Update: It seems that Greg Laden has taken this criticism from sofiarune, myself, Erik, and others to heart, and is mass-replying to the commenters in Stephanie Zvan’s post even as we speak. We’ll see what comes of this.
Update II: Perhaps there is some confusion over “yelly.” This is not rage, this is fun. It seems a lot of people have trouble with this. As people keep reminding me, we’re just not normal that way.
Update III: Good news and bad news. Good news is that Tioliah commented very thoroughly on my post regarding “the Y chromosome is a damaged X chromosome” nonsense, but unfortunately Laden has doubled-down on his “it’s right even though it’s wrong” gambit. Ah well, we tried.
There are a lot of things you don’t do in activism. You don’t alienate the people around where you’re holding your vigil/protest, you don’t ignore the people on whose behalf you’re protesting, you never, ever start a fight, and you be as honest and complete as time permits in your discussion of why you believe what you do (sincerity really works). The serious never-do-this rule, however, is “don’t burn bridges with another generation of activists.” This is a hard lesson to learn that people keep forgetting, and it unpacks into a lot of sub-rules, such as:
- Don’t assume that your generation has a monopoly on the truth
- Don’t assume theirs does either
- Remember that a conversation is an exchange
- Remember that no perspective includes the views of all others, no matter how much someone in that position (or your position) may have suffered/been privileged.
This little four-part whammy is very often forgotten, because it knocks out most of the easy-at-hand justifications for the stupid little hierarchies that we humans are so good at setting up on a moment’s notice for no apparent reason or utility whatsoever (that is perhaps its greatest charm, besides the little thing about it being a very good idea). These hierarchies lead to stratification, which leads to institutionalization, which can only lead to the Dark Side of self-perpetuating organizational fail and loss of purpose. So what’s this got to do with anything? Read on, but first know that I’m writing this with sofiarune’s knowledge and approval. Why that’s important will be clear later.
I’m browsing the web searching for stupid people being stupid (as I often do in the target-rich environment that is the Internet), and I decide to check the gold-mine that is Thunderf00t’s blog. Having already read the latest post at the time, I delve into the land of meta-stupid (namely, the comments for that post). A particular comment catches my eye, because it sounds like someone badly rephrasing a fairly standard Feminist argument (that you need to shock people out of the complacent way in which our culture teaches us to equate “male” with “normal”) that someone has thrown out as a response to criticism to Greg Laden’s Really Stupid and Unscientific Statement about Brains (“You know, the male brain is a female brain damaged by testosterone in various stages in it’s life.” video link here, starting about 30 seconds prior) (though what’s surprising about it is that it took so long for anyone to notice him saying this).
I forget about it, because well, I’m having fun digging around the stupid. Later on, I called sofiarune on Skype, and we start talking about the crazy and stupid things we’ve noticed (as we are wont to do), and Greg Laden’s fail comes up. I mention that someone is claiming that it was Greg trying to shock the audience, and her reaction could best be summed up as “that’s a bullshit response, because what Laden said was scientifically and academically irresponsible. You never drop value-laden statements like that because they’re not useful and not informative.” It was something like that, but a bit more yelly (we tend to rant a lot at each other see update II at the beginning of this post). So I dig up the link to Stephanie Zvan’s blog post attempting to explain Greg Laden’s statement, and not only is it a standard “you gotta break some eggs if you’re going to do consciousness-raising” justification*, it sounds suspiciously like she’s rationalizing what he’s saying after the fact. He could have been thinking that, but nowhere else in the recording does he present his statement as anything other than simple fact.
Anyhow, do read her blog post, and then read from this comment on if you don’t have time for the whole thread – that’s where sofia jumped in to respond, and gradually became angrier than I have seen her on all but two occasions. I quietly stepped in once here to try and offer a constructive bit of criticism when I saw that things were going very badly. I did act as a sounding board for her phrasing, but generally tried to stay the hell out of a discussion gone horribly wrong. Take what you will from Zvan’s last reply (to both of us). Sofia was beside herself, feeling like she’d been, well, you read the comments. If you didn’t, go do it now.
I am disturbed by the whole thing as well, for several reasons. First of all, given that I’d just uploaded my video on wicked problems, I was in no mood to take anyone’s assumption of sage wisdom without a few pounds of salt. Second, we were being asked to take something essentially on faith, with no evidence to support it. Third, it was a connection that most people could not be expected to make, or that most people would be comfortable making unless they were already trying to rationalize something more sensible than an utter brain fart into Laden’s words.
Fifth, Ms. Zvan’s reply to Sofia (saying that she was “defenitionally concern trolling”) was a wee bit of unfeeling sophistry that reminded me a lot of an elder upbraiding a younger for being insufficiently devoted to The Cause, and questioning their loyalty. Looking at sofia and listening to her as she was trying to have this dialogue, this was not concern trolling. It was far beyond concern, even. It was anger and frustration and a touch of despair about the people she hoped would be beyond tribal apologetics. That didn’t go over well with me at all, as you can imagine. Then, I saw her reply to me at the end, and that changed everything.
Stealth Badger, I’ve been known to be a bit demanding of my audience.
To be honest, I was trying very hard not to laugh when I first saw that; an assertion of authority and privilege by someone who is lecturing others about how necessary it is to understand that Greg Laden was challenging their preconceived notions of authority and privilege. I know it’s supposedly a sign of low intelligence to think in images, but this demotivational was the first thing that came to mind when I saw her response:
It’s really interesting watching this cycle of pontificating at and then shooting/dismissing the messenger during these many feisty discussions on the Internet. While I empathize with the difficulty of realizing just what is valid communication and what is trolling or hating, there’s little doubt that if you’re feeling comfortable and secure in your knowledge, then you’re almost certainly missing something. There’s absolutely no doubt whatsoever that if you’re involved in two traditions that stress rigorous self-examination and questioning and you publicly dismiss the questions of others about something said that is incomplete (and therefore difficult to make sense of), then you’re acting against the values you espouse, especially if that miscommunication touches the core of what those values represent.
As with any thoughts or advice I give, I don’t much care whether anyone buys into my reading of this or not. What I do know is that to make a statement such as Laden did without subsequently providing the context to interpret it the way he purportedly wanted it to be interpreted is silly. For Zvan to dismiss the sincere scientific, social, and linguistic concerns of someone about this miscommunication as “definitional concern trolling” is to make herself look ridiculous in an effort to cover for Laden’s mistake. Also, to talk about genetics and developmental biology on such a panel and in such terms so sloppily, well, you aren’t getting half the grief y’all deserve, because a lot of other people (such as Christina Rad) are getting grief just for being associated with you, and you could lessen that outrage just by admitting the errors (I know, the haters will never be satisfied; that’s just the nature of haters).
Lastly, I have a thought for any would-be teachers of activism out there. The moment you decide you don’t need to learn from someone or can’t learn from them, then stop the conversation and withdraw. You’re not going to be able to teach them anything, because you won’t be able to learn enough about their perspective to know how to communicate to them, let alone learn what they need to know (or what they know that you don’t).
* a line of reasoning that has always made me more than a little squeamish, since you can often put off more people than you successfully teach with this approach, and no matter what anyone says about the glory days of activism in years past, humans generally never react well to having their world-views grabbed and shaken without warning