The Importance of Naming Bigotry

Over and over again this conversation happens:

“Anyone who voted for Trump is racist and sexist.”

“Well, you’re never going to convince them of anything if you call them that.”

Leaving aside the fact that not everyone particularly cares at this point about convincing them of anything or thinks that’s even possible, this conversation is unproductive because the people in it are talking past each other.

The fact that we acknowledge that Trump voters are racist and sexist doesn’t mean we have to open a discussion with one of them by announcing that they are racist and sexist, and the fact that we may use different language to try to engage with Trump voters doesn’t mean that we have to abandon a potentially crucial theoretical framework in our own heads and spaces. You can think something without saying it out loud in a particular situation.

Personally, I don’t care a whole lot about which words we happen to call Trump voters; what we call them for the purposes of our own internal conversations doesn’t change what they do and what they believe. As I discussed in my last post, right-wingers have made their beliefs about various social groups abundantly clear, and whichever words you chose to use to describe those beliefs, they are still out there, and still affecting public policy and group behavior in measurable, observable, and harmful ways.

However, I think that words like “racist” and “sexist” are appropriate descriptors for Trump voters for two reasons: 1) the majority of them would endorse statements that easily fit the definitions of those words, such as “Black people are more dangerous than white people” and “Women aren’t fit to be president”; and 2) even those who would not endorse those statements still voted for the most openly bigoted presidential candidate in modern American history, who has stated an intent to harm marginalized people in multiple ways.

Racism and sexism aren’t just about beliefs. They’re also about behaviors. Someone who truly believes in racial equality but for whatever reason refuses to hire people of color to work at their company is acting in a racist way. Someone who doesn’t care one way or the other about race but helps elect someone who repeatedly states an intent to violate the civil rights of particular racial groups is also acting in a racist way. I get that it’s difficult to think of your actions as having consequences when elections are decided by millions of votes, but the fact that millions of people are equally responsible doesn’t mean you aren’t.

One of the few things I think that the edgy white liberal thinkpieces are getting right is that, indeed, screaming “You’re sexist!” at a Trump voter probably won’t make them change their minds about their sexism or about voting for Trump. Thankfully, nobody has seriously suggested that it would; believe it or not, the people of color and women who have been writing about this problem for years have much more nuanced suggestions than that.

The problem with screaming “You’re sexist!” at Trump voters is threefold: 1) screaming at people usually causes them to shut down and stop learning, which is why I don’t recommend it in any situation that is meant to be educational; 2) labeling someone’s behavior “sexist” doesn’t actually tell them what they did wrong or what you would like them to do differently; and 3) if you do use it as a jumping-off point to explain what exactly they did wrong and what you would like them to do differently, you probably won’t get anywhere because they probably disagree that those things are wrong.

For instance, I’ve been in arguments with conservatives about Black Lives Matter and our criminal justice system in which I would claim that the system is racist because it disproportionately targets people of color, especially Black men, as potential criminals and treats them more harshly than others. The conservative would respond that that’s because people of color, especially Black men, are much more likely to be criminals. I would point to data that show that there is overall no racial difference in criminal activity; that whites are actually more likely to commit certain crimes; that the data that shows that Black people are more likely to commit crimes is based on convictions and it’s also been shown that they are more likely to get accused and convicted (including falsely) in the first place and etc etc etc. And the conservative would say that that data is just liberal propaganda and that everyone obviously knows that Black people are simply more dangerous than white people, so I should be thanking our brave police forces for keeping me safe from them. I would point out that in our country it’s supposed to be unconstitutional to execute a criminal, actual or suspected, on the street without a trial. They shrug and say that sometimes bad things happen and I can’t let that get to me.

(These experiences, plus research about persuasion, have convinced me that there’s literally no point in arguing with someone by presenting them with factual evidence they disagree with.)

If you define “racism” to someone and they disagree that it’s a bad thing, then obviously you’re not going to get anywhere by telling them that they did something racist. If they do think it’s a bad thing, they’ll just waste your time arguing about how what they said or did isn’t actually racist and that they “don’t have a racist bone in their body.”

(While it’s plausible that calling Trump voters sexist and racist will just reinforce their belief that liberals look down on them and hate them, contrary to the thinkpiece du jour, I don’t think that this is what literally created the systems of sexism and racism in this country. I’m pretty sure the transatlantic slave trade predated significantly.)

None of this means that we shouldn’t consider them sexist and racist. As I also discussed in my previous post, sugarcoating, euphemizing, or simply ignoring conservatives’ beliefs about various social groups is not going to be helpful in defeating their ideology. You may choose not to come at a Trump voter accusing them of hating women, but you need to keep in the back of your head the fact that they would probably endorse lots and lots and lots of sexist statements–or at least not be very bothered by them.

If we acknowledge that Trump supporters are racist and sexist and just about every other kind of -ist, that changes our behavior and predictions in a few ways. First of all, that informs us what Trump can and can’t get away with. Friends of mine have joked that after all of these allegations–sexual assault, fraud, tax evasion, and so on–the only thing Trump could do that would actually lose him a significant number of supporters is come out in support of Black Lives Matter. Obviously that’s not going to happen, and it’s also clear that just about anything he does to target marginalized people, no matter how flagrant, will be met with either tacit approval or open celebration by his supporters.

If we assume that Trump supporters endorse many bigoted beliefs, then we cannot appeal to their better natures to stop him. It seems that so far, Trump voters who regret their choice regret it mostly because he has not tried to imprison Hillary Clinton and because his fellow Republicans are hoping to dismantle Medicare.

Second, when it does come to engaging with Trump supporters, awareness of their bigotry can help you choose the best approach. Nothing he has said about women, people of color, or other marginalized people will be relevant. It won’t be like talking left-wingers out of supporting Hillary Clinton. You will have to show how Trump is a threat to the sorts of American values they do hold dear, such as free speech and relatively unregulated markets.

Third, acknowledging the bigotry of the Republican base is, honestly, a vital self-care tactic for marginalized people. Over and over we have been told that it’s not that, it’s that they love Jesus and want to spread his love, it’s that they’re worried about their taxes, it’s that they want to see their values reflected in our culture just like anyone else would, it’s that they want their jobs back, it’s that the Democrats have ignored their needs, it’s that globalism has shut down their factories so of course they’d be against trade agreements, it’s that some of these immigrants are probably bad people so naturally we should vet them carefully, it’s that the police have very stressful jobs so you can’t blame them for freaking out sometimes, it’s that Jesus was persecuted for his beliefs and so are they, it’s that marriage is supposed to be for procreation, it’s that if you work hard you won’t be poor or homeless, it’s that if you do something sinful like have premarital sex it’s only fair that you should have to face the consequences, it’s that fetuses are living babies, it’s that they miss the way things used to be when everyone knew their place and nobody asked for more than what they got, it’s anything but the fact that they simply believe that men are better than women, white people are better than non-white people, and LGBTQ people are disgusting abominations altogether.

And almost all of us, to a person, grew up with that awful buzzing voice in the backs of our minds: What if it’s me? What if I’m the problem? What if I’m disgusting, sinful, ugly, criminal, dangerous, lazy, stupid, sick? What if I’m a bitch, an outsider, a slut, an animal? What if I deserve everything they’ve done to me, and everything they still intend to do?

The reason marginalized people have been so adamant about naming Trump and his supporters for who they are isn’t because we still have much hope that they’ll feel even a twinge of shame, but because naming them for who they are is how we survive them.

Naming bigots as bigots allows us to stop blaming ourselves for our own oppression. And as soon as we’re able to direct blame outward rather than inward, we become able to fight it.

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The Importance of Naming Bigotry

How We Justify Shaming, Harassment, and Abuse

[Content note: online harassment]

Usually when we tell people not to do bad things, such as threatening feminist writers with rape or telling them to kill themselves, we emphasize that these things are bad to do because they’re bad to do, not because of who we’re doing them to. You shouldn’t threaten me with rape for writing this blog post because threatening people with rape is a monstrous thing to do, not because I am right and my blog post is correct. Even if my blog post were completely wrong and even if I was kind of a crappy person, threatening me with rape would still be wrong.

But of course, because human beings are human beings, these principles often fly right out the window when we’re angry, frustrated, disempowered, or simply annoyed. Yeah, sure, verbally abusing people online and violating their privacy is generally wrong, but this person is really bad. This person’s ideas are wrong and they need to stop saying them. This person hurt someone I care about, so they deserve this. This isn’t even a real privacy violation, because that information was out there anyway. It’s not abusive to say something that’s just true. It’s not like there’s anything else I can do in this situation. I was really angry so you can’t really blame me for doing this.

Spend enough time among humans in groups–so, maybe a few hours or days–and pay attention, and you’ll notice enough of these rhetorical devices to make your head spin. One recent one that has my brain hurting concerns Amy Pascal, a former Sony chairperson whose emails and other private info were leaked last fall when hackers stole thousands of documents from Sony, which subsequently ended up on Wikileaks.

Considering that this happened so soon after that ridiculous celebrity nude photo leak last summer, you would think that most people would treat something like this pretty seriously. They didn’t. It turns out that Amy Pascal made racist comments about President Obama in her emails, which I think we can all agree she shouldn’t have done regardless of whether or not she had any idea it could ever be public.

However, that someone has done a bad thing doesn’t then make it okay to do bad things to them in retribution. Certain consequences are, I think, appropriate, depending on what the bad thing was. Sometimes people lose their jobs for saying racist things, which (unlike many people) I think is okay. In a multicultural society and workforce, saying racist things makes you a worse employee than someone who is otherwise just like you but does not say racist things. A company that allows employees who say racist things to continue working there is going to eventually alienate a substantial portion of its customers or clients, and so it is in that company’s best interest to fire employees who say racist things.

Likewise, sometimes people lose friends when they say racist things. I think that’s also appropriate. Everyone deserves to decide for themselves who they do and do not want to be friends with. If I don’t want to be friends with people who say racist things, and you say racist things, then I will stop being your friend. Not only am I personally angered and irritated by racism, but I can’t be friends with someone that I can’t trust not to mistreat my friends of color. (And yes, making “racially charged comments,” as they’re known, is mistreatment.)

But is it okay to publish someone’s personal information because they’ve said a racist thing? Is it okay to shame them in a sexist way? Is it okay to specifically go out of your way to publicly embarrass them about something that has literally nothing to do with the racist things they said?

I don’t think so.

But that’s exactly what Jezebel did to Amy Pascal when they published her leaked Amazon purchases along with “snarky” commentary, shaming her for the personal care/hygiene products she chose to use.

Screenshot from Jezebel

I think we can all agree that this doesn’t add to the conversation. It doesn’t undo any harm done by Pascal’s racist comments or teach anyone why they were wrong. It doesn’t hold her accountable for them in any way. It doesn’t accomplish anything. It reminds me of a bunch of middle school girls publicly shaming and bullying another girl because they found tampons in her locker or because they found out that she bleaches the hair on her upper lip. It’s completely pointlessly cruel and Pascal did nothing to deserve it.

Jessica Roy writes at NYMag:

The problem with this genre of commentary is that it celebrates a gut-level delight in the same sort of invasion of privacy that drove Redditors to distribute those nude celebrity photos: Exposing people’s secrets — especially powerful people’s secrets — doesn’t just make us feel good, it makes us feel powerful. And though the Sony leaks show Pascal made hundreds of Amazon orders, the highlighted products seemed picked exclusively to humiliate a woman for attempting to stay young in an industry that demands it. Surely writing about Scott Rudin ordering a bottle of Rogaine wouldn’t have packed the same punch. This doesn’t mean women can’t and shouldn’t critique other women. But humiliating a woman based on her body — whether it’s the private photos she took or the products she ordered — seems like overkill.

In a piece about doxxing “for good,” Ijeoma Oluo has a similar take on this analogous issue:

Freedom of speech also comes with accountability for that speech — but doxxing isn’t about accountability, it’s about silencing. Techniques designed to intimidate people out of the public sphere are wrong, no matter who is doing it. Deciding that we will not stoop to their level and that we will not risk innocent people does not fix racism, sexism, homophobia and the like, but it helps us protect the ideals that we are fighting for.

[…] Harassment and threats must be recognized as the crimes they are, whether they come from MRAs or from overzealous anti-racists. You’ve got to be vigilant in condemning harassment, just as you should if you witness it in the street. We need to stop making excuses for people who get joy from instilling fear in others.

The connection between these two things might not be readily apparent. Should we really compare leaking someone’s beauty regimen with threatening them with violence or doxxing their address? I would argue that we should. Both of these things get justified with claims that the target is such a bad person that they deserve this treatment. But of course, as Oluo points out, innocent people get hit with the splash damage all the time.

I think the problem goes beyond that. If we make a rule that says, “Doxxing/abuse/harassment/threats/shaming is okay when the target did something really bad,” then everyone gets to interpret “really bad” for themselves, and you may not like that interpretation. For instance, there are people online who earnestly believe that I am a threat to their livelihood and to the continued functioning of our society. Many MRAs also believe that feminists pose a serious and imminent threat to their physical safety. Surely by their standards I have done plenty of “really bad” things, such as writing widely read articles about feminism.

I cannot overstate the importance of pointing out that they really believe this. They’re not just saying it to get some sort of Points online. They’re not lying. (At least, not all of them.) They believe this as truly and completely as I believe that inequality exists and must be fixed, that there is no god, that I love my friends and family.

Think about your strongest convictions and how real, how powerful your belief in them is. Now, imagine that someone believes with an equal conviction that I am (or you are) a terrible person who poses a threat to them and to everything they love and care about. Imagine that we have all spent years cheerfully promoting the idea that “Doxxing/abuse/harassment/threats/shaming is okay when the target did something really bad.”

Now try to reason this person out of threatening me or you with death or worse. Try to convince them that if they obtain access to our silly Amazon purchases or private emails, they shouldn’t post them online. Try to convince them that if they have information that could destroy our lives if made public, they should keep it to themselves.

This is why I don’t feel safe in online spaces that promote doxxing, abuse, harassment, threats, or shaming against anyone, no matter how much I fucking despise the person they’re doing it to.

If doxxing/etc is ever okay, then it is always okay. Because if it is ever okay, then we will find ways to justify it in any situation we want. We will always be able to point to someone’s racist emails or tweets. We will always be able to show that they really really hurt someone we care about. We will always be able to claim that the internet would be better off if this person just disappeared from it.

I don’t know what to do about doxxing, quite honestly. I don’t. Sometimes doxxing is the last resort of people who are themselves extremely unsafe and have no idea what else to do. Sometimes doxxing happens because the authorities and the websites where abuse takes place continually refuse to take these issues seriously and address them and help keep people from having their lives wrecked. Why the fuck did it have to take doxxing to stop someone from posting “creepshots” of underage women on Reddit? This sort of thing makes me want to curl up in bed and just scream “what the fuck” and “I don’t know” over and over. I have no answers about this.

But nobody was in danger because Amy Pascal’s Amazon purchases had not been made public. Whatever brief rush of glee that article’s author and readers experienced as a result does not justify the violation of someone’s privacy. The fact that doxxing and shaming and all of that may, in some fringe cases (I said may) be a necessary evil doesn’t mean we now have license to use it recklessly and constantly.

It is so easy and tempting–and seductive, really–to lash out at someone who’s made you angry or upset. It’s easy, too, to justify it to people who already agree with you by telling them how angry or upset you were. But ethical behavior isn’t just for situations when you’re feeling calm and happy. It’s also for the situations when you’re angry and upset. It’s especially for those situations, because when we are calm and happy, we usually need little encouragement to do the right thing.

It is true that taking the high road doesn’t necessarily mean that we “win,” whatever winning even means. It won’t necessarily keep us safe. People will still threaten to rape and kill me because I’m a feminist.

But the more we encourage people to think of this behavior as inherently wrong rather than wrong only in cases where we don’t personally dislike the target or think they did something bad that makes them deserve it, then the more other people will call out this behavior when it happens. The more people call it out, the less socially acceptable it will be. The less socially acceptable it is, the greater the social costs of doing it, which means that the more likely it will be that people who do it will face real consequences, such as getting banned from Twitter or losing their job or losing friends.

And the more people face real consequences for doing these things, the less these things will happen. Not only to the people you hate, but also to the people you love.

How We Justify Shaming, Harassment, and Abuse

Stop Telling Jessica Williams What To Do

In a Daily Dot piece, I wrote about why people (looking at you especially, white feminists) need to stop telling Jessica Williams what to do and diagnosing her with things.

For many fans of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, disappointment at the news that Jon Stewart will soon be stepping down as host was overshadowed almost immediately by excitement at the idea that 25-year-old Jessica Williams, the show’s youngest-ever correspondent, might take over. A petition asking Comedy Central to hire her as hostquickly gathered over 14,000 signatures.

Williams responded graciously, thanking her fans for their support but letting them know that she will not be hosting the program:

At that point, everyone collectively said “Aw, too bad, can’t wait to see more of your work!” and left Williams alone. I’m joking, obviously. That’s not what happened, because if there’s anything we love to do in our society, it’s telling women—especially women of color—what to do. Bonus points if we demand that they perform for us the way we want them to. Instead, Ester Bloom wrote a piece for the Billfold in which she armchair-diagnosed Williams with “impostor syndrome,” what Bloom describes as “a well-documented phenomenon in which men look at their abilities vs the requirements of a job posting and round up, whereas women do the same and round down, calling themselves ‘unqualified.'” Bloom argued that Williams was displaying “clear symptoms” of the syndrome and that she should get to “the best Lean In group of all time.” Williams responded on Twitter:

To her credit, Bloom then apologized, adding to her post:

I wanted to state officially and for the record, as I have on Twitter, that I was wrong. I was offensive and presumptuous; I messed up, and I’m sorry. Williams should not have had to deal with this shit: my calling her a “victim” of anything, my acting like I know better and could diagnose her with anything, all of it.

So what happened here? How did Bloom go so self-admittedly wrong?

Read the rest here.

Stop Telling Jessica Williams What To Do

The Context of the Thing

[Content note: sexual harassment/assault, victim blaming, racism, police brutality, homophobia, fat shaming]

Many debates in the realm of social justice and politics are debates about context. In what context are certain things said, and can those things ever be divorced from that context? Should they ever be?

Take this Facebook post, made by a New York coffee shop I had heretofore found entirely satisfactory:

A Facebook post by The Bean, including a photo of a NYPD police car and a caption, "Thank you NYPD for protecting our great city."
Image description: a Facebook post by The Bean, including a photo of a NYPD police car and a caption, “Thank you NYPD for protecting our great city.”


What is so irritating about this post is the plausible deniability. Surely, a Manhattan coffee shop could just post this image apropos of nothing, perhaps in the holiday spirit, to express gratitude towards the city’s police force. It could just be a matter of city pride; certainly we all like it when there is as little crime as possible. And so on and so forth.

But why post this image now? Why would a coffee shop that has posted nothing but photos, comics, and articles about coffee, store news, six posts about local events, and one cutesy article about Mother’s Day for the entirety of the year 2014 suddenly give a shout-out to the city police department?

I think I know why. But, of course, I can only speculate.

So it is with a lot of other statements that rankle, hurt, or even trigger. “What were you wearing?” Oh, sure, you could just be curious. After all, maybe it was my outfit and not my perceived gender that drew my harasser’s attention that night. Of course, you are very worried about me and just want to make sure that I’m being “smart.” You’re not thinking about the fact that that’s often the first question authorities ask us, and that fashion advice is the only kind of prevention they seem to be able to offer us. You’re not thinking about what happens to women whose outfits were deemed insufficiently preventative. Who helps those women? “Oh, I’m not saying it’s your fault,” you say. “I think anyone who does such a thing is wrong and bad and if it were up to me I would bring them to justice.” Would you? Okay, I’ll grant you that. But historically, that’s not what’s happened, is it?

“What about black-on-black crime?” Certainly it is a tragedy that so many young Black people die at each other’s hands, presumably because of gangs or drugs or one of those other scary things, and really, if a given group wants to stop dying, maybe they should stop killing each other. Never mind that the same ignorance that causes people to ask this question is the ignorance that keeps them from seeing everything that’s already being done, by Black people, to address this issue. Never mind that most white murder victims are killed by other white people, too, because people tend to be killed by those who are near to them and/or have some sort of relationship with them, and our neighborhoods and relationships are still very segregated. Never mind that “black-on-black crime” is a derailment from what is in my opinion a much more preventable issue–the fact that police around the country are killing Black people with virtually no consequences.

Yes, violent crime happens, especially in disadvantaged areas, and that is awful. But that the people tasked with “protecting” us, according to my local coffee shop, are murdering people, especially in a systematically racist way, deserves immediate attention and resolution, because a police officer who murders innocent people is an even greater threat to our society than an ordinary citizen who murders innocent people. Why? That should be obvious: cops have power, weapons, skills, and immunity that ordinary citizens do not. Law enforcement officials can do things like plant meth in the car of a woman who accused them of sexual harassment and then have her arrested on this country’s ridiculous drug laws.

“I don’t see anything wrong with gay people, I just don’t see why they have to be in my face about it.” No, you’re right. Perhaps you are a person who believes that sex, love, and relationships should be an entirely private matter. Maybe you’re uncomfortable when your coworker tells everyone about the vacation she’s planning for her and her husband’s anniversary. Maybe it turns your stomach to see free condoms handed out on your campus. Maybe you change the channel every time a guy and a girl kiss in a TV show and you don’t feel that it’s appropriate for children to see a man and a woman holding hands in public. But you don’t mention that because…maybe people would ridicule you for it, whereas publicly stating that gay couples gross you out is still socially acceptable. I don’t know.

Or maybe you have double standards for queer people versus straight people, and you believe that the things straight people get to do–hold hands and kiss in public, chat at work about their anniversary plans, see relationships like theirs on television, access the healthcare that they need–are not things that queer people get to do. Sometimes queer people are loud and in-your-face about being queer because they are fighting against the idea that they should have to be silent when straight people don’t have to be. Your casual remarks about “I just wish they’d keep it to themselves” are telling us to get back in the closet so you don’t have to be uncomfortable.

“Of course it’s wrong to hate people just because they’re fat, but they really need to lose some weight or else they’ll be unhealthy.” You may think that what you’re saying here is commendable. After all, you must really care about this person and have great concern for their wellbeing. Maybe you even have some helpful weight loss advice that totally worked for you. Really, they should be grateful that you’re trying to help them.

Okay, but the idea that “they really need to lose some weight or else they’ll be unhealthy” is the idea that causes people to hate them in the first place. If weight is perfectly correlated to health, and if losing weight is a possibility for everyone, then only those who do not care about their health would allow themselves to be fat, and only an irresponsible person who lacks self-control would refuse to care about their health. Such a person would not make a suitable employee, doctoral student, or partner, for instance. Such a person would be a bad influence for your children. And the idea that fatness is responsible for poor health 100% of the time keeps fat people from getting the medical care they need, because doctors assume that the problem must be their weight.

Plausible deniability is how all of these statements function. We are expected to take them entirely out of context, as isolated thoughts or ideas or feelings or beliefs that have nothing to do with what came before or what will come after, and nothing to do with the horrors that have been committed in their name. You asking me what I was wearing has nothing to do with the systematic refusal to believe and help people who have been harassed and assaulted. You innocently wondering about black-on-black crime has nothing to do with centuries of white-on-black crime, and with the casual dismissal of this crime, and with the fact that it has historically not been defined as a crime at all. You wishing that queer people wouldn’t shove their sexuality in your face has nothing to do with our erasure, metaphoric and sometimes literal. You patronizingly advising bigger people to get smaller has nothing to do with their mistreatment in all sorts of social contexts, including medical ones. Nothing at all!

But that’s not how communication works. If a celebrity becomes the center of a huge controversy and I post about my love for their films or music, that can and should be taken as a statement of support for that celebrity. If a business comes under fire for its practices or policies and I post about how I’m going to proudly patronize that business today, that can and should be taken as a statement of support for that business. (In fact, I once ended a friendship with someone who did this on the day the Chick-Fil-A homophobia thing went viral, and I do not regret it.) There is of course a chance that I had simply not heard of the controversy, but in that case, I should reconsider my support for this person or business once a friend helpfully comments and lets me know about what’s going on. And in most cases people do not do this.

So if you post about your gratitude to the NYPD right after one of its officers has once again gone unpunished for the cruel killing of a Black man, and as protests march right down the block where your coffee shop stands, that has a context, too.

I suppose it can feel like this is all a huge burden. Why shouldn’t you be able to just say what you think and feel without being held responsible for decades or centuries of terrible things done in the service of the beliefs that you are expressing? It’s true that what happened is not your responsibility, and every terrible thing done by people who believe the same things you believe is not your fault.

But that is why what you say hurts people, and that is why they warn you where your beliefs may logically lead. If what women wear has any relevance to their sexual violation, if black-on-black crime is more important and urgent than white-on-black racism, if queer people being open about themselves and their loves is so unpleasant for you, if fat people should lose weight before they are taken seriously–then that has implications for how we treat people and issues. If you take the time to listen to the voices of those most affected by these issues, you might see that these implications are just as horrifying to you as they are to us.

The Context of the Thing

Should We Outlaw Street Harassment?

I wrote a piece at the Daily Dot about a proposed ordinance that would make street harassment illegal.

Street harassment is dismally common–a recent study commissioned by the organization Stop Street Harassment found that 65 percent of the women surveyed had experienced it.

But up until recently, most strategies to stop harassment have focused on the victims. For example, the Hollaback app allows people who experience street harassment to document the incidents on a map, perhaps helping others avoid areas where lots of harassment occurs. And then there’s the usual, mostly-useless advice: don’t wear this, don’t do that, don’t walk alone.

However, that’s starting to change: some cities are adopting laws that attempt to criminalize street harassment. For example, a new proposed ordinance in Kansas City would make it illegal to purposefully frighten or injure a pedestrian or cyclist and lists a number of behaviors that would qualify, such as “threaten such person” and “place such person in apprehension of physical danger.”

It’s heartening that city officials are starting to take the issue of street harassment seriously. It’s a strain on individuals’ mental and physical health and creates a hostile, unwelcoming environment for women and gender non-conforming people whenever they leave their homes. Passing an ordinance that bans street harassment can send the message that this is wrong and will no longer be tolerated, thus indirectly helping to change the social norms that make street harassment so common.

But as much as I want to be optimistic about this, I’m not sure that these laws will be effective. For starters, enforcing them is probably impractical. Suppose you get harassed by someone on the street. You immediately call the police. They arrive. By then, the harasser is long gone. You give them a description. Now what? The likelihood that the police will prioritize locating a catcaller based on a physical description when there are so many other, more physically violent crimes to investigate seems low.

Moreover, we live in a society in which many people still insist that catcalls, even when made with a threatening tone and body language, are “compliments.” Such perceptions make a difference when it comes to law enforcement, even though many people still believe that police officers are objective enforcers of the law. (If the events in Ferguson haven’t changed their minds about that, I don’t know what will.)

Many sexual assault survivors report that the police refused to pursue their allegations. Some even intimidate or threaten the survivors to convince them to recant those allegations. Why wouldn’t this happen with street harassment claims, which most people probably take even less seriously than they take claims of sexual assault?

The wording of the proposed ordinance may not even include many instances of street harassment. Someone mumbling “nice tits, slut” while leering at a woman would not be breaking the proposed law. Someone saying “fuck you, cunt” when the woman walks away wouldn’t be breaking it, either, as long as they don’t make “loud or unusual sounds” in the process.

Read the rest here.

Should We Outlaw Street Harassment?

Flipping the Social Justice Script

Read enough opinion pieces and you’ll quickly begin to notice the tactic of script flipping. This is when someone takes a term or a type of language used by someone they disagree with and flip it to serve their own political agenda. They may appropriate terms directly and subtly shift their definitions, such as Christians who claim to have lost “religious freedom” when another group is gaining theirs. Or, they may create new terms that parallel others, such as “creep shaming” and “offense culture.”

Script flipping is a way to capitalize on the popularity of certain ways of analyzing particular issues in order to be taken more seriously or to provoke an emotional reaction in readers or listeners. For instance, “rape culture” has become a powerful way to express the complex tangle of factors that lead to high rates of sexual assault among disadvantaged groups. So, people who want to talk about something totally unrelated to rape culture (and probably not even real) may simply append “-culture” to the thing they’re criticizing, presumably hoping that that might cause more people to take it seriously.

The problem with script flipping isn’t necessarily the lack of originality, though some might take issue with that too. The problem is that the script flippers often don’t understand the original script very well, so they flip it in a direction that makes no sense, sometimes for the purpose of ridiculing the original script. As I’ll discuss, people who use terms like “female privilege” and “creep shaming” in earnest don’t seem to understand what is meant by “privilege” or what is meant by “creep” or “shaming.” The analysis falls flat, and everyone who hears the flipped script before understanding the original one ends up with a shallow conception of what people were trying to say in the first place.

The other problem is that it’s simply a bad argument most of the time. It’s an appeal to emotion, whether meant to irritate and hurt the creators of the original script, or to horrify and galvanize the target audience. What if I told you that free speech is being severely threatened on the internet, or that a particular religious group is being steadily denied the freedom to practice their religion in America? That sounds pretty bad. Well, what if I told you that the threat to free speech is bloggers moderating their comments, or that the religious group being denied freedom is Christians who are upset that classroom holiday celebrations must now mention Chanukah and Kwanzaa in addition to Christmas? Sounds a lot less dire now.

Social justice terms seem especially likely to be targeted by script flippers, perhaps because they can be difficult to understand (especially to those with the motivation to avoid understanding), they may sound silly to those unfamiliar with them, and, well, many people oppose social justice ideals.

These are just a few examples of script flipping:

Continue reading “Flipping the Social Justice Script”

Flipping the Social Justice Script

Why "Hipster Sexism" Fails

[Content note: sexual harassment & domestic violence]

My new post at the Daily Dot is about “hipster sexism/racism” in fashion.

It doesn’t surprise me at all when CEOs of major clothing retailers or famous celebrity photographers turn out to be harassing, intimidating, assaulting, or abusing women, because the same thing happens everywhere else: politicstech companies, sports, evenscience journalism. It happens everywhere a few select people are given excessive power and social capital, and those people are usually (but not always) men.

What the fashion industry does have, however, is a trend of “hipster sexism,” which can be defined roughly as people who hold nominally liberal views on things “pretending” to be sexist “ironically,” because sexism is totally over and so now it’s funny. The New Republic‘s Eleanor Margolis writes of Charney and Richardson:

The two men are emblematic of a hipster veneer that’s so often used to cover up the mistreatment of women… With their 1970s porn star aesthetic seems to come this notion that they’re only subjugating women ironically: we’ll carry on buying clothes from people who look like the result of Ron Jeremy humping a copy of Vice. Misogyny is OK, as long as it pastiches a bygone era of kitsch female subjugation; as long as it’s retro. These bizarre double standards are only serving to blur the lines…between sexism and chicness.

Margolis doesn’t note the fact that the hipster sexism in fashion also has a racist corollary, which Racialicious Thea Kim discusses at length. If you’ve stepped inside an Urban Outfitters or attended a music festival lately, you’re probably familiar with the trappings of hipster racism—that unmistakable “look at me I’m so over racism” chic that affluent young white folks are presumably going for when they wear blackface to a Halloween party or don a Native headdress to a concert.

Why do “ironic”/”hipster” sexism and racism hold such appeal for slightly left-leaning, “fashionable” young people? There’s an optimistic possibility and a cynical one. The optimistic one is that it allows people to perpetuate the comforting idea that inequality is now so passe that pretending at it is hilariously ludicrous. The cynical one is that it allows people to safely express the actual sexist and racist beliefs that they still hold while maintaining plausible deniability: ”No, you don’t understand, I was wearing that blackface ironically!”

Regardless, sexism and racism aren’t over; it’s only some of their most visible and iconic components that have mostly disappeared from our society. When a dude jokes “ironically” about hitting women, he might think that nowadays domestic violence is Very Rare and taken Very Seriously and the police will immediately come and arrest the offending man (perhaps even on a false accusation, which are now “common”). I, on the other hand, might think that many of my female friends are survivors of domestic violence, psychological abuse, or sexual assault, and few of them were taken very seriously at all when they tried to do something about it. So I won’t see anything “ironically” sexist about the joke. To me, it’ll just be plain ol’ boring sexism.

Much of hipster bigotry rests on the assumption that the person wearing the shirt or making the joke is a Really Good Person who would never actually believe such horrible things, so isn’t it hilarious that they’d pretend they do, ha-ha? But making this assumption requires knowing the person quite well, and given how pervasive sexism and racism still are, assuming that a random dude (or a random CEO of a fashion company, per se) is Totally Not Sexist Or Racist isn’t really a reasonable assumption to make.

Read the rest here.

Why "Hipster Sexism" Fails

If Public Breastfeeding Offends You, Don't Look

My newest post at the Daily Dot is about public breastfeeding and the controversy surrounding Karlesha Thurman.

Like pretty much everything surrounding mothers and childrearing, breastfeeding is a politically charged topic. In some ways, mothers are encouraged, even demanded, to breastfeed their babies because of the potential health benefits that breastfeeding provides.

In New York City, a municipal program called Latch On NYC required hospitals to stop giving out formula to new mothers unless specifically requested, in which case a nurse has to record a medical justification for providing the formula. Mothers who are unable or unwilling to breastfeed for whatever reason face stigma—what sort of mom wouldn’t want to do absolutely everything she can to ensure her baby’s health? So the reasoning goes.

At the same time, women are also shamed for breastfeeding in public, even though it’s legal throughout the United States. Public breastfeeding, we are told, is “indecent” and “disgusting,” and mothers should “think of the children” before “whipping it out” in public. (Presumably, they should think about children besides their own, who are hungry and need to be fed.)

Instead, they should find a private place such as a restroom (unhygienic, and most don’t have comfortable seating for a mother to breastfeed), bring formula (not as good for the baby as breast milk), or pump their milk beforehand (and carry it around in a cooler in the summer heat, presumably). Breast pumps and formula aren’t even affordable for all women, and some babies refuse to drink formula.

All this has recently come up in online discussion once again after Karlesha Thurman, a mother and recent college graduate, posted a photo of herself breastfeeding at her graduation from California State University Long Beach. The photo went viral and spawned all of the usual blowback, except this time with an extra side of “She’s ruining the sanctity of the college graduation ceremony!” and probably a generous helping of racism. (Thurman is Black, andseveral commentators pointed out that the harsh response she is now facing ties into a long history of analyzing, judging, and regulating Black women’s bodies and what they do with them.)

Thurman originally posted the photo to the Facebook page of a group called Black Women Do Breastfeed, which aims to encourage and support Black mothers who are breastfeeding and who feel that their experiences are not well-represented in narratives of motherhood.

Thurman has since removed the photo from the group, explaining in interviews that the reactions she received personally, including from the other graduates, had all been supportive, but that people elsewhere online were being “very harsh.” She added, “I did it to show it’s natural, it’s normal, there’s nothing wrong with it. I didn’t even know there was a big controversy about breast-feeding in public until all of this happened.”

Read the rest here.

If Public Breastfeeding Offends You, Don't Look

Disagreeing Without Delegitimizing: On That Racist Colbert Tweet and Reactions Thereto

[Content note: racist language, sexual harassment]

It has all the makings of a social media firestorm: at some point last week, Stephen Colbert made a joke on his show in which he implicitly criticized Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder for refusing to change the team’s racist name. The @ColbertReport Twitter account tweeted part of the joke out-of-context. Now-deleted, the tweet read, “I’m willing to show the #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.”

Screenshot via Suey Park
Screenshot via Suey Park

Folks thought Colbert had tweeted it and didn’t realize that it was part of a larger satirical bit that was actually criticizing racism against Native Americans, because nothing in the way the tweet was made suggested that it was a quote from the show. And even knowing the context, many would argue (and have argued) that that context doesn’t excuse racist language against another group, and that said language is still harmful.

Some Twitter users, including Suey Park, criticized the tweet using the hashtag #CancelColbert. Although the hashtag’s mostly a useless mess now, Suey’s Twitter account is currently a great collection of her thoughts and retweets of others’ opinions about the situation. For the record, I don’t personally think Colbert Report should be canceled over this, but that doesn’t mean I can’t agree with the criticisms being made. And also, I’m not even sure that everyone tweeting in support of the hashtag also literally wants the show canceled; it’s an alliterative and snappy hashtag that gets attention, and in a medium like Twitter, sometimes that’s what you need. But maybe they do. I respect that view despite disagreeing with it, and it’s unfortunate that in many settings this has become a conversation about whether or not they should cancel the show, and not about what’s wrong with this whole situation.

So naturally, there was a swift counter-response, including many of Colbert’s liberal fans, who claimed that the critics were “too sensitive” and “don’t get satire” (because there’s no way someone could possibly disagree with you unless they just “don’t get” the topic at hand). There was smug condescension about stupid Twitter social justice warriors who “took the tweet out of context” and “didn’t bother researching the actual facts.” There was, in other words, all the usual smarm and dog doodoo.

First of all, to understand what happened, let’s go back to an amazing recent article by author Kameron Hurley called “Rage Doesn’t Exist in a Vacuum, or: Understanding the Complex Continuum of Internet Butt-Hurt.” There’s a long parable here, but bear with it, because it’s instructive.

I once stood at a bus stop in Durban while two young, drunk men murmured sexually explicit threats and promises to a young woman standing next to me. It was just the four of us – the woman being threatened, me, and the two perpetrators.

South Africa is not the world’s safest place, though with how often folks pull out guns to solve disagreements in the US – legally! – now, I’d argue it’s not so safe here, either. In any event, I kept my mouth shut. After all, they weren’t threatening her with an actual weapon. They were just talking about all the sexual things they wanted to do to her.

It didn’t concern me.

I didn’t want to get knifed, or attacked, or threatened in kind. Who wants that?

But after a few minutes, when they didn’t seem to tire of their threats, but instead kept at it, I finally lost my shit.

It was a fantastic losing-of-the-shit, because I’d spent the last six months hurrying back to my flat before dark, being told by every well-meaning person I knew that there were evil men waiting to rape, mutilate and murder me – maybe not even in that order! – even in broad daylight. I had one guy in a car slow down once on a sunny Sunday afternoon on the hill just outside the university where I was walking alone, who told me I best not walk alone, and best get inside, because people were likely to jump out of the woods and haul me off to the terrible fate all young white girls traveling abroad are assumed to inhabit, eventually.

I’d spent some time getting cat-called, yelled at, and solicited, though most folks in Durban were in fact quite lovely. In truth, I was to receive far more direct threats and harassment as a young woman living in Chicago than I did in Durban.

But that’s a post for another time.

To an outsider seeing my screaming meltdown at these two men, in which I raved and shouted and told them how they were utter assholes for harassing us, and they should fuck off, and who the fuck did they think they were, this might have seemed like the raving of some unhinged person. After all, from afar, all you see is two guys at a bus stop talking to a woman who seems deeply uncomfortable. But my rage, my “sudden” outburst was actually the result of the venting of six full months of increasing dread and terror inflicted on me not even so much by actual bad people, but people ostensibly concerned for my safety, whose admonitions that I “stay inside” and watch my back, and be careful, and who would then go on to talk about who’d been raped, shot, stabbed or mugged that week, had really started to get to me. It was a rage at the entire situation, at being expected to shut the fuck up and go inside all the time because I was a young woman. It was rage at the idea that the threat of violence so clearly worked to keep people in line.

After I raged for a few minutes, the guys milled about for a bit, confused, and finally wandered off. When they did, the young woman next to me breathed a sigh of relief and said, “Thank you so much. I was afraid to say something, because I was afraid they’d knife me or something.”

When the internet loses its shit over what, to many, looks like a single, insignificant incident unrelated to anything else, it’s easy to say they’re fucking nuts. They’re raging over some perceived slight that’s been blown waaaaay out of proportion. That, in truth, is the easier narrative.

[…] Internet rage is almost never a one-off. It happens in a continuum. It’s seen as one more event in a long line of connected events.

Colbert is funny. I like him. But he has a history of using humor in bigoted ways. I don’t have room here to discuss them all at length, but here’s an example. And no, it doesn’t matter if it’s “ironic.” People’s anger and hurt over the tweet has to be viewed in context, and that context is 1) lifetimes of racist abuse and 2) lots of racism from Colbert and his writers in particular.

It is extremely ironic that Colbert’s defenders demand that the tweet be viewed “in context” while refusing to view anger over the tweet in context.

As it turned out, Colbert didn’t write the tweet and neither did anybody on his staff. The Twitter account is run by Comedy Central and Colbert does not know who made the tweet. However, you would be forgiven for believing that a verified Twitter account named after a TV show is run by someone involved with that actual TV show, and I don’t understand why people are treating those who thought this was Colbert’s tweet as though they just believed one of those emails from a Nigerian prince offering you $10,000,000. Comedy Central should not be running an account that’s dedicated to a particular one of their shows, and they especially shouldn’t be tweeting jokes out of context that look really really bad when presented out of context. That’s basic fucking PR. And as for Twitter’s role in this, the entire point of verified accounts is that they’re supposed to be run by the person or group named in them. (Of course, that person might have staff tweeting for them, but at least it’s someone employed by the celebrity.) I don’t know how or why Twitter verified an account called “Colbert Report” that is not run by anyone associated with the Colbert Report, but that’s on them, not on Twitter users.

But anyway, I don’t actually want to argue about whether or not the tweet was racist or offensive or in bad taste or whatever. The meat of my point is this:

  • If you defend Colbert’s attempt to attack racism by condescendingly sneering that his detractors just “don’t get” satire, calling them “idiots,” and generally acting like there is no conceivable reason anybody in their right mind could’ve disliked this tweet, you are part of the problem and I don’t think you care about racism as much as you claim to care about racism. I think you care about Stephen Colbert.
  • Relatedly, if you accuse people of “derailing” the conversation about the Washington Redskins to discuss what they perceive as Colbert’s anti-Asian racism, something tells me you’re not actually that concerned about racism. Because you can be racist against one group while trying to fight racism against another, or you can just try to be anti-racist and do something perceived by some as racist. You can also care both about the racism of the Redskins’ name and the racism of Colbert’s joke. You can care equally about these two things. Shit gets complicated.
  • It’s insulting and inaccurate to assume that anyone who feels differently than you do about an issue just “doesn’t understand” it. Perhaps they simply have a different understanding. As Crommunist tweeted, “It is emphatically the case that PoC have more familiarity with satire than white people do with racism.”
  • You can disagree that the tweet was hurtful without disagreeing that people have a good reason to be hurt by it. Actually, I fall into that category. I don’t think it’s hurtful. But, I’m not Asian or Asian American. So of course I’m not hurt. If you are white, it’s not your place to say that the tweet is categorically Not Hurtful.
  • The existence of people of color (and, in fact, of Asians or Asian Americans) who have no problem with the tweet does not invalidate the claims of those people who do have a problem with the tweet. Analogously, the fact that some women don’t “mind” catcalling doesn’t invalidate those of us who do mind it.
  • Blaming people for not realizing the tweet had a context to it is asinine. There were no quotation marks around the quote. Many comedians use Twitter to write one-liners that have no context. Even if someone suspects that it came from the show, nobody has the time to watch every single recent Colbert episode to try to find the bit. Even if you know the context, you may still find the racial language hurtful and jarring, and you may still think the entire original joke was pointless and fell flat.
  • You can lecture people about not getting upset about “out-of-context tweets,” or you can lecture comedians and others about using Twitter effectively. Which group you choose to lecture says something about your priorities.

These are risks you take with humor, especially satire. I’m tired of seeing people blame those who don’t find a particular joke funny for “not getting satire” or “not being able to take a joke” or “being too sensitive.” Look, some people will laugh at a joke and others won’t. Some will think the joke’s great and others will find that it hits way too close to home. Some people like to consume their comedy with nothing but laughs, and others like to point out how humor can be used to promote faulty and harmful thinking.

And it’s quite possible to love and understand satire but still feel that a particular joke goes too far. Many people felt this way about The Onion‘s tweet calling 9-year-old Black actor Quvenzhané Wallis a cunt, many people who were otherwise huge fans of the satire site. In fact, The Onion, which presumably is a fan of itself and also “gets” satire, eventually agreed with them and published a heartfelt apology that would serve as a great model to Stephen Colbert or whoever the hell wrote that tweet.

You can disagree that the joke was hurtful or bad or unfunny without being an asshole to the people who think it was hurtful or bad or unfunny.

Just like I can say, “I love New York but I can see why you don’t like it.” Or “I like Colbert’s style of humor but it’s not everyone’s thing.”

Or, you know, I haven’t spent my entire life dealing with the effects of structural racism, whereas you have, so our perspectives are going to be different.


Out of respect to the important issue originally raised by Colbert, I’ll close with some links to more about the Redskins controversy and why the team should be renamed. I also welcome a discussion about this in the comments even though it wasn’t the focus of this piece.

Disagreeing Without Delegitimizing: On That Racist Colbert Tweet and Reactions Thereto

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