When addressing a problem, the issue is not just making sure what you say is right, but also making sure you say it in a way that creates actual change. It does not matter how in the right you are, that rightness will get wasted if the people you need to change cannot connect to your stance. While you do need to raise the discomfort of your target audience to move them from the comfort of their inertia, raise it too high and people will reflexively reject parts or all of your argument in order to numb the discomfort that now overwhelms them. Come on too soft and you don’t create a need for change, come on too strong and you made sure you won’t be heard.
It was about a year ago when this argument started. A friend of mine posted a picture similar to this
In his post, he criticized the picture. As a rabid Rush Limbaugh loving anti-feminist, he didn’t believe there was any reason for feminism. As a non-rapist, he took offense because he felt he was being unfairly stereotyped by the message.
I tried to soften the picture for him, telling him that the intention was not to accuse every man of rape but to address the victim blaming that occurs. What I found out is that the reason for his strong reaction was that he had been primed to react in college. His experience in college was one where the people representing themselves as feminist were using arguments that left him feeling attacked just for being a man. The rape prevention seminars he attended left him feeling like he was accused of being a ticking rape bomb. So he responded to this by dismissing any representation of feminism, no matter how true the argument they made was.
I did try to challenge this stereotype. I told him I knew about the type of “feminist” he talked about, and had encountered them myself. But I also told him about the Feminists I encountered at my college: the ones who focused on just building an understanding of the problem, expressed a desire to be safe and promoted the values of equality. These were the solution focused Feminists, and they got results because they focused on building awareness and allies, not assigning blame. In many ways, these were the #yesallwomen feminsts, because they were looking to build an understanding of the inequalities they faced as women that needed to end. They also had the advantage, however, of being born in an age where a view was allowed to be presented using more than 140 characters, so they could give their context better. My friend, unfortunately, did not believe these feminists really existed. Because he got labeled a ticking time bomb for rape, he countered that they were a ticking time bomb for misandry. He created a #notallmen mentality that served to blind him to the important statements being made. I tried to assure him that they did exist, that I’ve worked regularly with the equality and solution focused Feminists, and he said he never encountered one like that. I asked him if he approaches feminists in a way that seeks out a common ground that would attract the solution focused Feminists, or does he approach them combatively, so that the only ones who want to deal with him are the ones looking for combat. That almost shut the conversation down.
That was a mistake on my part. The statement was 100% true, because if you walk into any conversation on the attack, you will not ever get a reasoned or compassionate response. Approach a conversation combatively, and only combative people will respond to you. Non-combative people will become combative defensively in response. Anti-combative people will avoid you or dismiss you. These are the automatic responses we carry. It’s a human response. The problem is, he wasn’t ready for a statement like that. He was still too primed to be angry so he wasn’t ready to listen to how he could have contributed to his own experience of misandry. To him, I was victim blaming.
Luckily, they discussion stayed open, but he did threaten to delete the thread and ban people if they pushed him too far.
So the discussion shifted to the statements about teaching men not to rape. He argued that that statement itself was sexist. After all, most men are not rapists, and men themselves get raped as well, he told us. And those statements in themselves are true, over 92% of men will never rape and 1 in 33 men will be raped in their lifetime. But I countered by pointing out that even though only 8% of men actually commit rape, most of them do not consider what they do to be rape because of societal messages and myths involving consent and gender roles. I also argued that focusing on tackling the gender disparity did not minimize the severity of male rape, rather it just focused on the problem that just being female meant you were 5 times more likely to be targeted for rape.
It was at that point that another participant added to the conversation by throwing in the word “privilege.”
Privilege is a very loaded word. Part of the reason for this, is that there is an active privilege that people seek out, and there are passive privileges that often sit unseen in the background. Active privilege is what is sought out by the most offensive, and most sociopathic members of society. It brings up rigid caste systems and active prejudice. I myself refrained from the use of the word because I had spent much of my life fighting against this active privilege. But there is a passive privilege too, and in truth, this is the conversation that showed me this passive privilege existed. In passive privilege. societal assumptions become biased in a way that denies rights to a group. You don’t have to actively participate in this form of privilege because even if you reject it, it still gets imposed on people in your absence. This is privilege that rights groups discuss.
But my friend did not understand that. When the word “privilege” entered into the conversation, he only understood it as the active form, and felt that it accused him of abusing women. His defenses went up again, and he gave his second warning about shutting down the conversation and blocking people. I did try to diffuse the word for him, and pointed out that he needed to look at the members of the conversation who had brought it up. Most of the men were denying privilege, and most of the women were talking about it. Maybe there was something in their experience he at least needed to understand.
This lead to him defensively pulling out the Rush Limbaugh arguments. He again brought up the anti-male sexism he saw in feminism, the extra rights they were asking for like maternity leave and the focus on women as only the only victims, etc. He labeled that “privilege” and called it unfair.
So I answered those accusations rationally and point by point. I pointed out that the family leave act was enacted because without it women were forced to choose between having a career and having a child, a problem men did not have, and no feminist would complain if men were also to be given paternity leave to help raise a child. I pointed out again, that addressing the fact being a women made you 5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted did not minimize the harm done to men when they are also sexually assaulted.
I then made the #yesallwomen based argument that as a man, I could dress however I wanted, act however I wanted, go to any bar or party, and not have to be afraid of being assaulted in an alley or drugged only to wake up with my clothes removed. That meant that I did have a right that women did not have, and that was the definition of the word “privilege.”
My friend never read that argument. His eyes merely honed in on the word “privilege” that I used, and he rage quit the argument. The thread was deleted, and the important point, the necessary point, the true and right point, was never seen.
But his sister had seen the argument before he deleted it and told that I didn’t attack him as being privileged, and some very good and important statements had been made. Then his other friends confirmed it as well.
His next status was one that apologized for his rage quit and offered a regret for never seeing the post.
And then later that day, we randomly ran into each other, and we talked. He asked me what I had said in the post, and I told him what I had said about it being unfair that I didn’t have to carry the fear about being raped, but women did not have that same right. He agreed.
He later admitted that he changed his views on feminism. His anti-feminist postings stopped. After a few additional discussions, he saw the flaws in the “give women guns to prevent rape” arguments and stopped posting them too. This was victory.
So what can be learned from this?
There are very important understandings about the mechanism of change that can be drawn from this. Mechanisms that can be used to change other hearts one by one to finally make real and necessary change.
The first thing to understand is the need to understand and engage people. Right now, the current trend is to attack, isolate, and exclude people. The hope is, that if you shun and isolate them, they will break down, and eventually see your point. The problem is, you don’t always know why people build the beliefs they do. If these beliefs are defenses against some shame or injury, you are forcing them to choose between their defense, leaving them exposed and injured, and you. If you don’t understand why the belief is there, you can’t get them to swap one defense for a better one or help them to heal the injury. And if you just shun them, they will just find others like them, people who agree with them, and form self reinforcing cabals of twisted and broken people who only polarize and intensify the problem. As much as I piss off my very conservative/libertarian friend with my hippy/liberal arguments, he is still my friend because I engage him. When I do this, I show him I value him as a human. That is more important to him than being right, and it means we can work to change each other’s views. In addition, it took others engaging him as well. The final and most important point would never have even been acknowledged if the people closest to him had not calmed him and pointed out what was really said.
Next, this story reinforces the need for #yesallwomen conversations. #yesallwomen serves to illuminate the passive privilege that people don’t see. But this also shows why #yesallwomen needs to reach beyond the twitter sphere. Twitter is a horrible medium for discussion. By forcing people to limit their statements to 140 characters, you force people to prioritize what they say, and more often than not, context gets lost as a result. Context is crucial. The reason the #notallmen became a response was because that context was lost in the twitter sphere. Without the context many men lost sight of the purpose of the #yesallwomen hashtag: they were not pointing out that all men are predators, they were pointing out that all women are being made to feel like prey. The more we can take that conversation out of the twittersphere and into areas where the context can be properly explained, the more we will return that important context.
Finally, it reminds us that how something is said is just as important as what is said. This statement is true in any discussion, whether it is in global discussion or interpersonal arguments. You need to anticipate how someone will respond to how you say something when you build what you say. In couples counseling, one of the most common pieces of advice given is to “soften your start-up.” Because when you enter a fight too combatively, you guarantee the other person will either shut down or fight back, and you never will be heard. My friend’s years of anti-feminism began because he felt attacked by the way the people at his college presented their rape awareness arguments. Conversely, my first experiences with rape awareness programs were presented in a way that made me feel like I could be part of the solution, and so not only was there no defensive reaction, but I also ended up participating in awareness programs any way I could. During the argument here, there was a very fine line that was walked between making the effective statement and pushing so hard that the argument got lost. The rage quit, the response that would have negated any argument regardless of its truth, was hanging like the Sword of Damocles, and eventually did fall because my friend was too primed and the argument did push him too much. But it was also because people were willing to see when he reacted to strongly, and soften the statements and reapply the context that he was able to return and revisit the argument again.
On a final note, there was some interesting synchronicity when I was brainstorming this post. I got a message from another friend who asked me “what’s up with all this misogyny stuff” that he had been reading in everyone’s posts. He didn’t know about Elliot Rodgers, about the MRA connections, or any of the important discussions. All he saw was the anger flying around the internet, but he got none of the message. He came to me because he knew I could probably sort through the anger, and help him with the important messages behind it, because he knows what I tend to say and how I tend to say it.