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Potentially Problematic Opinion Month: Why It's Okay Not To Know Things

So my friend Alex does this thing called Potentially Problematic Opinion Month on her blog, in which she discusses potentially problematic opinions and she invites others to do the same.  It’s pretty self-explanatory.  Anyway, I enjoyed getting in on this once before but as the month is nearly over I wanted to get another thought in that I’ve had for a while: It’s Okay Not To Know Things.

[TW: Discussions of a lot of different kinds of discrimination in here including sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and even the nature of trigger warnings.]

The Setup -

As I have said before numerous times: I love social justice.  I think it’s amazing.  But I am very disappointed that the behaviour of some people who claim to fight for social justice, particularly on Tumblr.  The tone of these peoples’ discourse is, at best, unproductive and at worst counterproductive.  It drives people away from coming closer to realising the complexity of the human condition and why Things Are Bad. 

We are all, undeniably, products of the society in which we live.  This doesn’t mean, of course, that we are unthinking mindslaves of the zeitgeist.  What it does mean is that a large number of our attitudes and beliefs will be influenced by the culture in which we live.

Unfortunately, western society is predominantly heteronormative, patriarchal and run by white people.  In other words you get privilege from being white, male, heterosexual and cisgendered (or any combination of the above).  Having money usually helps too.  But because of this, views and attitudes that support the system that is already in place are the ‘norm’ and a lot of people are never exposed to ideas that counteract these kinds of thinking. 

It is only through experience and interacting with other human beings we learn that our own little microcosms are not necessarily representative of the world at large.  But this is exactly my point…

(As a quick aside, there is nothing wrong having any combination of “privileges”.  Just like minority or disadvantaged groups you have no choice about the circumstances you are born in to.  Anyone who derides you for being white/male/hetero/cis/etc. is just an ass.)

The Suppository of All Knowledge?

One thing I notice a lot of on the internet is people who get really angry when they encounter someone who says something inadvertently offensive, rude or hurtful.  Now I do want to begin by saying that I don’t want to suggest that these feelings of hurt are illegitimate - because they are often perfectly legitimate.  My questioning is of the response of anger.

In short: We cannot be expected to know everything.  To expect everyone to know a specific fact when they are raised in a society that does not favour the distribution of that knowledge is especially unreasonable.  To get angry with them for not knowing something is an unreasonable response when most people don’t even know what they don’t know!  They cannot be expected to absorb knowledge via osmosis from the sky.  (Getting annoyed with the societal structures that perpetuate naivety is a different matter, though.)

I mean, even when I first heard the terms “queer” or “LGBT” [or variations of that initialism] I thought they were weird and silly.  “Why not just call people gay?” I thought.  More recently, I learned why some people prefer “trans/trans*” to “transgender” or “transsexual” or “tranny”.  I even used to think the idea of “intersex” people was stupid. 

As a white person, I had never experienced racial discrimination or profiling and when I heard accounts of this I could almost not believe these were things that happened in reality.  Same with accounts of everyday sexism I was told by my female friends. 

Triggers?  What even are they?  Why should I care?  Why aren’t rape jokes acceptable when we joke about other bad things?  All of these are questions I now know the answer to, but they aren’t things that I had been forced to confront until recently.  I hadn’t even been asked to consider the implications of these things!  (These are just a few examples from my own experience, there are many, many more.)

Was this naivety or ignorance because I was a “bad person”?  No.  It was just because I had never been exposed to a lot of these concepts before.  They were foreign to me and I had to rewire my thinking to account for them. 

Changing Hearts and Changing Minds

Ideas that completely change our worldview, change what we understand as “facts” can be difficult for people to process.  They can take a while to fully grasp. 

The extent of sexism, for me, was one of these things.  The nature of my male privilege and how that meant I never had to worry about some things that my closest friends had to think about every day was very confronting for me and I still honestly don’t think I can completely comprehend it (I try, though). 

The idea that there are more genders than “male” and “female” is a big one for lots of people, for example.  When doing an assignment at university I recall very distinctly a book which discussed how the notions of “male” and “female” are so tied up in the western understanding of humanity that any challenge of binary gender notions is often subconsciously seen as an affront on the notions of what it means to be human.  There are two options, we are told.  They are defined by very strict rules (“boys have a penis and girls have a vagina!”).  This isn’t presented to us as a cultural fabrication but as objective fact. 

And I can get how absolutely fracking frustrating this is, particularly when you have to explain it to Every Single Person On The Fracking Planet.  But, really, is getting angry at someone for Not Knowing The Thing the best response to that?  (The answer is no, btw.)

Just Because You’re Right Doesn’t Mean I’m Going To Listen To You

I’m a high school teacher and part of my job is to try and communicate new ideas to people all the time.  If a student doesn’t know something or says something offensive without knowing my initial response isn’t to call them a racist/sexist/homophobic/ignorant bigot but instead to provide them with knowledge. 

What do you think would work better: 

“Sit down and be quiet you racist bigot!  Just shut up and stop even trying!*”

or

“Well yes there are disproportionately low literacy rates amongst that particular ethnic group, but have you considered the societal structures that create and perpetuate these circumstances?” 

Open up the point to discussion.  The first response shuts down discussion and makes the target of the comment withdraw.  Do you think they’d be likely to listen to anything you have to say to them?  Hell, you could be trying to convince me that gravity exists and the moon orbits the earth which orbits the sun and I still probably wouldn’t listen to you because you’re being rude to me.  (I have a general rule anyway: when people start being rude to me I stop listening regardless of what they’re saying.  Life’s to short to put up with that kind of thing.)

While I don’t want to suggest there is an onus on those who are disadvantaged to educate and inform, I think those of us who care about social justice and care about these issues need to really carefully consider whether or not we are responding and talking to people in a productive way.

What is our goal?  Is it to make the world a better place?  Or to be right and be smug in our rightness?  The latter is pretty easy.  We can sit in our castles of Being Right and look down at all the Uninformed Plebs.  The first one is harder but ultimately gives us better results.

Willful ignorance is definitely not something that is good.  People who refuse to learn or accept new ideas because they are different and scary can very understandably provoke ire.  Though I do feel the need to say that some ideas do take longer to process as well.  Expecting that someone will accept new information straight away is also somewhat unreasonable.  But as long as people are of good will and legitimately just don’t know something, how can we really get angry at them?  It is just irrational and illogical.  It also, more importantly, can hurt our causes.



* “Just shut up and stop trying!” is legitimately a thing I had said to me in an online discussion when I disagreed with the OP.  FYI: That discussion actually ended with me changing my perspective because someone with a more reasonable tone came along and presented some information I had not considered.

I’m sorry, Tumblr.  I just can’t sustain the level of hatred for the world that a lot of social justice people do.  Yes there’s a lot of shit stuff.  Yes, it makes me angry.  And yes, I’ve had a lot of white-male privilege but I also don’t fit into all of the privilege categories.  (I refuse to have a privilege-off, though.)  But I can’t hate the world in the same way that you do.

I take my victories where I see them, even if they’re small.  I revel in the little changes even if there’s a long way to go.  I don’t expect the world to change overnight.  I don’t expect it to be perfect.  I spent a lot of time and energy expecting the world to be perfect and I ended up majorly depressed, in therapy and on meds for two years. 

So I’m sorry, but I just can’t do it.  I’ll fight for justice alongside you but I won’t hate like you do.

Kena buat assgmnt dgn budak Korea bernama Dong Gyu??? Whatttt 😱 kalau pempuan xpe jugak..😜 hmmm..masing2 lemah English..mati la comunicate dgn dia ni 😓
—  Project for Management by Miss Roshaida 😚

You know, I really hate the excuse of “but I’ve had to explain it 100 times!!!” given by a lot of social justice advocates for being rude to people.

Yes I know explaining something over and over again is exhausting and frustrating. Does that give you the right to be a jerk though? No. No it doesn’t. As my friend Laura put it “it’s not the 100th time you’re explaining something to THAT PERSON. Getting angry at a generally well-intentioned person will just alienate them. I just suck it up and explain it again.

Also, give people some time to process ideas. Often times you’re rocking their world and expecting them to just accept a huge shift straight away isn’t reasonable.

Try to avoid taking your anger out on individuals when it’s societal problems that lead to their ignorance. Your anger is misdirected and hurtful to the ultimate cause of creating change in the world.

I really hate that quote “If you can’t handle me at my worst you don’t deserve me at my best!”

Because, like, what if your worst is a selfish emotionally or physically abusive asshole. What if your worst is REALLY terrible.

There are so many people I’ve cut out of my life because, despite their best, their worst is just too damaging for me to be around.

What an awful quote.

Potentially Problematic Opinion Month: Black & White

So my friend Alex does this thing called Potentially Problematic Opinion Month on her blog, in which she discusses potentially problematic opinions and she invites others to do the same.  It’s pretty self-explanatory.  Anyway, I wanted to get all up in on that action so allow me to present my post: Black & White.

An Introduction:

First of all, this is not about race.  Rather, it’s about Black and White thinking with relation to labelling people.  Just to clarify, my definition of black and white thinking is: when people think only in diametrically opposed binaries.  For example: Someone is good or they’re evil.  They’re right or they’re wrong.  They have the solution or they don’t, etc. 

A good example of this is George Bush’s “You’re for us or against us” statement with relation to the Iraq war.

The reason I want to talk about it is because I see a lot of it happening on the internet and particularly with relation to social justice on Tumblr.

What’s the problem?

Well the problem with this kind of thinking is, in short, that it’s faulty logic.  People don’t usually fall in to neat little binaries, but rather exist as complicated individuals. 

People throw around labels a lot when we talk about social justice: “Sexist!” “Homophobic!” “Racist!” Etc.  They’re pretty blanket terms and my problem is that they’re often applied to people who I don’t really think deserve them. 

For example, someone who is generally pro-gay rights, pro-equal marriage rights, pro-assisting LGBT youth might casually use the word “gay” as synonymous with bad.  There could be a number of reasons for this, but if it’s the case that they’ve simply never been told not to or had explained adequately to them why they shouldn’t… does that make them a “homophobe”?  I don’t think so.  I think it just makes them a person who happens to do a thing that is homophobic.

Similarly, let’s take someone who is all for gender equality (equal pay, equal rights, equal treatment, etc.) but occasionally uses words like “cunt” or “bitch” as insults without realising the gendered nature of those words.  Does that mean they are sexist?  Again, I don’t think so.

This, of course, doesn’t excuse the action or make it any less hurtful.  But I think we do have to be careful of labeling someone just because they aren’t perfect.

And this, basically is where black and white thinking comes in.  Either: You are perfect or you aren’t.  Either you’re not sexist or you are sexist.  Either you’re not homophobic or you are homophobic.  With this logic you can’t be a generally good person who occasionally says something that is, for example, homophobic or sexist.

The reality of life is that nobody is perfect and while a lot of us try hard to be sensitive and aware to those around us we often fall short [of the Grace of God, as some might put it].  I will be the first person to admit that I occasionally say things that can be discriminatory, or at least founded in that kind of thinking because I come from a culture that raises me to think that way.  Alternatively, I will say something without realising/thinking that it can be hurtful to other groups of people.  I don’t like it when I do and I often feel bad about it afterwards, but does that make me a “bad” person?  No, I would say.  I like to think that I’m a generally good person who occasionally slips up.

In other words, I’m a human.

That said…

I don’t think there is no place for that kind of label.  But rather than looking at a handful of isolated incidents we should be looking for broader, long-term patterns in behaviour.  There is a point where actions stop being a thing that occasionally happens and starts to indicate things about someone’s personality/disposition.

In conclusion…

Instead of looking at occasional slip-ups when making decisions about people let’s try and take the “big picture” into account.  People are complicated and flawed.  That doesn’t make them bad people.  It might mean that they have more to learn about a particular thing, or that they should occasionally be more sensitive and considerate, but not that they’re “bad” or irredeemable.

ETA: I’ve only used a few examples like sexism and homophobia here because they’re some more straightforward examples.  There are, of course, a lot more and I could have provided much more in-depth examples but I could sense you were already getting bored.

Disclaimer: I love a lot about the Night Vale fandom and the creativity of some people absolutely blows me away.

However: I sometimes wonder if I’m the only one in the Night Vale fandom whose headcanon appearances for characters/places are ‘normal’.  Like, for example, I find it funnier picturing the librarians just as regular librarians who happen to be awful murderous people rather than as literal monsters. 

The big one for me is this: Honestly, I love the images and look of Cecil with tattoos but it just seems so genuinely out of character to me.  Like, I just imagine Cecil as this average 30-something guy with no third eye and no tattoos.  It’s always been the appeal of Cecil to me; he’s this average guy around which all this weird stuff happens.  Or, for another example, Kevin is actually just a regular guy with a really creepy smile (possibly also covered in animal viscera…)

This proves to be a dilemma for me because I really enjoy cosplaying Cecil but also I do want to be recognised.  But it just rubs me the wrong way to do the tattoos and the third-eye.  I just can’t bring myself to do it.