(I wrote large parts of this post while unable to read, so I apologize for any areas I might have left unfinished or confusing.)
I was talking to a friend recently, who was confused about why it was that people encouraged her to become more assertive, and yet became angry when she actually was more assertive and it conflicted with their wishes.
Which reminded me both of a lot of my own experiences, and of one of my favorite passages from the first Harry Potter book:
Neville stared at their guilty faces.
“You’re going out again,” he said.
“No, no, no,” said Hermione. “No, we’re not. Why don’t you go to bed, Neville?”
Harry looked at the grandfather clock by the door. They couldn’t afford to waste any more time, Snape might even now be playing Fluffy to sleep.
“You can’t go out,” said Neville. “you’ll be caught again, Gryffindor will be in even more trouble.”
“You don’t understand,” said Harry. “this is important.”
But Neville was clearly steeling himself to do something desperate.
“I won’t let you do it,” he said, hurrying to stand in front of the portrait hole. “I’ll — I’ll fight you!”
“Neville,” Ron exploded, “get away from that hole and don’t be an idiot –”
“Don’t you call me an idiot!” said Nevile. “I don’t think you should be breaking any more rules! And you’re the one who told me to stand up to people!”
“Yes, but not to us,” said Ron in exasperation.
Anyway, what I said in response was that people seemed to be a lot like water. Water spreads out to take up whatever space the container it is in allows it to take. People, also, seem to spread out in a similar way in terms of what actions they view as okay for them to be doing. And they rarely notice all the space they are taking up, until some person or event makes it clear to them. It just feels ‘natural’ to take up as much space as they’re allowed.
So Ron Weasley sees Neville being bullied by Draco Malfoy. And he sees this isn’t good for Neville, so he encourages Neville to stand up for himself and stop being a doormat.
At that point in time, though, Ron is not even imagining all the things he himself does, that Neville might object to. The space that all his actions take up, and their effect on Neville, and Neville’s possible opinions of them, are totally invisible to him. So he is not even thinking about that when he tells Neville to grow some backbone and stand up to people more. He is thinking only of the actions of other people. He is outside of those actions, and therefore more readily able to see their effects on other people. It’s much harder to see those effects of your own actions.
So Ron is used to taking up a certain amount of space with his actions, and to Neville not resisting in any way. When Neville does resist, and relates it back to Ron’s encouragement to assert himself, Ron is totally surprised and not at all pleased. Aside from the urgency of Ron’s actions at that point in time, Neville is now forcing him not to take up all the space he’s accustomed to taking up.
Neville is later awarded points by the headmaster for what he did there:
“There are all kinds of courage,” said Dumbledore, smiling. “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends. I therefore award ten points to Mr. Neville Longbottom.
And that is why Neville was one of my favorite Harry Potter characters from the first book onward.
Anyway, the fact that people take up so much space without being aware of it, is also apparent in how people handle power relationships in general. And it explains a good deal of the seemingly bizarre effects of people with less power or privilege in a certain area standing up to people with more when demanding equality and justice. It’s pretty often that the people with more privilege in whatever area is being discussed, are completely nonplussed and view demands for equality as actual attacks on whatever group of people have more power in general.
I wrote about this in an old post, What Happens When You Ignore Power Relationships. It was regarding a psychologist’s review of Irit Shimrat’s book Call Me Crazy. In the book, Shimrat had talked about many genuine abuses of power in the psychiatric system. Things like solitary confinement, torture, forced drugging, degradation, humiliation, and in general being treated like a lower caste of humanity. Things that are human rights violations by just about any standard.
Sheila Bienenfeld, the psychologist reviewing the book, said:
As a psychologist who for several years (eons ago) worked in a psychiatric hospital, I had some trouble with this seeming wholesale dismissal of psychology and allied professions. It was a bit of an injury to my professional narcissism. But one of the motifs of Call Me Crazy is that Shimrat and many of her fellow “survivors” feel that in their times of personal crisis they were treated by psychiatrists and psychologists, social workers and nurses, as incompetent or simply bad: their value as human beings was derided and their opinions dismissed. My feeling of being discounted and unfairly stigmatized in this book parallels what Shimrat and her colleagues often felt as patients.
The emphasis in bold is my own. Bienenfield is used to taking up a certain amount of space, at the clear expense of psychiatric patients. When Shimrat pushes back in attempting to regain her humanity, Bienenfield makes the ludicrous assumption that her experience of having her feelings hurt (as well as having it asserted that she as a professional ought not to be allowed to take up space at the expense of the human rights of psych patients) is equivalent in any way to Shimrat’s experience of captivity, degradation, and torture.
As I wrote in my last post at the time:
Am I to assume then, that Irit Shimrat and her co-authors locked Dr. Bienenfeld in a small room and would not let her out until she renounced her profession? Did they put her in a building where her every movement, statement, and feeling was noted and controlled by anti-psychiatry activists who repeatedly put pressure on her to stop practicing? Is she unable to practice her preferred profession or even state it openly for fear of housing, educational, and job discrimination? Do the police watch her more carefully when they find out that she is a psychology professor?
Are there a constant stream of articles in “reputable” newspapers that imply that violent criminals tend to be psychology professors? Does Bienenfeld lack any sort of standard recourse when Shimrat publishes her views on people like Bienenfeld? Does Bienenfeld have to worry, when she publishes opinions like this in a book review, that people will not take her seriously anymore, and may even discriminate against her?
Would it be possible for most people to truthfully relegate Bienenfeld’s views to a relic of the seventies (even though they’re being expressed in the nineties) and totally dismiss what she has to say on that basis? Is psychology treated like a joke by people with the real power? Would Bienenfeld have to struggle to get a book published about her views on psychology and keep it in print? Would it be close to the only psychology book out there, and then fade into obscurity almost as soon as it was published? Does she have to constantly have to remind people she’s not a cult member?
Those are the things the reviewer is blissfully unaware of when she equates the fact that she is being asked to do a few things differently in order to avoid hurting others (that is, the space she’s unfairly taken up in the past is being pointed out to her), with all the experiences above that Shimrat and those like her actually have had because of people just like the reviewer.
But, as I noted to my friend, I’ve been on the other side of this one too, and when you are, you really can’t always see at the time how ridiculous you’re being. Unfortunately I can’t recall all the details. But I remember at some point realizing that some viewpoint that I had held, and acted upon, for quite some time, was part of a racist pattern that had severe negative effects on other people. Nobody told me directly. I figured it out while reading a book by women of color. But I realized that my attitude, and actions, had directly and indirectly harmed people, and would have to change.
My first reaction, though, was not “Oh good, I’m glad I know this so that I can change it.” My first reaction was more on the order of, “Oh come on. I’ve been doing this the same way most of my life. Who does anyone think they are to tell me to do it any different? There’s a significant chunk of the space I’m taking up that people are telling me is harmful to them and that I need to stop doing. But I’ve always taken up that space, I’m used to taking up that space, I want to take up that space, and they are encroaching on my right to do whatever I want, if they say otherwise.”
Fortunately my conscience stepped in at some point to intervene, because my first reaction was harmful, counterproductive, and racist in itself. It was basically saying “As a white person, who racially is pretty much always at the top of a power hierarchy, who is allowed to take up way more space in that area than just about any other kind of person, then I’d rather throw a hissy-fit about my ‘right’ to take up space that belongs to others (and to cause significant harm to them in doing so, even if it just feels like a “little thing” to me), than give up a tiny portion of that space so that other people can take up their own space in the world without fear of certain consequences. And even though it would not harm me at all to just stop doing this, I’m going to act like it does, even though my doing this causes actual tangible harm to other people. Since it has little effect on me, it must have little effect on everyone else.”
The reason I’m going into great detail about it is not to justify it. It’s unjustifiable. It’s because just about everyone has this reaction about something, given that just about everyone has some degree of unfair power in some area. Just about everyone takes up some degree of undeserved space in a way that harms other people and encroaches on their own space. And it seems like an unfortunate fact of human nature to notice when other people do things like this, but to have trouble seeing it in ourselves. This happens in personal relationships, but it also happens in wider contexts involving institutionalized power.
Unfortunately, our society has tended to equate terms like racism with Nazis or KKK members, and therefore people equate it with “calling people a monster”. But it has nothing to do with being a monster. It has to do with being a member of a society that (yes, still) puts some people at an unfair advantage because of the color of their skin, the shape of their body, or the country many of their ancestors come from. And being immersed in that as someone with that advantage is like being a fish in water, you don’t notice it all around you, and you don’t notice when you’re acting on things you ought not to be acting on.
Like the time I explained, politely I thought, to a parent, that describing a developmentally disabled child as not becoming a real adult contributed to widespread harm of disabled people. I explained about the ‘eternal child’ stereotype, and the problems it has caused for many disabled people: Being denied the right to marry, live on our own, have and choose our own sexual relationships, hold jobs, etc. Even being forcibly sterilized. The idea that we don’t become adults has serious consequences, and I pointed out that broadcasting that idea all over the place, even with good intentions, still contributes to the stereotype, and to the harm it causes.
At that point, I was told that the parent in question was only honestly expressing her feelings, which she had a total right to do. In other words, she had a total right to take up that space at the great expense of other people. Her emotions were more important than other people’s uteruses. And if she didn’t intend to contribute to all that negative stuff, then she wasn’t contributing at all to it, right? And I was calling her a monster who didn’t care about people, right?
Well, no. I wasn’t. I even wrote a post trying to explain that I wasn’t making people into good guys and bad guys. And even that I’d been on the other side of this one, I’d been told that it was wrong to say things like this about one of my brothers. Things I’d been taught were okay to say, and never questioned. And that when someone did tell me it was wrong to say it, I listened and I stopped saying it. I pointed out that there are ways to discuss these feelings without condoning them. All the person had to do was explain why, while these were feelings, they weren’t the reality, and treating them as the reality could cause real harm to some people. Or else they could refrain from discussing it altogether.
Both of those are small actions that take very little effort, but both of those were more effort than the person was willing to make. Even though it took far more effort and energy to attack the messenger who told them the harm these ideas could cause. Lots of people popped up to reassure the person that I was just angry and not worth listening to, and didn’t understand or care about the situations parents faced. And I eventually gave it up as pointless.
But that’s a good example of the “You’re saying I’m a monster!” response. It’s also how a weird little twisty thing works, where if you talk about how certain actions dehumanize disabled people, you can be accused of such things as “demonizing parents”, and being full of hate, while all the while the person is actually stirring up hate and against you. That one always turns my mind into a pretzel, but it basically runs that pointing out something is wrong is calling someone a monster and hating them, and that it’s then okay to hate the person who’s supposedly doing that. Or something.
Also, people say that discussing this is just some kind of attempt to make people feel guilty. Well, it isn’t. Sitting around feeling guilty doesn’t help anything. Changing the way you act, does. In fact, changing the way you act is generally both more helpful and less painful than sitting around wallowing in guilt, hostility, or resentment about being made aware of a situation that those most negatively affected by are already well aware of.
But understanding the roots of these attitudes explains a lot of things. It explains why there are a number of people in the world who believe it’s special treatment or unfair advantages when people of color, disabled people, women, or whoever, begin getting even a fraction of what other people get by default. Because it actually requires other people to give up some of the unfair advantage they’ve been immersed in (and taught to view as — at least for them — normal) their entire lives, and that just about everyone but them is painfully aware of. It forces them to stop taking up space that never belonged to them in the first place. And going from having a ton of unfair advantage, to having less of it, feels, to them, like other people gaining unfair advantage.
When I put it like this, my friend related it back to a post she had made on her own blog. It’s called On Flavors of Privilege and it’s well worth reading. It’s about when she found out that her roommate in college initially distrusted her because she was white. And it details a lot of her less-than-productive responses at the time. She’d expected more of “the usual”, which meant, more people telling her she was scary or standoffish. I’ve bolded parts I find especially relevant:
I didn’t get “the usual”. Instead, I got an admission that I made her nervous because I was white.
This completely shocked me. I sputtered something like, “But I’m not racist! Why would you even think that?”
I don’t remember what my roommate said in response, or how that conversation eventually resolved — but nevertheless, things were much better afterward. We actually ended up getting along quite well for the rest of the time we shared a room. Still, though, it wasn’t until several years after graduating that I was able to see the illusory nature of my moral high horse.
She actually decided that her roommate had been the one who was prejudiced, and that she’d “gotten over” that prejudice:
My mistake had been in presuming that my roommate and I were actually on a level playing field to begin with as far as our backgrounds went — meaning that (in my mind, at the time) her reaction had been “paranoid” until she’d gotten a clue, whereas mine had been “reasoned”.
If that wasn’t a privileged assumption on my part, I don’t know what is.
In describing what kinds of advantage she has and hasn’t got — what areas she automatically, water-like, flows into and takes up space in because the space has been taken away from others for her benefit whether she likes it or not:
Sure, I might get looked askance at by some due to my “odd” body language or fleeting eye contact or idiosyncratic, inconsistent use of language — but in general, I don’t have people making cracks within (or outside) earshot about how I and my family are probably “illegals” who ought to be deported.
In general, if I walk into a store, the clerks aren’t looking at my skin color and raising their vigilance levels due to a perception that people who look like me tend to be thieves.
I don’t constantly hear speculations about how people of my ancestral background are probably less intelligent, more aggressive, or less honest — and that somehow “statistics show this, and anyone who doesn’t believe it is just being PC”.
I might hear other speculations, all of them equally misguided, but that doesn’t make the ones that get applied to others and not me “not my problem”!
The part about “not my problem” reminds me of the actions of some parents towards autistic self-advocates, including in the situation I described a little bit further back in this post. Parent-advocates are used to being on the wrong end of certain kinds of discrimination themselves. They are used to being treated by professionals as if they don’t know anything. They are used to fighting back against this idea.
Unfortunately, some parents carry their “fighting back against professionals” mode into their interactions with autistic self-advocates. The advocacy world is heavily parent-dominated, and autistic and other disabled people have had to fight our way in to have a voice at all. But many parents adopt a mentality that says that they are always at the bottom of any hierarchy in this situation. And when autistic people’s views are not the same as the views of these parents, they fight back as if autistic people are oppressing them, as if parents are on the bottom of this hierarchy as well. And that is not true, rather the opposite. (I’m speaking in generalities, and well aware there are autistic people who are also parents.)
Unfortunately, it is very hard to discuss this, even with many parents who view themselves as allies of self-advocates. Because we are supposed to be working together as equals. They mistake pointing out of the inequality here, with creating the inequality. They are unaware of the inequality until someone says something, so that person must have actually caused the inequality, and we would go back to equality if that person would just shut up. (Echoes of “you’re just being too PC”, which is not a valid criticism, merely a blanket dismissal.)
But unfortunately, shutting up just promotes that inequality. Acting like everyone has equal power doesn’t make it so, and can in fact perpetuate inequalities. It’s a good goal, but we’re not there yet.
If I could provide a list of things to be aware of around this stuff, it would be something like this:
1. Just because you can take up certain space, doesn’t mean it’s right. Often it means that other people are prevented in some way from taking it up themselves.
2. People aren’t always right if they are saying something’s wrong with what you’re doing. But it doesn’t mean your defensive reactions, complete with obliviousness to the space you’re taking up, are right, either. And those reactions can cause more harm sometimes, not less. So try to rein them in and really listen.
3. If someone points this out in one area but can’t see it in another, it doesn’t mean they’re a hypocrite and shouldn’t be listened to, but just that they have the standard cognitive biases most people have.
4. Taking up space you don’t deserve doesn’t make you a monster, and doesn’t mean you’re supposed to feel awful or guilty or something. Doing the wrong thing sometimes is human. Everyone abuses power sometimes without realizing it. It’s also still wrong and worth correcting when you’re both aware of and capable of it. This also means it’s not okay to consider someone else a monster just for engaging in this stuff.
5. Often it’s a lot easier — and a better thing to do — just to stop doing something and apologize, than to stir up a big fight about how you’ve got a right to do whatever the heck you want to.
6. Recognizing power inequalities isn’t the same as making pointless euphemisms like “specially challenged”, and therefore doesn’t deserve the label “PC”. Calling these things “PC” is just a way to ignore them.
7. Recognizing these things doesn’t mean you have to be absolutely sure you never do anything remotely wrong and focused on every single last possible detail of yours or anyone else’s actions. It’s just something to be aware of and keep in mind in general. Becoming focused on every little possible detail that could ever come up, is usually counterproductive to that aim.
8. Righting power inequalities isn’t the same as causing them, even if it looks the same to someone who finds the existing ones invisible. Having to pay attention to these things when you never had to before, is not “oppression”.
9. Pretending inequality isn’t there doesn’t make it disappear, any more than the outside world disappears when you’re asleep. This is the big fallacy in things like “colorblindness”.