“For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” – Audre Lorde
Those of us who are engaged in social justice activism find ourselves regularly engaged in arguments with people on all manner of issues and in all sorts of positions on those issues. While there are basic principles that are frequently treated as unimpeachable within these communities–say, for instance, that the marginalized should not be subject to status quo-upholding principles of civility, or that allies should never interpose their voice over those whom they wish to promote–I have seen little to no discussion of how, precisely, allies should go about arguing.
So, pretty much everyone in the online skeptical community knows about ye olde civility pledge, originated by Dan Fincke of Camels With Hammers. I have much the same protests as many other voices in the skeptical community, but my favorite reply, by far, was Chris Clarke’s “Desert Tortoises With Boltcutters Civility Pledge“:
I pledge to remember that a fetishized civility is a field mark of insulation from suffering. The cries of the wounded on a battleground may be very unpleasant and uncivil indeed. I pledge to nod sympathetically and help bind those wounds rather than chide the wounded for bleeding so indecorously.
While this is more than adequate for describing the ways that civility pledges and othersuch ridiculousness hamper the marginalized in endless tone-trollery and various nefarious privilege purposes, there is very little discussion in general as to the fact that allies absolutely must function according to different rules than those with whom they wish to work for justice. Fincke expects marginalized bodies to use the master’s tools and, as Lorde pointed out, that is not going to be an effective method for dismantling the master’s house. What’s more, however, is the fact that oftentimes the marginalized simply do not have access to the master’s tools. They will, say, be criticized on their fashion choices, or for their dialect, or for their gender expression, or for fucking existing; all this happens long before they come anywhere near a scalpel. If all they can grab is a hammer then, I say, they can swing away, even if the damn thing is made out of concrete.
But what of allies? They (and, often, we; most of my identities are privileged) have access to a much wider array of tools and have an infinitely broader set of potential audiences open to them. This leaves them not only with the ethical choice of when to support marginalized bodies, but the rather stickier choice of how to do so.
What so often gets forgotten in this the fact that privilege is power, and that power comes with responsibility. Privilege means that others are far more likely to listen to you than they are to someone without it. It also means that, provided you take your status as an ally seriously, it is actually incumbent upon you to use whatever tactics you believe will be most effective in convincing others who will listen of the need for justice. Sometimes that situation will require you to keep as level a head as possible and not yell, despite the fact that yelling at bigots is fun. Sometimes that strategy will be to bend the rules of civility in order to make clear to everyone present that bigotry is not acceptable. And, on the rare occasions when this is necessary, the best strategy is to lay waste to the conversation and salt the earth in order to demonstrate that it is not worth being permissive of whatever line has been crossed in order to coddle someone. The reasons for these tactics, however, are not always immediately apparent.
If you have privilege then you have access to the master’s tools. You have access to a scalpel that can cut the fine lines that will convince its inhabitants to tear it down themselves from the inside, and that is an essential part of the work of tearing down the house. However, cries for civility (like Fincke’s, even if it is accidental) are frequently used against the marginalized so as to ensure their compliance with social norms that could never possibly serve them. “You would convince us,” people say, “if you weren’t so rude! Put down the hammer and find yourself a scalpel so as to properly make your case!”
This is why it is necessary for the privileged to remain civil when at all possible–not because it will be more effective at convincing those who make tone-trolling arguments, but because it will put the lie to their request for civility from those whose throats they stand upon. If you manage to keep your voice even and remain calm and make the arguments as “rationally” as possible (for, often, rationality is a guise taken up by privileged bodies as well), you will convince those who are able to be convinced while simultaneously demonstrating how disingenuous calls for civility are when they are made the condition under which marginalized bodies can be heard. If you, the person of privilege, cannot convince despite following all of the rules and wielding a scalpel like you are supposed to, then how in hell is anyone supposed to believe that it would be any different were those who are denied equality to put down their hammers? Ironically enough, the best purpose of sticking to the master’s toolbox is to demonstrate how incredibly ineffective it is most of the time. Someone has to endure the frustration of it, and since the marginalized are already more than familiar with that frustration, it is necessary for those of us with the privilege to not be fighting for our own lives to put up with disappointment.
One of the most difficult choices to make it on when to switch from scalpel to jackhammer, and the unfortunate truth of it is that this is a choice that is so situational that it’s impossible to say when to do what. The closest call I can make is that it is not worth haggling over nuance when people are using infrequently-used slurs (if someone busts out a racial or sexuality slur, I’m razing the damn place) that are commonly known to be unacceptable or when they are making statements that threaten or advocate violence. Otherwise, in most situations, I still advocate sticking to your not-guns and chipping away patiently at the JAQers in particular and pretty much everyone else in general. I may be wrong, and it has to be up to individual judgment, but I firmly believe that it is not helpful when allies carry napalm on them within easy reach.
Making allowances for differing levels of neurotypicality, differing life situations, and the fact that even privileged bodies lack spoons sometimes, it is crucial for those with privilege to remember, when they argue, that their different position means that they must hew to a different standard of behaviour. This is what makes us a social justice movement and not just a bunch of people swinging hammers for the sheer joy of it.
Gertrud is a white, cisstraight, college-educated woman who is fervently glad that she has enough training in rhetoric to be able to override her impulse to yell at racists and othersuch online since that is her default state. The scalpel still feels rather small and difficult to manage compared to her usual jackhammer, but really, she can deal with it, and the napalm was getting heavy, so it’s a relief to put down.