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.


At the Movies

It’s been quiet around these parts, we know, we know. But look, we’re all really busy and important (at least one of those things anyway). There has been some moving internationally, some uni assignment completion (and procrastination) and some of us, naming no names, have been playing a lot of Glitch.

On Wednesday the members of SJL, still in the same country (*sob*), went to the cinema. We even managed to get our applicable concession tickets and good seats! Just as an aside, can I just talk about going to the movies? Why is so ridiculously complicated? It’s like one of those mini quests in Glitch which involves a lot of jumping between constantly moving levels and makes me feel intensely anxious because everything just won’t line up and I never played Nintendo as a kid and my fine motor skills suffered.

This complaint should probably be accompanied by the world’s tiniest violin because I don’t think they even have concession tickets in the US? (Presumably because it’s socialism). Anyway, SJL are still in the process of completing Uni, doing unpaid internships and being un/under-employed. Basically it’s like Girls but with slightly more POC and better sex. [1. Rest of SJL: not happy with this comparison]. Also we get some money from the government for being students because, socialism. Basically, we aren’t going to pay $5 extra for movie tickets if we don’t have to, so we must all assemble [2. Who is thinking about The Avengers now?] with correct student cards at the allotted time even though we are all, invariably running late or early. But we totally nailed buying the correct tickets to the correct movie because we are motherfucking adults! [3. Eds note: perhaps writing a whole paragraph about this undermines your point?]

And what movie were we going to see? [4. Further eds note: Are you planning to get to the action any time soon? This is a blogpost not a Tolkien novel, no one wants to know the songs you sang on the way to the cinema, OK. ] We were going to see The Sapphires a movie you have probably heard about if you are Australian and almost certainly haven’t if you aren’t.

Things that are almost always true of Australian movies:

1. There are about 100 credits as the movie starts because it takes a lot of people and a lot of effort to get a movie made in Australia. I know this is also true of American indie releases because it’s hard out there for a pimp/movie maker, but for Aussie movies at least a few of the “this is a [BlahBlah Production]” credits are for government government funded bodies (again with the communism!).

2. It is nice to hear Australian accents on film. It just is, OK? We aren’t in many movies and when we are often we are played by English people or, even worse, New Zealanders. There is a joke in the movie where Chris O’Dowd’s character, speaking in his Irish accent, says “As you can probably tell from my accent I’m not from around these parts, I’m from Melbourne!” Which SJL laughed uproariously at, hopefully foreign audiences also get this.

3. It is exciting to see Australian life/places on screen. Maybe it is condescending for me to say this but I really don’t think many Americans get this. Until I went to America I thought the following things only existed in movies: those red plastic cups at parties , yellow school buses [5. I’d like to make it clear that we do have busses in Australia, even school buses, they just don’t look so yellow and story-bookish (I make this point because when I exclaimed about school buses in the US my American friend looked at me with horror and said “You don’t have buses in Australia?” and as much as I tried to reassure her I don’t think she ever really believed me).] , NYPD cars, people calling their friend’s parents by their last names, prom, high school cheerleaders, high school sport being SRS BSNS,  college sport being SRS BSNS etc. I also have a completely mangled view of the legal system of my own country because I’ve watched a lot of US court dramas. I am forever this close to thinking 911 is the emergency number I should call, whatever country I am in. Which is not to say that American Cultural Imperialism Is Ruining Everything. Because, I really like a lot of American popular culture, but it’s a nice change to see a movie set in outback Australia and the city in which I live (and also Vietnam, a place I have briefly lived. Basically, they made this movie for me).

4. You recognise most of the actors from a combination of the following: being in every other Australian movie you’ve ever watched, being the Australian actor who made it big overseas and is now back to prove their Aussie-ness and “give back”, your twitter feed and that time you once saw them at the shops and thought you recognised them but weren’t sure.

5. They are not very good. I know, I am bringing dishonour to my country but it’s true! Usually Australian movies are cheap and either:
a) so incredibly arty that you know you should be appreciating the art but you find yourself thinking in deep shame about how much fun Magic Mike was,
b) so incredibly broad you feel yourself at once wanting to dive under the cinema seat and suffering deep shame at your cultural cringe or,
c) Animal Kingdom, which I hear is great and all the nerdy movie podcasters/bloggers I follow really liked it but I’m kind of a wimp about violence so I haven’t seen it but I totally pretend to have at parties.

The Sapphires, though, is actually totally great! It’s the story inspired by real life of four Aboriginal women who go to Vietnam in the 60s to sing for the American forces there. It explores issues of race and gender, and there is singing and dancing. I laughed, I cried! (I actually cried a lot, so much so that it caused SJL to rummage through their bags for a napkin).

But I hear this blog is supposed to be a Social Justice blog so let’s try that. I am not going to “spoil” the movie in this section but I will reveal some background information and some plot developments so if you prefer to go into your movies with as little knowledge as possible, stop reading now!

  • Race. Clearly I am no expert on this and I welcome POC to pull me up if I am missing nuance. The film addresses the level of racism in Australia during this time, and the limitations this placed upon what aboriginal people could do and the places they could go. There are a lot of jokes about race in this movie, but none of them are made at the expense of the POC. They are jokes about stereotypes and about the horror and stupidity of racism. I was particularly impressed with the way that the film dealt with the idea of “passing” as white and the complications that causes. This is an issue regularly brought up by unenlightened “commentators” in Australia . Kay, one of the singers is pale enough to be perceived as white. The film at once acknowledges the privilege this confers upon her while also exploring the pain and confusion this causes.
  • Holy female gaze batman. The film delights in treating male, (often) black bodies in the way that movie-makers usually treat (generally) white, female bodies. So when you see that slow upward pan of Kay’s love interest’s rippling abs remember you are doing it for feminism (feminism is a lot of fun guys, lets be honest). Also, I can’t lie, I do enjoy the reverse-Bella they pull on that guy by making his main, characteristic the fact that he is clumsy. While the love interest we learn the most about is white, the black male characters are shown to be at times desirable, funny, clever, enterprising and nuanced.
  • The feisty female character doesn’t have to submit to the male love interest. You know fairly early on, if you’ve ever seen a movie before, who’s going to end up together and from that point I was concerned that the female character was going to have to give in, to tone down her opinions. She never does. Also the way that he asks her to marry him is probably one of the sweetest and most egalitarian proposals of all time (I welcome alternatives in the comments).
  • Body diversity. At SJL we reject the assertion that some women’s bodies are better, or more womanly than others, while at the same time acknowledging problems of representation and the overall thinness of womens bodies in the media. (This is high level feminism folks, and please do try it at home, on the bus and at parties etc). So, it’s really nice to see a movie where the main female lead and part of a romantic pairing is not thin and her weight is never mentioned. Of course it shouldn’t be an issue because women Deborah Mailman’s size are not some kind of niche minority, they are us, our friends, our mothers and our co workers but they are weirdly absent from the screen.

The movie, unsurprisingly for a feel-good movie featuring musical numbers, is schmaltzy at times. Often these moments are cut through with jokes (because Australians think feelings are gross [6. A massive generalization! Also many English people think feelings are gross.] ). There is a scene where Kay secures them passage through land held by the Vietcong by giving a speech in an Aboriginal dialect. It’s also worth making the point that it is somewhat reductive to view the Vietnam War along entirely racial lines as this scene appears to. If nothing else the (North) Vietnamese wanted freedom from anyone who tried to deny it of them, including the Chinese, the Japanese, the French and the Americans (and not all the American soldiers were white, as the film itself makes clear) and they would fight them all. As guests of the US Army The Sapphires would surely be viewed as the enemy. The Vietcong were pretty hardcore (understatement) and I’m fairly certain that speaking to them in the Yorta Yorta language would not have worked, but I was crying a lot at that point, and narratively it worked so you know, whatevs.

And finally, I’m pretty sure that “bag of dicks” was not a thing that people said in 1960s Australia, but prove me wrong. OK, now let’s chair dance it out…

 

 


Separatism and Intersectionality

One of the broadest areas of disagreement within the social justice community is the extent to which we should distance ourselves from individuals in the groups oppressing us. The argument often devolves into a fight between simpering pacifism of the “Let’s all just get along and be happy together!” flavour, and violent militarism of the “I spit in the face of group Z” flavour.

Now, on a personal level, both of these positions are completely valid. If that’s how you feel is appropriate for you personally to proceed, then that’s fine. But we have a problem when either of these positions is evangelised, and presented as though it is the only acceptable way to live with yourself as the member of an oppressed group. In particular, pushing separatism as the ideal mode of resistance from oppression is a tactic that erases intersectionality.

In the past, I’ve been a card-carrying member of the “Let’s try to all live together because peace and love are better than fighting!” group. But I now realise there are some very deep problems with that position.

The first is that trying to always and everywhere get along and live together with individuals who are actively a threat to your mental and emotional well-being is not a sustainable position. There is often very real tension involved when individuals in oppressed groups befriend, become involved with, or interact with individuals from the groups oppressing them. Regardless of the intentions of the privileged individual, the social power dynamic between the groups creates additional risks for the person who is a member of the marginalised group. It’s important for us to recognise this, on two levels. As members of marginalised groups, we owe it to ourselves to preserve our emotional health, and manage these risks to the best of our abilities. That may mean limiting our interactions or choosing them carefully or many other options. As members of privileged groups, we owe it to everyone to make sure we never abuse the awful, misbegotten social power we have. (And if we fuck up on this point, we have to own it and say sorry.)

For example, in a society infused with sexism, androcentrism and rape culture, there are things that many women feel they must take into consideration when interacting with men, that they do not often feel they must consider when interacting with other women. Melissa McEwan’s excellent essay “The Terrible Bargain We Have Regretfully Struck” explain this very well (McEwan and I often disagree, but that essay is phenomenal). I imagine that the situation is comparable – though with its own complexities, of course – for POC when they interact with white people. I know from experience as a queer woman with various mental health issues, the tensions can also arise when someone with a disability interacts with an able-bodied-and-minded person, and when queers interact with straight people.

The second issue is that marginalised people do not owe it to their oppressors to make nice with them. Sure, there may well be benefits to cultivating empathy and forgiveness towards those who hurt us (I find anger exhausting, so I try to do this). But people are not obligated to do this! There should never be any expectation that oppressed people should have a big Nelson Mandela moment and forgive everyone. The reason why Nelson Mandela is so famous is because what he did is fucking incredible. It is simply not right to ask all oppressed people to morph into a cross between Buddha and Jesus in order to live in this world. Often this request presents itself insidiously, in the form of fake concern, “I just think you’d feel better if you forgave Whitey…”. No. If people want to be angry, let them be angry. If they never want to forgive the people responsible for the harm done to CeCe McDonald or Jamie Hubley, that is their goddamn right. The fact that individuals in privileged groups feel entitled to preach the benefits of forgiveness and then brand all who do not forgive and forget as “part of the problem” is…well, part of the problem.

However, there are equally serious problems with the rallying cry for separatism as the only form of true activism. Well actually, I’m only going to talk about the one massive problem I see with separatism. Its name is intersectionality.

Aiming for separatism completely ignores intersectionality, and in so doing, recreates kyriarchical power structures within the social justice movement itself. I am going to demonstrate the issues using feminism and women, but the principles apply the same to other movements like fat acceptance, anti-racism, the queer movement, etc. I do not mean to imply that feminism is the only guilty party here. I do not mean to imply that, for example, asking queer women to choose womanhood over all other facets of their identity is any worse than asking them to choose queerness.

Also, when I talk about separatism I’m not only talking about the idea that we should be literally separated and not interact with individuals from privileged groups. I’m also talking broadly about the philosophy that declares that Group X and Group Not-X can never get along, that they are fundamentally too different to ever understand each other. The problem of course is that Group Y Separatists also feel that way about Group Y and Not-Y. So now what happens when you’re in group X and group Y? You probably have friends and allies who are X and Not-Y, or Y and Not-X. It’s not a fun time. Ask any woman who is not straight and/or white.

So: Separatist feminism declares that no peace can ever be made between men and women, so women should at least limit or eliminate any emotional ties or interaction with men, and at most commit social or physical violence against them. But to demand this of all women is to ask women to deny other, equally important aspects of themselves besides their womanhood. It is asking them to deny the ways in which they may feel more comfortable and more at peace with some men than with some women. For example, some women of colour, who have been marginalised by white women in the feminist movement for centuries, may feel they actually have as much or more in common with men of colour than with white women. Of course, asking for racial separatism has the same problem: it asks women of colour to cast aside all commonalities white women in favour of men of colour. Asking women of colour to declare an unbridgeable gap either with white women or men of colour is ridiculous and harmful.

That is the essence of separatism. When you call for female separatism you are asking queer women to cut off their ties to non-women queers and declare undying allegiance to all women – including straight women, who may in the past have bullied them, who may today be passing laws that hurt them. You are asking fat women to declare they have more in common with thin women than with fat men – when thin women might well have been the primary enforcers of their marginalisation as fat people for years. What is more, you are erasing genderqueers and other nonbinary folk. And frankly given that some so-called feminists don’t consider transwomen women, you’re probably making all the transwomen very fucking nervous indeed.

Any form of separatism has these problems. Ask anyone with more than one area of marginalisation, and they have stories about how their “Group X” identity is marginalised within the much-vaunted “Group Y Safe Space”. This doesn’t just happen in big, populous movements like feminism. There are people who are marginalised in the trans community because of sizeism. There are people who are marginalised in the fat acceptance community, and in the movement against ableism, because of their race.

I don’t deny that cultivating an “us versus them” mentality is tempting, given the horrors of oppression. But it is actively bad for our communities. It erases the most vulnerable members of oppressed communities, that is, those who have more than one area in which they are marginalised. Even if you say “Well okay then, we’re going to have ‘queer women of colour’ separatism!” you’re still asking disabled and fat people to make allegiance choices… and you’re potentially ignoring the ways different ethnic groups are treated in the caucasian-centric racial heirarchy. It doesn’t end there either because virtually everyone is in a unique situation. We can’t escape the problem by implementing a finer granulation. It doesn’t work like that.

Thus, separatism inherently demands that some members of your group choose between their various “competing” and complex identities. That’s just not okay. This shit is hard enough to reconcile even without all the white feminists or male queers or thin or able-bodied people breathing down your neck and urging you to “pick a side”. There is no picking sides. Yes, we are different, and we have different experiences in this world because of the traits we have and the groups we belong to. But there is no unbridgeable gap between these groups – there are actual human beings where the gap is supposed to be.

On a societal level, we do all have to live together. Not out of some misplaced, wide-eyed, soppy utopianism, but because any attempt to balkanize humanity is an attempt to erase and deny intersectionality completely. Yes, any individual is free to arrange their life to preserve their mental and emotional well-being, and whatever level of interaction they choose for themselves is to be respected. Yes, it is abhorrent to expect members of marginalised groups to forgive and forget, and make nice all the time. But it is equally abhorrent to ask them to cut out a part of themselves and disavow it – to end their emotional investment in all communities except the one being championed right at that moment. That is not the way to end marginalisation. That is a recipe for re-creating it within our own communities.


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.


How to be a fan of problematic things

I like things, and some of those things are problematic. I like Lord of the Rings even though it’s pretty fucked up with regard to women and race (any narrative that says “this whole race is evil” is fucked up, okay). I like A Song of Ice and Fire even though its portrayal of people of colour is problematic, and often I find that its in-text condemnation of patriarchy isn’t obvious enough to justify the sexism displayed. I like the movie Scott Pilgrim vs The World even though it is racist in its portrayal of Matthew Patel, panders to stereotypes in its portrayal of Wallace, and trivialises queer female sexuality in its portrayal of Ramona and Roxy’s relationship. For fuck’s sake, Ramona even says “It was a phase”! How much more cliche and offensive could this movie be? Oh wait, remember how Scott defeats Roxy, his only female adversary, by making her orgasm? Excuse me while I vomit…and then keep watching because I still like the rest of the movie.

Liking problematic things doesn’t make you an asshole. In fact, you can like really problematic things and still be not only a good person, but a good social justice activist (TM)! After all, most texts have some problematic elements in them, because they’re produced by humans, who are well-known to be imperfect. But it can be surprisingly difficult to own up to the problematic things in the media you like, particularly when you feel strongly about it, as many fans do. We need to find a way to enjoy the media we like without hurting other people and marginalised groups. So with that in mind, here are my suggestions for things we should try our darnedest to do as self-confessed fans of problematic stuff.

Firstly, acknowledge that the thing you like is problematic and do not attempt to make excuses for it. It is a unique irritation to encounter a person who point blank refuses to admit that something they like is problematic. Infuriatingly, people will often actually articulate some version of the argument “It can’t be problematic because I like it, and I’m nice”. Alternatively, some fans may find it tempting to argue “Well this media is a realistic portrayal of societies like X, Y, Z”. But when you say that sexism and racism and heterosexism and cissexism have to be in the narrative or the story won’t be realistic, what you are saying is that we humans literally cannot recognise ourselves without systemic prejudice, nor can we connect to characters who are not unrepentant bigots. Um, yikes. YIKES, you guys.

And even if you think that’s true (which scares the hell out of me), I don’t see you arguing for an accurate portrayal of everything in your fiction all the time. For example, most people seem fine without accurate portrayal of what personal hygiene was really like in 1300 CE in their medieval fantasy media. (Newsflash: realistically, Robb Stark and Jon Snow rarely bathed or brushed their teeth or hair). In real life, people have to go to the bathroom. In movies and books, they don’t show that very much, because it’s boring and gross. Well, guess what: bigotry is also boring and gross. But everyone is just dying to keep that in the script.

Especially do not ever suggest that people not take media “so seriously”, or argue that it’s “just” a tv show. The narratives that we surround ourselves with can subtly, subconsciously influence how we think about ourselves and others. That’s why creating imaginary fantasy and sci fi worlds that have more equal societies can be a powerful thing for marginalised people, who mainstream media rarely acknowledges as heroes. But even if you don’t think that media matters, there is still no reason to focus exclusively on unequal or problematic fictional worlds and narratives. If it doesn’t matter, why don’t YOU stop taking your media so seriously and stop fighting us on this? You with your constant demands for your narrow idea of “realism” (which by the way often sounds a lot like “show me naked skinny ciswomen, and gore”). If in your framework tv shows aren’t serious business, why does realism matter? Why can’t you accept that it would be totally cool to have AT LEAST ONE BIG MEDIEVAL FANTASY EPIC WHERE WOMEN AND POC WERE LIKE, EQUAL TO WHITE MEN AND STUFF. STOP TAKING IT SO SERIOUSLY.

Secondly, do not gloss over the issues or derail conversations about the problematic elements. Okay, so you can admit that Dune is problematic. But wait, you’re not done! You need to be willing to engage with people about it! It’s not enough to be like “Ok, I admit that it’s problematic that the major villain is a fat homosexual rapist, but come on, let’s focus on the giant sandworms!”. Shutting people down, ignoring or giving minimal treatment to their concerns, and refusing to fully engage with their issues is a form of oppression. Implicitly, you’re giving the message that this person’s feelings are less important than your own. In fact, in this case you’re saying that their pain is less important than your enjoyment of a book, movie or tv show. So when people raise these concerns, listen respectfully and try to understand the views. Do not change the topic.

Thirdly you must acknowledge other, even less favourable, interpretations of the media you like. Sometimes you still enjoy a movie or book because you read a certain, potentially problematic scene in a certain way – but others read it entirely differently, and found it more problematic. For example, consider the scene in Game of Thrones where Drogo rapes Dany (which he does not do in the books). One of my friends feels that it was portrayed like rape fetish porn, sexualising the act and Dany’s pain. But I feel that the scene focuses on Dany’s pain and tears in a manner that is not fetishising them (though even so the narrative is still totally fucked up because Dany and her rapist then go on to have a good, sexyfuntimes relationship…uh, no, HBO). I don’t agree with my friend’s interpretation but I recognise it as a totally valid reading of the scene.

Also, as a fan of problematic media, you need to respect the fact that others may be so upset or angered by media you love that they don’t want to engage with it at all. In fact, one of my best friends won’t watch HBO’s Game of Thrones because of the racism and misogyny. That’s a completely legitimate and valid response to that tv show, and me trying to convince her to give it another shot would be disrespectful and hurtful. If you badger others to see what you see in something when they are telling you it’s not enjoyable for them, you’re being an entitled jerk. You’re showing yourself to be willing to hurt a real person over a television show. That really is a sign you’re taking things too seriously.

As fans, sometimes we need to remember that the things we like don’t define our worth as people. So there’s no need to defend them from every single criticism or pretend they are perfect. Really loving something means seeing it as it really is, not as you wish it were. You can still be a good fan while acknowledging the problematic elements of the things you love. In fact, that’s the only way to be a good fan of problematic things.


White Privilege in the Dojang

I have been practicing the Korean martial art of taekwondo for eight years now. Often, I am the only white person in the dojang (training hall). I am ashamed to say that I only recently noticed the way in which my white privilege enters the space, and I think it’s worth talking about. I have heard quite a few white people claim that their privilege ends when they become the minority in any location. This is complete bullshit, and so to arm anyone who wishes to argue against this crap, I want to set down the ways in which my white privilege operates when I am the only white person in the room.

Firstly, it seems to me that because I am white, I am considered to hold an amount of authority disproportionate to my actual expertise. I am a black belt, but only a first Dan, which is a much lower ranking than the third and fourth Dans who run the class. Yet when I voice an opinion about an activity or training exercise, my views are taken very seriously. Because white people are so overwhelmingly represented in positions of competence and power, both in western media and in global media, my whiteness provides me with extra authority in the eyes of my Korean instructors and classmates. Authority that I have not earned and do not deserve. Now that I realise that, I try not to interject simply to voice my preferences. I try to stay silent when we are discussing training activities, unless I feel that there is a substantive, important point I can make that others have overlooked.

Secondly, when everyone else is speaking Korean, I feel subconsciously entitled to ask what is being said. I only understand very simple Korean terms and phrases that relate to taekwondo. Most of the other students are either first or second generation immigrants, and some of our instructors are Korean nationals visiting Australia on student visas to learn English. They all speak Korean fluently. Naturally, they mainly speak Korean to one another. When they do, it simply does not occur to me not to ask what they are saying, because I can’t understand and I want to know.

This is a form of white entitlement. A lone non-white non-English speaker would be unlikely to feel so entitled to ask what a large group of white English-speakers were talking about. POC receive subtle messages that they ought to speak english well enough to understand. White people are socialised to believe that communication is the burden of POC. Because of this, I subconsciously feel I am entitled to understand everything around me and that if I do not then I am entitled to ask POC to explain it to me. That is fucked up. Now that I realise this, I do not ask what is being said unless it seems that something really dramatic or scandalous has occurred, or that it might have something to do with me.

Thirdly, the Korean students use their english names with me and sometimes even with each other. I am never expected to master the correct pronounciation of their birth names, and in some cases I am never even told their birth names. On some level, I think they feel that they should change the name they answer to in order to save me and other white people the possible embarrassment and discomfort of trying and failing to pronounce their Korean names.

I wish to call them by the names they view as their “real” names, but I also don’t want to make them uncomfortable or push them into doing anything they don’t want to do. When I do ask for someone’s Korean name, often their reaction is confusion: why do I want to use their Korean name when they have a perfectly good English name they have already provided me with? I think this is about the dominance of white English speakers, which makes white the default and means everyone else feels they need to fit around us. But at the same time, I really don’t know whether it’s more or less entitled for me to keep asking to learn and use their Korean names! If I make them uncomfortable just so I can feel less guilty, how am I helping the situation at all?

I struggle with this still. I don’t want to make the conversation around race all about white people. I wrote this post to try to illustrate to other white people that our race privilege follows us everywhere. Even if you are the only white person in a room full of POC making fun of white people, you still have race privilege. That privilege infects your mind and makes you think you’re entitled to ask for stuff that no non-white person would dream of asking from you. If you’re white, it is your responsibility to analyse your behaviour and cut that shit out. Unless you’re vigilant, you’re probably stepping on toes every day without even knowing it – and yeah, maybe you didn’t mean to or you didn’t think about it, but as a white person it is your responsibility to think about it and change how you behave. If you don’t, you’re perpetuating the cycle.