What If The Shoe Was On The Other Foot?

The Thinker
A very distant relative of mine contemplates the deepest issues he can think of. Or maybe he’s merely smelling the poop on his fingers.
(Copyright © 2006 by Wil C. Fry.)

Thank you to everyone who participated in Monday’s discussion, both here on my blog entry and under my associated Facebook post, on the topic “When My Family’s Posts Are Racist And Sexist”. I received responses from varying spots on the political spectrum, not only from friends and family but from a handful of strangers.

So today, I wanted to ask an obvious followup question: “What if the shoe was on the other foot?” In other words, if it was ME who posted something offensive, incorrect, derogatory, or otherwise off-putting, how would I expect/want others to react?

Short answer: I want you to tell me. But you don’t have to an ass about it.

Read on for the longer, Wil-esque version.

With me, I think it’s massively more likely that this would happen in a face-to-face conversation than online. In person, I’m often spending most of my mental energy fighting off social anxiety and remembering to present as “relatively normal human”, and thus words and phrases aren’t chosen as carefully as I’d like. Also, in-person, there is often the expectation of an immediate response. Online, I’m much more comfortable taking my time, considering the import of my words, etc.

Yet I will still occasionally post something that bothers someone, somehow. I know it’s happened in the past.

In early 2015, I wrote an entry called “DNA Can’t Kill You. Oh Wait.”, in which I concluded with a few strong statements about vaccination. At the time, it was an even hotter topic than it is now, and I knew at least one of my readers was on the other side of the issue. It just so happened that the same reader had been miffed by a few earlier posts too — like The Ten Commandments, for example. Though I don’t think anything I wrote there was wrong or even inaccurate (and no one accused me of either), that one reader did take issue with what she perceived as me “systematically” lining up and knocking down what I knew to be her personal positions.

(This is the only example in recent memory for which I have links to the posts in question; I’m not claiming it’s the only time I’ve offended someone and been challenged for it.)

In that case, the other party commented quickly, expressing her concerns, and we had what I deemed to be a civil conversation about it, which (I think) answered her concerns to her satisfaction. It led me to pen another entry, which some of you will remember, called “What Be This Blog?”, in which I explained the whole point of me having a blog in the first place:

“This blog is where I hash out ideas, not all of them fully formed, but all of them as informed as I can make them in the time I’m allotted by my duties as stay-at-home Dad. Sometimes I will challenge ideas and beliefs. Sometimes they are beliefs I held at one time. Other times, they are ideas I read about in the news.”

In the same entry, I also wrote some meaningful sentences that are pertinent to today’s topic — what I want others to do if I’m the one with a troublesome post. I still believe what I said there, that personal stances and beliefs must be challenged, especially my own. I asked my readers to challenge my ideas and opinions, with the caveat that they do so as civilly as possible.

At about that same time (early 2015), I updated the About page of this blog to reflect the same ideas. I additionally updated this blog’s Discussion Guidelines to encourage contrary opinions and commentary:

“Comments are welcome from all political and religious viewpoints.

“Please be respectful of other people. There is a difference between challenging an idea and attacking a person.

“For example, one of my long-time readers is a Christian and political conservative, while another is a left-wing atheist. Both are welcome to comment with their views, and even to question the other person’s views (and mine).

“If directly challenging something I (or other readers) have stated as a fact, please provide links to sources. (If extra links get caught by my spam filter, I’ll find your comment and make sure it goes through.)”

Additionally, I’ve stated many times that “I’d rather be right eventually than wrong eternally”, or words to that effect. Typically, I say this in conversations about correcting grammar, spelling, or facts — if you see any of those errors in my posts, I welcome correction. But I also apply it to broader contexts, including morality, social issues, philosophy, and epistemology.

In the case mentioned above, about vaccination, I did not change my viewpoint, and neither did my challenger.

Morality Flowchart
A simple flowchart I whipped up last year, when someone asked: “If you don’t believe in God, then how can you be moral?”
(Copyright © 2016 by Wil C. Fry.)

A more recent example, in which I actually did change my viewpoint (and behavior) is my “Silly Meme Saturday” series of blog entries, in which I attempt to debunk popular memes that should never have been made or shared. The problem is that I originally called it “Stupid Meme Saturday”. It was pointed out to me privately that “stupid” is among many ableist words in common use, words often used as slurs against people with disabilities. At first I was startled; I had never heard of “ableism”. Instead of responding immediately, I searched the internet and read several convincing pieces about ableism and ableist language. I retroactively changed “stupid” to “silly” in all those Silly Meme Saturday posts, including the tags and titles of the entries. It didn’t require a tremendous effort on my part; the most difficult thing will be retraining my brain to be more careful in future entries. If someone with intellectual disabilities comes across my blog, I don’t want them feeling unnecessarily insulted by my use of words that have been used to degrade them in the past. If that happened, it would distract from the point of my message, which is that the memes are wrong (or in some cases just pointless).

While I can’t imagine myself posting anything racist or sexist (as with the example in Monday’s entry), it is very possible that I might post something that you think causes harm to someone, even if indirectly and/or unintentionally. It’s possible that such “harm” might only be emotional, but it is still important to me to be made aware of it.

I know that many people are in the camp called “I don’t care what anyone thinks”, which overlaps noticeably with the “If your feelings are hurt then you’re too sensitive” camp. I belong to neither of those groups. I do care what you think, and I hold firmly to the credo that we’re all in this together. If you belong to a historically marginalized/oppressed group (or are an ally for one or more of them), and something I post crosses a line, chances are that I’m unaware of the line.

I recognize that this is called “privilege”. I know that because I’m white, straight, male, etc., that I haven’t experienced what you’ve experienced. Chances are that I associate with a different crowd than you do (usually no crowd at all, in my case), so I don’t hear the same conversations you do. If Muslims, as a group, determined that “Muslim” is no longer an appropriate descriptor, I wouldn’t hear about it my day-to-day life; if I subsequently used “Muslim” in a conversation or Facebook post, I would badly want someone to tell me about the new line I’d just crossed.

“Wil! We don’t like to be called that!” — would be just fine.

I would raise my eyebrows in surprise, and quickly use a search engine to verify. It’s that simple. I will apologize, edit, replace — whichever is most appropriate for the situation. If I couldn’t verify via third-party sources? I might ask you to tell me more.

If I post something that’s factually inaccurate, I want to be corrected. Another example from 2015: while writing about Hillary Clinton, I included a quotation from Ben Carson, and it was incorrect. My sister commented: “Please fact check your Ben Carson quote.” I did check, and I immediately corrected the quotation and provided a source link to the accurate quotation.

I know that other people aren’t like this. Last year, when I politely tried to correct a bit of misinformation, the response was “I don’t care”. Many people have clearly stated that they don’t want anyone correcting their grammar or spelling, and use the slur “grammar nazi” for anyone who tries. Others don’t know the difference between beliefs and facts, or opinions and facts, and will quickly become outraged if you present another viewpoint.

It’s no surprise that each of us is different. And I hope it’s no surprise that I want you to call me out on my bullshit, just like Lisa did in 1991, and other good friends have been doing all my life. What I definitely do NOT want you to do is walk away or assume I’m a lost cause.

  1. An analog of grammar Nazi would be “fact fascist.”

  2. But you don’t have to an ass about it.

    So, being an ass about it is still optional? or did you mean “But you can’t be an ass about it”. Even then, somebody will prove you wrong and show that they can be an ass about it. Maybe you meant just “Don’t be an ass about it.” Or, if ‘ass’ is ascribed as an ableist word, “Don’t be an ancestor of a donkey about it.” Or have I circled around and become a point of my own point?

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      * “…being an ass about it is still optional?”

      Absolutely. Tone helps a lot, but most of the time I’m more interested in the point.

      * “Or have I circled around and become a point of my own point?”

      I’m often convinced that I’m just a caricature of something or other, an exaggeration of some other version of myself. But I think that’s only after I’ve had too much sugar/caffeine. Other times, I’m more a faded version of myself.

      Back to being an ass: It’s a suggestion. Some people don’t know any other way to behave, and I recognize that. Even those people are welcome to correct me, suggest a better way of saying something, or offer a differing opinion.

  3. Dana says:

    I would raise my eyebrows in surprise, and quickly use a search engine to verify. It’s that simple. I will apologize, edit, replace — whichever is most appropriate for the situation. If I couldn’t verify via third-party sources? I might ask you to tell me more.

    And that, my friend, is “implicit bias” at work. If someone says they are offended because you called them “x” then that’s all that’s needed. That you’d fact check them, implies that their personal opinion is invalid (and usually because you are coming, as you noted, from a place of privilege). (The exception being, of course, a completely anonymous person – perhaps a bot or troll – making the claim impersonally on the internet.)

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      You’re absolutely correct here.

      My mention of “a search engine” probably requires more context. I have such a difficult time recognizing humor/sarcasm on the internet, that if a term or accusation is unfamiliar to me, I typically search it out quickly before responding. This is a self-defense mechanism, done selfishly, to help ensure that I don’t come across as a total asshole.

      In fact, it’s one of several things that makes me prefer internet conversations to face-to-face interaction. It also is a stalling technique (again, completely selfish) to give me more time to come up with better phrasing for my reply. By now, of course, I should have probably developed a standard response, along the lines of: “Gosh, I didn’t realize. Thank you for pointing this out to me. Anything to better myself…”

      Yes, as a first principle, I need to train myself to better acknowledge the validity of the other person’s opinion and/or feelings. :-)

  4. Dana says:

    And feel free to call me a snot-nose know it all. As I noted in another post, we’re having this stuff crammed down our gullets at work and it’s the only lens I can view the world through at the moment.

    (For what it’s worth, I’m certainly guilty of harboring implicit bias on a daily basis but I’m trying to be more thoughtful in words and action.)

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      I’m glad your workplace is undergoing sensitivity training; I wish more places did. (I was encouraged to learn that my wife’s job also has regular updates on things like this — and not just for the civilian employees, but for the military servicemembers as well.)

      I *know* I’m guilty of implicit biases — and probably explicit ones as well — and it’s one of many facets of myself that I think (hope) I can improve. My motto, for a couple of years now, has been: “I can do better”. I refuse to be satisfied with my current level of personal improvement and behavior.

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