Why *some of you are shitty allies

some

I don’t frequently go to war on words. Those that know me know that I’m a very loud and staunch defender of the First Amendment. That’s my country’s Freedom of Speech thingie, for you non-United Statesians. As it sits, when it gets right down to it, I think you should be able to bark whatever ignorant drivel you want without fear of government reprisal; however it’s important that we (as a society) use our freedom of speech liberally in order to smack down bullshit when we see it. We are our own regulatory force, and there’s a kind of beauty in that.

That being said, I’ve reached the conclusion that the lot of you need to stop using the word “some.”

What? Oh. I guess you expect me to give you more than that. FINE.

I follow a lot of social critics on social media. A social critic– also known as a social justice warrior by their critics (it’s like critiception in here)– is someone who spends their time deconstructing patterns and trends in our culture looking for problematic messages and implications. You might recognize them as radical feminists, womanists, black power advocates, transactivists, and intersectionalists. Things like this tend to crop up around them:

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A friend of mine posted that photo on her Facebook timeline a month ago. I thought it was brilliant. It reduces homophobia down to its fundamentals, highlights its ignorance, and adds a meta layer of feminism in there. If I were to critique it personally, it’d be that it’s too simplistic, but it makes for a great starting point for conversation. Unfortunately, this is where the insidious word “some” rears its ugly head.

“It is also making a generalization on the way men treat women…while this thing brings up some interesting and significant points, just as it fails by being misogynistic, it fails by not having the phrase be ‘the way some men treat women.'”

If you engage in or frequently observe conversations about social inequality, you’ll see that they’re a ripe breeding ground for this kind of statement. You may find yourself having flashbacks right about now. It’s okay, I’m here for you, and we’ll get through this together.

Let me make something perfectly clear: when you insist that someone prefix a criticism of social behavior with the word “some” you are wrong. And also a douchebag.

Here’s why:

1. You’re derailing the conversation and making it all about you, you, you.

alternate text

Fact: The Cookie Monster was involved in several social justice programs until, in 2006, it was discovered that he was in it just for the cookies. He lost his supply and had to change his name to The Veggie Monster to save face.

First of all, you’re derailing a conversation about a negative social behavior by refocusing the talk on the “good exceptions.” Why do we need to talk about the N% of people who don’t engage in the critiqued behavior? You’re not homophobic and you don’t creep on women? Congratulations. Here’s your cookie. Now sit down.

2. You’re mistranslating the subtext.

Secondly, if you read social criticism statements as blanket generalizations in which someone is trying to envelope the entirety of a group (whites, men, cis), you’re reading it completely backwards. You want activists to put the word “some” in their sentences? Great! Lucky for you, they already did!

What?

Yeah. It’s there. You just can’t see it. It’s hiding out in this invisible place called the subtext. Here, let me wave my magic wand and reveal the subtext for you:

“Porn* is exploitative of women, and is inherently damaging to our** collective view of masculine and feminine dynamics.”
*to be read as “the mainstream pornography industry.” Writer acknowledges that there is a narrow fraction of pornography that is arguably respectful/empowering to women, or at the very least is debatable and not blatantly as evil as its industrialized counterpart.
**excluding those who don’t watch mainstream pornography, or any pornography at all. “Our” as a collective refers to the way porn infiltrates our society on a basic level.

Learning to read sentences this way greatly changed my perception of social criticism. “But,” you say to me, “Why should I expend intellectual energy revealing subtext when the original statement could be written to say what it actually means?”

You may not realize this, but you’re already expending that energy, you’re just wasting it. You’re going out of your way to read the sentence as “all porn,” “all men,” “all white people,” “all cis-gendered people.” There’s no “all” to be found in these statements. YOU are putting it there. If you’re already going through the effort to see subtext, why not actually read it the right way the first time? Plus, if every social criticism had to add parenthetical statements to clarify their generalizations, anything longer than a sentence would become unreadable. The footnotes would become an essay. All to make you feel better about yourself while preventing actual conversation.

3. Nobody’s talking about you.

“I want to make clear –I’m a sociologist, sociologists work on the basis of generalizations– what I say is not true for every male. But what I say is true for patterns of masculinity.”
-Dr. Gail Hines

I’ve felt for months and months that dismissing valid criticisms of social behavior by enforcing the prefix “some” is problematic, but I couldn’t figure out exactly why until I listened to this lecture by Dr. Gail Hines. In that short statement above, Hines blew my brain wide open, like Zombie No. 1 from The Walking Dead.

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It’s like someone’s opened up a third eye or something in my forehead!

Hines was kinder than most in that she went out of her way to emphasize that she’s speaking in generalizations. And the truth of the matter is this: you can’t talk about social inequality on a large scale without making generalizations. You can’t. Who are the main oppressors of women? Men. Who are the main oppressors of people of color? White people. Does that mean that if you’re a white man that you’re going around actively oppressing black women? No. Exceptions are taken as a given in sociological generalizations.

But what’s even more important is that these criticisms aren’t about people, they’re about patterns of behavior. 

Being aware of this can mean the difference between being offended by what someone says and being able to actually talk about unhealthy social behavior. When you begin to look at these criticisms as attacks on things people do and not people themselves, you can have a little conversation with yourself. “This is about homophobic behavior and misogynistic behavior. Do I engage in this behavior? No. So this is not about me. Now I can talk about this with the full understanding that it does not apply to me, and yet there are people who do this.”

I understand it can feel alienating and a little uncomfortable when someone calls out a group to which you belong for behavior that you don’t participate in. And, to be honest, I don’t expect someone who doesn’t care about social inequality to give two shits about this. If you don’t care about racism, sexism, and deconstructing systematic inequality, you’re not going to devote energy to making subtle subtext distinctions.

However, if you claim to be an ally to the systematically oppressed, if you think racism, sexism, and exploitation of the vulnerable is wrong, then you are being a bad ally by thinking this way.

4. Okay, so what do I do about it?

All the way back up there in Number 2 I talked about pornography. Why did I pull that non sequitur? Because that was my most recent social inequality blind spot. In every conversation about the harmful nature of both the porn industry and exploitative porn itself, I went out of my way to try to make the conversation about sex-positive and feminist porn. Eventually, I realized that I was wrong in thinking this way. So here are ways to be better:

  1. Don’t tone police social criticism, even if you disagree with it. If you disagree with an aspect of a statement, debate it directly, don’t try to change the conversation into a back-patting party about how you don’t behave that way.
  2. Don’t assume that a statement is lumping ALL people together without exception unless it explicitly says so. Conversation –true, productive conversation– is about meeting people halfway. Someone making a critical statement about white people, men, or something else has already put through the effort of making a statement. The least you could do is read it in the best possible way.
  3. If someone DOES lump a group together without exception, walk away. This kind of person can’t be reasoned with.
  4. Recognize that nobody is obligated to do all the thinking for you. Nobody is obligated to educate you. Nobody is obligated to consider your feelings. If you truly want to be an ally, you won’t burden the people you’re supposedly advocating by making them walk you through every step.
  5. Sometime, at some point, somebody is going to say something that you disagree with outrageously; however, this isn’t an excuse to engage in problematic behavior. Examples: lecturing women on sexism, lecturing people of color on racism. That’s not your place. Walk away. Trust me, there’s no way to make yourself look worse than to tell a black person that they don’t understand the fundamentals of racism like you, The Educated White. Drop it. If it’s really so bad, someone else who’s qualified will probably carry that torch better than you ever could.

The freedom of speech is an amazing thing. Don’t abuse it.

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9 thoughts on “Why *some of you are shitty allies

  1. All of the arguments you make could be used to defend statements that most social justice warriors and likely yourself would find “problematic”, bigoted, sexist, racist, etc.
    e.g.
    “men are more interested in systems than women and women are more interested in empathising than men”
    To which someone might say
    “I think you mean that the average level of interest in systems is higher in men than it is in women and the average level of interest in empathising is higher in women than it is in men”

    Now according to your responses it would be fine to say
    ” hey, stop trying to derail the discussion and make it about you. It’s obvious that I meant that from the subtext. Nobody’s talking about the minority of women who are actually interested in and enjoy systems like engineering more than socialising and empathising. I’m not even talking about men and women as particular people anyway, I’m talking about the patterns of male and female interest”

    It’s simply needless hostility and assumptions. You even already acknowledge in point 2 that what you mean to say actually agrees with the objections when you say that the ‘some’ is already there, it’s just in the subtext. Whih is equivalent to saying “that’s what I meant”.

    If you what you meant to say actually agrees with the objection, then what’s wrong with acknowledging that to be the case?
    It’s just a matter of fact.

    This is the problem with progressive types and social justice warriors. You can’t think logically and in terms of facts. You have to get emotional about the things you’re talking about which hinders you from communicating rationally.

    Oh? Do you have a problem with those last two sentences? The “some” was in the subtext. Stop trying to make this just about you, you, you. OBVIOUSLY I don’t mean that every single social justice warrior is emotional and prone to irrationality rather than level-headed, matter-of-factness. This isn’t about the n% who don’t, I’m identifying a pattern of behaviour.

  2. Truly amazing and eloquent article! You’ve written about exactly what has been bothering me. I’ve engaged in so many debates in which I had to tell an offended white man that patriarchy and sexism are still prevalent, while reiterating that I’m not attacking him as a man personally. Just because you don’t do something particularly harmful doesn’t mean you shouldn’t care about those issues or be ignorant that they still exist. Only considering race and sex (not wealth/poverty, not sexual orientation), white men are still the most privileged members of this society. And I can get quite annoyed when people don’t admit/recognize their privilege.

  3. This is such an amazing piece of flawed logic. Self-serving flawed logic, at that.

    The default modifier the offended are putting on the word is not “all”. It’s “most.” There’s always an exception to the absolute – everybody knows that and nobody assumes it. But when you say, “White people are racist” and “men are sexist,” what you ARE saying is, “Most white people are racists” and “Most men are sexist.” You’re still making gross generalizations. You’re still being racist and sexist. And you’re still being offensive. This self-justifying post is nothing more than patting yourself on the back.

    But you just keep on keeping on. But don’t wonder why liberal guys who marry feminist women have nothing to do with the Social “Justice” groups. Don’t wonder why people who believe in your ends are disgusted with your means. Don’t wonder why natural allies give you the finger and turn away. Oh, but I guess that’s our problem. I guess we’re just too sensitive.

    But wasn’t that what Dr. Laura said to the black woman who complained to her about her husband’s racist friends?

    Incidentally, you have effectively convinced me I want nothing to do with the Social “Justice” community. (Really, you want vengeance, not justice. But that’s another rant entirely.) I’ll probably still vote Democrat, mostly because I do find it disgusting that someone would be judged by their race or gender and not given a chance to reach their full potential, but it would be in spite of you, not because of you. But let me make this one thing very, very clear: You, you personally, make it very hard for me to vote the right way. You make me want to vote Republican. I’m not going to, though, because unlike you, I actually believe in equality.

    • I’m glad I couldn’t push you so far that you decided to vote for a Republican out of spite. That may have been too much responsibility for me to handle all at once.

      I’m going to go against my better judgement here and reply to you here, if that’s alright with you, since you are probably the first among my actual target demographic to comment.

      Re: “most” modifyer, that’s actually a really interesting point. It is. I didn’t think of that. That’s pretty cool. Incidentally, though, the modifyer “most’ actually leaves within it room for exception, so if someone is reading a sentence as “most white people x, y, z,” I still don’t see how making a conversation about social balance about the marginal people who don’t engage in that behavior is good.

      I’m not really understanding the point you’re trying to imply when you mention men being involved in feminist causes. If you haven’t quit care entirely quite yet, if you want to clarify that’d be great.

      So I guess that’s that. This blog isn’t self-serving. Well. Any more than ANYTHING isn’t self-serving. I mean, everything we do intentionally carries with it some sort of gratification. Kind of unavoidable, that.

      I always wanted to motivate people to action, though I can say with certainty that this isn’t what I meant. Oh well, I’ll take what I can get.

    • Sooo… you are going to let this person’s opinion about not always having to point out the outliers keep you from standing up for what you claim to believe in? Hm…

      How do you suppose the author here wants vengeance? I think he’s merely pointing out a more effective, efficient, and strategic means of discussing these topics. I not only agree with him that oftentimes these rebuttals at statements of obvious social generalization are simply to comfort the listener and assure them they are certainly not part of the problem – no, rest assured, we’re not talking about you… Don’t strain yourself trying to give an honest reflection as to whether you have ever been a part of the problem… I think not only do these objections serve to comfort the listener, but they keep the objector from any real attempts at personal unbiased reflection. “Wait, not every man is sexist.. yeah, I’m totally safe.” Instead of, “Okay.. he’s trying to say that a certain group of people has a tendency towards sexist comments… My instinct is to become defensive, so maybe that means that I need to take a calm step back for some true reflection – do I ever do this? Have I ever contributed to such behavior, or have I done anything that others might interpret as sexist?” And then don’t dismiss it – THINK.. Think HARD. Think about things you’ve said that have caused fights (we’ve all said things), things you’ve done that have offended or hurt people (we’ve all done things). For me, I have to continually ask myself, “Am I being too pushy, too in-your-face, because liberals TEND to do that…” And I am a liberal… so instead of getting offended at these comments, I take them to heart and use them to guide my future behavior.

      He’s not saying that every person who objects to such generalizations is indeed guilty. But in my opinion, in not freeing your mind to the possibility that you COULD be wrong… how will you ever know???

  4. Um, no. There is no excuse for generalization, shitty reasoning, and lack of clarity. No one should ever assume that people will understand the subtext (i.e. what they really mean), and they sure as hell shouldn’t put the burden of understanding on the listener/reader. Good communication takes two, one who articulates clearly and one who listens with an open mind. If either starts making assumptions or being overly literal, they both fail. The article is right that those who nit-pick about wording are failing their half of the process, but is dead wrong to say that people should be better at understanding subtext. If someone has to understand subtext to get what you’re saying, you aren’t saying it well enough. It is especially vexing to me when those fighting for positive social change pull crap like this, as it makes them appear just as ignorant and judgmental as those they oppose, and is thus counterproductive. /end rant/

    • Not to sound elitist, but if you don’t understand the difference between “White men are the primary source of racism and sexism in this country” and “Some white men are racist and sexist”, that’s your problem. The point of this article is to point out how social justice is impeded when people hear a statement like the first one, and instead of saying something like “That’s true, and we should do something about it”, they say something more like “Well, I don’t do that”, and become offended. The issue isn’t the generalizations, and if you knew anything about sociology, you would know that (as mentioned in the above article) they speak in generalizations because it effectively identifies negative social trends. By saying “Well, not all white men are racist and sexist”, you’re drawing attention away from the facts, and making it about the positive side, which is not what you want to focus on when trying to make a change on a national level. If you refocus to the positive, you’re taking away the weight of the negative statement.

  5. Okay, I guess there is one thing I don’t understand and one thing I really don’t agree with.

    The thing I don’t understand is why anyone would shame someone and turn them away from their cause if they truly wish to help. If someone uses the wrong terminology, or is offended by remarks that may or my not apply to them but are directed towards their gender or race, I fail to see that as a reason to shame them or shun their support all together.

    Not every act of social transgression is made with any intent to do so, Wouldn’t it make more sense to gently educate them on why what they said is incorrect rather than patronizingly comment on the validity of their support, or even reject it outright.

    The thing I don’t agree with is this:

    “Don’t tone police social criticism, even if you disagree with it. If you disagree with an aspect of a statement, debate it directly, don’t try to change the conversation into a back-patting party about how you don’t behave that way.”

    If I am holding a conversation with someone in regards to a social criticism issue, and they begin speaking to me in a hostile or aggressive manner, I will most certainly “Tone Police” the conversation.

    If, for some reason, I was speaking for world peace, the last tone I would take in my speeches would be shaming, rude, hostile or inflammatory. It doesn’t matter what your goal is, no one will like you, let alone support you, if you can’t discuss it rationally and civilly. No issue is an excuse to be rude or hostile towards anyone who listens to you speak about it.

    That said, I agree It is just as deplorable to dismiss an entire argument based entirely on the tone in which it is delivered.

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