Mar 07

When shame is not wrong

Ok deep breath before we get started on this one.

Yesterday I read 300+ comments on CFI’s Facebook wall under the discussion of whether Jesus was a hermaphrodite. As of right now it is up to 429 comments and still going strong.

Personally I wouldn’t think the topic is interesting enough to warrant such a discussion from skeptics as Jesus’ divinity is highly questionable (his actual existence is somewhat questionable), so if he is mortal, the chance he is intersex is entirely possible. No evidence has been shown,  nor does it matter.

Turns out, that Jesus’ intersex status was not the hot topic on the thread. Rather a clueless individual named Colin decided to abbreviate the term “hermaphrodite” to “herme,” and Natalie Reed called him on it by saying, “not cool.”

Now if it was me, and I promise I might make such a mistake one day, I would have felt those instant pangs of indignation. I would have said to myself, “How dare she say something I said was not cool? I didn’t mean it badly.” Then I would have thought for a second. I would have thought about whether I really cared about using the term “herme” if it meant that I was bothering someone I care about.  I would have reminded myself that I thoroughly hate the sound of a particular combination of two words in the English language, “saline solution*,” and while my distaste for that combination is irrational, my friends respect me enough to not say “saline solution” around me. They don’t have to. There is no law that says “these words are wrong words” but they still respect my wishes. The funny thing is that most of the time they never would say the “saline solution” combination, so I never need to warn anyone beforehand. When I meet people I never start off with, “My name is WilloNyx and I have a problem with the words  “saline solution” so I appreciate you not saying them around me.” Instead if someone happens to use those words, I just cringe (as usual) and then explain that those are words I prefer not hear. I find out real quick who respects me enough to care about making me cringe. And, reader, be sure that I know my problem with “saline solution” is irrational while Natalie’s problem with “herme” is not. I really do know that. People’s use of the term “saline solution” has never been used to denigrate and oppress a valuable subset of the population.  Knowing the difference is the reason I choose to explain myself for my own irrational bias toward “saline solution” when Natalie shouldn’t have to against “herme.” Saying “not cool” should be enough.

Instead of it being enough, another commenter by the name of Marcus chimed in defending Colin’s right to privilege, and subsequently the whole conversation devolved into a shitstorm argument. It is worth a read if you really enjoy the masochism of watching privilege defend itself to the bitter end.

But that is not is what I want to talk about. We all know that privilege is a fighter, certainly a fighter worth our efforts to battle, but a fighter nonetheless. Rather I want to talk about a concept that “privilege defender” Marcus brings up pretty far into the debate. After incredible backlash, Marcus first attempts to conflate people telling him that his insistence upon using marginalize terminology will inevitably lead to people viewing him as an asshole with coersive silencing techniques like those of fascist regimes.  He then later proceeds to explain that shaming is wrong because it is the same tactic used to silence marginalized groups. Here are a couple of quotes fro Marcus:

My position is that all those who would restrict speech will resort to violence if they can; but first, they’ll insult (check), publicly scorn (check), try to shout down (check), or use “social norms” or shame to silence you (big check). All of these are methods of coercion, all of them reprehensible.


Sally, is that a moral argument? You tell me that others will think less of me, so I should act a certain way; this is the age-old use of shame to silence others; it’s dishonest, and simply immoral.

I know your irony meter just broke because he is trying to tell a marginalized group that they can’t shame him for his inconsiderate behavior because privileged groups like his own use shame to marginalize not inconsiderate behavior (often not only behavior but mere existence) .

First thing. There is nothing wrong with any of the behaviors that Marcus checked as having happened. The violence one is debatable in some circumstances, and I will accept his assertion that it is wrong for the purposes of this argument. Still, the others are not wrong. Insults we use quite effectively when they are accurate descriptors of a person’s position and if we can show with solid argument that their position is a wrong one to have. If I call a bigot a bigot, it is not only the truth but also an insult. So when they call Marcus an asshole (as an insult of character not as as calling him the body part itself) he  has to weigh the relative truth to their statements. They gave Marcus their arguments why they think he is  an asshole (i.e. choosing to ignore the stated wishes of someone in order to maintain his privilege to speak they way he desires). Marcus gets to counter why those behaviors do not make him an asshole.  So far I have yet to see a convincing argument from Marcus why he is not one.

Public scorning and shaming are the same thing. I want someone to show me what is inherently wrong with public shaming when the thing being shamed is deserving of that shame. The big difference here is whether you believe the shame is warranted, and what rational basis you have for believing that.  I imagine he thinks shaming atrocious behaviors like those of white supremacist groups are worth shaming to some degree. I am sure he has no problem shaming the Catholic church for its coverup of years of systematic child sexual abuse.  I am sure that he has no problem denouncing plenty of bad behaviors. We are social creatures. We learn through shame as much as we learn through praise. The big difference here, is that when bigots use shame tactics, they have no rational basis for doing so.  When we criticize their shaming, we are criticizing their very foundation for doing to. We are stating there is nothing harmful or wrong with being, a woman, a person of color, homosexual, transgender, disabled, polyamorous, or any flavor of non-harmful aspects of oneself. We are expecting others to defend their bigotry with something real, something other than god, or we will fight back with out own shaming, our own growing voices.

Oh yeah about those “growing voices,” how dare he suggest that shouting down is inherently wrong. Sometimes drowning the noise of bigotry in a single unified voice is all we have to keep us going forward. Sometimes canceling the frequencies of noise from one side with the frequency of noise from another side is enough to make us feel like serenity is achievable.

None of these tactics are without merit. They are sometimes the best tools at our disposal when dealing with unreasoned beliefs. The difference is that on our side we have well reasoned ideas behind our use of them. The difference is that we are not using them to further privilege but to further a world sans privilege. We are using them to help people rather than harm them. Big difference.

*Saline solution is not actual the word combination. I can’t bring myself to type the actual words.

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