Did you hear? Fred Phelps, the founder of Westboro Baptist Church, died this week.
And, of course, all of social media lit up with everyone’s opinion about the significance of his death and the “appropriate” response.
I’m not interested in adding to that dialogue. We each need to figure out how to respond to the social blight that was Westboro’s founder, and we’re all going to have different responses. I have chosen to not allow it to disrupt my life, just as I didn’t allow his fucked-up opinions to upset me all that much when he was living. I have plenty of other people in my life to be angry at and to hate for the harm they have caused me directly and don’t have the energy to waste on someone who merely hated the idea of me without really knowing me. Others feel differently, and that’s fine.
What I do want to talk about is how we’re approaching the opinion of others, especially of those who are “different” from us.
Right now, the debate is over whether it’s appropriate to revel in the death of Phelps and to protest his funeral. The LGBT community is pretty split. Some think it’s a good idea. Other’s think a compassionate approach is stronger.
When my partner chose to voice his support for the compassionate response, he was dismissed by an acquaintance for being a straight, white male who wasn’t in the military—the implication that he didn’t have any right to add to the commentary about this public figure.
It was the tipping point in the frustration I have had recently with regard to the treatment of allies. As a bisexual and as a feminist (aka, as a bifeminist), I’ve had my fair share of frustration towards allies who claim to “want to help” but who royally fuck up because they simply aren’t willing to listen to how they might be hurting another or perpetuating something negative.
I get it.
We want our allies to be willing to listen to us. We need them to attempt to see from our perspective rather than just from the perspective of privilege.
However, I’m also really uncomfortable with the way allies are treated in feminist or queer groups. For over a year now I’ve watched as men are insulted and harassed because they dared to try to protest the objectification of women in the media in a way that didn’t match up perfectly with some feminists’ ideals or as straight people (or at least people who are assumed to be straight) have been told to shut up simply because they are straight.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t confront someone if we feel they are being insensitive or prejudiced (after all, even the most well-meaning person has internalized prejudice to confront), but I’m concerned that I don’t see people engaging with allies in beneficial ways as a whole. I don’t see understanding and patience towards them as they try to navigate the layers of their privilege. I don’t see any sort of compassion towards them as human beings who are struggling to understand some complex and difficult issues.
I don’t see any room for them to have their own journey and identity development as an ally.
Rather, I see people telling them to shut up, stop thinking, and accept what they are being told by (usually) one person in an oppressed group.
Where do we, as people who have experienced oppression, get off thinking that we can discount someone else’s thoughts because of an aspect of their identity?
We should know better.
Allies need to listen in order to be good allies, but listening doesn’t mean that their perspective and thoughts are automatically devalued.
Dialogue is how social change happens—passionate discussion, sometimes even passionate disagreement.
We don’t need more people who follow group pressure blindly. We need people who are willing to question the social constructs around them and to dare to disagree with the status quo. Shutting down someone because they have questions—or even because they disagree with you—doesn’t encourage critical thinking. At best, it subdues a person’s willingness to engage. At worse, it alienates them completely.
I don’t think every person in an oppressed group should make themselves available to be the source of information from which the privileged can learn, but I do think that we need to at least develop the ability to turn discussion down kindly, admitting that we don’t feel like engaging with them rather than blaming their privilege (note, if they are asking questions, they’re wrestling with their privilege, not ignoring it).
We also need to be willing to accept where there might be room for genuine disagreement without someone being a bigot, as in this case, with one person choosing to respond to Phelps’ death with love while another wanted to experience the depths of her hatred. If the LGBT community is filled with a diversity of responses to Phelps, how can we disdain a straight person for having as diverse of a reaction to his death?
For the most part, allies are well-meaning and are going through some pretty tough work to confront privilege. There’s no reason to treat them with hostility because they have to go through that process. It’s one thing to get pissed off at someone for being a deliberate asshole; it’s quite another to castigate someone because they don’t see exactly as we do.
I think in our attempts to have our voices heard, we may have forgotten that one of the tenets of both feminism and queer activism is that no one should be treated with disrespect and contempt, no matter what group they’re from. The idea that someone’s voice and thoughts aren’t valid because of their genitals or sexual orientation is the exact same kind of prejudice that we’ve been fighting. We need to treat our allies with the courtesy that we believe should be afforded to all human beings, even if we think they are misguided.