In the comments section of my first post on atheism+, a commenter has opened up a line of discussion about whether or not it is fair and appropriate to respond to honest and non-malicious questions with abuse and vitriol:
I think part of the issue with a lot of the discussions that happen both here and on A+ forums involve privilege, specifically those who are lacking privilege in one area or another. Many (lets say strait white guys) can often feel that they are being told that they are wrong because they are strait white guys, or that they aren’t welcome due to their status. Certainly some/most of the blame is on them, but I think it is very important not to introduce people to the concept in a manner than can be perceived as hostile or rude. It can be hard to accept “You can’t know what this is like, because you are man/white/strait/cis” when that is exactly what is understood. Nevermind if it is presented in a way that sounds more like “You are wrong, because you are a man/white/strait/cis.”
Even when it comes across perfectly, you can still feel rather dumb about the situation that caused it to arise (I did). It isn’t pleasant. It just needs to be put in a way that is non-confrontational.
I responded from a place of frustration, and to hir eternal credit, kbonn has stuck it out and tried repeatedly to further articulate hir position. I will take a stab at paraphrasing it, and kbonn is free to step in and tell me if I get something wrong.
One problem (not the problem, but a problem) in social justice conversations is that people who have some kind of privilege-related blindness will say things that come from a place of privilege without realizing the harm they may be causing, or the flawed assumptions from which they are operating. When members of oppressed groups respond to the naiveté of the privileged with personal attacks and abuse, it makes understanding and learning from the experience difficult. It is especially difficult to get anything from the experience when the privileged person is likely going to respond defensively to accusations of privilege and insensitivity.
The answer is clear – social justice advocates would be more persuasive and effective if they maintained an attitude of generous sensitivity in these kinds of interactions, and make allowances and accommodations for the fact that many of the people they are talking to are ignorant but well-meaning. It is certainly unfair to heap abuse on people for simple misunderstandings.
I am going to grant, for the sake of making my point, that it is in fact true that privileged people face abuse for merely asking well-intentioned but ignorant questions. My suspicion, based on my experience, is that the abuse comes after a pattern of insensitivity and belligerence is established, but even after granting the truth of such a claim I am not persuaded by this argument.
Walking hand-in-hand with privilege is a grossly-misplaced sense of entitlement. All spaces are assumed to be welcome and open, and your opinion is always appreciated and listened to. The fact that you lack relevant knowledge and experience is immaterial – you still deserve a place in the conversation. This is why you see creationists sneer their way through “why are there still monkeys” questions on evolution forums. It also explains why they react with butthurt whines and a cloud of scripture whenever their ignorance is revealed, and especially when it is pilloried. They have never experienced a circumstance where faith was not accepted as evidence; where sincere belief is not a substitute for fact.
There is a parallel case observed when people who have the relevant privilege (white people in anti-racist spaces, men in feminist spaces, cis people in trans spaces, able-bodied people in disabled spaces, etc.) try to participate in discussions. Oftentimes, particularly when this is their first foray into the discussion, they fail to recognize their deep ignorance of the topic and offer their opinions as though they are revelatory or hadn’t been considered and debunked countless times before.
This behavior is annoying and would be considered rude in any other circle, but we are exhorted to ignore the fact that they’re being rude and instead focus on the fact that they’re “trying” (as though effort was sufficient). It is the rough equivalent of telling someone not to be angry that you’re an hour late for a meeting because “at least I showed up!” It is an expression, however indirect, of your belief that the time and effort that others have put in to understanding the topic is less valuable than your desire to share your opinion with the room.
Those who talk without listening, demanding the time and energy of others without putting any in themselves, are being rude. Full stop. It is not unreasonable to respond with an commensurate level of rudeness. And while it might hurt some feelings, the fault does not lie with those who are reacting to the original insensitivity.
kbonn’s argument fails in another way, borne of a misunderstanding that is common but regrettable. There are conversations in social justice that are outwardly-focused: trying to explain the issues to neophytes and helping people see past their privilege. There are also conversations of another type entirely, for those who already have a basic understanding of the relevant issues to either commiserate or organize efforts to combat prejudice and oppression. I will call these “Type I” and “Type II” conversations.
The issue is that kbonn is mistakenly assuming that all conversations in the social justice realm are of Type I. This is a common misconception, borne of the same sense of entitlement that I describe above. There are, in fact, conversations had by minorities that are not about the majority. There are even conversations that are about the majority, but are not necessarily for the majority. There are conversations that are meant to be held by, and can only be held by, people who understand the topic. These conversations are massively derailed by people who insist on having the basics explained to them at every turn.
It is incumbent upon people entering conversations they don’t understand to clearly establish whether they are in a Type I environment or a Type II. I will sympathize – it is not always clear. But if you are asking what seem like simple questions and are receiving what you perceive as an unreasonable amount of pushback, there’s a really good chance that you’re in the wrong room, and your ass needs to get back to the Type I room.
Like this article? Follow me on Twitter!