Friday, November 4, 2011

All or Nothing Approaches to Progress: Can We Be Too Passionate About Our Causes?

We all have issues that we are passionate about, and--unfortunately--many of those issues center around injustices we see in our society. Sometimes, it can be downright infuriating to watch someone else act in a way that is so clearly wrong to us that we can react quickly and harshly.

Without a doubt, there are times when a quick, harsh reaction is the right one. There are times when the perpetrators act of prejudice is so blatant that it needs to be called out immediately and loudly. But sometimes I think we need to ask ourselves what we're trying to accomplish. 

J. Bryan Lowder touches upon some of these issues in this post. He looks at the recent "glitter bomb" of Dan Savage and asks if he really deserved to be called out as transphobic. He notes that Savage himself has admitted to lacking full understanding of the trans community's concerns, and cites him as saying: 
I certainly have had a journey in the last 20 years — as have we all — on trans issues. When I started writing Savage Love 20 years ago, and you can yank quotes 15, 18 years ago and flat them up today and say, ‘You know, that’s transphobic,’ I’d probably agree with you. 15 years ago I didn’t know as much as I know now — nor did anybody.
Lowder points out that Savage's status as a white, cis gender male gives him privilege. But he also asks what can we reasonably expect of one person:
The answer, clearly, is that Savage has created a style of activism that is successful, where many more politically correct models have failed. To be fair, his being white and male and good-looking (what his critics would call “privileged”) matters, but his success is about more than that. Savage’s implicit message that one can be an ally to the LGBT community without necessarily getting all the ever-changing words right is understandably appealing to straight people, and his willingness to use a variety of different, sometimes flawed, tools to make even a little progress appeals to LGBT people who feel paralyzed by the absurdly non-confrontational “safe space” fragility instilled in college groups and other bubble-like retreats from reality.   
And this is where we get into all-or-nothing paradigms of progress. Sure, when we are passionate about an issue, we want to see it tackled right--that is, fully, passionately, and immediately. This is not true only of the trans community. Breastfeeding advocates are quick to rip apart a woman who suggests that women nursing in public should just cover up (as I did in this post), gay rights activists are not going to accept an argument that civil unions are good enough, and neither political party will accept that we need to raise taxes and lower spending. And I get it (especially since, as the post above shows, I also do it). Usually, things we really care about don't get a thermostat. We don't typically say, "Well, I can turn this caring down a little bit. Your meager effort will be good enough today."

But what of Lowder's point that Savage's activism actually works better than more "pure" attempts to work against homophobia? And does tearing him down as not doing enough take us backwards by stopping him from accomplishing what he does do? That's what Lowder's conclusion suggests:
These methods, while surely not perfect, are also better than nothing. Nor do they preclude the glitter-bombers and other critics of Savage creating their own equally imperfect strategies. What does stifle progress, though, is insisting that one man speak for all (only to judge him when he necessarily fails) instead of finding creative, savvy, engaging ways of speaking for oneself.
It reminded me of a message board fight I once saw on The Nest (which can get particularly nasty, sadly). There's a trend of posting an "UO" (unpopular opinions) once a week. For this particular UO thread, a woman came on to say that she thought reverse racism was just as bad as racism. She went on to say some (admittedly ridiculous) things about how the German people were victims of prejudice for decades because they were innocent people unfairly associated with Hitler's regime. (If you're just dying to see all of this for yourself, I found the old thread here). The ladies of The Nest ripped this woman to shreds. They pointed out how ridiculous her argument was, they called her out as a racist, and they basically say that she has no place in this conversation because she clearly doesn't understand the complications of racist history.

Which is true, of course. She made statements out of a completely privileged background with no recognition of that privilege. Her statements were insulting and completely out of touch with a very real racist history that affects virtually every part of our contemporary society. But--and I made this point in a response on that thread--she has to be part of the conversation if we're actually going to move past racism. The conversation has to consist of more than just people who have it all figured out--if for no other reason than it's impossible to get it figured out in the first place without real, honest conversation.

In the end, it's important to stand your ground and not accept half-hearted attempts at "compromise" to shut you up. It's completely acceptable not to accept a civil union when what you deserve is the right to marry. It's completely acceptable to say that a requirement to cover up in public does not constitute freedom to breastfeed.

At the same time, I think that we have to recognize that the only way we get these broad-level policy changes is by having honest conversations with people who could potentially change their perspectives. But very few perspectives are changed by pointing out how wrong and simple-minded a person is. Perspectives are changed over time and over many challenging discussions--discussions that involve listening as well as talking, discussions that focus on communication rather than correcting.

While, yes, there are people who actively work against these things we are so passionate about (there are people who actively work to prevent gay marriages, there are people who advocate for laws that prohibit women from nursing in public, there are white supremacists who openly declare people of color as inferior), but those people are the minority. There are far more people who simply just don't know or just haven't really thought about it. Those are the people who could help make a difference, but only if they get the chance to care, too. And that's not going to come all at once. That can't be all or nothing.


  1. "But very few perspectives are changed by pointing out how wrong and simple-minded a person is".

    This reminds me of a fortune cookie I once got - "you don't make a shoot grow by pulling it up at the roots". I am *constantly* trying to remind myself of that in my relationship, but yeah, it totally applies in this context too.

  2. Your fortune cookies sound so much more useful than mine ever are!

  3. You wrote:
    "There are far more people who simply just don't know or just haven't really thought about it."

    The beauty of raising every child, in every adult, in every country.. creates the choice to response. To create a positive impact. To take responsibility for the betterment of mankind and the planet we live on. It's time to think and act from our passion and not our unconscious and troublesome persona's