I understand the impulse to write a post like “Being Right Doesn’t Guarantee That You’re Not Wrong“, Jacques Rosseau’s guest post at Martin Pribble’s blog. I really do.
In this fight over making our movements more welcoming to women and other marginalized groups, there have been a lot of people complaining that they’re being shot down and mistreated for asking questions. There have been a lot of people offerning up naive statements and opinions pulled out of thin air and feeling mistreated over the response. There’s been a lot of personal narrative offered up to humanize the problems we’re talking about.
It’s been working, too. Most conferences are considering inclusion when setting their speaker lists, if not yet setting themselves a goal of parity. More people are recognizing the role of pseudoscience in maintaining inequalities. More events are accessible locally, on a budget, and with child care. More groups are setting anti-harassment policies in place and listening to the corporate world in figuring out how to enforce them. More prominent people are stepping up to point out how marginalizaion occurs online and to demand that it stop. Progress has been painful, but it has been remarkably quick.
Given all that, it’s an easy thing to advocate caution. “Surely one side of this can’t have a monopoly on truth. Surely all this emotion has to have a downside. Surely we need to make accommodations for those who are bewildered by the pace of change. Surely some of these complaints must have merit.” Eh, maybe.
I’ve certainly seen some recommendations I disagree with and some factually wrong assertions made by people on “my side” in the last couple of years. The thing about them, though, is that they haven’t been broadly taken up. There is a personal, emotional component to these arguments, but they are still happening in a community that values facts and research. If someone prominent enough makes such a recommendation or assertion, it gets argued over very publicly. If it’s found to have no merit, it gets dropped (except by those people who keep bringing it up to demonize the group). If it happens in a comment, it may get ignored or challenged, depending. If it gets repeated in comments, it definitely gets challenged.
Honestly, it’s a little bit funny, in a bang-your-head-on-the-wall way, to be told, “You may be wrong”, at this point in the game as though it were a new idea. Where does Rosseau think all of this fighting is coming from if not people saying we’re wrong that there are problems that need to be fixed? When does he think I or any of the rest of us don’t get challenged on these topics? Of course we can be wrong. We’re not allowed to forget that for a minute.
This is one of those arguments that is part truism and wholly useless in its lack of specifics. If I’m wrong about something, tell me what. If you do a better job of it than the Dunning-Kruger victim who tried to say I couldn’t be cyberstalked because I’m a public figure, I’ll probably even engage on the topic.
The real (largest) problem with Rosseau’s piece is that it’s talking to the wrong people. It’s telling a group who is told constantly that they may be wrong that they may be wrong. In doing that, it makes itself superfluous. If it wants to sort out the problem of people of sincere motives being mistaken for trolls, it needs to take its arguments to someone else.
No, I don’t mean Rosseau needs to address the trolls. They’re pretty well beyond help at this point.
There is a (relatively rare) problem with naive people of good intent being mistaken for trolls in these discussions, and it needs to be addressed–by talking to those naive people of good intent. If Rosseau wants to address the friction between the crusaders and the educable bumblers-in, that’s where he needs to turn his attention. He needs to say something more like this:
If you haven’t been paying attention to what has been happening in the atheist and skeptical movements over the last couple of years with regard to inclusion, and if you aren’t already familiar with these discussions from other walks of your life, you’re going to find this a confusing place to be for a while. It’s okay to be confused. It’s even okay to ignore these discussions for a bit while you get your feet under you in the movement. There are plently of places talking about other things. Even among the places that focus on these issues, there are plenty of other things going on. Read those.
If and when you decide you want to know what’s going on in the inclusion argument, understand that it is just that. This is an argument that has been going on for quite some time. And it is an argument, with lots of information presented and lots of assertions made and refuted over that time. Beyond that, there is a side argument going on about values, about whether inclusion is even something desirable, and you know how arguments about values get.
If you decide, more than just wanting to understand the argurment, that you want to join it, it may be helpful to think about this much like the long-running debate over evolution, complete with the side argument about faith versus fact. That’s a hard thing to do, because unlike evolution, this is an argument about the daily lives of people. We have a tendency to think we understand human behavior, but that’s our cognitive biases talking, our tendency to generalize to everyone from our own experiences. Succumbing to that bias here will get you in trouble, just as assuming you understood evolution because you spend time around plants and animals would get you in trouble in the middle of a debate between a creationist and someone who really understands evolution.
Just as with those debates, it’s okay to sit back here and not air your naive “understanding” of what’s going on. There are some very well educated people at work here. Watch. Listen. Learn. It’s an opportunity you don’t get every day. My biology education ended in junior high (I studied chemistry and physics), but I’ve learned so much reading biologists addressing creationist questions and debate points. You can do the same here.
At some point, you’ll have a question. There’s a good chance it’s not a new question, and if you’ve been paying attention, you probably have a good idea where you can find an answer. Go look. Browse a little and further your education even more.
Or maybe you’ve already done that (smart person), but your question isn’t one you’ve seen addressed. Then it comes time to ask. You’re asking in the middle of an argument, so there are a few things to keep in mind.
- Here be trolls. By now, you’ve seen them. Don’t act like them. Don’t argue from ignorance. Don’t act entitled to one-on-one instruction.
- These are busy people. Show them you’ve done your research. Tell them where you looked for answer to your question.
- Education you may not be the highest priority for everyone. When they point you to your answer, go read it. Take some time to think about it. If you still want clarification, ask whether anyone has time for a side conversation.
- If you don’t receive the reception you want, place the blame where it belongs. That’s usually on the trolls. If it’s not, you’re probably not in an educational forum. Ask where you can find one.
- Be polite. Say, “Please”, and, “Thank you.”
Imagine if every person who entered these arguments in good faith but without the education to argue effectively on the topic received and followed that advice. [Imagines. Enjoys. Weeps.] Why don’t we have that expectation? Why do we allow naivety to dictate to expertise on this? Why do we act as though every venue must be educational, even when we claim we know better?
The simple answer to that is that the privileged (default) perspective and the naive perspective happen to line up on questions of inclusion. Rosseau argues that the majority sometimes gets things right despite their privilege. This is true, but this isn’t one of those times.