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.