marginalized people

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.

Misogyny is not legitimate criticism.

Women are people. Women face misogyny regardless of what they do.

Sometimes people do bad things. Some of the people who do bad things are women.

When women do bad things, that justifies criticism. It does not justify misogyny, or sexualized insults.

For instance: If a female politician votes against health care for poor people, it’s important to talk about how that will get people killed.

That doesn’t make it ok to call her ugly, mock her body, or make comments about how she needs to get laid. None of that has anything to do with health insurance. None of that is valid criticism. None of that serves any constructive purpose. It’s just misogyny.

Directing misogynistic insults at any woman is harmful to all women. It sends the message that there’s no problem with misogyny so long as the woman is a bad person who has it coming somehow. This implies that the only real disagreement about misogyny is about which women deserve it. 

We need to object to misogyny in principle, regardless of who the target is. Misogyny is not criticism. It’s just destructive hatred.

On coming in third in the oppression olympics

Some groups and individuals are marginalized in ways that others are not. Some groups are overall more marginalized than others. Some individual people are overall more marginalized than others. Often, it depends heavily on context (including where you live, what you’re doing, and what the people you interact with regularly care about. Among other things). 

For instance: Some people are perceived as mentally incompetent, and may be at risk of being put under guardianship and deprived of adult rights. Some people are perceived as threatening, and may be at risk of being imprisoned or killed by the police. Some people face neither risk. Some people face both. The degree to which someone is in danger depends on a number of things, including which marginalized groups they are part of. 

And once it’s actually happened to someone, they’re someone it happened to — regardless of how likely it seemed that it would happen to someone like them. And these are just two examples — there is a lot of injustice in the world, and there are any number of other examples.

It’s important to be able to talk about this. If we only approach justice from one angle, we will probably overlook things that we haven’t experienced personally. If we assume that everyone is facing the same thing, we can very easily end up disregarding the needs of those who are in the most danger. No one is immune to this; when injustice doesn’t affect you or someone you care about personally, and doesn’t make the news in a way you can understand, it’s natural to remain unaware that it’s happening. It can help to cultivate in yourself awareness that others experience things you don’t and that you won’t always know what those things are. And that some people know things that you don’t know.

It’s very difficult to talk about these differences productively. It can often end up devolving into a contest over who is the most oppressed, or whose oppression is the most real, or who is suffering enough to matter. This is counterproductive, because even one form of injustice is too much. Whether someone comes in first, second, or third in the oppression olympics — or barely seems to even qualify — no one should face injustice. We don’t need to fight over who is the most dehumanized or the most deserving of justice. It’s much better to focus on what the problems are, what’s causing them, and what can be done.

It’s also hard to talk about the problems with oppression olympics. Sometimes people say “don’t play oppression olympics,” and mean “I don’t want to hear about any forms of injustice that I’m not already fighting.” That sort of dismissiveness does a lot of harm. People who are being harmed are often treated like they don’t matter;  people with legitimate criticisms are often ignored. It can be excruciating to face up to what you’ve missed in your work to make things better. It’s also vital.

Some people and groups really are oppressed in ways that others are not. Some people and groups really are subjects to worse things than others. When we refuse to face up to this reality, people get hurt badly. These differences matter, and the truth about them needs to be speakable. Not all injustice is equal, but it is all important. Even one form of injustice is too many. When people work towards justice, their work is important even though it does not address everything, There are a lot of problems that need to be addressed, and lot of people work that needs to be done. Mistakes matter; so do accomplishments. We can all take things seriously, learn from people who know things we don’t, and keep building.