By Emma Stelter '16
About eight months ago, I made my first and only Tumblr account, and I’m considering deactivating it. For one thing, I’d have a lot more time on my hands. The more important reason is that I’m often troubled by what I see online. Many of the blogs I follow are made up of what the internet seems to have named “social justice” posts: stories of microaggressions, rants about privilege and marginalization, and the most satisfying of comment smackdowns.
A little too often, though, I run across a comment chain with a question that usually starts like this: “I don’t want to sound bigoted, but.…” You can see where I’m going; the question, though well meaning, is usually ignorant and problematic. But it’s the response that really bothers me. The responder takes it upon themself to put the questioner in their place—and they do it with a fiery deluge of sarcasm and shame. The message seems to boil down to: “You asked a stupid, offensive question, and you don’t deserve the benefit of the doubt.”
I don’t just see this on Tumblr, where much of the user base is anonymous. Facebook and Twitter are guilty too. There’s a psychological distance between the computer screen and the humans on the other side that makes it easy to go from zero to sixty on the outrage scale in no time at all (This American Life: “If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say, SAY IT IN ALL CAPS”). We have so much anger and a limitless platform to share it immediately and publicly.
In particular, I see a lot of outrage floating around about allies. Marginalized people shouldn’t have to “accommodate” allies or make them more comfortable within their own cause: there are many solid arguments to be made for that. Allyship to a cause shouldn’t be more important or visible than the cause itself and the people who need it most. Marginalized people should not have to justify themselves to allies, swallow anger or sadness to make allies more comfortable, or turn themselves into human encyclopedias for their allies’ edification. But there’s a difference between calling out an ally who makes a problematic mistake and whipping out the #FuckAllies hashtag. Because it doesn’t serve any cause to go from zero to sixty on people who are trying to help. It doesn’t serve anyone to shut down the dialogue about what’s disrespectful and what’s not, by making otherwise ignorant people afraid to speak up.
I have made my share of problematic mistakes. There are things I’ve said I wish I could take back, embarrassing moments I’d like to erase from my brain. I have a vivid memory from elementary school in which, not long after learning about the concept of homosexuality, I told my mother: “Gay people are weird.” To which she promptly replied: “Honey, your Uncle Bob is gay.” Uncle Bob (not his real name, if you hadn’t guessed) wasn’t weird; clearly my theory was faulty. Ultimately, I’m grateful for those embarrassing moments, for the people who called me on my shit and made me realize I was being an idiot.
I’ve experienced my share of injustice. But I’m starting to ask myself: does every person who has privilege that I lack deserve my wrath because I have to deal with problems they don’t? Does every straight person deserve my wrath because I have to keep coming out? Does every man I encounter deserve my wrath because I’m uncomfortable being alone and female at night? I absolutely reserve the right to say, “I need a break; I don’t feel like explaining this to you right now.” But I also know that if I’m willing to help a friend learn to be a better ally, I’m going to do it, as much as it sucks being the one landed with that job. I have a feeling I’m not alone there, and I’m grateful, because I just don’t know how else it’ll get done.
For those of you who are reading this, I’m not going to tell you how I think you should react. I’m not going to make any requests or put forth a challenge to the community. I’m not going to ask you to agree with me. All I can say is that for me, taking a second to think about a charged situation is a matter of picking the right battles. I cannot live my life angry at every person who says or does something I find offensive, prejudiced, or ignorant. I don’t think I’m capable of that much rage. I can’t promise I’ll never be angry or upset again; in fact, I can guarantee I will be. I can say that I’ve made a belated New Year’s resolution: to remember to take a step back.
From March 2015 Issue