Link Roundup 3: Conversations About Communication Across Power Gradients

There have been a lot of conversations lately about communication between people with privilege and people without. This link roundup is going to be largely (though not entirely) centered around those, as I think it’s a very important thing to talk about and a lot of good things have been said. Anyone know other good posts in a similar vein?

The Distress of the Privileged: Maybe the best piece I’ve read about understanding both sides of a power dynamic. Complete with a brilliant analogy from the movie Pleasantville:

“So I think it’s worthwhile to spend a minute or two looking at the world from George Parker’s point of view: He’s a good 1950s TV father. He never set out to be the bad guy. He never meant to stifle his wife’s humanity or enforce a dull conformity on his kids. Nobody ever asked him whether the world should be black-and-white; it just was.

George never demanded a privileged role, he just uncritically accepted the role society assigned him and played it to the best of his ability. And now suddenly that society isn’t working for the people he loves, and they’re blaming him.

It seems so unfair. He doesn’t want anybody to be unhappy. He just wants dinner.

George deserves compassion, but his until-recently-ideal housewife Betty Parker (and the other characters assigned subservient roles) deserves justice. George and Betty’s claims are not equivalent, and if we treat them the same way, we do Betty an injustice.”

Aesop to the Right: Why I Believe Bristol Palin: Cited in the Distress of the Privileged piece, and also containing a brilliant analogy that explains why not including the underprivileged is so hurtful and damaging:

“I don’t think you hate me. I certainly don’t think you’re afraid of me. Neither is Bristol Palin. She probably even has LGBT people she calls friends. She just disagrees with them about whether they should be invited to the party (the party, in this case, being marriage). But here’s the problem: the basis of that disagreement is her belief that her relationships are intrinsically better than ours.”

Certain Propositions Regarding Callout Culture (in two parts):

“Not silencing people is not an option. Not silencing people is a great plan; I am totally okay with everyone being able to speak out. But not silencing anyone is not going to work. If you say “no, you have to stop yelling and insulting people,” you silence some of the people who are angry! about! INJUSTICE! On the other hand, if you let people yell insults whenever they like, you are silencing the people who are afraid that if they speak up they’ll be yelled at. And the second group is not going to loudly spew insults about how they’re being oppressed; they’re just going to be quiet and stop talking and censor themselves and eventually leave the movement altogether.”

How to Argue: Call Harm, Not Foul: The brilliant piece that spawned this post.

“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.”

Three Tips to Handle 500 Comments Landing in Your Inbox: An excellent piece by The Ferrett on dealing with shitty commenters. Required reading for any blogger.

“Once you get to a sufficient level of popularity, there is literally no avoiding people hating you.  Go on, seriously.  Name a celebrity.  Then Google up some haters.  Sure enough, someone fucking abhors them.  Why do you think you’re going to avoid this?”

Just Shut Up: A piece about the value of feminist media criticism, with Beauty and the Beast as an example.

“Gaston loses but stabs the Beast anyway before being thrown to his doom, the Beast more or less dies, but Belle loves him, which breaks the spell keeping him trapped as the Beast and saves his life. They, in theory, live happily ever after.

The film ended, and my professor flicked the light on. She passed out a handout we’d already received, a list of warning signs for domestic abusers. This list included things like, “Isolates partner from support systems—tries to keep them from family, friends, outside activities.” It included things like, “Attempts to control what partner wears, does, or sees.”…The Beast meets almost every criterion on the list, and those he doesn’t meet (“Was abused by a parent,” “Grew up in an abusive home,”) are only unmet in the sense that we have no way to know, from the narrative given to us, whether he meets them or not.”

Can Versus Must: a piece on confirmation bias and ways to manipulate your brain. Including the best one-sentence summary of how confirmation bias works I think I’ve ever seen: 

“It is, he says, as though we ask ourselves “CAN I believe this?” when we want to believe something and “MUST I believe this?” when we don’t want to believe it.”

How to Make Your Social Spaces Welcoming to Shy People: What it sounds like, a very good list, and something a lot of event organizers could take a lot from.

A picture of one of the best protest signs ever. Though it should be noted there could’ve been better word choices than “stupid”.


Arguments, Social Justice, and Bridging Inferential Gaps

This is a reposting of some comments I made on this awesome post about arguing effectively. I liked the wording I used so much I decided I wanted to post this stuff here, too, because I don’t think I’ve expressed this particular conundrum this well before. I’ve edited the comments a bit and smashed parts of them together to make them more post-worthy and add some context. Ready? Go!

Most of the time I see people respond badly to being accused of bigotry/racism/misogyny, the accusation of is justified in the literal, technical sense that they are doing something that fits a reasonable, functional definition of bigotry. But people respond badly to such accusations for reasons I understand, and there are times when I do want to comment, myself, on the language people use to call out bigotry. Even when those people doing the calling out are technically correct, and even when they aren’t asking my advice.

The problem is that tone/wording advice is so incredibly ubiquitous among people who just want to shut down the argument—it’s so frequently a tool for getting to “Shut up, that’s why!”—that I’m wary of ever using it. I think about all the people I’ve talked to who wish Dawkins would be a little less “extreme”, for example, and vehemently disagree with all of them. Not only do I think his manner of engaging with atheist issues is rational, I think it provides a good example of how being extreme (relative to social norms) can do a lot to move the Overton window (sidenote: I don’t think Dawkins chooses his language with intent to be extreme, I think he tries to be truthful, and an appearance of extremity is a side-effect of that because of how religion is ingrained in our culture).

In a way, I think this all boils down to inferential distance problems. The problem with directing strong language at someone like that guy who’s rejecting modern feminism is that he doesn’t understand where the anger or bigotry accusations come from—to him  it seems so over-the-top that it’s logical to assume it’s irrational. On the other hand, the problem with him using the language he did to reject feminism is that so many people who aren’t thoughtful about these issues have used the very similar language to denigrate feminism, and by doing the same thing, he is unwittingly associating himself with that long history of determined ignorance. He is making himself look just like the people who suck. If some people, in response, are saying “Well, if it looks like a duck…”, they’re also making a logical assumption from their perspective.

That seems like the core of the issue. The responses seem entirely rational within the inferential context of the people on either side of the divide on the issue. So do we say, “Hey, guy, you’re the privileged one, it’s your responsibility to educate yourself to bridge this gap”, or “Hey, feminist, you’re the one expressing an issue, it’s your responsibility to educate sufficiently to bridge this gap”? Or both? Maybe there’s no point in placing that responsibility at all, I don’t know.

I remember back when the whole Penny Arcade Dickwolves thing happened, Jerry Holkins made a post that, among other things, talked about how he didn’t think any meaningful form of conversation was possible between them and the people accusing them of perpetuating rape culture. I think he was wrong, but I think he was touching on the crux of the issue: there’s this huge gap, and in a lot of cases there’s no one to blame for the gap, and no one on whom it’s reasonable to put all the responsibility for bridging it, but it must be bridged somehow.

I’m really not sure what the answer is, but I think I finally have a decent grasp of the question I’m asking. How does one go about helping everyone on either side of an inferential distance gap understand each other? In particular, how does one do this when the issues involved are powerfully important and emotional, but the existence of the issues, and the existence of the inferential gap, and the responsibility for bridging that gap, can’t be set squarely on anyone’s shoulders?

Who cleans up the gumbo?

Our Activism Needs More Stories

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about how I think one of the best ways to unlearn shitty cultural tropes is to be exposed to situations that directly subvert them (e.g. if you’ve always though men like sex and women like love and cuddles and feelings, spend some time around women who talk about sex or men who talk about love and feelings).

Now I want to talk about one of the implications of this.

Jen McCreight mentioned once that the main character of the movie Contact, Ellie, gave her a role model for a strong, skeptical woman in a world where such role models for women are incredibly rare in popular media. It made me think. Media may not be quite as good for unlearning cultural mythology, minute-for-minute, as in-person exposure to trope subversion is, but it has one big advantage over it: you can expose yourself to it over and over and over again. Millions of people can be exposed to a single product over and over again.

I think one of the best things skeptics as a movement can do to change the world is to produce media that subverts the dominant cultural mythos. Media with strong, skeptical women, like Contact, media that represents minority groups and subcultures as full of individual people rather than stereotypes, media that puts them in positions of power. How many other people were inspired by Ellie, or Uhura in the original Star Trek, or any of the other all-too-few examples of such.

Over the last few years, I’ve been watching the slow but steady advance of polyamory in the media, from forums and blogs on the internet, to the wonderful Family series on YouTube a few years ago to Showtime’s Polyamory: Married and Dating. I love that it’s made that journey. I hope it will continue (because as far as it’s come, it still has a long way to go). Poly people aren’t the only ones who can benefit from that, though. We need things like that for as many different groups of people as possible. I think we could do a lot of good by making more media of this kind. One of the things I think our activism could use much more of is demonstrative narratives. Stories. I want to see people tell stories, write stories, make movies, make shows where the ways that we think the world can be are taken for granted. I want to see more classic stories retold with genders reversed, because it makes a lot of our double-standards obvious when you see how different a production looks after changing that one detail. I want to expand on that idea: reproduce stories with classes or ages or races reversed, etc, etc. To shine a light on our biases—to show what the world really is like for people who are the subjects of our biases and to show what it could be like if those biases weren’t there.

Our activism needs more stories.

We need people writing them, making videos, showing how the world is and how it could be. I want to be alive in a time where when I turn on the TV, I don’t have to think “I wish they would stop teaching me this.” I want to live in a time where I can turn it on and think, “Yeah, that’s about right.”