August 12, 2017

Equality doesn’t feel like oppression.

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , at 7:31 pm by chavisory

There’s an expression that has become hugely accepted in lefty activist communities that goes

“When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”

I wish we would retire it.  It’s always given me the heebie-jeebies and I had trouble verbalizing why for a long time. I’ve had parts of this post half-written for a while, but a cornerstone of my problem with it fell into place, unfortunately, this morning.


In the first place, I have never ever seen a good explanation of why it should be true.

I don’t feel safer or more secure at seeing fellow Americans abused and reasonlessly killed by police, or without safe water, or systematically denied educational opportunities, or having their voting rights suppressed, or disabled students of color funneled into prison.

Why should I?

Why should I feel oppressed at seeing fellow citizens treated fairly and equitably? Why? Why should I? Why should I feel oppressed at seeing people with different backgrounds than me well-represented in media? Or having a truly fair shot in the job market or decent housing or not having their children lead-poisoned by their drinking water?

There’s a presumption that achieving that would require taking anything from me that I consider worth having. And I don’t accept that as true.

Maybe you mistake what I value.

Nothing made me more furious when I was a kid than seeing other people treated unfairly and not being able to do anything about it. Nothing. I hated being treated that way and I hated seeing other people treated that way.

I don’t understand why I would look at it now and go “That’s fine.”

What’s true is that the sheer scale and pervasiveness of it has often been invisible to me for much of my own life.

Learning to see it doesn’t make me more okay with it. It makes me sad and rageful and overwhelmed at my own helplessness to just make it stop.


Furthermore, I do not trust people who tell me that they know better than me what I think, how I will feel, or how I should feel.

People who are sure that they know better than I do what is going on in my head or in my experience of myself, that they have greater authority than me to tell me what that is, who won’t take no for an answer about it, have not been safe or trustworthy people.

I have very few actual triggers, and that is one of them. It has almost always been a prelude to escalating manipulation or a ploy to gain my compliance or an attempt to undermine my trust in my own intuition or agency.

It makes me suspect that what you’re actually setting up is a justification for making me feel oppressed or mistreated as an objective in itself, telling yourself that what you’re doing is necessary and okay, and that whatever anger or unpleasantness I feel will just be a natural consequence of “loss of privilege,” and not a reaction to anything you do.

When I see other people being mistreated and then get told “well this is a system that benefits you so you must agree with it,” I recognize that tactic, itself, as abusive and manipulative.

No, no I don’t have to agree with it.


This morning, as I was reading the coverage of the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville last night, I encountered this brilliant Twitter thread about how these straight, white, so-called Christian dudes brandishing tiki torches have not the slightest conception of what oppression really means.

And someone contributed that quote to the comments.

And it hit me.

It’s so coddling. I want them held more responsible than that, than just to say “oh this is just what it feels like to recognize your own loss of privilege.” You know what? People have more ability to question their own reflexive reactions than that. These are not toddlers with no ability to take perspective or adjust their sense of proportion.

“When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”

No, it doesn’t.

No, these Nazi dingbats have no idea what oppression is like.

They have no idea what they are talking about. I will not validate their cluelessness and their false history and their rage at not being the only people who matter in the world like this.

I don’t think we should make their behavior understandable in this way. Plenty of other privileged white guys figure out how to come to terms with their loss of automatic dominance in the world without throwing Nazi rallies. I don’t think we should entrench the notion that this as just what it feels like when you see people who aren’t like you making marginal advances towards true equality.

Especially when these people have been explicitly encouraged with particular rhetoric to fear and resent and even take up arms against certain other groups of people, I think we should really hesitate to call their response just the natural emotional reaction to loss of privilege. I don’t want to give any cover to the idea that this is just what happens when people have to reexamine their place in the social order a little bit.

They made choices here.

It’s not just inevitable.

Unless the freedom to bully and oppress others was the only freedom you held dear in the first place.


July 17, 2017

Allies and alienation

Posted in Marginalization, Uncategorized tagged , , at 3:29 pm by chavisory

The last few years, I’ve spent a lot of time baffled and confused about many of the ways that activist communities talk to and about allies.

Until I realized that what “ally” means now…isn’t really what it meant, or what I took it to mean, when I was younger.

Around 10-15 years ago, in the contexts in which I was involved, “ally” had more of a connotation—or at least, I thought it did—of people or communities who were similarly marginalized making common cause, out of recognition that the prejudices against us worked similarly and had similar effects and implications, and that no one was truly free while anyone was not.

When I started having more contact with communities of activists again a few years ago, I was very shocked, for a while, to hear allies consistently spoken of with such disdain because that wasn’t my experience of the concept at all. I don’t know when things changed and “ally” came to mean something rather different.

Finally I started to suspect that this difference in experience as to the concept of allies may underlie a lot of miscommunication and strife, at least in part…

I see things like this, and I think…we may be talking about different things.


Because when one group of people says “don’t alienate allies,” they mean,

Don’t show any anger or resentment that might be difficult or unpalatable to clueless privileged people. Don’t be abrasive. Don’t raise your voice. Be unfailingly non-confrontational at all times. Never tell me I’m wrong.

And people who claim the identity of “ally,” but behave like that, exist. They do.

But when another group of people says “don’t alienate allies,” they mean,

Don’t perpetrate the same forms of mistreatment, psychological abuse, and bigotry against other vulnerable people as both of you have already been injured by. Don’t recycle those very same dynamics into your own communities and belief structures. You can only hurt and alienate people that way who are already hurt and alienated.


I am not an ally*, but yes, I am alienated.

I mean, of course, you shouldn’t be able to alienate allies from their beliefs or support for your cause by not being nice enough because deeply-held beliefs about human rights shouldn’t be based on whether or not an arbitrary group of people is nice enough to you. It should be a matter of right and wrong. If a position on the human rights of a group of people is that easily shaken, it’s not a conviction, it’s just expedient.

So no, you should be able to alienate allies from their positions by not being “nice enough.”

But you can absolutely alienate people from wanting anything to do with you by being addicted to cruelty, by celebrating hatred, by re-enacting highly recognizable patterns of emotional abuse and coercion, by pursuing an agenda of upsetting people for the sheer sake of it, and by an alarming dedication to ends-justify-the-means reasoning.

These are the things that have alienated me from communities that I, at least in theory, belong to. I’ve been alienated by being told that other people know better than me what I think and what I feel and that I need to simply accept that. I’ve been alienated by demands not to use my own critical thinking or judgment or conscience, or to lie about my own life because that would make it more convenient to someone else’s politics. I’ve been alienated by gossip and smear campaigns and hypocrisy. I’ve been alienated by unwillingness to distinguish between missteps and malice and by embrace of the social control tactics of evangelical fundamentalism and outright abuser logic (“the fact that you’re defensive means you’re wrong so just admit it and apologize”).

I’ve been alienated by rules for allies that I can neither follow, nor expect anyone else to, not as an ally but as a human.

If I see women saying they hate men or that men are trash (and garnering social media accolades for it), that doesn’t make me any less dedicated to the equal rights of women. It just makes me profoundly sad. Because I thought we were supposed to be the people who didn’t devalue people for their gender or their bodies. I thought we were the people who didn’t celebrate hatred.

So when I hear you say those things, it doesn’t make me less committed to justice, it just makes me think your values are crap.

These are not issues of niceness to me, but of ethics and integrity and core values.

I don’t actually think I’m a particularly nice person and “niceness” doesn’t mean a whole lot to me. But civility does. Kindness does. Intellectual honesty does. Ethical consistency does. Freedom of conscience and of self-reflection does.

My values are not shaken. But yes, I am alienated.

So I can only imagine how people on the outside, looking at how we treat people and wondering whether they dare wade into engaging seriously with activism or issues of social justice, may feel.

I’m not “worried” about alienating “allies.” I know that the way we treat people has consequences.

I do not believe that the fact of fighting back against oppression, of being angry, of calling injustice what it is, makes us “just as bad” as our oppressors, but I am worried about how we undermine our own supposed values, when our communities turn out to be very, very willing to engage in the exact same modes of abuse and anti-individualism and authoritarian thinking as our oppressors. I think that what we are and are not willing to do matters.

I don’t believe that our rightful anger is hatred, but I see actual hatred being valorized and yes, I worry.

I am not worried about people who only want to be “allies” if it gets them enough brownie points; I am worried about vulnerable people seeking a social justice-oriented community and being told that the price of admission to being a decent person is to accept being treated appallingly.

I worry about who we become when we accept that.

That’s what worries me.

That’s why I’m alienated.

*Yes, of course I believe in working to understand intersectionality and standing against injustice and battling oppression in all its forms, but the designation has acquired too many terms and conditions that I can’t consent to, so I will not use it for myself.

April 11, 2017

Dear rally organizers,

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 6:55 pm by chavisory

We need to talk.

Last week, I attended the Rally to Save the Arts in front of City Hall in NYC.

It was a really lovely rally in a lot of ways.  I’d been feeling not great the night before and considered not going, but David Byrne was supposed to speak.  I couldn’t miss that.  It was a gorgeous, sunny day outside, I met up with a friend waiting in line to get in, and I got to wear my “Noncompliance is a social skill” t-shirt.  The crowd was not large, but not bad for the middle of a week day, and there was even a little marching band, complete with drums and fifes, that showed up.

The memorial statue of Nathan Hale looked out over it all.

FullSizeRender 4

We were all gathered on the City Hall steps flanking the podium where city council members and union representatives spoke.

And no one there could hear a damn thing.

There was no amplification for the assembled crowd.  There was a whole bouquet of microphones, but they seemed to only be there to feed sound to the television cameras–there was absolutely no amplification for those of us there in person.

We cheered and clapped when it seemed like we were supposed to.  Somebody tried to get a chant going, but no one could hear well enough to pick it up.  Somebody tried to start a sing-a-long of “Over the Rainbow,” but no one could hear well enough to follow and it fizzled out.

I stood less than 20 feet from David Byrne, but I did not get to hear him speak.

It was particularly, painfully ironic given that this was a Rally to Save the Arts.  At least half the people in the crowd, which included stage managers, musicians, and sound engineers, could probably have set up a sound system for them.

You absolutely need to consult a professional to set up appropriate amplification at your event.  Particularly when we’re talking about the importance of support for the arts, respect for the arts, and how Arts = Jobs (at least, I presume so, but I couldn’t really hear), it’s really…telling, when it’s obvious that you didn’t think to hire one to make sure your event goes the way it’s supposed to.  It’s also a matter of respect for your audience and rally participants.  We took time out of our days, we took off work, we made signs, we went waaaaay downtown.  Which is fine!  Everybody wants to do our part right now.  If it’s important that a lot of bodies show up for the TV cameras, you can say that!  But when we cannot so much as hear what’s going on at an event we came out to support, it kind of looks like you just see us as props.

This is 100% avoidable.

The other thing that happens is somebody did set up a sound system, but super obviously didn’t soundcheck, or doesn’t know how to prevent things like popping and feedback, leading to scenes like the Rally for Planned Parenthood in Washington Square Park earlier this winter, where virtually every time somebody moved on stage, I wound up huddled on the ground clutching my ears in pain while the people I was with asked if I was okay.  Yes, I have more-than-typical hearing for neurological reasons, but I also work in the performing arts, I attend rock concerts on a semi-regular basis without any problem, and I know this is not inevitable.

There are people who do this professionally.  Please find one.  Make sure the message  you worked so hard at crafting can actually be heard.

December 26, 2016

Tidings of comfort and joy

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 6:23 pm by chavisory

I hope everyone is having holidays as peaceful and restoring as possible.

When I don’t know what to do or where to start, I make lists.

I was moved to start a list a few days after election day, when everything felt very fearful and uncertain…when it seemed like nothing was impossible in the worst possible way.

As I started reading a lot about how to oppose a political regime the likes of which we’ve never really experienced before, and also Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark, about the necessity of hope and joy in activism, I felt like we needed a way not only to voice our opposition, but to account for what we are tangibly accomplishing in response.

Not to maintain that everything is really okay, not to worry, that it’s not as bad as it seems, or just to make ourselves feel better (although it has made me feel better).  But to concretely track our successes at holding injustice and authoritarianism at bay, to remember not only that progressive and human rights victories can, do, and are still happening, but how they happen.  Even now.

ETA:  At least twelve pretty good things have happened in the world since election day.  In particular, there have been important developments for the rights of trans and intersex people and disabled workers.

(A lesson that’s already really jumping out at me just from the list so far is that your city councils are important.)

The introductory post to Reckoning of Joy is here.  I’ve also been including some resources and guides for taking action, inspiration, and musical encouragement.

Let’s get to work in the new year?

August 21, 2015

The Golden Rule, in advocacy and otherwise

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 12:49 pm by chavisory

The Golden Rule isn’t a uniquely Christian stricture. It occurs in a lot of different faith systems and philosophies, in a lot of similar phrasings and formats.

There’s the Silver Rule (Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you).

There’s the Platinum Rule (Treat others the way they want to be treated).

But I think the golden rule has a corollary I’ve never heard articulated before. I’m not sure what to call it, but it’s this:

Do unto others as you would have them do unto someone else.

The immediate context of this is that, in the past few years that I’ve been blogging, I’ve run into a lot of argument that some really nasty, callous, and frankly, counterproductive, modes of engagement regarding issues of social justice are justified based on all kinds of factors that have kind of blown my mind and not in a good way.

But I see these patterns play out in much broader ways, as well.

There is a way in which I think people tend to reenact the things that get done to them, and the ways they get treated. Because, unless they just have zero self-worth, the things that people learn are okay for others to do to them, they’re very likely going to naturally interpret to be alright for them to do to others. Because that’s how “the way you treat people” has been modeled to them.

Who then are they going to inflict that behavior on in turn?

You have no control over that. And it could be someone a good deal more vulnerable than themselves.

Unless someone manages to recognize their own treatment as wrong and explicitly, deliberately, continually decides not to repeat it against other people. Which is seriously hard to do when you have no direct counterexamples of what decent behavior is.

So for instance, a thing I hear a lot is a parent saying that their kid is aggressive to others for no apparent reason—pulling hair, grabbing, biting, hitting, etc.

A thing I have to wonder, particularly regarding disabled kids—Is someone else doing effectively the same things to them? Particularly someone more powerful, in a position of authority, under the guise of legitimacy? Under the guise of therapy or education? Are they in a situation in which their own bodily integrity or autonomy can be violated at will by another person and it’s perfectly allowable? Where they can be touched or have their body controlled without their consent, where teachers or therapists can do all manner of aggressive, invasive, unfair things to get or keep their attention?

Then you’ve got a hard case to make if you’re trying to teach a kid “You have no right to do this to someone else. But other people do have a right to do it to you.”

And really, is that a case you want to be making?

The thing is, it’s not just that the ways we treat other people will be the ways they treat us right back. It’s that the ways we treat others, including—probably especially—children, will be the ways that they go treat someone else entirely.

Here’s a story. Once when I was a kid, we had some friends of my parents over for dinner one night. They had a daughter a little bit younger than me. And we’d been told that she was afraid of big dogs, so our big, friendly yellow lab was shut up in a bedroom while we were all outside.

And at one point, I took it upon myself to show her that dogs weren’t really anything to be scared of, and went and got the dog, put her on her leash, and brought her outside.

Total screaming, crying mayhem ensued, of course. It was a shitty thing to do even if I was trying to be helpful. Why would I even think to do such a thing?

Well, because that’s how everyone around me treated me, day and night. Day in and day out. Things I was afraid of or physically uncomfortable with were things I just needed to be forced into. Or compelled to force myself into. Or berated or shamed or even tricked or double-crossed into—all by people with undeniably good intentions. All by people who were totally convinced they were helping.

Why on earth would I think it wasn’t okay to do the same thing to someone else? When adults did the same thing to me all the time and no one objected, and my objections meant nothing?

And maybe it seems like a leap, but I truly think this has application to the kids of civility and respect that I actually believe are important in advocacy, in debate, in difficult conversations and in the ways we treat people generally, even when they’re in the wrong.

Here is something I see over and over in online arguments. If you just keep an opponent talking for long enough, they will tell you exactly what their issue or mental block is with understanding a concept, or giving up a prejudice, or admitting that something being done to another group of people isn’t fair and shouldn’t be condoned. Quit insulting them and just keep them answering questions about their logic holes, and they will take you right to the bottom of their objection sooner or later.

And the frequency with which it turns out that they feel they’re being held to a double standard is pretty stunning—that they feel that something is being demanded of them that isn’t being asked of other people around them, or of another group of people towards whom they’re being asked to change their behavior or thinking. If they’re getting told that it’s not cool to treat other people in the same way that it’s always been acceptable for them to be treated (or still is), and they may have come to terms with that treatment in order to preserve their self-worth, or in order not to believe that someone they care about has hurt them, or because they are justifiably proud of their own accomplishments in the face of unfairness or deprivation…if they’ve had it inculcated that this treatment is acceptable towards them, they’re not just suddenly going to believe that it’s not acceptable towards somebody else.

Changing those beliefs can take a lot of self-forgiveness and self-compassion. Telling someone that they’re unworthy of those things because of their demographic membership isn’t going to get you far, and it probably shouldn’t. It doesn’t shore up empathy for stigmatized or marginalized people just to be told that you deserve that bad treatment instead.

The point is that no one deserves it.

What I see so many of these arguments boil down to is, “But this exactly is how someone else treated people like me and it was okay then, so why is it not now for me to hold someone else to the same standard?”

Because, of course, it was never okay in the first place. It wasn’t okay when someone else did it to them, either. The golden rule, and its silent corollary, have the power to unravel these double standards. It’s not okay for you to treat people in certain ways, and it’s not okay for others to treat you badly, either.

If you’re trying to make an argument that “It’s not okay for you to treat others this way, but it is for me to treat you this way….”

People don’t tend to buy that, for very good reasons, unless they already have terrible self-worth or have been driven really far towards seeing themselves as un-people. (And that should not be what we’re aiming to accomplish.)

Which is one reason why it’s not true that the only serious harm you can do is down a power gradient on some singular axis of privilege. Privilege is practically never one-dimensional. People who are in fact vulnerable in some way that you’ve failed to see or consider are not likely to take well to assertions that their being attacked or insulted is justified on the basis of their disproportionate power. And I really don’t think they’re obligated to.

So whether you’re arguing that it’s okay to call someone an asshole or a piece of trash,

That it’s okay to force someone into a fearful situation,

To control their body, to assert your entitlement to their attention or compliance,

To insult or dehumanize someone. To tell them to go die. To decide that some group of people is okay to be prejudiced against. To mock their identity group for existing,

Based on their opinions even when they’re wrong and offensive, their skin color, their background, their disability, their sex or gender or sexuality, their privilege or your perception thereof…

Don’t be surprised when they internalize the message that the same behavior towards someone else is also acceptable.

And yes, there are people who can’t distinguish criticism of their positions from attacks on their personhood. Just because those people are going to get their panties in a twist whether you’re nice or not, does not make it meaningless how you have actually treated them as people. That some people will make those accusations practically no matter what, does not obligate you to make them true.

It’s not about sheltering the feelings of oppressors, or not challenging members of privileged groups in their perspective and assumptions. It’s not even just about the damage you can inflict on a single person’s soul. It’s that you reinforce messages about how it’s okay to treat people, by how you treat people.

If the treatment of someone else that you’re justifying will force them into choosing between believing “It is okay to treat other people this way” or “I’m not really a person, at least not one who matters for anything” or “I deserve this because of some categorical generalization about a group that I belong to,” that’s a justification I would seriously question in any context.

We shouldn’t be constructing different hierarchies of who it’s okay to do shit to. We should be undermining values systems that say that anyone is acceptable to do shit to.

Whatever you’re thinking about inflicting on another person, consider:

Would I find it acceptable for someone else to treat me this way? Would I want this person to go treat someone else this way, if I have no say in who that might be? No? Then maybe you shouldn’t be running calculations to try to figure out if it’s okay to treat anyone that way. Maybe, probably, it’s just not.

Just changing the direction in which insults, abuse, and dehumanization flow isn’t going to change shit. Stopping it is.