The problems with “being smart”

Recently on tumblr, I saw this post by tumblr user obesitycore making the rounds to generally positive reception. I’ve reproduced it below with an example of some of the type of commentary I saw:

obesitycore:
the really shitty thing about being told that youre smart your whole entire life is that as soon as you dont understand something you just kind of completely shut down and his this big shitty crisis because maybe youre not as smart as youve always been told

lclfizz:
A similar thing which rang true for me when I heard it described is this: when you’re categorized as “smart,” anything you do well gets chalked up to the smartness, rather than to the effort. Combine that with lack of challenges in school and you get the situation where I didn’t learn how to work on something until I got better at it until I was in my twenties.

pervocracy:
I relate to all of the above, and also: When I couldn’t do something academic—because I didn’t have the relevant skills, or I didn’t have enough confidence, or I wasn’t organized enough, or I was confused about what was expected, or I was depressed—all I ever got was “But you’re smart! This should be easy for you!” Like if you’re smart then the only possible reason for any kind of academic failure is laziness.

Let me be clear: to some extent I can identify with these feelings and situations. But I think we need be very critical about what we are feeling and saying here.

First of all, I think it’s a bit much for us to complain about having been told we’re smart all our lives, when it is demonstrably much worse to be told you’re stupid or to be treated as if you’re stupid. This all smacks of thin people whinging “People told me to eat a burger” and “They assumed I was confident because I’m thin!” Yes, these are real problems that thin people have that cause them emotional pain, but they are minor in comparison to what happens in the lives of those who are not considered thin in our culture. The same is true of the experiences of people not considered smart. If the people around you think you’re stupid, and even worse, if they tell you you’re stupid, it can have a huge negative impact on your life. (Research by Duflo and Banerjee on this topic, outlined in their book Poor Economics, provides some evidence for this in the context of India.) The people who are really systematically beaten down in our culture are people who are considered “stupid” – we routinely hear people who think themselves “smart” bemoaning the fact that “stupid” people can vote, run their own lives, have children, and frankly dare to exist at all.

Being seen as smart by the people around you is a huge advantage in life. From a young age, people seen as smart are given more agency in their own lives than people who are seen as stupid or incompetent. They are given attention and encouragement where other, “average” people might be left to sink or swim in order to prove themselves. The personality flaws of “smart” people are explained away, or even seen as the inevitable result of their intelligence, and therefore to be tolerated without question. Of course – as these posts make clear – there are downsides here, like there are downsides to being conventionally beautiful and thin. But let’s be mindful of the wider structure those downsides occur in. I think it’s also worth pointing out that a lot of the downsides we are discussing in these tumblr posts are not the result of being seen as smart, but are in fact the result of making “intelligence” the foundation of your self-worth. That is not something you have to do – it’s a choice, even if it doesn’t feel like it. It can be unlearned. And as these posts show, it obviously should be, especially if it comes coupled with the damaging notion that being smart means never having to struggle to understand something.

Moreover, I think we should recognise that even what we think of as “smart” is to some extent culturally and socially defined. So if you are going to buy into “being smart” as some kind of important identity marker, you’re giving your society a lot of power over your identity and over your mind. Clearly, being conventionally “smart” is not the same as being intelligent – and at this point in the discussion we have to now admit that we don’t have a really good definition for intelligence. Of course, many people are devoting their lives to studying this question, so I don’t think I can add much here aside from an acknowledgement that we are far from any consensus on a definition for whatever constitutes “intelligence”.

Now, I know that some people think the very concept of intelligence is ableist, but I don’t share that view. I think the evidence suggests that there really is variation in the capacities of human brains for processing information and solving difficult problems in creative ways, and that some people genuinely are better at these tasks than others – although it’s hard to say exactly what is responsible for the variation. But I do think that these skills are not perfectly correlated with what our society calls smart, and especially not to what adults think is smart in young people. And I do think a lot of our social norms around intelligence are ableist – and also sexist, racist and classist.

I think a lot of what we call “smart” – especially in the early years of a person’s life – is more about skills that are acquired through practice, and about being able to figure out what people want from you. I think that the young people who live in an environment conducive to the kind of practice needed to develop many such skills tend to be richer on average – even controlling for educational access, which is a separate and huge issue in itself. I also think that our culture has certain ideas about who is likely to be naturally “smart” (white boys) and so we collectively encourage them to persevere to acquire such skills much more than we encourage other people. This matters because while some portion of intelligence seems to be genetic, some also seems to be developed by perseverance itself. In fact, even thinking of yourself as capable seems to help you perform better. So when one group is taught to see themselves as naturally less intelligent or less capable, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy – this is classic stereotype threat (see Spencer et al 1999, for an alarming example of this in a randomised controlled trial.)

I think that our society makes a lot of arbitrary distinctions between which kinds of mental processing abilities and problem-solving skills make you “smart”. You know, “I proved the asymptotic properties of the OLS estimator” is one way to be smart, but “I have perfected the apple pie” or “I invented the lute” is another. And a lot of these distinctions are biased in ways that reinforce harmful, oppressive social structures. Excelling in male-dominated disciplines such as mathematics and science is seen as a marker of intelligence, but excelling in female-dominated disciplines such as teaching and nursing is not. Is it harder to do proofs in algebraic geometry than to get high schoolers to engage critically with their own national history? Writing reasonably complicated, rhyming rap lyrics isn’t seen as a display of intelligence, but of course it’s just as difficult as writing a sonnet in iambic pentameter. Computer programming wasn’t seen as smart when it was predominantly done by women – now that men do it, being good at it makes you “smart”. Those of us lucky enough to enjoy the social privilege from being recognised as conventionally smart should be mindful of how we’ve benefited from this structure.

And suppose even that you do think that some types of difficult and creative problems are objectively more “difficult” than others – if you think that in an objective sense it requires more “intellect” or brain processing power to sequence the human genome than to embroider the Bayeux tapestry. Still, the fact remains that no matter what we call “smart” or how legitimate you think the label and the corresponding social power is, it is fucked up that our culture says “smart” people are more worthy than “stupid” people. Look, “smart” people are not better than other people. If you lose the title of smart, if you grow up and suddenly nobody calls you “smart” anymore like they did when you were a kid, you’re not a less valid human.

I know that a lot of those tumblr posts are about catharsis, and I know that my raising these objections might cause some emotional pain. But I think it needs to be said, because I think the perspective you take on being “smart” really matters. Not just because of the broader social issues, and not just because it can make things go horribly wrong for you if you are petrified by intellectual challenge, but also because it will cause you problems even if things go right. Suppose that you actually do possess more neural processing power and problem-solving abilities than the average human. And suppose you also work hard, and you are lucky, and you want to be challenged and learn things. Then, in the best case scenario, you will eventually find yourself in a room full of people roughly as smart as you, or indeed, a room full of people who are on average smarter. If you get really lucky, you might get yourself to a room full of people compared to whom you will seem – to yourself, at least – very slow-witted indeed.

Then you’re not “the smart one” anymore – and that can be wonderful, if you let it be. I’m in graduate school now and it’s a place in which I could not remotely be called “the smart one” anymore. After a small lifetime of rarely having to ask my peers for help to solve an academic problem, I now have to ask them for help multiple times a day. I often feel inadequate in the face of the problems I have to solve, but I get on with them and usually I make progress – often, more progress than I thought possible. To continually surprise yourself in this way is a great experience. It also wipes away any vestiges of the illusion that “being smart” matters. What you do matters. The problems you solve and the things you build matter. Stop worrying about being smart and start focussing on getting things done.


Legitimising Sex Work: The Counter-Arguments to Your Anti Sex Work Position

This is a controversial opinion, especially among second-wave feminists and radfems and even some intersectionally-aware feminists, but I firmly believe in legalising and destigmatising sex work in developed countries. I come from a firm sex-positive standpoint and very much support the Safe, Sane and Consensual Risk-Aware Consensual Kink creed found in the kink community*. This post is written for people who come from a similar viewpoint, but may still feel conflicted about sex work.

As I am not a sex worker myself, I would welcome any corrections to this post.

People who identify as sex workers do a variety of different work, and it’s not just prostitution**. There are people who make pornography, there are people who strip, there are people who you can pay for a bunch of kinky shit, but may not actually involve sex. Sex work is partly legal in Australia, however it will depend on the type of work and laws vary from state to state. Famously, the porn site Abby Winters moved away from my hometown because of strict Australian laws regarding the depiction of real sexual activity – regardless if it’s completely consensual and agreed to under ethical conditions.

Before we begin, let’s get some common objections to sex work out of the way first:

Sex workers are primarily women, and we don’t want women selling their bodies!

If sex workers are “selling their bodies” then so are manual labourers. And athletes. And office workers. In fact, anyone who has a job is “selling their bodies” because everyone is selling what their bodies can do for money. That’s what labour is. In some cases, people are literally selling their minds for jobs that are brain-intensive – like researchers, writers, and basically every creative job ever (which, arguably, can be almost every job).

The truth is that no one can really “sell their bodies” because slavery is universally illegal. To imply that sex workers are “selling their bodies” is in some ways incredibly offensive because in my mind it implies that all sex workers have no personal choice about the jobs they do and the clients they have. It implies that all sex workers have no agency over their own consent.

(Hold that thought. I’ll get to the issue of choice and consent later in the post.)

Sex workers only do it for the money! They’re addicted to money!

Similarly, anyone who has a job can be said to “only do it for the money”.

There’s an odd few who might actually labour in their chosen career paths for free, but that’s definitely the minority. A lot of people hate their jobs. A lot of people are completely indifferent about their jobs. A lot of people would prefer to never work again, if not for the money.

Some of those working people could probably live on significantly less than they’re currently earning – yet they still choose to work more hours in order to afford more. Are they “addicted to money”?

(If your answer is ‘yes’ that’s probably a discussion for another post. But if your answer is ‘yes’ then you’ve also failed to identify why this objection applies moreso to sex work than any other paid work.)

The sex industry is sexist, racist, and caters primarily to straight white men!

So are Hollywood movies. So are books. So is modelling.

Much of this blog has been dedicated to deconstructing problematic media. Media produced by the sex industry is just another problematic thing that you can be a fan of. Sex work and pornography itself, however, is not fundamentally problematic. Current mainstream attitudes are not the be-all and end-all to what pornography can be.

Like all media, there are people who are actively trying to break new ground in representation. There are sex workers who are queer, fat, disabled, etc etc all actively trying to give representation to the spectrum of human sexuality rather than just the straight, white male view. There is even an annual Feminist Porn Award.

CHOICE, CIRCUMSTANCE & COERCION

First, you should read dana boyd’s article about the model of Choice, Circumstance and Coercion in sex work, because it will cover the same ground, and in more detail. To quote the article:

On one end, you have choice where individuals with a high level of agency and capital (social, economic, cultural) choose to engage in sex work, often because they hold pro-sex attitudes and believe that the world would be a better place if people were more open and honest sexually… On the other end of the spectrum, you have coercion where individuals lack any form agency or capital and are directly or indirectly forced into the trade through manipulation or force. In between, in a category that describes what I suspect is the bulk of commercial sex, is circumstance. Circumstance itself can also be treated as a spectrum. On the end closest to choice, you have individuals who believe that they should have the right to sell any part of their bodies for financial gain… The bulk of circumstance has more to do with challenging economic issues, including poverty or financial desperation. Finally, closest to coercion, there are individuals who are both financially hard off as well as grappling with serious mental health issues, including drug and alcohol addiction, gender dysphoria, a history of abuse, and/or co-dependency.

I want to make clear that it’s not surprising that many sex workers from marginalised backgrounds will operate from the “coercion” or “circumstance” category (although obviously not all). This is because sex work is not an idyllic career that exists outside the framework of privilege, but nothing does so it’s not particularly “special” in that regard.

 

COERCION VS CIRCUMSTANCE

In my view, the difference between the Circumstance and Coercion categories is primarily one of information. As trite as it sounds, knowledge and information is power. Someone who is faced with homelessness but who can or knows to contact emergency accommodation and support is in a different position from someone who faces homelessness and is not aware of their options, or that there’s even an option to be had. The former makes an informed choice, and their individual agency should be respected because they are in the best position to make the choice for themselves. The latter don’t have a functional choice because they’re not aware of other options.

The former I would categorise in the Circumstance category – those who have chosen sex work from informed consent; and the latter I would place in the Coercion category – those who work in sex work non-consensually. There is some grey area about what constitutes “informed consent” but that’s a discussion that falls outside the boundaries of this post, suffice to add that the question extends to areas outside of sex work as well.

Sex-positivists (and I include myself in this category) are used to thinking about sex and consent in a very straight-forward way. To have sex, you should seek consent in a very active way from your partner/s. To not do so is to run the risk of raping someone.

But why do people consent to sex? People may consent because they’re in a romantic relationship with their partner… but they might just want to get their rocks off. They might also consent for less emotionally healthy reasons, like to get back at an ex, to boost their own self-confidence, to manipulate another person. I’m not saying these are “good” reasons to have sex, but as long as both parties consent, it’s not rape (although it may be other forms of emotional abuse which I’m not going to deal with in this post).

And, except for some very very limited circumstances, the reason why people consent to sex is generally not my business as long as the consent is there. Similarly, the reason why some sex workers give for working in the industry may not fill me with joy and cupcakes, but ultimately it’s not my business why someone else chooses to consent to sex.

Anti-sex work lobbyists will often point to the fact many sex workers in this category will have problems with drug and alcohol addiction, mental illnesses, homelessness, etc and are resorting to sex work because they can’t get money anywhere else. If that’s the case, then it’s clearly NOT sex work that is the problem, but the fact that people don’t have alternative options. If a sex worker said they’d rather be working as a waitress, but that their wages as a waitress did pay them enough to live off, then that’s a problem with the minimum wage or the social welfare system. If they’ve made a decision to do sex work instead of becoming homeless or not having enough to eat, why do anti-sex work lobbyists focus on eradicating sex work instead of rallying for more support to low-income earners?

Lobbyists will often focus on the fact that some sex workers have very few other choices – which may be true – but this rhetoric detracts from individual agency and the conscious choice being made. Someone may personally feel that sex work is the better choice out of two bad options, so the aim should not be to make sex work an equally bad option, but to make the other option better, or increase the number of options that person has access to.

 

TRAFFICKING AND SEX WORK

I place trafficked sex workers solely within the Coercion category and their work as non-consensual, ie. rape and sexual assault.

Traffickers will often prey on uneducated women from developing countries, lure them to a developed country with the promise of a jobs as maids and cleaners, and then force them into debt bondage at their destination country. Traffickers will claim that the girls owe them money for the trip, food, accommodation – and when they can’t meet the costs, the traffickers force them to work in brothels as sex workers.

The women have little or no English. They are in a foreign country where the only people they know are literally their captors. They are told by the traffickers that the police won’t help, will arrest them and/or won’t believe them. They are told they’ve signed binding legal contracts when they have not. Sometimes they not only threaten and assault the women themselves, but also threaten their families in their home towns. From the minute they enter the country, the women are entirely reliant on the traffickers.

I want to make a distinction clear: there are foreign sex workers who might come to a developed country in order to pursue career opportunities in sex work. The exchange rate may be quite favourable, or perhaps the destination country has better laws for sex work. Either way, they’re in a very different situation from women who have been trafficked.

Trafficking and forced labour occurs in both legal and non-legal brothels, and the fact that licensed brothels have been complicit in people trafficking has been an argument against legalising sex work. However, what’s less often spoken about is the fact that other kinds of legal, licensed businesses also participate in people trafficking.

Trafficking does not solely occur within the purview of sex work. People trafficking and forced labour occurs in many industries: at restaurants, factories, farms and retail shops. Anti-slavery Australia gives four case studies as an example – only one of which is about sex work.  But no one calls on the government to ban construction work, or fruit-picking, or table service at restaurants. This is because we recognise those jobs to be legitimate in and not fundamentally harmful in themselves. There is no reason why we can’t apply the same reasoning to sex work, which is fine when consensually agreed to, but abhorrent when it is forced upon people.

This should be obvious, but maybe it bears saying: No sex worker I’ve ever met, heard or read has supported people trafficking or forced labour. Every sex worker I’ve encountered is disgusted by the practice. Conflating sex work with people trafficking and forced labour is lazy and intellectually dishonest and if you take that approach, you may as well conflate the hospitality, retail and agriculture with the same.

 

THE CASE FOR LEGITIMISING SEX WORK

First, sex work is no different from any other labour that is sold for money, and the sex industry is no more or less problematic than other job industries.

Second, if disadvantaged people choose sex work as their best option when they are faced with a number of bad options, then it is the government and our society that is at fault, not sex work. Money ought to be spent in improving access to mental health services, education system, drug and alcohol programs – not spent trying to dissuade people from choosing sex work. The problem is not that they’re choosing sex work to survive, but that our society cannot provide adequate health, monetary and social support for some of the most disadvantaged people in our community.

Third, people trafficking is not exclusive to sex work. People are trafficked across a number of different industries, but the majority of businesses within those industries operate lawfully and morally.

Consequently, there are a number of things that occur when sex work is criminalised:

If people are in desperate situations, criminalisation may not dissuade people and they may turn to sex work anyway. In the end, it would only result in a criminal record for a lot of marginalised people, and extra administrative costs for the police and the courts. Alternatively, it may mean that people will need to pick “the worse option”, whether that means working three jobs or becoming homeless or something else.

For people being trafficked, those sex workers remain controlled by their traffickers who will have no qualms in directing them to break criminal laws. The fact they’ve committed a crime will be used as additional ammunition against them by their captors.

In the end, all criminalisation would do is curb the choices of those sex workers in the Choice category – the most privileged group with the most opportunities available to them – which also happens to be the category of people who we are the least concerned about engaging in sex work.

If we are really concerned in helping disadvantaged and marginalised people, banning, criminalising or stigmatising sex work is not going to solve anything. Much of the criticism thrown about relates not to sex work per se, but to the system of privilege that affects all aspects of our society, sex work included. The fact of the matter is that most mainstream opinions towards sex work are still firmly couched in anti-feminist, anti-sex rhetoric about women – and the idea that governments should dictate what women can or can’t do with their bodies.

 

*Edit: With thanks to a friend for pointing out the problematic aspects of using SSC and that the better acronym is now RACK.
**Edit 2: Please note that “prostitution” and “prostitute” are generally not accepted terms to apply to sex work and workers. I have used this term in the absence of anything else that describes exactly what I want to convey, but please note that the preferred words are always “sex work” and “sex worker”.


Accepting Help from Homophobes

I wrote a post on Tumblr about the Salvos a few months back, but the issue of homophobia in the Salvation Army has recently become headline-worthy in Australia since singer Darren Hayes’ called to boycott the organisation.

I’m the last person who is going to defend rampant homophobia, and let’s be clear, that’s certainly the institutionalised belief system within that organisation. All of us on SJL are strong proponents of secularism and exist somewhere on the agnostic to atheist scale (okay, I’m probably the only person closer to that agnostic point). The problem is that no one else is really providing the same services as the Salvation Army – at least not where I live.

In my work I am regularly in contact with people from low socioeconomic backgrounds, newly-arrived migrants with little or no English, women in or who have come from violent relationships, people with severe mental illnesses, people who are homeless, people who are barely getting by financially. And when those clients need access to free financial counselling, food vouchers, public transport tickets and general community support I usually refer them to the Salvation Army or another religious-based organisation that probably doesn’t have more progressive views on being queer.

There’s a couple of reasons why this is the case. First, these organisations need to be based in the local area where the clients are living. Yes, there may be a secular organisation doing the same work in the city, but considering clients may need to be regular contact with caseworkers, it’s not practical to be making referrals to places with more than 30 minutes travel time one-way. The additional issue is that clients may not have access to a car, live near public transport, or even necessarily have the money to access public transport.

Second, these non-secular organisations are often a one-stop shop for a disadvantaged person. If someone can pick up food vouchers and book an appointment with a caseworker to find emergency housing, have another appointment with a financial counsellor about their managing their finances all at the same place then that’s going to be the easiest and most convenient way for them to seek help.

Third, while I don’t have too much experience in this, my understanding is that those organisations will provide support to queer people if they meet their merits criteria (which will be an assessment of assets and income) despite their homophobic doctrine. I have heard stories about queer people being turned away from the Salvation Army in the USA, but so far I’ve not heard any similar stories about the organisation in Australia. And while it would be best if queer people were not being provided support by a homophobic organisation, if someone is severely marginalised then the important thing is that they are getting that support in the first place. Unfortunately neither I, nor my clients can be particular about my referrals because simply, there’s often no choice to be had.

From an activism point of view, what would be far more helpful is supporting and establishing secular charities that provide the same services without the homophobia. Unfortunately it’s not as simple as it may seem. One practical obstacle is that where service-provider already exist in a region, it’s often difficult to find money or funding to set up a service that would do substantially the same thing – even if the existing service is non-secular and discriminatory. There’s the additional self-sustaining cycle of such organisations from being the sole provider of aid in area. Because people come to know and rely on a particular organisation, that group gains more social capital. Any new service would need to forge new ties and take the time to establish themselves in the area, and it’s far from guaranteed that people would flock to an alternative.

Am I saying you should donate to the Salvation Army? Honestly, that’s entirely your own choice, as is the choice to boycott the organisation. But let’s be clear that boycotting an organisation is a privilege not everyone has. People in need of emergency aid and community support often aren’t able to choose which organisations they approach, even if they are aware of the homophobia in an institution. And while it often irks me to make a referral, it would be worse if I denied marginalised and disadvantaged people access to the help they need.


The Revolution Will Not Be Polite: The Issue of Nice versus Good

A while ago, tumblr user “iamateenagefeminist” compiled a list of non-oppressive insults, a public service that will never be forgotten. The people of tumblr wept with joy and appreciation (although it should be noted that the people of tumblr will literally weep over a drawing of an owl). The list is not perfect, and “ugly” should NOT be on there as it reinforces beauty hierarchies. Still, I was happy to find it, because I am always looking for more insults that don’t reinforce oppressive social structures.

But if you scroll through the reblogs you’ll see that not everyone was enamoured of the idea of creating this list at all. In particular, several people said that trying to find non-oppressive ways to insult other people is “missing the point” of social justice. Those people seem to think that being nice is a core part of social justice. But those people are wrong.

Social justice is about destroying systematic marginalisation and privilege. Wishing to live in a more just, more equal world is simply not the same thing as wishing to live in a “nicer” world. I am not suggesting niceness is bad or that we should not behave in a nice way towards others if we want to! I also do not equate niceness with cooperation or collaboration with others. Here’s all I am saying: the conflation of ethical or just conduct (goodness), and polite conduct (niceness) is a big problem.

Plenty of oppressive bullshit goes down under the guise of nice. Every day, nice, caring, friendly people try to take our bodily autonomy away from us (women, queers, trans people, nonbinaries, fat people, POC…you name it, they just don’t think we know what’s good for us!). These people would hold a door for us if they saw us coming. Our enemies are not only the people holding “Fags Die God Laughs” signs, they are the nice people who just feel like marriage should be between a man and a woman, no offense, it’s just how they feel! We once got a very nice comment on this site that we decided we could not publish because its content was “But how can I respect women when they dress like – sorry to say it, pardon my language – sluts?”. This is vile, disgusting misogyny and no amount of sugar coating and politeness can make it okay. Similarly, most of the people who run ex-gay therapy clinics are actually very nice and polite! They just want to save you! Nicely! Clearly, niceness means FUCK ALL.

On an even more serious note, nice people also DO horrible bad things on an individual level. In The Gift of Fear by Gavin De Becker, he explicitly says that people who intend to harm others often display niceness towards them in order to make them feel safe and let their guard down. This trick only works because we have been taught that niceness indicates goodness. What is more, according to De Becker, women have been socially conditioned to feel indebted to men who are “nice” to them, which is often exploited by abusers. If this doesn’t seem obvious to you, I suggest you pick up the book – it talks a lot about how socialisation of men and women makes it easier for men to abuse women.

How many more acts that reinforce kyriarchy have to be done nicely and politely before we stop giving people any credit for niceness? Does the niceness of these acts make them acceptable? It does not.

An even bigger issue is that if people think social justice is about niceness, it means they have fundamentally misunderstood privilege. Privilege does not mean you live in a world where people are nice to you and never insult you. It means you live in a world in which you, and people like you, are given systematic advantages over other people. Being marginalised does not mean people are always nasty to you, it means you live in a world in which many aspects of the cultural, social and economic systems are stacked against people like you. Some very privileged people have had awful experiences in life, but it does not erase their privilege. That is because privilege is about groups of people being given different rights and opportunities by the law and by socio-cultural norms. Incidentally, that is why you can have some forms of privilege and not others, and it doesn’t make sense to try to “tally up” one’s privilege into a sum total and compare it against others’.

By the way, the first person who says “But then why are TV shows a social justice issue?” in the comments will have their head put on a pike as an example to others. Cultural narratives are part of what builds and reinforces social roles, and those determine what opportunities a person has – and the rights they can actually exercise, even if they have them in the law. If you don’t believe me and don’t want to accept this idea, you will now google “stereotype threat”, you will read Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, you will watch this speech by Esther Duflo on women and development (which talks about stereotypes and outcomes), and THEN you may return to this blog.

The conflation of nice and good also creates an avenue of subtle control over marginalised people. After all, what is seen as “nice” is cultural and often even class-dependent, and therefore the “manners” that matter get to be defined by the dominant ethnic group and class. For example, the “tone” argument, the favourite derailing tactic of bigots everywhere, is quite clearly a demand that the oppressor be treated “nicely” at all times by the oppressed – and they get to define what “nice” treatment is. This works because the primacy of nice in our culture creates a useful tool – to control people and to delegitimise their anger. A stark example of this is the stereotype of the desirably meek and passive woman, which is often held over women’s heads if we step out of line. How much easier is it to hold on to social and cultural power when you make a rule that people who ask for an end to their own oppression have to ask for it nicely, never showing anger or any emotion at being systematically disenfranchised? (A lot easier.)

Furthermore, I think the confusion of meanness with oppression is the root cause of why bigots feel that calling someone a “bigot” is as bad as calling someone a “tranny” or taking away their rights. You know, previously I thought they were just being willfully obtuse, but now I realise what is going on. For example, most racists appear to feel that calling POC a racist slur is a roughly equal moral harm to POC calling them a “racist fuckhead”. That’s because they do not understand that using a racist slur is bad in any sense other than it hurts someone’s feelings. And they know from experience that it hurts someone’s feelings to be called racist douche.

So if you – the oppressed – hurt someone’s feelings, you’re just like the oppressor, right? Wrong. Oppression is not about hurt feelings. It is about the rights and opportunities that are not afforded to you because you belong to a certain group of people. When you use a racist slur you imply that non-whiteness is a bad thing, and thus publicly reinforce a system that denies POC the rights and opportunities of white people. Calling a white person a racist fuckhead doesn’t do any of that. Yes, it’s not very nice. And how effective it is as a tactic is definitely up for debate (that’s a whole other blog post). But it’s not oppression.

Being good and being nice are totally unrelated. We need to get serious about debunking this myth, because the confusion between the two is obfuscating our message and handing our oppressors another tool with which to silence us. In some cases, this confusion is putting people (especially women) in real danger.

This social movement can’t achieve its goals if people think it’s essentially some kind of niceness revolution. And anyway, social justice is not about making the world a nicer place. It’s about taking back the rights and opportunities denied to us by law or by social and cultural norms – and breaking out of the toxic mindset that wants us to say please and thankyou when we do.