Shut Up and Listen

Shut Up and Listen January 26, 2013

We do not like to be told we are being jerks. We do not like to be told we are being demeaning, or belittling, or discriminatory, or bigoted, even if by accident. Particularly we skepto-atheists, who so pride ourselves on our rationality, our grip on reality, our ability to coolly evaluate information on its merits.
But, inevitably — and especially if you are a white male — you will be called out. You will say something, you will write something, you will assess an idea or a cause or a feeling expressed. It will contain, in this assessment, this comment, or what have you, a word, a sentence, a supposition, a slant that causes offense. Someone, likely not a white male, will point out how this comment is hurtful, how it exacerbates a stereotype, how it reveals one’s unacknowledged social privilege, how it seems to minimize the grievances of another group.

You know what happens next. The blood boils, the eyes widen, the hackles rise, the jaw tightens. You argue back. How could you think this of me? How could you accuse me of such a thing? I am enlightened, I am sensitive, I am progressive, I am rational. I am not one of those white males. What I said was devoid of bigotry, it was not demeaning, it was not belittling, it was not in any way tainted by privilege.

You may even be right!

We see this play out every day, and I have been on both ends of it myself. Recently, in a discussion among some of the Freethought Blogs writers, PZ Myers had this advice in the midst of just such an exchange (and I’m quoting here with his permission):

If there is one thing I’ve learned in my years of wrestling with these problems…

When a member of a marginalized group tells a member of a privileged group that their efforts, no matter how well-meaning, are wrong, there is one reasonable response: Shut up and listen. You might learn something.

There is also a terrible response: arguing back. It always makes it worse.

It’s not that they are infallible and we are totally stupid. It’s that THEY are the experts and the subject of the discussion.

When I first read this, I had a gut response, and then used my brain for a bit, and had a different response.

My first reaction was exasperation. You just can’t win! Even if you’re one of the good guys, you get no allowance, no slack. A person misinterprets what you say to be racist, misogynistic, ableist, what have you, and you’re just screwed. You can’t say anything, you just look like a sad puppy and apologize. How is this rational? How is this fair?

Then I allowed myself a few breaths, and decided to let this advice play out in my head for a bit.

It is natural for anyone, especially skepto-atheists, to become hung up on a point of fact, particularly when it colors how we are seen, when an interpretation of words reflects on us as people. When called out for saying something or for holding an opinion that seems to reveal a lack of sensitivity, a social ignorance, or an over-abundance of privilege, it stings, and our obvious recourse is to counter the accusation (or the polite consciousness-raising) with more words. An additional three or four paragraphs, surely, will clear this whole mess up.

Has it ever?

Take a longer view with me.

Let’s assume you’re, like me, a white male. Let’s assume you’ve said something to elicit the kind of response I’ve been talking about. Let’s assume, even, that this response is wrong, that you are totally in the clear as far as the merits of your words go, and you are being wildly misunderstood through no fault of your own. Does PZ’s advice still make sense?

Yes. The fact of the matter is that we can never be perfect in our understanding of the experiences of those in oppressed or maligned groups. Though you are the Most Enlightened of White Males, you can never fully appreciate the feelings, injuries, and injustices known by members of those groups. You may have grokked all the data, you may have fought on the side of goodness and equality all your life, but you can’t know what it’s like.

Here’s the good part: You can always learn. You are not doomed to your current level of ignorance. Though your understanding may never be absolute, you always have room to become better informed, to become wiser.

Accept that opportunity. Accept it selfishly, even.

Remember, I’m presuming in this hypothetical that you have said nothing wrong, but were perceived to have done so. I know, it hurts. It sucks. It brings up a swirl of poisonous emotions.

But you can take it, can’t you?

When you are called out (and you will be), accept it. Listen. Think. Do the intellectual exercise, put yourself in their place as best you can. Absorb it.

Can it be enough that you know you intended no harm, no offense? Do you have a sense of self strong enough that you can allow yourself to be criticized, nicely or not, about your choice of words, your perspective’s slant, your unintended belittling of another group or person?

Chances are, you were wrong. But more to the point, chances are you probably can’t know if you were wrong, not really.

Take this opportunity to see if you can understand how you were wrong, how what you said could hurt. Instead of a war of words to prove your equality-cred in the moment, decide to take in the criticism as a tool for next time. Use what you’ve learned to get better at expressing your ideas. Use what you’ve learned to better understand where people who have lived very different lives are coming from.

You’ll have so many chances in your life to be right. You’re a skepto-atheist, after all. But in times like this, it’s okay to be wrong. It’s okay, as long as when you have been called out, you take the opportunity to improve yourself through acceptance of the criticism.

Use what you’ve learned to become wiser.

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