You know, I can really handle someone telling me I’m a faggot. I can also handle someone telling me I’m going to hell, that I’m disgusting, an abomination, all of that ridiculous abusive bullshit that has been thrown at me and internalised since I was sitting in my gym class and everyone was laughing at how the teacher was absent because they were “having a sex change”. I’m pretty used to abrasive, horrible stuff. It doesn’t mean I enjoy it and it doesn’t mean I like it.
But what I can’t get used to, what infuriates me more than anything in this world is the crappy call of the sad ally whining, “But I’m on your team too!”. Yes, because if I identify as a liberal and someone else does as well, I can’t criticise them. Because if I’m queer and someone else is, I should never call them out on their bullshit. Because we’re all in this together!
I read this article recently about “bullying liberals” and I have several issues with it that I’m going to walk through here:
1. Liberal Bullying = God Hates Fags – I’m sorry no. Fucking no. No times a million. Someone who makes this base comparison does not understand the definition of privilege. Someone brandishing a God Hates Fags sign is not even remotely similar to someone telling someone to fuck off for, for example, assuming that all lesbians are butch and ugly. We can say what we like about effective approaches, about whether having a conversation with someone about it rather than just shooting “fuck you” may be more effective, but all of that aside, there is a basic issue of power relations going on. And to draw that comparison is ignoring those power relations.
2. “The Good Guy” – So, you know about privilege. So you’re concerned with trying to do your best to acknowledge it and you want to get it right. So you’ve also probably been socialised your entire life to want to be and always have to be “the good guy”. Well, I’m sorry. But I think part of effective social justice includes humbling yourself a bit. You have to admit that you’re part of the problem. That you can fuck up. That you can make mistake. That you can say things that are hurtful and not mean it and people aren’t obligated to forgive you for it just because you didn’t mean it or you’re “progressive” and you’re trying. You need to release the notion that you deserve to get an award for not being an asshole. Or that you need a gold star for trying.
This is why “progressives” can be more annoying than just plain ignorant people to call out. Because they think they know better and they think they are “progressive”, that when you dare to call them out on anything, they whine about how they really love Martin Luther King and they make artificial limbs for orphaned dolphins in their spare time. I know this AS a “progressive”. I refused to recognise white privilege because I had been through heterosexism, classism, and other forms of bigotry. Being a “progressive” doesn’t make you any less able to be ignorant.
You need to let go of the notion that you are The Good Guy. Let go of the notion that you shouldn’t/can’t fuck up and stop wallowing in your guilt when you do.
3. Dialogue vs. Calling Out – Every time I bother to mention to someone that something they’ve said is problematic, believe me, I’d LOVE to have a discussion about it. But unfortunately, the other people have to be interested in a discussion. This enforcement of “discussion” and “respect” is something that almost always comes up when people tell me that it’s my responsibility to educate them. I have no idea when I engage someone in a discussion about social issues if they will listen to me at all. And if you’re someone that DOES engage people very frequently, you learn pretty damn quick that 90% of the people you engage in discussions with you about this are not interested in learning or addressing their privilege in any way, shape, or form.
But no, I must always be the one to educate someone politely and kindly. I must slap on my smile and become a tour guide through the Museum of Bigotry. And if I can’t say anything nice, I should never say anything at all.
That’s not to say I think you can shout privilege awareness into someone. I’m not saying that an aggressive approach is necessarily ALWAYS effective or that calm, attempted debate should NEVER be attempted. All I’m saying is that if being polite, educational, and calm always solved the problem, maybe people would have done that before you know… getting beat up or killed. And while I’m not suggesting that every person calling out something over the internet is in danger of police brutality, I do think that that The Tone Police are often more effective online than they are in person.
5. Making a ~Difference~ – If you’ve called enough people out on things, you start to learn that you have absolutely no fucking clue if you’re going to make a difference or not. In the incident I referenced, where I was called out, initially the person who called me out made ZERO difference. They called me out, I reacted badly, I kicked, screamed, and fussed about how they were hurting my feelings, not getting my intent, and bullying me. And that’s where the conversation ended because -SURPRISE- the Tone Police arrived and kicked that person from the community for daring to be mad at me.
It was only until later that I reflected on what they said. It was only until I was willing to accept that white privilege existed that I got what they were doing and why. They did make a difference. They made a huge difference in my life. They started a journey down an understanding of the world and of issues that I am incredibly indebted to them for. And they are out there, right now, with absolutely no fucking clue that they did any good. Because they were banned, their account deleted, I didn’t get the chance to thank them and I never saw their name crop up again.
So this nebulous concept of ~making a difference~ is bullshit. You have no idea if you will make a difference. And in many cases where I’ve called people out and spent awhile in a discussion that went nowhere with the other person refusing to acknowledge any form of privilege, I’ve had other people email me and thank me to take the time out for saying anything because they didn’t feel like they could. And I’ve had people and I myself have read over conversations where I have learned something even though I wasn’t involved. I made a difference and I have learned things from debates that I wasn’t even involved in. And I STILL continue to engage when I have the energy. I’d love to have a nice calm dialogue with everyone I meet. But it doesn’t always happen.
I’ve had nasty brawl out arguments that have ended in someone finally getting it. And I’ve had long, polite conversations with friends who say they acknowledge privilege, but then turn around and tell me, “My son likes the darker girls in class” after I just spent two hours discussing racism and white privilege with them (TRUE STORY). You have no idea if what you are doing will make any real difference. No idea at all.
6. Ultimate Goal – My ultimate goal? It’s check myself and check others when and where I can. Even if there is a bit of overactive and aggressive calling out it does not mirror or even COMPARE with mainstream society and their attitudes towards calling out anything that offends you. You do not get cheered or lauded or get to be smug in everyday life. Shit, you don’t even get respected in other online communities for saying something’s bothering you (Reddit, anyone?).
Now don’t get me wrong, I DO have problem with, for example, white people who call out other white people on white privilege and act like they aren’t racist because they do so. I do have a problem with people who use social justice as a way of atoning for their privileged sins. And I did have a problem with people being “mean to allies” until I actually started trying to engage people and when I actually realised that marginalised people have feelings too.
The thing that pisses me off about this is that we’re willing to acknowledge the good intentions of allies and people who fuck up, but the marginalised person or someone getting angry about something doesn’t really get the same support or acknowledgement. Yes, I have witnessed cases where I’ve felt that someone was being angry and sarcastic at someone who didn’t mean any harm. But that angry and sarcastic person is also a person. You want compassion for people who fuck up but people who get angry and have a bad reaction to something are supposed to smile and take it. And if they don’t they’re not being true to their ULTIMATE GOAL, gaise.
Just like you can’t expect yourself to never fuck up, you also can’t expect everyone to be nice all of the time. The nature of privilege and marginaliations, of microaggressions and oppression is that it causes a lot emotions. A lot of anger. A lot of hatred. A lot of shit that’s not so easy to cope with and deal with 100% of the time. So how about for once we extend a bit of compassion towards people?
This doesn’t mean that I have to be okay with someone shouting at me necessarily. And this doesn’t mean that I have to accept someone mocking my genderqueer identity in order to tell me I don’t have the right to weigh in on a debate about whether FTM or MTF are offensive acronyms (also a true story). But it also means that I can do my best to extend empathy to people. And I do try. And I am trying. Right now. To extend some empathy to the person who wrote this article. But it’s not always hard.
And the thing of it is, as much as I’m trying to extend empathy here, how that’s interpreted isn’t always guaranteed.I am sick and tired of being told to not say something because we shouldn’t be “fighting with each other”. That argument is so much worse, so much more silencing, so much more frustrating than someone who just haul off and calls me a fag. If you can’t handle conflict, if you dislike the nature of calling out, and if you have trouble with that emotionally, I get that. But enforcing a policy of “no conflict unless it’s nice conflict” is bullshit.
So I say, check yourself. Be aware of your issues and say something when you’re bothered. And honestly, I think if you find yourself frustrated, angry, hair pulling out in a debate with someone who refuses to listen, who calls you “too sensitive”, who says they’re on “your side”, you being a bit stroppy with them or outright telling them to “Fuck off”… well, that’s not really tipping the scales so if everyone doesn’t mind, I think I’ll hold back on crying “Reverse oppression” just yet. I will say to other people who call people out, exercise some self-care. Sometimes stepping away is a good idea, not for the sake of someone else, but for the sake of your own mental health and wellness. I don’t think everyone has an obligation to call out everything and I understand that not everyone has the mental or physical energy for it.
This article was published in October 2012 and last updated in September 2014.