How to Alienate Potential Allies & Why You Should Stop

Two people arguing.

A few weeks ago I attended the 7th annual Genderevolution Conference–overall it was an amazingly positive experience. I learned so much and met some really great people, but this post isn’t to talk about the great things I learned. I want to talk about how we eat our own in social movements. Like any other social setting, activism can have a nasty little undercurrent of in-fighting and pettiness, but it’s particularly troubling in spaces that we continually call “brave” or “safe.” Something happened at the conference that has been weighing on my mind, and I think it’s worth sharing.

I attended several workshops at the conference, but one of particular interest to me was on enthusiastic consent at the intersection of gender and sexual orientation identities. I teach enthusiastic consent in guest lectures, write about it on SLC Feminist, and evangelize about it nonstop in my personal life. I was ready to walk into the space and learn a new perspective, participate in new exercises, and hear about new research. I did learn some of those things, but I also experienced a moment of what I’m going to call nastiness (for lack of a better word). Asher, the workshop host, posed a question to the group, “What are some socially accepted acts that require consent?” [I’m paraphrasing here.]

I responded, “I like to use the example of moving from vaginal to anal sex. Most people agree that you shouldn’t move from one to the other without asking. I think all sex acts deserve the same treatment.” Asher was gracious, and thanked me for my response.

Apparently the person to my left didn’t agree and said to their seatmate, “How about an example that isn’t so heteronormative?”

First off, if you think vaginal and anal sex only happen in hetero relationships, you need to expand your mind a bit. But that’s not the point. The point is that I felt needlessly embarrassed. I didn’t want to speak up again. I was completely shut down in a “brave” space. I’m assuming the participant read me as straight and made a snap judgment thereafter. It happens. I moved on.

But it has grated on me. It’s a tiny example, but it’s a striking one for me personally. I was in a learning space. A space to workshop ideas, express identities, and share opinions. And I didn’t feel like I could do any of that. I left the space feeling hurt and nervous to participate. For the record, it’s never my job, your job, or anyone else’s to teach someone. The oppressor can’t ask the oppressed for history lessons at every turn. It’s derailing and abusive. Let’s just get that out there.

However, in my personal approach to activism this moment of derision served as a poignant, albeit cliché reminder, “You catch more flies with honey.” I can’t expect someone to stand up as my ally, or navigate their privilege when they feel overwhelmed by fear or shame. I can’t belittle someone one minute then ask them to listen to me the next. Well, I guess I can, but I have a feeling I know how it ends.

I’ve seen it time and time again in social justice movements. Someone isn’t radical enough. Someone is too radical. They accidentally used an outdated term, they unintentionally broke a ground rule. They just don’t agree with a point someone made, and the result is public shaming, piling on, or belittling. I don’t know how to stop this phenomenon, and there isn’t always right or wrong approach, but I feel it in my bones that it the answer sure as hell isn’t to make someone feel stupid. If I’m not in the space to correct, coddle, or teach, I don’t have to, and that’s okay, but if I ever want to engender someone to the cause, maybe it’s worth a different approach.

I guess the moral of the story is, if we keep eating our own there will be nothing left. And then what do we do?

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