Why I think differences of opinion are so important in marginalized communities.
I know I’ve talked about – a lot – why I think it’s important to respect dissent among marginalized and oppressed people. And why it’s important to respect differences of opinion.
The assumption that you get taught around here, usually, is that if someone disagrees with the dominant view of whatever the oppressed community is, then they’re wrong. And to bring up the fact that there are marginalized people who disagree with the dominant view is ‘a derail’ at best. Certainly extremely annoying to people who do agree with the dominant view.
And why are such dissenters wrong? Usually, the story goes, it’s because we haven’t learned enough about our own oppression yet, so we’re just going with what our society has told us is true. Or we’re brainwashed. Or we’re stupid. Or incapable of understanding. Or all four. (They don’t usually say 'stupid’, but they mean it, and that’s all that matters.)
And the thing is, those things can absolutely be true. Any of those may be the reason that someone will have a differing opinion. But there are also plenty of other reasons a person could have a differing opinion from the majority.
Also, people don’t always notice this, but it’s important: Sometimes an oppressed person will seem to hold the same opinion as an oppressor holds. They will say roughly the same words. But the actual reasons for their opinions will be as different as night and day.
Take person-first language, for instance.
Nondisabled people often prefer person-first language, and push it on disabled people even when we don’t want it, because they think that the only way to recognize us as people is to distance our personhood from our disabilities, in their heads. That makes them feel better about us.
When disabled people prefer person-first language, it’s often because disability-first language has been used against them to rob them of their personhood in a very specific and horrific manner. Where the only times they’ve been called “an autistic” for instance, is in a clinical sense where nothing about them matters they’re just a walking talking pile of impairments. And that walking talking pile of impairments, with no thoughts of their own, is all they’ve been, their entire lives, and that’s always been attached to being called “an autistic”. And they say “No, I’m a person, with autism,” in order to emphasize that they are more than just the impairments that come with autism.
This doesn’t mean that every autistic person should call themselves a person with autism. But it does mean that when a person with autism says they want to be called a person with autism, then it’s important to listen to them, because their reasons for wanting it are likely extremely different from the reasons a nondisabled person would have for using the exact same terminology.
So even when an oppressor and an oppressed person seem to hold the same opinion, their reasons can differ a lot. So when you hear an oppressed person say something that sounds just like what an oppressor would say? Don’t assume they’re just parroting what an oppressor taught them. Find out their reasons. Have some respect. Even if it sounds similar on the surface (especially if they themselves have communication problems), they may have extremely important reasons for their opinions that you’re missing because you’ve assumed that they’re brainwashed or something.
The reason that I think differing opinions are so important?
Nobody is always right. That goes for individuals. That also goes for communities.
That means that the only possible way to really figure out what is right, is to know as many of the possibilities for what might be right, as you can. Which means you have to entertain the possibility that dissent from the majority opinion is the right one. Because sometimes, it’s going to be.
Additionally, opinions are not all or nothing. It’s not like there’s the majority opinion in anti-oppression communities, and then there’s the opinion of the oppressors, and that’s all there is. People will make it sound like there’s the social justice opinion, and all other opinions are “anti-SJ” and therefore bad. (And anti-SJ folks will say the same, but in reverse.) But that’s not really how it works.
Like my opinions are often considered dissenting opinions. And yet many of my opinions are barely different from the dominant opinions at all. Or some of my opinions include the dominant opinion as one possibility in one situation, but have other opinions for other slightly different situations. This is because I think the situation determines what’s right more than a rigid ethical code determines what’s right. The opinions I tend to dissent from, tend to be built around rigid ethical codes rather than things that depend on the situation. So we might agree in some areas but differ in others, just based on how we come to ethical decisions in the first place.
But anyway, my point is, that differences of opinion are really important. They can be annoying, especially when you’re certain you’ve got something right and that dealing with differences of opinion will just get in your way. And it’s totally valid to form communities where you agree on a basic opinion and then work out how to carry out that opinion, without entertaining dissent within that closed community. But at the same time, that’s… not what these communities are doing, they want dissent not to happen even outside of their bounds, and they want to suppress dissent, and that scares me a good deal.
Because sometimes these communities are right.
But sometimes they’re wrong. Sometimes they’re horribly wrong.
And even when they’re right, their rigidity about rightness often means the right ideas are applied in the wrong ways.
And usually, what’s right is going to depend on the situation. And the world has infinitely many situations. So that means that there are going to be many, many different right answers, depending on what the situation is.
But even when opinions are wrong, it’s important to listen to them. Because you can learn from being wrong. And because you don’t always know whether something is wrong before you really think about it. You need to hear twenty different opinions because then you have a better idea of what the possibilities are. And possibilities matter.
Plus, I don’t think the most important thing is to come to the right answer. And that’s again where I disagree with the way many anti-oppression communities do things. What they want is to come up with the right ideas, the right answer, and then get everyone thinking the right ideas, having the right motivations, saying the right things, and then ending oppression will spring from there.
I think that ending oppression is a long-term process, and it doesn’t depend so much on finding The Right Answer, as it does in learning to evaluate situations, each situation different from the next, and figuring out what to do in those situations. And figuring out what to do in each situation means, among other things, learning to evaluate lots of opinions. And what you do to solve a situation is more important than what you think or what you say.
So dealing with dissenting opinions is important for a lot of reasons. But the main ones are that people can’t be right all the time, communities can’t be right all the time, so you have to have all the opinions out there so you can evaluate each one. And that given that the right thing to do varies by situation, understanding a lot of opinions can be valuable for knowing which ones to act on in different situations. Both of those are extremely valuable reasons to not instantly squash dissent just because it’s annoying and makes life difficult.
Sometimes an 'unpopular opinion’ is just another word for someone with a very popular, oppressive opinion, wanting to be an oppressive jerk. But sometimes it’s an opinion that’s unpopular in particular communities (regardless of popularity elsewhere) but well worth listening to and figuring out.
So I will continue to leave my little packages (see this post on echo chambers for a full explanation) out there, and I hope other people will as well. Because diversity of opinion is one of the most important things we have going for us, for so many important reasons.