I have a problem. If I see something that bothers me, I cannot stop thinking about it until I express my thoughts on it. I don’t know if this is a recent development or not but it has certainly become more prevalent lately. It’s a huge contributor to the recent tizzy my brain has been in, since I have been seeing a lot of troubling things being posted on Facebook by people I otherwise think very highly of.
This year I got into much more of a habit of just saying what I think on these kinds of posts. “This bothers because it tries to do X but fails in these ways, and instead does Y, which is problematic because…” That’s usually what this looks like, or some variation on that. I have noticed that, by and large, people just ignore me. I assume they’re not interested in having that conversation with me, but since I got to say my piece and maybe that person will be encouraged to think more critically about the next thing they repost, I feel okay about that. On a very rare occasion someone will engage me in an interesting conversation after I make one of these comments, and one or both of us ends up learning something or seeing something from a new perspective. Yay personal growth!!
Recently, however, someone lost their shit a little bit and ever since I’ve been a little scared of sharing these thoughts, even if just keeping them in my brain makes me be all crazy bonkers. Like, actually. I lose sleep over it because apparently I’m neurotic as fuck.
But what this moment also did was make me question my motivation in pointing these things out to people. If I see someone post a comic strip which is racially insensitive and/or problematic, why is my knee-jerk reaction to point out why that thing is problematic?
Well, my first response is because it’s the good thing to do. If I heard someone saying something particularly racist/sexist/xenophobic/homophobic/transphobic/some other variety of awful, I like to think I would say something about it. But the subtly awful things people say and do are just as damaging as the outright awful things, and often harder to confront, by their very nature of being subtle—often almost unnoticeable. They may be even more damaging because they’re much less recognizable, and therefore more easily let go. In this way microaggressions are much more pervasive than outright, straight forward discrimination.
I like to give people the benefit of the doubt in these situations. Rather than assume that they had ill intentions, I assume that they just haven’t learned about this specific thing—that they don’t have the same background in social justice as I do, or haven’t been trained to critically assess things in the same way I have. This doesn’t mean they’re actually awful, it just means they said (or in this case posted on Facebook) something which had negative undertones because they didn’t know to look for those undertones. I assume that if I point out where something they said or posted is actually conveying something negative they’ll mostly be like “Okay, noted,” and hopefully be more of aware of that thing than they were before.
That doesn’t seem bad to me, not really. However…I found myself reflecting on these motivations with a little more intensity than I have before. “Does all of this imply that I assume other people are less educated than me? Am I actually assuming that people are standing on a lower rung than I am? Am I behaving as though it’s my responsibility to teach them something because they’re too ignorant to figure it out for themselves? Instead of helping am I actually just being an asshole?”
I’ve thought about this a lot, especially in regards to that specific incident I mentioned before. Do I have a superiority complex? In some ways I think I probably do, with regards to specific people, but I don’t think I do in this case. I absolutely feel superior to people who are outright douche bags, people who feel that the inherent rights of others are less important than their perceived right to not have to see evidence of the existence of people they personally don’t approve of (think of every person who has ever said “It’s not that I don’t like gay people, I just want to have to see them holding hands/kissing/hugging/otherwise showing affection” because to see something of that variety is a reminder that gay people exist). I’m talking about through-and-through racists, homophobes, etc. etc. here.
When it comes to people who share a thing on Facebook without recognizing the negative messages it carries, I don’t feel superior to those people. I feel like we’ve had different life experiences that have put us in contact with different degrees and variety of information. We’ve been trained in different fields and so we see things differently. I may be good at identifying how this image that was shared carried all sorts of problematic racial connotations but I’m in no way prepared to operate on someone, for example. Someone else may not see those racial biases but be fully capable of performing open heart surgery. There’s nothing wrong with either of us—we have difference experiences, different education. I could learn just as much from this person as this person could learn from me, if we were to engage in a respectful conversation about the things we care about.
So no, I don’t feel superior to people when I make those comments. I make those comments not out of a place of superiority but out of a place of feeling like allowing microagressions to go unchecked is just as bad as performing them myself. I try to be respectful about it, but it does occur to me that I may not be very good at communicating these kinds of thoughts to someone who hasn’t been trained in the same way I have. Which is another problem on its own.
I’m trying to get back in the habit of noting these problematic things. I’m just also trying to find a way to make sure I’m approaching it as respectfully as possible, making sure I actually am giving someone the benefit of the doubt, and finding ways to actually communicate well with people whose training is different than mine. Eventually I’ll be okay at this—until then, hopefully people will find it in their hearts to be patient with me until then.