Dissenting points of view

The other day I wrote a post about bigotry within the queer online dating world. La Dida had managed to beat me to the punch with something I largely agreed with (save for that one line that irked me). In the interest of not repeating him I decided to explore the complexity surrounding the issue (granted, he was only given 400 words to work with), and at the same time took a risk. It’s an issue that I feel is best approached by spurring debate, even if that debate becomes an argument; the risk I took was in being deliberately ambivalent. Whether I was successful I’ll leave up to the reader.

The response to my post were not at all mixed — they were polarised. Though no one seemed to be pro-racism, people either liked my arguments or didn’t. There was little middle ground. The feedback I got was mostly in my favour (though I’m well aware of confirmation bias and the fact that Kiwis tend not to criticise each other as much as they perhaps should), and the negative feedback prompted me to post the comment I did. (I’m going to get things wrong — don’t be afraid to tell me.)

But (putting aside that some people saw it as a personal attack, rather than a disagreement of ideas) most of the negative feedback I received was on the tone of my argument. I’ve run into this time and time again in a lot of different fora: We don’t have to agree on everything, but don’t disagree too strongly. I ran into it a lot when I was the secretary of UniQ Otago, a lot of us ran into it with the Labour Party (which was one of the factors that led to me tearing up my membership card), and I’ve seen it (from the periphery) in some feminist circles. “You’re hurting the cause.” And it gets in the way.

I will not be silenced on tone.

Complaining about tone is a silencing tool: you’re too shrill, too negative, too loud. It doesn’t address the real argument and does nothing to further any cause — in fact, it does the opposite, shutting it down and smoothing it into a trite, sit-around-and-have-tea do nothing committee meeting.

There is room, and necessity, for different approaches to issues, and they can happen at the same time.

In the queer community, sometimes we do need to wear special gloves and approach certain issues with extreme delicacy (teens committing suicide will necessitate that). But if people put forward ideas that I think are bad, I refuse to be denied the ability to say so.

When the stakes are high, and in the queer community they can be very high indeed, I can understand people not being comfortable with disagreement, and I can understand the intent behind only wanting positive reinforcement. But our ideas, all of our ideas, must be open to scrutiny, regardless of how politely that scrutiny comes.

I’m not saying we should throw out civility and compassion. Far from it. People deserve to be treated with warmth and dignity, and we should never allow someone’s abrasiveness to shut us down either. But ideas are not people, and we shouldn’t take it personally when people don’t like them. Good ideas should be praised, but bad ideas should be destroyed, and we can only decide which way to handle ideas by vigorously testing them.

Apple’s success under the insufferable Steve Jobs is testament to the fact that creativity works best in an environment hostile to ideas. In fact, the notion of ‘brainstorming’ put forward by Alex Osborn in the 1940s that promoted a judgement free environment, actually diminishes creative ability, and hinders our capacity for good ideas.

We must be careful to not allow our privilege to blind us to when we are stomping over other people’s perspectives, but we should never be afraid of criticism, especially when it comes from our friends. We’re still fighting to advance our rights — gay marriage and adoption are still before us, bi-erasure is still a thing, and trans* people are still fighting for basic dignities — and our arguments need to be strong.

For our arguments to be strong, first we need to have them.

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2 thoughts on “Dissenting points of view

  1. Dear Mr Wainscotting,

    I just wanted to take up your invitation in the post (if you have got things wrong..) and make sure a couple of things were crystal.

    Firstly, it was the content of your argument in the last post, as well as its tone that I personally took issue with. We have discussed these issues at some length – but I will summarise them for anyone else who wants to jump in to this conversation:

    I began by observing that your post did not feel like it emerged from a particularly friendly or collaborative spirit.

    I then went on to outline all of the concerns I had on the level of argument including:

    Disagreeing with your comment that you “can’t very much help whom you’re attracted to”. I asked upon what evidence you claimed that people typically find those ‘within their own tribe or race’ most attractive? & what you meant by ‘from a survival perspective’? I asked in what ways questioning the ethics of proclaiming desire and the sacredness of sexual autonomy were at odds?

    This part of your piece felt like un-researched amateur psuedo-science, and that is what I wanted to call you out on. Perhaps if there was more than simply Wainscotting’s ramblings and speculation there would have been more of an argument – all it left us with was tone and intent.

    I also disagreed with your assumption that we are passive in culture (and we must (seemingly obediently) bend and change with it as you suggest) rather I prefer to think that we can be active agents within our cultures and do intentional and thoughtful work around things like racism ourselves. It takes a culture to raise a racist, and it is also by (sub)cultural means that we can dismantle racism and other negative isms, including in our bedrooms, and on dating websites.

    It is also unfortunate that you attended to racism, but missed off arguments I made in my own column around sizism, fem-hating and so on throughout your piece (when in reality they often go together)

    You also seemed to be rather confused as to who is doing the policing. Surely it is the people who post saying ‘no fats, no Asians’ who are the body and race police? Your casual use of the word ‘we’ is also curious. Who is this ‘we’ you speak of? Surely this ‘we’ also includes, Asians, and fats, and fems and all kinds of people who are now excluded on dating sites.

    And who precisely is forcing who into whose pants? You seem to set up arguments that don’t really exist, to have the opportunity to oppose them, and then systematically proceed to argue against them in order to bolster your own argument.

    Finally, I have never said that “heterosexuality is the source of all the world’s ills. It’s the source of sexism, ageism, racism or body policing.” I have not labelled racism and fatphobia ‘hetero’ things (quite the opposite my ENTIRE article was actually about how they are homo problems). I also happen to have a much more complex view of the problems of the world. I do believe that heterosexist-capitalist-patriarchy does sustain itself on existing power relations in part due to these isms.

    Now, we come to the guts of my concerns about this post. I would like to address your argument about tone. Perhaps you and I have been socialised into queer/trans communities in different ways. Speaking for myself, I have been nourished by my own activist and community education work, queer and feminist theories, critical anti-race theories, and poststructuralist analyses. This background has sensitized my to the importance of things like tone, things like process, things like means – rather than a singular emphasis on content, results, and ends. My own the lessons from experiencing activism and queer education work has made it clear that without fidelity and respect for a process, we will never arrive at the destination we set off for. In many ways the means is the ends.

    My own experience of your writing is that you haven’t thought much about the tone you use to communicate. It seems you are not particularly thoughtful in attending to your own privilege (and in this sense, flicking an article to a few friends is probably not the best guide – privilege needs a lot of personal work, and reflection). I hesitate to suggest that you didn’t receive more negative feedback because not many people read the post in the first place.

    I think that is the difference between you and I. Your political and theoretical position is more talk back – than text book, or life experience. You seem to draw a lot of your inspiration from the US, Harvey Milk and blah blah. Where is your grounding in Aoteaora? In 2012?

    I believe refusing to hear criticism about tone is a masculinist silencing tool, it is effectively: ‘I am allowed to say whatever I want, however I want – and if you get hurt, or call me out on the limits of my argument, I don’t need to listen’. Not talking about tone, not addressing process leads to people who have power continuing to monopolise it. It leads to ignorance and stupid arguments.

    Your hysteria about ‘not being silenced on tone’ – is ridiculous. No one is trying to silence you. What you are really saying is – I will not be mindful of the ways in which I am communicating, I will not accept that the ways I communicate has impacts on others. THAT is what is hurting the cause. Not the arguments themselves, but the inability to reflect on the ways you talk. Once again Wainscotting, you have set up arguments in order to disagree with them. Who has tried to deny you the opportunity to disagree with bad ideas? Who is this mythical person that you refer to in this piece? Do they exist, or are you doing what you did in your last piece, and inventing oppositional arguments in order to bolster your own particularly enfeebled one?

    I would like to categorically say that you do not speak for me. Your use of ‘we’ and ‘us’ really irks me. Do not speak about my ‘rights’, and suggest that you are fighting for them. In many ways I suggest you distract attention from me fighting for my rights. YOUR priorities are not MY priorities. Speak for yourself – don’t speak for the queer* communitIES.

    If you pick up that the tone in this message is hostile – you read right. I began this exercise by trying to speak across difference, and engaging in a process of finding out about what was behind your article. With this second article I have lost patience, and I have decided to make the importance of tone abundantly clear to you.

    I will borrow the end of your closing line. For our arguments to be strong, we need to enter into them mindfully, rather than lazily. We need to appreciate that the way we communicate IS what we say. Meaning/intention is distributed not only in ‘content’ but by the way we speak.

    I am happy to respond to comments on this thread, but following that I do not intend to read this blog again.

    <3 La Dida

    • My issue over tone didn’t come from you disagreeing with me, and you’ve raised a number of good objections to my earlier post. I concede that I was over hasty in my “pop-evolutionary psychology” reference. I had intended to imply that what we find sexually attractive is largely innate and may not be open to direct manipulation for most people. I also concede that I came down too heavily on the side of “can’t fix it here,” rather than saying “the problem is everywhere, but tackling it in these online dating profiles risks stepping on people’s freedom of desire and freedom of expression,” (the latter of which being one of the most important rights that we have).

      But as for tone, my own use and defence of it comes from my experience in various social and political contexts. It’s been used against myself and others from people in the Labour Party, where any criticism was deemed as fuel for the National Party. I’ve witnessed it used against women, who were told they were being too emotional or shrill for daring to suggest that they hold their own opinions. It’s been used against me, when I’ve merely wanted to walk down the street doing something simple as holding my partner’s hand. Things that are simple to me are deemed ‘offensive’ to others. When I get angry about a politician telling me that the offence that I take at his bigoted words is “bullshit”, I’m told to calm down, because it’s not a big deal. When sitting at a table of evangelical Christians a few years ago I was told I was being offensive for merely stating that I’m an atheist.

      I guess I’m hostile to tone arguments because I’ve come to be a lot more cynical about the world than you, due to my own experiences. As I said, sometimes we do need to exercise delicacy in our discussions, and we mustn’t let our abrasiveness shut down dissent either. We have to be aware of our own privilege and not let it push out others. I’m going to get that wrong, as we all do, from time to time — we’re only human. I prefer people to call me out on it, as otherwise I’d probably be oblivious.

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