Daniel Fincke asks: “Do marginalized people need to be insulting in order to be empowered”?
Caperton replies: Have you tried asking a marginalized person?
Over the summer, Daniel Fincke of ethics/atheist/religion blog Camels With Hammers (which, full disclosure, had never really stumbled across my field of interest until today) explicated his comments policy (which he totally gets to do), which includes banning insults like “asshole” and “douchebag” (which is totally within his rights), for which he received some pushback (which happens sometimes), against which he defended himself by pondering whether marginalized people working to defend their rights might not be a little more effective if they were a little more polite.
The specific argument to which Fincke was responding noted that words like “asshole” and “douchebag” really do have a place in social-justice rhetoric, and that sometimes it’s the only weapon available to a marginalized person. In part:
The creators, active perpetrators, and passive beneficiaries of unjust norms all have the luxury of treating their behaviors and ideas and institutions as dispassionate matters. Members of marginalized groups need to have the right to shock and offend the complacent privileged classes with language that defiantly unsettles them and warns them that if they do not start taking the marginalized groups’ basic humanity and basic needs seriously they will start being the ones who suffer great social costs.
In response, Fincke acknowledges that disempowered people are disempowered, that they should never be forced to abide by the rules of an unjust system, and that Martin Luther King, Jr., was disobedient without sacrificing civility, which through the wonder of television won the civil rights movement. However, “[w]ithin justly and ethically carried out debates, people should feel no need to defy the rules. … Rules of discourse that require everyone to be treated with basic civility do not put any one [sic] at an inherent disadvantage and so they [sic] members of marginalized groups do not need to take recourse in incivil language to correct for any such disadvantage.”
1. There has to be some kind of Godwinesque law about privileged white guys invoking the name of Martin Luther King, Jr., to convince marginalized people to behave themselves.
2. Show me a “justly and ethically carried out debate” that fully accommodates a marginalized group’s disadvantage.
3. Show me a marginalizing party whose frames, dog whistles, and outright aggressions aren’t more uncivil than any name I could possibly call them.
Fincke feels that marginalized groups have plenty of civil recourse available to them without getting nasty about it.
[W]ithin the realm of civil discourse, superficially polite but actually harmful language can be spotted and queried, with no recourse to insults necessary. And there are two major reasons for this. One is that marginalized groups already do have powerful weapons available in the forms of harsh moral condemnatory language specifically designed to stigmatize bigotry. In our culture, bigotry is considered one of the greatest evils. Even many racists, for decades now, have tried to refuse the label. In just the last twenty years I have heard some fundamentalist Christians who think sexually active gays are sinners move from denying the existence of homophobia to acknowledging its existence but denying they suffer from it. Neither do misogynists proudly accept themselves to be misogynists.
While I think ethically we should be careful not to carelessly toss around charges that others have bigoted characters (rather than that they said or did a particular thing that has racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, etc. connotations), the threat is implicit in our discourse. When someone civilly say something that has the potential to reinforce unjust social systems and silence or otherwise Other a marginalized person or group, our standards of civility allow for that person to be called out with probing questions that have equally hostile connotations. [emphasis mine]
So what, then? We shouldn’t use inflammatory language because “misogynist” should be sufficient to shame the misogynists who deny being misogynists? It’s just a matter of asking the right questions, because “bigot” will have them stumbling over their feet to convince us otherwise.
Here’s the thing about charges of bigotry: They’re easily pushed aside with the word but. Three letters can change the course of the conversation. “I’m not homophobic, but I believe that gay people shouldn’t be allowed to adopt.” And unless you’re being interviewed by Samantha Bee, the interlocutor never responds, “Are you sure you’re not homophobic?” I’m not homophobic, but is sufficient to fuel a respectful and reasonable discussion, as if but takes homophobia off the table and makes the argument automatically worthy of examination. “I’m not a misogynist, but I think society is collapsing because women aren’t focused on being good mothers.” Sure, let’s talk about those shitty moms. “I’m not a racist, but.” Oh, well, that settles it, then.
Fincke does have a point when he says,
We should call people out for jokes that contribute to social marginalization. We should query people about whether they are implying harmful stereotypes are true when they casually allude to them. We should constantly be drawing attention to all the invidious assumptions that might be loaded into each others’ beliefs and practices and be asking those people to either renounce those implications, justify them as true or good, or face fair moral and social consequences if they neither renounce them nor prove them true or good. [emphasis mine]
That’s absolutely true, for all cases where “we” are members of the non-marginalized group. That civil approach to discourse is perfectly applicable when “we” are sufficiently privileged that the offending parties will hear “us” and listen to “us” without the need for shouting. Those of us who have the power to speak civilly and still be heard have not only the ability but also the responsibility to use it. If we have that power.
Women, however (just for example), have been speaking politely since time immemorial. You might not have noticed this, because people who speak politely are easy to overlook. People who have been invisible don’t become visible simply by saying, “Pardon me, but I’m afraid I have to take issue with some of your assertions.” (Just imagine how many rapes, assaults, and murders could have been avoided if that were the case.) The ability to change hearts and minds through civil speech is reserved for those who are listened to when they open their mouths.
Moreover, civility from the marginalized doesn’t guarantee civility from the marginalizers. Think back a few months to Sandra Fluke. Her civil, reasoned testimony in front of House Democrats earned her the brand of “slut” and “prostitute,” explicitly from professional blowhard (whoops!) Rush Limbaugh and implicitly from numerous other “respectable” news sources. And while Limbaugh was excoriated for it, the absurdly named (oops!) Erick Erickson suffered no consequences for implying basically the same thing. (Retired Vitalis model and insufferable godbag [dammit!] Mitt Romney only said that it’s not the language that [he] would have used,” leaving us to assume he’d use other words to call her a slut.) If that incivility on their part were enough to discredit them and tip the debate in your favor, that would be swell. Also swell? Having a pony.
It’s at the end, though, where Fincke unashamedly cribs from “Derailing for Dummies” and reminds us that denigrating and dismissing others is what their side does, and that “trying to insult people into agreement or submission” makes us just as bad as they are. Because, evidently, calling ignorant douchebag Todd Akin an ignorant douchebag (rats) is on a level with fighting to take control of a woman’s body, and is somehow trying to force my beliefs on him when instead I should be laying out my logical and reasoned arguments against the implication that I’m just a walking homunculus carrier and should make lemonade out of rape-lemons. And I’m sorry, but fuck that. Fuck it all the way. I know a malignant fucknose when I see one.