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:
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.
1. You’re derailing the conversation and making it all about you, you, you.
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!
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- If someone DOES lump a group together without exception, walk away. This kind of person can’t be reasoned with.
- 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.
- 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.