Thursday, May 6, 2010

In fighting oppression, which matters more: beliefs or behavior?

Snarky's Machine has a great post on Shapely Prose about her own personal approach to stamping out oppression.  Instead of trying to change people's beliefs, or educate them, she just tries to get them to stop making other people's lives miserable (by making their lives miserable): [NSFW language after the jump]

I don’t seek to win hearts and minds. That’s not my style and besides, they are way better folks for that job. I don’t care what people think as long as it doesn’t blow up my spot or the spots of others dealing with oppressions. What I care about is behavior. My activism seeks to make it unpleasant and EMBARRASSING and EXPENSIVE to engage in fuckery. My style of activism – whether it pertains to fat or other -isms – seeks to cause folks tremendous shame and discomfort so they STOP ENGAGING IN THE BEHAVIOR and pressure others to do the same. That’s why I’m nasty when I smack down acts of -ism fuckery. I’m not trying to get folks to “embrace a diverse range of voices” – I’m way too pragmatic for that – I’m just trying to get them to STOP WHATEVER FUCKERY THEY ARE DOING, hopefully embarrassing them and causing others to give it serious thought before engaging in similar behavior.
I am all about the “you ain’t got to go home, but you’ve got to get the fuck up on out of here” style of activism. I’m like Eastwood after beating down a mess of assclowns who then looks around and says, “Anyone else want some of this?”
She goes on to give an example of a woman in her work place who used the term "Porch Monkey" to describe black clients of the organization:
I am not the freaking thought police. I don’t care what she thought about black folks, provided it didn’t inform her treatment of them at work and as it related to the services she was supposed to be providing.
I made things REALLY unpleasant. I tattled. I brought it up in meetings and finally demanded they bring in a diversity specialist to shame us all via workshops for two long days. You know what, after that, I never had to say another word and wouldn’t you know she modified her behavior. If she even started to say any word with a “pah” sound there were like five coworkers ready to bitch about not wanting to do “race training” again. Moreover, she became a better worker, when she actually had to do her work rather than complain about the folks she served. You’d be surprised how quickly folks change their behavior when the price is too high to stay the same.
She also discusses shaming her doctor into embracing Health At Every Size, instead of going after patients about their weight.  She says her doctors' behavior didn't actually bother her, but she knew others would be hurt by it: "I ranted for all the fatties who aren’t as mean as me."

I think Snarky is onto something.  There are some people who's beliefs are not necessarily going to change, but who behave in ways that hurt other people.  Sometimes, getting them to realize it's not socially acceptable to treat people a certain way really is the best solution.  However, I'm of two minds on this one.  There's also the possibility that the person is really just a little ignorant about the issue, and doesn't understand why their language or behavior is hurtful.  In this case, ranting at them or tattling might just cause them to have the following thought bubble: "X group is so frickin sensitive!  Everyone's a PC stickler these days," instead of actually getting them to consider their behavior, and possibly put themselves in someone else's shoes.  Moreover, if the person generally is just a [ ]-ist jerk, getting them to change their public behavior might just make it harder to identify who's on whose side--sometimes what someone says when they think they're with like-minded company is very revealing, and useful for future interactions with those people.  I hate to use this example, because I feel the student in question is being scapegoated in a bigger issue, but the racist Harvard email is classic case: she probably knew it wasn't acceptable to say those things in front of mixed company, but showed her true colors in an email to a close group.

None of this is to take away from Snarky's point.  I'm all about the smackdown.  I guess I'm just also about trying to change some hearts and minds in the meantime, and also, remembering to tell people that it's not about being effing "PC," it's about not being effing [ ]-ist!

What do you think?  In the battle against intolerance, is fighting behavior or beliefs more important?  Which one do you focus on?


  1. By the way, I am in no way suggesting people shouldn't be held responsible for their behavior. In situations like the one Snarky describes, she was absolutely right to call the boss and come out both guns blazing--workplace intolerance is NOT acceptable and many people have gotten by making their co-workers uncomfortable because no one was willing to speak out. The situations where I'm wondering if we should take the "winning hearts and minds" approach are when someone seems to have good intentions or to not understand the root of the issue. There, if I had the energy, I would try to go for a beliefs conversion over a behavior smackdown. But what do you think?

  2. To quote a very wise man...

    "Darkness is not dissolved with blows or with atheism, but rather by bringing about the light. Neither is error dissolved by fighting it face to face, but rather by disseminating the truth without having to attack the error. How ever far the truth advances, in that same measure error will have to retreat. One does not have to resist what is negative, but instead one has to unconditionally practice the positive and teach its advantages by practicing. By attacking the error, we will provoke the hatred of those who err.

    What we need is to disseminate the light of the Revolution of the Dialectic in order to dissipate the darkness."

    I get disheartened whenever I see things like this. So often in our lives, we seek to combat suffering in the world by filling the world with more suffering. As you implied towards the end of your post, responding to anger with anger only provokes more anger. Responding to hatred with hatred only provokes more hatred. I sincerely question the wisdom of having a strategy of attacking other people as our modus operandi.

  3. It is not my style, and I don't think this kind of confrontation should be expected of everyone. I, personally, cannot handle that kind of conflict on a regular basis with people I don't know well. However, that is just my style (and it's not something I feel great about).

    I think that voices like Snarky's are really valuable and important towards making kyriarchical behavior or actions socially unacceptable and embarrassing to the persons who engage in them. I think it's a strong contribution towards making this world a less oppressive place, and I admire her for it.

  4. I agree, RMJ. I think we need both in the feminist community--people who are willing to do patient outreach, and people who are willing to stand up against the a*holes. I'm glad Snarky is on our side doing the latter!

  5. Well, psychology research has shown it is possible to change someone's thoughts and attitudes by changing their behaviour, rather than always trying to go the other way around. How do you make people act differently than they believe they should? With rewards or punishment, shame or praise.


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