Outraged Beyond Your Understanding: On Listening to Minority Voices

This whole Tosh thing is making me think about how, in our culture, we discuss problems that disproportionately affect a certain group of people.

For example, one thing I noticed as I read as many articles about Toshgate (and their accompanying comments) as I could stomach is that the people defending Tosh were almost always men. There were a few women scattered in there, to be sure, but that number seemed almost negligible. In fact, there were many more men decrying Tosh than there were women defending him.

What I wonder is why this basic demographic disparity did not seem to give any of Tosh’s defenders any pause. Given that Tosh’s comment was targeted at a woman, and given that his “jokes” dealt with rape–which disproportionally affects women–shouldn’t women’s voices be given extra attention in this debate? Can men reasonably tell women how to feel about a terrible situation that they are much more likely than men to face?

Here are some more examples.

1. When the viral Kony2012 campaign sprung up this past spring, many people jumped on board despite strong criticisms from people who know what they’re talking about. Specifically, as I mentioned when I wrote about it back then, tons of African writers and activists were speaking out against the campaign and explaining how Invisible Children had misrepresented the conflict in Uganda. Yet the founders of the campaign and the people who donated to it seemed to think that they knew better how to solve the problem.

2. It would be difficult not to notice the fact that, in this country, men seem to dictate women’s reproductive rights. Most of the anti-abortion legislation being introduced all over the country is drafted by men and signed by men. The panel of witnesses testifying on the issue of mandating insurance coverage for birth control was almost entirely male. The journalists and commentators who discuss reproductive rights are overwhelmingly male. Men are obviously, ahem, part of the reproductive process and are entitled to have opinions on it. But shouldn’t the people who actually use the birth control, obtain the abortions, and birth the babies have the final say?

3. Embarrassingly enough given what century we’re living in, there are still people who insist that gay, lesbian, and bisexual folks are somehow out to “convert” everyone to homosexuality as if it were a religion, that they’re more promiscuous than straight people, that they make terrible parents, and that they’re asking for “extra” rights that others do not have (for instance, you know, hospital visitation rights–never heard of anyone who has those!). Aside from being appallingly bigoted, such people have clearly not spent any time interacting with–and, more importantly, listening to–actual LGB people.

4. And here’s an example from my own life. When I was a freshman in college, two students painted their faces black on Halloween and dressed up as African American celebrities. In other words, they wore blackface. The campus erupted in controversy, with some people decrying the costumes as racist and others wondering what all the fuss is about.

I was initially in the latter camp. I just didn’t think that this was racist. Yeah, it was kind of stupid and insensitive, but so what? People do stupid things all the time, etc. etc. Furthermore, it seemed to me that all of the students who were furious about the incident–including many African American students–were making a big deal out of nothing.

But then I realized that, to be blunt, my opinion doesn’t matter. It’s not my history that was being painfully brought up. It wasn’t my culture that was being mocked. Once I took the time to listen to the people who did have a personal stake in what happened, I understood why it was a big deal. I also realized that my ignorance about blackface and the fact that it didn’t personally offend me was not because I’m “stronger” than the people who were offended or because I’m more “rational” and “don’t take things personally.” It was simply because I’m white, and blackface wasn’t something I ever had to think about.

I’m not saying that you’re not allowed to have an opinion on an issue that doesn’t directly affect you, or that you shouldn’t share it. I’m saying that, before you solidify that opinion (and especially before you share it), you should listen to the people who are affected by the issue. You should try to figure out why they disagree with you and find out whether or not there’s anything you might be missing. Even if you don’t end up changing your mind, at least you’ve made your opinion more informed.

It’s also good to keep in mind that the members of a particular group are never a monolith. I certainly know African American students who didn’t think the blackface thing was a big deal. I read about women politicians who seek to limit their fellow women’s reproductive rights. There must’ve been Ugandans who liked the Kony2012 campaign. That’s why it’s good to familiarize yourself with all of the arguments about a particular issue before you choose what to think about it.

What seems to be lacking in our culture is the willingness to listen to the voices of people who are actually affected by the issues we’re discussing. We claim that people of color are just “playing the race card.” We claim that women just need to “learn how to take a joke.” We claim that LGBT folks just want “special rights.”

Why don’t we trust that people who belong to marginalized groups understand their own situation better than we do (or at least just as well)? Why do we assume that their interpretations are necessarily colored by a “victim mentality” or a desire to extort some sort of unearned benefits from the rest of us.

There probably are some people who think and act in ways that keep themselves feeling like victims. But they tend to be people who have been pushed down so much that they no longer know how to pick themselves up. The psychological term for that is “learned helplessness.” Experience teaches such people that none of their efforts make any difference, and even if they reach a point at which making an effort would help, they’re already convinced that it won’t. Incidentally, this acquired trait is correlated with depression. (And it is an acquired trait–people aren’t just born with it. Yes, not even women and minorities.)

In short, most people who have been dealt a fair hand in life have no reason to feel and act like victims. Those who do have probably not been dealt a fair hand. Such people don’t want extra rights or benefits that others don’t have. They want–to use that dreaded term–a level playing field.

It is also true that most people tend to act in their own self-interest. Women and minorities do have a vested interest in advocating for rights and fair treatment, because everyone does. People who oppose social justice causes tend to fixate on this as a reason not to give them said rights and fair treatment, as if wanting to improve your lot in life somehow makes you more “biased” than the rest of us.

But what these opponents ignore is that they themselves have a vested interest in ignoring the demands of women and minorities. Because it’s easier to ignore them. It’s easier not to care about what comedians say on stage because it’s “just humor” and if you don’t like it you can just walk out. It’s easier not to bother drafting, implementing, and enforcing legislation that makes workplace discrimination illegal. It’s easier to ignore racist acts on campus than to find the students responsible and discipline them. It’s easier not to think of yourself as a contributor, even a minor one, to systems like racism, sexism, and homophobia.

What I notice a lot is that, in responding to an event that has offended someone else, people tend to go, “Well I’m not offended so why should anybody else be? I don’t think this is wrong, so why should anybody else think so?” Many people, it seems, have a very limited ability to put themselves into others’ shoes, let alone walk in them. But to assume that we all think and feel the same way–or ought to–is a huge mistake.

What I’m saying can be summarized by a sentence I once found in a comment on a mostly-unrelated but excellent blog post. It goes like this:

“Those who are outraged beyond your understanding have probably been hurt beyond your experience.”

Those who are outraged beyond your understanding have probably been hurt beyond your experience.

Next time you are confused, skeptical, and dismissive towards someone else’s outrage, see if you can learn more about their experience.

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