Although I keep my own Facebook page pretty locked down for the sake of my mental health, I often respond on friends’ posts when someone is being oppressive or just generally shitty. Through doing this I’ve catalogued some of the myriad ways people try to derail conversations where they are clearly in the wrong, obfuscate who has said what to draw silent observers to their side, and shift the blame so that they can’t be taken to task for the shitty thing they’ve said so they bear no responsibility for their harmful actions.
Nearly all of them are based on one of two principles: 1) Make someone feel like they’re overreacting or 2) Make them question their own perception of reality.
I’m sharing these because, until I started to see them as part of a bigger picture, they worked really well on me. They made me feel unable to trust my own perceptions, responses, and feelings. They made me question my grip on reality and whether I was “overreacting.”
1. “You’re humourless.”
Recently a friend posted about the unique horrors of sitting next to a screaming child on a 12 hour flight. Among other things, someone posted that hilarious old nugget of golden parenting advice to “hit him and really give him something to complain about.” When I responded unfavourably to his suggestion he responded with one word.
I’m just going to go ahead and quote myself here:
“I guess I don’t find hitting children that funny?
Thankfully I have been told enough times in my life that I’m humourless* that it bounces off of me–but I am not ignorant of the way it’s used to silence critique.
*Which is weird, because I’m fucking hilarious.”
I have encountered the accusation of humourlessness so many times I couldn’t begin to count. Challenging a rape joke? Humourless. Not laughing at a racist joke? Humourless. Pointing out that jokes founded in oppressive norms perpetuate those norms? Humourless.
And this used to really get to me. Perhaps in line with my (former) need to be a Cool Girl. Perhaps because society hates women who don’t kowtow to casual misogyny. Perhaps because earnest commitment to justice is thought of as unfunny and unsexy and uncool.
Now? Now I see it for what it is. A way for those in positions of power to try to dominate and humiliate folks with less power into rescinding their critique when someone puts forward a fucked up idea.
2. “You’re too sensitive.”
This is humourlessness’s cousin. This is the charge that you don’t have the thick skin of the person who is never impacted by the harms of misogyny/racism/ableism/rape culture/etc. This is the deluded doubling down of a claim to “objectivity” which is really just unexamined privilege.
This is the unironic temper tantrum of a privileged person so sensitive about their privilege that the mere mention that other lived experiences exist devastates them.
You are not too sensitive because you don’t brook racist bullshit, sexist garbage, or any other oppressive words or behaviours. You are brave and you are gracious for putting educating others before tending to your wounds (though it’s always okay to tend to yourself first and only).
3. I just don’t understand
This one’s a bit tough, because often new concepts are difficult and take time to process and assimilate. Especially when they are concepts that directly counter what you have learned in a toxic culture.
But there is a way “I just don’t understand” is used to derail and it’s when the issue has been spelled out for you multiple times, in multiple ways, with multiple sources. It’s when you refuse to read and consider and instead demand more emotional labour, more education from people impacted, and refuse to consider your stance at all despite the harm you are being told you are doing/have done. It’s when you delete dozens of comments explaining why your behaviour is misogynistic and then complain that no one ever explains things to you.
4. Intent is not magic
Or: It didn’t land how you meant it to. We’ve all done it. Said something we think is right on and then been immediately called out for some implication we hadn’t considered or intended.
The correct response is some variation of: “Shit. I didn’t see that and I’m sorry. I will try to be more thoughtful about the words I use next time.”
The incorrect response is some variation of: “But that’s not what I meant!!!1! I just meant that I disagree with your reading when I called you a hysterical bitch. How dare you call me sexist?!?!”
One of the ways I’ve heard this explained that I really liked is that if someone steps on your toe it doesn’t matter if they meant to or not, your toe is still broken. Either they can step off and apologize, or they can get angry that you’re hurting because they didn’t intend to step on your toe, and besides, they’re not going to step off because they didn’t mean to do it in the first place! Either way, toe’s still broken.
Gaslighting is a subtle and sophisticated type of emotional/psychological manipulation meant to make someone second guess themself, destroy their confidence, and, ultimately, question their perception of reality.
I would argue that the above four tactics can be used in gaslighting. Declaring someone humourless or too sensitive is meant to make them second-guess themself and question their perception of reality to change the topic from the misbehaviour of the gaslighter to the proposed inadequacies of the person calling them on it.
You might see this where someone absents themself from a conversation in which they’re being challenged by saying they don’t want to be attacked anymore (challenge is not attack)–thereby implying that reasonable and respectful challenging dialogue is an attack. Thereby conflating calling out harmful behaviour with committing harmful behaviour.
You might also see this where someone’s abusive behaviour is called out and they turn around and call the naming of abuse abusive (a very, very common tactic in intimate partner abuse, for the record). It is meant to make the person naming the abuse as well as any other readers ignore the offside behaviour of the first person in order to wonder if they were out of line by naming abusive behaviour as abuse.
6. Tagging in friends
I want to be very clear–bringing in mutual friends who can speak to something and/or act as support is fine. But tagging in friends when you are being shitty/oppressive/abusive and the other person is not backing down in the face of it? That is not okay. Recruiting your spouse to PM someone you and they have never met in order to declare your commitment to social justice–apparently every evening is filled with conversations about social justice but never about how a fundamental part of doing social justice work is being able to be challenged without taking your ball and going home then sending your partner to threaten them–in a hope to shame them for pointing out racism and misogyny is, well, not very good social justice work. But hilarious for all of us who get to read the PM.
7. You’re going to chase real allies away
Just to piggyback on the not-at-all-hypothetical PM mentioned above, here is something I see so often when someone with privilege is challenged that I can’t even pretend to consider it thoughtfully: “It’s people like you who make men not want to be feminists.” Or, “If you don’t stop being so extreme you’re going to chase the real allies away.” Or, “You’re the reason people are racist/sexist/etc. They wouldn’t be, they want to help fight for justice, but you’re so mean/abrasive/strident that you chase them away.”
If your allyship is reliant upon being treated with kid gloves, getting cookies and never-ending passes for not being overtly awful, never being challenged lest you fold up your tent and join the other side? WE DON’T WANT YOU.
If you can’t understand and weather the righteous anger of oppressed people you are no ally to them.
8. You have no idea how progressive I am!
Okay, this is last time I harp on the hilarious and very misguided PM a friend received. Responding to your (spouse’s) problematic behaviour being pointed out by incredulously declaring that you are SO progressive that it’s laughable to be accused of racist fuckery is yet another way that people try to shame and gaslight the person challenging them. Saying that the challenger would be humiliated by their challenge if they knew this person in real life because they are. just. so. progressive. is a total elision of responsibility and endeavours to prevent the person from challenging racist/sexist/etc bullshit in the future.
It also utterly fails to take into account how social justice work is a practice of constant learning, unlearning, fucking up, and learning to handle your fuck ups with as much grace as you can muster.
9. Playing Devil’s Advocate
My initial response to someone playing Devil’s Advocate is always, “Does the Devil really need another advocate? Who hears ‘The Devil’ and goes, ‘Oh, I bet he needs more people on his side!’?”
Inevitably that response is not appreciated by self-appointed Advocates. And the last time I said it I got a really haughty message back that they weren’t actually polling me on the Devil’s requirement for advocates. Which was good for a laugh if nothing else.
Here’s the thing about playing the Devil’s Advocate: You all pretend it’s some harmless forwarding of a morally neutral thought exercise. You seem to think we’re too dumb to see it for what it is: A pathetically transparent veil you use because you don’t have the guts to stand behind your oppressive opinion.
And then when you’re called on it you whine that you were just doing a thought exercise. Because if there’s anything the world needs it’s yet one more cis dude “wondering” if we should be believing women who are sexually assaulted. Or “showing both sides” about people’s fundamental right to body autonomy and right to not be forced to carry a pregnancy to term. And on and on and on.
If you’re going to forward odious and oppressive views, at least have the fortitude to stand behind them.
So that’s my list. It is surely incomplete, but it’s at least a start. You may have noticed that I slipped between “you” being the person doing the harmful behaviour and having it done to them. I wanted to recognize that we are all capable of arguing in bad faith, of utilizing shitty and harmful tactics when we feel challenged and defensive, and that we all need to be mindful of the harmful ideas, norms, and stereotypes we are stewed in from the moment we are born into this world. We all need to commit, again and again, to acting with integrity, to checking ourselves when we are challenged, and to walking away and processing shit rather than lashing out when we fuck up. Which we will.