If you speak about injustice and privileged people get offended, people will condescendingly explain to you that things are easier to hear if you are nice, and that you are more likely to convince people if you speak to them respectfully.
This is true, and often important to keep in mind – but people who say that to you in a conversation about injustice are usually missing the point.
They’re ignoring something fundamentally important about addressing injustice: Sometimes, the goal is not to convince privileged people to treat others better. Sometimes, the goal is to convince marginalized people that the way they are being treated is unjust and that it’s possible to resist.
There can be a tradeoff between saying things in a way it is easy for victims to hear and saying things in a way that it is easy for privileged people to hear. Sometimes, no matter which way you say it, upsetting one group or the other is inevitable.
When you choose to say things in a way that is easy and comfortable for marginalized people to hear, you are likely to upset privileged people who are used to being addressed deferentially in these matters. And they will make their displeasure known, and other people will lecture you about being kind and building bridges.
When you choose to say things in a way that is easy and comfortable for privileged people to hear, you are likely to hurt marginalized people who are accustomed to having their feelings disregarded. They are unlikely to complain, because complaining rarely helps and often invites retaliation. When you choose to make your words comfortable for privileged people at the expense of marginalized people, no one will lecture you about kindness, tone, or saying things in a way people can hear. It will not occur to them that it matters how the victims of injustice feel in conversations about injustice.
This dynamic will be invisible to those who lecture about tone and kindness, but it should not be invisible to you. Do not let others pressure you into disregarding the feelings of marginalized people for the sake of the powerful.
I don’t know a solution to this. I think it’s a serious problem, but I don’t know how to talk about it in a good way.
Feminist issues can get really, really hard to talk about.
There are a lot of forms of abuse that play out in a gendered way fueled by misogyny, that have some of these attributes:
- They’re usually done to women by men (eg: rape; stalking; sexual harassment at work)
- Almost all of the people directly affected by them are women or girls (eg: the overwhelming majority of people who need to have abortions are women or girls)
- They are almost always motivated by misogyny
- There’s a pattern of misogyny that enables them to happen
- Most of the culture is dedicated to denying this
- People really, really pressure everyone to pretend this isn’t a misogynistic pattern
But, for all of these things, there’s also this:
- Some of the abusers are women (eg: there are female rapists and stalkers)
- The same thing, or a similar thing, happens to men (there are male rape and stalking victims)
- Some people who are affected by the things aren’t women (eg: intersex folks who can get pregnant also need access to contraception and abortion and reproductive healthcare, so do trans men and nonbinary folks who can get pregnant)
- Some people are taught they have no right to say no for reasons other than gender (for instance, this routinely happens to both boys and girls with disabilities)
That creates a complicated problem. Here’s one aspect of it:
- People who are harmed by these things other than as a form of male-on-female abuse tend to be erased
- And often even don’t realize that the things that happened to them actually happened, or that it’s ok to take them seriously
- And often the only things that they have access to are things that implicitly or even emphatically describe this as something that ONLY happens to women and is ONLY done by men
- For instance, most of the books about learning to have boundaries are women’s self-help books written in a way that suggests that being taught not to have boundaries is always mostly the result of growing up socially perceived as female a misogynistic culture
- And it can be hard for trans people of any gender to get anatomically appropriate medical care without facing unbearable hostility to their gender identity
- Or for female victims of female abusers to find supportive spaces, since many women’s spaces assume that men are dangerous and women are safe
- This can be awful situations to be in, and exposure to some kinds of feminist discourse can make it worse for people who experience this pattern of abuse in a way that doesn’t fit this model
Here’s another aspect of the problem:
- The pattern of misogyny that creates the male-on-female forms of the abuse is very much a real thing
- And a lot of people don’t want it to be talked about, ever (eg: MRAs, people who want to say that women are just imagining everything and that really men have it just as bad if not worse, etc)
- And some of them use other kinds of victims as pawns. And use them to say that it’s wrong to talk about women’s issues or patterns of misogyny, because there are exceptions
- And that’s a seriously messed up form of derailing, because misogyny is real and so are the patterns feminism describes. Gendered patterns are real, and important to talk about, even though similar things happen in ways that don’t fit those patterns
- And, more often than not, the people saying these things don’t actually care about victims who don’t fit the patterns – they often don’t ever talk about them except to derail feminist conversations
And another aspect:
- Sometimes people who talk about lack of representation are totally sincere
- They often get accused of derailing when they’re not remotely doing so
- They’re interpreted this way by people who want to derail the conversation *and* by people who want to prevent it from being derailed
- This can make it hard for these people to ever have any space to talk about their experiences
- Or things that contributed to them
- Or patterns of ways they happen
- Or ways to fight these patterns and protect people
The result ends up being that there’s some people who tend to get overlooked or shouted down by just about everyone. I don’t know a good solution to this. I think noticing the pattern might be a starting place. I wish I knew more to do about it.
Sometimes, people in power use “feeling safe” in a manipulative way. They shift the conversation away from whether or not you actually are safe, and into a conversation about your feelings. Sometimes people in power who do this have a kind affect and seem to really care about helping you to feel better. This can make it hard to know in your own mind what the problem actually is, and hard to keep hold of your understanding that something is wrong and needs to be addressed.
It helps to keep in mind that these things are different:
- Feeling unsafe in reaction to something even though you actually are safe
- Seeing something as evidence that you are actually unsafe
- People in power will often try to confuse you about which thing you are experiencing, but it’s important to stay mindful of the difference.
It’s also possible to have a feeling that you are unsafe, and not be sure whether it’s reasonable or not:
- It’s important to take that feeling seriously
- And to think through what it means, and whether there might be a real danger
- Sometimes when you feel unsafe it will be an irrational reaction, but don’t be quick to dismiss it as one
- If you think it’s an irrational reaction, make sure you have a concrete reason for thinking that it’s irrational and that things are actually ok
People can feel unsafe around someone for all kinds of reasons other than being unsafe:
- Being bigoted against another group (eg: racist fear of black people)
- Being triggered by something (eg: feeling afraid because seeing men wear hats is triggering)
- Forgetting to take medication and having strange reactions to things as a result
- Taking a new medication with unexpected side effects that complicate your ability to perceive things accurately
- Misunderstanding something someone did or said (eg: taking something literally that was not intended literally)
- Being exhausted
- When it’s this kind of thing, sometimes the external situation still needs to be addressed, but often it can be dealt with by processing things yourself
But sometimes the problem is that you’re *actually not safe*, and sometimes this is in ways that it’s hard for other people to see, eg:
- If you are being pressured to share private information with people who can’t be trusted to keep things confidential
- If you are being pressured to use a ramp that is too steep to be safe, or allow people to carry you into an inaccessible building
- If people around you are bigoted against you in subtle, but constantly corrosive ways
- If people are intentionally triggering you in order to confuse and disorient you into doing what they want
- If you’re being triggered in a way that makes it impossible for you to understand what is going on well enough to keep yourself safe, even if no one is doing it on purpose
- If there is no food available that you can safely eat for an extended period
- If you are experiencing executive functioning problems in ways that make it hard or impossible for you to do things that are necessary for survival, and no one is willing to help you
- If you’re spending a lot of time in a environment is physically overloading in painful ways
- If you have medical problems and doctors refuse to communicate in a way you can understand, or if you only have access to them in an environment that prevents you from communicating
- and any number of other things
All of these things are the kind of thing that apparently well-meaning people will often try to address by trying to get you to process your feelings so that you will feel safe. That’s a dangerous reaction, and it’s important to notice when people are doing it, and to learn how to insist that they address the actual safety issue.
Sometimes the feeling is the problem.
Sometimes the problem is that you’re *actually not safe*.
If someone’s trying to manage your feelings rather than the actual threat to your safety, it’s important to remember that they’re doing a bad thing. And that it’s ok to want to actually *be* safe, even if all they want to do is make you *feel* safe.
Cooperation with feelings derails is one of the hardest anti-skills to unlearn. But it’s also really, really important.
If someone is telling you about a bad situation they’re in, or something they’re upset about, it’s probably not a good time to launch into an abstract discussion of something tangentially related.
- Jane: My coworkers keep hitting on me. It’s really getting to be a problem.
- Bill: Well, hitting on people can be very important.
Likewise, when someone wants support for a bad thing that happened, that is probably not a good time to have an abstract conversation with them about the nature of the words they’re using.
- Bruce: This is such an awful work schedule. My boss keeps telling me it doesn’t matter because we’re doing such awesome things. He’s so freaking invested in his privilege.
- Leo: I don’t know that I’d call that privilege. I mean, obnoxiousness sure, but I’m not seeing the privilege. Doesn’t privilege mean being part of a privileged group? How’s your boss privileged?
Bill and Leo might be right, but what they’re saying isn’t appropriate in context. They’re changing the subject to make it about something else they want to discuss in an abstract way, rather than listening to the problem the person is actually talking about.
That’s obnoxious. (And it’s different from calling people on bad things they do, which can be important too. This subject-change to an abstract topic rather than the problem at hand is a different thing than saying “hey, you’re saying something messed up here”.)