“When you start talking about [feminism/racism/black lives matter/insert cause], you become annoying and it makes me less likely to listen to you.”
This argument and the hundred variants of it will undoubtedly be familiar to people who are passionate about any issue and start talking about it a little too much for the average listener’s comfort. It’s a really frustrating experience for both parties involved – the person who’s trying to be heard, and the person who doesn’t want to be lectured.
Last week, I had a couple conversations that made me think about this. First, my friend was told that her tone gets self-righteous when she starts talking about feminism and it alienates her listeners. Second, another close friend and I had a really interesting conversation about her strong female Latina acquaintance, who ends up “always making it about race” – and who ends up alienating non-Latinos. In both cases, the theme was that by talking about these topics seemingly incessantly, those of us who are trying to get people to hear us are potentially alienating our listeners.
I want to describe the process I went through that ultimately makes me say: The burden is not on the speaker to monitor his or her tone or message. The burden is on the listener to hear what the speaker has to say. The person talking about oppression is expressing the frustration that comes from true alienation, whereas the person who is reluctant to listen is merely experiencing temporary discomfort. I’m going to explain how I came to this position.
The first time I became aware of oppression was when I decided I was tired of being sexually harassed and tired of having no voice to resist it; and so I started educating myself. Once I awakened to the injustices and oppressions of one system (patriarchy) around me, I saw it everywhere. And once you understand one system of oppression, it’s just a short hop to identifying all the other ones (race, class, sexual orientation, able-bodies, you name it). I’m not the first person to describe this as a fog lifting from my brain. All the things I’d been taught were up for questioning. When you start going down this path, it’s also a quick realization that most people are not on it. Most people don’t question what we’ve been taught. Most people just exist in the system and continue to live life as best as they can without taking responsibility for change, especially if they benefit from the system. I personally think that discussing controversial, painful, uncomfortable issues and confronting them head-on is one of the most direct ways to achieve change. My voice is my power.
Of course, when first exercising that voice, I got the dreaded reaction. When even my close friends or family members tell me, “You harp on feminism too much” or “You are way too sensitive about certain issues,” it hurts me for several reasons. First, it’s a painful experience to be silenced; it makes me feel like no one cares about something that’s deeply important to me. Second, it doesn’t actually make me want to stop talking; it makes me want to talk more, because obviously no one else is going to. Third, people can say really messed up awful shit and I find that if I get upset about it, their biggest weapon is to call me sensitive. It’s all too easy to make me seem ‘crazy’ or ‘overemotional’ when really, the only crazy thing about this is how people are allowed to say really messed up things and I’m not allowed to call them on it. Finally, it is apparent that people who say this to me aren’t actually listening to me. They aren’t asking me why something upset me. They don’t ask me what experiences I’ve had that have made me think this way. They don’t admit that what they said was wrong. They refuse to admit that they might be part of the problem. They almost never just say, “Wow, that sucks.” Instead, they make me feel like by just speaking about it, I am sabotaging my own cause.
The problem is that talking about oppression at all makes everyone uncomfortable, so people are very likely to just project tone onto the speaker. “She must be preaching.” “She must think she’s better than me.” Listen, we are all on a long journey to dismantling these unfair structures, and I contribute to them too. When I talk about patriarchy, it’s not because I’m somehow above it. It’s because I want to dismantle it. I want to address it. I actively work on my own thoughts and actions and check myself but I mess up too. I’m not better than anyone else, but I want to talk about it. We need to talk about it. It is our responsibility to talk about it. And say you’re doing your best but really can’t relate at the end of the day…is it that hard to just admit that something is just unfair?
I understand that people are defensive about privilege. When it’s pointed out, it can feel like a personal attack. But the people who are actually alienated every day in this society are the minorities and the women and the queer community and the disabled community, you name your margin of choice. Do not mistake discomfort for alienation. It is okay to be uncomfortable because the truth is uncomfortable. We all need to stop shying away from discomfort and instead, practice empathy.
Now wait a second, you might be thinking at this point. What about the feelings of the people who just don’t really want to talk about race or gender every single day? What if they don’t really feel like being lectured? I entreat you to weigh that temporary discomfort against the pain, anger, helplessness, and frustration that people feel when they are part of a system that works against them. If the volume of my voice rises a little bit when I express myself, think of it as compensating for years of silence and try to listen to the words behind the emotion. And on my end, if I get a compassionate response from someone, I’m much less likely to sound condescending or angry the next time I talk to them.
All of this being said, I have learned some things about how to make my voice more effective based on the audience (I have some future posts in the works about that – we can all work on communication); and I also have some thoughts on how to decide when to have emotionally draining conversations versus when it’s just not worth it.
But this post is about listening without defending; it’s about putting one’s self in someone else’s shoes. If someone always makes it about race, I have no doubt she has an excellent reason for caring about that. Sometimes the best response is just, “I’m sorry it is this way,” without perceiving a personal attack, without getting defensive, without trying to poke holes in her argument. And to those people who have felt silenced by comments that suggest you are “annoying” when you’re talking about something important, keep speaking truth to power. People will end up listening because it’s right.