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Dr Sady Solves Your Problems! With Long Personal Anecdotes!

Oh! My goodness! Someone seeks relationship advice from the inimitable Dr. Sady! And Dr. Sady is, in fact, me! 

I wanted to ask you: have you found that your political views cause ruptures in older friendships? In the last month or so I’ve managed to piss off at least three close friends of mine with either stuff on the blog or things I’ve said–mostly in the “check your privilege” or “not taking things lying down” vein. I always had a tendency to preach and pontificate, and the whole politically activist bent doesn’t complement that well.

So I dunno. I don’t even know what it is I want. I don’t want to lose friendships but I can’t just suspend my feelings about things either. 

Good question, Anonymous (Unless You Don’t Want To Be) Reader! To answer this, I will, of course, have to resort to a long and seemingly unrelated personal anecdote. For such are the tools of healing! It starts like this: John Hughes died. I watched a marathon of John Hughes movies. And I just couldn’t bring myself to write about the date rape scene in Sixteen Candles. 


I mean: I brought up John Updike’s misogyny, right after he died. I worried about people who were willing to erase or minimize the possibility that Michael Jackson was an abuser, right after he died. I am a big believer in holding people accountable when it comes time to evaluate their legacies, and as a result have basically been entirely un-civil about the legacies of recently dead dudes for quite some time. It’s a habit. But, to be entirely honest with you, it’s not something of which I am proud.

So, anyway, John Hughes was dead, and I was watching Sixteen Candles, and there was this long, drawn-out, abhorrent date-rape subplot that I had somehow forgotten about. There’s a lot that is abhorrent in John Hughes movies that I had forgotten, actually, lots of sexism and racism and homophobia; the shock is not so much that Hughes was himself a sexist or a racist or a homophobe – he almost undoubtedly was some or all of these things, though probably not to a level that would have stood out in his cultural context – as it is a recognition that you watched these movies all throughout your childhood, and did not notice any of that, despite how appallingly blatant it was. I attribute this, not so much to my evolved political consciousness, but to how the social codes for expressing prejudice have changed even within my lifetime. What would be unacceptable or self-consciously “edgy” now – heroes and heroines of movies casually using “fag” as an epithet, a scene in which our romantic lead dumps his unconscious girlfriend in a car with a dude who has openly expressed a desire to rape her while she’s passed out – was, back then, considered wholesome fun. Which says something about the possibility of change in our lifetimes or not, depending on whether you take the view that the Observe & Report wasted-girl rape scene was evidence that rape culture is still alive and well and being bought and sold by corporate media outlets, or the view that the massive Observe & Report backlash was evidence of social progress because this time around, people noticed and spoke up in very large numbers. Me, I take both views. Sometimes I switch back and forth over the course of a day. It depends on how fucked I think we are. 

But anyway, John Hughes died, and I watched Sixteen Candles, and I realized that to write about him with any level of integrity I would have to write about that scene. And, on that day – the day after he died – I had not really read anything about it. People had picked up on and discussed Long Duk Dong (because HOW DO YOU MISS LONG DUK DONG, really?) but the date-rape scene had not been called out, except on Shakesville, because Shakesville is unflinching. And for some reason, maybe because I was afraid of crossing a line, maybe because I was afraid of hurting people, maybe because I was just tired, I sat there full of anger, shaking with anger in fact, and started typing, and then I… stopped. Midway through the first sentence. Thinking, I cannot be one of the  first people or one of the only people to write about the fact that the recently dead guy did the wacky rape scene. I can’t deal with being perceived as “mean” or “disrespectful” or preachy or shit-stirring or whatever else I will inevitably be called. Even if everyone else on the planet is having the discussion about how they loved John Hughes and are sad, a blog post about something problematic in his work will not be seen as adding counterweight to the discussion: it will be seen as pissing on his grave. And maybe it is. And I cannot do it. Not today. 

So, anyway, Amy Benfer at Broadsheet wrote a really good piece about it, and I got to ditch my Angry Lady Messiah pose for approximately five minutes and appreciate someone else’s excellent work. Which is a lovely experience. And so the world rolled on. 

But, when I look back at this, it’s my hesitation that worries me. I have been thinking – long and hard, though not always correctly – about how to balance the responsibility to call people out with the need to live in a human community. How you balance belief with compassion, in other words. Because this is the issue, right? In your letter? That I am just now getting around to? That is why you don’t want the old friendships to be ruptured, even as you want to call people out for their occasional bullshit. People can’t live or maintain their sanity in isolation; they need each other. So, they have to be kind with each other. Then again, people don’t have such a good record of maintaining their sanity in oppressive situations, either. Especially when they’re forbidden to stand up for themselves. So there’s a problem. 

What it comes down to, I think, is the difference between standing up for yourself and being a bully. What I am about to say is maybe not the most popular or welcome thing to hear in discussions like this, but: sometimes you need to stand up for yourself. Sometimes something is so big and so bad that you just have to call it out, because you think making the fucked-upness of a situation or statement or wacky cinematic date rape leading to true love will help other people, maybe even the person that you are calling out. But – ah, BUT! – it actually is possible to be a total jerk about this. You can belittle people and attack them personally and fail to listen to them and score points off them. And it doesn’t actually help anyone. It just makes the cause you are presenting look like something that crazy mean people use to boost their self-esteem and justify their cruelty.

I know this, you see, because I’ve done it. Frequently! And with gusto! Maybe my minor John Hughes meltdown was just a truckload of suppressed guilt being dumped on my head, actually, for all the times I have been a total jerk in the calling-out process. Yet I was still grateful when someone else – in a non-ranty, non-expletive-suffused way – called it out. Because she was able to do that without being a jerk. That was not something I could have done at that point. 

At that point. I’m able to do it now, however. Because I am not pushed to the limit, I am not experiencing the dark side of my Angry Lady Messiah complex (I Can’t Actually Save The Entire World And Therefore Am Worthless Syndrome), I am not so fed up that I can’t engage with something problematic without bringing all of my fury to the table immediately and without thought. This is my advice to people who worry about being rupturing friendships by calling people out: if you are feeling mean, if you are worn out and can’t think straight, don’t open your mouth that day. Give yourself some space and some time to feel better. Because then you will actually be able to do it without risking your sanity. 

And then? When you are cool? And you know that you are listening, being thoughtful, phrasing your criticisms in a rational and constructive and clear-headed manner? And people are still being defensive and accusing you of being a bully? Well, that is what we experts refer to as defensive, privileged tantrum-throwing. It’s a fun thing on which to call people out! And this time, you can swear. 

17 Comments

  1. Spatula wrote:

    I so feel you on this whole knotted up thing. Sometimes I feel like if I call people out on their racist/sexist crap, I will not have a single solitary friend ever. Because they all do it! As probably do I in that oblivious privileged person way, that makes me burn with embarrassment, but also makes me appreciate being called out on in a constructive, non-bullying way.

    I did lose a friend. She is a bit of a lady who lunches, or at least she married into that social status with total glee. She likes to collect human curios, among which was I, the “oh she’s so INTERESTING” wacky artist. Her other curios include a few gay, stylish writer men – the kind of gay a lady who lunches would be proud to exhibit as friends.

    All this is building up to how she breezily uses “gay” as a perjorative, you know, as kids do. One day I politely and gently told her it bothered me and would she please not do it.

    I haven’t heard from her since.

    Oh well.

    Wednesday, August 19, 2009 at 11:37 am | Permalink
  2. Farore wrote:

    Thank you very much, Sady! I have been wondering about this same thing in my privileged-dood-who-is-also-loving-and-supportive-but-does-not-GET-IT-when-it-comes-to-stuff-that-is-not-ok-sometimes -saturated environment. Even though what you have said is fairly straightforward, it is something I needed to hear from someone else. My own head can tell me I should stand up for myself but not be a dick and avoid discussing things when I am upset until it is blue in the brain cells, but it doesn’t really kick in until someone else confirms it. So, thank you!

    Wednesday, August 19, 2009 at 11:42 am | Permalink
  3. C.L. Minou wrote:

    What I’m finding problematic in my own relationships isn’t so much calling friends out on their own stuff–I’m generally politic enough to avoid that kettle of fish–but rather when I express (um, forcefully) views on pop culture or people we mutually know or political issues.

    Like, I went to this film festival, right? And it was your typical hipster-chic thing of shorts (meaning that in the entire evening there was one (1) female character with any dialogue), and as I wrote about, there was one film in particular that was really stalkerish, creepy and not particularly redeemable. So at intermission I found my friend who had invited me and just went off about the movie, how misogynistic I thought it was, how the whole vibe of the shorts we’d seen so far was totes dudebro.

    Only to find out that she liked the stalker flick. She thought it was hilarious.

    That’s the kind of stuff I’m finding really difficult to deal with–because, you know, I’m setting myself up with my own place to engage and critique the culture, and I have really deeply-held views on some of these things, and yet if I talk about them, things go kerflouie.

    Wednesday, August 19, 2009 at 12:14 pm | Permalink
  4. laureney wrote:

    “…defensive, privileged tantrum-throwing…”

    Ahh, I see you know my ex-boyfriend!

    Wednesday, August 19, 2009 at 12:32 pm | Permalink
  5. Caitiecat wrote:

    Totally agree, Sady, totally. And CL, and the others here – it can be costly, speaking truth to power, absolutely.

    During the US elections last year, I lost a couple of friends after I called them out on gendered slurs they repeatedly threw at the (now) Secretary of State, when she was still in the running. They couldn’t get hold of the idea that criticizing her policies didn’t require the use of the words “bitch” or “cunt”.

    And y’know…I am happier not having those people in my life. I don’t have to feel guilty for not calling them out when they do this stuff over and over; I don’t have to read their bigoted stuff day after day.

    Excellent post, as ever, Sady. I wish I could get my excellent post percentage as high as yours is. :)

    Wednesday, August 19, 2009 at 2:29 pm | Permalink
  6. JenMR wrote:

    Oh! This so relates to what I’ve gone through this past week. I just had it out (sorta) with one of my best friends. This has been coming for about six months, since she started planning her wedding (holy shit, did that cause a lot of stress and frustration!). Finally, I lost it when I found out she talked about me behind my back, calling what I deemed activism “ivory tower” and academic (ie. not real or important). I felt like she’d just taken my goals and what I’ve worked so hard at and made them into something entirely meaningless.

    The advice that you gave this person is bang on. I emailed my friend, told her how I felt and then said I need a bit of time away right now to think things through. This friend doesn’t want to be involved in activism and has stated that it takes too much work and effort to think about the things I’m heavily invested in. And I’m having such a hard time reconciling this. Can I be friends with someone who just isn’t interested in becoming aware of her own privilege or finds it exhausting to consider the marginalisation of another person? I mean, that kind of apathy just stuns me. I don’t even know if I have anything in common with her anymore. The more I get involved in feminism, the harder I work at being an ally, the less I feel I can share with some people of the people I thought were integral to my life. And I don’t think it’ll get any easier. I think it will only get harder over the next few years. I feel like I’m just beginning to scratch the surface of activism and I see potential for more conflict between friends.

    Wednesday, August 19, 2009 at 8:59 pm | Permalink
  7. JenMR wrote:

    P.S. I think what I meant to say was thank you for this post! Definitely hit a chord and I wish “Anonymous” well!

    Wednesday, August 19, 2009 at 9:00 pm | Permalink
  8. William wrote:

    The way I look at it:

    I want to maximize the amount of difference I can make in the time I have. I cannot do that if nobody listens to me. I also can’t do that if I never say what’s on my mind.

    Between those two extremes, there’s no simple path. You can only keep trying things until you cross the line between too much and too little, at which point you try to tack back the other way.

    My advice: Focus on the good you are doing, not the good you didn’t or couldn’t do. And rather than worrying about the mistakes you make, focus on making the mistakes ever smaller, ever more manageable.

    Wednesday, August 19, 2009 at 10:20 pm | Permalink
  9. ronnie wrote:

    Really nice post, calling out vs. compassion. Seeing that negative things in the past just might have been what it took to overcome the very issue. Calling out things from the 80s, when maybe those very evils were what inspired today’s progress! Humanity is so refreshing sometimes.

    Thursday, August 20, 2009 at 7:19 am | Permalink
  10. havocthecat wrote:

    Mr. Havoc and I, we have very different viewpoints on the world. He’s conservative. I’m progressive. There are many, many, MANY things we disagree on. Even though I love him dearly.

    Sometimes I call Mr. Havoc on his privilege. (Seriously, honey? You seriously think that people with no health insurance – LIKE MY PARENTS OMG – are just slackers with no jobs? Seriously? Do you really want to go there?) Sometimes it’s just plain NOT worth the debate, and I save my sanity points in order to spend them elsewhere.

    I swear, sometimes I feel like my entire social life is this carefully negotiated circle of who you can call on their privilege (or even talk about certain subjects with) without having them flip their shit on me. Mostly I don’t feel like that, but today I’m exhausted by RL. So I feel that way for now, at least.

    Thursday, August 20, 2009 at 8:26 am | Permalink
  11. al_zorra wrote:

    My family has shunned me for years now because they have all become rightwingnutxtiancrazies.

    Recently I lost two friends because they decided I was deranged — because I believe there is vicious, conscious racism at work in the media and other places, because I don’t believe that cultural identity, post colonialist studies are about victim ideology, and all that sort of thing.

    The family stuff I can handle as I never fit in with them anyway.

    The loss of the friends, however, is painful and disturbing. But I’m not giving up my convictions or my friends of color.

    Love, C.

    Thursday, August 20, 2009 at 11:15 am | Permalink
  12. emjaybee wrote:

    It helps to think of the proverb about leading horses to water. You can point to the truth/problem, describe it, but only they can decide they want to see it. One of the ways of being a good friend–or at least a polite one–is to say your bit calmly, and then let them decide for themselves what they think. Assuming they don’t get all defensive and snuffly with you of course, but then, that’s their choice.

    Sady uses humor to get her points across, and often, that’s an excellent way to make people consider your point of view. Another good way is asking questions (“why does this guy think rape is funny?”), or just saying that something makes you uncomfortable, and leaving it at that.

    Rants are a blunt instrument, and sometimes they’re absolutely needed, but sometimes there are other ways to say what you need to say.

    Thursday, August 20, 2009 at 1:49 pm | Permalink
  13. JenMR wrote:

    @al_zorra

    It takes an incredible amount of strength to be so steadfast in your convictions, especially when it comes with the price of pain (emotional, physical, and every other form).

    I just wanted to offer my support and respect.

    Jen

    Thursday, August 20, 2009 at 3:55 pm | Permalink
  14. Gnatalby wrote:

    This is such a great post and so relevant to my life right now. I keep losing friends who tell me it’s because I’m being a jerk about the feminism, and my views change like, multiple times hourly about whether or not they’re right.

    I guess it’s that I’m more of guilt reactor than an anger reactor, so I feel surprised when friends of mine who want to be feminist or anti racist or whatever react to a critique of something they said or did angrily. If it were me, I would be feeling shame and guilt. It’s hard because like… I don’t really bother to call out sexism or racism in people who are uninterested in change, it’s people who claim these are values of theirs that I get into it with.

    Friday, August 21, 2009 at 2:28 pm | Permalink
  15. joy wrote:

    Thank you.

    I’ve been on both sides of this and you’ve summed it up so well. It’s hard to be around the “leftier-than-thou”s and it’s exhausting to be one.

    Well said, per usual.

    Friday, August 21, 2009 at 3:34 pm | Permalink
  16. Masha wrote:

    Thank you, Sady. You have no idea how many revelations your blog has caused. (Ex: “So that’s why I have always disliked Judd Apatow movies! I couldn’t put my finger on it! It ALL MAKES SENSE now.”) Also, this is something I have been struggling with, because my boyfriend isn’t particularly interested in feminism, and he doesn’t always understand why talking about misogyny is important (though he does try). It gets me frustrated, and he just doesn’t understand. But in retrospect, I could have sounded much less annoyed when explaining things…

    Friday, August 21, 2009 at 9:17 pm | Permalink
  17. TheDeviantE wrote:

    I realize this is a couple days later than everyone else, but something C. L. Minou said upthread resonated a little with me.

    There are people in my life that I frequently call out on privileged thinking, and people I don’t so much, but wish I would/could. I OFTEN like to approach it with people from the place you talked about, not about calling *them* out, but calling out something that maybe they don’t see as problematic, and thus, helping them see (maybe) that something that they did/said was problematic. I guess I think of that type of thing as pro-active, in that it doesn’t react to something they said or did in the moment, but serves as a reminder to them about my beliefs and that similar stuff would also be not ok with me.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 10:53 am | Permalink