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.