Unaffected doesn’t mean objective

If you spend any time on social media you’ll know the power of the long quote printed on a photograph: the format is often used to elevate idiocy or to spread nonsense. A good example just now is of a Samuel Pepys diary entry about “gadabouts” in taverns spreading disease. It’s fake, and uses language that didn’t exist when he was alive.

It’s not all bad, though. I saw this one today.

When you debate a person about something that affects them more than it affects you, remember that it will take a much greater emotional toll on them than on you. For you it may feel like an academic exercise. For them it feels like revealing their pain only to have you dismiss their experience and sometimes their humanity. The fact that you might remain more calm under these circumstances is a consequence of your privilege, not increased objectivity on your part.

It’s a good point, but it’s also looking at it from a pretty unlikely perspective: that the person who says they want to debate you is (a) the first and only person who has ever had this conversation with you and (b) that this person genuinely wants to discuss the issues in good faith.

In the case of (a), that’s rarely true. Whether it’s structural racism, trans healthcare, women’s reproductive rights, poverty or anything else that directly affects specific and often vulnerable groups of people, it’s highly likely that people from those groups have heard – and answered – your questions many times before. In too many cases, they have heard and answered those questions many times for many years.

To the questioner the points may be new and exciting and ground-breaking, because this is an area they are not familiar with. But to the person they’re asking, it’s simply a sign that the questioner is too lazy (or privileged, or both) to do the simplest Google search or visit a library. In effect, they’re asking a member of a marginalised group to drop what they’re doing and provide them with a free education.

And in the case of (b), that’s rarely true either. Especially on the internet. Most of the people who come swarming with their “just asking questions” are not coming in good faith with a desire to have an open and honest discussion. They are well aware what the answers to their questions are, and they don’t care.

They are not coming for a lively discussion in which both sides go away with new insights and a wider perspective. They are coming to attack you, to wear you out, and ideally to make you really angry. Because if they can do that they can turn to others and use tone policing to dismiss your entire argument.

Tone policing means misogynists get to frame women as “hysterical” or “too emotional”; white supremacists and transphobes get to claim that their targets’ anger demonstrates their simmering, dangerous rage. Whereas all it really demonstrates is that people have been goaded to the point where they’ve lost patience with the same shit they’ve heard again and again and again.

There’s a great encapsulation of the problem in Reni Eddo-Lodge’s superb book Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race. The title has been used by people who haven’t read it to claim that it’s an attempt to shut down an important debate: how can you debate racism if you refuse to talk to white people?

You can tell they haven’t read it, because it says this on the very first page (and on Eddo-Lodge’s blog here).

I’m no longer engaging with white people on the topic of race. Not all white people, just the vast majority who refuse to accept the legitimacy of structural racism and its symptoms. I can no longer engage with the gulf of an emotional disconnect that white people display when a person of colour articulates our experiences. You can see their eyes shut down and harden. It’s like treacle is poured into their ears, blocking up their ear canals like they can no longer hear us.

I just can’t engage with the bewilderment and the defensiveness as they try to grapple with the fact that not everyone experiences the world in the way that they do. They’ve never had to think about what it means, in power terms, to be white- so any time they’re vaguely reminded of this fact; they interpret it as an affront.

…if I express frustration, anger, or exasperation at their refusal to understand, they will tap into their pre-subscribed racist tropes about angry black people who are a threat to them and their safety.  It’s very likely that they’ll then paint me as a bully or an abuser. It’s also likely that their white friends will rally round them, rewrite history and make the lies the truth. Trying to engage with them and navigate their racism is not worth that.

…The balance is too far swung in their favour. Their intent is often not to listen or learn, but to exert their power, to prove me wrong, to emotionally drain me, and to rebalance the status quo.

Members of marginalised communities face all kinds of obstacles every single day. They have no obligation to add to that burden by trying to educate people who have no desire to learn.