In economics, we have a saying: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch”. We like to say this because it expresses two important observations. The first is the lesson about “opportunity cost”, which is that the true cost of something is what you give up to get it. If you get a “free” lunch, you may not be paying money but you’re giving up the chance to have lunch somewhere else with someone else. The second lesson is that, as yet, humans cannot make something from nothing. So somebody somewhere is paying for this lunch. Someone made the lunch and their time was valuable, someone provided the inputs and those inputs were valuable. Lunch does not materialise out of nowhere.
This does not mean we cannot create something greater than the sum of the inputs. We know that certain things we make and do provide benefits far greater than the cost of the inputs (a vaccination is a great example). Actually, we routinely do this! Humans are amazing. But the inputs cost something, all the same.
I want to try to convince you that the “no free lunch” concept is something we need to apply to social justice. First let’s agree that as a movement, we have goals, which in general are just lunch on a grander scale. (Actually some of us have days where “lunch” becomes a serious goal, but let’s leave that aside.) Some of these goals are major, system-wide changes. We would like the rate of sexual assault of women to be as low as that of men. We would like the murder rate for transpeople to be as low as the murder rate for cispeople. We would like the incarceration rate for men of colour to be the same as for white men in the USA. We would like our media to celebrate diversity of appearances rather than enforcing a beauty heirarchy. We would like mental health to be taken as seriously in our community as physical health. And so on, ad infinitum.
I wish I could bring you good news on these goals but I can’t. I can only reiterate something most of us already know, but sometimes forget: If these things are going to happen in our societies we are going to have to give up something to get them. And these things are a lot harder to achieve than lunch is.
It is surprisingly easy to forget this truth, because we like to think that the world is going in the right direction of its own volition. You hear people say “the tide is turning” and “things will get better”. You hear them ascribe intent to the universe where there is no intent. We have to stop using the passive voice. If the tide is turning it is because somebody turned it. If things get better it is because somebody made it happen. The world is not on some kind of totally inevitable slide towards awesomeness that we just need to sit back and watch happen. The things we want to happen will not materialise out of nowhere.
Many of these problems need to be addressed at a regulatory level because they persist due to “coordination failures”. That is, we are stuck at a bad place because a single individual cannot make a big difference, and we can’t commit to work together on our own. That’s why we have government at all, to step in and help us get to the better outcome. (I’m not saying the government really does this, it clearly doesn’t do this a lot of the time, but it does some of the time and that’s it’s real job.)
We have good evidence that government could, if it wanted to and was sensible about implementation, actually change things. If you would like to know more about this, there’s a great speech by Professor Esther Duflo here on gender equality and development. Her research shows that introducing quotas for women in local government in India eradicates unconscious bias against women as leaders. Another great example: simply telling young girls that on the math test they are about to take, girls perform as well as boys on average, makes girls perform as well as boys on average.
I do not have such neat examples for how to fix problems that face trans people and fat people and PoC and disabled people. But that is probably due to my ignorance and not due to their nonexistence.
Now these policies are costly to implement in many cases, and they cost a lot more than lunch. As Esther points out, policies favouring women in development are more costly than gender-blind programs that give the same impact but for both genders. Often, the mere fact that these policies will disrupt the status quo or require re-training and follow-up mean they have costs. Also, we are going to have to fight hard to get them implemented because people are ignorant of their own biases, and because people with power don’t like to give it away. That fight is going to cost us too. These policies will be a net benefit overall in the vast majority of cases, but too often we confuse a “net benefit” proposition with a “no cost” proposition. When we confuse them, we get lulled into complacency and think we won’t have to fight for what we want. We can’t afford that.
But not all our goals are big, system wide, total overhaul goals. We also have what I’ll call “marginal goals”. While the system-wide problems persist, we can still work within the status quo to change things on the margin. So for example, we would like to live in a world where people recognise the persistent struggles of oppressed peoples instead of dismissing them. We would like to live in a world where the default response to a person complaining of systematic erasure is not “I don’t believe you, prove it!” but “That’s awful, would you like to talk about it?”. We would like to live in a world where there is justice for Trayvon Martin and where Mark Aguhar will be remembered. We would like to live in a world where, if a white person is told they are being racist, they say “I hadn’t considered that, I’m sorry, I’ll try to educate myself” not “Why did you call me a mean word? You’re so meaaaan! How are you any better than a racist if you are so mean?!?!”
In as far as we ourselves have some forms of privilege, these are things we can achieve by changing our own behaviour. White people, we’ve all been that white person, and the only way for us to get rid of that kind of white person is to check ourselves and check our people when they start mouthing off. Men, same goes for you. And cis people. And thin people. And able-bodied, mentally healthy people. And so on. If you want to consider yourself an “ally”, it is going to cost you. As well it should. Nothing is free, and as an ally you are less downtrodden than the people you are aiming to help, so you can afford to expend your energy and effort here better than they(we) can.
Because yes, it takes effort. Yes, it gets tiring. Yes, if you commit to listen every time someone tells of their oppression you will be committing a lot of time that you might wish you could spend talking about your favourite TV show. Yes, if you promise to check yourself and examine your privilege you are in for a long struggle. If you commit to this path you are in for a lot of painful realisations. Personally I shudder to remember that I once defended “The Blind Side” to a non-white friend. I’m sure she shudders to recall the time and energy she spent convincing me it was problematic, when she certainly had no obligation to do so. But she did it and I was willing to listen and together, we made me less racist than I had been before.
Changing your own behaviour takes time and effort and determination and unrelenting self-awareness. It takes up your energy. That is how you know you are doing anything at all. If your activism is always easy, and if it’s always fun for you, if you never have to give up anything, you might not really be doing that much. Nothing is free, not even lunch, and social progress at the margins is no exception to this rule.
Of course, you are not called upon to compromise your mental or physical health in this struggle. I do not recommend that you use up all your emotional and psychological resources on this fight, you have to take care of yourself – and self-care is a form of activism and resistance in a world that is trying to erase you. I also want to make it clear that it’s not the job of marginalised people to expend their effort educating others on their own marginalisation. Marginalised people are already expending effort just to survive under oppression.
But most of us have some form of privilege, and it is particularly in that area that we need to do some extra work. So while I don’t consider it my duty to explain feminism to men, as a white person I do need to educate and school other white people on anti-racism whenever I can. Here’s the secret: marginalised people don’t give a shit who identifies as an “ally” – it’s all about who actually speaks up and defends people against oppression. Talk is cheap. And you know what they say about the relative importance of actions and words. I’m not suggesting that you should put yourself in constant pain, but if you’re never or rarely expending effort or experiencing discomfort, then that is a warning sign.
There’s no such thing as a free lunch, not in social justice and not anywhere. I know most of you know this. But we all have privilege, and sometimes that means we forget it. Sometimes, we all need a reminder that the moment you find yourself thinking “But we’re discussing sci-fi right now, why does Angie keep bringing up racism?” is the moment where you need to choose the more painful option for you. Because that uncomfortable moment where you have to give up your fun conversation and have a sad, serious discussion, is the moment where you can actually change something. Even if it’s just at the margin.
Most people reading this probably know what the word “gaydar” means. It’s apparently an innate ability that identifies people with queer sexuality without explicit knowledge and sometimes, without even speaking to that other person. It’s an innate ability both straight AND queer people have professed to possess. However, it’s a concept that’s extremely erasing of some queer identities, and plays into assumptions about a heterosexual norm.
I’ve no doubt this myth has arisen unintentionally due to unexamined confirmation bias. Every time someone “correctly” identifies a queer person they stick that into their evidence basket, and eventually they seem to have a whole lot of evidence supporting the fact that they’re really good at identifying queer people. This kind of sampling obviously does not hold up to scientific rigor. What people don’t realise is that they’re not taking into account the people they’ve failed to identify as queer – or generally, people who they’ve assumed are straight.
I’m someone who often flies under the gaydar, and I know people who are even more stealth cloaked than I am. The problem is that only certain people are detected with gaydar: usually those whose queer identities are highly visible because they clash with the heteronormative framework (for example, femme men and butch women). And of course I think those identities are as wonderful and as valid as anything else, but the concept of gaydar reinforces the idea that queer sexuality only comes in so many flavours, and nothing else. For example, femme lesbians will often experience incredulity from others that they’re not straight, because they’re “not butch enough” to be a lesbian.
“Gaydar” also reinforces the idea that certain queer people (and ace/asexual people!) need to come “out” about their sexuality. I understand that in a heteronormative society there are benefits when an individual comes out, but we should be working towards a society where straight sexuality is not the default assumption. If we lack actual information about a person’s sexuality, then we shouldn’t make any assumptions because sexuality is not something that can be gleaned from personality type or clothing.
While I don’t accept the concept of “Gaydar”, I do want to acknowledge the benefits of having a queer community who can recognise each other. There’s nothing wrong with dressing or performing queerness in a way that differentiates yourself from the heterosexual crowd, especially if this is a practical necessity when looking for partners. And if that’s the case, then it’s necessary for other queer people to draw certain assumptions about sexuality almost purely from a person’s appearance. The ability for queer people to spot other queers is necessary and, I would argue, community-building to an extent. Something babies something something bathwater.
However, just because I’m queer doesn’t mean I’m perfect at identifying other queer people either. In one particular case a person was very active in both the queer and kink communities, was completely at ease with any deviations from heteronormativity, but was actually completely straight.* I had been 110% convinced they were queer.
To delve into some wholly unproven and unqualified pop psychology, I think I’m better at identifying queer people than a straight person because I’m more exposed to queer culture. I can point to community identifiers outside wearing plaid shirts and listening to Tegan & Sara, even if I can’t express exactly what. Often the feeling doesn’t come from any particular thing I can point to, it’s from everything and something extra. That said, I’m only good at identifying queer people from my region and culture, because I’m specifically exposed to the regional queer culture. I’d have a much harder time spotting a queer person if I were in another country with a markedly different culture. “Queer” itself is, after all, a Western-centric concept.
So where does this leave us? I’d argue that the Gaydar has been a broken model from the beginning, and if anything, a concept that is rooted in straight appropriation of queer experiences. Certainly we are not doing the queer community any favours by advancing or validating that concept. However, we also want to be able identify members of our community who are performing a certain form of queerness, while not forgetting other members of our community who validly choose to perform their queerness in perhaps a less immediately identifiable way. Oh yeah, and also acknowledge that we can often fuck up while doing both.
It’s complicated (of course) and I definitely don’t have the answers. My personal solution is probably fairly unsatisfying: “put less weight on your ability to evaluate a person’s queerness if you don’t know for certain”. My ability to evaluate queerness changes depending on the context of my encounters as well – from queer events, a friend’s party, a shopping centre and to being in any country where homosexuality is still outlawed.
If I were to admit to the existence of “Gaydar” I would say that it only works moderately well in extremely limited circumstances, never finds all the targets you’re looking for anyway, and will sometimes result in false positives. In my opinion it’s better disavow the existence of Gaydar altogether than explain all that to straight people who will otherwise think that queer people have a secret handshake and superpowers. Or, you know, that queer people can only look and act in very limited ways.
On a more serious note, it’s also my personal belief that the limited portrayal of queer identities in queer sexuality is one of the reasons why many stay in denial about their sexuality. The idea that you have to change your whole identity to look or act a certain way is a far more daunting thought than the fact you’re simply attracted (a) particular gender(s).
*I’m aware that there’s some discussion around how the “queer” label and identity should be applied (namely, whether it can or should be used in solidarity with the polyamoury and kink communities), but as this is a social justice blog I think we can agree that a straight person still benefits from straight privilege, even if they may be marginalised in other ways.
The above quote keeps doing the rounds on Tumblr (by which I mean, keeps appearing on my Pete Wentz tracked tag. Um…). From my attempt at investigation (otherwise known as “googling it”) it seems that Pete Wentz never actually said it. I hope Pete didn’t say it, because I think he’s kind of awesome and he named his kid BRONX MOWGLI, come on (which is to say he and Ashlee Simpson named THEIR kid that and I’m sure she’s also awesome). ANYWAY, the point is that while an idle google search will not throw up the authorship of the quote it does present enough hits to suggest that this is a popular sentiment (even just searching for “girl apples” gets you this quote). Not to mention every time someone updates their facebook status to something about how unfair it is that guys always like the slutty, easy girls and not them – there is currently no search capability for this but I confidently state it’s probably happened a bajillion times.
Let’s get out of the way how heterosexist this quote is, it is hopefully pretty obvious, but I’m going to say it anyway. Not all girls are interested in boys. Boys aren’t the only ones who get to do the “apple picking” (urgh, gross). A girl’s role is not to sit around being awesome and complicated/hard (the antonyms of easy) waiting for a big brave boy to like her. Most importantly: male attention is not a gauge of anyone’s worth. This is slut-shaming. Slut shaming aims perpetuate the control of the patriarchy over female sexuality. This quote isn’t even being coy about the slut shaming, I mean, easy?! FFS I wish we were past this bullshit.
I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that the quotes references “girls” and not women. Beyond annoying paternalism, I think that quotes like this have particular resonance for teenage girls. High school (for many people) is all about hierarchy, hierarchy decided by some pretty arbitratry criteria. So of course it’s comforting to get told that not only is the hierarchy sorted all wrong but that you’re actually at the top. That’s a pretty easy sell, whether Pete Wentz said it or not.
Let’s not forget that it IS shit being a teenage girl (of course, your mileage may vary). If you desperately want a boyfriend and no one is interested and society is telling you that teenage school girls look like this, and you have to take fucking French even though you don’t want to, and that guy you thought liked you was only talking to you because he likes your hotter friend and HORMONES. Yeah, globally, statistically speaking if those are your big problems, you are pretty damn lucky, but that doesn’t stop it feeling pretty shitty. It’s also difficult to have a whole heap of perspective, because being in school limits your exposure to other people who don’t buy into hierarchical bullshit. So I do get why this quote is totally appealing.
The only message I would salvage from this quote is that if boys don’t like you it’s not because there is something wrong with you — I am totally with you on that, Pete (allegedly). Although it is worth noting that no one owes you their affections, so let’s just try and remove all guilt/blame/value judgement from the equation. It is true that lots of people are kind of a mess in high school and there is a whole lot of macro and peer pressure on guys (and girls) to be attracted to prescribed beauty norms. That’s shit, but metaphors about apples aren’t the answer.
The thing is, internalizing that rubbish about “good girls” and “bad girls” is only going to make you feel better in the short term. That kind of message is in no way elevating, it doesn’t make you genuinely feel better about yourself, all it does is give you a whole lot of bitterness and hate directed at those girls, the easy apples, you know (just typing that makes me feel gross).
This quote really does “objectify”, in a very literal sense. Girls are not apples or anything else (I welcome further examples of objectifying metaphors in the comments!). Inverting the stereotype doesn’t make it go away. In fact you are really just enforcing the idea that there is some kind of hierarchy of worth, and that it applies just to women. Just as with the “those thin models aren’t even attractive to MEN” argument you are enforcing men as the arbiters of what makes a “good” girl and at the same time separating women from each other.
And now for a real world example and a demonstration of why my friends are awesome: The other day I was hanging out with my friends and a male friend, let’s call him Tom, made a comment about the kind of girls who have one night stands. I quickly got on my Social Justice League leotard (it has sparkles!) and spoke up. Obviously what I said was awesome, but what my friend did was even better. She said, looking around at the two girls in the room, “you know, at various points, we have been the kind of girls who have one night stands. Do you mean us?” and it was a kind of beautiful moment because Tom didn’t know what to say. It was also just the kind of thing I would never would have had the guts or awareness to do in high school (and that’s the first step, evicting the patriarchal police in your brain that reinforce these ideas).
I encourage you to pull this “I am Spartacus” shit the next time someone talks to you about “kinds” of girls. I’m sorry to sound preachy, but we have to stop letting the patriarchy divide and conquer us on this issue. So I encourage you to put on your sparkly Feminist Activist leotard, pump some Bikini Kill (or other music of your choosing) and stand up for all women: sluts, skanks, virgins, frigid girls and the ones in-between. Because we are all fucking awesome and none of us can be contained by RIDICULOUS METAPHORS ABOUT APPLES!