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.

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