On 'Civility' and Privilege: a guest post

Travis Greene is a stay at home dad and occasional chaplain in Tampa,  Florida. His convictions are in the Ana/Baptist and emerging church traditions and he is passionate about the collision of the Christian faith with the American prison system and solidarity with those inside it. Follow him at @travisegreene.

First, a social location disclaimer, since I’m a guest here. I am a healthy cisgender straight white guy. I literally have all the privilege, and much of what I have to say is directed toward other privileged people.

If you follow progressive social justice-y Christian type people on Twitter, you may be aware there is often debate about “appropriate” ways to engage around questions of justice with respect to race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. Usually some well-meaning white person will say something , be critiqued for it, and then push back not against the substance of the critique but the tone or manner. Alternately, a person of color may say something, then get critiqued by a more privileged person (again not so much for content but tone or timing or something).

This Sarah Bessey piece (which I like very much, even though there’s a But coming) is a rather vague reaction to all this, I think.

Or, for a not exclusively religious example (though I think there’s lots of overlap), this piece by Freddie diBoer (http://dish.andrewsullivan.com/2014/08/21/where-online-social-liberalism-lost-the-script/). He writes,

“It seems to me now that the public face of social liberalism has ceased to seem positive, joyful, human, and freeing. I now mostly associate that public face with danger, with an endless list of things that you can’t do or say or think, and with the constant threat of being called an existentially bad person if you say the wrong thing, or if someone decides to misrepresent what you said as saying the wrong thing. There are so many ways to step on a landmine now, so many terms that have become forbidden, so many attitudes that will get you cast out if you even appear to hold them.”

I think this is a common reaction by people who think of themselves as allies but are concerned about maintaining kindness, civility, etc.

Later, he writes, “On matters of substance, I agree with almost everything that the social liberals on Tumblr and Twitter and blogs and websites believe. I believe that racism is embedded in many of our institutions. I believe that sexual violence is common and that we have a culture of misogyny. I believe that privilege is real. I believe all of that. And I understand and respect the need to express rage, which is a legitimate political emotion. But I also believe that there’s no possible way to fix these problems without bringing more people into the coalition. I would like for people who are committed to arguing about social justice online to work on building a culture that is unrelenting in its criticisms of injustice, but that leaves more room for education.”

Now that in general has been my basic attitude toward this whole question. The “You’re not wrong, but you should be nicer.” And I still think, at least on a purely pragmatic level, there’s merit to that. (Here’s the But…)

But.

Two recent blog posts have helped me think through this all a little better, I hope. The first is Sarah Moon’s post called “No, We Not All On The Same Side”, where she draws on bell hooks to point out how “forced teaming” has the effect of sidelining the concerns of traditionally marginalized groups. I encourage you to read the whole thing, but here was the crux for me:

“…even among folks who all ultimately long for a more liberating world, there are “barriers to solidarity” (hooks’ phrasing–pg. 50) that keep us from truly “being on the same side.” Ignoring our differences–our different standpoints, goals, experiences, and needs–in favor of cheap peace, forced teaming, and shallow “allyship” does not challenge those barriers. It only reinforces them.”

It is vital not to smother potentially productive conflict with false niceness. Moon attributes a lot of this on the part of more privileged allies to conflict avoidance, which is no doubt true, but I suspect there’s more going on in the particular reaction of the privileged progressive to being critiqued by the less privileged. Underneath our reaction to this (and along with many genuinely good motives) is a rather childish desire to be affirmed as one of the good guys, to be acknowledged as Not Like Those People: your racist relatives, Sarah Palin, whoever.

I got a further insight from Rod’s post, particularly this bit:

“We hear from one side, well, yes, I know I needed to be called out, but you could have been a little bit nicer, and then the same civilized party admits later, I needed to be called out to persons who give them similar feedback, but its nicer because their interlocutor may look like them.”

I don’t doubt that this happens, a lot. Race and gender construction affects everything, evening the seemingly disembodied world of online interaction. But I suspect some of the time something else is happening (let’s take race as our example). Perhaps the white person is more responsive/less likely to tone-police the criticism of another white person because they’ve been socialized to take them more seriously (systemic racism). Or they might be more responsive because the white critic, since they are interacting with a past version of themselves, is uniquely able to help the person being criticized. That cannot replace the crucially important movement toward solidarity with marginalized people by listening directly to them, but it may be able to help that process along.

So my proposal is this: maybe those of us (white folks) who do want a more “civil” space, with, as diBoer says, “more room for education,” need to take that on as our particular responsibility – not tone-policing women or gay folks or people of color – not trying to control how they speak and act and engage – but perhaps by being the “good cop” who takes the time to educate people encountering all this for the first time (or perhaps not for the first time, but who are still resistant).

There is danger here. My idea would not be to interpret or speak for (“What John is trying to say is…”). And the point of all this is not to (yet again) center the experiences of white folks, nor to dismiss them, but to relativize them. When I respond to something on Twitter I am not doing so as a generic “reasonable person” who gets to decide what civility or kindness mean, and how all confrontation should happen and when.

Maybe we need to be the ones who engage the trolls. God knows it’s our turn.

0 thoughts on “On 'Civility' and Privilege: a guest post

  1. Curt Day

    There is a difference between trolls, ill-mannered people, and people passionate about a particular subject. Trolls are there to waste your time. Ill-mamnered people simply want to shut up those who disagree by using insults and shame. And there are those who out of excitement lose track of how they are saying things.

    Trolls are to avoided simply because of who they are. It is a case by case decision with ill-mannered people. If their tone brings out the worse in how one discusses things, then quit the discussion. As for people who are merely passionate about a particular subject, they should be give the most leeway and appreciated.

    My experience tells me that those defending a white protestant viewpoint most often fall in the ill-mannered group. In addition, most of the privileged people I have conversed with online attempt to trivialize the need to listen to the marginalized. Generally speaking, privileged people are too committed to their ideology to use the facts on the ground to paint a picture of reality. These facts are often seen as a threat to their ideology. And thus their defensiveness becomes a reason for their lack of civility.

    Finally, domination is the overall theme we are fighting against. That domination is most often based on race, gender, and economic class. And when talking about racially based domination, we need to acknowledge the progress that has occurred while pointing out the racism facts on the ground.

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  2. suzannah | the smitten word

    yes, agreed. my friend grace used the phrase “emotional bandwidth”, and it’s stuck with me. allies/accomplices have wayyy more emotional bandwidth to have those 101 instructional conversations that are exhausting and often incredibly demoralizing for others. “allies” need/get to make *their* spaces more just/feminist/anti-racist/inclusive. that is their/our role, and there’s a lot of work to do!

    plus, while education is crucial, it’s not a required role for everyone to play at all times or the goal of every work or interaction. we need educators, yes, but dominant voices can’t expect marginalized people to educate them on dominant terms and timelines. that just reinforces oppressive power imbalances, and honestly, that kind of hand-holding may not bear the kind of fruit and systemic change many of us are seeking.

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