In 2014, I was in my second-to-last quarter at Evergreen State College, and I took this class on the history of the American Marriage and Family. I took it mostly because it offered me the opportunity to meet Stephanie Coontz, who was the professor, and whose work I’d previously read.
She’s amazing, by the way.
In that class, I also (obviously) met several students. Most were forgettable, as classmates often are. A handful were awesome and memorable.
And one … one was intriguing and frustrating and fascinating. He was argumentative and stubborn, but intelligent. He would say things that made me think he was a libertarian — small government/ Ayn Rand/ conservative type, but then he’d bust out with these pro-feminist, gender-egalitarian, equal-rights, progressive talking points that would make me do a double take.
Then he’d go back and defend conservative talking points and small government and the myth of meritocracy — these childish ideas that a hero can save us from ourselves; that all the unwashed masses need to cure poverty and inequality and misery is a supermensch willing to take on the job and stop doing bad selfish things like buying fast food or mass produced goods.
He honestly seems to believe that each singular individual is responsible for structural systems of inequality, and that actions of one person can actually effect social massive change on a societal scale — that if we all rose up and stopped buying McDonalds hamburgers tomorrow, that would end inequality, rather than putting hundreds of thousands of workers on every level of the supply chain out of business.
His solution isn’t, “Hey, maybe we should enact legislation that requires better oversight and safety procedures at each state in the supply line, and requires us to pay a living wage at each level in the production process — sure, it means the hamburger costs more, but it’s worth it, if it stops child slavery and oppression at the point where the grain is grown to make the bun and it stops animal torture where the cow is raised, and it means the McDonalds worker gets a living wage and goes home to an actual home.”
His solution is — “Fuck the system, stop buying hamburgers, screw everyone. Make that loser get a real job that’s something other than selling hamburgers. I don’t know what. Something valuable. Fuck hamburgers. Why are you buying hamburgers, what are you, an asshole?”
So he’d be sitting there, caught up in a self-righteous tirade about how we just need to stop shopping, or buying, or doing XYZ action in order to “cure” this or that inequality, and I’d be whiplashed back into the realization that he held a very Randian, libertarian view of the world.
He honestly doesn’t grasp the nuanced structures of inequality that our world is balanced on, and why eradicating trade systems is not a viable answer, but introducing income equality and fair trade systems is a viable answer.
But he also has progressive ideals and a desire for democratic equality that is held in tension with that weird individualism and blind clinging to the myth of meritocracy were so … intriguing that I struck up a fascinated sort of dialogue with him during the class session. I mean, I was in the process of quitting smoking and I needed a distraction, and I kind of wanted to understand how he held that sort of doublethink in his head.
Admittedly, he was kind of a project, too: I wanted to see if he could be coaxed away from toxic individualism of Randian philosophies and into understanding how the structural systems of inequality permeated society on every level; how inequality was woven into the very fabric of our society and could not be dismantled by opting out of the system or the myth of meritocracy, but that history has shown we can affect large-scale change by joining our voices together in large-scale protest and brotherhood to demand living wages and social equality.
So after the class ended, we were FB friends. Unfortunately, he seemed to have gotten the idea that I like arguing. See, in college, arguing during seminar is one thing — we’ve all read the same text, we’re coming from the same basic background of information, and we’re all respectful of one another.
But out of college, on FB or in person … that’s a different thing. People come from different backgrounds of information. We’ve read different texts and have vastly different experiences and educational backgrounds. Some people are receptive, some are closed off, and numerous psychological studies show that it’s far more common for people to double down when challenged than to open up receptively to new ideas.
In addition, my preferred conversational mode is that of … well, conversation. I don’t like an aggressive, argumentative tone. But this particular guy, for some reason, would come onto my feed and start every conversation from a very aggressive stance, often intentionally (and, he claimed, jokingly) taking the devil’s advocate stance just to “yank my chain.”
It was so pronounced, I was getting private messages from other FB friends asking me what his deal was.
Initially, my other FB friends would try to help me in my debates against him, but they gave up on him long time passing. He’s difficult to debate with. Not in the, “Oh, this guy has his shit together and is very reasoned in his arguments,” type of way. More in the Gish Gallop way. He fires off comment after comment, so quickly that it’s impossible to respond point by point. They’re incoherent and lack both research and a basic understanding of the topic he’s arguing in, and are often internally contradictory. He’s also aggressive and relies overmuch on logical fallacies. On top of that, during the course of the argument, he’ll go back and edit his own comments for clarity without noting that he’s edited them, which often render any responses to his comments as incoherent as his own arguments.
I tried to talk to him about this behavior, both in person and online, and he was basically unapologetic and accused me of trying to silence him. I discussed my frustration with my friends (who, for what it’s worth, are people of color, women, and LGBT individuals, all of whom were trying — along with me — to unsuccessfully present our perspectives in conversation with him, a white heterosexual male who self-identifies as progressive and would continually explain to us about how we didn’t understand liberal politics and were complaining too much).
For all these reasons, we gave up on trying to talk to him.
He approaches each argument with the apparent assumption that the other party is an adversary, rather than one half of a dialogue. He does not see the need to suss out the context of the situation first, and I often got the sense (when it comes to discussions on pop culture or music or clothing) that he looks down on the entire discussion and, indeed, that there is a different discussion happening underneath that I am unaware of — one about values and morals, and the inherent worth of time or money “wasted” (as he deems it) on such things.
After a few months of that, I restricted his “friendship” on FB so that he couldn’t see or interact with my profile anymore.
It was so embarrassing, you know? I mean, I have four siblings, and when two of them started acting like that on my feed, I didn’t even hesitate. I just axed ’em, not even a flinch. I don’t know why I put up with it so long from this guy. I was getting private messages from my friends asking me why I was letting this racist sexist asshole spew hate all over my feed, and I’m just struggling to explain …
When I used to hang out with him in person, he’d be normal and fun and charming, and he got along great with my husband and son. But his FB personality is so gratingly abrasive and aggressive and rude. I was just baffled at the difference between real-life him and online-him. I didn’t know how to explain it to my other far-flung friends.
The people who attended class with us knew his personality. They just stayed out of it. They never commented, never messaged, nothing. But my other friends, the ones who never met him in real life … well every time he spewed his venom all over my feed I’d get another spurt of questions in my inbox:
Who is this guy?
What’s his problem?
Why are you even friends with him?
I kept trying to explain that I didn’t really think he was a racist or sexist MRAer or whatever, I thought he was just really bad at expressing himself through the written word. He seemed nice in person — but his online persona was so awful and I so rarely interacted with him in real life that I was starting to doubt myself. I felt embarrassed at my own hypocrisy. Why was I letting this guy, who clearly despised the queer, female, POC point of view stay on my feed and dictate the politics of oppression to me? Why was I so reluctant to just delete? Then he moved, and that’s I restricted his friendship so I didn’t interact with him.
After a few months (maybe a year) he was un-restricted. I don’t know if I did that, or if a FB update caused it (that’s happened in the past). Whatever the case, he commented on something and I did realize he was back on my feed, but I thought maybe I’d overreacted and I should give him another chance. Deciding to keep an eye on the situation, I didn’t renew the restricted access to my feed.
All seemed quiet for a few months, and then it started again.
For example, I might post a Trevor Noah video, and we would end up in an argument about the racial politics of late night satire wherein he would admit during the course of the discussion that he was unaware of and unconcerned with the social dynamics and recent history of late night satire and didn’t even watch it. So why, why is he starting an argument on my feed about something that he looks down on, thinks is useless, and doesn’t even understand the context of?
That would be like me striding into the forest where some guys are hunting deer and being like, “All right, y’all. I don’t know why you like to kill bambi, but you’re doing it wrong. Climb down outta that tree and throw the salt lick away. Everyone knows deers eat grass and stay on the ground, c’mon!”
It was so frustrating. So frustrating. Today I posted what I thought was a funny SNL skit about the Oscars Boycott, and this guy comes in again and says (basically) that anyone who goes to the movies is a white supremacist, because apparently dumbass doesn’t understand that ticket sales have literally zero impact on Oscar nominations. It’s all internal Hollywood politics.
But of course, this guy is too busy blaming the rest of us individuals for the structural systems of inequality to bother to do things like, uh, I dunno, educate himself on how these structural systems of inequality work.
No way, its super easier to blame the proletariat and claim that if we all practice a little more good ‘ole protestant self-flagellation and wear our hair shirts a little tighter and suffer a little more, the myth of meritocracy will prove itself true and we will prevail! A supermensch will arise from our ranks and free us from these chains of inequality, if we just fucking suffer enough and stop fucking complaining. Just keep holding out for a hero — admit this is all our fault, that it’s the individual. We brought our suffering on ourselves by not being worthy enough. We don’t deserve better.
It’s not a structural, institutionalized system of inequality encoded in policies and legislation and enacted often mindlessly and thoughtlessly by people who have been taught not to examine their own unconscious biases — it’s our own individual choices, see. It’s our own fault.
In case you didn’t realize, you were supposed to read those previous two paragraph with heavy sarcasm. Go back and read it in a heavily sarcastic voice, if you didn’t already. Think Daria. Channel your inner Daria.
Also, side note, a country that is 80% white? Ha. According to the census.gov quickfacts table, there are two ways to slice that. One percentage is 77.4% that says, “White alone,” which is defined as, “White. A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa. It includes people who indicate their race as “White” or report entries such as Irish, German, Italian, Lebanese, Arab, Moroccan, or Caucasian,” and is currently a category that is (once again) under debate and potential redefinition, as persons of Middle Eastern, Arab, Lebanese, and actual Caucas origin are facing unprecedented amounts of discrimation right now. Colorblind policies don’t really work, and in fact are one of those structural silencing systems of oppression (shut up and stop complaining) but what has been shown to work is naming and quantifying a problem so we can put numbers and faces to the name and groups can organize and work together for change (ie, NAACP, KIWA, #blacklivesmatter — that sort of thing.). One voice becomes a thousand, and a thousand becomes a million. The other percentage is that 62.1% of the country self-identifies as, “White alone, not Hispanic or Latino.” … but I digress.
It’s funny. I unfriended my siblings faster than I unfriended this guy, and I can’t really figure out why when he was offending not only me, but people I cared about. My actual friends, my husband were urging me to unfriend him, and I was hesitating because … why? Because I didn’t want him to “win”? Because I thought he could be taught? Because I wanted to understand him?
Why would you rant about late night comics or the Oscars if you don’t know about them, and don’t care to know about them? If you don’t understand the social dynamics or the racial and gender politics, and you think they’re frivolous, why would you come in and assume you understand how these systems work and believe you can explain it to me?
I mean, I just have a surface understanding of how the Hollywood system works, and that’s only because I’m an Audrey Hepburn fan and in 1964, she was snubbed for an Academy Award Nomination for Best Actress in My Fair Lady. Why? Politics. Hollywood Politics. These Hollywood Award ceremonies aren’t determined by ticket sales or movie popularity, and anyone who thinks they are is fucking retarded. Have you ever watched even a second of the Oscars? Have you ever seen a little “call in” number on the screen to cast your vote for best movie or best actress or whatever? No? Because it’s not fucking live voting! This isn’t some democratic American viewer-determined live reality tv vote, nor is it even determined by ticket sales and our purchasing power. This is absolutely determined by the who’s who of Hollywood, the directors and movers and shakers determining what movies get made and who gets hired.
So in the case of image-conscious Hollywood, does talking about it help? Does shining a spotlight on the structual racism and sexism help?
Oh, absofuckinglutely it does.
It already has been helping. You think it hasn’t? Look at The Force Awakens, and Mad Max: Fury Road, and tell me that shining a spotlight on the gender and racial inequality in Hollywood hasn’t helped. Tell me this conversation hasn’t helped.
For SIX Star Wars films, we had a white male heterosexual protagonist with a romance storyline. Six. And then there was Rey, and Finn.
For THREE Mad Max films, the women were little more than objects, to be acted upon or as tragic figures to impel the plots of the men forward. And then, in Fury Road, the women took front and center, as the protagonists, with fully developed personalities and agencies and stories of their own. They were not objects, to be lusted over. They were not tragedies, to die and be forgotten and impel the men into further action. They were individuals, with their own motivations and fears and desires and backgrounds. And they were magnificent.
I think it is insanely important to have this conversation, and to keep having it. To call out directors and actors that whitewash and retrench back into their privilege, and to thank the actors and directors and producers who make a concerted effort to wrestle with their privilege and address it and bring a diversity of gender/ race/ age onto the screen. Representation matters.
As for my former classmate … I finally realized I don’t need to engage with him anymore. I’ve heard his worldview. I can find a thousand just like him anywhere on reddit, or dissected on posts on We Hunted the Mammoth. I don’t have to actually interact with that toxicity to learn about it.
So I finally did it.