“I have seen, with my own two eyes, a 19 year old white woman — smart, well-meaning, passionate — literally run crying from a classroom because she was so ruthlessly brow-beaten for using the word “disabled.” Not repeatedly. Not with malice. Not because of privilege. She used the word once and was excoriated for it. She never came back. I watched that happen.”
I’ve got a question, Freddie: Why? Why did you watch that happen? Why did you let the situation escalate that way? Why didn’t you step in?
It sounds like you’re describing something that happened in a classroom in which you were teaching. If so, you really screwed up that day. Because when a student is getting attacked by other students for making a mistake, it’s your job to intervene — not just on her behalf, but so that other students feel the freedom to speak and to stumble.
[Note: deBoer has since clarified that he was not the teacher in this situation. Fair enough. But as I suggested in comments, it strikes me that his primary complaint should be with whoever was, for the reasons I state below.]
If a pile-on like that happened in one of my classes, I’d remind the students that we all screw up, and that screwing up is how we learn. I’d discuss the way that what’s considered appropriate speech evolves. I’d discuss why “disabled” is deprecated these days, and I’d talk about the roots of the shift to other terminology. If, at the end of that, everyone hadn’t calmed down, I’d be shocked. And if people were still angry, I’d be in a position to direct their anger toward me and away from their classmate.
This isn’t hard. It isn’t complicated. And it’s absolutely not forbidden.
Back to deBoer:
“If I’m not allowed to ever say, hey, you know, there’s more productive, more inclusive ways to argue here, then I don’t know what the fuck I am supposed to do or say.”
Who said you’re not? Seriously, who? Give me a quote. Give me a quote where someone said that you’re not ever allowed to intervene when people are hurting other people with leftier-than-thou outrage. Show me where someone said that, and I’ll go yell at them, if you’re afraid to.
“Do you know what I’m supposed to say to some shellshocked 19 year old from Terra Haute who, I’m very sorry to say, hasn’t had a decade to absorb bell hooks? Can you maybe do me a favor, and instead of writing a piece designed to get you yet-more retweets from Weird Twitter, tell me how to reach these potential allies when I know that they’re going to get burned terribly for just being typical clumsy kids?”
Yes, I know what you’re supposed to say. You’re supposed to say that sometimes we all get yelled at, and sometimes it stings. You’re supposed to say that sometimes the yellers are right, and sometimes they’re wrong. You’re supposed to say that getting yelled at isn’t the end of the world. You’re supposed to say that screwing up is part of the process of learning how not to screw up, and that nobody ever got good at anything without sucking at it first.
That’s what you’re supposed to say, and if anyone says you’re not allowed to say it, send them to me.
Update | Oh, and one other thing, Freddie. You knew, or should have known, that using “you guys” in your post title was going to piss people off. And you knew, or should have known, that “herp de derp” was going to do the same. That crap isn’t cute. Don’t be a jerk.
Second Update | The original title of this piece was more obnoxious than was necessary. I’ve changed it.
Third Update | Being yelled at isn’t the end of the world. That applies to Freddie, and it also applies to me.
Could I have been less snarky in my post? Absolutely. Was I ungenerous to Freddie? Yeah, I think I was, on reflection. And I’m sorry for that. I was trying to simultaneously express my frustration with the parts of his post that set me off and reply constructively to the rest, and I should have let it sit for another round of editing before I pressed “send.”
So… Sorry, Freddie. I apologized yesterday evening on Twitter, and I’m apologizing again here.
Now. Having said that, I absolutely stand by the basic content of the post. I do think that it’s both possible and appropriate to intervene in situations like the ones he describes, though yes, figuring out how and when to do it can be complicated. Professors should stand up for students who are being hassled in their classrooms not just as a matter of defending the class as a space for open dialogue, but also as a matter of modeling the kind of generous behavior we’d like to see more generally. It’s absolutely true, as commenters have noted, that issues of social capital are embedded in these kinds of blowups, and that means that folks with social capital are often the ones who have the most ability to step up to put them on a better track.
Can any of us always intervene productively, directly, in every situation? No. Not always. There will be situations in which what someone has to say will be rejected by the person behind the call-out — and not always wrongly. Sometimes people need to be called out, and sometimes defusing people’s anger isn’t appropriate or helpful, and sometimes a particular messenger isn’t likely to get a proper hearing.
But even in those situations, if we feel that someone’s being piled on inappropriately — or even if we feel that the initial pile-on was appropriate, but we don’t want to see someone driven from the classroom or organization or movement — there’s almost always stuff we can do later on to mend the breach. We can, as I suggested in the original post, sit down with the person who was the target, in private, and offer support and context. We can also go to the person or people who were doing the targeting, one-on-one, away from the spotlight, and see if reconciliation is possible. We can work with the folks involved to figure out how things blew up and to try to keep them from blowing up again.
And crucially, we can speak out before things blow up, too. We can work to establish shared standards of behavior. We can create mechanisms for resolving conflicts formally or informally. We can create spaces where folks can ask fraught questions without fearing the consequences of screwing up. We can — as I did with Freddie and “herp” and “guys” here — point out potential sources of tension before they set anybody off.
All of that is stuff we can do. All of that is stuff I do. And all of it, I strongly suspect, is stuff Freddie does. So rather than having an endless public pissing match about the sins and virtues of the left, let’s do more of that. Let’s do more of it, and let’s do more talking about how to do it better.
That’s a conversation I’m here for. That’s a conversation I’m eager to have. And that’s a conversation that I’ll still be eager to have even if I get yelled at some more in the process.
Because getting yelled at isn’t the end of the world.
Fourth Update |Crucial additional context and conversation here.