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.