Whose job is it anyway?

Every few months I seem to come across an example of a feminist trotting out a variation on the line, “It’s not my job to educate [non-feminists]”. I find this incredible. Do people honestly believe that mass political change is going to be achieved by undecided or sceptical people independently seeking out opposing views, reading them dispassionately and objectively, and then giving up their formally deeply held beliefs with a minimum of fuss? I cannot imagine what tiny minority of people might be convinced in this fashion, but I’m certain it does not include most of the people we wish would come around to our way of thinking.

When people say, “it’s not my job to educate you”, this assumes that the only obstacle to agreement is that the other person is ignorant. The tone of most Feminism 101 articles belies this; those I’ve read may as well be calculated to alienate people who are on the fence. They are patronising. They communicate, clearly, an assumption that all opposition to feminist views is based solely on rank ignorance or self-interest, and that all that is required is enlightenment. They address adults seeking political and philosophical argument the way I would address a child attempting to learn arithmetic. This is hubris.

Disagreements about feminist issues are, in my experience at least, only rarely disagreements about facts. They are far more often disagreements about values and attitudes. Saying you refuse to “educate” someone assumes that what they require is more information, which is often not the case. Most people engaged in political debate aren’t looking for facts; they looking for arguments in support of a position. What you’re actually saying if you refuse to “educate” others is that it’s not your responsibility to defend or promote feminism to skeptics. If it’s “not your job” to present the case for feminist positions in an attempt to convince more people to support feminist causes, then I really have to ask: what is your feminism intended to achieve? What is its goal? Unless they are regularly involved in some form of direct action, I simply can’t see what such people contribute.

A great many people in our society think that the only legitimate work of feminism was finished as soon as women got the vote. They think the extent to which the burden of child rearing continues to fall on women is right and natural, rather than the unacceptable consequence of personal sexism and systematised discrimination. They have attitudes towards women’s sexuality that are mired in the taboos of the 1950s. There are millions of young men out there who truly believe that women are less intelligent than men, less capable of rational thought and responsible decision making, and that we succeed in our endeavours largely through exploitation of our sexuality rather than though talent, hard work, or competence. That’s the state of play. We don’t live in a world full of pliant 22 year old boys taking second year gender studies subjects and reading de Beauvoir to better themselves. We live in a world full of sceptical, subtly sexist young men who might discuss feminist issues with women only a handful of times in their entire lives. Those are the people we need to convince if we are ever to have any success, and they are not going to be convinced by Jezebel.

The young men who would laugh out loud at the content of a gender studies class are the guys who perpetrate street harassment. Those are the guys who consider picking up their own children from school as on par with breastfeeding, something having a Y chromosome renders them congenitally unable to do. Some of them will become managers and executives who discriminate against their female employees. Some of them will commit violence against the women in their lives. Many, many more of them will look the other way when other men do these things, regarding it as the natural order of the universe rather than a system they have chosen to participate in. They can’t be beaten: they have to be convinced.

They’re not going to read Feminism 101 websites, and if they did, they would only be alienated even further. If they are to be reached at all, it will be through conversation with people they have some basic level of respect for. Some of them have strong opinions and want to discuss these issues, even with people who disagree with them. If any of those guys ever show enough interest to participate in a conversation with you about feminism, you have a responsibility to engage with them seriously. You have a responsibility to listen to their views, which may appal and enrage you, and to provide strong, persuasive counter arguments. As long as they appear to be participating in the discussion in good faith, you have a responsibility to be respectful, because nobody is won over while they’re being insulted. This is where the fight is.

A favourite blogger of mine wrote earlier this year that “feminism has to win for the world to be moral”. If you believe this, you have a responsibility to convince others that feminist values are worth holding and defending. There is a multitude out there that is not going to come around on its own. Those people need to be convinced that feminism still matters, that our grievances are legitimate, that justice demands the remaining inequalities in our society are rectified. Those people need their attitudes challenged by people who are willing to engage them in considered and respectful conversation. It’s exhausting, infuriating, boring, confronting work. It has to be done. We have to do it.

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Affirmative consent laws are not the answer.

There seems to be a great deal of support in the online circles I frequent for California’s move to establish an affirmative consent standard for sexual assault prosecutions involving university students. I am deeply uncomfortable with this, for a pretty simple reason; I think it confuses an important social norm with an acceptable legal precedent.

People seem to be interpreting this laws through a lens that assumes broad, implicit, unwritten exceptions. “No”, people say, “of course we don’t mean couples in long term relationships have to ask each other every time they want to initiate sex. Of course we don’t mean that everybody needs to have an explicit, verbal discussion throughout the encounter every time they hook up with someone casually”. This assumes a common sense, selective application of a sound principle: if you’re with someone you know well, you can probably be pretty confident that you know whether or not they’re up for fooling around on any given occasion. The less well you know someone, the more effort you should put into establishing, conclusively, that they are into whatever you’re doing together.

This is absolutely fine and very sensible from a social standpoint. If you’re hitting on someone, at some point something is usually framed as a question, “so, would you like to come home with me?”, and that’s right and good because it gives people a chance to indicate if they’re not interested. Obviously, if you’re with someone new and you’re not sure if they’re just a quiet type or maybe not enjoying themselves, you should check. Of course, everybody decent wants to be sure that their partners are enjoying and actively participating in any sexual experience they have together, whatever that involves in the context of any given relationship. But these are social norms, and they don’t translate easily into legislation.

I would like to think I’m sensitive enough to be able to tell whether my partners are enjoying, or hesitant about, or really not enjoying, any particular sexual interaction we have. I don’t normally feel that I have to ask, though of course I will if someone does seem uncomfortable. But when everything seems fine, I do simply assume consent, as long as somebody is actively participating and seems to be enjoying themselves. This is not affirmative consent in a legally recognisable sense. I have no idea how I would justify my knowledge in a legal setting with an affirmative consent law, because “active”, “affirmative”, and “meaningful” are not all the same thing. Consent can be meaningful without being affirmed in any recognisable way except by continued active participation. But conversely, somebody simply being an active participant does not always imply meaningful consent; someone may actively participate in sex that has been coerced, for example if they feel they need to have sex with their boss in order to keep their job. They could even affirm consent in this situation, but their affirmation is meaningless.

An affirmative consent standard, in law, does not actually solve the issue it is intended to tackle, which is (unless I’m mistaken), how we can prosecute sexual assault or rape cases in which the victim did not actively resist. I will be the first to tell you that I believe, absolutely, that the example I have just given is an example of rape. Coercing or blackmailing somebody into sex is rape. Having sex with somebody who is so intoxicated they would sign their life savings over to a stranger or blithely walk into traffic is rape. Aggressively, persistently coming onto someone who is mute, passive, and obviously very uncomfortable is sexual harassment, and if it graduates to sex simply because the person cannot for whatever reason bring themselves to violently resist, it is rape. These statements are perhaps not widely accepted, and of course, they should be. People need to recognise the limits of meaningful consent, and they need to respect those limits. People who have convinced themselves that sex under these circumstances is not rape need a fucking wakeup call.

The question is how we can translate this critical social norm into legislation. And I just don’t know how that’s possible. I don’t think affirmative consent laws achieve this, because they don’t provide a workable solution as to how the presence or absence of meaningful consent can be established. Someone being raped by their boss, or raped while rendered insensible by drugs or alcohol, might appear to both actively and affirmatively consent, but that appearance of consent doesn’t actually mean anything. Conversely, I don’t think I have ever in my life received a form of affirmative consent from any of my partners that would satisfy the criteria of California’s new law, but I sincerely hope that nobody believes that makes me a rapist. As far as I can see, any consistent application of this law would result in consequences that are completely absurd, which means that the law is basically useless for the purpose of establishing a practical, enforceable distinction between consensual sex and rape.

Laws that, if enforced consistently, would lead to the imprisonment of thousands of people cannot be enforced consistently. Laws that cannot be enforced consistently will be enforced arbitrarily. We have laws like this already; laws against marijuana possession, and against being heavily intoxicated in public, amongst others. These laws are violated routinely, which leaves it up to the police and the courts to decide who is prosecuted and who isn’t. Inevitably, in both Australia and the US, members of marginalised groups are prosecuted frequently while members of privileged groups are prosecuted only rarely.

It is impossible to defend yourself in these sorts of cases; technically, you have broken the law, but everybody breaks this particular law all the time. That is not a defense. It doesn’t matter that everybody else in the pub was drunk as well, that almost all young people in Australia smoke pot at some point, that almost nobody asks their partner for explicit consent every time they initiate sex. If your number comes up, even if it comes up through arbitrary, unfair, or malicious circumstances, even if you have truly done nothing morally wrong, you can easily be convicted. In each case, even if your behaviour was otherwise perfectly acceptable, you have broken the law. A law against which people who have done nothing wrong cannot mount a defense is an unjust law, especially if that law is likely to be enforced selectively.

Affirmative consent laws put a huge amount of power into the hands of systems that are known for arbitrary abuses of marginalised people. It is not that the law’s claims about what constitutes meaningful consent are wrong, it is that this standard of consent, even though it should be a social norm, is simply impossible to enforce consistently in the legal sphere. We do need better social standards for consent. We do need to widely recognise that cases in which unconsenting people did not or could not violently resist, for whatever reason, are rape. We do need better laws to protect people from these crimes. But regrettably, affirmative consent laws do not provide a workable solution to any of these issues. We have to keep looking.

Standing on the precipice.

“You think it is me that you degrade now. It is not. It is you.”
-Servillia, Rome

This time last year I went to the World Press Photo exhibition for the second time. With few exceptions, the photography is both moving and confronting. Some photos were posed portraits, while others featured destroyed buildings in Gaza and Aleppo. The image that affected me most was a candid shot: a girl of seven or eight wailing over the corpse of her father at his funeral, her expression somehow strikingly adult, one of pure anguish.

The caption identified him as one of Assad’s soilders. I will not link to it, but it is an important photograph. I try to view all war through a lens that clearly acknowledges the humanity of all participants. In a war like Syria’s, where from the earliest days the reports were of the systematic torture and mutilation of dissenters and journalists, this is hard. That photo is important. The girl in it matters.

Yet photographs like this disturb me, and reveal perhaps the deepest unresolved conflict between my intuitions and my ethics. I feel compelled to seek out good photojournalism. It seems self-evident to me that one must cultivate an ability to confront the terrible suffering in the world, and a willingness to grapple with the complexity of the situations that bring it about. One must learn not to turn away.

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There are, of course, multiple forms of media through which one might do this, with varying degrees of immediacy. I read more than I look at photographs. I do not watch videos. Even distant film of the tiny figures falling from the World Trade Centre distresses me. I am horrified at the thought of watching James Foley recite his scripted last words, at bearing witness to his degradation and his death. I feel, profoundly, that it would be a terrible violation for me to view that. And yet, as a consequentialist, I cannot explain this feeling. Who would I be violating? He is dead, and past all further harm.

The case is not so simple in that of the Syrian girl. She is, hopefully, still alive. One day she will be old enough to understand what it meant that there was a strange man with a camera at her father’s funeral. One day, perhaps, she will look upon her own face, twisted with grief, and know that thousands of people around the world have seen her that way, at that moment. How will she feel? Will she be harmed? Has she been harmed already? Perhaps such a concern trivial compared to the harm that the photograph documents. I don’t know.

The photographer cannot know the answers to these questions. Some of the most powerful photojournalism we have seen has been taken in situations where the consent of the subject is absolutely impossible. Once the photograph is taken, what are we participating in when we view it? Does it matter whether our motivations are pure or vouyeristic?

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There is a link here, of course, with the issue of looking at leaked, explicit photos of people who have made it clear that they do not want the photos to be viewed. It seems clearer cut – the motivation to view such photos cannot be “pure”, although I would argue that it may take several forms, some more excusable than others. Jennifer Lawrence has, unquestionably, been harmed by what has happened this week. But given that she will never know the number of people who have viewed those photos, is she further harmed by any one individual choosing to look at them?

I don’t believe that she is, and although I would say anybody looking at the photographs is participating in degrading her, I would not go so far as to argue that they are assaulting her. I don’t find that claim coherent. She has been harmed, but her distress does not grow with each additional download. I would argue that the problem with viewing those photos is, perhaps ironically, not to do with its impact on her, but rather in what it reveals about the viewers.

There are, no doubt, simply teenagers out there who have a crush on Jennifer Lawrence and consequently find pictures of her especially exciting. This is the most innocent reason I can imagine somebody might have for viewing the photos, and although I hope those boys will have more empathy and a more nuanced understanding of privacy and consent when they’re older, I’m not especially concerned by that.

What I do find disturbing is what the demand for improperly obtained sexual media reveals, given that the internet contains more porn than anybody could watch if they devoted the rest of their lives to it. The fact that people go to the trouble of hacking women’s webcams for the sake of watching them get undressed for bed in the evenings indicates that there is a strong desire among some segment of the population to get off looking at women who don’t know they’re being watched, and wouldn’t want to be. Making a consequentialist case that those women have been harmed even if they never discover their observation is difficult, but making the case that that behaviour reveals a disturbing lack of empathy in the viewer is not.

We must be very careful. If one values empathy highly, it should be hard to walk through the world press photo exhibit. We should leave feeling shaken and questioning what it means to be human. We should struggle. If you can approach the video of James Foley the same way I approach photojournalism, you should be deeply disturbed, and saddened, by what you see. My suspicion is that a lot of people may have watched that video in a different spirit. Perhaps some of them have come to regret that. When we approach this type of media voyeuristically, whether the content is violent or sexual, we cultivate something ugly in ourselves. We are practicing indifference, slowly numbing ourselves to the humanity of others.

Whatever you do, you do to yourself.

Whatever you do, you do to yourself.

“I only ask for the right to say that I don’t know how to exist in a world where people do the things that they do to each other. I ask for the right to say that I don’t know how to live with myself when I let go the things I let go.”

Freddie DeBoer 

If we on the left wish to cling to the notion that we are over here because we are kinder, more compassionate people than those on the right, the ghoulish celebration of the death of an old woman is probably not a step in the right direction. This refusal to see people on the other side as anything but avatars of the ideologies we despise cannot not lead anywhere that we want to go, can it? Celebrating the death of a politician over twenty years after she was forced from office as though it is somehow a victory for the left is only possible if we refuse to see that person as fully human. The ability to reduce real human suffering to a mechanism of some vicious, cosmic justice is, quite simply, dangerous. It allows us to steel ourselves against the suffering of others in a manner which seems to me to be fundamentally at odds with the left’s stated mission. We cannot champion compassion for the vulnerable while cavorting with glee at the death of an eighty seven year old woman who hasn’t presented a threat to anybody in decades.

The refusal to see Margaret Thatcher as anything but the figurehead of an ideology, and the refusal to engage with her suffering as a frail, elderly woman and the suffering of her now bereaved family, speaks to the desire of so many on the left to engage in the type of vilification which we so hypocritcally denounce when it is perpetrated by the right. It doesn’t go anywhere, this requirement for Mr. Burns caricaturing of the other side’s inherent, one-dimensional evil. Worse still, it brutalises the very people who engage in it, hardens us to the suffering of anybody we can characterise as inadequately on board with the struggle. The same willful lack of compassion we lament in those who support the death penalty bubbles in us when we respond to the abuse of rapists in prison not with horror, but with a certain grim satisfaction. The invocation of “justice” to legitimise a disregard for the pain of those we despise leads, inexorably, to brutality. It cannot lead anywhere else. The true test of our politics is not in the way we respond to those with whom we have an intuitive sympathy. It is in our willingness to treat even the people we find incorrigible with the compassion we claim to believe is imperative for creating the society we wish to inhabit. There is no other way.

Life, liberty, and protest.

If the Australian government were to reintroduce the death penalty within my lifetime, then like many others, I would take to the streets. I would blog about it here, I would express my outrage on social media, I would sign petitions. I would make people uncomfortable by talking about it, I would argue with people who supported it, and I would use strong language that they would find objectionable. I would do this because I believe that capital punishment is murder, and that it is all the more repellant for being pre-meditated and committed by a greater power against a completely defenseless victim. Protesting would be a natural consequence of that belief, and implicit in it is something I only ever see referred to in derogatory terms – protest is an attempt to impose your ethics on others, either by convincing them of your own position, or by seeking legislative changes consistent with your beliefs. We don’t normally talk about it in those terms unless we vehemently disagree with the protestors in question, and I find that quite interesting.

“Civilised” society functions through the imposition of ethics on non-conformist minorities. There are people in our society who believe that rape, murder and theft are acceptable behaviors. Most of us disagree, and (at least in theory) the state legislates based on that commonly held belief, criminalises those activities, and punishes those who engage in them. If you see an old lady being mugged, you do not (I presume) think to yourself, “Gosh, that’s unfortunate, but I’d best not impose my ethics on that gentleman in the balaclava”. Assuming you have the courage of your convictions, you intervene, either directly or by calling the police. We impose social consequences on people who engage in unethical activities even when we don’t involve the state – if a friend confides that they mug old ladies in their spare time, I presume most of my readers would reassess their friendship with the person in question, and give them a clearly worded explanation as to why. Most people would not think this untoward. Your friend engages in an activity you consider reprehensible, and as a human being with a moral compass, you make your disapproval known.

This all sounds perfectly normal, as far as it goes, but I’ve noticed it flies out the window when people are confronted with non-majority ethical positions. This makes no sense to me at all, since majority support itself does not, in my opinion, give a position legitimacy. Slavery wasn’t ethically sound a century ago, and denying asylum seekers permanent protection isn’t ethically sound now. In fact, we lionize people who had the courage to defend principled positions in the face of a majority objection, provided they were later shown to be on the right side of history. If the civil rights movement had stalled, or god forbid failed entirely, would Rosa Parks’ actions be any less laudable? Of course not. If one is an anti-abortion protestor or a vegetarian, though, suddenly the ethical imperative is no longer to stand up for one’s beliefs and attempt to dissuade those who would do what one considers to be the wrong thing. Quite the opposite. Suddenly the holder of the strong ethical position is obligated to quiet down, regardless of what they see going on around them, or how deeply they object to it, and indeed, any piping up is considered unacceptably antisocial.

I can’t help but feel this reaction stems from a failure to give the other person’s position serious consideration. What else explains the exasperation of the omnivore who wishes those pesky vegetarians would “just stop shoving it down their throats”? “It” in this case being the conviction that you have been paying someone to commit murder on your behalf every day for your entire adult life. An awkward conversation at the dinner table is actually an astonishing accommodation, once you fully grasp the seriousness of that position, and the ethical obligations it would seem to entail. Would you sit down for a friendly meal with a mob boss? A mercenary? Laugh politely at their “jokes” about how they’d consider giving their work up, but the pay is just too good? “I just couldn’t live without bacon, haha!” Oh, well, that’s alright then.

The vegetarian / pro-life connection probably isn’t one you’ve seen made often, but I think the same principle operates in the majority responses to both groups. In both cases you are dealing with someone who believes it’s imperative that we expand the protections we take for granted to another group, one which you don’t recognize as having rights. They think what you are doing is grossly, appallingly wrong. Not shoplifting as a teenager wrong, not cheating on your taxes wrong, but wrong in the most fundamental sense. That is a pretty challenging thing to hear, and it’s hard to find common ground once it’s out there, so I think a lot of people just reject it out of hand. That rejection, though, leads to a host of consequences in the way we regard protest on those issues. We don’t treat it seriously as a political expression, and often we don’t even recognize people’s right to engage in it.  As the civil rights example shows, this is profoundly conservative – we (hopefully) wouldn’t deny people the right to protest because their viewpoint was that of a minority, and if the only people in our society who are entitled to protest are people who agree with us, well, then we’ve gone through the looking glass.

So, “How dare they oppose decriminalization and picket clinics?” Very easily, once you recognize their premise. Indeed, what type of people would they be if they didn’t? If abortion is murder, then failure to oppose it would be a renunciation of one’s obligations as a decent human being, and “my body, my choice” would be irrelevant. If capital punishment is murder, then the choices of the hangman or the victim’s families are not my primary concern. Murder is categorically unacceptable, and as a consequence, you cannot ever be entitled to commit it. It is simply not your choice to make about the life of another, no matter how horrifying the circumstances. Opposing abortion even in the case of rape, then, although such opposition is absolutely abhorrent to me, is simply the logical extreme of considering a fetus to be a human life. I would oppose capital punishment even if it were Julian Knight being lead to the chair, because no matter how terrible his crime, how deep the grief of his victims’ families, and how total his lack of remorse, I cannot countenance murder. No matter how heart wrenching the circumstance, there can be no special cases.

Not everybody has such black and white views on either issue, of course. We are talking here of people at the extreme, as I am at the extreme end of opposition to capital punishment. The very existence of diverse views on the ethics of these issues highlights my own premise, though – there is no one objective answer. In the absence of an external arbiter (presumably God), then even if some things are “just wrong”, none of us have any way of knowing whether we have come to the correct conclusions about which ones. The fact that the majority positions on torture, slavery, and women’s emancipation have changed so radically in the past centuries shows that simply being in a majority does not confer ethical correctness. If you believe it does, that is it’s own form of relativism – did capital punishment become unethical in Australia in the middle of this century, while it remains ethical in Texas today? I don’t believe that, and I doubt I’m alone. There are of course entire libraries devoted to this issue, and I’m hardly the person to expand on it. Let’s take it as given, for the purpose my argument here, that there are no objectively correct ethical positions, and move on (or if that’s beyond the pale, you can bail now, I won’t be offended).

And so, recognizing that there is no one “correct” position, the only meaningful discussion which can take place between the opposing sides is an attempt to convince them of your own position, that is, whether the act at hand is murder or not. Any argument on a point further down the chain of reasoning, such as on the acceptability of their protest, assumes a first principle which they do not share. Vegetarians and pro-life activists are not obligated to “live and let live”, any more than anti-capital punishment activists are. Someone who believes you are committing murder probably doesn’t care about your rights, your freedom of choice, or your dietary preferences, because they probably aren’t interested in you, except as a perpetrator. They are concerned with the rights of your perceived victim, and they are presumably behaving in a manner consistent with that being their primary concern. Whatever you would consider it reasonable for me to do in a society with the death penalty, they should be entitled to do here, however uncomfortable it makes us and however repulsive we find it. Likewise, whatever you would not consider acceptable forms of protest for them, such as physical violence, I would expect you to censure me for engaging in, even if you shared my beliefs on capital punishment.

Ultimately, of course, debates on whether abortion or killing animals constitutes murder are likely to be unfruitful from your perspective, if you’re the person in the majority position.  Someone who vocally supports a minority position on a given issue has already discussed it with people who disagree with them a hundred times. They’ve thought it through really carefully, because they are surrounded by people who disagree with them. Unless you’ve been thinking way outside the box, you’re unlikely to change their minds. Thankfully for you, if you’re an omnivore, vegetarianism is unlikely to be enshrined in law in Australia any time soon, and believe it or not, almost none of the conversations about vegetarianism which took place at tables I was sitting at were started by the vegetarian. If you wish to avoid having someone’s ethics “imposed” upon you through an awkward conversation, then frankly, my only advice to you would be to enjoy your position at the top, and quiet down yourself.

Obviously the abortion issue is harder fought, and the pro-choice legal position is far more tenuous. I would still argue, though, that debating the ethics of abortion is likely to be effort wasted unless you actually have a compelling theological case against personhood at conception. I certainly don’t, so I probably can’t argue with religious anti-abortion activists in terms they’d consider meaningful. I’m not even sure I would know where to start with people who had a non-religious objection, because the logic is equally alien to me. I do not consider embryos to be alive in any meaningful sense, and as a consequence, I don’t believe they can have rights. We simply disagree on first principles, and so although I supported decriminalization, I recognize the right of others to have objected to it. Pro-choice activists are of course equally entitled to support providers and agitate for the protection of abortion services in law, because that is the logical consequence of believing that women’s rights are paramount. We’re all entitled to make ourselves heard.

It’s too easy to demonise people who have thought hard about something and come to a different conclusion to you, and to assume that they’re senseless monsters or brainwashed lunatics. They’re just people, and when we refuse to recognize that, it’s far easier to betray our own ideals and become militant ourselves. If tolerance and integrity are lofty ideals, and I believe they are, then that tolerance should surely accommodate people with genuinely opposing viewpoints and the need that they feel to speak out against the injustices they see. Expecting people to quietly lay aside the obligations that come with their deeply held beliefs is simply unreasonable. If I want to protest for the protection of Julian Knight’s human rights, I expect to be allowed to, no matter how sick it makes the families of his victims. And if someone wants to picket an abortion clinic, then no matter how sick it makes me, I can’t in good conscience say that they should be prevented.

Friendly Fire

There’s a site I visit occasionally which is home to some pretty brash writers. Most of them do a good line in mad ranting, and they’re usually pretty entertaining. A while back, one of them mentioned getting an email from a guy who was like, “Hey man, I really like the site and I enjoy reading your stuff, but I just wanted to let you know that when I’m reading something and you casually drop the word ‘faggot’ in there to deride a guy you’re talking about, it’s like you’ve just reached into my room and punched me in the gut.” That, to me, sums up a lot of the arguments around your desire to express yourself, and other people’s desire not to have their shit fucked with by the people they want to interact with. Not, “How the fuck dare you homophobic piece of shit”, not even, “You shouldn’t use that word”, just, “Hey dude, that thing you’re doing really upsets me, and that sucks, because I really dig everything else you’ve got going on”.

I really enjoy being able to express myself freely. I think everybody does. But the “free speech / anti-censorship” responses to these issues frequently neglect the competing priority, even for someone who prizes free expression: I don’t want to be punching people in the gut. I feel like a lot gets lost when we frame these decisions as being entirely about “rights”. The concept itself can certainly useful as some sort of ethical or political bedrock, and maybe I just need to read more philosophy, but I don’t frame most of my decisions around my interactions with other people as being about conflicts between our rights. This might be some simplistic hippy insanity, but I find compassion a far more useful guiding principle. I’m not really interested in whether you “should have to” give that homeless guy money, whether he’s entitled to it expect it from you or whether you deserve it more. He’s almost certainly having a really horrible time, and you can almost certainly make it slightly better. We can talk about how the government is failing both of you later, but for now, please, give him a couple of dollars?

Our society is still pretty rough to a lot of the people in it. Most of us have a pile of shit that makes our lives more difficult than we’d like; purposeful, hateful shit built up by vile motherfuckers, and insidious, unfair shit that surrounds us and permeates our lives in ways we can’t control. Why contribute to that? Why would I want to casually add to the pile of homophobic garbage that guy has to wade through every day of his life? Why would any of us knowingly cast our lot in with people we despise who perpetuate that shit with hateful intent? Because we “don’t mean it like that”? Some of the things we desperately want to be innocuous turn out to be friendly fire. “It’s just a word” is not an objective statement of fact. It’s “just a word” to you. To the person on the receiving end, the girl within earshot at the pub, the dude suddenly getting punched in the gut, it’s another fucking thing on the pile. It wears people down.

Before running the freedom of expression argument, this needs to be factored in. Your expression has costs associated with it which are not borne by you. You are asking other people to bear them. I’m a woman after Lenny Bruce’s heart – I’d love to live in a world where nobody could make a kid cry with the strategic deployment of a single word. We don’t live in that world, and even if I think the remedy is to desensitise other people through exposure, some girl sitting behind me at the pub? She didn’t ask for my help with that. She may not agree that the Lenny Bruce method is a good one. She may just want to be out with her friends having a good time instead of being yanked out of her comfort zone by my big mouth at the next table. And you know what? I don’t want to be responsible for fucking with her night. So these days, before I crack my appalling off-colour jokes (and I do, regularly and with glee), I try to be really careful about who’s in earshot. I screw it up sometimes, but overall, it’s not that hard. It doesn’t cost me that much. I don’t think it costs a great deal to apologise when you get it wrong, either.

If you run the freedom of expression line after someone has said, “Hey, that thing you’re doing upsets me”, that’s a conscious decision you’re responsible for. “Freedom of expression is important to me” becomes an incomplete statement. The more accurate one is “My freedom of expression is more important to me than your well-being or comfort in my presence”. If that’s a statement you’re genuinely comfortable making, and that’s how you want to move through the world, that’s your business. That decision has consequences, though, and they will not be borne entirely by other people. Your expectation that other people will control their reactions to accommodate your desire to express yourself is no more or less reasonable than their expectation that you control your expression to accommodate their reactions. I would like to make some room for you, and I would like you to make some room for me, because that’s how we can move through the world with the least friction. If you’re really determined to demand uncensored expression, then surely, everybody else is entitled to have an uncensored reaction*. You get to stand up and take it all on the chin. It’s your free speech party.

 

*Given the events unfolding in the world this week, I feel the need to make this caveat: I do not condone physical violence in response to speech of any kind, no matter how hurtful or demeaning.

Chipping away at the monolith.

I know a few people who do phenomenal things. One works in legal aid with minority groups; another spends half his time doing primary health care work in South Africa; another lived in the West Bank for nine months supporting Palestinian families who were made homeless by settlers, and organising non-violent resistance; and others work for the unions, animal rights / lib organisations, and so on. I dipped my toe into these waters in a not-very-meaningful way in Kenya, and hope to really take the leap once I’m qualified to do something useful. Making full time commitments to these things comes at a price, of course, and watching people do it, I suspect the only way it can be sustainable is through a very specific attitude. You cannot hurl yourself against the monolith.

I really think this applies to anything, any profession or lifestyle or activism that asserts an influence on your daily life. It wears you down, confronting the same issue on a huge scale every day. A friend of mine talks about this regarding climate change – it’s so huge, so overpowering, that it paralyses us. I’ve seen other people I know hit the same point in other areas, chipping away at a small section for years, then looking up at the thing for a moment and feeling totally overpowered, as though everything they’d done in the intervening years was meaningless because the monolith remained standing. You cannot, must not, look at your own work in that context.

Whatever keeps you up at night, it is crucial not to frame your own part in it as succeeding or failing based on your impact on the rest of the world. The best thing I did in Kenya had basically nothing to do with the program I was working in. I spent fifteen dollars on a year’s supply of Ventolin for the eldest son of one of the HIV+ women I was working with, which got his mother out of the position of choosing between a month’s rent and a trip to the hospital every time he had an attack. That was it. Nothing I did as a volunteer even approaches that for impact. The best thing I do now is organise with some friends to pay his high school tuition each year. I cannot “fix” Kenya or ameliorate the conditions which lead to the devastating impact of HIV in south eastern Africa, and it would be laughable, naive, and patronising of me to try. I can help put a sixteen year old through school. The education system itself and the crippling income inequality that would have denied him access to it are unchanged.  It is a small thing in a country of forty million. He is one person, part of one family who may one day depend on him completely, and it really, really matters that he goes to school.

Do not hurl yourself against the monolith. The wonders of the internet mean all politically aware people are at risk of the spiritual equivalent of the death of a thousand cuts. Do not devote hours of your day to reading soul-destroying articles on things you’re already well-informed about, unless you have reason to believe that they’ll contain new information which you can use to direct your actions in some meaningful way. Seriously. Don’t do it. Make careful decisions about what you really need to know. Find something at a scale where you can have a really meaningful impact, and chip away at it. Volunteer somewhere locally. Put the effort into finding a really good, preferably less well-known charity – two I’ve been really impressed with are the Fistula foundation and Interplast, both of whom do life-changing things for individual people. Edgar’s Mission  does life-changing things for individual animals.

By all means give to Amnesty and Oxfam as well, be vegan, post articles to Facebook, whatever you think is important in the grand scheme. I just think it can be really useful to balance that with something that feels like your contribution has a clear, well-defined impact on a smaller scale. Remember that all of these issues are fundamentally about hardships faced by individual people (or animals), and that you may be able to do far more for one or two of them than you will ever do for the masses. Knowing you’ve managed to help them personally may give you the energy to do more for other people. It can sustain you as well as them, and that’s important. You’ll be no use to anybody if you give up in despair because you can’t take down the monolith.