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Doing decency

March 21, 2013


An excellent video from Jay Smooth. Transcript and more background on his blog: My TEDx Talk, “How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Discussing Race”.

The first thing that makes it difficult to accept that critique, that you may have said something racist, is simply that it involves the possibility that you made a mistake. None of us takes that too well, none of us enjoys that, but in most other situations, when the possibility arises that we made a mistake, we’re usually able to take a few deep breaths and tell ourselves, “I’m only human, everyone makes mistakes.”

But when it comes to conversations involving race and prejudice, for some reason we tend to make the opposite assumption. We deal with race and prejudice with this all or nothing, good person/bad person binary in which either you are racist or you are not racist. As if everyone is either batting a thousand or striking out every at bat. And this puts us in a situation where we’re striving to meet an impossible standard. It means any suggestion that you’ve made a mistake, any suggestion that you’ve been less than perfect, is a suggestion that you’re a bad person.

So we become averse to any suggestion that we should consider our thoughts and actions, and this makes it harder for us to work on our imperfections. When you believe that you must be perfect in order to be good, it makes you averse to recognizing your own inevitable imperfections and that lets them stagnate and grow…

So we need to move away from the tonsils paradigm of race discourse toward the dental hygeine paradigm of race discourse. Basically, if I might just offer one piece of advice.

And in general I think we need to move away from the premise that being a good person is a fixed, immutable characteristic, and shift towards seeing being good as a practice, and it is a practice that we carry out by engaging with our imperfections. We need to shift from, we need to shift toward thinking of being a good person the same way we think of being a clean person. Being a clean person is something that you maintain and work on every day. We don’t assume that I’m a clean person therefore I don’t need to brush my teeth. And when someone suggests to us that we’ve got something stuck in our teeth, we don’t say “Wh-what do you mean? I have something stuck in my teeth? I’m a clean person! Why would you–” [Audience laughter]

I’ve been very interested in following Melissa McEwen’s recent observations about not feeling welcome in movement atheism, summed up here: So Here’s What Happened

I’d strongly recommend also reading the first couple of installments, if you’re interested in the subject: This Female Atheist, and Where She Is and My Advice to Atheist Men. So, I’m linking directly to them.

Right now, I don’t feel like going into all the reasons I have little or no use for movement atheism, personally, though I do follow a number of bloggers who are more involved. For a variety of reasons, it’s just not my cup of tea. (Taking more of an apatheistic approach rates pretty high there, along with often some other philosophical differences.) But, she offers some excellent points in those posts about some of the inclusivity problems. And got the thoroughly expected blowback over it.

But, what prompted me today came up in another installment:  And Then This Happened

And then there were the atheist men, in most cases ostensibly sympathetic to my position, who piped up to let me know that I wasn’t talking about them, that they were one of the Good Ones. Even Myers linked to my list with the curious line: “Melissa McEwan has some Advice to Atheist Men. The long list sounds very good, but I do have one reservation: none of it is exclusive to atheists or men. I think it’s more Advice for Decent Human Beings.”

I’m not sure why my “long list” (of 18 suggestions) would engender reservations simply because it is not “exclusive to atheists or men,” unless one is keen to deflect accountability for being part of the group being urged to decency.

Not a few atheist men, in comments here and in my inbox, were eager to tell me that I was really only talking about a “small but vocal group.”…

Don’t get me wrong: I know this is true. I know, in most cases, it is really is a “small but vocal group” of any community who engages in silencing and intimidation.

But of the “large but silent group” of all these communities, who supposedly don’t agree with the hostile disgorgements of the “small but vocal group,” the people most likely to speak up do so primarily to defend themselves, to distance themselves from that “small but vocal group,” to oblige me to reassure them that I know there is a “large but silent group” who is totally on my side, even though their silence indicates otherwise.

They reach out to me, while I’m navigating the expected bile of typical garbage nightmares, in order to seek my assistance in salving their own discomfort of affiliation. Which is exactly as unwelcome as it sounds.

“Hey, the rest of us aren’t like those knuckleheads!” is not a comfort. It is a way of obliging me to concede that simply not being a dirtbag is sufficient action to consider themselves my ally.

I will not concede that. Because it isn’t.

A long quote, but it’s that good. This set of dynamics keeps playing out in all kinds of contexts. And it always sucks.

A few snippets from comments on that post:

tormato 03/19/2013 12:25 PM

…Women (and men whose hearts are intact) want to know what I’m going to DO about it. Guys, women aren’t assuming you as an individual have the power to unmake patriarchy — they’re just asking you to stop being part of the problem. They’re not blaming you as an individual for the oppression of all mankind — they want to know how you’re going to DO things differently. Patriarchy, and other kinds of privilege (see: “white liberal guilt”) is sustained by narcissism, the mindset within which my feelings are the only reality. It’s the biggest struggle of my life, overcoming my own hyperconstructed edifice of personal narcissism that makes me notice how I feel about a particular situation before anything else — like for instance, how my behavior affects others. I think training in this particular noxious mode of being and behavior starts pretty early. Oops — sometimes, I AM “that guy”. The proper response to that realization is not to cower, but to STOP BEING THAT GUY.

03/19/2013 01:11 PMin reply to koach

I wonder if that’s a part of the problem. I suspect that some of us who want to be better allies tend to see ourselves as having the “decent human being” thing down pat and think we’re ready for the (super secret?) two-hundred and three-hundred level techniques for being an ally. When we’re reminded that there are still places we need to improve with regards to the one-hundred level stuff, it can really bruise our egos.

That’s when we need to remember that being an ally isn’t about our own egos.

Finally, one from Ana Mardoll, which she turned into a post at her place:

Also-also, reframing Liss’ advice to be “oh, just be a decent human being” the way PZM did, irks me for a couple more reasons:

1. It normalizes privilege. I feel relatively comfortable hazarding that advice like Don’t imagine that being a man makes you “objective” on sexism. is not something that “everyone” needs to work on in the same degree.

Yes, it can be extrapolated to more than just “being a man” and “on sexism”, but the actual advice is, yes, to men. Claiming that it’s actually to EVERYONE draws a conclusion about the demographic makeup of “everyone”. And considering that normalizing-of-experience is a major problem when dealing with patriarchy, this is not a minor point.

2. It presents decency as ‘already achieved’. Most people think of themselves as decent people, including people who have serious issues with intersectionality. By equating Ally with Decency, I think it’s less likely that people will redefine their concept of decency and come to the conclusion that they aren’t decent, and more likely that people will assume that since they, personally, are decent then they have that whole “ally thing” down pat.

And considering that failure to check privilege is a major problem when dealing with privileged communities, this is not a minor point. Yes, not being sexist is a bare minimum for decency,but framing it as a “just be decent, ya’ll!” issue is likely to water down the message regarding what sexism is and how not to engage in it.

I am all behind the idea of working past the low expectations, and treating one another with some basic respect. I’m still not sure how that idea is supposed to inspire “reservations” about people pointing out very specific problems with not being treated decently, in a very specific context. But, yeah, people keep wanting to use it that way. The too-common overall “Us vs. Them” framing doesn’t help there, IMO.

It really is a lot more useful to focus on problem behaviors being like getting something stuck in your teeth. Sometimes we all screw up, but it’s totally possible to bring your behavior back into line with the goal of behaving like a decent human being. Decency is something you do.  And the idea that somehow you can magically be an inherently Good Person while either treating people like crap, or standing by and watching others treat people like crap, often gets in the way of doing decency.

Did I mention some philosophical differences earlier? Hmm… (Probably more on that later, when I have the spoons, though I’ve touched on it elsewhere.)


Another very relevant video from Jay Smooth, which also applies to bystandersWhy You Should Feed the Trolls If You Damn Well Need To

Why “Just Don’t Feed the Trolls” is not always a sufficient answer. Hello to everyone visiting from MeFi. Here’s a piece I’ve been linking elsewhere, that gives a more vivid firsthand account of what it’s like dealing with such threats and abuse, and how hard it can be even deciding to show up another day and deal with more of it, much less decide exactly how to handle it.

I also appreciated this example of speaking up against the “type 1 troll” having a beneficial impact. One of the main reasons “Don’t Feed the Trolls” falls short as a universal pat answer is that it assumes one’s only possible goal in speaking up would be to induce a change of heart in the individuals doing the trolling. Many of the stories people have shared in response to this video illustrated how speaking up can be a net positive for your community as a whole, regardless of whether it inspires some epiphany in the trolls themselves. Gauging the usefulness of speaking out strictly by tracking whether a miraculous troll epiphany occurs is often missing the point IMO.

Ignore them as a bystander, and you’re aiding and abetting hateful behavior. It’s that simple. No transcript for this one, unfortunately.

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