Originally posted to MsMcranty Pants Tumblr 23/09/2014 http://msmcrantypants.tumblr.com/
There have been so many options for rant topics this week. Domestic violence, and the typical public response to it, has been pretty well covered recently. Our esteemed Prime Minister wants us to believe we’re all about to be blown up every time we leave the house, which has, ridiculously, but not unpredictably, resulted in a huge boost to his popularity. *epic facepalm* Only this morning, I entered ‘healthy at every size’ into a Pinterest search and was both shocked (or not so shocked) to find that more than half the results were related to losing weight, thinspiration and why ‘fat is bad’.
But during my research for last week’s post about systemic racism, I came across several articles claiming to present a balanced perspective, and the more I read, the more I realised why this is a problem.
I come from a long line of people who hate making a fuss. No, stop laughing, it’s true. I’m some kind of loud, confrontational mutant in a family – no, in a whole social class of people who hate confrontation. As any white, middle-class person will know (especially if you’re a woman), any kind of overt emotion is usually frowned upon. And you don’t have to be vocal about your passions to be criticised for them. Simply discussing difficult social issues, without getting riled up or excited, will raise emotions in people, and since you’re the one inciting the emotions, you’re inevitably the one labelled ’emotional’. After all, there’s no greater social sin than making other people uncomfortable.
If you’re passionate about something good, it’s often phrased as an unhealthy ‘obsession’. Because liking things is weird. Worse, if you’re passionate about changing something negative, people will ask you why you’re so angry. And boy, am I sick of hearing that question. And its regular companions, ‘if it annoys you so much, why do you read/watch/listen to it?’ Or ‘why don’t you stop talking about it and do something?’ Because, as we all know, talking about problems is no way to solve them… Um…
Reports, blogs and articles claiming to present a balanced perspective, regardless of their content, are usually written by people who come from this anti-boat-rocking Culture of Calm. I’m not saying every single one contains the problems I’m going to talk about. But every single one that’s crossed my screen in recent weeks has had these problems. (I’m going to leave out the one or two who used the word balance to present some really horrific views as rational, since they’re worth a rant all of their own.)
The presenters of these articles and reports were usually white, middle- to upper-class, and the majority appeared to be men, although there were plenty of women contributing. They usually appeared after some particularly shocking public incident, such as the recent issues surrounding domestic violence and NFL players, or the blatant racism displayed by our own Prime Minister in his treatment of indigenous Australians. The issues discussed under this pretentious title usually stem from sexism, racism, or some form of bigotry, and the authors of these articles usually write from positions of privilege, under the guise of cutting through the anger and emotion that so justly spring from such issues.
The problem with a balanced perspective, in this context, is that the issues involved are not balanced. They involve people with power harming people without, such as a rich, white Prime Minister cutting public programs for severely disadvantaged Australians, because ‘budget crisis’. The rich, white guy has all the power, and I’m not just talking about political power. He has the power of an institutionally prejudiced society and the power of the media in his favour. He has the power of wealth and white, male privilege in his favour. And, far from being a tenuous social theory, this kind of privilege has a huge real-life impact. Thus, presenting the points of view of both sides equally, giving them the same amount of air time, is not the same as presenting them fairly. As a result, articles presenting a balanced perspective provide the destructive illusion that both sides have equal weight and equal power.
If the people presenting this articles, news reports and radio shows were honest, what they would say instead would be something like this: some of the people talking about this issue have made me feel uncomfortable about my privilege and I don’t like it. I would like them to be quiet, and I’m hoping that by appearing to be calm and reasonable, they’ll perceive this as supportive and stop talking about this.
I’m not saying these authors are consciously aware that what they’re writing is more about their feelings than about the issue. They probably believe what they’re saying. When they say things like ‘Mr X should not have hit his girlfriend, and I would never condone this behaviour’, they believe it, even thought their next sentence begins with ‘but’. When they say things like ‘Writer B makes a good point when they challenge the response to Issue M, but they took it too far’, they probably think they’re being fair. But, this doesn’t change the effect their opinions have in the real world.
Instead of being a voice for change by confronting the reasons behind their discomfort, they give other privileged people an out that doesn’t make them feel like the bad guy. They take the impact out of the issue and reduce it to a matter of presentation. The implication of these authors is that they agree with the ‘angry’ feminists/people of colour/social activists in principle, (because, hey, we’re all decent people here), but they differ in expression because they’re just more rational. And it’s easy to believe, if you’ve been raised to believe that overt emotion is some kind of character defect. (White Western society has instilled this in pretty much all of us.)
Worse, these authors focus heavily on individual circumstances, such as domestic violence committed be specific players in the NFL, while dismissing the social circumstances that contributed to the situation in the first place. They condemn the behaviour (as they should), while dismissing the context in which it took place. In the above example, they have tended to claim that feminists have ‘hijacked a private issue’ to promote their cause, as though discussing how our culture enables domestic violence and blames victims is somehow inappropriate. They have almost all ended up supporting the cultural norms that are part of the problem feminists are discussing, such as mentioning the victim’s continued relationship with her abuser as evidence it ‘wasn’t that bad’.
So if people are uncomfortable with the emotion garnered by these issues, perhaps these authors are heading the right direction. If social activists want the privileged masses to sympathise with them, and the emotion inherent in their communication is the problem, why don’t they try a more ‘rational’ response?
The answer is, of course, that a rational response is usually just another balanced perspective. People respond emotionally to the issues when they’re discussed by social activists because they are emotional issues, and not just because the communicator is being emotional. The person who first brings up the issue is often accused of being over-emotional (could there be a greater sin?) and of over-reacting. Of course, most activists are emotional, and for good reason. But even when discussed in the most quiet way, issues surrounding social justice will still press emotional buttons because they question deeply ingrained habits and beliefs. None of us like facing the idea that we’re contributing to the opression of others, no matter who they might be. None of us want to be the bad guy, but when we honestly examine our social norms, we have to face the idea that we might be. And unless we are truly inspired to change our response, we will begin looking for our own balanced perspective.
I can understand why people will always gravitate to a balanced perspective. But, to paraphrase J.K. Rowling, just because something is easy, doesn’t mean it’s right. If subjects like race and gender equality don’t make us uncomfortable, we’re not looking at them hard enough. It’s easy enough to say, ‘this is terrible, but it doesn’t affect me’. But think how different the world would be if we instead chose to say ‘this is terrible, and it doesn’t affect me, and perhaps that is why I should care’.
Rant over. xo
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