Anthology of Answers III: We do not shy away

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Riley Wheaton

The suggestions box is located outside the Deanery.

We’ve had a lot of fun in this column.  We’ve talked about the importance of red hats, and pine cones, and my future modeling career.  But you’ve also asked me some very serious and complex questions.  I wanted to devote an entire column to engaging them in the same thoughtful vein in which they were put to me.

You may not agree with all the answers I give here.  That’s okay.  If you read them with an open mind and draw your own conclusions then you will have done me a service, even if you still end up disagreeing with me.

So this is penultimate anthology of answers, in which I’ll grapple with some of the most complicated, difficult, and deep questions you’ve asked over the course of the year.

 

talk about how different words can be used by certain group. ie queer, n-word, community slang

The suggestion that people shouldn’t wound others with their words isn’t an infringement on free speech, it’s a plea for decency.”

— Riley Wheaton, columnist

Some words have harmful impacts on listeners (this is how I define offense). Sometimes that offense comes from a personal grievance and sometimes from a societal concern. Whatever the reason, words have the capacity to wound. The suggestion that people shouldn’t wound others with their words isn’t an infringement on free speech, it’s a plea for decency. Regrettably, offense isn’t an objective phenomenon, but a subjective one. Different individuals take offense to different things based on their own experiences. Some people with albinism would be offended to be referred to as “albino” because they feel that it becomes the only thing people know about them. It doesn’t bother me when people refer to me that way because I’m confident it’s not the only thing they know about me. That is not the case for all people with albinism. Everyone has their own preferences. However, there are some words that have an overwhelmingly high probability of causing offense. Words like the n-slur will offend the majority in most audiences, particularly around SPA. The odds so high, in fact (and the offense/harm can be so significant), that the school has specifically disallowed it (as well as other words) from use around campus.

To use the n-slur as an example, black people can use it without as much fear of causing harm or offense to other black people for a couple reasons.  First, the n-slur (and other words like it) have a long history of being used to foster oppressive power dynamics and among a group of black people that racial power dynamic is absent, so the chance of harm/offense is much less.  The second reason has to do with reclaiming words.  A group may seek to reclaim a word from its history and normalize it to the point that it no longer harms/offends.  This is where context becomes incredibly important.  If a friend has very specifically invited you to use a term like queer as part of an effort to reclaim it (or just because they’re not offended by it) that does not mean you should use that word in all audiences.  Because offense is subjective you can use certain words around certain people without fear of causing offense.  However, using that same word in front of a larger audience could cause harm to listeners.

This exploration may feel convoluted but my recommendations are actually fairly simple.  

  1. Be mindful of your surroundings.  The words you can use without hurting people depend entirely on the audience you’re in.  Just because your friend has said your use of a word is okay with them doesn’t mean you should use it all the time.
  2. Do whatever is comfortable for friends in traditionally oppressed groups.  Don’t feel compelled to walk on eggshells if they’ve made it clear they are comfortable with your use of a word. Just seek clear expectations.
  3. Take responsibility.  If something you have said has hurt someone around you then you can never go wrong with an apology.  Whether it happened through inattentiveness on your part or unforeseeable reaction on their part, try to apologize, analyze, and learn from the situation.

 

The overconfidence of men

One, temper your confidence with humility. Two, don’t allow yourself to be hypnotized by confidence in other people.”

— Riley Wheaton, columnist

This question may have within it the implicit suggestion that all men are overconfident or that men are stupid or inferior. I reject this premise utterly out of hand. However, there is something in this question that speaks to me.

One of the two major political parties in our country is about to nominate a bigot whose only response to the truth is to shout and throw things until it goes away, and whose idea of a campaign promise is his assertion that he could shoot a guy in the street and it wouldn’t lose him voters. I’m deeply concerned about the overconfidence of men, and I HATE that it seems to work for them. There seems to be some kind of pheromonal button in our brains which shuts down when men are aggressive and confident in themselves, even if the self in question is a turd with a bird’s nest on his head (I’m talking about Trump here, not Bernie, just in case you were confused). This should be a concern to anyone who identifies as homo sapiens because we seem to be unconsciously in love with the striding neanderthal. So, yes, overconfidence is a problem and the best way to avoid it is twofold.  One, temper your confidence with humility. Two, don’t allow yourself to be hypnotized by confidence in other people.

 

I’d like to read about the ways that SPA can bring sexism to light and specifically read about the difference between “a compliment” and sexism

I think it could also help generally if we all made a greater effort to compliment one another on stuff that’s not appearance based.”

— Riley Wheaton, columnist

I could write volumes on this one but time is sorely limited. I truly hope that whoever wrote this suggestion will continue to ask this question next year because it’s vitally important.

To specifically address your question about the difference between a compliment and sexism, I think it has a lot to do with relationship. My best friends are girls and I don’t feel bad about telling them when they look particularly nice on a given day because we both know that I think of them as way more than an appearance. It’s clear I’m not objectifying them. When men give compliments based on appearance to women with whom we’re not close, we run the risk of giving the impression that appearance is all we’ve noticed Additionally, we all have the incredible misfortune to live in a time when women are objectified and verbally bombarded with appalling frequency, so it’s unusually easy to play into the narrative of the wolf whistling idiot. I spoke about this with a close friend once and her perspective was, in essence, to err on the side of caution.

I think it could also help generally if we all made a greater effort to compliment one another on stuff that’s not appearance based. “I was quite moved by what you said in class” or “congratulations on that sport thing” or “your voice sounds really cool” or “I wish I had your confidence(+humility)” or something. If we all show very clearly that we value things other than appearance, maybe we can help cut down on objectification.

Either way, I urge caution when giving compliments to people with whom you’re not close. It may come from the most pure of intentions but it can be misinterpreted with really unfortunate results.

 

You should write about sexism because you’re so good at [being sexist]/you should write about homophobia because you’re so good at [being homophobic]

Never let someone break you down from behind a mask of anonymity.”

— Riley Wheaton, columnist

These were the first two suggestions in my box.  I was pretty bummed and I wondered if personal attacks were all I should expect from that box.  I did get more of them.  People left things in the box designed to make me trip up, or get upset, or give up.  I never did give up.  Hillary Clinton once said of anonymous criticism that one should “take criticism seriously, but don’t take it personally.”  I’ve tried not to take personally the harsh and unfounded criticisms left in my box.  Sometimes that’s been a difficult goal, but it’s made me a stronger person.  I also share the lesson it taught me with all the SPA community who are on social media.  Someday someone may fly off the handle and type something they’d never say to your face.  That does not diminish you, it diminishes them.  People who use the mask of anonymity to lob petty and spiteful grievances are cowardly, small, and lack integrity.  Don’t take their words personally.

So to you unhappy few who tried to break me down through my box, you have only made me stronger.  And, to paraphrase the words of a priest I had the pleasure of meeting some months ago, you may intend your actions for evil but I intend them for good.

And to the rest of the SPA community who has thoughtfully engaged with this column, I am forever in your debt.  Truly, I can’t thank you enough.  Never let someone break you down from behind a mask of anonymity and keep thinking thoughtfully as you always do.
Read Anthology IV: The Mic Drop for some lighter content to make you smile during finals week.