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civil discourse and respectability politics

Zhuangzi in the Qiwulun chapter writes:

既使我與若辯矣,若勝我,我不若勝,若果是也?我果非也邪?我勝若,若不吾勝,我果是也?而果非也邪?其或是也,其或非也邪?其俱是也,其俱非也邪?我與若不能相知也,則人固受其黮闇。吾誰使正之?使同乎若者正之,既與若同矣,惡能正之!使同乎我者正之,既同乎我矣,惡能正之!使異乎我與若者正之,既異乎我與若矣,惡能正之!使同乎我與若者正之,既同乎我與若矣,惡能正之!然則我與若與人俱不能相知也,而待彼也邪?何化聲之相待,若其不相待。和之以天倪,因之以曼衍,所以窮年也。謂和之以天倪?曰:是不是,然不然。是若果是也,則是之異乎不是也亦無辯;然若果然也,則然之異乎不然也亦無辯。忘年忘義,振於無竟,故寓諸無竟 1

Not too long ago, I tweeted that I was a Zhuangzian skeptic about rationality/logic. This is partially what I mean by this.

Not only do I find most ‘debates’ a monumental waste of time, but I also find that they (or calls for ‘rational’ debate) are a great silencing tactic often used by the privileged parties in the discussion. As such, they are also a form of respectability politics2 and/or a form of tone policing.

That this is the case is pretty evident in the comments in that d00d’s critique of the ALA’s new Code of Conduct. Most of the reactionary comments invoke a kind of nostalgic fiction about ‘civil’ and ‘respectful’ discourse that has likely never existed in the ‘hundred years’ that the ALA hasn’t had a code of conduct. Also present is many calls of ‘can’t we all just be adults,’ which is terrifically amusing given the high pitched whining.

This sort of nostalgia about fictitious civil discourse is, of course, massively damaging to marginalized people. It isn’t up for debate that librarians and the library world is largely populated by white people (white cis women, to be super exact). The interesting thing is that the ALA’s new code does nothing to address the institutional and systemic racism that perpetuates this fairly homogeneous labour pool. All it does is, perhaps, encourage those of us already in the field to actually participate, since we’ll know that – as always happens – when something racist is said, we might actually be able to do something about it without, you know, destroying our careers.

It is further interesting that given the huge gender imbalance (far more women than men), that an anti-harassment policy is still necessary. And, worse, men in the comments of the post still seem to think that because no one is telling them about getting harassed, it clearly isn’t happening. Of course, this is a result of librarianship, despite having a majority of women, being embedded in a larger misogynist society, such that we cannot even assume safety in a space where we greatly outnumber men.

But somehow… I’m supposed to interpret this as civil and respectful discourse? When men like him clearly only care about their own rights and not whether everyone has the same ability to exercise the same rights. It is also expected that I smile pretty and carefully placate his delicately bruised white man’s ego. I mean… this is what Asian girls are for, amirite?

Also supposed to be nice about smug “I gotcha”s from other men defending this:

And again, I would note how much of the criticism of his post would not pass muster under the rules themselves. source

Which is interesting, given that I didn’t know that I was at the ALA Midwinter and thus bound by their code of conduct…. even if what he is saying is true.

The thing about all of this is that it fundamentally doesn’t recognize how the current liberal notion of civil discourse is inherently hostile to most people who are not white men, given that these notions were developed at a time when the only citizens were…. white men. But even going further back to the foundations of modern civil discourse, the age of rationality, to men like Kant, Locke, Liebniz, Hume, etc., most of them didn’t even consider people of colour human beings (and didn’t really think much better of women).

This is a discourse that was never designed or intended to include people like me. Not then and not now.

More to the point, it also fails to recognize the fundamental ways that calls of ‘respectability’ in civil discourse often ends up being more about ensuring that one privileged group is able to maintain hegemonic control over the discourse.

And we can see this in the apparently sacrosanct values of ‘entirely unrestricted freedom of expression’ or even of ‘civil and rational discourse.’ The way people go on and on about these things without ever once realizing that, just maybe, these values are not universally shared demonstrates just how firm their belief that their values, their opinions, their desires should be allowed to structure and frame all discourse.

I don’t share these values. Freedom of expression – as also confirmed by the Supreme Court of Canada – requires some restrictions to ensure equitable abilities for all people to, well, actually have freedom of expression in any meaningful sense.

That I don’t believe in ‘civil’ or ‘rational’ discourse ought to be evident from my writing and how I approach most of the topics I discuss. My experiment in professionalism quite explicitly states:

I’m not very interested in being or appearing ‘professional’ if it means that I have to leave my humanity behind.

As human being, I have feelings, emotions, and all the rest. I’m not going to excise these parts of myself just to conform to a historically racist and sexist notion civil discourse.

More importantly, this comment actually highlights a personal goal:

I know several women in the industry, from marketing wizard to expert programmer with publish credits, who have to tip toe when they go to a company because men are being trained that all women are like Shanley in the industry

And that is what pisses me off about this kind of nonsense. If it was just idiots being idiots I wouldn’t care, but this shit actually affects people. My wife doesn’t to go to conferences or involve herself in the programming world outside of directly doing her job any more because she feels like everyone is afraid to talk near her much less to her, for fear of losing their job over something they said.

D00d is saying that this is a bad thing, but this is (in part) exactly what I want. I want white people to only interact with me using their best behaviour and actively thinking about what they say. I want men to do this as well. And, if they can’t, I want them to know enough about me that they will stay far, far away.

Why?

Because I’m tired of gritting my teeth and smiling through racist comment, after sexist comment, after microaggression, etc.

I actually want to live in a world (even if just professionally) where oppressive comments and behaviours are punished more severely than speaking speaking up about it is. And if I can’t live in this world? I’m petty enough that I’ll accept a small bubble of personal space where people who can’t express themselves without saying something heinous just leave me alone.