I am being unfair to the kids in law school. A LOT OF PEOPLE don't know how to have a discussion without being a douchebag. Have you noticed this? It afflicts mostly men. We can all guess why. But today, I was thinking through why I have been so frustrated with so many interactions lately. And this post will (ATTEMPT) to really nail that down.
First, a distinction: I am not talking about arguments. Arguments fall into two categories in my head: they are either the kind where loud voices are used, both sides really want to maintain some higher moral ground, feelings end up being hurt, and everyone is miserable at the end; OR they are the kind where there is a single correct answer. The former you can only have with people with whom you are intimate; the latter are the reasons IMDB and fucking Google exist. Before people had internet on their phones (remember those days? I actually still don't have internet on my phone, but it seems everyone else does) you'd have to argue for like HOURS before you could get to a computer about whether Mandy Patinkin's character's name in The Princess Bride was "Inigo" or "Indigo" (I won that one!). And before Google, I remember as kids we'd argue, but then we'd be faced with going to the library and looking it up in an encyclopedia, so we'd both be like FUCK IT, I DON'T REALLY CARE THAT MUCH. No one won petty battles as much when I was a kid.
ANYWAY. Discussions are different. There is no right answer, and if done correctly, both people should end up in a better, more thoughtful position than when they started. Discussions are about being challenged, working out your arguments, seeing if they still stick, figuring out what you really think, getting some perspective, listening, getting new ideas, enriching your knowledge, or maybe changing your mind. Unfortunately, an awful lot of people do not like to meet you, in discussions. They don't want to step up and be present and invested and do this thing with you. They don't wish to grow or listen or learn. No, what they want to do is either poke you with a stick, or throw a rock at you. Here's what I mean:
I have a friend who used to bait me, for fun. He would say shit just to try to get a rise out of me. Shit he didn't even believe in, he just thought it would be "cute," or it would be "funny," to get me mad. For no fucking good reason other than his own amusement. So he would say really misogynistic things to me, things he in no way believed, to see if he could prod me into a reaction.
If you do this, you are, officially, A Jerk. There is no away around that. You saying to a person who is a member of any oppressed group really heinous shit that they have to deal with for real like ALL! THE! TIME! for fun means that 1) your privilege, you have not ever really grappled with it; and 2) you are a total asshole, and you just need to shut the fuck up.
But the most prevalent stick poking often involves my least favorite phrase EVAH: "To play devil's advocate . . . " GAAAAHHHHHHH. I hate that fucking phrase. Corollaries are phrases like, "Have you thought about . . . " or "You know, if you understood X, then . . . " or "Maybe you should think about . . . " Why do all those phrases suck? Because it means someone is not meeting you. They are not stepping up. They are not going to discuss this with you. No, they are merely going to poke you with a stick.
And this is annoying, especially if you are a lady, and ladies get this A LOT, because the underlying assumption here is, "You probably have not thought about this idea/angle/belief. Let me tell it to you, and point out weaknesses in your argument for you." FUCK YOU, MOTHERFUCKER, is all I want to say at that point, because you know what? If I am arguing a point strongly, IT MIGHT BE because I know what I am talking about. IT MIGHT BE that I have thought all this shit through. IT MIGHT BE that I know way more than your sorry ass which can't even be brave enough to get personally involved in this discussion. No, you're not going to own anything in this discussion, you're not going to invest, you're not going to bring your (subjective) beliefs and experiences to the table, you just want to poke me with a stick.
See, and then when I get mad and start to yell, you're going to act like I am I am in the wrong and being UNCIVIL. And then I might have to kill you.
This is really a form of mansplaining, which is why most of my lady readers were probably in the previous paragraphs nodding their heads furiously about how much they ALSO hate that. Now, I can imagine the defenses. Like, "But I really just wanted clarification!" Yeah, ok, no you didn't; if you wanted clarification, you would have asked for that. Or, "I was just wondering about the person's take on this!" Again, you're a liar, because then you would have asked that directly. If I want to know what someone's take is on whether white should be worn after Labor Day (for the record: Who cares?), I don't begin with, "You know, have you ever really considered the rule about wearing white after Labor Day?" as if the person were to stupid to ever ponder it.
Playing devil's advocate to someone is an especially asshat move when that someone is of an oppressed group and is trying to explain to you WHAT THEIR EXPERIENCE IS LIKE. If you ever do this, I hope the gods strike you down. But also, playing devil's advocate to someone who is trying to explain a passionate, very personally held position is flat out being unkind. You are acting like this can be an academic exercise - and for you playing devil's advocate, it probably is. But if you are doing this to me, you are not acknowledging that some of these arguments are about my very life, my equal rights, my ability to be recognized as a person in the world, my bodily autonomy. These are integral to my experience as a woman, or a queer chick, or a jew, or WHATEVER, moving through the world. And it makes it really clear, when you play this game, that you are not on my side. You are not my ally. Because you are poking me with a stick. Maybe that's fun for you? But it's not for me. It's reminding me that you are just one more person who can use that stick to beat me down.
This happens in blog comments a lot. It is also done by people who like to argue tone over content. Stone throwing is where someone doesn't even bother to engage substantively with an argument but tries to take down the argument, anyway.
So, ok, someone writes a blog post. They have taken time out of their busy day to put together this string of words for everyone. And someone comes by and says, "YOU HAVE USED A WORD I DON'T LIKE. Everything you have ever written in this post or since the beginning of time is invalid, the end." This is like someone coming up to your house, throwing a stone through one of the windows, and acting like the entire house has now been destroyed. They are usually ridiculously triumphant or indignant, about this. They do not consider that the person writing the post had maybe used that word thoughtfully. They don't think about how the person using that word might be one of the very people who are supposedly oppressed by the use of that word. They don't want to believe this could have been mindful or in good faith, they just enjoy the throwing of the stone. They enjoy the destruction of the house.
These people suck.
Seriously, well, ok, first, no one is perfect. We are all fighting this great big hegemonic paradigm, and we are all in different places, and frankly, there are only so many fights we can take up at any one time. So don't be a self-righteous prick, we're all doing the best we can. Also, there are no points in throwing rocks through the windows of the really big, respected houses. Stop picking especially on the ladies who are out at the forefront. They are getting it from all sides. There are no I Have Found an Oppression! tokens you can cash in for prizes.
Now, if you REALLY wanted to call out someone for their privilege, there are ALL KINDS OF WAYS you can do that without stone throwing. You could even put in your two cents about how you personally don't like that word, explain why without attributing ANYTHING to the blogger, whom you know NOTHING ABOUT, and then engage with the rest of that post. That way, you aren't attacking anyone, just to be reactionary! And you aren't ignoring that the blogger had other things to say! Douchebaggery avoided.
Stone throwing is also done by those people who say things like, "Even though I have just advocated for the use of torture against human beings, you have said the word, "fuck," and thus I have won!" I've already written about my issues with tone over content assertions. A well-known law professor had to get banned from this blog after that. I am not going there again.
And finally, I would just remind everyone: look, you need to keep in mind where you are coming from, and who you are, and where the person you are attempting to have a discussion with is coming from. Like, if you are a dude, and we are talking about lady stuff, you need to keep in mind that you have privilege, and you should probably try and check it. And then that it will come out anyway, so you need to be willing to be called on it. And you should maybe recall that you and the lady are not standing on even ground here, even if it's just the two of you over coffee. There are no patriarchy-free spaces. Just like there are no racism-free spaces, or heteronormativity-free spaces. Remember that. And if you are the person who is of the privileged group, you need to engage in a discussion in a way where you are present, you are bringing things to the table, and you are being a good ally. When I am engaging with people of color, I don't expect to get the benefit of the doubt; I recognize that I am part of the problem, and folks of color have ever right and reason to be wary of discussing race with me. Also, a person of color does not need to be teaching me anything - unless there is an opportunity for us both to grow from this discussion, a conversation that is solely for the benefit of schooling my white ass does not need to happen.
So, yeah, I am really tired of being poked with sticks here, you guys. And hit by stones. I am tired of not having a community here of people who can really, properly, have discussions. So, you know, if anyone wants to come to D.C. for a couple of days and talk books, or feminism, or politics until we are both exhuasted but in a clearer, stronger, more thoughtful place, let's do this shit. I'll cook for you, too.