“Gotcha!” Moments: Progress or Posturing?

Injustices should cease. That’s practically definitional: we basically define injustices as “unfair things that should not happen.”

But how do we get that to occur? As bad as the present may be, it’s irrelevant if no strategy exists to improve things that are better.

Those who are progressive, liberal, leftist or who are fighting for social justice actually must indeed hold themselves to a higher standard than others. After all, those who are conservatives or traditionalists only argue that the status quo should remain undisturbed. A person who argues for a change has taken a burden of proof.

Anti-Semitism has been on the rise over the last year. There are serious divisions both within the United States and between the United States and the rest of the world. It wouldn’t be totally accurate to say that we’re more divided than ever: while there is certainly evidence that partisan differences are increasing, we aren’t fighting a Civil War and no one is dying in duels. American history is a lot more rough-and-tumble and divisive than a lot of people like to remember: We’re largely past the era of overt yellow journalism, of overt political corruption, of political machine, and of politicians caning other politicians.

Still, it’s obviously accurate that a lot of concord-building has to be done in the United States. So how can that be done?

In their review of concord organizations, Barbara Nelson, Kathryn Carver and Linda Kaboolian lay out a number of rules that are used by successful concord organizations around the globe, from Ireland to Eritrea. Their advice is important, and may stand as a vital corrective for those people who have very strict rules about what one imagines “allydom” to be or what roles a variety of people have in organizations.

One of the major rules that they lay out are to have norms that prevent “Gotcha!” moments. These are moments where a person calls out another person not so much to promote dialog but to correct a person. The process is, whether or not the person offering the correction, designed to discredit the person being corrected while making the person who is offering the correction into a gatekeeper. As Nelson et al. explain, “The purpose of the interrupter was not to engage in a discussion on respectful names, but to show that the speaker was thoughtless and not to be trusted and that the interrupter was the guardian of that understanding”.

The example that Nelson et al. offer is a correction of “Hispanic” toward “Chicana/o” or “Latina/o”. One might also consider the example of those who believe that woman should be spelled “womyn”. It’s not that these criticisms are wrong (or right) to offer in some context, but that all too often these corrections are offered not to further dialog but to stop it.

After all, it’s very easy for people to mistrust each other and to go back to circling their wagons. It’s very hard for people to swallow their pride and compromise with other stakeholders, especially when they feel (rightly or wrongly) that they have been subjected to an injustice. When something is hard, we tend to find a way to get out of it by doing the much easier thing. Mutual posturing allows people to return to their bunkers.

Those efforts that work to build concord have to prevent moments like this. They commit to preventing this posturing even though it “means that people in concord groups are committed to engaging with those in opposing camps even when they cause some pain or frustration”. After all, injustice stings too, and it won’t go away until various stakeholders are able to work together.

There’s a kind of social justice advocacy that many of us see, and that is unfortunately exaggerated by those who are either skeptical of progressive politics or outright want to smear such politics. I call this “Tumblrite” politics. Such politics, that are very much about identity politics issues and discussion, are very prone to “Gotcha!” moments. A person using the wrong pronoun for a person who is transgender or gender queer in some way, for example, could be a sincere correction, but it could also be a “Gotcha!” moment.

Indeed, the authors even note that “political correctness” (an idea I usually find to be right-wing nonsense propaganda) can be a problem: that is, when people are more concerned with “monitoring behavior for failures” than building successes and actually educating, one can see adverse and even totalitarian outcomes.

Now, aren’t these moments to some extent subjective and rely on interpreting the intent of the person offering the correction? Yes, of course. But that’s exactly why the norm must be so strong against these occurrences, and why it’s important for those in concord organizations to act to try to mediate such discussions, get people to apologize, and use it as an opportunity for discussion.

Turn An Argument Into A Discussion

I am by no means even close to exemplary at the ability to turn such contentious situations into a discussion. I personally value a good debate that lets the air out and lets people express their position. But there is a time for such debates, and there’s a time for discussion, and most of the time discussion is more productive.

When a person wants to offer a correction, that can be turned from a “Gotcha!” moment into a mutual consciousness-raising moment. For example: If an improper pronoun is used for a group, a moderator could use that opportunity to not only explain why people take the pronoun and identity issues seriously but also to indicate that those who are corrected may feel like they meant no harm and are being corrected for just using language in a way that everyone had agreed upon prior.

What This Says About Allydom

Over time, I’ve become uncomfortable, due to precisely the kinds of norms that lead successful concord organizations to work, with many movements and trends in those movements that seek justice that talk about how individuals of specific identity groups should behave.

A lot of this advice is, of course, crucial. Black Lives Matter groups, for example, often ask white allies to allow people of color a primary chance to speak for the cameras and to insist that white allies be there to primarily support the message of the movement. These are important directives: white allies, and people in other dominant groups, are often given an especial spotlight by media.

However, such directives can themselves become “Gotcha!” moments to silence those who speak their mind.

This comes up routinely during some situations where individuals are accused of “tone policing” or of “mansplaining”. (For those who aren’t of dominant groups, there’s always accusations of “false consciousness”, “tokendom” and “selling out”).

As always tends to be the case where human behavior goes awry, there are competing cognitions at work. On the one hand, those of dominant groups who want to address social justice issues recognize that everything from the dynamics of trust to prior generations of activism show that it’s important that those in dominant groups learn to listen more, be more humble and engage more effectively. If things are left to their own inertia, those who have sociological power will ultimately rise to the top of organizations for justice and push forward an agenda that will be within their lens and ways of thinking.

On the other hand (and this is the cognition that is often so badly taught), people of dominant groups should not be doing what they’re doing because it’s about others.

A white person should be opposing institutional racism and white supremacy not because people of color necessarily need it or even want it but because one should not be complicit with evil.

The reality and importance of identity politics issues must never be allowed to eclipse people’s individuality, integrity or humanity. If a person feels that a particular movement is doing something wrong, they should speak out about it, and, in fact, if anything should speak out more loudly when it’s a movement they happen to agree with. Internal criticism is important not only to reach out to the other side and show them that people in a movement for justice can be reasonable and honest enough to correct their own problems but also to maintain one’s own integrity. This is what people are intuitively doing when they call on Muslims to do a better job at dealing with extremism and violence in their own communities, or when we call on sincere Republicans and conservatives to renounce Trump.

Recently, I was discussing with anarcho-feminists in a group. Someone posted a meme saying that women should effectively be more flatulent, angrier and less apologetic. Now, of course, this meme is responding to the way that women are routinely taught to be docile, submissive, obedient and demure. Many women might need to hear that it’s okay for them to fart in public if they need to.

But I responded very negatively to this meme. There’s another issue at play, and it’s not a minor caveat. We have a society where individual power, prestige, and privilege is valued and where narcissism is either actively approved of or at least tolerated to reprehensible degrees. A capitalistic, statist society often teaches people to seek out power, domination, and intrusion. We see it in those people who loudly say that they should be not only allowed to speak their mind but have no one criticize them for it, no matter how bigoted, nonsensical, banal or outright grotesque they are being. We see it in “mean girls” and in the logic of reality shows.

A society should not view progress by virtue of giving those who are subordinate within it the power and capability to be just as backbiting, selfish, violent, intrusive, gross and mean as those who were formerly dominant. It should view progress as seeing a society where people have greater courtesy, decency, kindness and compassion in public. We want a beloved community, not Survivor.

But, of course, this process requires that everyone take criticisms and listen to opinions that they would prefer not to. It requires that, yes, white straight Christian men express what they’d like to see in a better society, just as with anyone else.

How Do Safe Spaces Fit? 

Do safe spaces fit into this conception of activism?

Of course. In fact, they complement the hard work of concord-building.

It is absolutely true that people who are doing the work of engaging with others will become exhausted. And it is absolutely true that those who already have to deal with additional stress as a result of being a woman, or gay, or a person of color, or transgender, or gender queer, will be especially exhausted from having to swallow the negative consequences of omnipresent ignorance, misinformation, and idiocy.

Safe spaces within organizations become the place where groups can discuss within themselves, vent about what they’ve seen, and receive support. Just like any other support group, it’s a place to relax, recuperate and decompress. It can also be a place for debriefing and touching bases.

In the movements proper, however, people need to feel empowered to speak, to truly fight in solidarity and to conquer together. Concord organizations need to teach people how to speak to each other and how to minimize their social impacts, but they must also get people working together, yelling together, writing together and sharing together.

So I ask readers to consider, when they’re engaging with someone, “Am I making this correction because it truly counts, or because I’m mad and want to correct someone?” If the latter, is the better solution to say nothing and to pick a battle, or to make a correction and then find a way of using it as a teaching moment?

It may not be fair or just, but it is unrealistic and unworkable to ask others to change their minds and to at the least accept changes to the society is to ask them for trust, to impinge upon their patience and needs. Building concord requires that all sides build trust, forgive and communicate.

And these moments are real. Just recently, I learned that Matt Dillahunty, outspoken atheist and frequent host of the Atheist Experience, was not only a Southern Baptist training to be a minister but a Dittohead and a hardcore conservative. Since then, he has become practically the opposite. And he has noted that, if atheists had not been patient with him, he likely would have become a minister and would be telling his flock to go tell atheists about their personal experience. He’s far from alone. There are innumerable people who once were skeptical of social justice efforts and are now eager advocates. It’s worth it to take a chance on people and to give them the chance to come out and explore.

This article was written by Frederic Christie, a writer for dusk magazine. 

About Fred B-C (28 Articles)
I'm a freelance hope warrior. While I am still figuring out exactly what that entails, I write novels and short stories, write for video games, design board games, do inspirational speaking and life coaching, and generally try to make the world just a little bit more pleasant. E-mails at frchristie@ucdavis.edu are always appreciated! (Yes, even trolling ones).

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