A Tumblr post goes awry when it suggests that ‘[y]ou shouldn’t be an ally because oppressed groups are nice to you.’
On November 15, 2016, a Tumblr post went live that attacks the position that advocates for “oppressed groups” being careful not to “alienate allies.” Let’s roll the tape: “Okay, here’s the problem with the idea that oppressed groups can ‘alienate allies’ by not being nice enough: You shouldn’t be an ally because oppressed groups are nice to you. You should be an ally because you believe they deserve basic human rights. Hearing ‘I hate men’ shouldn’t make men stop being feminist. Hearing ‘fuck white people’ shouldn’t make white people stop opposing racism. Your opposition to oppression should be moral and immovable. Your belief that all humans should be treated with equal respect shouldn’t be conditional based on whether or not individual people are nice to you.”
Though it is somewhat marred by an imperious tone one finds so prevalent in social media these days, this is an important message. Indeed, one must not be so fragile as to let a stray insult or epithet undermine the integrity of one’s commitment to social justice.
However, loud as it is, the message, as written, is not necessarily clear. First, it does not identify or elaborate on what it means by “oppressed groups.” Are we talking about people of color? Poor people? Women? Victims of sexual abuse? Only women who are victims of rape, or men too? Refugees from Syria? Roma migrants in France? The Rohingya in Myanmar? The Yazidis in Iraq? The Hazaras in Afghanistan? Are all oppressed people the same in how they suffer from bigotry or trauma or war or exclusion or micro-aggressions? Are there differences? What is the importance of such differences? Is someone necessarily oppressed by sole virtue of being included in one of these groups? Can one person, or group, be more oppressed than another? What to make of degrees of oppression? What does “oppressed” mean? What is the difference between playing the victim and being truly oppressed (a child in Syria is oppressed; is a college student offended by the sight of Shakespeare on the wall of an English department oppressed?) These questions are relevant because, if we cannot understand what we mean by “oppressed groups” then we cannot understand what it means to be an ally to oppressed groups. Ally to whom? Why? Be “nice” to whom? Is “being nice” to Rohingya Muslims the same as “being nice” to the Yazidis of Iraq?
Which raises the next question: how, in fact, are we to understand the idea of “being nice”? Is the implication that a potential ally expects a fawning pitch about how to be an ally to an oppressed group while being treated to dinner and drinks? Does it mean that advocates for oppressed groups must adjust their pitch to avoid instigating the prickly sensibilities of prospective allies (how might they adjust their pitch? what are these prickly sensibilities?) Does “being nice” simply mean that an advocate for social justice argues for his cause with a level head that attempts to methodically diagnose a social ill and propose solutions, and to do so in a way that is not necessarily delicate, but at least civil? Or does it mean that oppressed groups must strive to employ a certain approved vocabulary in the communication of ideas in order to be sensitive to the vulnerabilities of potential allies, not unlike a kind of political correctness?
Speaking of vocabulary, what does the author mean by “basic human rights”? This is not an idle question. People are not all knitted from the same normative thread or guided by the same positivist policy prescriptions. They disagree about means and ends. For example, I believe that Congress should legislate a right to paid family leave, a policy instrument I believe would help ameliorate the long-term effects of poverty and socioeconomic inequities, given how crucial the postpartum period is to the long-term intellectual and emotional development of children, and how hard it is for economically disadvantaged parents to take time off from work to tend to their newborn children. But others might argue that paid family leave is expensive, and a mandate on employers might prove so costly and inflexible that it leads to painful job losses for those same poor families who live paycheck to paycheck (although some might argue there are policy adjustments such as tax breaks that might afford greater flexibility for employers.) I have not studied this issue in depth, so I am only drawing the contrast to make the point that reasonable people can disagree about legislating new “rights” into law. At any rate, on this issue of rights, the one clue we get from the Tumblr post about what constitutes a basic human right is that “all humans should be treated with equal respect.”
I do not disagree. But one is tempted to ask, what is meant by “respect”? Does it mean one has an obligation to be courteous in all interactions with oppressed groups? Does it mean one must be sensitive and delicate in how he talks about an issue with someone depending on whether he is a victim of trauma, a person of color, a person who has a disability? How does the degree of sensitivity depend on the nature of the oppressed group (presumably, respect for someone with a disability means not mocking their disability like Trump did when he mocked a reporter with a disability, whereas respect for someone of color means not discriminating against him or her on the basis of skin color, but in the case of trigger warnings and safe spaces in the university, when does respect cross over into political correctness)? Does it entail “being nice” to an interlocutor in discussions about social justice? But then, what does “being nice” mean?
Do any of these questions matter? Perhaps not. Maybe I am overthinking this, which is not unlikely for someone who studied philosophy as an undergraduate. But I am inclined to say they do because they invoke the importance in any serious debate or discussion that interlocutors know what, in fact, they are talking about. This strikes me as even more important in our emotionally-charged and polarized social-political environment, with people hurling invectives at each other with reckless abandon, and potentially productive discussions about important social problems quickly going awry.
For example, when discussing terms like “white privilege” and “white fragility,” I have occasionally made the argument with a family member who is schooled in critical race theory that one must be careful not to alienate allies. Upon hearing terms like “privilege” and “fragility” for the first time, a white person may find himself put on the defensive. Cognitive dissonance ensues. What privilege? How am I fragile? What does privilege and fragility have to do with the campaign to eradicate racism? As a white person begins to answer these questions for himself, or listen to those who would answer the questions for him, he may find himself wondering why he has to answer for the sins of the past. He may recognize that there are ongoing advantages to being white that sustain, or at least correlate to, social inequities and subtle forms of discrimination, but he may find the tone often associated with terms like “privilege” and “fragility” to be gratuitously hostile. If so, he may lose interest in fighting for the cause, or at least wonder what role he has to play, and if that is the case, you may have lost more than you have gained. Meanwhile, someone trying to enlighten him on the meaning of “white privilege” may grow frustrated and hotly accuse him of being fragile, which may aggravate the situation, either because of the tone in which it is conveyed, or because a person does not take well to being called fragile (for any number of reasons that are not necessarily easy to pin down; just ask a therapist!) Tempers flare, and both parties lose sight of what may have originally been an honest attempt to talk about the important issue of precisely delineating the meaning of “white privilege” and how it relates to the cause of eradicating racism. Invectives abound, tantrums become rampant, and serious engagement adjourns to make room for a shouting match.
It may well be that, in many cases, a white person is being overly sensitive and needs to get over it. Or it may be that he needs further clarification on what, in fact, these terms mean, and his temper flares not necessarily because he disagrees or is too sensitive, but because he seeks further clarification and does not get it, and grows frustrated when he points this out and is told he is being fragile. As for me, having made variants of these arguments, I am quick to clarify that I am not offended by the terms “privilege” and “fragility,” nor am I making a demand for delicacy in discourse. Civility, yes, but not delicacy. Sometimes truth is hard. Sometimes, a white person is being unnecessarily fragile. But to me, there is no real difficulty in understanding or appreciating the legacy of racism and its ongoing institutional rootedness. Racism is a problem that plagues our society. I think we have made great strides, and I don’t believe we live in 1950 anymore. But that does not mean there are not inequities and injustices to be confronted.
I have taken what time I have to think about these issues. I have gathered facts. I have applied logic and reasoning to the extent I am capable. I have had productive discussions with interlocutors on race. And then, of course, there are the moments when I have not had productive discussions. Which brings me back to the Tumblr post above. In general, if I remove my “philosophy hat,” the statements, though imprecise, make sense. I agree with them. If I make a few assumptions about what the author of the Tumblr post means, I interpret the statement to mean that one should not stop being an advocate for racial justice simply because he hears a random person say “fuck white people” or “I hate men.”
Being an ally should not depend on being treated “nice,” as if “being an ally” can only follow from being treated nicely. Strictly speaking, this is like saying that one goes around looking only for “nice” people to be allies with. If that were the case, Russian President Vladimir Putin would not be teaming up with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to pummel the Syrian people into submission. Presumably, however, the author of the Tumblr post means that potential allies might make their alliance conditional on being treated “nice.” In other words, a potential ally will withdraw from an alliance if he is not treated “nice” by certain random people. But this formulation is problematic. It may simply be the case that potential allies do not make their alliance conditional on being treated “nice” by a random person, but that they simply do not see the point of an alliance with someone who says “fuck white people” or ‘I hate men.” They are merely interested in removing themselves from the company of such people and instead linking up with those who are serious about fighting for social justice.
As for me, I’m not going to engage with someone who says “fuck white people” or “I hate men.” That does not mean I have ceased interest in advocating for oppressed groups. It simply means I will do so with people who don’t say “fuck white people” and “I hate men.” I will exercise my “right” to determine that a person who says “fuck white people” and “I hate men” isn’t interested in a serious discussion of oppression and social injustice. To walk away from a person who engages in extreme rhetoric is not the same as co-opting the terms of debate and demanding that others abide by my own norms of discussion, i.e., a demand to be nice to me. It is simply a reflection of my interest in serious discussion, and my interest in avoiding those who engage in the kind of extreme rhetoric that is not conducive to serious engagement. Sort of like how I would walk away from anyone who brandishes a swastika and wants to talk about white power.
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