If someone is telling you about a bad situation they’re in, or something they’re upset about, it’s probably not a good time to launch into an abstract discussion of something tangentially related.
- Jane: My coworkers keep hitting on me. It’s really getting to be a problem.
- Bill: Well, hitting on people can be very important.
Likewise, when someone wants support for a bad thing that happened, that is probably not a good time to have an abstract conversation with them about the nature of the words they’re using.
- Bruce: This is such an awful work schedule. My boss keeps telling me it doesn’t matter because we’re doing such awesome things. He’s so freaking invested in his privilege.
- Leo: I don’t know that I’d call that privilege. I mean, obnoxiousness sure, but I’m not seeing the privilege. Doesn’t privilege mean being part of a privileged group? How’s your boss privileged?
Bill and Leo might be right, but what they’re saying isn’t appropriate in context. They’re changing the subject to make it about something else they want to discuss in an abstract way, rather than listening to the problem the person is actually talking about.
That’s obnoxious. (And it’s different from calling people on bad things they do, which can be important too. This subject-change to an abstract topic rather than the problem at hand is a different thing than saying “hey, you’re saying something messed up here”.)
Let’s take a look at the second example with a small difference
Bruce: This is such an awful work schedule. My boss keeps telling me it doesn’t matter because we’re doing such awesome things. She’s so invested in shoving the fact that she’s a “black woman in the workplace” in everyone’s face that she doesn’t care she’s overworking us.
Bruce still has a legitimate problem. Should we overlook his potentially unfair second remark because his legitimate problem is more important than challenging his potentially racist/sexist remark? Suddenly, when it’s a white man making an unfair remark about a black woman, I would hazard a guess that most of the people on this website (including yourself) wouldn’t think it “too obnoxious” to challenge the remark instead of addressing Bruce’s legitimate problem.
There’s a difference between telling someone they said something messed up, and changing the subject to something abstract.
In the example you raised, it would be ok and probably important to tell Bruce that he’s being racist and you’re not going to put up with that. That’s different than having an abstract discussion and ignoring what Bruce is actually talking about.