Julie Gillis meditates on lessons from Jay Smooth on how we should talk about the things we need to talk about.
I have been staring at my computer screen on and off for several hours. I want to write a response piece to the number of posts up recently about sexual harassment in the work place, sexual misconduct, whether porn should be shown on planes.
Actually, that’s not true. I want to write a response piece on many of the comments. I keep reading comments in these threads about how people don’t want to alter their behavior in the workplace or on planes, or comments asking why people should have to alter their behavior, or comments arguing that men have it worse than women, or that women have it worse than men, that “men are mean” and “women are flowers”—and the whole thing is a big boggle of the same old same old defensiveness and counter-defensiveness that never seems to get us anywhere.
I became stuck.
At first, I took the tactic of wrestling with the concept of context.
Human beings are incredibly observant and responsive to group norms and roles. We learn this as children, yes? We create numerous and varied rules and roles and norms for a multitude of social situations. What we do at home is different than what we do at church or at the mall or in a bar.
Take clothes for example. You don’t wear booty shorts to church, and you don’t wear a nun’s habit to the exotic dance club. Well, generally anyway. Or gloves. You don’t wear opera gloves to do house work. You wear rubber gloves. You wear opera gloves to the opera. Which is why they are called opera gloves.
We are so complicated as a species that even cultures that appear similar on the outside (Canada and America), might have very different norms or roles for say, different holidays, or dinnertime rituals. Other cultures’ differences might be even more vast such as that between Japan and America. We inbue these norms and actions with meanings and contexts. A bow means this. This kind of handshake means that. You mess up a context? No bueno.
But this really isn’t news is it? That, as humans, we grow up learning that there are different sets of behavior expected in different environments? And that often those expected behaviors can change depending on politics, culture shifts, and so forth? I mean, kids can learn this.
If you really want to be able to make those BJ jokes all day, it’s probably best to find a job where that particular set of behaviors is encouraged, not discouraged, yeah? Or if you want to minister all day, maybe don’t work in an dentist’s office? If you want to be a chef, work where there is a kitchen.
Like I said, this isn’t news. So why is it so difficult to discuss sexual harassment? It happens. It happens male to female. It happens female to male. I guess it happens in pretty much every gender combination known to humankind. But here on GMP and beyond, there are articles coming out (no doubt due to Penn State) either confirming or denying that “it” happens, each with dozens if not hundreds of comments getting bogged down in that morass of blame, defensiveness, and argument.
I think most humans are pretty smart. We all know, and yes, I realize I’m generalizing, but we all know that bullying or harassing someone for their gender or sexual orientation isn’t cool. We know it’s kind of a tool move to make other people feel bad, just so we can feel good. And we all are observant enough as adults to reflect back towards each group, the norms and behaviors expected of us.
I realized that the stuckness that I was feeling wasn’t that the articles were being written, but that the comments always seem to devolve into this binary. It is, or it isn’t. Men are, or they aren’t. Women are good, men are bad. Vice Versa. Comments also seem to be, well, totalizing an experience. As in, if one man makes a comment that is sexist in nature, that somehow he himself is a total sexist. Or if a woman seeks change, she’s blaming all men now and forever.
Where is the nuance???
(There is always nuance. Nuance may not sell magazines, diplomacy and peacemaking may not be as sexy as rabble-rousing, but man, I dig it.)
Suddenly, I remembered! Who is awesome at nuance?? Jay Smooth. His Wiki page is here, and he writes and blogs about racism and he’s amazing. He did a piece recently called “How To Tell People They Sound Racist.” It’s pretty brilliant, but as Jay himself mentioned in his recent TED Talk, “How I Stopped Worrying and Learned To Love Talking About Race,” those techniques don’t often work so well. He breaks down why, in the talk itself, which I am going to embed here, because it is so awesome.
In the piece, Smooth mentions how when humans make little mistakes, no one likes that much, but most of us take a breath, figure it out and move on. Race, he says, usually spirals towards the opposite approach. It’s a binary! You are! No, I’m not! Race is really hard to talk about, and it is highly charged with this sense that we as people have huge amounts at stake, even trying to talk about it. This same defensiveness comes out with other difficult issues of sex, sexual abuse, and sexual orientation in the workplace and beyond.
Smooth focuses on social constructs and how they are often designed, shaped over very long periods of time from the need to rationalize why an oppression is in place. It’s good stuff and while the video isn’t very long, it is jam-packed with choice bits of brilliance. In one particularly perfect moment, he likens racism to plaque build up on one’s teeth, rather than a totality of say, having tonsils or not. You are not “racist” or “not racist,” he posits, but always looking at the buildup of social constructs, media influences, etc. that might lead you towards a thought process that is more racist or less racist. We have control over that, he says, not that we are all “good” or “bad” in total, but that we all have the ability to “engage with our imperfections” and literally practice goodness.
What I want in my daily life as a writer and performer is to find accessible ways to talk about hard things. Not snark, not passive aggressive drive by commentary, not mean comments that devolve into “nuh uh!” in either direction, but nuanced conversations with people willing to talk about isms, willing to accept that making mistakes, admitting them, solving them isn’t a total indictment of character.
Just as importantly, I want to listen and check myself and my reactions as a woman in a man’s space, offer reactions and ask questions, which I hope will continue that conversation. It may be difficult, but I think it will open doors to a world that will be more and more wonderful for all of us.
For that inspiration (for an article that is less of an article than a meditation on how to even start writing about things here at GMP), I most certainly thank Jay Smooth.