option (implying a lack of alternatives such as same-sex relationships or, I guess, no white guys being around).

Additionally, such stereotyping prevents people from actually addressing the damaging nature of patriarchy in both the West and the East. The story of Asian sexual activity is reduced to heteronormative relationships within the gender binary and based within the narrow definitions of monogamy and procreation (not enough babies!), while simultaneously ignoring the economic and social realities such relationships face in a country like Japan.

It demonizes asexuality itself by equating it to being abnormal and a symptom of prolonged pre-adolescence (see: Otaku).

It demonizes other women, particularly white women, for having the gall to take advantage of feminist advances, well described by Jonathan Guarana of Thought Catalog:

The impact of the crumbling hyper-masculine identity from a white man’s perspective is disheartening. Therefore, where can he turn to regain this hegemonic masculine identity of power, control, and dominance? First, by hating white women and then specifically transitioning to ethnic groups where women are seen to still be submissive, passive, and obedient to men: Asian women.

It internalizes racism in its victims to such an extent that some Asian women parrot the same damaging messages that promote bigotry, and some Asian men begin to believe the rhetoric within themselves. Worse than that, some Asian men become resentful, resorting to using this as an excuse to indulge in their own misogyny and racism.

It excuses the patriarchal norms in many Asian societies with the implicit support from some white men in their preference for “submissive” women, and when the privileged white West is called to the carpet about its own issues with misogyny, it’s all too easy for apologists to turn around and use Asian cultures as a comparative prop to deflect from their own pervasively misogynistic cultures as Jenny Lee at Hyphen Magazine writes regarding her own experience with a rape apologist’s reading of the UN’s eye-opening report about sexual assault in Asian countries:

So it’s contemptible and oh-so-hypocritical when some Americans misuse news like the UN report in order to blame “Other” men — lately, Asian men — to feel better about themselves while willfully refusing to take a long, hard look at our own backyard

And finally, the tropes also negatively affect interracial partners who pursue caring, mutually respectful relationships. Christine Tam at Diaspora @chinaSmack reveals:

When I started feeling attracted to the man who is now my boyfriend, I hesitated for a long time before acting on my feelings. He was a wonderful man who respected me and made me laugh, but I had reservations about joining the interracial relationship cliché. Another white guy with an Asian girl, I thought. No!

When the culture is so heavily saturated with this form of sexual/racial politics, it may be confusing to assess how many of your choices are really your own. Guilt and outside pressure, such as being labeled as someone who has “white fever”, makes dealing with it on a personal level a terrific mess. Or for the less acutely self-aware, it can lead to lashing out against critics of the current paradigm.

It would do well for those who call themselves journalists to take a beat or two and ACTUALLY THINK about the story they intend on posting when it comes to drawing wild conclusions about different cultures, especially in the implications of what it means historically. It’s also important for those of us saturated in an institutionally racist society to be self-aware when consuming media, to combat as many of these damage-dealing tropes and stereotypes as possible. As much as it’s fun to entertain the notion, K-Pop likely won’t fix the problem on its own.

Mike Nam is a writer, and editor from New Jersey, a volunteer with CFI-New York, and the organizer of the Secular Asian Community on Facebook. His biggest professional thrill is still the time he received fan letters for a video game cheats newsletter he wrote a decade-and-a-half ago. While an unabashed nerd, he’s been known to indulge in sports and outdoor activities from time to time. He also occasionally blogs at humanstellstories.wordpress.com.

The opinions in this piece are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of the Center for Inquiry or the Secular Asian Community.

[guest post] Japan's Not Doing Sex! An Intersection of Racism and Sexism

(How) Should We Call Out Online Bigotry? On "Somebody Said Something Stupid Syndrome"

Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Ben Yagoda has a post called, “Must Attention Be Paid?” In it, he describes what he called “Somebody Said Something Stupid Syndrome,” or “SSSSS”:

SSSSS (as I abbreviate it) begins when an individual writes or is recorded as saying something strikingly venal, inhumane, and/or dumb. The quote is then taken up and derided—in social media or blogs—by thousands and sometimes tens of thousands of other individuals. And then it spreads from there.

If you’ve ever seen the roundups of racist tweets that inevitably follow when a person of color does something awesome, or the exposes of shit some crappy pickup artist said, then you’ve witnessed SSSSS in action.

Although Yagoda eventually walks his opinion back somewhat after experiencing SSSSS in his own offline community, he initially takes a firm stance against it:

First, we only have so much space in our brains and time in our days, and there are more important things to spend them on. Second is the junior-high-school teacher’s wisdom: “Don’t pay attention to them. You’ll only encourage them.” Finally, SSSSS is rhetorically weak. It’s not so much an example of the straw-man fallacy—since someone actually said the stupid statement—as the ultimate in anecdotal evidence. The fact that you’ve found some number of people who said a horrible thing proves nothing beyond that those people said that thing. (Of course, when you find a big number of people–or people in power–who have said it, you’ve started to prove something important, and I will pay attention.)

As for why SSSSS is so pervasive, Yagoda gives two reasons: one, that the internet makes stupid statements so much easier to witness, and two, “all the bloggers and posters need something to blog and post about, and Something Stupid Somebody Said (SSSS) would seem to be perfect fodder. All the more so when it confirms one’s worst imaginings about one’s ideological opponents.”

I think Yagoda’s argument (in its pre-walked back state) has both merits and…demerits? I guess that’s the opposite of a merit. I’ll talk about the demerits first.

First of all, assuming that bloggers and journalists as a whole only cover this stuff because they want pageviews displays a lack of imagination (or theory of mind, for the psychologically inclined).

Could it be that they cover it because they find it interesting, relevant, and important? That Yagoda seemingly doesn’t does not mean that nobody else does.

Second, the junior-high-school teacher’s wisdom largely fails in this case. It’s a common belief that people say terrible things because they want the opprobrium that they inevitably receive. Maybe some people do, but most people’s reaction to censure and scorn is to feel, well, bad. That’s how the human brain works. Rejection hurts, even when it’s by a group you despise or a computer, and even when you’re profiting financially from it!

One piece of evidence for this is that the bigoted tweets/Facebook posts/whatever that get strongly called out online often get deleted very soon after that. If the people who post them are just looking for massive amounts of attention, why would they delete the posts just as they’re starting to attract that attention?

(Further, the fact that they get deleted is actually a direct positive result of SSSSS. Fewer shitty posts means that fewer people will be harmed by them, and fewer bigoted norms will be implicitly enforced.)

Even when SSSSS does not stop any bigotry, though, it might still be better than the alternative that Yagoda proposes, which is ignoring the stupid stuff–that is, doing nothing. Folks, nobody will hear you loudly doing nothing about bigotry. Nobody will care that you determinedly, passionately shrugged and closed the browser tab and moved on. The best case scenario of this is that trolls will keep trolling and bigots will keep bigoting.

The best case scenario of speaking up is that you change minds. The good-but-not-best case scenario is that you don’t necessarily change any minds, but the bigot will stop posting bigotry because they’ll realize they’ll be hated for it. And others won’t see that bigotry and either be hurt OR assume that it’s okay and they can do it too.

Third, this: “we only have so much space in our brains and time in our days, and there are more important things to spend them on” seems like a facile argument. People choose what to spend their time and brainspace on. Maybe this topic is not important to Yagoda, but it’s important to other people. I don’t understand how some people spend hours of their week watching sports or memorizing pi to however many digits, but the fact that I think those things are not important (to me) does not mean they are globally unimportant.

Also, it takes two minutes to read an article about something bigoted someone said. That is, all in all, an utterly negligible amount of time even for the busiest of us. But if it’s not important to you, by all means, don’t waste your time on it!

In short, I’m okay with Yagoda saying that this is not important to him and therefore he won’t spend time on it. I’m not okay with Yagoda saying that this is not important period, and therefore nobody should read or write about these things or pay any attention to them at all.

Fourth: “Of course, when you find a big number of people–or people in power–who have said it, you’ve started to prove something important, and I will pay attention.” The fact that Yagoda does not believe that the examples he listed are commonplace and not merely anecdotal really says something. Namely, that he probably hasn’t been listening very much to the people who are targeted by these types of bigotry. He probably also hasn’t been reading the academic research on it, which suggests that these types of bigotry are very common.

People who choose to be “skeptical” (read: hyperskeptical) that bigotry exists and is worth discussing tend to keep raising the standard of “evidence” they’d need to believe us. One racist comment or allegation of sexual assault isn’t enough to show that there’s a problem, sure. How about dozens? How about hundreds? How about every woman and person of color experiences little acts of bigotry based on their gender and/or race, all the time, for their whole lives? What happens online is just one piece of that puzzle.

Fifth, Yagoda does not acknowledge the fact that many people flat-out deny that such bigotry still exists until they see evidence (and even then they sometimes try to explain it away). When I post online about some sexist or homophobic thing I’ve been targeted by, even among my progressive friends there’s usually at least one person who comments with something like “wow I can’t believe someone would say this! it’s the 21st century wow!” Yes, it is, but yes, they did.

Anti-racist Doge to the rescue!
And while Yagoda acts like every time people post one of these things, everyone unanimously comments “wow much stupid such dumb so racism,” that’s not the case at all. People disagree that it’s a big deal, that it’s “really” bigotry, that it’s worth talking about. A common refrain (which Yagoda echoes here) is to call it “stupid” rather than “bigoted,” as in, “Oh, they’re not racist, they’re just being stupid.” What? Okay. They’re being stupid in a racist way, then. That better?

Not talking about bigotry, whether it’s slight or severe, only serves two purposes: making bigots more comfortable and preventing anything from changing. Those are the only two. Bigots do not magically become not-bigots just because we don’t pay attention to them. There are better and worse ways of talking about bigotry, but not talking about it is not an option we should choose.

All of that said, Yagoda makes some good points. First of all, if indeed anyone is engaging in linkbaiting, they should stop. Linkbaiting is, as I’ve written here before, condescending and harmful. Write about bigotry because you think it’s important to write about, not (primarily) to draw pageviews.

Second, “confirm[ing] one’s worst imaginings about one’s ideological opponents” is a problem that I see, too. Folks on all sides of the political spectrum often have trouble seeing their ideological opponents as anything other than an unadulterated identical mass of poop (blame the outgroup homogeneity effect). Sometimes I’ll post something about someone’s abhorrent views and someone will respond with “Oh yeah well I bet they oppose abortion too!” or “I bet they don’t even think people should have food stamps!” Sometimes this is accurate, but often it is not. Political beliefs do fall into broad categories, but they can also be very nuanced. People can support comprehensive sex education and oppose abortion. They can oppose abortion and the death penalty. They can support abortion generally as a legal right, but forbid their child from getting one. They might oppose government spending on one social program but support it for another one. And so on.

Talking trash about terrible people can be a way to let off steam, and I’d never tell people they shouldn’t do it because it’s not my place to tell people how to respond to their oppression. However, talking about bigotry is more useful than talking about bigots, not least because it’s more generalizable. Discussing a picture of someone in a horrible blackface Trayvon Martin costume (TW) isn’t just an opportunity to make fun of a racist person; it can be a way to teach people about why blackface is racist, why the murder of Trayvon and the outcome of Zimmerman’s trial was racist, and so on. (Related: what vlogger Jay Smooth refers to as having the “what they did” conversation rather than the “what they are” conversation.)

It’s important, I think, to expand the conversation beyond the original incident or tweet or soundbite that sparked it. If it really were just about a few teenagers posting racist shit on Twitter, that would still be a problem, but it wouldn’t be as big of a problem as the fact that they did it because our culture taught them that racism.

However, I don’t think it’s the case, as Yagoda implies, that most people who participate in SSSSS are just doing it to be like “LOL look at the stupid people LOL.” At least, that’s not what I see. We want to have these complex discussions.

There are actually two other issues with SSSSS that Yagoda does not mention. One is that the people called out are often teenagers, and their full names get spread all over the internet. While I’m not especially sympathetic to people who post terribly bigoted things online, is it fair for someone to be unable to get into college or get a job because of something they said when they were 14? I’m not sure.

The other issue is much more complex, and is best discussed not by me, but by blogger david brothers, who refers to racism-related SSSSS as “passive white supremacy” and explains why:

The racism this story depicts is binary. It’s on or off, is you is or is you ain’t this racist, and that encourages the idea that racism isn’t something you personally do or are. It’s something other people do. You don’t do that, right? So you aren’t racist!

But any colored folk can tell you that’s not how racism works. Everybody is a little racist. There are hundreds of learned reactions to different groups of people to unlearn, not to mention the areas of society where racist sentiment is implicit instead of explicit, like zoning laws or the prison industrial complex or the war on drugs. It’s in all of us. We’re gonna have to live with that racism until we fix it and our selves, and viewing racism as a binary personality choice doesn’t allow for that.

Clearly there’s a lot more nuance here than either “calling out random people’s bigotry is always good” or “calling out random people’s bigotry is never good.” Yagoda himself writes in his piece how he ended up protesting a neighbor’s racist Halloween decoration. However, he does not elaborate on how his thinking about SSSSS evolved, or whether he only considers his own action reasonable because it happened offline as opposed to online.

Hopefully, as online activism evolves, discussions about how to respond to bigotry will become even more complex and fruitful. But what I don’t want is for criticism of the way some people handle these things to become an excuse for (or an endorsement of) doing nothing. Doing nothing is not an acceptable solution.

(How) Should We Call Out Online Bigotry? On "Somebody Said Something Stupid Syndrome"

Intent: Just How Magic Is It?

There’s a saying in the progressive community that intent isn’t fucking magic. It comes from this fabulously snarky post about how not intending to hurt someone doesn’t magically keep them from being hurt.

“Intent is not magic” is one of those simple, catchy phrases we use to get a point across, kind of like “consent is sexy” or “the personal is political.” Like all simple, catchy phrases, it does a great job of creating and perpetuating a meme, but not so great a job of explaining a concept or situation in its full complexity. Luckily, for that we have blog posts!

There is, obviously, lots of truth to the claim that intent is not magic. If something harmful you do accidentally–such as the example used in the blog post, outing a trans person–has consequences for the person you did it to, that person has to deal with those consequences whether you meant to do the thing or not.

But where “intent is not magic” really comes into play with regard to social justice is when people try to use intent as a get-out-of-bigotry-free card. That is, they think that because they didn’t mean that joke to be sexist, it magically isn’t anymore. Because they didn’t mean to be homophobic when they referred to a crappy party as “gay,” then they magically weren’t being homophobic.

When it comes to bigotry, intent doesn’t really factor into it very much. There are Twitter accounts that collect tweets of people literally going “I’m not racist but I just don’t like black people” or “I’m not sexist but women are stupid.” Racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry are more about which ideas you believe in and which structures you support than they are about how you would personally classify your beliefs and actions.

When you say or do something bigoted (intentionally or otherwise) and hurt someone, they’re often hurt not because they think you meant to hurt them, but because what you’ve said or done is just another in a long series of reminders of their place in the world–some more malicious or severe than others, but all microaggressions that research shows have tangible health consequences.

But doesn’t intent make a difference sometimes? After all, I’d feel much better if my friend forgot to come to my birthday party by mistake or because they were taking a sick friend to the hospital rather than because they didn’t want to come but didn’t care enough to change their RSVP. I’d be much more okay with a friend borrowing a dress and ripping it by accident as opposed to on purpose. Saying something that triggers me because you don’t realize it’s a trigger for me is different from triggering me on purpose.

Intent matters a lot for one particular thing: judging someone’s character. Yes, a person who is deliberately, unabashedly racist is probably a “worse” person (whoever you measure that) than someone who says something racist because they’ve never learned that it’s racist. It’s much worse to trigger someone on purpose than to do it accidentally.

The thing is, though, that your character is rarely what’s up for discussion in these situations, and making the discussion all about you and your character is counterproductive, not to mention egotistical.

When someone says something bigoted, what I want to discuss is why it was hurtful, how it props up bigotry, and how you can learn enough not to do something like that in the future. I don’t want to discuss your character or what’s in your heart of hearts. Unless someone proves themselves to be a crappy person–say, by calling me a cunt or telling me that I’m probably a feminist because I’m too ugly to get laid–I generally assume that most people are decent people. That happens to be one of my beliefs about the world. But it’s not really relevant. You can be a decent person and be wrong about gender or race, just like you can be a decent person and be wrong about how evolution works or why the sky is blue.

It’s definitely the case that many people will be less upset if you say something bigoted to them out of ignorance rather than out of malice. But it’s important to keep in mind that once the person is already upset, they’re already upset. At that point, the best thing to do is to apologize and seek understanding of what you did, not provide them with a complete audit of your intentions and how not-bad they were. You can, if you’d like, embed your not-bad intentions within your apology: “I had no idea that was so hurtful and didn’t mean to say something homophobic, but I understand why you’re hurt by it and I’m sorry.”

You know how they say that you can’t talk someone into loving you? You also can’t talk someone out of being upset with you, unless that talking includes some concrete steps on your part to make amends for what happened. “You shouldn’t be upset because I didn’t mean it that way” isn’t going to cut it.

Note, again, that not meaning to say something homophobic does not mean you haven’t said something homophobic. Just like not meaning to break a nice vase doesn’t mean it’s not broken.

On a similar note, not intending to hurt someone is different from intending not to hurt them. If someone accidentally breaks my nice vase, I might be glad in the back of my mind that they didn’t do it on purpose, but I might still be annoyed that they weren’t being careful around my nice vase, especially if they are often clumsy and break people’s things by accident. The analogy holds up for saying/doing bigoted things, too. People who say/do them rarely do so just once.

I’m not going to respect you just for not meaning to say hurtful things. That’s one of those bare-minimum-of-being-a-decent-human-being things. Actively seeking information on how not to be hurtful, on the other hand, is a rarer and more important habit to have.

Arguing about intent distracts from the more important conversation. Don’t turn these conversations into referendums on whether or not you are a good person. Personally, I think you are, or else I wouldn’t be trying to have those conversations with you to begin with.

Intent can make a difference sometimes, but it’s not magic.

Intent: Just How Magic Is It?