Talking the tightrope

I’m not sure how many of you are aware of the sheer unmitigated genius that is the comedy of Mitch Hedburg, but if you haven’t heard his repertoire of brilliant one-liners, please do yourself the favour of wrapping your ears around one of his albums. One of my favourites of his goes something like this:

“If you had a friend who was a tightrope walker, and you were walking down a sidewalk, and he fell, that would be completely unacceptable…”

His bits are all like that – observations that were seemingly plucked from the weirdest and most non-sequitur place imaginable. This one in particular resonated with me because it almost perfectly encapsulates how I feel when I hear fellow skeptics repeating, often with no ill intent, the same kinds of racist nonsense I hear from the general public.

The thesis underpinning this blog, at least the part of this blog that specifically deal with race, is that we can use skeptical methods to identify the racial components of attitudes, behaviours, and institutions. In so doing, we can learn to mitigate the damage caused by these things, and find productive ways to address topics that are often fraught with emotional landmines that can be triggered by careless statements, no matter how delicately put. Anti-racism in this context is therefore simply the application of skepticism to issues of culture, history, and social constructs around ethnicity.*

I’ve intimated before that I often walk around with my ‘guard’ up when it comes to racial issues. Whenever I interact with a stranger, experience has taught me that there’s a fair-to-middling chance that I will have to deal with some racial thing or another – whether that be a poorly thought out ‘joke’, or an assumption about my personality and preferences, or even a stance that suggests that I am somehow threatening (or ‘exotic’, which is sometimes worse). These are the consequences of living in a society that is not really that great when it comes to talking about, or even thinking about, race and racial issues.

The part that drives me extra nutty-bananas about dealing with skeptics, particularly those who are interested in social justice, is that I often relax my guard. After all, these are ‘my people’, and one of the defining features of this group is an adherence to the principle of beliefs based on rigorous thought. The problem is that ‘rigorous thought’ doesn’t always extend to every aspect of one’s life. I am sure I am no less guilty of sometimes uttering statements that come from a place of boneheadedness and meme rather than careful consideration of evidence (not to mention the consequences of my words).

Most of the time, hearing unschooled opinions are simply a part of living among other humans. The problem arises when these statements come at a time when our shields are down and we’re particularly susceptible to the harm they can cause. We end up getting knocked for a loop, hit much harder than we expected to – certainly harder than we’re used to. Our reactions are therefore coming from a place of acute hurt, coloured by more than a little betrayal. From an outside perspective, the anger evident in our responses are bafflingly disproportionate – all ze said was that I must be good at basketball, why am I losing my temper like this? This is especially true when the outsider is similarly unschooled about the relevant issue (i.e., ze has never had to think carefully about racism before).

The other side of this, of course, is that the more we know about these topics – about how insidious racism can be, about how seemingly-innocuous statements often mask destructive attitudes, about how deeply-ingrained racism is into our history and psychology – the less it takes to trip our defences. We begin to become (justifiably) paranoid about what people ‘really’ mean when they use certain words or phrases. Every conversation turns into an exercise akin to licking a bunch of supposedly-dead 9V batteries – eventually you’re going to get shocked.

And woe betide the poor bastard who has to enter the lion’s den every time ze opens hir mouth. Every word out of hir mouth becomes a step out onto a verbal tightrope, where the slightest mistake plunges you into an abyss of accusations of bigotry from which there is no escape and no safety net. The wire becomes more razor-thin the deeper you get into the conversation, and often you have no idea you’re treading into such dangerous territory. You especially have no way of predicting that your words are being run through a filter of betrayal – it’s not your fault that you accidentally threw a hook through a dropped guard**.

This is not a call for ‘civility’ or an attempt to point out how ‘both sides’ need to be more courteous and meet each other in the ‘middle’. First of all, I have no interest in playing that game, and I find the idea of policing people’s emotional reactions extremely distasteful. Secondly, in a conflict between ‘hurt’ and ‘annoyed’, I lend my support to ‘hurt’ every time – especially when that hurt is the product of egregiously unfair social systems and the annoyance is more often than not born of a priori ignorance of important issues. You’re not the victim when someone ‘overreacts’ to your ‘just asking questions’.

What this post is is a recognition that this process is often going to suck a lot for a lot of people. We can get better at having this discussion, but we will often find ourselves in situations when, despite our best efforts, we get ourselves into serious trouble. Feelings are going to get hurt, accusations (fair and unfair) are going to get made, friendships will be strained by comments that are free from malice but nevertheless careless. But on the other side of this yawning gulf of misunderstanding and betrayal is a valuable, productive, and steady common ground that allows us to do the important work of making life better for everyone, no matter what type of privilege the circumstances of their birth foisted upon them.

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*I suppose it would be hard to miss the obvious parallels to feminism, since gender is also socially and culturally constructed. This similarity is no accident.

**Getting called a troll? Think it’s an unfair charge? Read this. Not sure why people are yelling at you and calling you awful names for making entirely reasonable points? Read this.


  1. Smhlle says

    There’s a quote, that I think might be from a feminist of color, that says if consensus building within the movement isn’t painful, you are doing it wrong, or at least, too slowly.

    I really like what you wrote. I think it can apply in any situation where I am an ignorant beginner and the discussion group knows a lot more than I do. However, there seem to be some situations that provoke a stronger defensive response. Some topics that are more personal than others. I guess if we argue with people about their lives, their beings, its easier to step on sore toes than if one makes a nonfactual opinion about bird watching or hockey.

  2. says

    Great post; I’ve been talking and writing a lot about this lately, and it still astounds me the lengths to which secular people will go to avoid talking about race, gender, or anything social justice related. In the comments on my guest post about privilege and race/trans* issues at Dispatches, I got called Mussolini! Because he was totally about anti-racist, anti-gender binary activism!

  3. astro says

    My favotite of his is…”I used to do a lot of drugs. I still do, but I used to too.

  4. baal says

    I’m 99% along the way with you – particularly on the how-to-move-forward part. I think that blog comment threads have a pitfall. I think of it the ‘disposable-other’.

    It grows out of the pseudo-anonymous nature of posts. They look like words on a page rather than ideas being floated by people. Why be restrained when the only difference you see is the presence or harder to notice absence of a particular nym?

    My problem is that the pile-on folks (long time established nyms?) can exhibit every bad trait you call out in the troll thread. It winds up looking like trolling a troll is ok (lots of hypocrisy & excessive use of irony rolled into that). It also seems that the cultural default is a zero-strike policy. Breach the norms and you are persona-non-Grata.

    There also seems to be precious little room for rehabilitation of someone once they are labeled as trolls. That’s it the game is over. There is little point to recognizing you did something willfully bad, in error, ignorance or stupidity if there is a binary applied – the trolls and the holy folks.*

    Some additional solution for trolling or avoiding derails is for the blog host to add “hey folks please do go -here-” or for some milder poster to clearly, shortly and w/o insult explain exactly what the problem is. With some luck, the pile-on gets averted and the ‘troll’ has a chance the duck the label.

    Lastly, if someone is angry, hurt, confused or pissed off the other side (assuming not a troll) will want to know where the common ground is. While the culture or general free floating memes get someone to a particular racist or sexists place, it’s human nature to be stuck there. Another meme or counter-cultural heuristics needs to be brought up to get the person out of it.

    *this issue of dealing with people as items in a category rather that for the whole person they are brings to mind a current discussion Zinna is having about gender and identity (and their expression).

  5. smhll says

    Some additional solution for trolling or avoiding derails is for the blog host to add “hey folks please do go -here-” or for some milder poster to clearly, shortly and w/o insult explain exactly what the problem is.

    I can agree that I would be happy to see this (the mild reply) happen more often. I swear it seems that angriest people post the fastest! Plus, if 80% of the reading/posting audience gives a new poster the benefit of the doubt, then there are still quite a few people who rush past doubt and say something confrontational. I’m thin-skinned, so my preference is not to go straight to telling people they are awful. But sometimes I will holler. I get the angriest when I think my allies have been hurt, whether by a deliberate troll or a thoughtless putdown.

    I want to talk about why newcomers sometimes get a rough welcome. Since new commenters on a blog can arrive any day of the year, and going back to Day #1 of the discussion gets old for people who are deep into a subject, please, before tossing off a quick, not particularly deep comment, think about whether your comment is actually so good that it deserves to command center stage on the comment thread, for even a minute. While I understand not reading a whole package of background posts, comments from people who appear to have not read and comprehended the top post on a thread do annoy me a great deal. It’s not my job to retype the main concept, bit by bit, for someone who just read the headline, read someone else’s half-assed summary and clicked over, or skimmed a lot.

    If someone makes what sound like erroneous assumptions, I’m going to start there in my reply. It seems necessary.

  6. mythbri says

    I agree with smhll – it’s frustrating when in this kind of long-term discussion, there are people who will pop into the thread and drop a bomb of ignorance all over it. They clearly don’t know the history, what all of the interested parties have been saying, and the basis for the arguments all around. And yet they still feel the need to blister us all with their “brilliant insight” as if no one in the entire world has said what they’re about to say.

    I’m paraphrasing from blogger fugitivus here, but it’s like someone waltzes into the final class meeting of a graduate philosophy course, never having attended before, looks around at everyone with a smug-ass grin on their face, and says “Have you ever considered that the color blue you see is not the same color blue I see?”

    And then they expect everyone to be stunned by the insight that could have been achieved with some mildly mind-altering substances.


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