Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The problem with telling privileged people to shut up and listen to marginalized people

This blog post makes the case that it doesn’t work to have a rule for privileged people of “Shut up and listen to marginalized people,” which actually prevents marginalized people from being listened to. Excerpt:

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 . . . 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. . . .
• When “listen to marginalized people” means “adopt a particular position”, marginalized people are treated as rhetorical props rather than real people. . . .

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[ing] 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. . . .

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. . . .
• 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.