I Wasn’t Angry Until You Said I Was: Civility & Its Discontents
I often find myself bringing up matters with people who might have missed their problematic nature. As time passes, I have come to ration my caution and care in such matters far more selectively. It’s draining to run scenarios in my head and try to figure out the exact approach that might circumvent any sort of unpleasant feeling in the person to whom I will be speaking, especially when my efforts hardly seem to matter.
My caution certainly didn’t matter the very morning of the day when that article claiming that outspoken women of color on Twitter are “toxic feminists” was published. Those privileged enough to not be misread as angry might put their faith in civility and good faith, but I don’t. As a relatively reasonable person, I cannot. The evidence simply doesn’t support my personally prioritizing others’ perception of my civility.
That day last week, the image on the right was posted on a secular discussion group. I found it bizarre: Hugh Hefner was being presented as a secular example of someone who “lives [heaven] everyday! [sic].” Meanwhile, Hefner’s lifestyle is essentially a replication of Islamic heaven, the same afterlife used as proof by non-Muslims that Islam hates women.
I knew the person who posted it is a good-faith actor with the best of intentions who is willing to listen. As such, I strategized. I didn’t want to call him on it publicly because it might cause embarrassment. In addition, I steered clear of language that might trigger defensiveness (i.e. anything that ends with “-ist”).
Below is an abridged version of the conversation I had (bolding is mine).
Me: I wanted to talk about that meme when you have the chance
Him: What’s wrong with it?
Me: your caption sort of rubbed me the wrong way. is HH really who we want as an example of an atheist who lives in “heaven” on earth? in his world, men can have as many women as they want, but his GFs are forbidden from having any other partners. not very heavenly, imho.
Him: Well, I don’t see a problem with HH because precisely my issue with religion is that it has oppressed sexuality. Whereas, HH has pushed against that. I don’t think he is sexist because not only is there playboy but playgirl as well.
Me: I am aware of his contributions towards the liberation of male-centric sexuality. But I don’t know if promoting his lifestyle as “heaven” is at all inclusive given the way his lifestyle actually works: one where a man is surrounded by as many women as he wants while they are supposed to stay monogamous to him. that sounds like Old Testament/Quranic polygamy to me, not a secular heaven-on-earth
Him: Well, aren’t you in a poly relationship as well? I guess his having GFs and not allowing them to see others is unfair, I can see your point about that and I never knew that before.
Me: yes, I have multiple relationships. but they’re egalitarian.
Him: I guess he is sort of antiquated in some of his thinking, but overall he has done great for sexual liberation.
Me: I am just sharing my PoV in private message with you out of respect and in the hopes you could see some of my perspective. his “heaven” is suspiciously close to that of Abrahamic oppressive sexist religion. So to present it on a secular group seems disingenuous to me as well as ignoring the fact that his heaven is just as sexist in some ways as those of religion.
Him: I didn’t mean to make you angry about it.
Me: did I say I was angry or express anger at any time?
He was hardly the first or only person to dub a carefully-worded, cautiously-approached conversation an expression of anger, despite my avoiding of words like “sexist.” Being read as angry when you are not does not require bad faith on the part of the person interpreting your words. All it requires is the skewed perspective bequeathed to us by the world: that anyone not upholding the status quo is disrupting it, and that such disruption is, by nature, angry.
Civility is, more often than not, in the eye of the beholder. When said eye is clouded over by subconscious biases, good faith isn’t enough to ensure that what is actually quite calm isn’t misread as “angry” and thus “uncivil.” It is with this perspective that I view those whose highest priority is “civility” with a great deal of suspicion. Attempting civility is often an exercise in futility for people in certain marginalized groups. I prioritize the elimination of the skewed perspective shared by so many, even self-described allies, that casts me as “uncivil” for daring to speak, over “civility.”