In this post, I’d like to address the strenuousness of calling someone out as well as the strenuousness of being called out. Much has been written on this topic so I am not writing this to flaunt any kind of expertise so much as to share my own perspective and experience.
“Hey, what you just said is not cool. Can we talk about it?”
That’s what I say.
This is often what you hear:
“OMG. What did I do? I’m not a bad person.” Cue defensive communication shut-down.
But let me back up. Before I say anything, this is a typical series of events:
1. I hear what you say.
2. I re-play it in my head and think about it to make sure I heard what I thought I heard.
3. I weigh the pros/cons of saying something to you. Incomplete list of factors I consider: the nature of our relationship (Will this over-negatively affect our friendship or working relationship? In a work environment, does this cross a firm boundary?), environment (Am I going to be a lone voice in an unsafe crowd?), the severity (to me) of what you said, my perception of your openness to discussion (Will saying something be worth my time? Am I going to make a difference?). I have to run all of these questions quickly because already, you are moving on with the conversation.
4. Deal with the anxiety of saying something no one wants to hear (almost no one likes being criticized or corrected) to muster courage to say something.
5. Do my best to say something to you in a non-judging, non-shaming, non-blaming way which can be hard for me because all of my emotions are fired up at this point and being kind and patient is a.) not easy for because I am sometimes fatigued at having to do this a lot, same topics, over and over and b.) not easy for me because I am generally an impatient person, personality-wise.
6. Say something. What I wrote above is typical of what I try to say. I make an effort to avoid words like “sexist,” “racist,” “homophobic,” etc. as the first thing I say because my goal is to talk with you and not have you shut down over a particular word, not get hung up on the way I labeled what you just said. I come around to those words eventually, though.
You think I just called you a sexist/racist/etc. but consider what I actually did. I determined:
— You are the kind of person who might be willing to change a viewpoint or behavior
— Our relationship is safe enough and important enough for me to risk saying something negative to you or starting a hard conversation
This is what I need you to do (and what I try to do when I am on this side of the calling out):
1. Hear what I say in the non-judging, non-shaming, non-blaming way I intended it.
2. Recognize that I want to have a conversation with you, not chastise you.
3. Be open to seeing something you’ve “always said” or “always done” or something that’s “always been fine” in a new way.
4. Consider the idea that this new information and possibly changing your behavior doesn’t mean that all of your historical behavior on this issue was “bad” or that you are “bad person.” It’s not really about whether you are a good or bad person — honestly, most people are good in the sense that they have good intentions and don’t generally mean to harm others. That doesn’t mean that we never harm each other through words and actions.
This is strenuous work. It is difficult to initiate conversations that aren’t easy. It is difficult to hear that you may be doing something wrong. When I find myself on either side of the conversation, I try to remember other difficult work I’ve done and how frequently rewarding it was once I got to the other side of difficulty. I also try to remember all that went into someone calling me out. If not the exact sequence of events I laid out, I know it is hard for someone to say, “I want to talk about what you just said.”
It also means sometimes I am what is commonly known as a “killjoy.”
It means while everyone is talking about “how great” Shrek is, I will point out significant, bothersome points of misogyny in the film. For example, when Lord Farquaad is shown for the first time there is significant emphasis on his small size, his non-masculine appearance and jokes about the size of his genitals. In essence, the writers are re-iterating a sexist cultural norm that to be “non-manly” is an insult. The way you show that someone is weak or a loser is by comparing that person to femaleness. It’s like using “pussy” or “man up” in ways that mean “you are weak” or “be a grown up.” When the movie ends, it turns out Fiona IS an ogre and Shrek tells her that she IS beautiful (as an ogre). Awww. Right? They’re saying that beauty isn’t just one thing so that’s revolutionary, right? How about that Fiona only believes she is beautiful when a man (Shrek) tells her she is? Because that’s what I see. For me, that movie doesn’t have a happy ending.
It means that when I watch The Lion King, I see a movie where the lesson is, “you have a specific, unchanging place in society and don’t question it.” Many Westerners balk at the caste system that has existed in India but don’t see it when it appears with lions and hyenas. To say nothing about some of the very valid concerns about racism in the film. This is often how I watch films.
It means that while everyone is talking about how revolutionary Brave is because the film doesn’t end with Merida and her own Prince Charming, I am disappointed that they didn’t go far enough (So is Mary Pols). Merida dismisses suitors because they are idiots or otherwise not up to royal standards not because she just plain prefers to be single or doesn’t care for a relationship. She is limited to certain reasons for rejecting suitors. And even though she takes a different view on the subject of taking a prince, the plot itself still centers on her marriage. She has gender-pushing adventures? So do Mulan and Pocahantas (also both flawed films). Back to Merida. Her choices are chalked up to teenage rebellion, in the end she comes around to a more moderate point of view. Merida says that children should marry who they want and when they want — underscoring that not marrying isn’t really an option. And even then, it is only settled when the clan men agree with her idea; only when her idea is approved and validated by men is it real. The film ends with Merida and her mother re-kindling their relationship by sewing together. Revolution is more than horse-riding and making slight adjustments to marriage.
Yes, I intentionally picked kid movies because they are often the ones with an explicit message or lesson to impart. No, I don’t think any of the people involved in any of these films had bad intentions. I don’t think any of them set out to write something that perpetuated sexism or racism or other isms. They are all probably pretty nice and good people. It doesn’t change the fact that their output can, at times, contain problematic bits that I don’t want to ignore, that I do want to talk about rather than hearing: “get over it, it’s just a movie.” When I point this stuff out to you, I am not asking you to disavow your love of a particular movie. It’s possible to hear what I’m saying, think about it, come to the “yeah that’s messed up” conclusion and still have a fondness. You don’t have to defend your favorite anything to me. Remember, it’s not about whether or not these films’ creators set out with good or bad intentions. Just because they didn’t intend to doesn’t mean they didn’t cause harm or perpetuate sexist, racist, homophobic, etc. ideas.
So there’s both the strenuousness of seeing movies (and TV, and books, and music, etc.) through this lens AND the strenuousness of being the “killjoy” who wants to not ignore that it’s there. And yet, I can’t imagine doing it any other way. The prospect of sitting by while harmful things are being said or taking in media without thinking about it is aberrant to me. Strenuous as it it, it’s the only way for me.
And yes, despite all of this, I willing go (and love go) to Disneyworld. But that’s a story for another day.
IMPORTANT NOTE: As I mentioned above, on the subjects of isms, calling out and critical analysis, I have learned and grown from the works of many people. It would be impossible to list everyone’s work that has helped me. Academia and the Internet are FULL of people talking about this subject in more thorough, more complex, more nuanced ways. My goal was to write about how doing this work fits into the theme of this blog – living a strenuous life.
However, Jay Smooth’s video (below), How to Tell Someone They Sound Racist was a real break-through for me in terms of learning how to focus a conversation on action (“what they did”) rather than intent (“what they are”) and how having a plan in advance (on how to have these conversations) can make the whole exercise so much more constructive. I’d be remiss if I didn’t credit him for helping shift my thinking on this topic.