October 18, 2012 § 7 Comments

So, a lot of people are talking about an interesting article that appeared on Offbeat Empire about a certain type of privilege checking turning into online sport. Some really thoughtful points leading on from where the original left off – and, inevitably, some responses that only go to prove the very point of the article.


I wouldn’t agree with everything Ariel Meadow Stallings says – a lot of it, but not all – but I do think that she’s highlighted a type of behaviour we should be more critical of, particularly in online social justice circles. Namely, the tendency for some to cloak bullying, silencing comments under the guise of ‘progressive’ critique, to demand homogeneity of thought and to treat critical engagement as a kind of one-up-manship, a ‘holier-than-thou’ game of who’s the best activist.


Inevitably, condemnation of this kind of speech is often conflated with an attack on free debate, an undermining of legitimate anger and as the pathetic response of people who don’t want to acknowledge aspects of their own privilege, and their ability to hurt others (whether they mean to or not). But I’d hope that we can draw a line between the necessity of calling out errors, of increasing knowledge, of utilising anger as a transformative tool and the kind of pissing competition we’ve all seen online, which seems to be far more about escalation than it is about actual change.


Personally, I’ve noticed four particular phrases that increasingly tend to function as red flags – all valuable at their core, but horribly misused.


Intent isn’t magical

Anyone who’s ever been hurt by someone well-meaning (so that’s everyone, right?) can see where this stems from. Just as you’d respond to ‘I didn’t mean to hurt you’ with ‘well, you should have thought about what you were doing’, so intent doesn’t negate hurt caused. But to dismiss the importance of intent all together seems not only ludicrous in itself, but a quick way of de-incentivising engagement. There’s a world of difference between someone who loves and supports me misgendering me in a moment of exhaustion and someone looking to hurt – between someone who genuinely thought that ‘tranny’ wasn’t a slur and someone who used it specifically to injure. Not only a difference in the hurt, but a difference in the outcome of the interaction – between a teachable moment and a moment of abuse. And, also, an acknowledgement that we’re none of us perfect – we will all hurt each other, without meaning to, at some point – probably far more often than we realise. When someone says ‘intent isn’t magical’ as a shut down to an apology, I’m left wondering how they themselves act when apologising. When someone gets something wrong in relation to my being trans, or bipolar, or bereaved, I expect them to take responsibility – but I still think that their intent matters.


It’s not my job to educate you

In an ideal world then no, it’s not anyone’s job to educate anyone else. We’d have a great universal educational system, easily accessible resources, and people would be self-aware enough to know their own weaknesses and seek to address them. It’s exhausting, depressing and, most of all, desperately unfair to have to continually help those around us grasp the most basic tenets of who we are/what kinds of oppressions exist/what those oppressions feel like. But this isn’t about fair or unfair – it’s about getting the job done. How much would any of us know about each other if others hadn’t taken the time to educate? Through books, blogs, music, film, television – we all constantly benefit from others’ willingness to express their own experiences. This isn’t to say that everyone has to be ready to educate everyone else all the time – but, essentially, if not you then who? And if not now, when?


It’s not the job of the oppressed group to dismantle oppression

Again, I couldn’t agree more – it shouldn’t be. Not in the slightest. But the problem is, as before – if not the oppressed group, then who? Oppressors aren’t usually known for voluntarily giving up their privilege, for dismantling the system that’s benefitted them at the expense of others – and taught them that that system is right and natural. Ultimately the goal of bringing down kyriarchal systems is for universal benefit, universal good – but for that to be understood it needs to be explained. And that requires work – and intersectional support and care. Perhaps a better way of thinking about it is that dismantling all forms of oppression is a job for every single person who’s capable of doing it. It’s like the Aegean Stables – just because it’s shitty doesn’t mean it’s not necessary.


It’s problematic

Perhaps this is the one that upsets me the most, being used as it so often is to refer to a work of art or an artist. Not the word itself, or the admission of difficult/erroneous/bigoted elements in works of art/discourse/a body of work. But the use of ‘it’s problematic’ to designate something as off limits, not something a ‘real’ activist would enjoy or support? THAT I find problematic. Understanding something as problematic is not the end of a conversation, but the beginning of one – and the implication of ‘pure’ and ‘impure’ that comes from the division of ‘problematic’ from ‘acceptable’ chills me. Not only that, but the very nature of intersectional activism necessitates a plurality of voices – the idea that all those individual voices will always find consensus on what is and what isn’t problematic is laughable. You may have seen this online – I certainly have, many times: person A (not a member of this particular oppressed group) flags up something as being problematic in its treatment of oppressed group – person B (member of this particular oppressed group) says that they actually don’t find it problematic at all – person A berates person B for their opinion, and lectures them about their own oppressions – because, of course, there can only be one right answer in any debate. God forbid that we allow that working in concert with others will mean disagreeing and accepting compromise.


Ultimately, I guess, it seems a question of what we want to get out of online debate, interaction, blogging, social media and the like when it comes to activism. I guess that this kind of exchange, behaviour, can leave people feeling right – more than that, righteous – with the surety of purpose and sense of belonging that designating others as ‘others’, and flat out ‘wrong’ can bring. But if our goal is to spread a message of equality and respect for all people then I think we need to do a better job of calling out the kind of cruelty and aggression that can hide under the mask of calling out.


§ 7 Responses to Holier-than-thou

  • Lola says:

    I do broadly agree with the explanations you give here, and of course all four of those phrases are important and valid when used for purposes more noble than just shutting the conversation down.

    However I have a multitude of issues at the original post that I’m still trying to write out in a thoughtful way for the comments over there. But that post seems like a wider trend at the moment of so-called liberals burning out on all the ‘new’ stuff they have to learn and worse, getting offended by being called out.

    Like, nobody wants to be told they’ve said something racist or homophobic and it’s mortifying when it isn’t intentional. But I’m kind of over this ‘well, I tried’ somehow being a free pass. That we now have to equate the privileged person’s ‘offence’ at being told they have exerted a particular form of privilege with the hurt and offence their words or actions caused.

    I know we need allies. I know equality should work in more than one direction. But as the groups living under these forms of oppression, it’s additionally exhausting to have to coddle the people who are actually on our side because they don’t like holding up their hands and saying ‘oops, I was wrong’.

    Great post though, and lots to think about.

    • cnlester says:

      I hope it’s possible to let people know they’re wrong and where they can improve without either insulting or coddling them, right?

      I guess I always feel that if someone says ‘well, I tried’ then it’s then possible to say ‘good – so here’s where you get to try harder’.

      But maybe I would say that – all musicians being self-criticial perfectionists and so forth đŸ˜‰

      • Lola says:

        Which I think kind of reflects the kind of person you are – someone says ‘good, but…’ and you look for ‘better’, and start trying for it. Too many people just hear the ‘good’ and stop trying, patting themselves on the back for rocking at being an ally and such. We can’t expect everything of every person, I guess. But I do like to point out when there’s still a ways to go.

        • cnlester says:

          I think all of us could do with a standard reminder that we have lots more to learn – perpetually. Now I’m going to come across as the overenthusiastic teacher my students make fun of – but I think for those with the ability and drive to, it’s a really useful service to draw up not just 101s but lists of further resources, further challenges etc. That part of asking people to be better is to show them the ways in which they can achieve. Obviously, some people are just going to ignore it – but…

  • cnlester, thank you so incredibly much for your thoughtful response to my post. The Liberal Bullying piece was honestly one of the most difficult things I’ve ever published. I’m deeply conflicted about the issue, and much of the criticism of the piece I not only agree with, but had thought to myself in the months that I spent editing the post.

    Ultimately, as a white middle class cisgender woman who’s married to a man, I’m pretty privileged by all appearances. So I totally respect that for some readers, my visual identity might nullify my perspectives. But when I see the post being shared by activists in the trans, POC, and disability communities… that’s when I know that frustration with this issue isn’t something that can be written off. Bad behavior is bad behavior, and I think the semantics-shaming that happens so often online is actually shooting some causes in the foot, and losing allies who could be on-board with some powerful causes.

    Again, thank you so much for this post.

    • cnlester says:

      Well, thank you for writing the Liberal Bullying piece – and for responding. Making use of anger is such a vital part of activism – and of trying to stay healthy as an activist – but bullying is bullying, and can come from any quarter. Ultimately, I think it’s about embodying the values you’re striving for – if my goal is for the world to be more compassionate, empathetic and humane then I have a responsibility to strive for those qualities in myself – especially during debate and disagreement.

  • […] not going to cover that in detail today, but some recent examples of that debate can be found here, here, and here. I will say that from my participation in activist spaces both online and offline, I have […]

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