On Leigh Alexander’s Dos and Don’ts

I just saw this, and it relates pretty closely to my last post, so I thought I’d talk about it. Probably best if you read it first. in short, it’s ways in which she recommends talking to women on social media when the issue of sexism rears its ugly head. I’m just going to look at the Don’ts, because that’s the most direct overlap with my previous musings.

Really important note, right up front – she knows way, way, WAY more about sexism than I do. Especially online. If in doubt, believe her and not me.

DON’T: Tweet at women asking them “what should be done”. When someone is venting about systemic injustice, commandeering their attention with the question, “but what solutions would you recommend” is akin to walking up to a person who is on fire and asking them to bring you a bucket of water so that you can “help.”  

So, one way of reading that is “if someone is talking about injustice, you shouldn’t start a conversation about ways to address that injustice”. That’s what my brain delivers, anyway. Okay. Maybe ‘venting’ is the important word here. If it’s just a brain dump of rage, then sure. Emotional moment, logical response, oil and water.

Wait, I just read the last sentence properly. It’s like asking someone on fire for a bucket of water? I don’t think that really holds up. If someone is on fire, it’s one of the most universally understood life-threatening situations. It’s incredibly urgent, incredibly simple, and you don’t even think about it. You cover them in blankets or use water if it’s nearby.

If someone is the victim of systemic injustice, it’s a phenomenally thorny and complex issue. Resolution is a distant possibility, only attainable through the determined efforts of many, chipping away over time. The victims of such a system can surely provide crucial information on the best ways to do that. I don’t believe the two scenarios are really comparable.

It sounds like Leigh is warning against a ‘well, how do you plan on fixing this?’ response, which wouldn’t even occur to me. I’d be all about the ‘how do WE fix this?’. Surely that’s better? I hope? Am I missing something here? Maybe it’s patronising to assume I could even help? That’s a really depressing thought.

DON’T: Make the person who is clearly suffering from the effects of an unfair system do free work for you. If you need more information to understand what you see happening, you have ways of obtaining it: Look at someone’s profile and read their feed or their conversations. Look at links that have been posted. Google. Ask your own friends. You can find a Game of Thrones torrent from anywhere in the world, and you can find out what has happened or is being discussed without making people who are obviously upset or occupied explain it to you. Some people may have high public profiles and busy feeds; some people may even be experiencing stressful interactions, even threats. You are not helping by butting in with “link please” or “did I miss something.” 

This is another one of the points where I stumble. If I don’t understand something, and there’s good reason to believe the person right in front of me has a ton of useful information about it, and in fact we’re already talking about it, and maybe they even brought it up, it’s difficult to resist the temptation to ask them to clarify.

“Do free work” is an interesting choice of words. Leigh Alexander is a very talented and successful journalist and now also author, I believe, and so yes – if you ask her to explain something like this, you are sort of kind of asking her to write an editorial, or feature. She gets paid for that. That’s her living.

However.

For many others, isn’t it possible that it might help to talk it through? Now… I think mostly Leigh is talking about Twitter. In which case, actually yes. Just read the feed. The context matters a lot. Twitter. Facebook. Pub.

DON’T: Feel like you have to give a response. Sometimes people simply want to be heard and understood, and you do not need to prove you are a good person by offering a pithy reply or insincerely fist-shaking along. One component of sexism is that men tend to inherently expect that what they say is valuable, and that a statement from a woman cannot possibly stand alone without their contributions. It is totally and entirely possible that you might have nothing to add, and you could benefit from the conversations of those who do.

Gets into muddy, subjective territory here. I kind of thought it was just polite to say “I’m really sorry to hear that – that sucks.” Maybe just like or RT instead? Get the message out there? This bleeds into the next point…

DON’T: Try to explain things. Understand that even if the person you are addressing is not an authority in her field (though she often may be, as sexism targets prominent women) you ought not automatically assume she needs you to let her know how things go in her field, unless she has asked. Experiment with the idea that her experience is not whatsoever about you and it’s not the time for you to attention-seek or offer an ‘alternative perspective’.

Again, I think the specifics really matter here, and it seems like Leigh might be referring somewhat obliquely to real incidents of which I am ignorant. Offering a perspective just to force yourself into the conversation and feel special – obviously, don’t do that. Telling her how she should think – obviously not. If you’re really, really sure that are coming at it from an unusual/fresh angle that could genuinely help, then… I dunno. I think I would probably risk it. I think Leigh would probably not want me to do that.

DON’T: Tone-police. Does she sound enraged, impatient, and bitter? Is she not being especially nice to all the people who have Tweeted at her to explain sexism, ask her how to solve sexism, or otherwise undermine the things she is saying? Too bad. You wouldn’t be nice either if you lived in a system which consistently conspired to remove your authority and devalue your work. No matter what happens, you are not the victim in the situation — do not re-center conversations on yourself and your needs and emotions by pestering angry women to talk more nicely to you.

 

Did she hurt your feelings? You’ll live. Ditch the passive aggressive “fair enough” and “I was merely trying to” and “as you wish” and all of this, leave her alone, and consider your obligation to be part of the solution to a system that has harmed her and made her angry. If you think women, particularly women who are public figures, should feel an equally-important sense of obligation to make you feel good about yourself while they are under stress, congratulations: You are part of the problem.

This is kind of what I was talking about before. A Utopian vision of a world where all emotion is somehow stripped from discourse. RoboDebate. An uncharitable interpretation of this is “You get to be an unapologetic dick to me if you’re angry for entirely unrelated reasons”. I rankle at that, I must admit.

The thing is, I haven’t been through what she’s been through. She gets a million tons of shit for being a successful woman in a male-dominated industry, and in her place some of those less pleasant interactions would definitely push my buttons too. It’s easy for me to get misty-eyed about the hypothetical wonders of RoboDebating, but I know it’s not realistic. I suppose I still wonder where we draw the line when it comes to courtesy. No-one has the right to not be offended. But I think we all get further, together, if we’re civil.

DON’T: Make stupid jokes. You might be one of tons of people Tweeting at her, tone is hard to read online, and you shouldn’t be putting anyone, especially someone who does not actually know you, in charge of figuring out your sense of humor when they are under stress. You might just be trying to lighten things up or cheer the situation, but let people be angry, let them have heated discussions if they want and need to. Imagine this: Your dog dies, and a stranger walking past thinks you should cheer up, or take it less seriously, and decides to joke about your dead dog. What would you think of them?

You aren’t the mood police, and joking when someone is upset just sends the message that you don’t want to take her feelings or challenges seriously.

Yeah. No arguments here. It’s really tough to ‘read the room’ when it’s online, they are a stranger, their mood is unknown, etc etc etc. That risk/reward ratio is just awful. Don’t do it.

So. Wrapping up.

“This awful thing happened.” “Shit, can I help?”

I never thought of this exchange as Person B acting selfishly, making it about them, That seems counter-intuitive, but of course that could just be because my intuition is wired incorrectly right now.

I think Leigh’s advice is excellent for stopping selfish or thoughtless people make a bad situation worse, but I worry that it could also stop well-meaning people making a positive difference.

I could reprogram my brain to immediately live by the rules that Leigh describes. That’s perfectly do-able. It is advice that comes from one of the most qualified sources you could hope to find. She’s incredibly bright, she thinks about this stuff all the time, and she’s articulate to a fault. 

I trust her to know what she’s talking about, but I don’t want to just automatically follow rules that I haven’t yet fully explored/understood. It’s not even necessarily that I think they’re flat out wrong, I just haven’t travelled from my current state of mind to the place where they make 100% perfect sense. That road lies ahead of me. 

Thing is… I would believe, say, a particle physicist talking about particle physics. I’d just shrug, assume they knew what they were talking about, and carry on about my day.

So why do I apply a double standard here? Hm. That’s an awkward question, and has only just occurred to me.

I think it’s because, unlike particle physics, I feel like I understand the basic principles here. It’s fundamental stuff about power, respect, control, sex, and so on. Maybe I don’t understand. Maybe I only think I do? 

I strive to be progressive and fair-minded and a decent human being generally. I think asking questions is really important. I think trying to squash that impulse can be anti-intellectual in dangerous ways. I think maybe there are subtle exceptions to that rule that I haven’t fully appreciated yet. Maybe.

Basically, my worry is that questioning this stuff automatically makes me “part of the problem”. I’ve actually had that accusation levelled at me before. I take that incredibly seriously. The problem, in this case, is horrific.

It can’t be true.

Right?

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