The Right to Fuck Up

I almost called this post “Fucking Up: A Right or a Privilege?” but I decided that A. I am tired of debates over privilege and B. I believe we SHOULD have a right to fuck up.

I’m not talking just about fucking up in feminism/social justice movements, mind you. I’m talking about life fuck-ups. I’m talking about oversleeping and missing your final exam, being late to work, kissing the wrong person, having pregnancy/STI scares (or actually having and terminating pregnancies, dealing with STIs).

I mean, isn’t not being able to fuck up the major tenet of the antichoice movement? They believe that you should have to take the “consequences” of your “actions” (only people with uteruses, however–if you can’t get pregnant, no consequences for you! Well, aside from the aforementioned STIs, which I guess they’re controlling for by defunding health care centers.)

Last time I guested at Feministe I wrote about Helen Thomas’s fuckup. (For those who don’t remember/know/want to click through, Thomas was fired for saying to a blogger that Jews should “get out” of Palestine and “go home.”)

I recently got into a conversation about Helen Thomas and others at South By Southwest with my friend (and fabulous artist) Molly Crabapple. Molly, like me, is Jewish. She also made the point that when people like Thomas are fired for one thing they say or do not on the job, we’re helping to create a world in which no one is allowed to fuck up–or better yet, only certain people are allowed to fuck up. That firing someone doesn’t truly hold them accountable. That we need a better system for responding to public fuckups, especially as the Internet makes us all more and more public. Should someone not get a chance at a job because her friend posted a picture of her drunk on her Facebook page?

If every single person on Feministe isn’t already reading Liliana Segura’s blog, you should be. Liliana is another friend of mine and an absolutely amazing journalist whose focus is on the prison system and the death penalty. Liliana, in other words, spends a lot of time talking to people, most of the time men of color, who have fucked up. Sometimes in the most colossal, violent ways. Other times by being unlucky enough to be caught up in a racist system that locks up certain people and not others.

Part of being concerned about social justice is understanding that humans fuck up. That we are, to use a cliche, all more than the worst thing we have ever done. That Helen Thomas can say something that feels like a personal slap across my face and still be a journalist that I look up to. That someone can commit a crime and still deserve more than being locked up and having the key thrown away.

Melissa Gira Grant hosted a panel at South By Southwest on “The End of Shame”–about “oversharing” in Internet culture and the culture at large. (Podcast of that panel available here.) The panelists one by one noted that being public about their worst moments, the things that people try to shame them for, has made them freer to move beyond those moments. If you acknowledge those things first, no one can dig them up later and throw them in your face.

We don’t have anything remotely resembling true accountability in the age of the Internet. We’re just starting to realize the consequences of our actions all being public, of finding ourselves under the same scrutiny as politicians and media stars. In the feminist blogosphere, we have a frequently toxic “call-out” culture but still no way of truly being accountable to one another.

One of the reasons I’m leaning more towards bell hooks’ phrasing “I advocate feminism” rather than “I am a feminist” is that it makes feminism or any sort of activism contingent upon action rather than identity. Rather like identifying as an ally to movements–I am an ally to the degree that people consider me one. It’s not an identity I get to claim. Because I will fuck up and people will decide after that whether or not they can still work with me. I will kiss the wrong boys and get too drunk and curse too much and say the wrong things and not know enough and not have read the right book or been in the right place or known that story.

Last time, I wrote:

We need to understand this, and it is good for us, because it allows us to realize that our own fuckups don’t keep us from being “heroes” too. Even if it’s just for one day.

I still think that’s true.

20 comments for “The Right to Fuck Up

  1. March 24, 2011 at 3:28 pm

    Thanks for that, Sarah. What I like about your piece is the arguments that people are more than just their worst moments. Because it’s true, and seeing all-or-nothing scapegoating really worries me.

    One of the things I’ve learnt from reading too much literary theory, people like Roland Barthes and Judith Butler, is where is the “I” in speech? It’s not always easily locatable. What does it mean when we say “I wasn’t feeling myself?” Who “am” I, when I’m drunk, when I’m depressed, etc etc.

    Sometimes I think that language speaks you rather than the other way round. Some notorious fuck-ups are partly due to not knowing (or needing to know) the full historical weight of what your words will be read to be saying, but in a SJ context we do demand everyone take that responsibility premised on the unknowingness of privilege. You can’t by definition as a privileged person in a given context know what all of your words mean, but you still have responsibility. And that’s true, but responsibility is not precisely the same as guilt, I think.

    I understand why that is – to acknowledge the very real hurt that words can cause – but I feel that it’s still very incomplete, and sometimes even unjust in practice.

  2. Florence
    March 24, 2011 at 4:02 pm

    Sarah, I really dig you bringing this up because it feels like it’s a conversation that the SJ-sphere really needs to have. Like, yesterday. There is a lot of pressure to boycott indefinitely, or to write off certain people, authors, blogs, and other entities because of a very real clusterfuck. I feel like we should be able to talk about fuck ups, but I have a really hard time casting people and ideas out altogether just because they hurt me once (or even twice, or whatever).

    I see it like this: We all step in some shit sometimes, and typically we step in shit because we didn’t know it was there or because we mistakenly thought we could avoid the giant steaming pile in the middle of our paths and thought we were vastly more graceful or capable than we actually are. We rarely intend to track piles of poo around our peers’ living rooms, but we all do eventually. As peers with poo in the room, we need to be able to point it out and say hey, dude, clean that up, it smells. As the poo-tracker, that sucks and it’s embarrassing and discouraging, because not knowing and thinking we are more capable than we actually are are both embarrassing and discouraging, but no matter how to spin it you spread shit around and now you have to take care of it.

    Where I really get rubbed the wrong way is when the community draws lines in the sand and says, “Hey, remember when so-and-so tracked poo in the room back in 1983? Fuck her. How dare you link/like/endorse/mention her? Fuck you too.” I mean, as a social justice community we have to be willing to accept an ever-learning, ever-evolving set of knowledge as our discussions and community standards evolve, and inevitably accept that some people are going to be more ahead than others. We don’t all have epiphanies at once, and some of us will struggle more than others. Yes, we have a right to draw lines around some discussions or spaces as necessary, but as good faith participants we can’t be so rigid either.

  3. March 24, 2011 at 4:51 pm

    Sarah, I really dig you bringing this up because it feels like it’s a conversation that the SJ-sphere really needs to have. Like, yesterday. There is a lot of pressure to boycott indefinitely, or to write off certain people, authors, blogs, and other entities because of a very real clusterfuck. I feel like we should be able to talk about fuck ups, but I have a really hard time casting people and ideas out altogether just because they hurt me once (or even twice, or whatever).

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I’m not new to the progressive blogosphere, but I often opt for those exact reasons: the pile-ups, shitstorms, whatever you want to call them — it shuts down discussion more than encourages it. But…

    I’ve seen a lot of people fuck up not once, not twice, but multiple times. Not limited to SJ bloggers — though I do think they should be held to higher standards — but anyone doing work I usually respect. It’s disappointing, to say the least. I just wrote about this: when someone’s problematic behavior becomes a habit, not a one-time (or even two or three) time mistake that they’re willing to learn and grow from, where do we draw the line? Could it override any good that person has done? I think that’s a very real possibility.

  4. IC
    March 24, 2011 at 5:03 pm

    Preface: I’m referring to the portion of the post that talks about people in social justice communities being too unforgiving, not the off-line examples of “the right to fuck up” (ie: everything from being late to work to the death penalty)

    The thing is, there’s a big difference between fucking up, and how one behaves when said fuck-up is called out – not to mention the varying degrees of fucking up.

    If someone gets an abortion, they aren’t hurting anyone, despite what anti-choice activists would claim. When someone in the world of SJ activism fucks up? They’re hurting entire groups of people. Yet, when they truly take accountability and apologize, people do tend to forgive (and if you disagree with this, I’d be interested to hear specific examples that you think this was not applicable to). The problem lies with those who refuse to properly do these things. I’m very concerned with certain implications in this piece about people being too quick to write off those who have privilege over them when they make mistakes. Are we talking about reactions to Jessica Valenti, Melissa McEwan, Sady Doyle? Because in certain ways this echoes sentiments of Sady Doyle’s recent piece, which was a total cis fail when it came to the discussion of the Mary Daly eulogy situation (among other aspects). I don’t mean to imply that this piece was a “cis fail” (I also don’t even know if the author is cis or not, so I wouldn’t assume that, period), but the “oppressed people are too mean to/unforgiving of privileged people when they mess up!” aspect.

    I completely understand that people are going to fuck up, no one is perfect, especially people with any number of privileges talking about SJ-related issues. But, again, there have been so many instances of people not only fucking up, but then absolutely refusing to adequately address it and centering themselves – and oppressed groups of people completely have the right to not want to support people with privilege who have done exactly that, and to be upset when they see others in the SJ activism world promoting said individuals. I’m more concerned with those peoples’ rights than the privileged peoples’ “right to fuck up.”

  5. March 24, 2011 at 5:51 pm

    I heartily agree… to an extent. I agree that the ‘call-out culture’ in the feminist blogosphere can be toxic, and I think it’s a result of operating in cyberspace rather than ‘meatspace.’ It needs to be replaced by a more human attempt at *conversation* rather than unilateral shaming. Of course, bloggers frequently make that impossible by blocking any commenter who is critical, in which case one doesn’t have much of an option but to publicly call someone out. Still, the sentiment behind any such call-out should be “I want the person I’m criticizing to read this, and to be able to read this.” Imagine having to say it to hir face.

    I also really appreciate this: “She also made the point that when people like Thomas are fired for one thing they say or do not on the job, we’re helping to create a world in which no one is allowed to fuck up–or better yet, only certain people are allowed to fuck up. **That firing someone doesn’t truly hold them accountable.**”

    Where you lose me is in lumping in all bad things people do under ‘fuck-ups.’ People who “fuck-up” violently, like the men your friend interacts with, are in no way in the same category as people who let the bigotry they’ve inherited from living in a bigoted society show through now and then. The latter can be repaired, the former frequently can’t. Rapists, murderers, and everyone else who commits a violent crime must be held to a *very* different standard of penance and ‘learning’, because the damage they’ve inflicted is immeasurably more severe.

  6. March 24, 2011 at 5:53 pm

    I notice a lot of situations in which an idea is liked or disliked based primarily on some characteristic of the person who expressed the idea. I think this tendency is a problem. Our past statements (as well as our social group memberships, our experiences, etc.) are sometimes important to interpreting what we say, but they are not the *only* things that are important. The actual content of the message at hand matters, too.

    In a similar vein, I’d like to be able to say “so-and-so made a good/bad point in this instance” without being stuck with some kind of overarching endorsement/rejection of so-and-so.

    I think this is tied to the right to fuck up: it is the right to provide meaningful contributions to a conversation after fucking up.

  7. Asinknits
    March 24, 2011 at 6:17 pm

    I have seen call out culture get nasty in meatspace as well – I think feminists call out others for the right reasons, but the management of when, where and how of the best ways of calling out others without causing derailing, silencing, oppression olympiads etc is a definite skill.

  8. March 24, 2011 at 6:57 pm

    Wow. There are layers upon layers here. Of course we all have the right to fuck up– but to what extent, and how often, and what should happen afterward to restore equilibrium — those are the details that cause us grief. I’ve been thinking of this myself while trying to formulate a blog post on ally work. As much as I am a feminist, I am also a civil rights ally and an LBGTQ ally. And ally work is rife with the potential for fuck-up-itude.

    In any case, I think this is a fantastic conversation to be having. The devil will always be in the details in this question and many others, but opening lines of communication is something that is long overdue. Thank you.

  9. March 24, 2011 at 8:12 pm

    I have fucked up many times before. Often I fucked up because I was angry or worried about something infinitely larger. Earlier in my life, I fucked up out of pure spite alone. I’m not proud of my mistakes, but I do seek to learn from them. And I have found that with time, they tend to be less injurious.

    Maturity to me is a matter of degree. As I have progressed as a male ally, particularly, offensive ideas have been shed with time. The biggest ones came first, then came the smaller ones. It would be better if I forgave myself for being human rather than agonizing over them, but part of that is having an anxiety disorder. And even so, I try to do better when I am clearly in the wrong. And, in keeping with my faith, I do ask for forgiveness.

  10. saurus
    March 24, 2011 at 8:38 pm

    So when I fuck up with my best friend, here’s what happens:

    – I feel awful, because I care about my best friend and I don’t want zir to feel pain.
    – Even if I don’t understand how I fucked up, I’m invested in finding out because a) it matters to zir and b) I don’t want to hurt zir again.
    – I try to make amends in a way that zir is comfortable with, even if it may put me out of my comfort zone.
    – I keep my trap shut if I have any defensive or indignant impulses, because again, zir is the one hurting here and I love zir.

    Similarly, when I fuck up:

    – Zir doesn’t put me through a public shaming ritual, because even if zir is upset – maybe even too upset to continue the friendship – on a fundamental level, zir still cares about me.

    In other words, this is not a “zir versus me” interaction. This is zir and me, together, trying to mend the friendship because we care about each other and our relationship is important to us.

    Obviously, this doesn’t translate over to a Feministe comments thread or whatever, because we don’t reeeeeally care about each other here. We aren’t invested in our relationships with each other. And there’s no real expectation that we would be. We’re invested in “being feminist”, not in being in-community with each other.

    But isn’t that kind of fucked up? Does anyone else find it problematic that we’re supposedly working on building a better world but we rarely practice caring for each other in this space?

    I feel like we relate to each other as likable or unlikable vessels for ideas, and we smash and collide into each other’s ideas like bumper cars…like it’s the ideas we primarily care about, not each other. Like it’s all a big exercise. But when you have a real relationship in peril, you can’t treat it like a big exercise. You can’t afford to. That doesn’t make it easier or less complicated, but maybe it cuts through some of the shit we wade into here.

    What if our politics didn’t come out as “I should be anti-racist because that’s the right thing to do” or “I should be anti-racist because I’m an anti-racist activist”; but instead “I should be anti-racist because I love you and when I’m racist it hurts you”? Would that make things any different?

    I mean, what if we’re doing all this in the wrong direction? Or– just too much in only one direction?

    What if loving radically – or even being liberated – doesn’t necessarily require learning how to be anti-racist or how to be feminist or how to be whatever…so much as how to love and nurture and support and take care of each other? I’m not saying “feminism” and “loving each other” are mutually exclusive by any means, but sometimes I feel like we’re putting the emphasis on the medium instead of the message, and that hijacks a real accountability process. The victim of the fuck-up gets tangled up in a discussion about the feminist implications of X, Y, or Z, but so rarely do we ask, “Hey, are you ok?”

    Anyway, I don’t think this comment is a “call to action”, by any means – maybe it doesn’t even matter whether we care about each other in a space like this. I mean, what do we owe each other, exactly? Who are we accountable to, anyway?

    But I always feel such a distance between the discussions that happen here, and the reality between me and my best friend, learning to navigate each other’s differences because our love is bound up in it.

    Well, that’s not entirely true. Sometimes I’ve felt that distance dissipate – like Chally’s Valentine’s Day post about love, or Clarisse Thorn’s one about boundaries. In threads like those, I feel like we edged a little closer to relating to each other not as opinion-vessels but as humans.

    But on the whole, I can’t help but wonder if sometimes we kind of miss the point.

    * Disclaimer: I do think it’s important to note that in the spectacle of fucking up and being shamed and/or defended, it’s often the actual victim(s) and their needs that are forgotten or pushed aside. I think it’s hard to have a conversation like this without either villainizing the fuck-upper or victim-blaming…

  11. Cha-Cha
    March 24, 2011 at 9:08 pm

    “In the feminist blogosphere, we have a frequently toxic “call-out” culture but still no way of truly being accountable to one another.”


  12. David
    March 24, 2011 at 11:13 pm

    The right to fuck up is generally (more often than not) extended to those in privileged positions where their privilege affords them a safety net that others do not have. If we unthinkingly accept our “right” to fuck up without examining where this right comes from, then we ignore the very real fact that there are some for who fucking up is not an option. There are some, the downtrodden, the hungry, the poor, for whom fucking up is a one way ticket to continued oppression – and the slow death that derives from this.

  13. Opheelia
    March 24, 2011 at 11:34 pm

    I think this is an important post. When I think about calling people out, I generally remember the first time I got called out. I was in high school, transitioning between a group of childhood girlfriends (we now realize and talk about the Mean Girls(TM) we were) and a different group. I would say, “That’s gay!” in a derogatory fashion typical of people who don’t realize they are stepping in shit and then tracking it around with them.

    My new best friend just looked at me one day and said, “You really shouldn’t say that. It’s insulting to gay people.”

    I had NEVER thought about it before. It was just what we said when we thought something was negative, or boring. Weirdly, it was that same desire to belong that led me to treat people badly that made me think about using “gay” as an insult differently. Positive peer pressure ftw!

    I continue to step in shit sometimes. I have a lot of privilege, and I recognize that; I also know that no matter how hard I try, I’m not going to be graceful all the time. I hope that people will call me out on it. I also hope they do it in the way that she did; that it’s done with a clear ask, a clear explanation, and an opportunity to either ask questions or find more information about why it’s wrong. No one owes me that. But however it happens, I DO want to know when I’ve stepped in it so I have the opportunity to figure out how to clean it off on my own, without also never being invited to the party again because I was once the woman with shit on her shoe.

    Not sure if that made sense…

  14. Azkyroth
    March 25, 2011 at 4:12 am

    Rather like identifying as an ally to movements–I am an ally to the degree that people consider me one. It’s not an identity I get to claim.

    I see what you’re saying here but would suggest reconsidering, given that those who do feel entitled to not only claim, but fence off and sell tickets to, that identity, will simply be emboldened by such acts of humility.

    “Feminism” is fundamentally an etymologically misleading label for worldviews, life philosophies, and bodies of thought premised on the notion that men and women are, generally speaking, mentally and morally equal and need to be treated as such both by other individuals and by society as a whole. People may try to claim the mantle of “feminism” for themselves (and, in most cases, ONLY for themselves) while advocating ideas that take sexist social and cultural assumptions at face value while trying to head-trip you into mentally reversing the typical value judgment, or that treat all men as irredeemable psychopaths and all women except the speaker and her *unconditional* allies are gullible morons, or may make it bleedingly obvious that they don’t give a damn about whether women make any progress towards full social equality as long as they have a platform from which to boss others around, but this doesn’t make them feminists. And many are so disgusted by the antics of the previous groups that they blanch at associating themselves with the label of “feminist” that the above have crowingly declared as theirs and theirs alone. Whether or not one is accurately called a feminist depends on whether one upholds those principles, not on the term one uses to describe oneself.

    And I should certainly say that people have the right to fuck up. Feminism itself has fucked up, having sold its soul at least twice over (first to the Temperance movement and prohibitionism, after the the anti-sex hysteria of what has often been called Neo-puritanism but might be more accurately rendered as “Neo-Comstockism” mainly during the 60s and 70s (the rise of the cynical use of empty “GIRL POWER” slogans to sell girls and young women plastic crap that nobody needs, starting in the late 90s, might be a third occasion; it’s a bit too early to tell, and the Suffragette’s collective – what can only be described as a racist temper tantrum – after the passage of the 15th amendment comes close, both to a case of soul-sale and to having utterly salted the earth with regard to women’s rights). Yet the basic principles remain as strong and clear and ignored by the world outside as ever, and the struggle to implement them is fresh. They have lost none of their meaning and none of their necessity. Neither have you.

    (Co-authored by Old Foghorn but hopefully lucid enough to contribute and raise a few hackles ^.^)

  15. March 25, 2011 at 11:20 am

    There’s lots about this argument that I like, but I feel really cautious about its applicability.

    I live, work and breathe in religious communities – communities where the ethic is, actually, “You can fuck up a million times and be forgiven because forgiveness is one of our standards of behavior.” And sometimes this works really well (see my partner wrote about the church where I serve now. It means that my congregation is more likely than many other folks to work with incarcerated people, and people living with or in recovery from addiction.

    And then sometimes it doesn’t work well. And what it often turns into is a forgiveness culture just as toxic as any call-out culture, where people are so convinced that that it’s OK to fuck up, and to fuck up royally, that they stop behaving in acceptable, accountable ways. The onus ends up being on those hurt, offended, or damaged by certain comments or actions to forgive, rather than on the person who did something unacceptable. My dude boss is given a HUGE amount of latitude to make ridiculous decisions, ask me invasive and inappropriate questions about my sexuality, and generally fuck up all he wants, because he pulls a long face and begs forgiveness afterward, once someone points out to him what he did was wrong. AND THEN HE DOES IT AGAIN, because he has absolute reassurance he can use the guilt card of “we forgive and nurture each other here because we are this kind of religious person.” It means that when we have a sexual offender in the congregation – which has happened twice – more care, love, “forgiveness”, counseling and care is given to the offender than to the victim. In my experience, people with privilege are already too unafraid to fuck up. In the ways that I experience privilege (race, class, being cis), being afraid to fuck up means that I shut up when I don’t know what I’m talking about and am likely to step in some shit. Shutting up means I listen, and I learn. It’s effective.

    It also makes me nervous to see a post that begins with someone being tired of debates over privilege. Privilege is a live thing, electric and powerful. I can’t afford to take a break from it, to get tired of talking about it.

  16. March 25, 2011 at 3:38 pm

    I don’t know if anyone has the right to fuck up, but the continued function of society depends on forgiving it when people do. It’s either that or we have to produce perfect people.

  17. Sarah
    March 27, 2011 at 3:01 pm

    To play devil’s advocate here: so you’re saying that what’s-his-face who made the “nappy headed hos” comment shouldn’t have been fired for it, because we all have the right to fuck up now and then? What if she’d said “the Muslims should get out of Israel”–would you still feel the same way?

  18. March 27, 2011 at 4:43 pm

    As I said in my previous comment, I don’t think all fuck-ups are equal. Context needs to be taken into account. From what I know about the Helen Thomas and Don Imus situations, they differ significantly in this regard. Helen Thomas is an established progressive, and she was clearly speaking from a place of frustration about the shitty attitude we have toward the plight of the Palestinians in America as a whole and the progressive community as well, an attitude ranging from “Brown people and Muslims are less scary than Jews, so I’m siding with the latter” to “I feel for them, but oh well, what can you do?” This doesn’t mitigate her comment or its effects, but it should influence our response to her; she should not have gotten the same response as a guy who is an established asshole and was speaking simply with concern to his own privilege.

  19. Charles
    April 2, 2011 at 1:32 pm

    I really like the idea that we need to move beyond just “calling out”. But like others I’m very uncomfortable with the tone of the article, which to me seems to be to be too similar to right-wingers’ charges of “political correctness.” Yes, “one strike and you’re out” is a bad idea. But as others have said the person who fucks up is NOT the victim. The measure of how a person who fucks up should be viewed is how they respond to the hurt they’ve caused. If they dismiss or deny it, I think think they’ve forfeited their right to sympathetic treatment. We should have the right to fuck up every once in awhile, we’re human, but not the right to fuck up with impunity.

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