Listening Is Better Than Playing Make Believe

Listening Is Better Than Playing Make Believe April 4, 2016

Image by brittreints via (CC BY 2.0)

Several months ago, I wrote a post about empathy, where I admonished religious people not to do something that I did as a religious person interacting with atheists.

It happened in comments on a blog, where, for whatever reason, I made a comment of the form, “If I were an atheist, I would [do/feel/be]…” When I wrote the comment, I was doing so essentially as a thought experiment, envisioning what my reaction would be if I were in those shoes. In a sense, what I was doing was in theory a sort of empathetic thinking: trying to imagine someone else’s perspective and extrapolate from there.

Almost immediately, another commenter (whose handle I recall quite clearly, though I won’t name them here) responded with a comment to the effect of “How dare you presume to understand what it’s like to be an atheist.” It was a sharply worded retort that I initially pushed back against (because I have long had the common habit of getting defensive first and only reflecting much later) but which I’ve come to see as exactly what I needed to hear.

As I said in that post:

After all, I had lived my whole life in the relative privilege of being not only religious but a member of the dominant religion – the gap was wide enough that I couldn’t just intuit what it would be like. As such, I often got it wrong.

So if you care about non-believers as you say you do – and I hear plenty of you saying that – you need to listen to what we are telling you from our own experiences and not simply invent what you imagine our experiences to be like based on your own.

Unfortunately, this is far from limited to religious people thinking about the experiences of atheism.

In the past several days leading up to the start of Autism Awareness Month, a website and Facebook page called I Am Nonverbal popped up, the work of a documentary filmmaker and mother named Rachel Lack. Lack has a four-year-old son who’s nonverbal — meaning that he does not have functional spoken language¹ — and in order to “spread autism awareness & acceptance,” she encouraged others to accept the “challenge” to be nonverbal in public for some length of time and then make a short video or post about what they learned from the experience of not talking.

The reception to this challenge was…well, not generally very positive.

Over the course of especially the last day or so, autistic people (and, to a lesser degree, their allies) came to the page to express their opposition to the project’s challenge. Some objected to it as something comparable to blackface, some pointed out that such a casual exercise trivializes the experiences of nonverbal people, and many people noted that this doesn’t do anything to amplify the voices of nonverbal people themselves.

I have a bit of sympathy for Lack (and I think her heart was probably in the right place, although that doesn’t justify the idea in the slightest). I had deliberated for several weeks over my own endeavor to talk more about religion and autism, including soliciting advice from autistic friends of mine. These are the kinds of ideas that I have a lot of anxiety about because they have the potential to harm already-marginalized people, and that’s the last thing I ever want. I doubt Lack wanted that, either.

Ultimately, after some entrenching and resistance, Lack conceded and announced that the challenge would end. (As of the time of publication, the website doesn’t yet reflect this change.) Not an easy move to make, but it’s the right one and I hope Lack swallows her pride and honors her word.

This is a pretty common formula: A well-intentioned ally of a marginalized group looks at some general type of experience from that group and then tries to find some way to replicate that experience and thus sort of playact as a member of that group. It is generally the product not of malice but of ignorance and thoughtlessness, but it’s a problem nonetheless.

I don’t think I could lay out the nature of the problem better than Heina Dadabhoy of Heinous Dealings:

The need for privileged people to experiment with being marginalized to the praise of other privileged people instead of listening to and believing the voices from those groups doesn’t end with hijab-wearing and fastingFat suit experiments, for one. Men posing as women online, for another. Straight men holding hands for yet another. For rich people for whom poverty porn is not enough, pretending to be poor.

When will this pseudo-compassionate condescending bullshit be seen for what it is? Or perhaps even end?

To anyone considering trying on oppression in the name of understanding, I implore you to take off the imaginary layperson lab coat and stop experimenting. You don’t need to if you give any credit to the marginalized voices all around you. The best way to use your privilege for good is to listen and to signal boost, not do oppression drag.

People who have already been pushed to the side don’t need self-professed allies playing make believe. They need a platform to talk about their own experiences, to make their voices heard rather than just a cheap imitation.

The solution for privileged people is easy: Listen to marginalized people, let them have the microphone, and learn something.

If we can’t even manage that, what good are we actually doing?

Image via brittreints via (CC BY 2.0)

¹“Nonverbal” sometimes means “not expressed through words,” but here it specifically refers to spoken language. Many nonverbal individuals can communicate verbally through non-spoken means such as written or typed communication. ^

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