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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Anger About the Ambiance of Alcohol

So I wrote about drugs before, but if I’m going to be honest, that’s not everything. That’s the intellectual analysis, certainly, but as it pertains to my life, alcohol and drugs (pretty much just pot) manifest themselves in a very specific way, one that I don’t want to have anything to do with.

People drink for all sorts of reasons. Given how many times I’ve had this particular conversation, I think I have a good idea of what the major ones are. As far as I can tell, it is: it tastes good, it’s a social lubricant, it’s what college kids/20-somethings/high school students/whatever broad community someone considers themselves a part of does, to get drunk, to relax, to forget, to not be sad.

And I think these are almost all terrible reasons. Drinking because you like the taste is fine, within moderation. I happen to hate the taste of alcohol, so that’s one reason for me. Doing something because your community expects you too is stupid unless there’s something fun or meaningful or important about it that underlies the social pressure, and to me, that’s all pretty obvious. Getting drunk is dangerous, painful and unhealthy.

Every other reason has something to do with emotion and comfort, with yourself or in a social situation. If you are trying to make something in your life go better, that’s great. Bettering yourself is almost always a worthwhile endeavor. The problem is that none of those problems are caused by lack of alcohol. They’re caused by something entirely different, and if you never bother to find out what those underlying causes are, your betterment will be artificial, short-lived and you’ll be missing out on a chance to understand yourself better. If you’re unhappy or socially awkward, those are things about your life you should acknowledge and do something about in a healthy and positive way. Alcohol seems like a pretty poor choice for that kind of thing. Again, I’m taking a consequentialism tack, here. A drink that calms you down, to extend the analogy, a hit off a bong – probably not awful things. Not something I want to partake in, but fine. But this is a general habit that people have of not understanding the causes of their problems, and that’s not the kind of person I want to be.

Finally, and possibly most relevantly, there’s a culture that alcohol creates. It’s a culture in which anything goes, in which you can be your stupidest, worst self and have a bullet-proof excuse for doing so. It’s a way to do all the things you’re ashamed of, be the person you wish you were (or weren’t) without shame or guilt. I guess to some people, that sounds fantastic, but I’m not ashamed of myself, and the parts of myself I don’t like are not shoved down into the depths of my consciousness only to be lured out by the presence of ethanol. If there’s a way I want or need to become a better person, I will work at it, day in and day out, until I’ve achieved it. Alcohol is an easy way out. People always tell me it lowers inhibitions. And if I happen to like my inhibitions? What then?

That’s just the personal part, too. In general, parties are, how shall I say, gross. Drunk/high people are often clumsy and irritating. They revel in the profundity of a conversation that would feel stupid to have sober. They almost never want to talk about anything important or interesting or novel in a sophisticated, meaningful way. There are certainly enjoyable aspects, but when everyone I know comes back saying how disgusting it was, I really want to know why they go back. The parties I’ve most liked are those in which I got to be…exactly who I always am. I got to talk to interesting people, have fantastic conversations, be loud and personable, dance and frolic, meet and hug. I do those things all the time, and I’m proud of who I am. Other people, on the other hand, do things they don’t appreciate or respect. They do things they wouldn’t normally do. If alcohol pushes you to do things you lose respect for yourself for, you need to change your priorities or your drinking habits. If it makes you have more respect for yourself, why don’t you bring that into the rest of your life?

And then there’s this arrogance. I’ll never know what it’s like and how amazing it is if I don’t try it. I’m uptight. More like, I have enough respect for myself to not want to do things I would disapprove of, and enough respect to cull all the best parts of some experience into the life I lead every day. This is a statement for me, a life-affirming idea that my life can be something I never want to escape from. I stumble home drunk, collapsing with laughter and exhaustion after a well-lived day. I dance on tables, jamming to great music and kinesthetically expressing myself with friends. I stay up too late having great conversations. I look up at the sky wondering what the meaning of life is. I meditate calmly. And I never wake up with a hangover and dozens of pictures to un-tag.

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Also, this is a good read: click

The Intensity of Interaction: What does it mean to connect?

Ok, I’m done with those worldview posts, thank goodness. They’re interesting as far as they go, but I think about that sort of thing all the time and have for years, so I want to move on to something else.

Human interactions are complex. They’re often difficult to manage or understand, and there’s always room for more misunderstanding. One of the least understood aspects, in my opinion, is what the point is. This struck me in particular when I was spending time with some friends and opened a completely unrelated story with my definition of the purpose of language. I had said communication, which didn’t seem to me a particular contentious opinion, but they instantly disagreed with me. Granted, I have very opinionated friends, but it was certainly interesting. The same applies to conversations. What is the point? To argue? To be right? To convince, persuade? To agitate? To connect? To understand? To have fun? Obviously, there’s no right answer except that the answer is different under different circumstances, and this becomes an issue.

I am a fairly contentious sort of person. I have interests I hold very dear to my heart, and I delve into them with a great deal of energy. As such, I get loud and excited when talking about things I’m interested in, and I can be sort of aggressive with the information I have at my disposal. I feel that my opinionated nature is justifiable, given all the effort I’ve put into deeply understanding that which is important to me and the importance I place on making my judgments subject to change as new arguments and evidence come forth. When I’m with other people like that, there’s no problem. We all get completely enraptured by an engaging conversation, and trade data, arguments, quips and witty banter as if it were our job. That kind of experience is a greatly rewarding one, that blend of learning, teaching, understanding and taking sheer joy in the feeling of doing so together.

However, not everyone is like that, which is, of course, fine. Because I have no intention of writing those people off, though, I face some challenges. Do I argue my point as eloquently as I can? Do I tone myself down in order to place the making of a connection over winning the argument? Putting the latter question this way makes the answer seem clear, but in point of fact it’s not at all. Allowing myself to not declare my opinions or arguments can feel intellectually dishonest, like I’m not contributing to the conversation the way the social contract might demand. I am in some way portraying myself as other than I am in order to learn from and about someone, something that could be described as respectful or a form of information extraction. I wish I could just state my opinion, get it out there, and then have us have our conversation, but it’s not always that simple. That declaration can change the entire nature of the conversation, and make it impossible to be as meaningful as I would otherwise like it to be. Also, I don’t always like to argue from “my side.” In fact, I happen to greatly enjoy suspending my opinions and taking on an entirely new set of assumptions to see where they lead.

I recently got a fortune in a fortune cookie that said, “Develop some flexibility in your point of view.” It’s one of those things that sounds perfect and sensible but is so much more complicated than that. If I try to be flexible, humble, to learn from everyone, then I am only taking rather than giving. And if I give of myself, I risk giving my opinion and teachings where they’re not wanted. Simply declaring that one must be on the lookout to understand what is appropriate when is not rigorous enough for me. I’m still figuring it out, especially because I don’t think that being an assertive person who likes to learn is in any way a bad thing, but here’s one idea:

First, there’s this, for the common sense approach: http://gretachristina.typepad.com/greta_christinas_weblog/2009/05/is-it-okay-to-mock-religion.html

My one addendum is that even with all this, even with the concern and tolerance and respect due other people, even if all the information is out there, intellectual honesty accounted for, I think it is a good thing to Take Up Space, to be a powerful force, in the world and in a room. Obviously, that doesn’t mean steamrollering, and it doesn’t mean that other people shouldn’t, or that more than one person in a room can’t do that. In fact, exactly the opposite. It means valuing it and appreciating it in other people and turning that shared power into a powerful connection. Which brings us back to the original point, which is, what about the people who aren’t that way, who you can’t form that sort of a connection with? In that case, I think the answer is, and this is very very subtle, to not make yourself less, less powerful, less meaningful, less intense, but rather to have that manifest not as an imposing, intimidating presence, but as a quiet force to be reckoned with. It’s the difference between ‘bothering’, ‘deigning’ to talk to someone about their religious/political/athletic/gastronomic beliefs and employing the intensity of your feelings about it to really, powerfully, intensely listen. Because if there’s one thing I can do, it’s be intense about things. And that should mean not limiting those things to talking.

I’ve noticed in other people how great of a solution this is. Sometimes, when I’ve been complaining to someone close to me about what they’re doing I can watch the gears shift in their head as they consciously decide not to yell or scream or walk out, but to sit down, look me in the eye and ask me what’s up. And I’ll admit that it’s not a perfect solution, because sometimes they’re still intimidating and frightening when they do that, but I think that’s good. I think it’s a good thing to live life intensely, and this is a great way to do it. When they do that, I know they’re really listening.

In some ways, bothering to argue, to engage, is a way of respecting that person’s beliefs, especially because you’re putting your ideas out there to be criticized as well. But that doesn’t always come across, and if it doesn’t, it defeats the purpose of that communiqué, if you will, of that attempt at a connection. So instead I want to tell them I’m listening and then do it, and listen hard.

What’s also great is that it’s entirely possible that this intense, intimidating form of listening will force people to really listen to themselves, too, to their own arguments, and make them better, think about them more, more than arguing would.

Caveat 1: There’s a point at which intelligent, interesting, engaged, awesome people will always be intimidating, and I fail to see the issue here.

Caveat 2: I think that in this exploration of the issue we should be careful not to imagine that there is one way of being (whether assertive or not) that is objectively better. Beyond the fact that different attitudes are appropriate at different times, caveat 1 comes into play when we think about the fact that different people have different roles to play, and they are all important, and perhaps equally so. Or not, depending.

Confession: Maybe one reason I like blogging to much is it doesn’t require listening to other people’s opinions, although of course the only way I come to these conclusions is by bouncing my ideas off of people, among other techniques. Which is like information extraction? And now we’ve come full circle.