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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In Defense of Cynicism

I’ve been thinking about cynicism a lot lately, for no particular reason aside from the fact that I am a cynic.

According to the actual definition, a cynic is either an adherent of the Greek philosophical school of cynicism, and/or simply a person who believes that human actions are motivated by selfishness (or rational self-interest, to put it more euphemistically).

While I do happen to believe that, I think the word “cynic” has taken on a slightly different, more general meaning, and that is the one that I usually think of when I call myself that. This general definition is that a cynic is a person who sees the faults in things more clearly than most.

Obviously, this entire blog is an expression of that particular trait of mine, and that’s why people seem to either love it or hate it–for the most part, you either “get” cynicism or you don’t.

I think, though, that at least when it comes to politics and social justice, cynicism isn’t nearly as miserable and self-defeating as people think it is. Most intelligent people, if pressed, will admit that there are some serious problems in our society. However, they will tell you that none of this will ever change, that it’s depressing to even think about, and that it’s best to focus your attention on friends, family, work, hobbies.

But we “cynics,” who point out all these problems and analyze them so enthusiastically, seem to actually enjoy the process of unearthing trouble, even if the things we find often disgust and dismay us. The reason the process is so rewarding is because we know that we’re crawling along towards change, and that the more people we urge to care with our commentary, the faster that crawl will go.

So who’s the real cynic?

Of course, there are certainly people out there who cannot remain informed about societal problems while still holding on to their mental health. To such people, I would obviously say to take care of yourself first.

But I think that most people who protest that being critical is “depressing” are selling themselves short. What’s truly depressing is to feel like you have to deceive yourself into believing that everything’s just awesome because you can’t change it anyway.

Cynicism may not be the right word for my approach, but I don’t think there really is one. For instance, calling myself a “critical” person sends an equally distorted message, because it makes it sound like I criticize things for the sake of criticizing them. I don’t. I criticize them because they need to be criticized, and because we all stand to gain from criticizing them.

Instead, I like to call my philosophy “optimistic cynicism.” Or, you know–hope.

Why I Abandoned Conservatism

To most people who don’t know it already, here’s something that will probably come as a surprise: until about two years ago, I was a far-right conservative.

No, really, I was. Here are some things that I believed when I was a conservative. I believed that there is no real racism or sexism anymore. A Black man is president and women can work outside the home, so none of that. I thought same-sex couples should not be able to get married because that’s not what marriage means. And they definitely shouldn’t be able to adopt children because then the children would also become gay and we can’t have that.

I thought that the government has no right to tell people how to live, except when it does. It has no right to take our taxes and use them to help poor people, because poor people just don’t try hard enough. I thought that lowering taxes makes people spend more, always. I thought that affirmative action is exactly the same thing as racism, because after all, you’re doing things based on people’s skin color.

I believed that the United States has the responsibility to spread democracy throughout the world, by use of force if necessary. Needless to say, I applauded both of our recent wars. I thought that global warming was either a lie or at least an exaggeration, and even if it wasn’t, the government has no right to dictate what we do with the environment, anyway.

I pitied the women who went out carelessly and got themselves raped. I thought the justice system generally does its job, so if rapists weren’t getting convicted, that probably means they didn’t really do it. I thought false rape accusations were a much bigger problem, in fact.

I adored Clarence Thomas, George Bush, Antonin Scalia, Ann Coulter, and, of course, Ronald Reagan. I reserved a particular hatred for Al Gore and Barack Obama.

I believed that abortion was murder, and that it should be illegal in almost all cases.

I figure I’m supposed to be terribly ashamed and contrite about all of this, but truthfully, I’m not. I was a teenager, first of all, and second, I don’t know what I could’ve done to find any other narrative. There are a number of reasons why I was a conservative, and they were chiefly these:

  • because my family was
  • because I grew up in suburban Ohio
  • because our K-12 education teaches us that the American government is Good, that laws are Just, that the justice system Works, and so on
  • because children tend to believe that their values and morals should be everyone’s values and morals
  • because I didn’t have access to the sort of critical analysis that encourages examination of one’s politics–until I got to college

So there you have it. Once I got to college, I took some sociology classes and quickly became a moderate. Then I took more classes, read more, made more friends, read much more, got involved in sexual health activism, got involved in other types of activism, started to see how everything in our society interacts with each other, read some more, and developed the ideology that I have now.

That ideology is something I call progressivism because I favor change in a positive direction. I don’t think that things are fine as they are. I don’t think we should just calm down and stop whining. I don’t think humanity has reached its potential and I don’t think it’ll reach it for a very, very long time. I think our intellect and our compassion are two human qualities that do not get used nearly enough.

People always ask me how I made such a 180-degree shift in politics. I don’t really know how it happened, perhaps because it happened while I was in the midst of a major depression, which means I don’t remember anything too well. But everyone asks that–my friends, my readers, my professors. My therapist asked me today.

I think the way I changed is that I started looking beneath the surface more. Why are there so many Black men in prison? Is it because Black men are naturally predisposed to crime? Apparently not. For instance, in California in 2011, African Americans were 12 times more likely than non-African Americans to be imprisoned on drug-related felony charges, but studies show that African Americans are no more likely to use and sell drugs than anyone else (in fact, they may be less likely to). What’s going on?

That’s just one small example. I learned dozens upon dozens of such examples over the past few years, about everything. About women, people of color, the environment, food policy, agriculture, mental health, disability, LGBT folks, the poor, drug policy, city planning, wars, guns, education, sexual assault, business, discrimination laws, religion, the media, language, abortion, sex ed, obesity, scientific research, healthcare, elections, the Supreme Court, college, advertising, fashion, feminism, queer theory, money.

My head is overflowing with this information and yet I learn more and more of it every day. Whereas I used to think that each person is an individual who makes choices that are absolutely his or her own, I now know that we are acted upon by countless societal forces at every moment. I still do believe that people should strive for independence, but that can’t happen without gaining a deep understanding of these forces.

Do I have a solution for all of this? No. And frankly, I’m kind of tired of people demanding me to provide them with solutions. If I thought I could save the world, I’d be a politician. And I’d be wrong.

But sooner or later, we as a society will stumble upon solutions, slowly but surely.

Everything is connected. Everything is politics. Everything affects you, even in some little way, somehow.

That’s why I am no longer a conservative.

That’s why this is not “just a phase,” “youthful idealism,” or “naivete.”

My exact views on specific issues will change throughout my life, but what won’t is my awareness of the fact that none of us live inside a bubble, no matter how much we may wish that we did.

The graphing calculator I used in high school had a big ol’ John McCain 2008 sticker on it. I rocked that damn sticker. Now I have stickers from Planned Parenthood, the Human Rights Campaign, and Occupy Chicago. It’s kind of both fun and sad to look back at who I used to be. But I’m not ashamed. We all did stupid things in high school, and honestly, I could’ve done worse than plaster McCain stickers on things and rant about how evil feminism is.

Difficult ≠ Impossible

I’m going to come out of my cave and write about something that pisses me off. (OK, so I could start any blog post this way, but whatever.)

Here’s something that I consider one of the most glaring cultural problems in America today–it’s the idea that just because something is difficult, it is impossible and not worth trying. Our culture has become a deeply pessimistic one, and the message that it sends these days is “Oh, forget it, we could never change that anyway.”

Don’t believe me? Well, you should, because I’m right. There’s a reason that the issues that land on the political agenda are fairly simple–go to war, or not go to war. Allow gay marriage, or not allow gay marriage. Raise the debt ceiling, or don’t raise it.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying these issues aren’t fraught with difficulties of their own. But they are very simple–yes or no. Right or wrong. Do, or don’t.

The issues that don’t really get talked about much are the complex ones. How to fix our education system. How to achieve equality between women and men, and between whites and people of color. How to create a more just and sustainable food system. How to end our addiction to oil. How to end the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. How to encourage democracy to take root in other parts of the world without shoving it down people’s throats.

To be sure, our government does things to try and ameliorate these issues somewhat, but they’re always band-aid solutions to broken-bone problems. For instance, George W. Bush tried to “fix” our schools with No Child Left Behind. President Obama issued empty threats to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to stop settlement building, with no regard for the religious and political complexities that the settlement issue dredges up. Then there’s that little Iraq thing. As for our screwed-up food system, racial justice, and ditching the oil habit, I don’t think anything’s being done at all.

Try coming up to an older person (by which I mean, someone old enough to have their own kids) and talking to them about these issues. About education, about food, about the racism still embedded deep within our society. Ten bucks says they tell you something like, “Yeah, it’d be great if that could get fixed, but face it–it’s never gonna happen.”

Why? Why the hell not?

Well, because it’s hard.

People think that these things are never gonna get fixed because it’s so hard to fix them. And by hard, I mean like when you’re trying to do a math problem and you don’t even know where to start. You’re completely stuck. Nothing you’ve ever learned is going to help you here.

The stuff that gets in the news, like gay marriage, the debt ceiling, and all of that sort of stuff, is different from these issues because, despite our disagreement on them, we know what to do. We either vote yes, or no. But you can’t vote “yes” or “no” on education reform or on ending racism, because you have to figure out what the hell to actually do about it.

Note what a clusterfuck occurs when our government actually tries to take on a complex and nuanced issue–for instance, healthcare reform. It nearly stops functioning. Our culture is terrified of complexity.

Usually when young people like me talk about fixing some of these complicated problems, older people call us “idealists.” (And that’s at best–sometimes they use less charitable labels.) To me, all that’s saying is that we’re willing to think about and talk about things that are hard, and “realistic” people are not.

Well, realism is dooming this country. Realists are people who don’t think we can stop global warming, who don’t think we can have just and efficient healthcare, education, and food systems, who don’t think we can ever achieve equality between sexes, races, socioeconomic classes, or sexual orientations.

And guess what? If you tell yourself you can’t do something, it’s not going to get done.

And anyway, isn’t that a terribly demoralizing thing to say? I think we’re selling ourselves short when we say that we can’t solve complex problems like these. After all, the human race invented democracy, finance and agriculture, created the Mona Lisa, painted the Sistine Chapel, put a man on the moon, eradicated polio, and set up the Internet. Do our accomplishments really end there?

Just because something is difficult does not mean it’s impossible. Things that are impossible, at least with our current knowledge and technology, are traveling through time, sprouting wings and flying, curing cancer, and turning lead into gold. But things that are merely difficult? Well, that’s just about everything else.

Who Has it Worse?

There’s a game we progressives sometimes inadvertently play. I like to call it “Who’s More Oppressed?”

You can probably guess what I’m talking about here. It’s the tendency of social justice-oriented people to engage in lengthy polemics regarding “who has it worse.” Is it Black lesbians? Is it transsexual Hispanic men? Is it lower-class white teenage mothers?

In fact, some (quite liberal) friends and I recently tried to figure out which identities the hypothetical most oppressed person in the world would have. (I’ll leave the conclusion up to your imagination.)

I encountered a less dramatic form of this argument recently on (where else) Tumblr. A male user had responded to a graphic against slut-shaming with the comment, “Try to nail every girl you know? Douchebag. Try to be civil with every girl you know? Fuckin friend-zoned. It works both ways.”

A user named, of course, “stfuconservatives” reblogged the post and added some commentary to it, claiming that being called a slut is worse than being “friend-zoned” and that women have it worse than men. Further comments on that post agreed with stfuconservatives and generally bemoaned the preponderance of sexism in this world.

Let’s step back for a minute. Yes, being called a slut is awful. Nobody should ever call someone that. Period.

Besides which, what this guy wrote and the way in which he wrote it is definitely quite presumptuous and entitled-sounding. However, for the sake of argument, I’ll play devil’s advocate and take his perspective. First of all, he never said that this men’s issue is worse than being called a slut is for a woman, which is what the responders claim he says. But in fact, he specifically says, “It works both ways.” What does that NOT imply? That men have it worse. This man never said that he finds it appropriate to call a woman a slut, or that he doesn’t think this is a problem. Let’s not put words into his mouth.

Furthermore, why this immediate assumption that this man’s claim does not deserve attention? Several commenters immediately point out that they themselves have never “friend-zoned” a guy for being nice. Perhaps not. But this issue is one that I have heard mentioned by guys many, many times, and it strikes at the heart of the conflict between masculinity and sensitivity that most (if not all) American men have to face. This culture glorifies the “Bad Boy,” and men are taught from an early age that being a man means being callous and aloof. Rape culture permeates through our society, teaching men that inducing women to have sex with them is a worthy goal.

On a personal level, every “nice guy” I know has experienced at least one situation in which a girl he liked picked an asshole over him. In fact, when I was younger, I did this all the time. I don’t know why women do it. But it happens. There’s no need to pretend that this isn’t an issue, because it is, and it should be addressed.

Finally–and this relates to a topic I’ll be addressing in a later post–the name “stfuconservatives” (means “shut the fuck up, conservatives,” for those who aren’t familiar with chatspeak) is just so damn wrong. How will progressives benefit from silencing those who disagree with us? Argument and debate not only causes us to strengthen our ability to defend our own views, but it also reminds us that we might not be right about everything, and that many different perspectives exist in the world. These perspectives should be valued, respected, and engaged with.

But back to my original point. What good, exactly, does it do to argue about who has it worse? Why can’t we acknowledge that even groups that we associate with privilege can have issues, and that different kinds of privilege operate in different social contexts? There are so many different kinds of prejudice and stereotypes.

For what it’s worth, I’m glad that I’m a woman, and I can act as kind and generous with men as I want without them relegating me to the status of friend (and nothing more). I’m glad that when it comes to dating, being the person I truly want to be–caring, sensitive, and witty–actually helps me get dates and find relationships, rather than hurting my chances.

Ultimately, I think it’s unfair to make any claims about who has it worse. Each of us sees the world through our particular lens. In terms of things like access to employment opportunities, salaries, historical discrimination, and reproductive justice, women undoubtedly have it worse. But how about being expected to get a job that can provide for a family? How about being drafted to fight in wars? How about being expected to show little emotion, to know how to do practical things around the house, to love sports and be athletic, to propose marriage?

Who has it worse is irrelevant. Let’s fight for social justice without trampling on any group, whether it’s traditionally “privileged” or not. What this comes down to is choosing to speak, write, and argue in ways that are inclusive, rather than exclusive. Like it or not, about half the world is men. There’s no need to make them feel like we don’t care about their viewpoints.