Thursday, July 31, 2014

Why conversations with your man could be even MORE instructive!

I found a feminist article that disagrees with the argument I laid out in my last two posts that social activists should speak differently to those who are not yet part of the movement than they do amongst themselves. Her post, titled “Occasionally Conversations with my Man Are Instructive” is structured as the transcript of a conversation she claims to have had with her male partner about the tone feminists use online. I’ll respond to certain excerpts below.

When the male partner observed “the way you express things sometimes, isn’t it just making it easier for men to get defensive?” our feminist friend replied:

“No. What we aren’t doing is taking care of them. Nurturing them. Putting their feelings first. Looking out for them, making things safe for them. We aren’t making them the center. We’re talking just the way we’d talk, the way we do talk, when y’all aren’t around.”

Well, I’d say what she isn’t doing is delivering an effective message to her audience. This is because talking the way you talk when others aren’t around is a really bad strategy when others are, in fact, around. When you’re trying to convince somebody of a thing, you have to make them the center, because they’re the one you’re trying to convince. You already get it, they don’t. But our friend continues:

"And you know sometimes that gets ugly, but the thing to do then is to remember: Everything else IS centered around y'all. Everything else--you guys got the talk radio to take care of you, the ESPN, the CNN, the New York Times, the advertising industry--you can't bask in all that adoration day in and day out and then pitch a fit because a handful of blogs on the internet don't recognize your awesomeness. Or I mean, you can pitch a fit, go right ahead, but it's not going to end with me bringing you your binky and kissing your forehead. It's going to end with my foot in your ass."

Well, no – it’s going to end with feminism’s failure to enact as much change as it could and should given the strength of its actual ideas. This is because human beings in generally unable to decenter themselves from their own opinions. If you think it’s sort of pathetic that people of all genders and sexes and sexualities are so self-absorbed that they need to make everything about them, you’re right. If you find it sort of irritating that human nature makes people more receptive to ideas they don’t feel threatened by, you’re right. If you find it inconvenient to baby people and hold their hand and constantly reassure them that we’re not attacking them and that they’re not a bad person, you’re right. But we should do it anyway, because we can’t change human nature and that’s how minds are changed.

To me, the willingness to do that is what separates activists primarily concerned with enacting change from those primarily concerned with self-affiliation, or manicuring how they themselves appear to their activist peers. In other words, those feminists who make a big, showy, condescending public stink about the not-yet-feminists who inevitably “make it all about them”…are in truth only doing it to make it all about them. They are gleefully gloating in their progressivism, hoping for social kudos and slaps on the back from fellow progressives, instead of being the bigger woman and explaining it to the ignorant person in non-condescending terms.

Our feminist friend counters:

"It's not as hard if you move yourself out of the center of everything, though. That's what I finally got through my thick skull. It's not ABOUT me, always.”

When you spend enormous portions of your time blogging about sex and race and privilege, and reading other people’s blogs about sex and race and privilege, it’s a lot easier to isolate yourself from the collectives being described. I know this because I too meet that description, and was able to do it. But both she and I must realize that the vast majority of people on the planet do not do that, and will never do that, and thus will never be able to isolate themselves the way we can. Look at it as a sort of feminist privilege: you, unlike those less educated than you, are adequately immersed in intersectional thinking that you can read scathing criticism of your demographic’s unjust and oppressive behavior without feeling personally resistant to the ideology driving the criticism.

What our ally calls “finally getting through her thick skull” is better described as training oneself to shut off instinctual defensive reactions that the vast majority of human beings on the planet – the exact same majority feminists must win to their way of thinking if they want change to occur – will never train themselves to shut off. Everyone in the entire world, regardless of their demographic or relative amount of privilege, puts themselves first. Everyone sees things from their own perspective, and filters things through the lens of “how does this affect me? What does this mean for me?”

Contrary to what our ally implies, this is not a symptom of sexism, or a byproduct of the patriarchy teaching men to make everything about them. The recent #solidarityisforwhitewomen infighting shows that women and blacks and homosexuals every other demographic does it just as much as guys do. It’s just human nature! We cannot change the way people naturally respond to various tactics, even if those responses are self-absorbed. But we can alter our tactics so as to produce a different response in other people, which is better aligned with our interests as social reformers.

You should do this not because you have to, but because you’re the one who cares. You’re the one who’s supposed to give a shit about the outcome of this conversation. You’re the one who should enter the discussion with the objective of a canvasser trying to get another signature on your petition. If it dissolves, and the other person shrugs and goes about their business having learned nothing about feminism except that its members treated him rudely, you’re still right and he’s still wrong – but you’re the one who’s failed.


Feminism’s fighting an uphill battle as it is, because the communication of its message is already impeded by sexism and misogyny. It is sad to see it further impeded, needlessly, by our tactics themselves.

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