Saturday, June 2, 2012

Distinguishing between friends, foes, and those in between

I really don't care for the phrase, "Everyone is a racist." Oh, I agree with the intention: Every single one of us from time to time engages in actions, harbors unconscious attitudes, or perpetuates institutions which have undeniably racist consequences. That doesn't make us bad people; it's how we deal with this, especially when it's pointed out to us, that makes the difference.

But I really hate the phrase itself, for a few reasons. For one, it sacrifices a useful distinction. There are people who are very aware of race issues and try their best almost all the time; there are people who don't have any overt racist attitudes, but who are pretty clueless about racial sensitivity; and there are people who, though they might claim otherwise ("I'm not racist -- I have piles of black friends! I even let them use my bathroom!") consciously harbor unapologetically racist attitudes and regularly employ them in their decision-making. To give all three of these groups the same label seems hopelessly coarse-grained to me. For my part, I reserve the noun "racist" for the final group.

Another problem, which is related to the first, is that it's using the maximally negative word even for the most minimally impacting behaviors, thus increasing the potential for defensiveness. Someone who might be responsive to having the unintended racist consequences of their behaviors explained to them might well completely block out anything that comes after, "Hey, you're being a racist." Nobody wants to think of themselves that way, and if you start the conversation that way, you've ended it already.

Not that that's always a bad thing, of course. A lot of people aren't going to be responsive either way, and in those cases, coming out with guns blazing can be exactly the right thing: You turn the conversation into a stalemate, but you still might influence people who are listening in/reading the conversation.

But if you fail to distinguish between friends, foes, and those in between, and just lob the same size bombs at any of them when their behavior falls short, then you're being less effective than you could be and even discouraging people from taking the time to understand your point. And the reason I'm writing about this now is because I fear some of the "good guys" in the ongoing Secular Sexism Wars are starting to lose that friend/foe distinction.

Before going further, it's important to make clear that I'm not trying to pull a false equivocation here. The people I am criticizing in this post -- and I am going to name names, by the way -- are generally in the right, while the people they are arguing with are generally in the wrong. And the absolute worst behavior coming from the "good guys" pales in comparison to the typical bile coming from the "don't you tell me not to objectify women!" brigade. An example is in order, starting first with one of the worst moves from our side:

DJ Groethe recently said something really, really dumb about the declining registration among women in this year's The Amazing Meeting. And he deserves some serious criticism for that. But is DJ friend or foe? In the past, DJ has seemed to indicate that he is on the right side of these issues (TAM was one of the first skeptic conferences to have a harassment policy, after all), but he has also demonstrated that he doesn't always "get it", and has made his share of non-trivial missteps in regards to sexism. He's in that in-between region. And as such, perhaps some relatively nuanced tactics are in order.

And yet look at how the news broke at FtB. Greg Laden, in one of his regrettably common over-the-top displays, calls for DJ Groethe to resign, without even giving him a chance to respond. If I may mix metaphors here for a moment, Greg just took a giant shit in the well.

Some more tempered criticism of DJ Groethe's faux pas followed, but already the damage had been done. DJ went into total defensive mode. At least a couple of otherwise-sympathetic FtB bloggers were so shocked at the suggestion that DJ resign that, rather than address the problems with his shoot-the-messenger statement, they rushed to his defense. The rhetoric on both sides escalated rapidly, and now the possibility of TAM actually addressing this problem constructively seems remote.

Hell, the organizers of TAM don't even have that much incentive to do so: The situation became so acrimonious so quickly that a lot of the people with concerns have already announced they just simply won't go, no matter what. I don't necessarily blame them, either, as Groethe's follow-up responses were in some cases even worse than the initial comment. But then again, I can't help but wonder if DJ might have been more responsive if he didn't feel like his very job was under attack right from the get-go.

Trigger warning for next paragraph.

But as bad as Greg fucked this all up, look at what he did not do: Greg did not suggest that maybe DJ Groethe needed a nice prison-ass-rape to fix him up. He did not call him a fag or a homo (or even a man-cunt!), or suggest that his misstep had something to do with DJ being too ugly/too sexy/too prude/too slutty. As unkind as I've been to Laden in this post, the very suggestion that he would say something so vile stretches the imagination to the breaking point.

And yet these kinds of comments would not at all be out of place coming from some of the more unseemly elements of the "anti-harassment policies are Talibanesque!" side. So please don't think I am making a false equivalence here.

But the "good guys" can do better, and they can do so without compromising a single crucial principle. I know this is the case, because I've seen it done on FtB. Where? Well, as promised, I'm going to name names. I'm going to restrict this to FtB bloggers, because I'm not familiar enough with any others:

I've already mentioned Greg Laden, and I think he's the worst when it comes to this sort of thing. I like Greg, he's often entertaining, and his fascinating life experiences sometimes give him unique insight. (His series on eating insects is not to be missed) But he's so black-and-white sometimes, it really grates on me. This is not the first time I've criticized him on this blog, either. Actually, it's at least the third, although the second time I did not mention him by name.

Who's next? Stephanie Zvan and Jason Thibeault. Now, I read both of those blogs regularly. I've learned a lot from both of them, and in the case of Stephanie's blog, I can even to a certain extent credit her uncompromising attitude for that. (I can't say if I would have "gotten it" faster or slower if she and the commenters there had been nicer... the aggressive approach ultimately worked, but at the same time it was very difficult not to get overly defensive) But lately I see both of them occasionally losing a bit of this friend/foe distinction. Jason recently came dangerously close to lumping Chris Hallquist in with the rape-threaters, simply because Chris failed to understand the context of an anti-booth babes clause in a proposed anti-harassment policy. (Jason clarified in a comment that he thought Chris was merely "jumping the gun" rather than turning all the way to the dark side, but I still think it was wrong to toss a mention of Chris in with that particular post without clearly distancing Chris' reasoned-but-wrong disagreement from the rest of the reactionary bile) Both of these bloggers are great overall, but I suspect both of them have had to deal with too many people for whom the absolutely proper response is "Fuck off you hate-filled toadie," that they sometimes forget some people -- even some people who are badly wrong -- deserve something more along the lines of "Hey, I know you're a decent person and you mean to do the right thing, but I think you need to re-examine the unintended consequences of what you said about X."

A few other bloggers cross the line here and there... PZ -- but of course that's his schtick, I guess. Ophelia Benson every now and then I think, but I love her so I maybe don't notice it as much.

So does anybody get it right? Is there anybody who is just as strong on issues of sexism, racism, and other matters of privilege as people like Stephanie, but who consistently gets the friend/foe distinction correct and consistently sets the right tone for the right audience?

Yes there is: Ian Cromwell, a.k.a. Crommunist. I can't say enough good things about Crommie's approach to people who are straddling that friend/foe line, people who's intentions are in the right place but who just don't fully "get it" yet. I could have counted myself among that group many times in the past, and probably will again many times in the future. Crommunist is just as uncompromising on calling out privilege as anybody else at FtB, and yet it somehow feels safe to be wrong at his blog.

More than once, I have had an issue where I was basically like, "I sorta worry that this thing I think is racist, but I still kinda think it anyway and I'm not sure why it's wrong," and Crommunist has been able to patiently set me straight. If I'd asked the same question in, say, Greg Laden's blog, I'm quite sure I would have been shouted down, had all sorts of terrible adjectives attached to me, and I might have just turtled up and stopped listening.

Crommunist still has just as much fire to fling at the irredeemable assholes, but he has a talent for distinguishing friend from foe (and everything in between), and treating each accordingly. Again, I really want to avoid making a false equivocation here... but nevertheless, too many of the recent volleys coming from the right side of the Secular Sexism Wars have struck me as the rhetorical equivalent of carpet bombing. In the long run, that approach works, but I think it's less effective than the surgical strikes for which Crommie has such a talent.

In short: Keep up the good work, FtBers -- but I think you can do even better.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for saying this, now I can get on with my day:) I'm amazed at how quickly any discussion on sexism degenerates into taking extreme sides. People I enjoy reading; Chris H. and John L. jumped to DJs defense because he's a nice guy, DJ makes sure everyone knows what side he's on by throwing RW to the dogs...again...even though she continues to encourage women to join CFI and attend TAM. And once again, it's not the initial post but the commenters that make the secular community seem no better than religious for being totally unable to take a step back and really gather coherent arguments.