Those who advocate for social change are often held to a much higher standard for perceived consistency and kindness in comportment than those who don’t. In the case of the latter, tone-policing runs rampant, often based on the flies and honey principle. If you’re oppressed, you’d better be nice, the reasoning goes, lest you piss off the more powerful and they feel empowered to oppress you even harder.
Aggressively promoting being “nice” seems very attractive and unobjectionable in its face. After all, don’t we want more allies? Don’t we want to keep people on our side? Don’t we want to have people get to know us so that they like us and want us to have rights? How can you make friends to fight with you on your side if you’re so darn mean?
Sorry to break it to everyone, but befriending bigots in the hopes of changing them via exposure isn’t a surefire solution to the problem of bigotry.
I hear an adjacent version of this argument from people hailing from backgrounds and/or areas that make exposure to people outside of the mainstream unlikely. These people have changed their views of marginalized people through exposure. In their experience, all it takes is for someone to get to know and humanize a group in order for them to be convinced that said group is due equal rights.
The story goes something like this: The person is a [male/straight/white/cis/middle-class] person from the middle of nowhere, then they moved to a city where they befriended a [feminist/queer/non-white/trans/poor] person who was really cool and now they don’t hate that sort of person anymore.
While this is certainly a valid phenomenon, and one for which there is some evidence, to assume that all bigots merely need a friend from the group is to ignore those who are well-exposed to those different from themselves. Sometimes, a change of heart doesn’t happen as a result of such a friendship. Sometimes, if you are a member of the marginalized group, you end up with a bigot friend who uses you to lend their bigotry some smidgen of credibility. Sometimes, a bigot friend won’t stop being your “friend” even when you’re exhausted with them.
If it sounds like I am speaking from firsthand experience, it’s because I am.
Recently, I once again had to unwillingly deal with a former friend and always-bigot from my past. For far too long, I maintained my friendship with him in the hopes that he would learn to at least stop dehumanizing people like myself, and maybe even change his mind a little. I stayed nice to him even as he utterly denigrated my life and my choices to my face repeatedly and unceasingly. I patiently educated him over and over, testing different methods over the years.
To no avail. I wasted half a decade on him and, based on the unwanted interaction I had with him last week, he hasn’t changed at all.
For example, I found out that he, in this year of our Lich Lord 2014, as a born-and-raised Californian, is still not only against same-sex marriage, but characterizes support of it as “extreme”. At this point, a near-majority of Evangelical Christians in our age range are not against it, and yet he, a fairly secular person, is unequivocally opposed to it. He feels that a friend of his was allegedly “messed up” due to having been raised by same-sex parents and that, therefore, same-sex marriage rights shouldn’t exist. Of course, straight people raise messed-up children all the time, but again, the standards to which the oppressed are held are astronomically higher than those of the powerful in order to gain equivalent rights.
Back when we were friends, he could trot me out in conversations with others as his token polyamorous, feminist, atheist, queer, non-white, and/or radically progressive friend to “prove” he wasn’t a bigot against any said groups. When he said awful things to me in conversation, he could counter my objections with examples of times that others had denigrated me to him behind my back. He’d claim that he defended me as “one of the good ones” and “not like those people”. That I was uncomfortable with the way in which he chose to defend me to people whose opinions I didn’t care about hardly mattered to him. In his mind, this proved that he was a good friend and I was too “extreme” in my inability to tolerate his hatred towards people like me.
To this day, he continues to exhibit a sense of entitlement to my friendship and my attention. I have cut him off multiple times in various ways and in no uncertain terms, yet his fixation with communicating with me and being involved in my life endures. My trying to befriend and educate a bigot got me a platonically-obsessed former friend who can’t stop trying to interact with me whether I like it or not.
He is hardly the only person on whom I wasted my time in this way. It is entirely possible that being nice and friendly to a bigot can bring no good and actually hurt a cause — and the person trying to promote it.
This needn’t mean that we should stop trying to change people’s minds altogether. What this does mean is that:
- We need to stop assuming all bigots are merely naive people who lack exposure to the groups they hate; and
- Marginalized people should not be forced or pressured into always (or ever) being nice to bigots.