Tuesday, July 17, 2007

How to Confront Bigotry in a Productive Manner...

Yesterday, scarred left a great comment on my post about so-called "benign" sexism:

Have you noticed, however, that in the last years when you try to talk to someone and point out the sexism of a remark or worldview, the person gets defensive and accuses you of being "politically correct?" I'm not sure how to get beyond their defenses. I myself am getting very tired of being silent in the fact of a lot of sexism, but it seems nowadays that when a feminist speaks up, people get verbally "loaded for bear" and go after the feminist with everything they've got. Any ideas on how to cope with that or get beyond their defenses?

Believe me, I'm interested...*sometimes* I've been able to challenge people successfully, but other times it's fallen flat on its face...any thoughts?


I thought that was a great point, and worthy of a new post. I think that confronting bigotry is really hard at the best of times, but it's still a really important part of being active in helping to make change. After all, while blogging is a lot of work, and very rewarding, there's a certain level of preaching to the choir that happens. When you're out and about and someone says something really sexist, though... what do you do?

The reality is that it's really difficult sometimes to confront people about their behavior, even when you know they're wrong. You never know how people are going to react- particularly people who've already shown a willingness to be shitheads. It's certainly easier if it's someone that you know really well, because they're more likely to understand that you're not attacking them personally, just a behavior that they've exhibited. Still, it's hard to do.

Another problem, that autumn harvest points out quite well, is that:

A lot of people seem to implicitly think that racism, misogyny, and homophobia are fairly rare things in our society. The corollary to this is that racist beliefs are only held by racists, and racists are the sort of extreme aberrations from mainstream society who burn crosses on people's lawn. So when you say that what person X said is offensive, they think "No way! Person X wouldn't burn a cross." I think this is where "it wasn't intended to be offensive, so it must not be offensive" comes from.


That makes a lot of sense, and I think goes a long way to explaining where some of the "it was just a joke" comments probably come from. Most people probably don't think of themselves as racist/sexist/homophobic, so they take things personally when you suggest that they've engaged in a bigotted behavior. In other words: "Sexists, and only sexists, engage in sexist behavior. You've called my behavior sexist, so you must be calling me sexist. I'm not sexist. Therefore, my actions weren't sexist, either."

Because of this, I think that it's important to have multiple strategies for dealing with people who say or do sexist things (or any bigotted thing, really). When it's friends and family, I think that things are easier because you've already got a personal relationship with them, and they're less likely to take your comments as personal attacks, so you can more easily engage in dialogue with them. What about when it's a stranger, though? Say, someone on the bus with you?

So, what about it? Any ideas? What's the best way to react to someone who says or does something sexist in public? To someone else? To you? How do you think that feminist men should respond to sexism when they see it?

11 comments:

Scarred said...

One of the things I've often thought is that maybe us feminists and feminist allies ought to do some psychological research and investigate *better ways* of confronting the "isms" in order to *more successfully* put an end to this kind of garbage.

I'm also thinking that Autumn Harvest is onto something; we've got to challenge/set straight this illusion that somehow racism/sexism/homophobia has evaporated from society.

All of this, to me, begs for more research as well as looking into what's more practical.

ONE immediate observation I can offer is that maybe we should look into **POSITIVE** reinforcement for just, equitable, non-ism behavior. Psychologists have noted that POSITIVE reinforcement works a lot better than NEGATIVE reinforcement. Maybe us feminists *should* rethink our positions and start complimenting our male allies a lot more, for instance. Not in a butt-kissing way, but in a way that shows genuine appreciation...

I very much DO like the title and story behind your blog, Roy..."No Cookies for Me" indeed! I like how you have come to recognize that men shouldn't receive "big-deal" rewards for simply being decent human beings. YOU get this, bigtime, and I think that's really righteous!:)

YET. Here's the problem, the very crux of the issue: many rich or middle-class white men are receiving LOTS of positive strokes for being assholes nowadays, you see what I mean? I mean, look at the positive attention Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly *et.al* get for espousing a worldview which is virulently racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. (although granted in a semi- hidden way)! They get money, recognition, rewards, air time, etc.!!!!

White men of any class aren't stupid; they SEE this, and they see the popularity of these so-called "truth-tellers" (who are anything BUT) get effing wealthy, recognized, and respected.

If you factor in the difficulty of losing privilege IN GENERAL--a perceived "loss" of "goodies," you see the multiplied difficulty.

That's why I'm thinking that sitting down and actually thinking about *meme warfare,* investigating methods of *positive reinforcement* that aren't "ass-kissing," and doing things to expose the reality of just how PREVALENT the "isms" really are in society **has** to be a part of our solution.

Don't get me wrong, I'm FOR confronting bigotry. BUT. I'm thinking that confrontation alone isn't going to be effective, because the reward system for the "isms" is too heavily entrenched.

Nique said...

Sometimes when I hear offensive comments I let it go because of the situation. If a stranger says something I just ignore it because they clearly won't be receptive to the comments of someone they don't know. It's just not worth it.

When friends or coworkers say things I object to I will call them on it but I have been in situations where my bosses have said things I found offensive and I couldn't really do much about it. (My bosses are female and they weren't harrassing me or anything, they were just saying things that reinforce gender stereotypes.) Sometimes I have stated my opinion on the subject at hand in such situations and other times I haven't, because it just didn't seem worth it. These are women who are at least 10 years older than me and set in their ways. I doubt they'd appreciate some young thing telling them they're bad feminists. They do sign my paychecks after all so... I usually let it slide.

Once I got into a semi-argument with one of my bosses over dating etiquette. I was arguing that I don't want a man to pay for my meal because I don't want to be "bought" and she was arguing that men should always pay because it's a courtship ritual. (I should clarify that I don't think there's anything wrong with a guy or girl picking up the tab but I think it's wrong to just assume a man SHOULD do it.) Anyway, it became a HUGE argument and another coworker ended up getting verbally beaten down because she dared to go dutch on a date and she ended up feeling really shitty about herself. All this to say that in the end I could only argue my position to a certain extent because I was debating against my boss and at the end of the day, she holds power over me, so I sort of had to let her win.

Scarred said...

"All this to say that in the end I could only argue my position to a certain extent because I was debating against my boss and at the end of the day, she holds power over me, so I sort of had to let her win."

This is very, very true, Nique. Sometimes all we can do is, at the end of the day, hold our tongue in certain situations because...we're outgunned in terms of rank, power, etc. Ugly, but true; you have to make a living.

Still, being a supervisor myself, I think it's a NASTY abuse of workplace power to allow someone to get verbally beaten down and left feeling like roadrash because they dared buck the prevailing wind NON-WORK-RELATED opinion on the job. I wouldn't have allowed it myself, I would hope; that's damn bullying.

I know what you mean, though...there are times when I've left things slide with my boss in terms of expressing an opinion. I love him dearly, but he likes Baby Doc Bush, so I have to be careful in how I phrase my anti-Bush words, or how often I speak them.

Nique said...

"Still, being a supervisor myself, I think it's a NASTY abuse of workplace power to allow someone to get verbally beaten down and left feeling like roadrash because they dared buck the prevailing wind NON-WORK-RELATED opinion on the job. I wouldn't have allowed it myself, I would hope; that's damn bullying."

Yes, it is bullying. My boss is very much a bully. She's one of those "I'm always right" type people. It's something us employees just have to deal with. Actually, I usually like the boss in question. She's very fun and funny but sometimes she gets out of hand. Truth be told, I would never quit because 99% of the time she's a hoot.

As to the coworker who got pwned, I offered her moral support after the fiasco and told her not to worry, that our boss is just, well, bossy, and that she had done nothing wrong.

Scarred said...

"As to the coworker who got pwned, I offered her moral support after the fiasco and told her not to worry, that our boss is just, well, bossy, and that she had done nothing wrong."

Sometimes that's the best you can do under the circumstances.

Let's see...can we think of the things that HAVE worked in our lives to confront bigotry?

My next comment will tell about a success story **I** had.:)

Jaclyn said...

scarred, I'm really intrigued by your questions about researching what works, as opposed to what feels satisfying or not to those of us are already enlightened. Is anyone doing this work?

Anorak said...

I agree with everyone's comments so far, about picking your battles, so to speak.
However, I do think it is important to not be complicit in sexism (or racism or homophobia etc etc).
As such, I often try to use humour to point out to someone that what they are saying is not ok. It makes me feel like I'm less threatening, and maybe, just maybe, I'll get the person to think a little.

Brooklynite said...

Seems to me that if you wait until someone says something inappropriate to "come out" as a feminist, you're putting yourself on the wrong foot. There are ways to carry yourself that make your values clear when there's no confrontation going on, and if you do that consistently then anyone who steps out of line will be half expecting you to react.

The other thing about that approach is that it makes dealing with gray-area situations a lot simpler --- you can just raise an eyebrow or toss out a lighthearted "fuck you," instead of agonizing over whether to create a scene.

I guess what I'm saying is that if someone you know at all well is taken aback when you call them on their shit, you've probably been tailoring your behavior to their expectations for a while.

Nique said...

agreed brooklynite.

sovawanea said...

Also reaffirm the previously stated sentiments of picking the right venue and time to approach these things.

However, I think the best way I have found to deal with hostility and anti-PC rocket launcher attack when you set it off is to just make a standard statement of how your response was not just what you think is the PC thing to say buy how you genuinely feel. And then just drop it.

I think there's better success to be had with confronting more simple -ism assumptions or working from personal examples.

I have a friend who is transgendered and rocks an incredibly androgynous yet feminine appearance. One of our other friends was walking across campus with someone from their class and our trans friend was walking towards them and the classmate says something to the effect of "Check out the boy in the dress." I think our friend came up with the best response to that situation "That's not a boy in a dress. That's my friend Anne. She's really nice." She factually corrected the error, invoked a social taboo of not insulting someone's personal friend and made a positive association to her.

Of course, most comments are much more general and harder to deal with.

choice on earth said...

Well, an idea occurred to me a while back when I was thinking about how I became a vegetarian. I like to think of it as planting a seed.

Even though it's somewhat iffy that you're going to when a moral point when you confront someone in the moment, particularly a stranger, your reaction doesn't necessarily just affect what occurs at that time. The person that you have the problem with as well as all the people around will observe how you react and will to some degree take this in; if you're lucky, they may even think it over later, or it may occur to them later when a similar issue comes up. In this way, you have planted a seed.

You may think that your actions had no effect, but think about the things that led you to develop your own opinions and values. Chances are there was some modeling from others involved. So, I say, go ahead and speak up if you feel safe doing so, because people WILL hear you. They might not wave the white flag or profess immediate enlightenment, but that little incident will be recorded somewhere in their brain, and your "seed" might just come to fruition later.

As an aside, I think this idea fits in very nicely with the Buddhist (not pop-cultural) concept of karma, and I have found that to be a very valuable context in my life.

I also think that when you speak up for what you believe is right, you will feel a lot better about yourself, regardless of whether you feel you gained your point.