9.09.2014

Criticism of my Criticism: Some thoughts on allies and critics

Let's start with a true story:

Some months ago I was tweeting back and forth fairly amicably with a very progressive Christian trans thinker. We’d been following each other for a little while, shared some interests, and I thought of this tweeter as something of a twitter buddy.

This tweeter was having some online frustrations with a particularly troll-y twitter parody account. The account often made crass and insensitive remarks while lampooning my buddy and some of my buddy’s other friends. At the time the account also had an extremely small following, to the tune of significantly less than 100 people.

As my buddy’s troll was being a bother, my grandmother passed away. I don’t share this to garner pity, she’d been ill for some time and it was not a great surprise—indeed it’s very common for people have to deal with losing their grandparents. I share this simply to explain that as I dealt with burying my grandmother, it was an inopportune time to be glued to twitter.

I suggested to my buddy that the best course of action in dealing with this troll might be to simply block and ignore her. Unfed, she’d surely go away, as she had almost no following as it was.  My buddy proceeded to lambast me unceasingly for being an oppressor, a transphobe, and a shitty ally.
How dare I tell marginalized people how to deal with people who say problematic things to them?

The tweeter refused to accept my explanation. I thought this was a solution for this one person and this one situation, and I don't consider it a philosophy for all people dealing with all oppressors everywhere. But my "buddy" wouldn't hear it, and continued blowing up my feed about how I had no right to speak on the topic of being oppressed, or speaking to oppressors, and was a terrible person for trying to speak to that situation. Finally, lacking the emotional bandwidth to deal with my buddy’s sudden flare of temper and the goings on in my own life, I simply clicked block. And have only even thought of the interaction a couple of times since.

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I think this anecdote is apt for a couple of reasons.

For one, I did not then, and do not now think that I have a right to tell all marginalized people how they should respond to problematic people. Much of the criticism I've read in the last 24 hours has seemed to have ignored this. It would be offensive, and frankly absurd of me to tell the marginalized to "pipe down and be nicer." But what kind of friend (or ally) is only a yes man? What I suggest is that perhaps there are some instances when setting phasers for stun, rather than kill, would benefit everyone involved. Critique an imperfect person whose heart is in the right place rather than decimate them. I believe that's how coalitions are built.

Secondly, it's an apt anecdote because it's a one-on-one version of the very behavior I sought to critique. I offered a suggestion that this tweeter (who I'd mistakenly considered a friend) thought was a bad one. Rather than disagree, this person declared me persona non grata and berated me until the only thing I could think to do was to disengage. I'd lost a twitter contact I genuinely enjoyed conversing with, my contact lost me, and no progress was made in dealing with my contact's problem. Who wins in this scenario besides the troll who'd been actually bullying a trans person?

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Another common critique I saw today I can try to respond to with a little less verbosity:

"Look at this white guy trying to tell people how to respond to problematic situations!" [with the terribleness of this situation implied by its very description]. As whitey I cannot speak on such matters (even though some of the people I'm speaking to are ALSO straight, white men).

Yes. I think I made it pretty clear in my piece I was a white guy trying to suggest a better way for dealing with problematic situations. I tried pretty damned hard to pay attention to the optics, and the reality, of me being me saying what I was saying to the people I was saying it to. Privilege very carefully checked. But, no, go ahead and claim I didn't check it enough.

Speaking of checking privilege though, I have a question. A serious question for my critics. Is the proper act of an ally to sit down and not talk and watch a person we wish to be allied with fail? Is it a better act of being an ally to attempt to be helpful? Or should we truly just shut up and let the chips fall where they may? Because if it's the latter, I'll honestly take that into account next time.

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The last "criticism" I seemed to receive a lot of today was simply "This guy is critiquing us!" shared between likeminded individuals who all implicitly believed that my so doing was absurd. I got numerous mentions that weren't even substantive refutations of my post, but were just essentially "get a load of this guy, he has the audacity to speak!"

I'm a little puzzled that people who do as much critiquing of the problematic as some of these folks do would be so shocked, appalled, angered and dismayed at someone critiquing THEM. And as to this push back that simply says "I disagree with you?" Yes. I know you do, that's why I felt compelled to write what I did.


Oh, a quick P.S.!
One person critiqued the unserious play on words I used to promote the piece, "leftist cannibalism." I used it because it evokes the idea of leftists turning on themselves. One of my twitter critics claimed I was essentially calling people of color cannibals. The mental gymnastics required to get to that point are astounding to me. You made some points today, person who tweeted this, but that one was an embarassment. Even for you.

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