intersectionality

The rules about responding to call outs aren’t working

Privileged people rarely take the voices of marginalized people seriously. Social justices spaces attempt to fix this with rules about how to respond to when marginalized people tell you that you’ve done something wrong. Like most formal descriptions of social skills, the rules don’t quite match reality. This is causing some problems that I think we could fix with a more honest conversation about how to respond to criticism.

The formal social justice rules say something like this:

  • You should listen to marginalized people.
  • When a marginalized person calls you out, don’t argue.
  • Believe them, apologize, and don’t do it again.
  • When you see others doing what you were called out for doing, call them out.

Those rules are a good approximation of some things, but they don’t actually work. It is impossible to follow them literally, in part because:

  • Marginalized people are not a monolith. 
  • Marginalized people have the same range of opinions as privileged people.
  • When two marginalized people tell you logically incompatible things, it is impossible to act on both sets of instructions.
  • For instance, some women believe that abortion is a human right foundational human right for women. Some women believe that abortion is murder and an attack on women and girls.
  • “Listen to women” doesn’t tell you who to believe, what policy to support, or how to talk about abortion. 
  • For instance, some women believe that religious rules about clothing liberate women from sexual objectification, other women believe that religious rules about clothing sexually objectify women. 
  • “Listen to women” doesn’t tell you what to believe about modesty rules. 
  • Narrowing it to “listen to women of minority faiths” doesn’t help, because women disagree about this within every faith.
  • When “listen to marginalized people” means “adopt a particular position”, marginalized people are treated as rhetorical props rather than real people.
  • Objectifying marginalized people does not create justice.

Since the rule is literally impossible to follow, no one is actually succeeding at following it. What usually ends up happening when people try is that:

  • One opinion gets lifted up as “the position of marginalized people” 
  • Agreeing with that opinion is called “listen to marginalized people”
  • Disagreeing with that opinion is called “talking over marginalized people”
  • Marginalized people who disagree with that opinion are called out by privileged people for “talking over marginalized people”.
  • This results in a lot of fights over who is the true voice of the marginalized people.
  • We need an approach that is more conducive to real listening and learning.

This version of the rule also leaves us open to sabotage:

  • There are a lot of people who don’t want us to be able to talk to each other and build effective coalitions.
  • Some of them are using the language of call-outs to undermine everyone who emerges as an effective progressive leader. 
  • They say that they are marginalized people, and make up lies about leaders.
  • Or they say things that are technically true, but taken out of context in deliberately misleading ways.
  • The rules about shutting up and listening to marginalized people make it very difficult to contradict these lies and distortions. 
  • (Sometimes they really are members of the marginalized groups they claim to speak for. Sometimes they’re outright lying about who they are).
  • (For instance, Russian intelligence agents have used social media to pretend to be marginalized Americans and spread lies about Hillary Clinton.)

The formal rule is also easily exploited by abusive people, along these lines:

  • An abusive person convinces their victim that they are the voice of marginalized people.
  • The abuser uses the rules about “when people tell you that you’re being oppressive, don’t argue” to control the victim.
  • Whenever the victim tries to stand up for themself, the abuser tells the victim that they’re being oppressive.
  • That can be a powerfully effective way to make victims in our communities feel that they have no right to resist abuse. 
  • This can also prevent victims from getting support in basic ways.
  • Abusers can send victims into depression spirals by convincing them that everything that brings them pleasure is oppressive and immoral. 
  • The abuser may also isolate the victim by telling them that it would be oppressive for them to spend time with their friends and family, try to access victim services, or call the police. 
  • The abuser may also separate the victim from their community and natural allies by spreading baseless rumors about their supposed oppressive behavior. (Or threatening to do so).
  • When there are rules against questioning call outs, there are also implicit rules against taking the side of a victim when the abuser uses the language of calling out.
  • Rules that say some people should unconditionally defer to others are always dangerous.

The rule also lacks intersectionality:

  • No one experiences every form of oppression or every form of privilege.
  • Call-outs often involve people who are marginalized in different ways. 
  • Often, both sides in the conflict have a point.
  • For instance, black men have male privilege and white women have white privilege.
  • If a white woman calls a black man out for sexism and he responds by calling her out for racism (or vice versa), “listened to marginalized people” isn’t a very helpful rule because they’re both marginalized.
  • These conversations tend to degenerate into an argument about which form of marginalization is most significant.
  • This prevents people involved from actually listening to each other.
  • In conflicts like this, it’s often the case that both sides have a legitimate point. (In ways that are often not immediately obvious.)
  • We need to be able to work through these conflicts without expecting simplistic rules to resolve them in advance.

This rule also tends to prevent groups centered around one form of marginalized from coming to engage with other forms of marginalization:

  • For instance, in some spaces, racism and sexism are known to be issues, but ableism is not.
  • (This can occur in any combination. Eg: There are also spaces that get ableism and sexism but not racism, and spaces that get economic justice and racism but not antisemitism, or any number of other things.)
  • When disabled people raise the issue of ableism in any context (social justice or otherwise), they’re likely to be shouted down and told that it’s not important.
  • In social justice spaces, this shouting down is often done in the name of “listening to marginalized people”.
  • For instance, disabled people may be told ‘you need to listen to marginalized people and de-center your issues’, carrying the implication that ableism is less important than other forms of oppression.
  • (This happens to *every* marginalized group in some context or other.)
  • If we want real intersectional solidarity, we need to have space for ongoing conflicts that are not simple to resolve.

Tl;dr “Shut up and listen to marginalized people” isn’t quite the right rule, because it objectifies marginalized people, leaves us open to sabotage, enables abuse, and prevents us from working through conflicts in a substantive way. We need to do better by each other, and start listening for real.

Don’t schedule important events on major Jewish holidays

A lot of things get scheduled on major Jewish holidays, in a way that prevents Jews from being able to participate. This needs to stop. 

If you’re in charge of scheduling things like:

  • Protests
  • Conferences
  • Public school orientations
  • College orientations
  • Exam schedules
  • Field trips
  • Other important events

Please avoid scheduling on major Jewish holidays. The most important ones to avoid are:

  • Rosh Hashana
  • Yom Kippur
  • The first two nights of Passover 

These holidays are at slightly different times each year, because the Jewish calendar is lunar. Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are in the fall, Passover is in the Spring. You can check when they are at hebcal.com, and hebcal.com also has a calendar you can subscribe to that says when the holidays are.

Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are the times at which Jews who don’t go to synagogue at any other time of year go. (In the same way that some Christians only go to church on Easter and Christmas). They are also major family holidays, even for people who are otherwise secular. Yom Kippur is a 25 hour fast (from both food and water) and most people who observe it are pretty wiped out immediately afterwards. 

The first two nights of Passover are when Jewish families hold Passover seders. It’s a major family holiday, even for people who do not consider themselves religious and never go to synagogue at all. Nearly all Jewish families have some sort of seder. 

It is considerate to also avoid scheduling important events that would require travel on the day before and after these major holidays. It is critical to avoid scheduling events on the holidays themselves.

There are other Jewish holidays that will create conflicts for some Jews, but they’re not as important to most Jewish people. 

tl;dr: If you value Jewish participation and solidarity with Jews, it is critically important to avoid scheduling important events on on Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and the first two nights of Passover.

How to find out when Jewish holidays are

Jewish holidays (eg: Hanukkah) follow the Jewish calendar. The Jewish calendar is based on the lunar cycle (with an occasional leap-month to keep the months/holidays synced up with the seasons.)

This means that Jewish holidays fall on a different date each year on the secular calendar. 

If you want to know when the holidays are, HebCal.com is a really good resource. It has a list of when all the holidays are, and a lot of other information. It also has a calendar generator that can be exported to most calendar software including Google Calendar to make your regular calendar know when the Jewish holidays are. 

Is it a Jewish Holiday Today? is a website that tells you whether today is a Jewish holiday, and if so, which one. It’s only useful for telling you if it’s a holiday right now when you look; hebcal.com is much better for planning ahead.

A feminist dynamic

Sometimes feminists, especially white feminists, attribute everything to patriarchy and ignore other power dynamics.

This can cause a lot of problems. One problem is that white feminists sometimes ignore racism and do racist things. I don’t know as much about that as I should, so I can’t yet write about it at length. But I do know about another issue more extensively:

Some feminists teach girls that sexism is the issue when it isn’t. For instance, this happens a lot to girls with disabilities. Girls will disabilities get discriminated against in ways that most women do not, but as they reach puberty they’re often taught that everything they are experiencing is about sexism.

That can be crushing. It can also cause problems for disabled boys, who are discriminated against in ways that most women are not. (Or ways that are similar to what women experience, but not normally experienced by boys without disabilities). Sometimes they are taught that they can’t possibly be experiencing real discrimination because they are boys. This is especially common when women who feel powerless have a lot of power over boys with disabilities. (Especially developmentally disabled boys who are going through puberty and starting to have sexual feelings.)

Sexism and patriarchy are very real things that destroy lives and hurt people in all kinds of other ways. There are also other power relationships that hurt people. Being aware of patriarchy is not enough.

“The last bigotry”

“The last bigotry”

People often say things like this:

  • x is the last socially acceptable form of bigotry
  • y is the only form of prejudice that people who like to think of themselves as liberal are still proud of
  • No one would think that was ok if it happened to group z!

Here is a short list of things people often claim are the last socially accepted forms of bigotry:

  • fat hate
  • cissexism
  • ableism
  • mental illness stigma
  • bias against members of minority faiths
  • bias against atheists
  • ageism
  • homopobia

Given that these are all common, none of them can possibly be the last socially accepted form of bigotry. Saying that one of them in particular is the last suggests that the others don’t really count. Saying that only one form of bigotry suggests to people who experience other forms that you either don’t think they exist, or you don’t think that what happens to them matters.

(And also, it suggests that things such as racism and sexism have disappeared even though they are in fact alive and well).

The fact is, there are a lot of forms of bigotry. You probably don’t know about all of them, because they can be invisible when you aren’t personally harmed by them or close to someone who is personally harmed by them.

It pays to be aware of the fact that there are a lot of forms of bigotry and hate. Remember this when you write - don’t claim things that are particularly important to you are the last kind of issue that exists.

Don’t assume marginalized people are safe

Don’t assume marginalized people are safe

Sometimes people who are marginalized assume that other marginalized people are safe by definition. This is really dangerous, and it sets people up for a lot of gaslighting. We need to make sure not to encourage this in activist and otherwise pro-human spaces.

For example, some people do things their stereotypes say they’re incapable of doing:

  • Some women are sexual abusers
  • Some autistic people are manipulative bullies

And also, sometimes people do bad things that are (wrongly) stereotypical of their group. For instance:

  • Some gay people are sexual predators
  • Some members of minority faiths are destructive fundamentalists. 

Some people in marginalized groups do stereotypical or anti-stereotypical bad things, and when this happens, it’s important for activist and other pro-human groups to acknowledge it and not tolerate it.

If you know someone else is in a marginalized group, that’s all you know about them. Don’t assume that they know what it’s like to be mistreated, and are thus safe and trustworthy and would never harm another person. *Especially* when their actions have shown otherwise.