No one likes to be shamed. No. One. I was fed a steady diet of shame and blame as I grew up, so I’ve become really sensitive to it. I was taught that I was responsible for other people’s emotional well-being, and I tried my best to make my mother happy – to no avail. I watched her sink into a deep depression as her marriage with my father* floundered and nearly failed. She would pour out her unhappiness to me, and I would desperately try to find a solution that would make her happy. Nothing worked. I had failed. She never said it explicitly, but I felt it deep in my bones that I should have been able to make her happy.
I still have that mentality, though to a somewhat lesser degree. I tend to put others before myself, and if I see someone hurting, I want to make it all better. I’ve come to realize that I can’t heal anyone, but it doesn’t always stop me from trying. And, when I inevitably fail (because again, I’m not that powerful. I can support people and help them help themselves, but I can’t heal them), I feel guilt and shame that I couldn’t save that person. This is one reason I’m basically a loner.
Why am I rambling about this? Because, first of all, I can. It’s my blog, and I’ll muse if I want to! Secondly, I’ve been struggling with the way issues are discussed in social media (namely, Twitter), and I was trying to figure out why I have a strong reaction to the way many on my side are framing issues. I realized that it’s because they are engaging in shaming and blaming behavior in calling out what THEY see as shaming and blaming.
I know. Very meta, but hang with me as I explain.
Let’s take a really big topic such as sexism. Now, let’s take an issue within it such as physical attractiveness. I’m going to have to talk about the issue a bit before I get to the shaming and blaming part. Fair warning. The standard feminist line is that looks don’t matter at all and we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. What matters is what’s inside of a woman, not what’s on the outside.
First of all, let’s be real. We judge people by how they look. Everyone does it. We all have our preferences, and whether it’s biological or societal, it’s pretty damn near instinctual and very difficult to change. Yes, it’s good to be aware of societal norms and to know that who you’re attracted to is shaped by the society in which you live, but at the end of the day, whomever you’re attracted to is fine by me. Look. I’m Asian. If someone is not attracted to Asian people, I don’t want that person dating me out of guilt. Why the hell would I want to be with someone who has to force him/herself to be with me? Who has to convince him/herself that s/he’s attracted to me? I want someone who wants to be with me and not someone who’s dating me out of guilt.
I comment on how other people look. I drool over Idris Elba and Helen Mirren and, my main man, Alan Rickman. I don’t get taken to task for that at all – not even when I make lewd comments about my celeb crushes (and, oh, do I ever). Yet, I’ve had male friends make similar comments and get ripped on it for objectifying women.
OK, fine. There’s a difference between a woman objectifying a man (patriarchal dominance) and a man objectifying a woman. There’s even a difference between a woman objectifying a woman (I can do it because I’m part of the group) and a man objectifying a woman. But, we all do it. If we’re honest with ourselves. We look at a person and decide if that person is attractive or not in an instant. Now, of course, there are times and places to make such comments, but it’s problematic to say that we should never make such comments or that they’re always sexist and unwelcome.
Context matters. What someone says may be appropriate in one context and inappropriate in another. In addition, who says it also matters. Someone who’s a known dickwad should be given less benefit of the doubt than someone with no track record of being an asshole. That’s part of the problem with a one-size-fit-all** approach to any topic – you’re missing the nuance. A guy talking about a woman’s tits while they’re working side by the side is inappropriate and harassment. A guy commenting that a woman is hot or sexy in general to a bunch of friends is not necessarily so. If I go to a club looking to hook up, I’m going to feel the spark within seconds of meeting someone. I’m not saying it’s the be-all end-all or what a relationship should be based on, I’m just hammering home the point that most people do it to a certain extent. Saying someone’s looks is completely off-the-table is ludicrous and unrealistic.
Now, let’s set aside the politics of the issue so I can get to the actual topic of this post. If someone says something you think is objectionable, being objectionable in return is not the answer. This happens on Twitter more often than I can even count. Someone says something, and someone else hops in to inform the OP that s/he is wrong, offensive, insensitive, or some kind of ist. Be honest. How would you react if someone said to you that you’re a racist or sexist or that you should check your privilege? I know my immediate reaction would be, “Who the fuck are you to talk to me like that? You don’t know me!” I wouldn’t actually say that, but my brain would shut down, and I’d be resistant to anything else that person had to say.
Again, I tie it back to no one wants to be shamed. I try my damnedest to think of others and how they’d feel and to put others before myself. So, when I’m accused of not doing it enough, I say, fuck you. I’m not saying it’s a good reaction or that the other person might not have a point – I’m just saying that it’s not a good way to open up a discussion. In fact, the person who actually tells someone else to check his/her privilege or that what the person said was ist of some kind isn’t doing it because that person wants an actual discussion – s/he’s just anxious to show how superior s/he is and how much more right s/he is. If s/he really wanted to change the other person’s opinion, s/he wouldn’t start with a conversation-ender.
Somewhere along the line, it’s been OK to shame the shamer. I’m not going to trot out the trope that two wrongs don’t make a right – oh wait, I just did! – but the ends do not justify the means,*** especially if the ends is one person getting to feel smug at the expense of another person. But, really, what good does it do for the interloper who hasn’t changed the OP’s mind or actually sparked a debate? If anything, the interloper has turned a potential friend**** into a foe, and nothing is made better.
I’ll give you a personal example. I said that someone was a nutter on Twitter. I don’t remember the context, but it doesn’t matter in this case. One of my followers asked if there was a way I could say this without the ableist language. My immediate reaction (which I didn’t tweet) was, “I said exactly what I meant, and I don’t think nutter is ableist, so fuck off.” I then went through about ten iterations of the same tweet in my head before not responding at all. This is from someone who is compulsively compelled to respond to every tweet. I was put on the defensive, and the way the tweet was worded, there was no way for me to respond without looking like a dick. The person wasn’t looking for a discussion, or rather, she was looking for a discussion based on a premise with which I didn’t agree. She presumed that nutter was ableist without bothering to explain why she thought so, and she presumed I was on the same page. I wasn’t, and I was put off by her assumption. Had she said, “I have problems with the word nutter. Can we discuss it?” I would have been much more receptive. I would have told her that I’ve had my own history of dealing with mental health issues, specifically chronic depression, and I would have explained that I don’t think calling someone nutter is any kind of ist when the person in question was actually crazy.
That’s something else that irritates me, the fact that certain words are now considered verboten, but I’ll tackle that in another post at another time. For now, I’m talking about how differently I would have responded had the other tweeter tweeted me in good faith. I would have let her say why she thinks nutter is ableist and tried to understand her point of view. Then, I would have explained why I didn’t consider nutter to be ableist, and who knows? She might have actually changed my mind. Or, I might have changed hers. Or, even if neither of us change the other person’s mind, we’d at least have had an interesting discussion about the issue, and I have a hunch that we would have found a lot to agree on within the topic. Instead, she shut me down with her approach, and I decided it wasn’t worth my time to even engage. And, remember, I’m someone with mental health issues who’s conversant on them and someone who is programmed to bend over backwards to put other people first. In other words, if there is someone who’s predisposed to responding to her, it’s me. The fact that I didn’t bother tweeting back at all is indicative of how futile her approach is.
In addition, I already have voices in my head that are constantly telling me whatever I said or did was wrong. I don’t need someone outside my head saying the same shit. I don’t need a moral scold coming at me as I can do it to myself with twice as much effect. I’ve been fighting all my life to silence these voices and to think of myself from time to time before thinking of others. No, I don’t want to be a selfish jerk who never thinks of others, but I also don’t want to be someone who constantly sacrifices self for others. And, why the fuck don’t these mythical others ever think of me or care about my point of view? Save that for another post, Hong.
Finally, the natural impulse to someone telling you not to do something is to immediately do it over and over again. It’s as age-old as the Bible story of Adam, Eve, and the Tree of Knowledge. If you’re on a diet, that which is forbidden is automatically twice as desirable. Again, imagine how you’d feel if someone told you that you could never use a certain word again without bothering to explain why? You’d want to say it repeatedly, wouldn’t you?
I understand that it’s liberating to be on Twitter, which is the great equalizer. You can say anything to anyone to your heart’s content – until that person blocks you, that is. You probably mostly communicate with other people with similar ideas, so you start thinking in a bubble that doesn’t necessarily extend to others. So, since you take it as a given that your ideas are right, you don’t bother explaining or defending them in the first place. And, when you gain a certain following on Twitter, it’s tempting to show your ass because no one will call you on it. Indeed, you’ll be supported and egged on. Anyone who dares question you will be called a troll and summarily dismissed. You want to know what I see? People using the same tactics they decry when others use those tactics against them. You HAVE to use these words. You CAN’T say this. If you do this, you’re not part of the group. It’s ideological, didactic, and sounds like the fucking patriarchy to me.
I’ve told this story many times, but it’s worth repeating. When I first became aware of feminist issues, I still wore mini-skirts. I had an older feminist (one wearing bright pink lipstick, no less!*****) ask me what’s a feminist like you wearing a skirt like that? I looked her right in the eyes and said, “I got out of the patriarchy because I didn’t like it telling me what I can do. I’ll be damned if I let feminists do it to me, either. Plus, I have nice legs and I’m going to show them off while I still fucking can!”
Please note, I’m not saying not to address difficult topics or to not call out people who need to be called out. I’m just saying think about your approach and what you’re trying to accomplish by confronting the other person. Is your intent to call that person out and to show everyone what a bad person s/he is? Then, the shaming approach is appropriate****** and have at it. If, however, you’re trying to get the other person to see your point of view and maybe change his/her mind, then shaming won’t work and is done more for the shamer than the shamee. It shuts down communication rather than open it up, and no one wins if people stop talking. In shaming someone, you might get that person to shut up, but I can guarantee you won’t get that person to change his/her mind/behavior. So what is really won in the end? Not a damn thing at all.
*Another topic for another ten posts.
***sorry, I couldn’t resist.
****The word ally has been ruined for me, but that’s yet another post.
*****Only pointing out the lipstick because of the rank hypocrisy on her part.
*****Yes, shaming can be the appropriate response, but I think it’s used too often and too quickly