Tuesday, April 12, 2011

On Eating Our Own.

Here's something I'm still conflicted about: finding a statement that is basically feminist, basically accepting, but has some flaws, and tearing it to fucking shreds. It's the old problem of "homophobia is retarded"; do you say "hell yes, thank you for accepting gay people," or do you say "do you have some kind of fucking problem with mental disabilities or have you just never considered you're insulting real people there?" The second is more fair, more correct. But it also runs the risk of making someone who's just starting to come around to your side decide that your side is a bunch of unpleasable Language Police who derive more joy from proving others wrong than from actually doing anything right.

I'm honestly torn on "homophobia is retarded." I have the feeling that I "should" come out against it, but I think it depends on context. If the person saying it is pretty new to the idea of not being homophobic, and if they're using "retarded" thoughtlessly and without intended malice, I'd really let it slide, or be very gentle in correcting them. I'd rather have an imperfect ally. On the other hand, if someone is an established ally and is just throwing words around, then it is the time to call them out on "hey, that language really isn't okay."

And then again, I'm sorry, but there really are people who are do spend all their time eating their own, who never found a statement so open-minded that they couldn't call it "TOTAL FUCKING BULLSHIT" for not being open-minded enough. There's an example here. I like the comic. I think it's sweet and funny and so gay. It's envisioning a better world. And then in the comments underneath it gets ripped apart as "shitty and cissexist" with "so many fucking problems."

I don't prioritize gay rights over trans rights. But I prioritize rights movements over the endless internal criticism of those movements. Sometimes that criticism is right and necessary (as when feminist movements veer toward being Rich White Straight Ladies' Liberation), but it should never eat the movement. Progress should not be abandoned in favor of perfection. SMBC is a comic with a wide audience and probably quite a few of them do say "that's so gay." Getting them to think about that literally is a really good thing. If it could be done in a way that included some more permutations of "gay," I guess that would be better, but this isn't bad.

If someone is 98% on your side, you know what? Cut them some slack. Otherwise you might have to actually deal with the people who aren't on your side at all. They're a whole lot meaner.


  1. Your link leads back here, and not to an entertaining comic!

  2. Your first link is to this post, so I don't know which comic you're referring to.

    And I disagree. Praise and criticize, you can do both things at the same time. JUST criticizing can be very bad for making someone feel welcome, I agree, but refraining from it just because someone is slightly better than average is just lowering my standards.

    It is not about not accepting someone who is not 100% on my side, it is about making people think about their choice of (words | images | ideas). In the finer points of feminism, it's hard to find someone who agrees with everything you think - and so discussing that can help everyone involved in the dialogue better.

    And lastly, I've never heard (of) anyone like the hypothetical person going "your side is a bunch of unpleasable Language Police [etc]" who then went back to being homophobic. I've only seen people either not change their minds, or apologize and start thinking about it.

  3. It feels worse, though. It really does.

    I'm not saying that a cis gay person making a cissexist comment is worse than having the shit beat out of you by a cis straight person, or losing a job, or a home, or whatever, because you're trans.

    But a comment from that 98% person hurts worse than the same comment from anyone else.

    Yeah, you're right, but... it's difficult to ignore your gut emotion.

  4. Right, upon reading the fixed link: I feel like you're just asking people to be silent about their rights now, and that is after reading the disclaimers you put in your post. SMBC is very popular and does not need anyone to shield it from criticism. "Be happy with what you got/what they give you" is a terrible philosophy for oppressed people.

  5. Kewangji - It happened to me. When I first started getting into feminism, I got told a lot that I was being privilege-denying in various ways, and my response was, in effect "well, fuck you all, can't make feminists happy." I wouldn't say it made me a misogynist, but it delayed me quite a lot in identifying as a feminist.

    This is kind of a complex thing, because I'm really not trying to say "people should be exempt from criticism as long as they're sorta trying." I just don't think "still not good enough" criticism should come to dominate or drown out efforts at positive change.

  6. I don't think Holly's asking for silence; I think she's asking for some moderation of stridency. To operate on an assumption of good faith, and to go from there, correcting people in a manner that isn't hostile.

  7. So, ease them into all the (to them) new ideas, don't load everything on them at once? Great advice, I support it a lot.

    Not applicable to SMBC though, at all. Whether we're happy with what Zach does or not does not diminish the effect of it.

    (But now I'm just nitpicking.)

  8. I agree. I'd recommend something along the lines of: "All of my retarded friends would take issue with that statement. They happen to think that homophobia is ignorant."

    Employing a dose of humor to gentle admonition is a way forward. Easier said than done, but better than being hostile, in my opinion.

    The perfect as an enemy of progress aphorism is a good one in this context, but I don't particularly care for it in general. It has been co-opted to hurt too many people of late.

    Your blog is pretty friggin' gay, by the way;-D

  9. I think I was about to say pretty much what Aaron said. It's generally best to operate on an assumption of good faith, unless it's later disproven.

    It's not even really about rights or movements, so much as it's about basic courtesy in interacting with other people. Asking if somebody has some kind of fucking problem is sorta flat-out rude, and beyond what's merited from a one-off use of one inappropriate word. Particularly if you don't know them well and don't know much about their genuine attitudes to things - perhaps they care a great deal about mentally disabled people, but just aren't so attentive to it as to moderate their vocabulary in all instances.

    I posted a lengthy piece on my blog a while ago, defending a journalist who'd written a newspaper article about protecting young people from homophobic discrimination. It had been widely circulated around Twitter and the blogosphere. Another blogger utterly eviscerated him, heaping personal abuse on top of numerous criticisms of what he was saying and the allegedly despicable nature of some of his attitudes.

    And the infuriating thing was, she had a lot of good points. As much as protecting young people from hate should be something we can all agree on, this journalist's piece did at times seem in danger of pathologising homosexuality, or being too quick to label kids with an unhelpfully binary gender or sexuality identity. There were many valid criticisms to be made about his piece.

    But, fundamentally, he was a good-hearted guy trying passionately to help people suffering discrimination. It's not that his errors don't deserve to be corrected simply because he's basically on the right side of things. But they didn't deserve the unmitigated vitriol which this blogger continued to hurl at him.

    This blogger identifies as anti-feminist, in part because of how many of her interactions with the feminist community have gone this way. And it's frustrating, because she'd be a good ally if she didn't tend to be so hostile that many people don't want to be on her side.

    Sorry this is so long, it's just reminded me of something I've wanted to vent about for a while.

  10. I am probably an excellent example of someone who has been put off by such attitudes. I want to help, but often when I try to help I am informed that I am using improper terminology or concepts. This got to be particularly problematic in college to the point where I decided that some of these people don't want help, they just want to whine.

  11. Abstracting away from the social justice piece if it, amongst the worst way to get anyone to do anything for you is to nitpick whatever effort they make. If you're asking someone to help you paint a room and bitch about their detail work, they're unlikely to ever help again. In some cases, it's okay to demand perfection or nothing because you can achieve your desired level of perfection without their help. I'm not convinced such an attitude helps in the area of social justice though. I suspect perfection or nothing is gonna get you a whole lotta nothing. But maybe I'm a pessimist?

  12. Ah you see, now I'm torn. Do I let that slide, Holly, because I 98% agree with you?

    No, I'd like to be able to say that I point out when people 'on my side' are wrong just as much as anyone else. You're right, you don't have to be a dick about it, but in the situation you pose, I would probably just say, 'Well, not RETARDED, but illogical and dumb. Retarded means something else.'

  13. It's only a small deal because we're neurotypical people who aren't called "retarded." We can only say it's not something to "quibble" over *because* we're not affected by it directly. And that is privilege.

    If people "decide that your side is a bunch of unpleasable Language Police who derive more joy from proving others wrong than from actually doing anything right," then they're a lot farther away than you imply. You don't get cookies for being a decent human being, and cookies is exactly what that sort of person is looking for.

    I'm trans, and trans women have a long history of being thrown under the bus in the name of furthering both feminism and LGB rights. If I point out that repealing DADT still means that trans people can't serve in the military, I'm being ungrateful. If I get irked that LGB folks want to take away trans rights from legislation to make them "easier to pass," I'm halting progress. If I say me having sex with a male isn't gay because I identify as a woman despite my penis, I'm "tearing them to shreds."

    But honestly, when I saw the comic I didn't really care. It's erasing, but I've more important things to worry about [like Weiner's rape jokes, including the one in the most recent film]. I still read him, though. But I'm also going to expect better.

    It's only nitpicking if you're not affected. And as part of a population that consistently gets nitpicked away, I don't want to be complicit when it happens to others.

  14. I agree with you that if somebody's genuinely trying, getting up in their face and screaming, "WHAT THE FUCK IS YOUR WITH YOU, YOU FUCKING IDIOTIC DOUCHEBAG?" or calling their opinions "bullshit" is a bad idea. And it is quite likely to be off-putting, because they might feel like they'll end up getting screamed at and insulted no matter what they do. And I feel like that kind of "you're full of bullshit and stupid and you suck" talk is straight-up verbally abusive regardless of context, anyway.

    But I also feel like it doesn't need to be a zero sum game either. Instead of yelling at them or insulting them, you can agree with them that homophobia is bad but gently suggest that they find another way to say that. Because homophobia is bad, but so is prejudice against people with disabilities. And frankly I find it a little confusing that this post seems to suggest that gently correcting someone isn't an option; it's either staying silent or getting up in their face and calling them names. Maybe there are times when you really need to let something go, but more often I feel like you should probably say something. Just say it without go right into "This is fucking bullshit. What's wrong with you, anyway?" mode.

  15. I hate to make the tone argument, but in this case it also is a matter of...tone. I actually think it's completely reasonable to call somebody on something they said that was messed up even if they're clearly trying to be supportive, but it's not always completely reasonable to tear them a new one over it.

  16. Homophobia is fuckin' gay.

    Also: I've certainly chosen at times to keep my mouth shut for fear of not saying exactly the right thing. But without some measure of good faith virtually anything can be misconstrued.

  17. I realize that it's only my privilege that allows me to roll my eyes and sigh at you. The fact is that while working toward self-improvement, I still have a marked dislike of being nagged at. And an even more marked dislike of being painted with the broad brush of "a lot farther away than you imply."

    You're quite welcome to be the keeper of the right and true. Shining and without compromise. And tiresome.

  18. I'm trans, and I liked the comic. But I also am willing to believe that I've gotten so accustomed to it being assumed I have a corporeal penis that I just have to shrug it off or I'll never stop wanting to punch something.

    (Because let's face it. Queer, trans, multi. I ain't NEVER getting represented in media unless I make it myself, and I've generally come to terms with it. I see myself lucky to have representations that cover two of the three!)

    As awesome as it would've been for them to say, "gay: as awesome as two people identifying as gay could be" I'm willing to settle for what they gave.

    But that's just me. I would hardly dare speak for everyone. I figure folks have as much right to be angry as I have right to be content.


  19. So what's the argument here? That those gay guys aren't gay? That their gayness is inadequate to serve as an example of gayness?

    Do you have to include every last thing under the sun when you make a point? Because that's just absurd.

  20. Put me down as another person whose initial impression of feminism was very negative for exactly this reason. Kept me ignorant for a long time.

    The fact is, learning to see and then get past one's own privilege is work, and like any work it doesn't happen all at once. When you're partway through working on something, and the only feedback you get is "Not good enough!" then you're less inclined to finish the job. (Especially when there's that cultural voice behind you saying "Who cares? That work isn't important anyway.")

    I think something along the lines of "Hey, good start. Still got a ways to go, but it's coming along." will go a lot further. At least, that's been my experience.

  21. I'll throw in my agreement as well that doing the hard intellectual and moral work of reevaluating your beliefs and attitudes is a lot more difficult when you're being sneered at for your terminology by the same side that wants you to do the reevaluating.

  22. As long as I'm stirring up trouble, I feel like adding: it took me a while to learn Internet-Social-Justice-Speak, with its rather dense and idiosyncratic uses of "correct" language. I was able to learn it, though, because I have a decent amount of free time, unlimited and unmonitored Internet access, am fluent in English, and have had formal education on related concepts.

    In other words, I think expecting people to speak Internet-Social-Justice-Speak flawlessly is a gigantic expression of privilege.

  23. "In other words, I think expecting people to speak Internet-Social-Justice-Speak flawlessly is a gigantic expression of privilege."

    Man, seriously, can you make that a blog entry all on its own because YES!

  24. Niofaps - I think there's also a point where it's a subcultural signifier that you're down with the Internet Social Justice peeps. After a while, the actual social justice served becomes somewhat entangled with the "this is a community where the cool kids talk this way" factor.

    This doesn't mean that it's wrong, just that it's not as simple as "the only decent way to communicate without hurting people."

  25. Oh absolutely.

    For example, I've ducked in and out of these communities online ever since my late teens and it's been my observation that there are always a few very noisy, active, vocal members who make it their mission to be the language police and to take down any poor, interested newbie who doesn't use inclusive enough language.

    I suppose it's a tribal mentality that will happen within any group, you've got to talk the talk. But it's like when someone comes into a new country, you need to give them some time to learn the language and more subtle nuances.

    I have a feeling I've digressed here but there's somebody with a chainsaw cutting down a tree right outside my freakin' apartment window and this is the best my brain can do!

  26. Re: Holly

    Rogan: I might be coming from a different experience of Social Justice Speak, so let me put it this way.

    I will let people call me a personality, fragment, piece, or woman maybe twice with gentle correction. More than that, and I steadily get more and more curt with them, until eventually, I just walk away.

    I'd like to believe that it doesn't take that much to call me a person or a man. Hell, I think it takes a special amount of education to KNOW words like 'alter!' You'd think it'd be EASIER to get them to use words like 'person!'

    Then again, I think I'm coming from a different ball field than I am.

  27. I recently had this experience - being "eaten by my own" - like... 30 min ago recently.

    I started identifying as a feminist about a year ago and have been diligently reading feminist blogs. Tonight I decided to drive into the fray and actually post. Nothing major, just clarified (what I thought) was a relatively minor point.

    I was eaten alive - it was awful.

    My first freaking post. Needless to say... I'm a little heartbroken. Sure, its the internet and things suck there. But I thought these were my people - we're all feminists here - that kind of thing. It is extremely discouraging.

  28. Eh, I don't really buy that Holly. I mean, I'll grant you internet access is privileged and that we simply can't expect everyone to know everything about everyone. At the same time, it's unreasonable to expect ignorance not to hurt. There are some people in the social-justice-osphere who correct people just for the sake of being corrected, but there are others who would really be hurt by casual usage of "retarded" and regard people who used the word/didn't call others on it as unsafe people. I think that's a very legitimate concern. And if the "newbie's" priority is to stop hurting people [aka: be a decent person], then when they find they do hurt people they need to say "My bad" instead of "stop being angry at me for hurting you!"

    I don't really get hurt when people forget that not all women have vaginas. But I do get really hurt when I'm misgendered, even if it's not malicious [just as many get hurt by usage of "retarded"]. And I don't think it's too much to ask that I'm allowed to express that hurt [or, preferably, allies don't make me do it by calling the perps on it so I don't have to]. If calling individuals out when their ignorance hurts others scares people away, I honestly don't think their priorities are in the right place. Do you?

    [This is more of a response to "homophobia is retarded" than the comic, by the way]

  29. Juliet - I think it's important not to confuse ignorance with malice. I know that "it's your job to educate me" is in Derailing for Dummies, but I do think education can be done without attack--and I also think that if someone's offense is really minor and really obviously unintentional (for example, depicting cis men as representing "gay," without explicitly saying that's the only way gay can be) sometimes it's better to say "yes, this is basically a good thing" than to only focus on what it's missing.

    Or to put it another way--I approve of "homophobia is wrong, but your language is hurtful to people with mental disabilities." But I've seen far too much of "YOU'RE AN ABLEIST ASSHOLE SO FUCK OFF" or things that came scarily close.

    I really can't come to one conclusion on this. I can't say "always correct people who are trying to help but fuck up" and I can't say "never do that." It's an icky "sometimes."

  30. "In other words, I think expecting people to speak Internet-Social-Justice-Speak flawlessly is a gigantic expression of privilege." so so so true! And the next comment about the subculture side of this too.

    if you're succesful in making people prefer silence over not-perfectly-worded sustaining of your rights, then your strategy is clearly wrong.

  31. I think my feeling is something between this post and your last post, half "what's the worst that could happen if I respect what this person's saying about what they need?" and half "that's not the freaking POINT."

  32. Hershele OstropolerApril 14, 2011 at 7:21 PM

    This post and the last work well together, on the theme of, people coming out of the mishmash of society don't always become entirely enlightened all at once.

  33. I know I'm late to comment, but YES, so hard.

    I went to a small liberal arts school, I know the lingo. A lot of my friends are good, thoughtful, justice-interested people who did not learn the language that official feminists (or whoever) use. There is no reason to freak out! I like to talk to them about societal issues, and when they are clumsy with language I just say something like:

    I totally know what you mean, but btw, if you're online or talking to someone who doesn't know where you're coming from, it will make more sense to them if you talk about X phenomenon in terms of Y. Using the word Y is just convention for conveying that you understand Z about X and then people won't get the wrong impression.

    No one gets offended, and they usually think about the issue in more depth because it was brought up. I certainly wouldn't want to be condemned for every stray word that come out of my mouth.

  34. See, I think this is a picture-perfect example of how classic liberal coalition-building has completely fucking broken down. We've conceded to the right the assumption that it's impossible to build a lasting and useful alliance between dissimilar ethnic groups.

    And yeah, part of the reason is that we've fucked over junior partners in those alliances in the past.

  35. This comment has been removed by the author.

  36. Hey Holly -

    This post about the overuse/misuse of trigger warnings made me think of this post, for some reason. Thought you might find it interesting.



  37. I agree with your point -- and can't stand being expected to do social justice speak -- but the example you picked really threw me.

    See, I have a developmental disability. People shout "retard" at me out the windows of cars. Every time I hear "retarded" used casually like that, it's like a slap in the face. A reminder that people like me are subhuman (note that "retard" is a sociological term more than a diagnostic one so when people use it they're referring to a broad group of people including people with brain injury, CP, and autism among others). And I know how many people see us. I can't describe it well. It's like we are more "thing" than "person". Even a lot of people you'd probably see as good people, see us that way.

    And I find it telling that using a derogatory word for us is more tolerable than many other derogatory words. I've heard that word my whole life and it has always meant something terrible, except in a very few instances where it was just a word (but you're not describing those instances, trust me). I would not mind if, say, it were a person with a language impairment using the word as a purely neutral description because they could not keep up with the latest words for people. But that is not happening in your example. I can't just breezily overlook it when a slur I've heard all my life is thrown in my face.

    If you don't understand the knife-like power of "retard" and "retarded" used as slurs and as meaning stupid... I don't know if I can explain to you. It's like an instant of understanding that I'm unwelcome and so are all of the people I spend my life with. It's seeing myself as other people see me. It's spending time with other disabled people and having the sudden intrusive overlay on my mental vision, where I and everyone else in the room suddenly turn into the creatures most people see us as, whether monstrous, subhuman, pitiful, childlike, or inspirational... it's all the same. To have that overlay over myself in private until I don't know where the image ends and I begin. There's a reason there's a campaign in the DD community to hand out little cards to anyone who uses retard or retarded in these ways.

    And it similarly hurts to hear person after person in this discussion refer to it as just a word. If you can say that, odds are that you're either not the sort of person the word is normally applied to, or among the more fortunate members of that group. To the rest of us, that word means instant knowledge of how people see us, instant reminder of segregation and bullies and abuse and not being real people. And believe me there are many people who work with us or claim to respect us who still have that mentality.

    I'm not asking anyone to jump all over people who say that word in that context. And I'm certainly not asking anyone to side with the social justice cliques (I found this post while searching for information for a post of my own about social justice speak), it's a little disturbing to think people who object to retarded must be part of those cliques. I'm just asking for understanding that misuse of retard and retarded isn't this little minor side issue to be swept under the rug whenever it's inconvenient for other reasons.