Liberals, bullies, unicorns etc.

I came across this post on the excellent Consider the Tea Cosy blog, which touches on a few issues I’ve been thinking about recently regarding the rules of engagement within what I’m going to call ‘oppression-conscious spaces’ (i.e. the various ultra-PC ‘social justice’ countercultures, particularly online) and how they can work in ways that are counterproductive and self-marginalising.

The piece refers to two other pieces – The Unicorn Ally and Liberal Bullying: Privilege-checking and semantics-scolding as internet sport - which talk about different aspects of the issue. There’s a lot to unpack so I’m just going to pull out the main points of both and then get straight to what I want to add to the discussion.

The first talks about how allies are sometimes subject to contradictory demands which can make it impossible to know how to intervene helpfully in a way that will be welcome:

So, here are the contradictions as I see them. As an ally, my job is to not impose my own beliefs of what’s ‘right’, but instead amplify the voices of the oppressed people that I’m trying to be an ally for. Except that I shouldn’t bug them about educating me, because that’s not what they’re there for. And it’s my duty to talk about the issue of oppression in question, because it’s the job of all of us, rather than the oppressed people, to fix it. Except that when I talk, I shouldn’t be using my privilege to drown out the voices of the oppressed people. Also, I should get everything right, 100% of the time. Including the terminology that the oppressed people in question themselves disagree on.

The second talks about how ‘calling people out’ on problematic behaviour can sometimes turn into a kind of semantic bloodsport performed for an audience rather than a useful form of political intervention:

[it's a] new form of online performance art, where internet commenters make public sport of flagging potentially problematic language as insensitive, and gleefully flag authors as needing to check their privilege

So first off, where do these apparent contradictions come from and how do we deal with them?

I think the first thing to recognise is that the Rules For Allies have come largely from specific complaints and insights from activists in specific contexts in meatspace1 (the ‘real’ physical world) and don’t necessarily transfer well across contexts, particularly from the meatspace world of physical action to the cyberspace world of linguistic interaction. They are tools for understanding why certain behaviours are problematic in certain contexts, but unfortunately seem to have been codified as general rules for all times and places.

1. The use of the term ‘meatspace’ here is to avoid the implication that interactions in the physical world are more ‘real’ or more important than those in cyberspace.

For example, the idea of refusing to educate is a response to a specific problem: that of privileged people working alongside groups of marginalised people preventing things from being done because they keep asking the group to educate them on why certain things are oppressive or problematic. So it makes sense within the context of, say, a feminist organisation that men who want to help are expected to educate themselves, or to ask to be educated somewhere else at some other time, and if they don’t understand the discussion that’s their problem rather than the problem of the group. That helps make sure things get done. But, for example when you engage someone in discussion because they’ve done or said something oppressive and then refuse to explain to them what they’ve done on the basis that it’s not your job to educate, well that’s still your right, but it doesn’t really accomplish much. In online spaces particularly, education is about the only thing you can do that will make a difference, short of DDoSing servers or whatever.

The contradiction around disagreement usually isn’t about it being bad to disagree per se with someone less privileged than you, it’s a question of how you disagree. There is no universal set of ideas or political positions that will prevail thoughout any specific oppressed class, so if you do anything at all you’re going to end up disagreeing with someone. But there are different ways of disagreeing and it’s important to disagree respectfully. Sometimes that means shutting the fuck up if the other person doesn’t want to listen. At all times, it means listening at least as much as you talk and being conscious of how you might have the ability to silence other and engaging on the basis that you’re working together to discuss political differences in a way that benefits the struggle, rather than trying to prove yourself right.

Turning to the issue around ‘call out culture’ as a form of bullying, it’s important to recognise that since marginalised people are still just people rather than Heroic Victims some of them are going to be assholes. They are granted a limited degree of power within a very limited sphere, that is, the right to define their oppression and to expect others to listen and adjust their behaviour accordingly within oppression-conscious spaces. For the most part, this is really beneficial, as it creates a countercultural space where the experiences of the oppressed count for something and, in my experience, this limited form of power is usually used in a reasonable way. Inevitably, someone is going to abuse this in order to bully and control people, or because they enjoy watching people squirm as they try to adhere to mutually contradictory demands, but nobody is under any obligation to allow themselves to be bullied. If you are unable to engage with someone in a way that is constructive and which furthers the political struggle against oppressions, then the most useful thing you can do is probably to disengage.

I think ‘call out culture’ can be useful and it can be problematic – again, it’s context dependent. Sometimes, having the politically correct brigade jump down someone’s throat can be useful in imposing negative consequences for hateful speech or oppressive actions; sometimes, it means bullying someone who’s genuinely doing their best, and it’s important that we learn to differentiate.

In general, I think it’s useful to see these things as political tools (or weapons) to be employed when needed in the pursuit of specific political goals rather than moral imperatives.

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