Dear Well-Meaning, Respectful, Socially-Conscious Sir:
We’re friends. Or we’re friends of friends. You’re the kind of guy who cares about people as people. You are considerate and intelligent. You care about social injustices, and you genuinely want to have honest and frank discussions.
I want you to know that I respect you. And I know that you respect me. I enjoy the conversations we have, and I welcome the questions you bring to me. And so I hope that you will indulge me as I give a layered response to a concern that keeps coming up in our conversations…
This is a concern over the tone of arguments for feminism and women’s rights. It’s the doubt that you voice about the effectiveness of confrontation. You know that violence and inequality exist and you think they’re important issues, but you question whether loud exclamations of “RAPE CULTURE” and “MISOGYNY” are more detrimental than helpful. After all, when everyone starts shouting at each other, how is anyone supposed to actually hear each other?
As a rhetorician and an incorrigible peacemaker, this is a concern I understand well. I value conversation over confrontation and—like you—I’m quick to advise that people aim for a middle ground and communication rather than an ideological throw-down. When I teach my students about effective arguments, we talk about issues like addressing both sides, seeking compromise and affirming multiple points of view. So I’m not disagreeing with you, by any means. At least………..not here.
But (and here’s my compromise), I want to talk about why you’re maybe (completely unintentionally) missing the point when you ask “angry” or “confrontational” feminists to “tone it down” in the name of productive conversation.
When I teach argument to my students, one of the first things we consider is how our approach changes, depending on who the audience is. And we talk about how, often, the audience that is verbally addressed isn’t the actual audience. (Think of any political campaign that attacks the opposing party. That’s not a message meant to change minds…it’s a message meant to rally existing supporters.) And while “preaching to the choir” often has a negative connotation, it can serve a very important purpose.
In the case of marginalization and oppression, these vocal, seemingly one-sided exclamations give a very clear, very necessary message: “You are not alone.”
It’s a well documented issue that victims of oppression don’t talk about what they’ve gone through. There are a lot of reasons for this. One of the largest issues is that, in order to victimize someone, an assailant (physical or otherwise) has to deprive the victim of power. They make them feel weak. Alone. Once this has happened, reclaiming that power can be incredibly difficult (and can feel impossible). And it’s not just about the “strength” or “will” of the victim. Society itself often continues the process that the assailant began. This is because the arguments used by assailants aren’t new…they’re simply extreme versions of things we hear everyday. So when a victim tries to speak up, they now have to speak up against their attacker, their trauma, and a society that’s often unwilling to listen. No wonder they’re so silent.
When a group takes up a cause of marginalization, they are confrontational. Often times, this confrontation falls into anger and belligerence, which is very upsetting and off-putting to the well-meaning, respectful, socially conscious people they are addressing. After all, these are rational, empathetic individuals who would never intentionally victimize someone else, nor condone that behavior from someone else. They feel attacked. They feel blamed. And this, like you’ve voiced, is not a good starting place for meaningful discussion.
But what I’d like you to realize, when you come to me and say “I know violence towards women is a problem, but…” or “I know racism still exists, but…” you’re actually pointing out exactly why this kind of communication IS valid. Is important. Is vital.
YOU know that these inequalities exist, but the victims of these crimes often don’t. They have been isolated. They have been stripped of power and agency and community and support.
You hear angry voices, but they hear a rallying cry.
You see a fruitless endeavor, but they see a community.
You’re right, you know. If things are going to change, we need communication. We need compromise and understanding and intelligent discussion. But in order for that to happen, there is a whole community out there that needs to get its voice back. They need to be able to safely and securely join the conversation because, until that happens, a large part of society is going to continue reinforcing all the lies their assailants forced on them.
Yes, extreme voices are angry. Yes, they are often just noise…sound and fury and raw emotion. And to you, that’s upsetting and unhelpful.
But to people who have spent years in silence, that noise is exactly what they need.