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Sarcasm and Social Justice

December 20, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

This entry is probably going to be a little divisive, and I’m not sure whether or not I’m going to regret writing this, but the feeling’s still recent and strong, and – if nothing else – it’ll provide me with a retrospective analysis on yesteryear’s logic.

Over the past two or three days, a friend and I had a fairly protracted and somewhat heated discussion concerning social justice (which honestly could’ve been handled a lot better, but we’re fine now because we’re cuddly like that). In the middle of our discussion, my friend linked a blog post called Intent! It’s F__king Magic! from “Genderbitch“. My lack of fondness for the blog’s name aside, I noticed that the article starts off with a warning in bold text about it being highly sarcastic, a tone which – frankly – isn’t precisely alien or uncommon to the social justice community. I told my friend that I honestly had very little patience for people who feel they cannot make a serious point without having to resort to sarcasm or being a sanctimonious jerk. This then led to another topic in our discussion, one of “tone argument”, which I’ll get more into further into this post.

Yes, disclaimer: I was raised in a culture and upbringing where tranquility, courtesy, and respect were expected. I am horrible at humor and have a rough time at discerning when people are being sarcastic, which undoubtedly factors into why I don’t like sarcasm very much (at least, in terms of when trying to make a serious point). These undoubtedly influence why I’m trying to say. But in spite of these influences, I also feel that my point has a degree of objective merit, and I believe this also reflects upon a broader issue that the mainstream social justice community needs to look at. So here we go.

Reader’s discretion advisory: This post is not going to make many people happy, by virtue of not completely agreeing with any particular group. So please read at your discretion, and please refrain from lynching me.


The definition of “tone argument” as provided by the Geek Feminism Wiki (there really is a wiki for everything these days) is “an argument used in discussions, sometimes by concern trolls and sometimes as a derailment, in which it is suggested that feminists would be more successful if only they expressed themselves in a more pleasant tone”. The article goes on to note:

“The tone argument is a form of derailment, or a red herring, because the tone of a statement is independent of the content of the statement in question, and calling attention to it distracts from the issue at hand. Drawing attention to the tone rather than content of a statement can allow other parties to avoid engaging with sound arguments presented in that statement, thus undermining the original party’s attempt to communicate and effectively shutting them down.”

My friend also stated:

“Thing is, if you’re going to start talking about feminism, rape, transphobia, [what-have-you] with people for whom those subjects are personal and often painful, you are going to have emotion at play. There will be anger, or sarcasm in some cases. And it is not really fair to dismiss those emotions or the arguments they’re attached to out of hand. If you are able to talk about a subject like the institutionalized oppression of homosexuals with a calm face and an even voice, that’s fine for you. But you cannot reasonably hold everyone to that standard.”

I want to make my position on a few things clear first (and potentially displease a lot of people, but I suspect they are the people who would not read this blog anyways), if my previous posts haven’t been an indicator: Yes, I support equality for persons of all sexes and genders (and race, while we’re at it). Yes, misogyny, sexism, transphobia, and racism are still a thing; we’re not living in a post-misogynist/sexist/transphobic/racist society yet (and, being a natural pessimist, I wonder if we’ll ever stop finding something with which to discriminate against each other). Yes, if any demographic “deserves” (and it feels weird to use that word in this context, I tell you) to feel angry, bitter, or pained about social justice (or, rather, social injustice), it’s the people on the butt end of misogyny, sexism, transphobia, and racism. They have every right to be angry, bitter, and pained, and I’m not going to disapprove of that (not that they need my approval or disapproval, but – again – making my position clear). And, yes, trolls who respond for the sole purpose of undermining your argument or shooting down your challenge against the status quo exist.

Now, I’m going to start displeasing the other side.

I’m not going to make the “catching more flies with honey than vinegar” argument – I do agree with it, but this is something that professional sociologists are publishing papers on at a fairly decent rate, and I doubt I have anything informative to add to that argument – but, rather, with something similar. See, the thing is I like being respected. I like people treating me well. I’m not so serious and stuck up that I can’t deal with sarcasm as joke (and I’ve made sarcastic jokes myself, although I generally make it immediately clear I’m being sarcastic, just in case anyone missed it). I enjoy constructive discussion and criticism. I rarely dismiss or disregard anyone’s argument out of hand, in hopes that they would provide me the same benefit.

But here’s the thing: When you are trying to make an honest, serious point to a general audience (containing members that you likely don’t actually know that well, if at all, given that you’re blogging it), you are being condescending and hostile to people who are otherwise trying to listen or be genuinely interested. (In my opinion, you’re also being disrespectful to your own argument, but I suppose I might be frustrated with feeling embarrassed every time someone tells me “the mainstream social justice community is so sanctimonious and hostile”, and I realize that they have a point when I’m trying to say they’re all about respect for all.) You are being sanctimonious towards everyone out of hand. And while I do sympathize because you’ve been hurt and wronged, being hurt and wronged does not give you a carte blanche to treat everyone else like an arse.

Certainly, these are emotional topics, and I’m certainly not suggesting that everyone must be cool and rational and objective when discussing these issues. I’m not saying anyone making a case must have a calm face and even voice. It is completely fine for you to be emotionally-charged (although I do feel that the best discussions happen when everyone is calm and cool, but that’s a standard I largely only hold myself to, not anyone else). But there is a clear line between “being emotionally-invested” and “being disrespectful”. Those who are uncivil may not always be wrong, and those who are civil may not always be right, but none of this justifies lashing out at everyone like a jerk, especially those who just happened to be in the audience and are otherwise not malicious. You have the right to say what you wish. But people also have the right to feel you are disrespectful. And, frankly, not being condescending is a public relations victory any day, especially since the general public always seems so under-informed on social justice issues rather than genuinely malicious.

This itself is linked to another broader issue regarding social justice. In the aforementioned tone argument article, the wiki goes into great length to explain how “tone policing” is used by trolls or the more privileged to undermine or derail the argument of the less privileged, the psychology behind this phenomenon, and how oppressive it is. Not once does the article mention why adopting a hostile tone to a general audience might be a bad idea, nor does it mention people who do want to listen to the discussion but don’t care for being treated condescendingly. The article seems to imply – whether or not it actually meant it (I’m leaning “not”, but I try to assume the best in everyone) – that anyone who adds an objection to tone is deliberately derailing or undermining the position of the less privileged in an attempt to protect the status quo of the privileged, which therefore means anyone who would like to be treated with respect by social groups are therefore misogynist, sexist, transphobic, and racist (which obviously put people like me into a very awkward and uncomfortable position).

Do you know why a lot of people despise Israel’s foreign policy? (I just pissed off the pro-government Israelis.) Because they have poured money and resources into a public social lobbying campaign in the form of the Anti-Defamation League to paint anyone who disagrees with Israel’s government policies as an “anti-Semite”. (Stay with me, please, I’m going somewhere with this.) It doesn’t matter what the Israeli government does, what laws they break, what treaties they violate, what human rights they step on; so long as you object to what Israel does, social lobbyists will pour a ridiculous amount of money into ruining you socially in the West as an “anti-Semite”. I am worried this is the kind of issue social justice movements are facing right now, the inability to tolerate any criticism as a warning to actual issues, and to pretend these issues don’t exist. (I’ve also just pissed off the Palestinian social justice community, for having just compared them to the Israeli government.) The difference is simply that the social justice campaign doesn’t have nearly the kind of funding the ADL does.

But let me first put up a defense for social justice: This is understandable and not unsympathetic. By its very nature, social justice is a movement to change the status quo, and – by nature – people are not particularly fond of change. There are so many opponents to social justice, from the outright “transgendered persons are so weird and in denial” to the more subtle “equal but different” (because sexism and racism are now “politically correct” issues that are generally universally considered to be a “bad thing”, even if it isn’t exactly enforced), that it’s no longer easy to tell who’s actually being genuinely constructive and interested towards the discussion, and who’s just being a bigot undermining social justice by making them waste time and effort and resources and goodwill. For a long time, it has become safer to the community to simply “play it safe” and assume anyone who tries to bring these things up are bigots and trolls until proven otherwise. (And the anger, bitterness, and pain certainly don’t help either.)

But I consider this destructive in more ways than one. I’m not talking about just a PR issue in terms of “don’t be a jerk”, which I do consider to be pretty important. I’m also talking about our ability to be introspective. I’m talking about the danger of closing ourselves in an echo chamber, in a little bubble where we assume everything related to our ideologies are infallible and perfect, and that anyone who disagrees – whether as an intolerant statement or as a genuine constructive critique – is wrong and is therefore a bigot and is therefore beneath our attention. The mainstream social justice community does have certain major issues, one of which is a kind of refusal to recognize we do have major issues, which has been brought about by the intolerant attempting to undermine social justice. Which, incidentally, also means the community is playing right into their hands. That is kind of not a good thing.

The tone argument article uses a quote to draw an analogy: “If you tread on someone’s toes, and they tell you to get off, then get off their toes. Don’t tell them to ‘ask nicely’.” In many cases, though, not only have we not first checked who stepped on our toes, we scream at the entire room to get off our toes, then call everyone else a “bigot” when they ask us to calm down. So, yes, I think that’s a problem. And I’m not going to be unsympathetic to the person who decides to ignore us because of it.

So, really, I’m not asking you not to be emotional about it. I’m not telling you that your pain is not a big deal. But not being sarcastic and sanctimonious – because not being a jerk is one of the things we’re first taught as a child, and if I have to explain why two wrongs don’t make a right (or why I just said that), I think you have much bigger issues to worry about – is kind of the most basic courtesy we can afford anyone in a serious discussion. Because it’s about not being a jerk. It’s about acknowledging the community still has issues we need to address. It’s about taking the moral high ground. It’s about “catching more flies with honey than vinegar”.

And, yeah, it’s about not playing into the hands of the intolerant. That helps too.

(Author’s Note: This blog post was made under a specific context, in which the aforementioned ideas surfaced from a discussion between two friends who agree in the same social justice macro-ideology, differ in opinions on the details, otherwise know this about each other, and respect each others’ differences. These ideas have been repurposed in this blog post to fit a hypothetical context in which a general audience is addressed, not a specific audience of those adamantly against social justice. I recognize the latter – those who are opposed to social justice – still exist, and that for many of them, respect and civility are not going to do a lot of mind-changing on the matter. But this post was not made for them in mind. It was made for a general audience in mind, and for an introspection of the mainstream social justice community.)

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