[Content Note: Discussion of Anti-Semitism ]
(A previous version of this was posted at Stealing Commas. This version is cross-posted to Ana Mardoll’s Ramblings, which is why there’s a note from Ana at the end.)
Why this matters
There are activists out there to make the world a better place, this post is not for them. A key component of being an activist is the whole “active” thing. (What happened to the “e” when the ending was added is a story for another time.) This is for the rest of us.
The rest of us is an important group. Without the rest of us doing some small part activists find their work difficult at best. If the rest of us are hideously wrong then activists have to devote their time to correcting the rest of us when it might better be used elsewhere. But even more important than that, the rest of us make up the world in which everyone is forced to live.
Unless someone has got a way to hitch a lift on a passing flying saucer, the rest of us are who they’re stuck with. We surround them like water surrounds a fish. We make the world in which they live. The background radiation of social reality is emitted by the rest of us.
That can be used for good or ill. The rest of us can make the world (or at least our corner of it) a space that is safe for all. Or we can make it a place where people are afraid to speak their minds or be themselves, a place where people feel constantly beset by incoming fire. A place that one wouldn’t want to live but, again barring hitching a lift on flying saucers, everyone has to.
This post is about how to be a good part of the rest of us rather than a bad part of the rest of us while expending minimum effort. There’s a reason it says, “lazy person’s guide.”
As it turns out there is nothing difficult or complex. It requires only two things:
2 Take into account what you hear when you listen.
Why you have to listen
You have to listen because you don’t know everything. Fortunately human beings have adapted a way to deal with this: Language. You may not know what it’s like to be a certain type of person, but they can tell you. So, for example, I didn’t know that the word, “Lame,” was used as a way to describe and insult disabled people. I knew it was used to describe injured horses, chess pieces that can’t jump, and uncool things, but I had no idea it was used on people.
There is a reason for that. Not being disabled I don’t have to live my life with people constantly throwing insults at me that are based on being disabled. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever been present when such insults were hurled. That’s my world, a world where these things don’t even pop up on the radar. If it weren’t for someone telling me that, yes, that word is used on people and, yes, it is incredibly hurtful to use it as a generic way to say uncool and, yes, it is used as a slur… I would not know these things. I would be blissfully ignorant –which is nice, note the “blissful”– but leaves me in a position where I can end up hurting people. Because maybe someone who’s just been called “lame” 85 times in a vitriol filled rant about how they’re an evil asshole mooching off the system to get good parking spaces just walked into the room and maybe, without knowing the varied connotations of the word, I say, “That’s so lame,” about something I think sucks and the word, “lame,” hits them like a punch to the gut.
Sometimes people do go too far, and sometimes the standard repository for all knowledge which contains much that is apocryphal or at least wildly inaccurate gets things wrong. The example that comes to mind is, “Brouhaha.” It’s impossible to be totally certain about anything in the past. Maybe the dinosaurs all had iPads. But insofar as we can be certain “brouhaha” did not originate in antisemitism.*
I bring this up mostly because I feel like if I didn’t, the perfectly reasonable objection would form in someone’s mind, “But other people can’t always be right.” No, they can’t always. This is a fact of life. But what is true is that, for any slur, the people against whom it is used know a hell of a lot more about how the slur is often used than everyone else.
And it’s not just slurs. I started with them for the reason that they’re an easy thing to understand. When someone is using a racial, ethnic, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, abilist, [any number of other things] slur it’s pretty easy to see that they’re in the wrong.
Most prejudice is more subtle and thus much easier to miss when you’re not the target. Not being the target, by the way, is part of what privilege is. You don’t have to be under fire, you don’t have to know anyone is under fire, you don’t have to live with the realization that we live in an extremely fucked up world where people are treated like shit just for being who they are. You get to live with blinders and whatever problems may befall you, no matter how severe they might be, you never quite realize how other people have to deal with systemic hurtful bullshit on top of the ordinary problems of life. Except that’s not even it, because that skips how ingrained it is. For them systemic hurtful bullshit is part of the ordinary problems of life because it’s part of ordinary life period.
Listen to people, listen to what makes them feel safe and unsafe, welcome and unwelcome, so forth.
How to Listen
This might be hard, people might say things about you that you don’t want to hear. You may feel yourself going on the defense. You might want to argue, “No, I’m totally not doing X because…” or, “I’m not a Y, I’m insulted that you could even think to say I remind you of a Y.” These impulses are perfectly natural, what matters is not that you have them, if you have them, but how you respond to them.
Don’t take the defense. Don’t say, “I can’t possibly be alienating [so-and-so] people because I have a [so-and-so] friend.” People who have been here before will instantly know that you have your head up your ass if you take that road. Don’t try to argue that people are wrong to feel unsafe or unwelcome. They’re not. Their feelings are not yours to dictate. Maybe you can’t make them feel safe and welcome, but then that comes down to you accepting that such people will not be safe and welcome in your area, be it your house, your school, your blog, your youtube channel, your club, your circle of friends, your church, your facebook page, your forum, your camping trips, your business, your…
Don’t try to argue that you doing X totally should not have produced response Y because [whatever]. The issue is not what it should have done, but what it did. Y has happened, the question is what, if anything, you’re going to do about it.
Don’t try to argue that you’re not a [bad thing]. What you are is between you, yourself, your soul if such things exist, and your god if such things exist. For the rest of us what matters isn’t what you are but what you do. If the things you do are [bad thing] then it doesn’t matter that in your heart of hearts you’re not [bad thing], you’re still doing [bad thing] things. This also leads us into another thing, by shifting from what you did to what you are you’re making it all about you.
Say someone says, “You did X and that makes me feel Y.” If you then you make it all about you and how you feel, you’re ignoring the other person. You’re cutting them out of a conversation about how they feel. Or, in short, you’re being an asshole.
If someone says you hurt them the first thing to do is to apologize for hurting them. Even if this is one of the rare cases where you didn’t do anything wrong, they still got hurt and you didn’t want that so you should have no problem whatsoever with giving a sincere apology.
Next comes asking them how you hurt them so that you won’t do it again.
And finally comes self reflection and priorities. I’ll talk more about priorities later (I know this because I’m typing out of order right now) but the basic thing is how important it is to you not to hurt others. If it isn’t important at all, congratulations: you’re an asshole. But there are levels where it might not be your most important priority. Maybe they were hurt because they thought brouhaha was an anti-Semitic slur and you think educating them about the origins of the word not being anti-Semitic is more important than stopping using the word. Depending on the situation, though, this behavior, in itself, can still make you an asshole (even if you’re factually right). We’ll get to priorities.
How to Respond
Sometimes people will give you suggestions, sometimes solicited and sometimes not. Some suggestions you might think are already in force for everyone, if they’re being suggested that implies they are not for the group suggesting it. Try harder.
1 Take suggestions as personal attacks. (“Go to Hell,” can be considered an exception.)
2 Say they won’t work without trying.
If you’re not going to follow a suggestion then say why, and realize that in so doing you’re stating your priorities.
This is where I talk about priorities.
Some people that I respect very much run a forum that is not a safe space because their rules are that anything that is neither spam nor a direct personal attack gets to stay up. Usually this is fine and usually the space is safe. When someone started comparing business tactics to rape it became very clear very fast why this leads to spaces that are not safe.
I talked directly to someone basically in charge of the forum and he made two things very clear. The first was that he thought what rape metaphor guy was doing was horrible and he intended to oppose it in any way he could short of breaking the rules on which the forum was based. The second was he was not going to oppose the rules on which the forum was based. This was because the rules, to them, were not just arbitrary guideposts for how to deal with a given thing, they were the founding principles on which the entire place was based (I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.)
All speech short of direct personal attacks was sacrosanct there, which meant all other priorities (including making it a safer space by keeping it clear of callous rape metaphors) were secondary.
When you make a decision like that you’re ordering your priorities. In that space free speech was a higher priority than avoiding triggering a rape victim who might be reading a thread about copyright and some shenanigans with a game and the company making it. The people who made that determination never thought the question would come up, but when it did they stuck by their own rules and tried to shoot down the rape metaphor person as users rather than administrators.
If people triggered by mentions of rape say that they don’t feel safe there, there can be no argument. In that space free speech is considered more important than making such people safe. That’s the decision that was made.
I bring up this tangent to point something out, having your space not be safe does not make you evil. Choosing a set of priorities that leaves the space unsafe is not a sign you’re demonic. The people who made the forum I just described were good people. If you want to be like them you can be, but you should take something else from it: they were honest about it.
They didn’t make any arguments saying, “No, this really is a safe space,” or that they were addressing to the needs of those who would be triggered. They didn’t push back against those who pointed out it wasn’t a safe space. They didn’t make a fight of it. They simply said in straightforward terms that they had a certain set of priorities by which they governed and that meant it was not going to be an always safe space. It was going to be an, “As safe as the commenters can make it without using any administrative powers save for direct personal attacks,” space which is decidedly not the same thing as a safe space.
If you decide that a space you have control over is going to be run by a set of rules that doesn’t result in a safe space, do not argue that it does. Do not argue against those who say it isn’t safe. Do not argue at all. Be up front, you have some other guiding principle that’s more important to you than making the space safe. Admit it, own it, and leave it at that.
Listening doesn’t mean that you have to incorporate everything everyone says, but if you’re going to go flatly against it you should at least acknowledge it, probably say why, and do it in such a way that you’re not presenting an argument why what the person said was wrong but instead simply stating why you will not be using it.
And that goes for anything, if someone says, “X would make me feel safer/more welcome,” and you want to say, “No way I’m doing X,” be honest about the fact that your reason for not doing X is more important to you than making the person feel safer/more welcome. (If this should make you feel like you need a shower, reconsider your reason for not doing X.)
Listen and incorporate that into what you do, but sometimes you may incorporate it by saying, “Not gonna do it,” rather than incorporating it by doing it. Be aware that this will keep some people away, be aware that (depending on what “it” is) this may make some people think you’re an asshole. Do not argue with these people. They’ve told you what it would take to make them come, they’ve told you what it would take to make them not think you’re an asshole, you’ve chosen not to do that. Discussion ends there. Leave them the fuck alone; it’s their right to leave/think you’re an asshole when you’re choosing not to meet their needs.
Only you can determine your own priorities, but everyone else gets to determine how they react to your priorities. For whatever it’s worth, your priorities might make you an asshole. They might make other people think you’re an asshole when you’re not. They might do any number of things. Many of those things are good but I’m going for warning here and thus sticking to the bad.
This is the single most active thing I will tell you to do in this article, but it’s important.
Say your group is mostly male, or mostly white, or mostly straight, or mostly straight white males, or mostly whatever and you think it should be more diverse. Ask how you can get a more diverse following. Again:
2 Take into account what you hear when you listen.
And here’s a problem I haven’t gotten into before. The people who speak up might take a lot of flack. They might get shouted down. You can’t listen to someone who has been shouted down. If someone responds to your request for advice you had better be fucking ready to defend them. You got them to stick their neck out, don’t you dare abandon them.
If you’re the reason someone is speaking, if they’re responding at your request, then you’ve just grabbed yourself the job of bodyguard until they’re no longer speaking at your request. If they start getting personal attacks because of their response to your question it is your job to shoot those attacks down.
You can’t just ask and then watch the chaos ensue. You drew these people out so they could say something you wanted to know, you have to protect them from the consequences of doing what you asked. The bigotry that can come out of the woodwork at times like these is stunning and disheartening and you need to make sure it’s not silencing the very voices you asked to speak.
Some parting thoughts
There’s probably a lot more to that, but I note that for all the words it’s still very, very simple. None of it is activism. It’s not really very active at all. It doesn’t require any more effort than you currently expend.
Listen. If you listen you will learn. If you learn you will be changed. If you are changed that will change how you act. It all starts with listening, which is a very passive thing to do.
If you don’t want to be a privileged ass then listen to those who do not share your privilege. Don’t just make a show of listening, actually fucking listen. Then, having listened, make use of what you learned.
* Because the belief that “brouhaha” has antisemitic origins is so ingrained it was suggested that I go into a little more detail here. My first try was three pages (or longer if you don’t single space), my next was shorter but still too long. This is attempt three to keep it short.
The word “brouhaha” does enter the historical record eventually and so we get things like Moliere’s play** including the term which premiered on November 18th, 1659. There we find that “brouhaha” can be translated as “applause” because at the time it meant an uproar good or bad. But where it comes from has never been proven and barring time machines likely will never be proven. For the longest time it was just assumed to be a bit of onomatopoeia invented for French theater.
Then the antisemitic origin theory arose. The major problem with it is that it requires a phonetic change the likes of which have never been seen before, concurrently, or since. It would be the only time in the history of any language that such a change took place and fly in the face of everything we know about phonetics and linguistics. Compared to that, the fact there is absolutely no evidence to back up the antisemitic origin theory is minor at best.
The theory, in full, reads like someone saying, “Tell me, Muse, of the word of many twists and turns,” and as you might expect that leaves you with 12,110 lines of dactylic hexameter which is why I’ve had such difficulty keeping this short, but I’m going to try. The theory, with details stripped away to save space, goes like this:
Someone who didn’t really know Hebrew overheard the words, “barukh habba,” and coined a new eight word phrase based on them (“Brou brou brou ha ha, brou ha ha,”) which entered into French theater of the farcical variety with a negative meaning. Then the meaning completely reversed itself into something of equal and opposite negativity. Then time passed and the words before the comma were thrown out (leaving “brou ha ha”.) Then time passed and the phrase was collapsed into a single word (brouhaha.) Then the meaning completely changed again, this time shedding all negative connotations and denotations and going from something a single person would say in a play to a simple description of the disposition of a crowd.
And at that point the theory ends because we’ve reached Moliere and that puts us into the realm of firm history rather than theory.
And that’s it, basically. With the details it goes on forever but the short version is:
barukh habba → brou brou brou ha ha, brou ha ha → brou ha ha → brouhaha
(While the meaning went through much more radical and unexplained changes.)
It’s the first step (barukh habba → brou brou brou ha ha, brou ha ha) where the theory really falls flat on its face. Words don’t change that way. They can change radically (e.g. Caseus → Cheese) but there are things that govern how those changes take place and unless aliens did it “barukh habba → brou brou brou ha ha, brou ha ha” does not track. What is the same and what is different between “barukh habba” and “brouhaha” doesn’t work from a linguistic standpoint if we’re saying the second came from the first. We’re in dinosaurs with iPads territory.
And that’s probably as short as I can make this. Hopefully viciously removing all context, detail, and supporting evidence in an effort for brevity hasn’t made it look like I’m talking out my ass.
** Ana’s Note: I’ve asked Chris to go into this detail here so that the comments on the post can be largely about the content of his excellent guide and not a huge derail on the etymology of brouhaha. (So if he has looked like an ass in the above, I take full blame for the assitude.)
I was able to dig up the specific Molière reference if anyone cares to research this further in their own spacetime. The play in question is Molière’s L’impromptu De Versailles. You can find the link to the “brouhaha” quote on Google Books here. A side-by-side French-to-English version can be found on Amazon Kindle here. The line in question is there rendered:
Là, appuyez comme il faut le dernier vers. Voilà ce qui attire l’approbation, et fait faire le brouhaha.
There, lay the proper stress on the last line; that is what elicits approbation, and makes the public applaud you.
This translation (clapping, applause) is also viewable in the 1728 edition of “The Royal Dictionary” available on Google Books here. The scholar I spoke to believed the word to be onomatopoeia in reference to the sound of the clapping crowd, and noted that onomatopoeia can vary widely across languages. Thank you, and thanks to Chris for writing this wonderful post.