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May 23 2012

Making casual bigotry cost, with minimal splash damage

In real life, I can be hot-headed. I can speak before thinking, and sometimes this involves a notable lack of decorum. That sometimes bleeds through onto my internet dealings, but I do make an effort to keep that to a minimum.

I am also very intolerant of intolerance and bigotry — I really hope that fact bleeds through, because it’s pretty much at the core of my character. I’ve dressed down co-workers and acquaintances for ridiculous bits of bigotry in the past, even at potential personal cost. Two specific incidents spring to mind immediately: “that’s so gay!” used to refer to something the woman didn’t like, and “what does WIFE stand for? Washing, ironing, fucking, et cetera!” from a friend’s newly-introduced male fiancee. In both cases, I tried to register disapproval in such a way that it was both about their words being unacceptable generally, and because I was personally offended. In the latter case, my friend — let’s call her Laura, which is neither her name nor initial — and others were present, and she did not chime in, so the encounter ended effectively immediately after I registered my disapproval. The conversation moved on from there.

I am lucky that, in Laura’s case, the bigot did not escalate, causing problems between them and a rift in our respective friendships. It turns out that latter encounter might have done some unintentional splash damage to Laura. If I had stopped and thought about it a little longer, I might have realized that I was putting her in a tough spot — something that seems rather obvious in hindsight, actually, given the circumstances.

My hot head bled through onto the internet recently on this thread at Stephanie’s, exposing a few gaps in my understanding of a commonly-used phrase, “white knighting”. Those gaps owe almost completely to there being two definitions at play here. The first and the one I thought most commonly used was created on the internet by anti-feminist types for the purposes of shaming any man attempting to stand up for women, declaring that they simply wanted to get into their pants (e.g. doing it “for the cookie”, the pat on the head, or literally for sex). The other has apparently existed in feminist theory since the 60s, calling a white knight someone who swoops in to defend a woman while simultaneously disregarding their situation, whether they needed or wanted help, and whether they were particularly inclined to even have that fight at that exact moment.

Erasmus asked Giliell why sometimes the women who were present didn’t react well to his speaking up about sexist behaviour. Giliell said:

I think the problem you have here is “white knighting”
It can become pretty condescending pretty quickly although you never notice. You can quickly come off as knowing better what women feel than they themselves.
That’s why I said “casually”.
But I admit that it’s not easy and I can’t give you a recipe for all situations and contexts. Personally I’d say you’re doing it right if I get the impression that you would back me up if I chose to get into that topic, but I’d be pissed off if came off as fighting the fightfor me.

Through some more conversation, I made a declaration, because I’m personally tired of seeing bigoted nonsense slide in casual conversation:

Accusations of white knighting be damned, I’m sick of hearing about these blow-ups over and over. If I’m present, and I hear something sexist and recognize it in realtime, I’m saying something about it. If someone thinks I’m doing it to get into their pants, they’re wrong. I’m doing it to make an ordinary situation extraordinary, so that the next time someone comes along demanding extraordinary evidence for something otherwise ordinary, I can provide it.

I don’t want to fight others’ fights when that help isn’t requested, but I want to have the fights that I personally want to have, for my own reasons, when I want to have them. If I take someone on for saying something ridiculous, my modus operandi is to expect people to dogpile on me, not to join me. That way I’m pleasantly surprised, and I’m not also dragging people into fights they don’t want to have. So before this whole conversation, I figured if I’m picking a fight, I’m the one involved in it by default, not others.

The fact that I was misconstruing the white-knighting to mean what the feminist backlash brigade has made it mean, is secondary here. I realize my error shortly, don’t worry.

Giliell points that fact out to me, and also explains why going into full-out attack mode isn’t always the best choice:

Let’s just assume that we’re in such a situation. We’re in mixed company, chances are good that I’m the only woman, or one of a minority of women.
Some guy, some popular guy in this group makes a sexist remark.
Now I have to calculate my options quickly: Do I let it slide because I’m afraid of the backlash? Do I confront him?
You’ve been faster than me and you remark: “Duh, that’s sexist bullshit.”
Now my sitution has changed. I know that should I choose to confront him, I’m not going to be attacked by every other person in this group, I know I have an ally. Yeah, warm tickling in my toes. Maybe I’ll still let it slide, because it’s been a long day and I’m exhausted, maybe I’ve been arguing some point or other all day long and actually just want to have a gin tonic and some chatter and after all I’m not the fucking feminist action squad with a purple light on my head who has to turn up each and every time.
But should you insist to go on, to carry on the fight on my behalf, you’re forcing the topic on me.
Again, it’s not about “saying something”, but about what you say and how you say it.

Further, with inline blockquoting of my response:

When I pick my battles — and I often pick them poorly — I don’t expect others to be forced into acting on my behalf, I often expect people to gang up on me instead.

Yeah, but it’s inadvertedly going to happen.
Let’s remain in our little fictional meeting. You’ve made your casual comment and I think “thanks Jason for noticing. Isn’t it exhausting? I should say something but I really, really don’t want to have this conversation again.”
It can end there. Maybe later when everybody goes home I’ll remember to acknowledge this to you.
But let’s say that instead of making a casual comment, which has all the positive effects you mention, like me feeling more comfortable and welcome, like showing the dudez that this is not acceptable and so on, and letting me choose to go for confrontation or not, you start a fully fledged attack. Now, since the topic is sexism and misogyny I will of course be drawn into it, being the only woman present. It’s a situation I can’t win. Either I enter the fight, which means that you guys just decided what I have to do and what not with my time and energy, or I back off and have a guy “fix it for me”, sending out all the wrong signals in every direction.

So the conclusion I drew from this conversation is that general sexism and even explicit sexism can be confronted without appearance of white-knighting pretty easily — and even by means of my quick “dude, that’s sexist bullshit” — without turning the fight nuclear and doing splash damage to the other participants in the conversation. In cases where the sexism is specifically targeted at an individual, try to take cues from them before defending them. In some cases leaping to their defense is merited and wanted, but in others it’s not. If they’d rather walk away from the conversation, that’s their prerogative, and my going on the offensive offers them with a poor choice: either let me defend them, thus get “white-knighted” (by the proper definition), or have that fight then and there, resulting in my having inadvertently curtailed their option to let it slide or leave the conversation altogether.

The best option, then, appears to be to register disapproval and try to have the conversation move on from there. You make it known that the behaviour isn’t welcome in the conversation without turning it into a fight. If the bigot then escalates, you’re significantly less responsible for what happens from then on — the proximally-aggrieved parties are still free to take their leave to find a drink or take the fight to this shitheel at their discretion, and so are you.

If you’re in a group made up of none of the underprivileged group in question, though, and you don’t speak up, you’re doing nothing to correct the underlying problem. You can be damn well certain that if I’m in a situation where I’m “one of the guys” and the topic of conversation turns rampantly sexist, I’m saying something, even if that means I won’t get invited back to that particular circle in the future. Because, you know, I’ll learn to live with myself somehow without their camaraderie.

I will note, though, that the specific case of Laura’s fiancee making that comment should have been taken as a warning sign — their marriage apparently ended a few months after it had happened, with his having cheated on her, by some accounts repeatedly. Clearly he was not the most enlightened of chaps. I’m sad that my attempt at enlightening him failed so miserably, and that it ended in undue hardship for Laura, but I suspect my friends and I probably couldn’t have handled the tough situation any better than we had managed on that day. Even with hindsight, there weren’t a lot of good options. Though we’ve since drifted apart, if I could have successfully parlayed a full-out assault into less overall pain for my friend even at the cost of ending our friendship prematurely, it still wouldn’t have been the right thing to do right then.

21 comments

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  1. 1
    Pierce R. Butler

    WIFE … Washing, ironing, fucking, et cetera!

    I first heard that one as a bad-attitude feminist battlecry about 40 years ago.

    There is absolutely nothing that The System cannot appropriate, co-opt, and distort to maintain the status quo.

  2. 2
    athyco

    That was an interesting exchange between you and Giliell, and this post that resulted had me nodding. When I’ve wrapped my head around some of my privilege, I find myself replaying incidents and thinking of what I might have said. At times, it has been helpful in reducing l’esprit de l’escalier and the splash damage for situations that followed.

    My current mixed company go-to for something like your w-i-f-e example is “How do you express that sentiment on Mother’s Day cards?” A general counter that I hope limits the splash damage is, after the statement has been made, “If anyone else wants to vote that one as sexist (racist, homophobic, ableist), I’m with them.”

    I had to fight the “that’s so gay” battle with my son because it’s so ubiquitous, and he was an idiot teenager. I was hot-headed and forceful, but he still slipped on occasion until I started immediately replying “that’s so KKK.”

    A comeback database. That’s what we need.

  3. 3
    smrnda

    I think sometimes, rather than being confrontational, it pays to use the Socratic method – keep asking the bigot about their opinions and beliefs, seem interested and not critical. It’s incredibly disarming and they usually feel flattered and will just go on and on, and then, after they’ve said enough they’ve usually made a few remarks that can easily be used against them.

    This only works for certain issues though and in certain situation, but I’ve found that it can be fun, though it requires a lot of well-practiced restraint.

  4. 4
    Jeanette

    I understand the concept of “splash damage” and I get why Laura might be upset by that. But, all said and done, I think you did the right thing (if a little too angrily, can’t say I blame you though- that’s fucked up!).

    Women are socialized to, and I would even say actively rewarded for, going along with sexism and pretending it doesn’t bother us. There are many women who have internalized sexism to such a degree that it really doesn’t, and I have female friends who would make that joke. Don’t make it personal by involving Laura and speaking as if her opinion is being asked for or she should be offended (she very well may not be!), but do make it known YOU’RE offended because you don’t like sexism.

    I don’t like the idea that men have to qualify disliking sexism because they’re less affected by it. As a woman, it’s far easier in the short term to let it go and not care. As my brother once said, “it’s kind of sad that even being a feminist is easier as a man”. Sometimes a man is the ideal person to do the calling-out, especially if the only women present will have to pay a heavy social penalty for doing so.

  5. 5
    Jason Thibeault

    Pierce: yeah, what was supposed to be a clarion call to tell women not to get married, became a wink-and-nudge between fellow sexists. I was just appalled he did it in our first meeting, a few hours later during dinner, and in front of Laura no less.

    Jeanette: I don’t think being a feminist is easy at all, much less easier than being a man. Only in the specific circumstance of choosing what fights to have, and even that is situational. So… what did your brother mean by it?

  6. 6
    Gretchen

    This is such a great post, I can’t say anything but “Right on.” Okay, maybe that’s not quite all.

    You can be damn well certain that if I’m in a situation where I’m “one of the guys” and the topic of conversation turns rampantly sexist, I’m saying something, even if that means I won’t get invited back to that particular circle in the future. Because, you know, I’ll learn to live with myself somehow without their camaraderie.

    Thank you. I can say that, too.

  7. 7
    Jason Thibeault

    Oh hell. I misread Jeanette. Yes, being a feminist is easier as a man, though, again, it comes with a few unique challenges — like being treated as though you’re annoyed by sexism because you want to get into everyone’s pants. Because there’s nothing sexist, specifically misandrist, about THAT sentiment either.

  8. 8
    StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    Saying things we later regret online, yeah, I can relate to that.

    To err is human, to really stuff things up requires a computer!

  9. 9
    blondein_tokyo

    What if it’s another woman who calls out the person who makes the sexist comment? Is it okay for a woman to make other women uncomfortable with their strident opposition? Change the genders, and suddenly the behavior is okay?

    If the first woman pushes the issue way past where the other women are comfortable, and/or starts an actual argument with the sexist, is she then responsible for the other women’s discomfort, and wrong for pushing the issue, no matter how strong her feelings are? Should she back down because the other women don’t want to deal with the issue?

    Let’s put it another way. Say you were out with an atheist friend who is less outspoken than you, and one of the other members of the group said something bigoted about atheists. Would you keep quiet knowing your friend wasn’t comfortable with you speaking out? Or would you speak out because you felt it was right, and let this friend own his/her discomfort and just deal?

    If you are someone who would speak out regardless of your friend’s feelings, then you should feel free to speak out about ANY issue, no matter what the issue is- sexism, racism, or any other -ism.

    It’s a double standard, and therefore sexist, to say a man can’t call out sexist behavior in front of women just because he’s a MAN. If it’s okay for a woman to push an uncomfortable issue, then I think a man should be able to do the same.

    People should be able to feel free to do what feels right for them, and while the other people in the group aren’t obligated to like it or support them, it’s also not their business to dictate how anyone else responds.

    I know for sure that if another woman told me, “Don’t speak out like that because it makes me uncomfortable. I’d rather not deal with the issue right now because I’m tired/intimidated/don’t like confrontations/don’t want this group to dislike me.” I’d tell her to take a flying fvck. If she doesn’t like the way I handled it, that’s fine- she doesn’t have to support me. But she has no business telling me I shouldn’t speak out no matter how uncomfortable she is.

    Equal means EQUAL. Don’t change your natural behavior with someone just because they are a woman.

  10. 10
    Musical Atheist

    A very interesting post. Having male solidarity in calling out sexist behaviour is really important, but I can think of examples when you don’t want someone else to fight the battle.

    As an example, a while ago I experienced persistent inappropriate sexual advances from a man who sat opposite me while travelling on a train. The advances culminated in his trying to grope me. Eventually, polite incredulity/refusals/ignoring having achieved nothing, I rejected the advance in a very firm, loud and explicit manner. When he got up to get off the train, I told him again – loudly – not to put his hand on women’s legs. He was shocked to be told off in public, and apologised.

    I was furious, but also incredibly glad that I’d been alone, and had had the opportunity of standing up for myself. If a man had stepped in, it would only have told the groper that he made the wrong choice of target – I wasn’t unprotected after all. It would not have made the point that a woman – even if she’s alone (gasp!) – has the right to expect and exact respect in her own right.

    On the other hand, I’ve stepped in myself to protect a younger friend from unwelcome advances, when it was clear she was frightened and upset and didn’t know how to reject the man herself. So context is important, and, as Giliell said, taking our cues from the person primarily affected.

    I think one of the most important things men can do is, as you said, challenge sexist opinions and jokes in male-only situations. If these assumptions can be changed in the way some men interact with each other, I think they’re a lot less likely to make it out into their interactions with women. And it’s not just men – I caught myself recently participating in a gender-stereotyped joke in a social context that seemed to demand it, and then was very embarrassed as I realised what I’d done. Rejecting this kind of socialisation takes a long time.

  11. 11
    NanceConfer

    Sounds like Laura’s fiancee was a jerk. I don’t see how that’s your fault. And noticing that isn’t your fault either. Too bad her friends didn’t ask her why she was marrying a jerk. Maybe you did at other times. Sometimes people just have to go through things and don’t notice the clues that everyone else is seeing.

  12. 12
    Kimbeaux

    I am a cis female. My opinions are my own, and I do not pretend to represent anyone else in my demographic, much less everyone else therein.

    Suppose you and I were in a conversation with a few other people, all identifying as male, and one of those men said something sexist. I have absolutely no problem with you calling sexism. None whatsoever. Here’s why:

    1) As a human being, you have a right to hold and express your opinion. This right should in no way be abrogated by the topic or your gender identification. Put another way, to say that you can’t say something because you have a penis strikes me as fundamentally sexist.
    2) Your actions do not affect my competence. If you choose to open a door for me, it in no way makes me incapable of opening the door for myself. Likewise, if you choose to call sexism, it in no way makes me incapable if issuing my own smackdown.
    3) I do not have to infer your opinion of me from your actions, and I do not have to value that opinion. If you said, “Wow, sexist much?” following a remark from one of the other men, I could safely infer that you thought the preceding remark was sexist. As there is a substantial body of evidence that the universe does not revolve around me, inferring anything about your opinion of me from that remark ventures into the territory of making-shit-up. But suppose your remark was prompted by your opinion that I am incapable of handling this on my own. So what? Do you know whose opinion of me matters? Mine. And those held by the few people who know me well, and whom I hold in high esteem. So in this hypothetical case, I would either know you well enough to know your opinion of me without trying to infer it from a random remark, or I would not care about it.
    4) Likewise, the only motive I can infer from “Wow, sexist much?” is that of reducing sexist remarks. There is no evidence here to support an opinion that you are trying to get into my pants.
    5) No one person can fight every battle in a war. It would be insane to try. Hey, maybe it’s been a long day and I’m exhausted. Maybe I think it’s fun to watch the fur fly from the sidelines sometimes. Maybe you just beat me to the punch. Tag off, you take this one, I’ll get the popcorn. I’m cool with that. My ego is not so fragile that I’ll be crushed if you fight and I don’t. Or I’ll wander off with my G&T. Just because I have breasts doesn’t obligate me to join in the fray every single damn time someone says the “s” word.
    5) If someone in my life is going to get mad at me for something you said, that person is in for a smackdown of epic proportions, followed by a straighten-up-or-get-your-walking-papers. I control and am responsible for me. If you made a personal attack on my significant other I’d call you on it (if he didn’t first) and I wouldn’t expect him to socialize with someone abusive. But unless my hand is up your ass and my lips are moving, I’m not taking responsibility for your remarks.
    So speak your mind. If you see bullshit, call bullshit. If you see bigotry, call bigotry. And if you see sexism, call sexism.

  13. 13
    Erasmus

    As the idiot accidental white knighted who started this conversation I have to hope that in this reply I’m not doing it or something similar again.

    Blondein
    I think that you may be misinterpreting things, the issue is about the prevailing power dynamic, thus a man stepping in to defend a woman or even appearing to sends the wrong signals as the man has a position of greater power, due to privilege. The man stepping in interferes with the womans agency by forcing her to accept protection, which makes it appear she’s requires it or fight the sexist which she may not want to do.

    Kimbeaux
    I think you may be generalising from yourself a little much, you may be ok with and able to deal with splash damage and wish us to speak up, but other women can’t or don’t want to. Also its not necessarily what you infer about our opinion of you that has negative connotations, but rather what the offending sexist or other sexists in the vicinity infer as it could entrench their sexism.

    I think in the case were another man is not making sexist comments but physically interfering with a woman the situation is different. I would (and have in the past) step in to prevent that. I don’t think in that situation the appearance of giving protection matters compared to preventing an assault.

    Unlike the negative reactions to my accidental white knighting the responses to this have been universally positive. I protected a girl from a man trying to draw on her breasts, then when he tried similar crap with another woman who had seen that she knew she could come to me for help and did. In those cases I’m pretty sure O did the right thing and am also pretty confident its different to the white knighting under discussion.

    I could be wrong on all points, but hopefully I’ve learned something from the earlier combo and am not :)

  14. 14
    Composer99

    Is it wrong to get a gamer geek thrill from Jason using the term ‘splash damage’ and thinking of Starcraft?

  15. 15
    The Artful Nudger

    @Composer99 – I was thinking D&D, rather than Starcraft.

    It’s a thought-provoking post, though. Happily, I’ve had very few situations where I might have inadvertently put a friend in an uncomfortable position by defending them too aggressively, but now I’m wondering about those few…

  16. 16
    mikmik

    One way to handle it is saying, “I find that talk sexist/repressive – please don’t.”

    It means you are speaking for you only. I have to point something out here, and I’ve faced it on FTB. Being outright declared that I’m sexist is an escalating judgement of character, and even then, it is opinion presented as fact.
    That is not neutral, and it creates tension, especially if the person(me) just didn’t think properly and didn’t mean to offend.

    My original suggestion leaves more options for a graceful ending all around. You aren’t condemning character, and the boundary is defined as between you and him with no pressure on anybody else to join.

    By far, the best way to handle it is let it go once, twice walk away, maybe mutter “I find that inappropriate,” and bugger off. No one appointed you to be the thought police, and no one nominated you to speak for them. Then, I would, personally, approach then dude privately and explain what I didn’t like about his behavior, and add some non threatening remark like, “I think a lot of folks here might not appreciate that talk, for sure I don’t, so maybe you didn’t realize it. Just a heads up, can I get you a drink?”

    The problem with the outright pronouncement that the statement, or person, is sexist/ignorant, is confrontational and artificially black and white and almost insinuates that everyone there is on one side, or the other. It also invites the possibility of scapegoating, and the ‘assailant’, LOL, surely feels the unfairness of the situation – being cornered and the making of a scene in public.

    Really, I do have a problem around here sometimes with the vehemence of the reactions to what realistically boil down to misunderstandings. Mostly I don’t, people are more than fair, but assertive, when Ive crossed lines, but it is really a very unhealthy attitude to show up anywhere looking for, and expecting trouble

    Either that, or I decide that they are juvenile fucks without possible reform, so I subtly and passive-aggressively insult or condescend to him, and i subtly end up in an ambulance on my way to the hospital, haha just kidding. I have started things I wish I hadn’t, true that!

    original suggestion, “You’ve been faster than me and you remark: “Duh, that’s sexist bullshit.” – not a great start, I don’t think. Of course, so much depends on situation, demeanor, intent, etc. I’m just talking about a single stereotyped statement of two. Otherwise, “BURRNNN HERRRRRR!!!!!!!”

  17. 17
    mikmik

    *That is not neutral, and it creates tension, especially if the person(me) just didn’t think properly and didn’t mean to offend.

    A hypothetical situation, not based on a true story!

  18. 18
    vltava

    I have a tendency to be pretty dogged and persistent whenever someone disagrees with me, rather than just letting things slide. But I’m gradually getting more gracious and selective though, and learning that just because I fire a salvo, that doesn’t mean I am committed to a full battle. And I have noticed recently in Facebook comments, when I realize that one of us is just not getting it, and we’re not going to get anywhere, so I just drop it without comment, something good often happens: others who agree with me chime in. That means that, probably, when I refuse to let something go, there are those who might agree with me but I am left as the only voice on my side because I am being too stubborn in my insistence on letting no affront go unchallenged. So, in essence, I agree: there’s a balance somewhere between saying nothing, and being a white knight, arrogantly championing every noble cause.

    Also, as a gamer, lol @ “splash damage”.

  19. 19
    smhll

    @12 re: point #5

    I think the feminist woman that had the discussion with Jason was suggesting that there is no “sideline” for her in a situation when she’s a token woman in the room. Her opinion will be solicited when sexism is discussed because everybody notices that she’s a woman, and people who know her well know that she’s a feminist. She can’t just blend with the wallpaper, although she may be able to fade back out the door.

  20. 20
    Jason Thibeault

    smhll is correct. If I go nuclear, I curtail others’ options unnecessarily.

  21. 21
    Stevie Modern

    Jason, thank you for raising an important dilemna. I think the important thing for men is not to give sanction to sexism, and continue to ‘raise the cost’ on those that diminish women and the principle of equality generally.

    Part of the cultural problem for males addressing sexism is that culturally, anti-sexism is still perceived to be exclusively to the benefit of women. This is in itself a byproduct prejudice.

    We all stand to benefit from a gender equal society.

    You may be interested in the work of Jackson Katz, a renowned anti-sexism campaigner, who argues that men have a special role as ‘peers’ to pursue against gender bigotry. See http://imodernreview.com/2012/02/25/the-macho-paradox-jackson-katz/

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