Beware of collectors

There are people who I think of as collectors. Collectors like to maintain collections of people who they can manipulate. Often, collectors target marginalized people — especially activists and advocates who are growing into their own voices and power.

Collecting often works like this:

  • The collector will find someone who is starving for respect or struggling to be seen as a human being deserving human rights.
  • They will give you something that feels like an unusual amount of respect or allyship.
  • Often, this comes in a the form of expressing an opinion that it’s unusual for privileged people to have.
  • Eg: An autism professional might express opposition to ABA, or the opinion that communication should always come before behavioral intervention.
  • They might talk a lot about centering marginalized voices, and give you some access to space that people like you don’t normally have.
  • Eg: They might be a man who refuses to speak on all male panels and proactively gets you invited to speak at male-dominated conferences.
  • This support comes with a heavy price. In return, they expect you to act like part of their collection and avoid doing anything to upset them.
  • (And somehow, everything you do that shows power or independence tends to upset them.)

Once you’re collected, it tends to feel like this:

  • They make you feel like they’re “one of the good ones”, and there’s a constant implicit threat that if you fail to please them, they might stop being so good.
  • They make it clear that you’d better make them feel good and validate their self-image, or else they’ll stop.
  • They’ll do all kinds of things you’d normally object to, and say all kinds of things that you’d normally be offended by.
  • One of the most sure-fire ways to upset them is to point out the threat, or to make it clear that you’re acting out of fear in any way.
  • It gets harder and harder to say things that you know will upset them. It gets harder and harder to express opinions that you know contradict theirs. It gets harder and harder to even have *thoughts* that will upset them.
  • It gets harder and harder to realize how much you’re acting under duress, because noticing the threat will likely result in emotional retaliation.
  • They might put you in a position in which all of your options feel blatantly unprofessional in one way or other.
  • (For instance, they might make you choose between violating the professional ethics code in your field or else withdrawing from a project you’ve publicly committed to in a way that will cause the project to collapse.)
  • They might harshly criticize everyone else you’re allied with, and every community you’re part of. It can feel like you’re supposed to separate yourself from everyone but them. It can be difficult to resist, for the same reasons it’s generally difficult to resist deferring to their views.
  • It gets harder and harder to trust anyone else, or to have positive opinions of people who would treat you better than the collector does.

Collector manipulativeness tends to be excruciatingly confusing, in part because they also keep offering you things that feel important and rare, eg:

  • They’ll often tell you how important your work is, praise it effusively, and help you get access to professional opportunities.
  • They’ll often keep expressing unusual good opinions that make you feel like they must be on your side, deep down, because hardly anyone ever agrees with you.
  • You’re usually not the only one in their orbit. They’ll often be tolerated and praised within your community, even though they blatantly do things that would normally be seen as horrifically unacceptable.
  • (Eg: Maybe they argue for autistic rights but also express graphic sympathy for parents who murder autistic children. Maybe they get women onto panels but also make gross sexual comments and mansplain to everyone who contradicts them.)
  • They’ll often be involved in projects that get publicly praised as a major step forward, despite major flaws and despite the way that they treat marginalized people.
  • Often, open they say and do things that your community normally finds unacceptable, but are perceived as an ally and a friend.
  • (Or even a uniquely valuable and indispensable ally and friend.)
  • It can get really hard to trust your perceptions of right and wrong under those circumstances.
  • Collectors are confusing and it can be hard to extract yourself from them.

When you’re trying to extract yourself from a collector, the most important thing is to find ways to stay oriented. Collectors gain power by confusing you, and they become much less powerful when you’re able to notice what they’re doing.

Some ways to stay oriented:

Notice when your opinions are shifting in ways that might not be coming from you:

  • When you have conversations with the collector, do you tend to feel ashamed of yourself for disagreeing with them or questioning them?
  • Do you tend to go out of conversations feeling like you were wrong about everything and that they’re right?
  • Does the change in your opinions make sense to you, or does it feel like the ground is shifting underneath you in incomprehensible ways?
  • If you’re finding yourself confused after conversations, it can help to have a policy of not making decisions about what you’ve discussed until you’ve been away from the collector for at least for hours (or a day, or however long it usually takes for the effect to wear off.)

Making things explicit can also help:

  • One way collectors confuse people is by shaming you with innuendo instead of using direct language to discuss what they want you to believe and do.
  • They know that if they came out and said it, you would likely disagree with it — so instead of saying it, they manipulate you into losing the ability to contradict it.
  • (Eg: They might not say “it’s ok for parents to use electric shocks to control behavior”, but instead go off on a rant about being understanding every time you mention the issue.
  • Or they might not *say* “we should tolerate men who grope women when they’re also major donors”, but instead talk about how important fundraising is to your organization every time you say that the groping needs to stop.)
  • If you notice what, exactly, it is that they want you to do and think, it can make it *much* easier to figure out for yourself whether or not you actually agree.
  • Some questions worth asking (either to yourself or in conversation with someone you trust):
  • What do they want me to believe?
  • What do they want me to do?
  • What are they suggesting without coming out and saying it directly?
  • What do I think about this? Why?

It’s also worth paying attention to contradictions. Sometimes when you notice that someone is contradicting themselves, it becomes much easier to feel ok about disagreeing with them. It can help to think about these kinds of questions:

  • What things do they want me to believe? What am I supposed to believe about them? About myself? About my community? About other marginalized groups? About privileged people? About my field? About the world? About other things?
  • Do those things contradict each other?
  • Is it actually possible to believe all of those things at the same time?
  • If so, what would be the likely result of pointing out the contradiction? Would they be interested in figuring out how to reconcile things, or would they be angry at me for noticing?

More generally speaking, it’s easier to figure out what your own opinion is when you notice fear. Questions worth considering:

  • What do I think about the things they want me to believe? Why?
  • What do I agree with? What do I disagree with? What do I have questions about?
  • What questions am I afraid to ask? Why? What do I think the answers to those questions might be?
  • What opinions am I afraid to express? Why?
  • Am I saying yes when I really want to say no? Why?
  • What do I think when they’re not in the room? What changes when they are?
  • What would be the likely result of expressing uncertainty, asking questions, or saying that I disagree about something?
  • Would I be able to say what I actually believe without having a fraught emotional conversation in which I have to praise them and struggle to find ways to say that I agree with them after all?
  • What I am I afraid they might do to me? Realistically, could they do that? Would it be worse than the situation I’m already in?
  • Is there any way to mitigate the threat?

It can also help to ask yourself concrete questions about their actions and how they are percieved:

  • Collectors typically act in ways that blatantly contradict their reputation.
  • Then they manipulate people into not noticing, or they manipulate the conversation to prevent people from having language to describe it.
  • It’s worth asking: *Why* do they have a good reputation? Is it based on anything they’ve actually done to earn it?
  • Does their good reputation depend on excusing an awful lot of statements and actions that would normally be considered dealbreaking if someone did even *one* of those things?
  • If you feel like they’re great and worth putting up with despite the way they treat you, why is that?
  • What’s the best thing they’ve done for you? What has letting them do that for you cost you? Is it worth it? If so, why?
  • Do they really mean the good things that they say? If so, why aren’t they acting like it more consistently?

You’re not as alone as you might feel:

  • Collectors are really good at looking much more powerful and influential than they really are.
  • They may be giving the impression that everyone in your community is ok with what they’re doing, but it’s almost certainly not true.
  • Often, a lot of the silence and praise is because people are afraid to contradict the collector, not because they actually think everything is ok.
  • The collector may be manipulating the conversation in ways that silence others, but you’re not the only one who notices what they’re doing, and you’re not the only one who sees it as a problem. Connecting with others who think that the manipulation is wrong can help, a lot.

It also helps to remember that the world is bigger than the collector is making it seem:

  • Collectors aren’t God, and they’re not the source of all good things.
  • They are not the only ones who will respect you or work with you.
  • There is a whole world out there that is not about them, at all.
  • There are people who don’t care at all about the collectors opinion. There is work being done and art being made that they’re not part of.
  • The world does not revolve around collectors, and your life shouldn’t either.
  • You’re a real person, and you deserve respect in your own right.

Short version: Sometimes people build creepy collections of other people they’re manipulating. If a collector collects you, the world can end up seeming like a tiny and terrifying place, and it may seem like they’re a refuge. This can be very disorienting. Scroll up for some thoughts on how to notice when you’re being collected and some methods for getting your perspective back.

Disability vs special needs

I’m sometimes asked “Why do you say “disability” instead of “special needs”?

Here’s the most basic reason:

  • When people say “special needs”, the next word is usually “kids”.
  • When people say “disability”, the next word is often “rights”.

I’m an adult, and I want equal rights. For that reason, I’m going to keep using the language that has room for adulthood and power.

Autism stereotypes and Not Autism Syndrome

People who have rare developmental disabilities are often misdiagnosed with autism.  This happens in part because a lot of disabilities look similar in early childhood. When kids with undetected rare genetic conditions start ‘missing milestones’, they are often assumed to be autistic.

When people are assumed to be autistic, autism stereotypes get applied to them. They’re often assumed to be uninterested in people and communication, and they’re often put into ABA programs prescribed for autistic people. They face the same kind of degrading and damaging misunderstanding that autistic people do.

When advocacy organizations address the issue of misdiagnosis, they tend to say some form of “It’s important to distinguish between autism and Not Autism Syndrome, because demeaning autism stereotypes only accurately describe autistic people.”

Here’s a Rett Syndrome example:

“The child with RTT almost always prefers people to objects, but the opposite is seen in autism. Unlike those with autism, the RTT child often enjoys affection.”

And a Williams Syndrome example:

“Unlike other disorders that can make it difficult to interact meaningfully with your child, children with Williams Syndrome are sociable, friendly and endearing. Most children with this condition have very outgoing and engaging personalities and tend to take an extreme interest in other people.”

Statements like these suggest that the problem with autism stereotypes is that they’re applied to the wrong people. The thing is, demeaning autism stereotypes aren’t true of anyone. We all have feelings and thoughts and the capacity to care about things and relate to other people. Accurate diagnosis matters, but not as a way of sorting out who is and isn’t fully human. We’re all fully human, and no one should be treated the way autistic people are treated. We shouldn’t pass around stereotypes, we should reject them.

Allyship does not mean seeing yourself as worthless

There are people who like to make others feel worthless. Some of them use the language of social justice to get away with it.

Often, this comes in the form of proclaiming to hate allies and then demanding unbounded deference from allies. This is typically conflated with accountability, but it’s not the same thing at all.

Hatred and accountability are different things. Accountability as an ally means, among other things:

  • Listening to the people you’re trying to support instead of talking over them.
  • Making good-faith efforts to understand the issues involved and to act on what you learn.
  • Understanding that you’re going to make big mistakes, and that sometimes people you’re trying to support will be justifiably angry with you.
  • Accepting that your privilege and power matter, not expecting others to overlook either, and taking responsibility for how you use both.
  • Facing things that are uncomfortable to think about, and handling your own feelings about them rather than dumping on marginalized people.
  • Being careful about exploitation and reciprocity, including paying people for their time when you’re asking them to do work for you.
  • Understanding that marginalized people have good reason to be cautious about trusting you, and refraining from demanding trust on the grounds that you see yourself as on their side.

When people use the language of social justice to make others feel worthless, it’s more like this:

  • Telling allies explicitly or implicitly, that they are worthless and harming others by existing.
  • Expecting allies to constantly prove that they’re not terrible people, even when they’ve been involved with the community for years and have a long track record of trustworthiness.
  • Berating allies about how terrible allies are, in ways that have no connection to their actual actions or their actual attitudes.
  • Giving people instructions that are self-contradictory or impossible to act on, then berating them for not following them.
  • Eg: Saying “Go f**ing google it” about things that are not actually possible to google in a meaningful way
  • Eg: saying “ shut up and listen to marginalized people” about issues that significant organized groups of marginalized people disagree about. https://www.realsocialskills.org/blog/the-rules-about-responding-to-call-outs-arent
  • Eg: Simultaneously telling allies that they need to speak up about an issue and that they need to shut up about the same issue. Putting them in a position in which if they speak or write about something, they will be seen as taking up space that belongs to marginalized people, and if they don’t, they will be seen as making marginalized people do all the work.
  • Giving allies instructions, then berating them for following them:
  • Eg: Inviting allies to ask questions about good allyship, then telling them off for centering themselves whenever they actually ask relevant questions.
  • Eg: Teaching a workshop on oppression or a related issue, and saying “it’s not my job to educate you” to invited workshop participants who ask questions that people uninformed about the issue typically can be expected to ask.
  • More generally speaking: setting things up so that no matter what an ally does, it will be seen as a morally corrupt act of oppression.

Holding allies accountable means insisting that they do the right thing. Ally hate undermines accountability by saying that it’s inherently impossible for allies to do anything right. If we want to hold people accountable in a meaningful, we have to believe that accountability is possible.

Someone who believes that it’s impossible for allies to do anything right isn’t going to be able to hold you accountable. If someone has no allies who they respect, you’re probably not going to be their exception — they will almost certainly end up hating you too. If someone demands that you assume you’re worthless and prove your worth in an ongoing way, working with them is unlikely to end well.

If you want to hold yourself accountable, you need to develop good judgement about who to listen to and who to collaborate with. Part of that is learning to be receptive to criticism from people who want you to do the right thing, even when the criticism is hard to hear. Another part is learning to be wary of people who see you as a revenge object and want you to hate yourself. You will encounter both attitudes frequently, and it’s important to learn to tell the difference. Self-hatred isn’t accountability.

Short version: If we want to hold allies accountable in a meaningful, we have to believe that accountability is possible. Hatred of allies makes this much harder. It’s best to avoid working with people who seem to want you to hate yourself.

“I never do x” vs “When I do x, it doesn’t count, because it’s justified”.

It’s important to have morally neutral language to describe actions. This is especially important for actions that are always, usually, or sometimes morally wrong.

For instance:

  • In English, ‘killing’ and ‘murder’ mean different things.
  • ‘Murder’ always means killing that is either illegal or morally wrong.
  • ‘Killing’ can describe any act that causes someone to die.
  • This distinction makes it possible to talk about when killing is and isn’t justified.
  • Even for people who think that killing is always murder, this is important.
  • Without morally neutral language, it’s impossible to express a clear opinion on whether or not killing is ever acceptable.

For instance (names randomly generated using https://www.fakenamegenerator.com/gen-random-us-us.php):

  • Heather: *shoots Sonja*.
  • Sonja: *dies as a result of being shot by Heather*.
  • In this situation, Heather definitely killed Sonja. Whether or not she murdered Sonja is something people can argue about.
  • Eg: If Sonja was trying to kill Heather and Heather shot her in self-defense, almost everyone would argue that this isn’t murder.
  • Eg: If Heather was trying to rob Sonja’s store and shot her to prevent her from calling for help, almost everyone would consider that murder.
  • Eg: If Heather felt threatened by Sonja in a public space and shot her rather than trying to run away, most people would consider that murder, but some people would vehemently disagree.
  • Because ‘murder’ and ‘killing’ are different words, everyone would be able to express their opinion in a clear way.

When it’s impossible to describe actions without condemning them, it can be impossible to describe what people are actually doing. This makes it hard to have an honest conversation, and even harder to hold people accountable.

Here’s a disability services example (randomly generated names):

  • Charles (a staff person): I don’t believe in coercion. I never control my clients or tell them what to do. They’re totally in control of their own lives.
  • Patricia  (a disabled adult client): I want to eat some cookies at 3am.
  • Staff person: You can’t eat cookies at 3am. You agreed to take care of yourself by making healthy choices, and it’s important to keep your agreements.
  • Patricia: You’re telling me what to do instead of letting me decide.
  • Staff person: No I’m not. I’m telling you that you can’t eat cookies at 3am because staying up past your bedtime and eating junk food aren’t healthy choices. I would never tell you what to do.
  • Patricia doesn’t get access to cookies, and is put on a behavior plan if she leaves her room after 10pm.

In this example, Charles is blatantly and unambiguously controlling Patricia and telling her what to do. When Patrica says ‘telling me what to do’, she means it literally. When Charles says, ‘telling people what to do’ he really means ‘telling people what to do (without a good reason)’. He doesn’t realize that coercion is still coercion even if he thinks it’s justified coercion. Without a direct literal way to refer to the act of controlling people, it becomes nearly impossible to discuss when coercion is and isn’t justified.

This happens a lot, in any number of contexts, often following this kind of pattern:

  • Person: I would never do The (Unacceptable) Thing!
  • Person: *does The (Unacceptable) Thing*.
  • Someone else: You literally just did The (Unacceptable) Thing.
  • Person: No, I didn’t do The (Unacceptable) Thing. I had a good reason, so it wasn’t The (Unacceptable) Thing. I would never do The (Unacceptable) Thing.

Sometimes people who talk this way are lying — but not always. Sometimes it’s that they don’t understand that reasons don’t erase actions. Sometimes they think actions only count as The (Unacceptable) Thing when they consider the actions to be unjustified/unacceptable. If you point out that they are, in fact, literally doing The Thing, they think that means you’re accusing them of being bad — and that you couldn’t be right, because they have a good reason.

This language problem is breaking a lot of conversations that need to happen, particularly around privilege and misuse of power.

Short version: It needs to be possible to describe what people are doing in morally neutral terms. This is especially important for actions that are always, usually, or sometimes morally wrong. Scroll up for more about why and a concrete example.

A red flag: “I don’t want you to see me as an authority figure”

If your boss or academic advisor says something like “I don’t want you to see me as an authority figure,” that’s a major red flag. It almost always means that they want to get away with breaking the rules about what powerful people are allowed to do. They’re probably not treating you as an equal. They’re probably trying to exercise more power over you than they should.

Sometimes authority figures say “I don’t want you to see me as an authority figure” because they want you to do free work for them. The logic here works like this:

  • They want you to do something.
  • It’s something that it would be wrong for an authority figure to order you to do.
  • If they were a peer asking for a favor, it would be ok to ask, and also ok for you to say no.
  • The authority figure wants you to obey them, but they don’t want to accept limits on what it’s acceptable to ask you to do.
  • For purposes of “what requests are ok to make”, they don’t want to be seen as an authority figure.
  • They also want you to do what they say. It’s not really a request, because you’re not really free to say no.

For example:

  • It’s usually ok to ask your friends if they would be willing to help you move in exchange for pizza. It’s never ok to ask your employees to do that.
  • It’s sometimes ok to ask a friend to lend you money for medical bills (depending on the relationship). It’s never ok to ask your student to lend you money for a personal emergency.

Sometimes authority figures pretend not to have power because they want to coerce someone into forms of intimacy that require consent. They know that consent isn’t really possible given the power imbalance, so they say “I don’t want you to see me as an authority figure” in hopes that you won’t notice the lines they’re crossing. Sometimes this takes the form of sexual harassment. Sometimes it’s other forms of intimacy. For instance:

  • Abusive emotional intimacy: Excepting you to share your feelings with them, or receive their feelings in a way that’s really only appropriate between friends or in consented-to therapy.
  • Coming to you for ongoing emotional support in dealing with their marital problems.
  • Trying to direct your trauma recovery or “help you overcome disability”.
  • Asking questions about your body beyond things they need to know for work/school related reasons.
  • Expecting you to share all your thoughts and feelings about your personal life.
  • Analyzing you and your life and expecting you to welcome their opinions and find them insightful.
  • Abusive spiritual intimacy: Presuming the right to an opinion on your spiritual life. (Eg: Trying to get you to convert to their religion, telling you that you need to pray, trying to make you into their disciple, telling you that you need to forgive in order to move on with your life.)

If someone says “I don’t want you to see me as an authority figure”, it probably means that they can’t be trusted to maintain good boundaries. (Unless they’re also saying something like “I’m not actually your boss, and you don’t have to do what I say”.) Sometimes they are intentionally trying to get away with breaking the rules. Sometimes it’s less intentional. Some people feel awkward about being powerful and don’t want to think about it. In either case, unacknowledged power is dangerous. In order to do right by people you have power over, you have to be willing to think about the power you have and how you’re using it.

Short version: If someone has power they don’t want to acknowledge, they probably can’t be trusted to use their power ethically.

Accepting apologies without saying “it’s ok”

Sometimes apologies fix the problem. Sometimes all that’s needed to make things ok is to acknowledge that you did something wrong. For instance, if you accidentally bump into someone, saying “sorry” clarifies that you didn’t do it on purpose and don’t intend to hurt them. That’s usually enough in that kind of situation.

When someone apologizes in a way that fixes the problem, it’s usually good to say something like “it’s ok”. Because now that they’ve apologized, it *is* ok.

Sincere apologies aren’t always enough to make everything ok. Sometimes mistakes hurt people in ways that persist even after an apology. They can still matter. Fixing part of a problem is better than doing nothing.

If someone apologizes to you in a way that’s real but doesn’t erase the problem, you may not want to say “it’s ok” (because it still isn’t). One thing you can say instead is “Thank you for apologizing”. Thanking someone for apologizing acknowledges and accepts the apology without pretending that everything is fixed. This can create space for the problem to actually get solved.

Short version: When sincere apologies don’t fix everything, ‘thank you for apologizing’ can be a better thing to say than ‘it’s ok’.

Manipulative fake apologies

Some apologies amount to someone asking for permission to keep doing something bad.

  • These apologies generally shouldn’t be accepted.
  • (But it can be really hard not to, because who want permission to do bad things tend to lash out when they don’t get it.)
  • (If you have to accept a bad apology to protect yourself, it’s not your fault.)

Eg:

  • Moe: “I’m sorry, I know this is my privileged male opinion talking but…”
  • Or, Moe: “I’m sorry, I know I’m kind of a creeper…” or “I’m sorry, I know I’m standing too close but…”
  • At this point, Sarah may feel pressured to say “It’s ok.”
  • If Sarah says, “Actually, it’s not ok. Please back off” or “Yes, you’re mansplaining, please knock it off”, Moe is likely to get angry.
  • The thing is, it’s not ok, and Moe has no intention of stopping.
  • Moe is just apologizing in order to feel ok about doing something he knows is wrong.

Another example:

  • Sam is a wheelchair user. He’s trying to get through a door.
  • Mary sees him and decides that he needs help.
  • Mary rushes to open the door. As she does so, she says “Oh, sorry, I know I’m supposed to ask first”, with an expectant pause.
  • At this point, Sam may feel pressured to say “It’s ok”, even if the ‘help’ is unwanted and unhelpful.
  • If Sam says, “Yes, you should have asked first. You’re in my way. Please move”, Mary is likely to get angry and say “I was just trying to help!”.
  • In this situation, Mary wasn’t really apologizing. She was asking Sam to give her permission to do something she knows is wrong.

More generally:

  • Fake Apologizer: *does something they know the other person will object to*.
  • Fake Apologizer: “Oh, I’m sorry. I know I’m doing The Bad Thing…” or “I guess you’re going to be mad if I…”
  • Fake Apologizer: *expectant pause*
  • The Target is then supposed to feel pressured to say something like “That’s ok”, or “I know you mean well”, or “You’re a good person, so it’s ok for you to do The Bad Thing.”

If the Target doesn’t respond by giving the Fake Apologizer permission/validation, the Fake Apologizer will often lash out. This sometimes escalates in stages, along the lines of:

  • Fake Apologizer: I *said* I was sorry!
  • Fake Apologizer: *expectant pause*
  • The Target is then supposed to feel pressure to be grateful to the Fake Apologizer for apologizing, and then as a reward, give them permission to do The Bad Thing. (Or apologize for not letting them do The Bad Thing.)
  • If the Target doesn’t respond in the way the Fake Apologizer wants, they will often escalate to intense personal insults, or even overt threats, eg:
  • Fake Apologizer: I guess you’re just too bitter and broken inside to accept my good intentions. I hope you get the help you need. And/or:
  • Fake Apologizer: Ok, fine. I’ll never try to do anything for you ever again. And/or
  • Fake Apologizer: *storms off, and slams the door in a way that causes the person who refused their intrusive help to fall over*.

Short version: Sometimes what looks like an apology is really a manipulative demand for validation and permission to do something bad.

The rules about responding to call outs aren’t working

Privileged people rarely take the voices of marginalized people seriously. Social justices spaces attempt to fix this with rules about how to respond to when marginalized people tell you that you’ve done something wrong. Like most formal descriptions of social skills, the rules don’t quite match reality. This is causing some problems that I think we could fix with a more honest conversation about how to respond to criticism.

The formal social justice rules say something like this:

  • You should listen to marginalized people.
  • When a marginalized person calls you out, don’t argue.
  • Believe them, apologize, and don’t do it again.
  • When you see others doing what you were called out for doing, call them out.

Those rules are a good approximation of some things, but they don’t actually work. It is impossible to follow them literally, in part because:

  • Marginalized people are not a monolith.
  • Marginalized people have the same range of opinions as privileged people.
  • When two marginalized people tell you logically incompatible things, it is impossible to act on both sets of instructions.
  • For instance, some women believe that abortion is a human right foundational human right for women. Some women believe that abortion is murder and an attack on women and girls.
  • “Listen to women” doesn’t tell you who to believe, what policy to support, or how to talk about abortion.
  • For instance, some women believe that religious rules about clothing liberate women from sexual objectification, other women believe that religious rules about clothing sexually objectify women.
  • “Listen to women” doesn’t tell you what to believe about modesty rules.
  • Narrowing it to “listen to women of minority faiths” doesn’t help, because women disagree about this within every faith.
  • When “listen to marginalized people” means “adopt a particular position”, marginalized people are treated as rhetorical props rather than real people.
  • Objectifying marginalized people does not create justice.

Since the rule is literally impossible to follow, no one is actually succeeding at following it. What usually ends up happening when people try is that:

  • One opinion gets lifted up as “the position of marginalized people”
  • Agreeing with that opinion is called “listen to marginalized people”
  • Disagreeing with that opinion is called “talking over marginalized people”
  • Marginalized people who disagree with that opinion are called out by privileged people for “talking over marginalized people”.
  • This results in a lot of fights over who is the true voice of the marginalized people.
  • We need an approach that is more conducive to real listening and learning.

This version of the rule also leaves us open to sabotage:

  • There are a lot of people who don’t want us to be able to talk to each other and build effective coalitions.
  • Some of them are using the language of call-outs to undermine everyone who emerges as an effective progressive leader.
  • They say that they are marginalized people, and make up lies about leaders.
  • Or they say things that are technically true, but taken out of context in deliberately misleading ways.
  • The rules about shutting up and listening to marginalized people make it very difficult to contradict these lies and distortions.
  • (Sometimes they really are members of the marginalized groups they claim to speak for. Sometimes they’re outright lying about who they are).
  • (For instance, Russian intelligence agents have used social media to pretend to be marginalized Americans and spread lies about Hillary Clinton.)

The formal rule is also easily exploited by abusive people, along these lines:

  • An abusive person convinces their victim that they are the voice of marginalized people.
  • The abuser uses the rules about “when people tell you that you’re being oppressive, don’t argue” to control the victim.
  • Whenever the victim tries to stand up for themself, the abuser tells the victim that they’re being oppressive.
  • That can be a powerfully effective way to make victims in our communities feel that they have no right to resist abuse.
  • This can also prevent victims from getting support in basic ways.
  • Abusers can send victims into depression spirals by convincing them that everything that brings them pleasure is oppressive and immoral.
  • The abuser may also isolate the victim by telling them that it would be oppressive for them to spend time with their friends and family, try to access victim services, or call the police.
  • The abuser may also separate the victim from their community and natural allies by spreading baseless rumors about their supposed oppressive behavior. (Or threatening to do so).
  • When there are rules against questioning call outs, there are also implicit rules against taking the side of a victim when the abuser uses the language of calling out.
  • Rules that say some people should unconditionally defer to others are always dangerous.

The rule also lacks intersectionality:

  • No one experiences every form of oppression or every form of privilege.
  • Call-outs often involve people who are marginalized in different ways.
  • Often, both sides in the conflict have a point.
  • For instance, black men have male privilege and white women have white privilege.
  • If a white woman calls a black man out for sexism and he responds by calling her out for racism (or vice versa), “listened to marginalized people” isn’t a very helpful rule because they’re both marginalized.
  • These conversations tend to degenerate into an argument about which form of marginalization is most significant.
  • This prevents people involved from actually listening to each other.
  • In conflicts like this, it’s often the case that both sides have a legitimate point. (In ways that are often not immediately obvious.)
  • We need to be able to work through these conflicts without expecting simplistic rules to resolve them in advance.

This rule also tends to prevent groups centered around one form of marginalized from coming to engage with other forms of marginalization:

  • For instance, in some spaces, racism and sexism are known to be issues, but ableism is not.
  • (This can occur in any combination. Eg: There are also spaces that get ableism and sexism but not racism, and spaces that get economic justice and racism but not antisemitism, or any number of other things.)
  • When disabled people raise the issue of ableism in any context (social justice or otherwise), they’re likely to be shouted down and told that it’s not important.
  • In social justice spaces, this shouting down is often done in the name of “listening to marginalized people”.
  • For instance, disabled people may be told ‘you need to listen to marginalized people and de-center your issues’, carrying the implication that ableism is less important than other forms of oppression.
  • (This happens to *every* marginalized group in some context or other.)
  • If we want real intersectional solidarity, we need to have space for ongoing conflicts that are not simple to resolve.

Short version: “Shut up and listen to marginalized people” isn’t quite the right rule, because it objectifies marginalized people, leaves us open to sabotage, enables abuse, and prevents us from working through conflicts in a substantive way. We need to do better by each other, and start listening for real.

On solving the right problem

Not every problem disabled people have is a failure to understand social situations.

Sometimes the problem is that our bodies are considered socially unacceptable.

No amount of social skills training will change our bodies.

No amount of social understanding will make typical movement and typical speech physically possible.

No matter what we learn, bodies and brains matter. We’re still disabled when we understand things.

It’s ok to be disabled. It’s not ok to be bigoted against disabled people.

If we want to get anywhere, we need to make sure that we’re solving the right problems.