On not having to explain why things are inappropriate

December 23, 2014

Over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed a bit of a trend amongst those who would consider themselves activists for one cause or another that’s essentially, “it’s not the underprivileged person’s job to educate people with people about their privilege.” Or, somewhat surprised responses to general questions from an ignorant person that they are ignorant on a topic the activist cares deeply about.

To be clear, for the record: I do not at all disagree that it would be best if people would put in more effort to examine their own privilege. People educating themselves is a much more scalable way to approach the problem when there are limited resources in time and energy. I’m very fortunate in that I haven't yet had so many experiences in having to explain the same thing over and over to others that I feel completely wearied by the effort and resentful of having that being seen as my “responsibility” to represent some entire group that I might be a part of.

The area where I might have come closest on this on is sharing with people who didn’t grow up around many Asian-American immigrant families what that was like. Amy Chua made this a lot easier in the last few years by writing her Tiger Mom book, but I just don’t particularly get tired of talking about how my childhood was different from a lot of other people’s with things like, “oh, you got a 99 on that math test? what did you do wrong?” kind of thing.

Here’s the big BUT that I’m of course leading up to: BUT, while it would be ideal for people to put more effort in, especially those that describe themselves as allies, I see the reality of the world as one where people are mainly motivated to do things that benefit themselves. Pretty much by definition, someone with privilege generally benefits from not examining that privilege too deeply. A layperson cares less about an issue than an activist does, because they’d be an activist already otherwise!

So appealing to people’s better natures and calling for them to do work seems to me as though it will be inevitably less successful.

If you’re the one that cares more about something, telling people more or less, “if you were a good person, you would care more, and if you cared more, you would do work and know more about it already” is not very effective to getting people to be on your side.

I watched a discussion awhile back about the challenges in interactions between socially awkward people* and people who don’t feel safe in a certain environment. On the one side, I don’t think it’s the “victim’s” responsibility to have to say right then and there, “you’re making me uncomfortable, please stop that.” There are plenty of good reasons why that is not a catch-all solution to resolving these situations.

My issue is with people for whom it seems almost a matter of principle that they should not have to explain to someone why something is inappropriate and should therefore be stopped. It’s almost like an assumption that people should just know what they should do to be decent human beings, by generally acceptable standards. Like again yes, ideally, we would never have to explain to any guys why street harassment is a bad thing they should not do.

But, when you run into something you want it to be stopped, your ultimate goal is to have fewer instances of this happening in the world, right? And explaining why it’s inappropriate will help you achieve that goal, in my opinion.

You may have another goal of not wanting to spend all your energy fighting with and educating other people all the time, which is also a perfectly fair and legitimate choice. But to me, it seems like having a principled stance against having to clearly explain the problem (which is not to say you have to have a customized response each time either, you can point people to something pre-written to read, if you have it) and always expressing your (valid, and deserved) anger at the world being an unfair place can get in the way of you getting what you want.

In conclusion, as a general life philosophy: Staying upset about how people are fundamentally pretty selfish and lazy can be a distraction from getting what you actually want. Do the things that will get you what you want instead.

Further reading: Getting More: How to Negotiate to Achieve Your Goals in the Real World

*One example is men in tech who’ve been diagnosed with autism-spectrum syndromes like Aspergers, or are just generally kind of awkward, interacting with women in tech, who are in the minority, and in general who in all likelihood have had to deal with many, many male creeps in her past. Yes, "autism is to blame for harassment of women" is trotted out and used as an excuse, even though pretty much everyone is capable of learning sufficient social norms not to harass others. However, there are a non-zero number of real-life cases where social awkwardness is in fact the cause.