Call Harm, Not Foul

Note: The links in this piece are particularly good; I recommend clicking around.

Sexist. Racist. Homophobic. The all-purpose “bigot”. We have these words for a reason. They are used to label people, actions, institutions and ideas which exhibit the worst elements of society. They’re used when we want people to listen, to pay attention, to take us seriously when we are desperately trying to point out the inequality, the inanity, the inhumanity of punishing gender and racial and sexual and ethnic and religious minorities for being different. We want to push people to do everything they can not to be sexist, not to be racist, not to be the kind of person they shouldn’t be.

And we did it. Hooray! It is now the worst thing in the world to be a racist or a sexist or a homophobe. That’s why people will do everything in their power to make sure that their actions, ideas and institutions aren’t seen or construed that way. (Except, of course, change their actions, ideas and institutions.) It is offensive, now, to be called a racist. There is literally nothing in the world that cannot follow the words, “I’m not a racist but…” Everyone else is the real sexist/racist/etc for pointing out sexism/racism/etc. We ostensibly live in a post-racial and post-feminist age.

All of this makes it sadly true now that to call something or someone racist or sexist is often seen both as too charged to provoke productive discussion and too passé to warrant true engagement. This poses a problem for the people who are looking to point out and eradicate the various forms of bigotry, since people are no longer (if they ever were) willing to listen to their participation in the problem.

Now, there are obviously many times when the outright calling out of bigotry remains important and useful, even if it’s not met with the best of responses, both in terms of persuasive tactics and because it is often appropriate for marginalized people to express their anger the way they see fit. But I think there are also times when a different approach might be useful. When we’re engaging in conversation with people who are listening (that is, not criticizing public figures or public events) and we’d like to convince them of our point of view, we could drop the actual words of sexist, racist, bigot, misogynist, homophobe, etc, at least some of the time. Even if we’re right, and even if we’d very much prefer to call a spade a spade. Instead, we describe what we mean by those words. Why?

1. When we call someone something bad, especially when they don’t think of themselves that way (i.e. as a racist, sexist, etc.), their impression is that we are labeling them a Bad Person and The Enemy. It’s comes off like grabbing someone off the street, slapping green armor and an insignia on them and saying, “Welcome to Green Army. I hate you.” It makes further productive conversation almost impossible, because now they’re on the defensive. Even if it’s true, it is legitimately hard and uncomfortable to be told you’re  a bad person or doing something bad. So they feel they’re being personally attacked, and that they have no way out except to fight back. They’re going to want to win, not listen. We have killed their mind, and possibly our own as well.

2. The last generation of social justice warriors, anti-racists, feminists, outspoken atheists and activists of all stripes made the -isms and intolerances so abominable, that everyone has successfully convinced themselves they’re not it. Now, being called those things (racist, sexist, bigoted, etc) is so terrible that we end up arguing only about whether or not the label applies . And that’s a damn shame, because I have a lot of other things I want to talk about.

3. Sometimes the words make the discussion more muddled instead of more clear. In the social justice context, we mean totally different things by ‘racism’ and ‘sexism’ than other people do. Atheists well know how there seems to be a real disconnect on what different people mean by religious liberty. Gay rights activists often have experience of having religious conservatives swear up and down that their opposition to marriage equality and other legal action just. Isn’t. hateful. And everyone who’s tried to point out problematic language and been told that “offense is taken, not given” is similarly aware that offensiveness means really different things to different people.

That means we’re using words that the people we’re talking to just don’t get or genuinely don’t feel apply to them. That means all we get for our effort is confusion, anger and offense. They really think our accusations are wrong or don’t make sense, so instead of the sting of a well-crafted attack, all they can sense is the barrage of bad feeling coming their way, to which they do not respond well. The complexity of the issues we’re tackling is manifesting as perceived imprecision and  inaccuracy. That’s bad news for a productive conversation.

4. That mess (described in #3) is just what we get for calling things and ideas and political positions sexist or racist or homophobic. It gets way more complicated when we think about calling people those things. What does it actually mean, to call someone a bigot? Is it a claim about what they ‘really’ ‘truly’ believe, about their internal psychology? Is it a claim that there is something fundamentally sexist/racist/anti-atheist/etc about them? Does it mean they will always be those things? Those are strange and difficult claims to make.

Luckily, we don’t need to assert anything about people’s essential qualities or hidden beliefs to criticize their thinking and behavior or talk about the effects they’re having on people, movements, communities and societies. The words can complicate a conversation that could be simpler and more focused.

5. Someone being sexist or racist is hard to prove in general, and especially hard to prove to the person in question. It’s not impossible, and in many cases it is absolutely worth doing. But why do the harder thing when it’s easier to prove things about harm? We know about stereotype threat and chilly climates and implicit bias and the erasure of atheists from public life and so many other things. Why get mired in definitions when we can prove the problem directly?

6. Finally, the big abstract nature of these concepts can remove our thoughts and our discourse from what’s actually at stake: Discrimination, violence, pain, unfairness, harassment, hurt.

What do we do then? We do what any good rationalist does when words are getting in the way: we Taboo them, which means getting our ideas across without the words themselves. Does that mean putting on kid gloves? Does it mean letting bad people get away with not getting called out on their badness? No. It just means we replace the words in question with what we mean by them.

When we say a policy is religiously illiberal, what we mean is that a powerful religious group is using its power to impose its ideas and beliefs on others. When we say someone is sexist, we mean that they buy and feed into harmful negative stereotypes about women that make it harder for women to be treated equally. When we say a group is homophobic, we mean that it supports ideas and policies that hurt queer people and deny them their rights. So let’s say those things.

As I said above (and elsewhere), this analysis doesn’t always apply. After all, we have these words for a reason; they can often convey precisely what we mean them to. But I think this approach is really useful for conversations in private or on the internet with actual people who might feel personally offended by being directly or almost directly called a bigot of some kind. It might even just be good as an exercise, so that we can make sure we know what claims we’re making and why. Furthermore, there is certainly room to combine this approach with the more traditional one, using words that have the rhetorical punch and emotional resonance we’re looking for but also defining them carefully and supplying ample evidence. The core element of this approach is simply that we consider the effects our words have on the people we’re looking to convince and change, and make decisions about our language accordingly.

When we do, the benefits abound. Our conversations get more productive, since everyone is using the same language to talk about the same things. We get to argue about the facts, and not about definitions. There’s less defensiveness all around, since no one’s character is being impugned. Our arguments are more accurate, since we’re talking directly about the subject matter at hand instead of proxies for it. Furthermore, harm and consequences are things we can have direct evidence for, which we can then demonstrate to other people. Best of all, our arguments get more compelling, since we’re pointing out the actual harm to actual people that comes from people acting badly, which makes it more emotionally resonant and harder to ignore.

We are people who argue. We want to convince people. Let’s not give anyone an excuse not to listen to us. Let’s make it as easy as possible for them to be convinced by us. Let’s give ourselves the best chance of making the world into something better.

Note: I wrote about this issue in a feminist context extensively on a pseudonymous blog. If you’re interested in reading it, feel free to send me a private message.

Previous Posts About Better Arguing 

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