Recently, it was intimated that I was one of these! “It” being, um, anti-oppression and specifically feminist stuff.
Knowing as you do how much I love compliments (if you didn’t know that: I am very fond of them!), it might surprise you that I found hearing that extremely uncomfortable-making. This post, I make this post in an attempt to break down that reaction and explain why it was so.
As I see it, there are four main reasons. The first is that I am a massively self-deprecating person and tend to question any compliment I receive. This is a ridiculous reason and not germane to the argument I am trying to make, so I am going to skip exploring it in-depth. Let’s move on.
The second reason is that this compliment implies that there is an “it” to get. This is troublesome! Because it implies that, y’know, there is a point at which learning stops. That there’s a point where I can just say “I’m done! I know ALL THE FEMINISM”. This is…not so. It is especially not-so in relation to me, but it’s the case with everyone. You never stop learning. I still screw up, probably more often than I realize. I am willing to bet that everyone reading this still screws up. Because it’s hard! It’s hard challenging the hegemonic narratives embedded in every fucking aspect of our society, the narratives that encourage us to do messed-up things and treat certain classes of other people as less than human. We all push back as much as we can, but while we’re not less than human, we certainly aren’t more, either. Nobody’s perfect. We make mistakes, we learn from them, and we strive to do better. It’s all we can do, and we never do stop, unlike what this compliment (“oh, you really get it!”) would suggest.
second third reason is related to this last one, but is even more insidious. You see, once you assume that you “get it” (whatever “it” may be), you begin to assume you are in a position to teach it. Which I mean, sometimes is fine. Sometimes you genuinely are farther along on your personal journey than someone else in a given area, and you can help them on their way. That’s great, I’m not opposed to that. The danger lies in beginning to assume that you are some kind of Ultimate Authority, and in particular, that you can teach people about their own experiences. That you know better than marginalized people what is happening in their lives, with their marginalization. That you are the Ultimate Arbiter of what is and is not offensive. In short, once you assume you “get it”, it’s very easy to become a mansplainer. Or a straightsplainer or ablesplainer or whateversplainer, as the case may be. The point is that this is really, really, bad. And can pretty directly be traced to the assumption that you “get” something better than, y’know, the people who actually live it.
Which brings me neatly to the final reason this compliment (or, let’s be frank–given how much time I’ve spent deconstructing/agonizing over it, “compliment” might be a bit of a stretch) is so problematic.
I’m a guy. I identify as fairly solidly male, I always have, and I’ve always been viewed that way by society-at-large. There are some things I do not–and cannot–“get”, by virtue of not being able to live that experience. I will never know what it is like to be a woman in a misogynist/patriarchal society, and because of this, I will never “get” certain fundamental things. To imply that I do is to perpetuate all the stuff I’ve talked about above, which is why it makes me uncomfortable. God forbid I ever become someone who thinks I “get” oppression, especially that which I have not personally experienced. Because that day is the day I give up trying to learn more, trying to improve myself.
And that’s something I can’t let happen.