I am a socially aware person. Which, if labels are to be trotted out, most often translates to “feminist,” “Social Justice Warrior,” “liberal hack,” “slacktivist,” or “Feminazi scum,” depending entirely on the beliefs of the speaker. With the exception of “feminazi” – which is utterly absurd and particularly hateful because no feminist or feminist group ever imprisoned and tortured and killed millions of human beings for their differences – I wear each one with pride. I know what they mean, what they’re intended to mean, and that the resentment behind them often indicates the frustration of the ignorant with inevitable social progress.
I didn’t just jump on this “bandwagon,” as so many opponents would call it, on a whim. I didn’t become this shining example of a “SJW” overnight. I got here through a very logical progression of questioning, seeking answers, and finding knowledge. It was an almost organic evolution. It was growth, and growth doesn’t happen without impetus, or all at once.
It started when I was very young. I remember playing basketball in the Carolina summer heat, with my cousins, who were mostly boys. The hotter it got, the more shirts came flying off, to be discarded next to the red clay “court” in the backyard of the cousin who led the games. I was about six or seven. I hadn’t been taught anything about the differences between girls and boys, let alone about sex or sexuality. I got hot, too. I took my shirt off, too. And it was no big deal to me, or to the half dozen boys with whom I played. I took my shirt off, and ran around with the same sweaty, dirty abandon as all the other kids, and nobody cared. Until my father came running outside, red-faced and yelling. What the heck was I thinking??? What was the matter with me? He yelled and made me put my shirt back on, and go home, but he never explained why. From that day forward, I knew that girls couldn’t do everything that boys could do. That girls would get into trouble for things about which boys never had to think twice.
I was also only seven years old when my family taught me to be a racist, and only about ten when I started to question that belief system. I found that I had a drive to learn more about other people, about how they lived in this world we shared, about how their experiences in that world were different from my own. I visited the school library. I read everything they had that related to my questions, then moved on to the county library. I talked to people. I didn’t know anyone who wasn’t, like me, white and protestant, at the time, but I asked questions, anyway. The answers I got were… dissatisfying. My parents and my preacher gave me biblical justifications for racism. So, I read the bible, cover to cover, for the first time. What I found was that the Bible doesn’t justify racism, yet it repeatedly urges us to love one another, regardless of our differences. I asked my teachers. Only one had an response that didn’t amount to a lackadaisical shrug of the shoulders. She pointed me in the direction of some amazing literature written by black authors, about their experience in this world. I devoured every one. Armed with this knowledge, I started questioning people, again. My parents eventually just shushed me with the equivalent of Because we said so. Now stop pestering us. My preacher brushed me off the same way.
I had encountered the first revelation of growing up: The grown-ups didn’t know everything, after all. They weren’t infallible. They could be wrong. But I’d also learned something of the utmost importance. I didn’t have to settle for their non-answers. There was a whole world out there, full of answers. I just had to find them for myself.
The next stage of this growth was related to sexuality. In a church where they managed to justify racism with bible verses, it’s no surprise that homosexuality was also sternly frowned-upon. This was problematic, for me. See, I was in kindergarten when I developed my first celebrity crush – on a woman. I was in first grade when I had my first real-life crush – on a girl. I later developed crushes on boys, too, both in real life and on TV (Doogie Howser, anybody?), but by then, I knew I was… different. I’d never associated my differences with “The Gays,” then. That’s how they were always referenced. Implied capital letters, and sneery italics in my head. The Gays. Also occasionally known as HommaSECKshuls. I didn’t connect the descriptions of those people with the difference I knew existed between me and other people, because of the way those people were described. Immoral. Sneaky. Dishonest. Sleazy. Perverted. Dangerous. Likely to molest small children and family pets, and steal the family television, while they were at it. I knew that wasn’t me, and hadn’t yet connected those labels to who I was.
I was in my teens before I knew what lesbian meant, and the first time I heard the word bisexual I was a freshman in high school. And it fit, for me, in a simple way that nothing else ever had. That was when the derogatory use of The Gays and HommaSECKshuls connected, in my mind, with me. This time, though, I knew it may be dangerous to ask questions of the same people. I knew where to find answers, and went looking. What I discovered was that there was no logical reason for anyone to hate or fear or abuse other people, based solely on their sexual orientation. I also discovered a need to hide. To conceal who I was. Until I couldn’t, anymore. Until I accidentally outed myself to my school and my family. I’ve since discovered that a prejudice against bisexual people exists in more than just the straight community. Like the other prejudices I’d discovered, like all prejudice, it is illogical. I know this not only because I happen to be bisexual, but because I did with that what I always did, when faced with such things; I educated myself.
It’s the method I’ve developed, over the course of a lifetime, when faced with beliefs that don’t make sense to me, for understanding those beliefs, and developing my own. Research, questioning, debating, reading, and learning as much as I can. Informing my opinion.
So when I encountered such concepts as privilege, institutionalized racism, rape culture, misogyny, transphobia, and patriarchy, I approached those in the same way. I talked to people who knew more than I did. I talked to people who believed those things, to understand where those beliefs, however problematic, originated. I researched. Fortunately, by this point, I had access to all the information I could ever want, via the internet. I read academic articles, first-hand accounts, editorials, and blog posts. I devoured research studies and statistics, conducted and compiled by everyone from accredited universities to the Department of Justice to the Census Bureau. I ordered non-fiction books about the prison industrial complex, and civil rights battles, about the struggle for LGBT rights, about the ways in which US society is predisposed to actively disadvantage and oppress women, minority races, immigrants, and LGBT individuals. I read first-hand accounts and historical documents about protests and movements, the reasons they happened, and the motives of both those involved and those opposed. I participated in debates with other people who were seeking answers to the same questions. I sought out knowledge and understanding. I informed my opinion.
Which brings me to the point of this whole thing, far too late for a TL:DR warning. I do not disagree that everyone has a right to their opinion. You have the right to believe whatever you like. But we’re not talking about the existence of fairies in a J.M. Barrie story, here; your belief does not make a thing true. You can’t clap your hands loudly enough for racism or misogyny or homophobia to be a logical response to the world. You can’t generalize your personal feelings or experience, as a single human being, to all of humanity.
I am glad to discuss any of those topics, at great length, and mostly without rancor. They’re a particular passion of mine, and we all love to talk about the things that inspire that passion. What I am not willing to do is give an uninformed opinion equal weight to one that is based on a lifetime of research, study, growth, and learning. If you haven’t spent at least some tangible amount of time and effort learning about these things, chances are pretty good that I know more than you, about those specific topics. If you want to learn more, to inform your opinion, I will be happy to point you in the right direction to do so. To a limited extent, I will even be happy to teach you, myself. What I will not do, though, no matter how often or how loudly you rail, is let you shout down those years of hard-earned understanding with your gut feeling, your very deeply tinted personal lens, your unfounded and uninformed beliefs. What I will not do is engage with you, when you don’t want to learn, when you aren’t interested in understanding, when all you want to do is be right, without any basis in fact, without any research, without any logical basis for your determination of rightness, at all.
My refusal to discuss those things with you doesn’t necessarily mean that I don’t like you. That I think less of you, as a person. It simply means that, until and unless your opinion becomes informed, I recognize the pointlessness of engaging with you on those topics. Doing so would be like inviting you to play soccer, when you’ve never played, then agreeing to play by the rules that you make up as we go along, and further agreeing that doing so makes perfect sense. It would be absurd, counterproductive, and demeaning to all the other people playing who took the time to learn the rules and practice, before that game began.
You do have every right to your opinion. I also have every right to refuse to discuss opinions that are uninformed, with people who refuse all attempts to learn.