So… 2019 Happened

2019 was the kind of year where so much shit happened, if you told me a cultural or political event and then held a gun to my head, I probably still couldn’t tell you when in the year it happened. Or if it even happened this year, or was just part of the long, national nightmare/fever dream that has been the last three years. I had to put genuine thought into trying to remember if the Justice League movie also came out this year, or if it was just mentioned so much in comparison to the new Avengers movie that I thought it also came out this year. (Aw, remember when I was excited for the Avengers movie? Poor early-2019 Elle. So young. So naïve.) Politics has become a giant game of mad libs where if you put literally anything terrible into any slot in the year, I would probably believe that it happened. And I was going to try and come up with examples of ludicrous things you could tell me, but I’m tired and I couldn’t imagine many things worse than kids in cages, the military no longer screening for white nationalists, a cop shooting a woman through her own living room window, Senators openly acknowledging that they plan to violate their oaths with no consequences, and a 2020 election that is shaping up to be awful in the…. all the ways.

Much as the upcoming year 2020 is giving me the inklings of a mid-life crisis, because “20 years ago” does and shall always refer to the 1980s, ThankYouVeryMuch, I’m excited to put a nail in the coffin for the year that was 2019. 2020 feels like a year for transition, a year for all the change we have been talking about for a long time. And I have to remind myself that change isn’t always painless. One of the reasons we end up in ruts of the status quo is that change will, by its nature, bring us some pain. So I have to brace myself for that. But I’m ready.

Also, so that this post isn’t both short AND depressing, here’s a list of books I read this year that I really liked (though my reading list can be its own kind of depressing given that I read a lot of social justice stuff). So enjoy that. Happy New Year, everyone.

The Golem and the Jinni by Helen Wecker

She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey

Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South by Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers

Circe by Madeline Miller

How to be an Antiracist and Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi

Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado-Pérez

Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse

Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity by Julia Serano

Stand Still, Stay Silent: Book 1 by Minna Sundberg

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal by J. Jack Halberstam

Happy (almost) New Year, all.

Signed: Feminist Fury


Featured image is of a photo over the top of people’s heads at new year’s eve in Times Square, 2019. Taken by Chris Amelung and released under a CC-BY-2.0 license.

The Only 3 Things You Should Give to Charity

It’s the holiday season, which means that it’s time for clickbait-y articles like, “The Top 10 Things to Give to Charity for the Holidays.” But I’m going to one better, and give you the clickbait-iest article of all: The Only 3 Things You Should Give to Charity. Oh yeah. I’m that confident.

Are you ready?

  1. Exactly what they have asked for
  2. Money
  3. Your time and attention

….that’s it. That’s the list.

I’ve worked for or volunteered for multiple nonprofits and charities, so I feel pretty confident with my list. Let me tell you why.

1.Why You Should Only Give Them What They Ask For

Most people donate items for a good reason. They want to help! That’s a fantastic impulse. But they don’t always think through all the implications of their gift. And some people… well they don’t have as good reasons. Some people are merely trying to assuage guilt from their own over-consumption. Some people think that the poor should be “grateful” for literally anything. Some people are donating items just for the tax write-off. Some people are donating so they don’t have to bother sorting through things themselves. Some people donate because they don’t want to pay the fee for the dump.

What a lot of people don’t think about are the various resources that charities need to expend when it comes to donations.

 First, organizations need to sort through donations. They need to make sure the items are in good condition, that food is before its expiration date, that clothes are clean and somewhat in fashion (a good rule of thumb: if you wouldn’t wear the clothes yourself or gift the clothing to your friends or family, then don’t donate it. If it isn’t good enough for you, it isn’t good enough for the clientele of the charity, either), that electronics work, etc. This all takes time. During the holidays, it takes a LOT of time. Time that employees or volunteers are then not spending doing other things.

Second there is storage. Each organization has a different storage capacity, but I say with confidence that basically every organization has storage that is bursting at the seams. At best, it is a well-organized Narnia closet that somehow manages to hold more than it should. At worst, it is a chaotic Pile O’Stuff that last saw organization about five giant donations ago. And when there is that much stuff, organizations need to make choices about what to keep, and those choices aren’t even always about what they need the most- it’s sometimes about what they think they might not be able to get again, or what they don’t think another organization could use, etc. An organization might need couches to give to clients for apartments, but don’t have anyone who needs a couch at the moment. But are they going to be sure they get a couch the next time they need one? They might not, so into the storage unit the couch goes, where it sits until it is needed, taking up half of their available storage space. Maybe a local school just did a drive for menstrual hygiene products, and the organization now has tampons stuffed into every spare inch of their storage. They can’t possibly use or give away all the products in the near future, but because they’re name-brand, still-wrapped products, they know they will eventually use all of them, so they might as well keep it all.

An organization will rarely, if ever, turn away donations, even if they can eyeball the donation and determine that they don’t want or need the item. They are desperately worried about being seen as ungrateful, or turning someone off of donating in general. So they’ll take it with a smile, and you’ll never know that they are silently screaming. And then they’ll do the work that you didn’t bother to do, and sort things into what they actually need, what should go to the dump, and what will make yet another donation trip to the local thrift shop.

Almost every nonprofit or charity will have a wishlist of items they need on a consistent basis or at particular times. If you can’t find one, call the organization and find out. You can also be on the lookout for specific calls for items. Do you have an old bookshelf you know you need to get rid of eventually, but can keep around for a bit? Hold on to it until you see a call for bookshelves from a charity, and hey, you are now fulfilling an exact need! Or contact the charity and let them know that you will have certain items available for a certain amount of time, and they can be on the lookout for clients to match your items with. Maybe they don’t know anyone who needs a bookshelf right now, but if they ask some of their clients it will turn out one of them needs a bookshelf.

2. Why You Should Just Give Them Money

I cannot emphasize enough how helpful cold, hard cash is to charities. It is the lifeblood of a charity, and the most important type of funding is the “no strings attached” donation funding that an organization can use how it sees fit. Most of the grants and programs that help fund charities want to fund specific projects or programs—few are willing to give a grant to an organization just to help it pay staff, or pay rent on its office space, or keep the lights on. Federal funding often can’t cover things that organizations find incredibly useful, like giftcards for clients to do their own shopping at a shelter, or something like that. Donation money is vitally important for general operations funding or for specific discretionary funding.

3. Why You Should Give Them Your Time and Attention

Not everything you give to a charity has to be material. Equally important to specific items or money are time and attention. While in an ideal world all work would be paid work, the truth is that in Whatever Hellish Stage of Capitalism This Is, a lot of important work is only going to be done if people are willing to volunteer to do it. If you are willing and able to do so, offer to volunteer for a local organization. Know going in that this isn’t necessarily going to be glamorous or fun work—not everyone gets to have that super photogenic moment of putting a house together or dealing one-on-one with clients. A lot of the time, it’s going to be sorting the above-mentioned donations, or folding newsletters, or answering phones, or even just doing actual housekeeping. The “grunt work” of volunteering is incredibly important. And if you can’t volunteer, give your attention—attend or publicize fundraisers, share social media messages, talk about the charity in letters to the editor or discussions with elected officials—there are a lot of ways you can give the organization some love.

Giving to charities and nonprofits is a fantastic thing, and I certainly don’t want to discourage it. But when you are donating, make sure that you are thinking of the organization more than you are thinking of yourself.

Signed: Feminist Fury

Featured image is of a scrabble tile holder with letters spelling “charity.” It was taken by Flickr user airpix and released under a CC-BY-2.0 license.

Ellements of Film: Jojo Rabbit

Warning, this will have spoilers for Jojo Rabbit. Not too many actually, but still. Spoilers. You have been warned.

I have been unspeakably excited to see Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit since I first heard about it nearly a year ago. I’ve been loving Waititi’s work, and I dearly wanted to see two things: one, Waititi (a Polynesian Jew) playing Adolf Hitler, and two, modern proof to shove down the throat of any anti-PC crusader who whines, “You couldn’t make a Mel Brooks movie today.” I was not disappointed.

Almost everything that I could say about my hatred of the argument, “You couldn’t make a Mel Brooks movie today” is covered better than I ever could by this Lindsay Ellis video, which I strongly encourage everyone to watch. The tl;dr version is that satire is a fine line to walk—it has to be obvious as satire, it has to be unavailable for appropriation by the subject of its satire, and it has to represent harmful ideas in order to skewer them without simply replicating them. I want to talk about those points, and how I think Waititi meets them in this work.

First, that it has to be obvious as satire. Ellis talks about how things that are meant to be satire wind up coming across as straight if the target of the satire or the audience doesn’t understand the satire, or just looks at it and thinks, “Yeah, that’s cool.” When you’re talking about Nazis, you can accidentally make them too lovable and identifiable (Aw, Nazis. They’re Just Like Us), you can accidentally make them too ridiculous (Why would anyone take these “Nazis” seriously? They’re obviously such buffoons) or you can make them too monstrous (Why would anyone become a Nazi? They’re so evil.)

And indeed, some critics have said that Waititi made the Nazis in his film fall into these traps—there are some very fun characters and tons of anachronisms, there are a lot of moments where the Nazis are idiotic or the subjects of slapstick accidents, and there’s at least one cartoonishly evil Nazi who took a quick break from asking Indiana Jones where he left the artifact in order to rifle through someone’s home. But I don’t think that Jojo Rabbit is ever caught completely in any of these traps. In a way that (in my opinion) exceeds even Mel Brooks’ The Producers, Waititi shows that the Nazis are, in fact, human and mockable. And some of them could be occasionally nice, or funny, or silly. The film showcases the buffoonery of the Third Reich and how their beliefs are often hollow. But, importantly, it shows that this does not make the Nazis any less dangerous. And this is the vital point that I think a lot of the negative reviewers of the movie are overlooking. Normally, I would agree with the detractors that “actually there were some nice Nazis, too” is the kind of terrible, “good people on both sides” messaging that we don’t really need right now. But this film acknowledges that “nice Nazis” can exist, but then emphasizes, “But Nazis will still fucking murder you.” And not just the cartoonishly evil Nazi—all the Nazis. Even the “nice” Nazis. Even the old lady neighbor Nazis. Even the children. They are silly and buffoonish and human and relatable and evil and dangerous.

I also want to look at the idea of how a proper critique should be unavailable for appropriation by the subject of satire. Ellis talks about the way that some drama films that have directly represented the evils of Nazism have wound up being appropriated by neo-Nazis because they think that the depiction makes them look cool (like American History X). And I promise you, no alt-right edgelord is going to look at Jojo Rabbit and think, “That movie makes me look cool.” Waititi deliberately refused to learn literally anything about how Hitler spoke or acted. This is whatever the opposite of Method Acting is. Waititi’s totally out there Hitler is an aspect of the film that some people have found bad, but I think is the most hilarious thing in the world. And fitting, because this isn’t Real Hitler. It is a ten-year-old-boy’s imagined best friend version of Hitler. And at no point does Waititi’s Hitler, or any of the Nazis in the film, do anything that makes Nazis look cool. Even the one moment that could fall into that, Captain K’s glam rock “invasion uniform” moment is still purposefully deflated by having his subordinate carrying a goddamn gramophone around behind him (and by being defeated basically seconds later).

And finally, the last and hardest point—depicting an oppressor without replicating the oppression. When people claim, “You couldn’t make a Mel Brooks movie today,” what they are really saying is that they cannot imagine a film that passes that last element—they cannot imagine a satire that tackles something like the Nazis without breaking taboos about appropriate depictions of marginalized groups. And that’s what I think Waititi did very well. You can talk about marginalized people without making the marginalized people the butt of the joke. You can punch up, rather than down, even about one of the darkest periods in history. And the majority of this film is punching up.

However, it does have some moments where it punches down, or at least could be seen to punch down. And honestly, I feel like I don’t have a lot of room to speak about those moments. The film does go out of its way to come up with literally dehumanizing concepts of Jews, ranging from “they have horns” to “A Jewish man once lay with a fish and that’s why Jewish people have scales” to “there is a literal Satan who is sitting in a Jewish person’s head and controlling them.” I’d like to think that these depictions are so outlandish and so disconnected from some of the actual, historical stereotypes of Jewish people, but… I also don’t have a lot of faith in humanity at the moment. So it’s entirely possible that these depictions will not come off as ridiculous satire of racist ideology, and will instead just be hurtful anti-Semitism. And if anyone feels hurt by this, they have the right to feel so. I can’t tell anyone how to feel about this stuff, and “Well the director is Jewish” works about as much as “Well my one black friend says I can tell that joke” when defending something against claims of being offensive.

This potential anti-Semitism is really the only critique I’ve seen that I think has full merit, whereas other critiques seem (to me) to be missing the point of the film. Some of the criticism of Jojo Rabbit points towards the fact that the film doesn’t engage much with the actual tenets of Nazi ideology. And it’s true, the film really doesn’t. The only thing that really gets any play is “Jews are bad, Hitler is good” which are obviously part of being a Nazi, but certainly not a deep take. But I think that’s not necessarily because Waititi’s film is “cowardly” or is afraid to push certain buttons—it’s because I think that the film is not so much about Nazis, as it is about how someone becomes a Nazi. As well as how someone, hopefully, ceases being a Nazi. It is a film about radicalization and de-radicalization on the small scale rather than the large.

Jojo is the 1945 version of a normie who is being radicalized. He fits a lot of the classic signs of our modern day alt-right—he’s lonely, he considers himself unattractive, he’s adrift after experiencing a loss, he feels like he’s lacking male support, he’s looking outward to find someone or something to blame for his problems, and looking outward for validation.  When Jojo speaks with Elsa, she tells him that he’s not a Nazi, he’s just a little boy that likes to dress up in costumes and wants to join a club. And… yeah. He’s spouting racist rhetoric but he doesn’t fully understand it, he just understands that almost everyone around him is part of it. (Not that this is not to let him off for trying to be a Nazi, or to say that it isn’t still very bad to try and be a Nazi.) In a scene of book burning, you see Jojo’s enthusiasm for the activity fade until he sees how happy and active everyone else is as they burn the books, and this gets Jojo back into things. This desire for an identity and sense of belonging is where I think Waititi’s performance as imaginary Hitler really shines. “Imaginary best friend Hitler” is the perfect personification of what a modern alt-right person or a young would-be Nazi is looking for when they join that type of movement. Waititi’s Hitler tells Jojo that he’s cool, that he’s handsome, that he’s sneaky and sly instead of cowardly, that he’s awesome, that he’s got this. Hitler gets Jojo pumped up, he consoles him when he’s sad, and he’s there for him when he’s lonely. Jojo sees being a Nazi as the path to being accepted—he dreams about being in Hitler’s main guard. He still is absorbing Nazi ideology, but the ideology is attractive partly because it comes with a group identity.

When Jojo starts becoming better friends with Elsa, Imaginary Hitler starts acting more like actual Hitler—spouting rhetoric, starting to glower and snarl. He also becomes possessive of Jojo and Jojo’s time. This can serve two purposes—first, showing Jojo seeing his “idol” in a clearer light, and also, showing how hollow and conditional the love and acceptance of a radicalized group can be. Whereas an actual friend would likely be happy for Jojo to be happier, Imaginary Hitler/the Nazis/any right-wing group needs their followers to be unhappy, to be isolated, and to be upset. Jojo becoming stable and content without the influence of any Nazi groups is dangerous to the continuance of the Nazi ideology. When he is a step removed, he can begin to see flaws in the organization, and begin to see the way his life can work outside of that group. We don’t really get to see him get to come to a full reckoning with his past actions (probably at least partly because he is ten) but we do watch him start to come to terms with what Nazi ideology leads to—largely, a lot of a death.

One of the questions the film asks is, what do you do if your own child is being radicalized? Especially if that radicalization fits the mainstream culture better than your own beliefs? In one of the most poignant moments of the film, Jojo’s mother Rosie is speaking to Elsa, the Jewish girl that she is hiding in her home. She is warning her to be more careful and quiet because she is worried that her own 10-year-old son, Jojo, would turn Elsa in if he found out about her. Tears shining in her eyes, she talks about how she thinks the “real” Jojo is still in there somewhere, behind the fanaticism. She does her best to counter-program him (as much as she can in a fascist police state where her own pre-teen could and potentially would turn her in for traitorous statements) emphasizing the values of love and bravery. Some people see this as a shallow, hippy-dippy moral of the movie, “All you need is love, man.” I didn’t see it that way. I saw it as the only weapon that Jojo’s mother had against the overwhelming messages of the Nazi party and German culture at the time. What can you do for someone who is radicalized besides try to remind them of what they are missing? What can you do when the person you are afraid of is your own child? What can you do when society is contradicting your role as a parent?  The answer that Jojo Rabbit seems to give is, keep loving them, but don’t let them get away with terrible things. Confront their beliefs. Point out holes. Emphasize the superiority of positivity rather than negativity. Do what you need to do to keep yourself safe. That seems like pretty sound advice to me.

Perhaps more importantly, it gives a blueprint for someone who is in the process of being radicalized to de-program themselves. The big things? Connect with someone outside of your echo chamber. Question the fundamental beliefs of the group you are a part of. Take stock of who is being hurt by what you, and they, are doing. If a 10-year-old can de-Nazi himself, so can you!

Signed: Feminist Fury


Featured image is of the main characters of Jojo Rabbit jumping through the air with the words “Ellements of Film” superimposed.

Having Tough Conversations

As part of “Elle’s-Magical-Mystery-Continuing-Education-Because-Good-Activism-Requires-Constant-Learning-Tour” (what, rich people’s horses don’t get all the fun ridiculous names) I’m trying to read texts that I have heard of/are famous/are often cited in certain arguments but that I have never personally read. Because I’d rather know what I’m talking about before I spout off about someone else’s idea (which is honestly a remarkably rare attitude when it comes to online arguments). So cued up on my Kindle reader I have Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria by Beverly Daniel Tatum, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media by Edward S Herman and Noam Chomsky, and Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde. And currently I’m reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. And it’s been… kinda weird.

Sometimes I find myself agreeing with him. I don’t think that anyone’s beliefs override the lived experiences and human rights of others. I don’t think that religious people are the sole arbiters of morality. I don’t think it’s right that churches are exempt from taxation, or that Joel Osteen can call a mega-mansion a “parsonage” and get away with it. But at the same time…. Giminy Christmas, Richard Dawkins. You need to calm down. Being violently anti-religion isn’t really better. I also don’t think that it’s right to forbid a Muslim woman from wearing a headscarf. YouTube is full of anti-Semites, and it is horrifying. And in possibly one of the weirdest moments of my life, I got into an online fight with a mayoral candidate because he told me that being pro-LGBTQ meant that I was Islamophobic. (Welcome to Wyoming, y’all.) And I was thinking about all of these things while I was reading, and realizing that trying to navigate my own personal line between respect for religion and denial of special privileges for religions or religious people could get kinda murky.

It reminded me of a recent controversy regarding ContraPoints. (No, not that one. The one before that.) ContraPoints was expressing, albeit inelegantly, that some behaviors we adopt to accommodate non-passing trans folks, nonbinary folks, and genderqueer folks, namely asking for pronouns, could make passing binary trans women like her feel uncomfortable and like they are not, in fact, passing. And while the original remarks could have been framed in a way that better expressed the context of her feelings and I understand why people could feel upset by what she said, her initial comment didn’t really deserve the internet pile-on that ensued. Because actually, she was bringing up an important point. As A. Khaled explained on Medium (emphasis mine),

Natalie later made a clarification—albeit unneeded—that her initial remark did not mean to encroach upon non-binary and non-passing people’s pronoun sovereignty—the issue more was that Wynn was thrust into accepting that without being consulted on what works, and doesn’t work for her. In essence, it’s the eternal clash between wanting to spread practice of an easily digestible norm, and a situation where certain individuals feel like they’ve been signed up for an overt manifestation of a tolerance program that despite its best attempts, manages to exclude them—including Wynn—in a way that doesn’t entirely make sense within the framework of ideological diversity that the left is often a major touter of.

What’s the connection to the religious dilemma I’ve been having while reading Dawkins? It’s an issue that is underpinning a lot of activism, but that often remains a dirty little secret: there isn’t really any such thing as “universal accommodation.” There is not one tack you can take to be simultaneously considerate of all people and all situations. There is never going to be a single solution that helps everyone absolutely equally.

For example, I was recently discussing with a friend the various pedagogical advice I have received over the years when it came to taking attendance and requiring participation in the college courses I was teaching:

1. Don’t make the entire grade wrapped up in assignments, because a lot of people can understand material and discuss it well but freeze when it comes to written work. Give them lots of attendance and participation grades.

2. Don’t force students to speak, because it can be intimidating and they can have anxiety. Don’t sink a kid’s grade with participation grades.

3. Require attendance but have no differentiation between excused and unexcused absences. It isn’t your role to dictate who had a “worthy” excuse to not be in class.

4. Show preferential treatment to working mothers and people with disabilities, and don’t count their absences for things like lack of childcare or disability-related incidents of missing class.

5. Don’t require attendance at all. Requiring notes for excuses is classist and assumes the student has the time and resources to go to the doctor, and requiring attendance doesn’t accommodate the lived-experiences of many students who are struggling to balance all of their responsibilities.

6. Require attendance, because otherwise students are not getting the benefit of collaborative learning.

7. Have similar attendance and participation policies to a workforce job—you’re expected to show up more often than not, and you’re expected to participate more often than not.

8. Require attendance and have participation grades, because otherwise students will never participate, and that is a core component of most learning. Just lecturing is not as successful in imparting knowledge.

As an educator, you are expected and required to have a singular policy that applies to all students, so that they know the rules and expectations of your class. That’s basically what a syllabus is. But as you may have noticed, it is not actually possible to have a single attendance and participation policy that accommodates all of teaching philosophies that people encouraged me to adopt. Even though each of those philosophies is valid, at least for a certain kind of student. So each teacher is left to craft as comprehensive a policy as possible, and then (depending on their freedom within their institution) to make individual judgment calls when certain situations arise. Because barring having a room full of individual, one-on-one instructors, there is no way to fully accommodate each type of student with each type of need and learning style.

We don’t talk about this impossibility very much, either in or out of activist circles, and there are a number of reasons for that.

The first is the desire, as A. Khaled put it, “to spread practice of an easily digestible norm.” If we want the public at large to perform accommodations for certain types of needs, we have to break things down into quick instructions and sound bites, and they have to sound definite. “We should make sure all fire alarms have a visual element so that people with auditory disabilities are able to be alerted to a fire.” “We should all put our pronouns in our Twitter bios and e-mail signatures and ask for pronouns before workshops to normalize the fact that we shouldn’t assume gender identities.” “We should call Black Americans Black Americans because ‘African American’ ignores the diaspora and assumes African identity for Americans of extremely distant extraction (who may not have any interest in identifying as African—or the reverse).” These are all “rules” that we try to spread into the general populace, with the intended desire of serving as many people as possible. We want these practices to be widely accepted and adopted, so we make them as simple as possible and as all-encompassing as possible.

The second reason is that we worry that if we acknowledge the difficulties or conflicts in being socially aware, people will be less likely to do it. We’re afraid that the more complex the road to “wokeness” is, the fewer people there will be who are willing to walk it. And we do have reason to think this—you can see it in all of the people who throw up their hands and declare, “I can’t keep up with all of this jargon anymore, I give up.” Acknowledging complexity risks alienating people.

The third reason is that we are afraid that any sign of doubt is an opportunity for the opposition to pounce and declare, “gotcha!” Have you ever been debating with someone, and they ask you a question, and you start to answer by saying, “Well that’s a really complicated issue,” and then they say, “So you don’t have an answer then, do you?!” Or you start explaining the complexity of your answer, and then they say, “But you just said X, and now you’re saying Y. Which is it, huh? Huh? Your whole point is invalid.” The slightest acknowledgement of weakness provides an opening for bad-faith people who didn’t really want to try to be a good person in the first place to declare everything a lost cause and your entire existence invalid.

The fourth reason is that it also risks creating a hierarchy of the oppressed, or even a hierarchy among the oppressed (aka the “Oppression Olympics”). We already have weird social guidelines for when someone is “disabled enough” to “deserve” accommodation. If we acknowledge that some accommodations conflict with each other, we risk basically creating a flow chart of who gets to be considered.

And all of that is too bad, because we really do need to talk about the conflicts, and the impossibilities of universal accommodation. In each instance I described above, there are individuals for whom this broad intended accommodation doesn’t apply, seems incorrect, or even becomes actively harmful. Automatically putting flashing lights in all smoke alarms is great for folks with auditory disabilities, but horrible for folks with epilepsy. Normalizing asking for pronouns is great for nonbinary/genderqueer/non-passing binary trans folks, but as we saw with ContraPoints, can make passing binary trans folks feel uncomfortable or singled out (though if we normalized pronoun introductions, it’d be fine). Using the term Black Americans acknowledges the diaspora, but some people feel it underplays the fact that many Black or mixed-race citizens are the descendants of slaves who were forcibly brought here from Africa and underplays the coercion in the “American” part of their identity.

The answer to these conflicts is not to give up on the whole endeavor, but to do our best to work through the conflicts and provide solutions whenever possible—or at least acknowledge the conflict and acknowledge that it really sucks for some people. We may decide that all residential fire alarms should be sold with a flashing light option that can be enabled or disabled by the purchaser, but that we shouldn’t include the light in fire alarms that are installed in public spaces, and instead have staff or client policies that ensure that any people with auditory disabilities are notified some other way of fire danger since it is easier to be on the lookout for people who can’t hear the alarm than to evacuate someone who has been triggered into an epileptic seizure. We may decide that yeah, it does suck to be a binary trans person who is asked for their pronouns and thus feels uncomfortable, but that the benefits of normalized pronoun use outweigh the drawbacks. In that case, we should still talk about how it sucks for some people, and validate those experiences. We may decide that we should go with Black American in order to acknowledge the diaspora, but increase our efforts to more thoroughly address slavery and its after-effects and thus address the legacy of the forced removal from Africa. Going all the way back to my Dawkins reading, we may decide to accommodate religious belief as much as possible but also pass nondiscrimination ordinances that would protect people from being the target of religiously-motivated bigotry.

I don’t know that anything I just suggested is a proper answer—I’m not deaf, I’m not epileptic, I’m not nonbinary or trans, I’m not Black, I’m not strongly religious. To get real answers to these conflicts, we need to talk to the people who are. But we do need to have that conversation, and we need to talk about the conflicts that arise. We need to continually work to figure out best practices, and transmit those best practices to the broader culture, while knowing that we’re not going to hit 100% perfection. We need to acknowledge that this stuff can be as difficult as it is important.

Signed: Feminist Fury


Featured image is of two people sitting on opposite park benches having a heated discussion. It was taken by Sharon Mollerus and is used under a Create Commons CC-BY-2.0 license.