Today's discourse needs more civility, respect, less vitriolBy Samaria Johnson | 02/11/2014 11:00pm
There’s been a fair amount of talk lately about the need for more civility in discourse. Last week, for instance, Janet Mock joined Piers Morgan to talk about her experiences as a trans woman. The two-day exchange quickly devolved into the kind of no-man’s-land characteristic of discussions about controversial issues. Still, niceness is overrated. I’m not saying that these kinds of things don’t ever get out of control. When these sorts of conversations take place, especially on a social media platform, there’s always potential for real damage to be done.
However, let’s not confuse hard medicine for vitriol. Civility means that a basic respect is present. It doesn’t mean that an argument never gets personal, because opinions, like oppression and privilege, don’t exist in a vacuum. Let’s remember that if someone’s angry or upset, their emotions don’t invalidate their argument, but are legitimate manifestations of real injury. Dismissing someone or a group of people for being “too sensitive,” for instance, only underscores the world’s failure to provide them with the adequate protection and respect they deserve. It reinforces their marginalization and the privileged’s undue dominance. Civility doesn’t have to be clean.
When people like Piers Morgan meet someone like Janet Mock, we must remember that they aren’t meeting on a level field, regardless of appearances. Morgan has power that Mock doesn’t. What’s more, his power is legitimized, while the world generally believes that Mock doesn’t deserve to have any. When Morgan purposely misgendered her and asked inappropriate questions, Mock responded to Morgan on neutral turf – Twitter, that is, where marginalized voices have an outlet they (almost) literally don’t have anywhere else. She outlined very clearly how she was disrespected during Morgan’s interview; her fellow trans activists supported her. Morgan ignored actual contempt – the fatal violence, workplace discrimination and rampant sexual abuse trans people face daily – to blame them for “attacking” him online: “I’m on your side, dimwits.”
Maybe someone did bully him; that isn’t excusable. Nonetheless, that doesn’t negate the fact that Morgan both abused and perpetuated abuse against a group of marginalized people and then held himself up as their savior. He, a cisgender heterosexual white man, decided that his feelings were more important than how a black trans woman had been treated. He wanted to be rewarded for the barest minimum of human decency, as if not using gendered slurs was an exceptional feat.
How someone is represented is just as important as them being represented at all. Morgan abused Mock and, by extension, the entire trans and non-binary community, when he completely dismissed and ignored her complaints about the way he behaved toward her and treated her experiences.
That’s not acceptable. In my journey as a social justice activist, I’ve come to the point where my fundamental stance is that if it’s not intersectional, it’s not valid. If it doesn’t prioritize the well-being and safety of the abused, it’s pointless. “It,” that is, being social justice work. Opinions aren’t created equal: If someone’s opinions and actions advance systems of oppression, I don’t respect them.
Accusing marginalized people of causing divisiveness and tension within social justice communities is oppressive, because yes, these places can and do reproduce and perpetuate the capitalistic, ableist, racist, sexist, classist status quo. If my language and behavior harm the people that I’m fighting for – if someone speaks up and I don’t heed their correction – then I’m not actually working for positive change in anyone’s life. I’m only contributing to the filth.
So I’m not interested in silencing or submitting myself to the erasure of my experiences because they inconvenience or offend someone. I don’t coddle or make room for so-called allies, even other women and people of color, who insist that my niceness and “good” behavior is a prerequisite for their solidarity. I will and do call people out if they screw up. That’s not vitriol. That’s basic self-care and self-respect.
Samaria Johnson is a senior majoring in history. Her column runs biweekly.