Last week I went up to bat over a comment a friend made that felt particularly reductive. A photo of me holding my friend's hands and staring longingly into his eyes sparked this whole conversation. The comment came as a joke. All that matters is I FELT it was reductive so I tried to eschew the comedy and widen the perspective a bit. I'll admit I might have gone on the offensive a little too quickly (it had been a crappy day.)
Still, one thing led to another - our back-and-forth turned to a gender discussion. You can imagine a conversation about gender between two white, straight, cis-gendered males failed epically to encompass non-cis perspectives well. We went from that to the standard "Why did you have to react so sharply? Can't you take a joke." Rhetoric. The conversation did not move very far past that point.
I understand perfectly my friend's annoyance. His comment wasn't intended to hurt anyone's feelings. It wasn't particularly insulting or mean-spirited. Here he was getting accosted by my know-it-all self staring down the bridge of my nose to correct him. What did he do to deserve this? He's a perfectly well-behaved ally to non-cis gendered people. Our conversation was a private conversation between three friends. What's all the hubbub about?
The longer our debate went on the more I felt like I was falling into some trap. I didn't want to police anybody's speech. I'm all for freedom of speech, but couldn't he see the error of his ways? The debate raged on. I was just as guilty for saying offensive and reductive comments as my friend. Maybe even more so. I lacked the perspective of a non-cis gendered person. Who was I to speak up on anyone's behalf? He's not wrong about those points either. Try as I might I'm no Person of the Year. Instead here I was policing my friend's speech like the liberal snowflake Tomi Lahren wants me to be. How'd I get to this spot?
Well for one, I've been where my friend was. I knew all those rhetorical points all too well. They've failed me before so I no longer trust them. They're red flags to me and maybe that's what drove me leap so quickly to conclusions.
Secondly, I wrote about this phenomenon previously. Or, rather, a particularly good film critic wrote about it. His thesis boils down to: t
- he privileged people have the luxury of acting indignant or shameful when they get called out.
- Neither are productive responses.
- Listening is the appropriate response.
I wrote previously about the necessity for privileged people to walk alongside oppressed people.
My exact words:
"we can't be silent, neither can we scream harshly. Our words matter more than we give them credit for."
So, did I do the wrong thing? My dad seems to think it was an entirely unnecessary debate.
- Are we really beholden to calling out our friends when POC, non-cis gendered people, or any oppressed minority aren't there?
- Are we obligated to say something over our private conversations?
- Would I want all of my reductive moments exposed to me?
- Would I be able to communicate if I couldn't say offensive or reductive things?
My general theory is that evicting even the simplest reductive comments from our language requires less energy than we consider. It shouldn't be that hard to just not say something. Right?
It felt like a micro-aggression. I just kept thinking "if we can say this kind of stuff in private what's to prevent us from saying it in public?" I wrote previously that there's a nuanced approach.
- Did I pick the right fight?
- Or should I have saved my energy and rhetoric for "the real fight"?
Well, in this metaphor the real fight is everywhere. It starts at home, in our personal lives. It starts with us drawing attention to those reductive comments. I don't like when someone makes assumptions about me based off of my religion or skin color or gender or what-have-you so I shouldn't reduce anyone either. That seems right to me. So why do I feel so crappy when I tried to do what I thought was the right thing?
I don't want you to think this is a self-deprecating "I'm an idiot" blog post. Instead my sweet lady friend sent me advice I once wrote that I think sums up my experience perfectly:
(EXCUSE THE SOLIPSISM PLEASE!!!)
"those of us privileged enough to remain silent are obligated to speak up. But in a helpful, healthy way.
Look, I know it's a tall order. You have to speak, but if you do it wrong you'll get thrown under the bus. It's a thin line to tread, but we're obligated to tread it. It's saddening to see we operate in less and less morally grey areas, but it's been my biggest lesson this summer: if it feels a little crazy to you (the privileged person) then it's probably righteous to the oppressed (those not so privileged.) I'm working to tread that line every day. Sometimes I fail and I'm lucky enough to catch myself. Sometimes I succeed in accompanying oppressed people. Occasionally I get it right."
This past week might've been a week of me failing to advocate properly. Still, I'm better for trying and failing than for never trying at all. Right?