The Consequences of Dismissing People

So I have something to confess: I’ve been sort of angry lately.

And why have I been angry, you might ask? (Or, maybe you didn’t, but I’m going to complain to you anyway.) I’ve been angry generally, broadly, at the state of the world.

It feels as though the #metoo movement has been losing a bit of its momentum lately, but I’ve been one of those people who refuses to let it die. And as a result of talking about this so publicly, as often as I have, I’ve been hearing a lot of slut shaming and victim blaming comments lately. I’ve had people tell me that women’s issues don’t matter. And for the first time since I opened up about my struggles with mental illness about a year ago, I’ve had people try to insult me by calling me “seriously mentally ill”, making me realize that I cannot own my mental illness without certain people immediately dismissing me as some sort of uninformed, unintelligent, worthless person.

All of this has resulted in me feeling a little bit pessimistic about the state of the world.

And that isn’t to say that I haven’t had rewarding experiences from talking about this issue. I have. I don’t regret speaking out, but the problem is that anger and pessimism is easy to fall into. As the saying goes, “if you aren’t angry, you aren’t paying attention.”

And normally, I’d say that a little bit of anger is healthy. A little bit of anger stokes that fire in your belly. A little bit of anger keeps you going. But I don’t like this anger that I’ve had lately. This anger is not the sort of anger that keeps me going; it’s the kind that makes me dismissive and rude and sloppy. It’s the kind of anger and frustration that often comes from feeling like you haven’t been heard.

And that’s incredibly important – for both sides of every argument. Everyone wants to be heard. Everyone wants to feel as though an attempt was made to listen to their argument and understand and sympathize. Nobody likes to feel as though they’ve been dismissed.

And this anger that I’ve been feeling – it’s the kind of anger that makes it easy to dismiss people. The kind of anger that makes you go, “well, they’re just stupid”, without stopping to think that they might have a reason for why they think the way that they do. The kind of anger that makes you go, “well, they’re just a garbage human being”, without stopping to realize that they’re still a human being.

And the problem with saying the sort of things that this anger makes you think is that it isn’t constructive. It doesn’t make the other person feel as though they’ve been heard or understood. It makes them feel dismissed, because they are sort of being dismissed. It makes them angry. And when both sides of the argument feel angry and ignored, it creates a divide. It makes it difficult for any progress to be made, because both sides of the argument have shut down completely. Discussions cannot be had. Greater understanding cannot be reached. Nobody is learning anything, and that doesn’t help either cause. It only creates resentment. So although my recent anger is born from my complete and total dedication to this cause, it simultaneously hurts this cause and turns people away from it.

And, as I said, anger is easy. Pessimism is easy. There is some research that even suggests that we, as human beings, are naturally inclined to focus on the negative. And, more than that, when someone isn’t listening to what we have to say, it can be very easy to ask ourselves why we need to be the bigger person if they won’t be. Why is it okay for them to insult us, to dismiss us, to belittle us, and yet we can’t do the same to them? But the thing is, this sort of anger isn’t healthy or constructive for anyone. It hurts the person who we are dismissing, because they don’t feel as though they’ve been heard. It hurts our cause in the long run, because like it or not, we are representing it, and so we cannot use it as an excuse to mock or belittle people without serious detriment. And it also hurts ourselves, because it makes us bitter and pessimistic and sad. It isn’t fair, not to anyone. It’s easy, but it isn’t right.

And I know that it can sometimes be hard to swallow your anger, especially when what the other person is saying is something that you perceive to be very harmful. But one thing that I have found very useful for getting passed your anger is, quite simply, this: take some time with what they say. Don’t respond to them immediately, because if you do that, your response will be pure emotion. But, rather, think about it. Try to imagine the issue from their perspective. Try to explain to yourself why they might think that way (and don’t run to that default excuse that they’re stupid, because it isn’t true). When you do get back to them with your response, chances are, it will be more logical, more thought out, and more sympathetic.

And maybe they still won’t hear you. That is very possible, and when that happens, it can be very frustrating. But if you listen to them and you try to understand them (not necessarily agree with them if you just don’t), a few things still happen that otherwise wouldn’t:

  1. You expand your understanding of the issue. You see that there are other views, and you have at least made an attempt to understand the thought process behind these views, so that, if you still don’t agree with them, you can intelligently and thoughtfully explain why you don’t agree with them.
  2. You don’t make any enemies – for either yourself or the cause that you might be fighting for. The people that you have been talking to still might not agree with you, but at least they feel heard. At least they feel as though a discussion has been had (or at least attempted, in some cases), and at least they are not made to feel stupid and ignored. Nobody is hurt because of this discussion. And, whether you want to hear this or not in moments of anger, that is incredibly important.

We are far too quick to dismiss people in this society – and perhaps part of that is because anger is easy. Listening to people is difficult. It takes actual effort to sit back and think about other perspectives, and I’m not trying to say that we don’t want to put the effort in. Sometimes, it just isn’t our first response, especially not when we feel insulted and ignored.

But putting that effort in, taking the time to step outside of your emotional response, is worthwhile. As I said, a little bit of anger can fuel you, but too much anger will have its consequences.

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Why We Need To Teach, Rather Than Bully

I recently heard about a young boy who took to Twitter and wrote something that I, personally, disagree with. “There are only two genders,” this boy wrote, and nothing more than that. No threats. No elaboration. Just a short sentence that disregards the existence of transgender, non-binary, and gender queer individuals. Now, I happen to believe that there are more than two genders. In fact, I believe that gender is a societal construct to begin with. But that is not what I want to focus on. What I want to focus on is the reaction that people had to this boy.

Before I begin, I want to emphasize that this boy was an eighteen year old teenager who was just about to graduate from high school. And when people read his tweet that was, admittedly, unnecessary and bullying, they responded by bullying him. They messaged him with personal insults, telling him that he was cruel and ugly. They sent messages to the universities that he applied to, telling them not to accept him because he was a transphobic piece of shit. And, yes, what this boy said was not okay. Any transgender, non-binary, or gender queer person who happened to be following him on Twitter could have seen that tweet and felt a punch to the gut, a realization that there was just another person out there saying that they didn’t exist, that the ways that they feel and think aren’t valid, and that is never okay. But the reaction that people had to this boy was not morally better.

In this specific situation, the boy was very young – still a teenager. And teenagers tend to say stupid things – not because they’re teenagers, but because they’re young, they’re still learning about their place in society and the place of others in society. And more than that, it is a fact that men and boys have a harder time accepting more than two genders than women and girls do. This is not because men are inherently transphobic, but because men are taught from a young age that they have to “be a man”, that their masculinity is important and needs to be maintained, and so when they see something that they perceive to be an insult to the accepted way that things are, such as a transgender, non-binary, or gender queer person, they react with offence or anger.

And so in this specific situation, what we had was a young boy, still capable of learning, but stuck in his idea of what is right or wrong and having a hard time moving passed that. He reacted by insulting a group of people who are already persecuted regularly, yes, but that is what he was nonetheless. And when he did that, nobody tried to teach him anything. Nobody tried to help him move passed where he is stuck. They just insulted him, belittled him, and tried to ruin his life by limiting his access to the education that he actually needed.

And that’s just what this boy needed: education. He needed someone to reach out to him and say, “I get that you believe that there are only two genders, but this is why I disagree”, and he needed that person to say it politely and with an open mind. Had someone done that to this boy, then he might have seen why his tweet could be considered offensive. He might have changed his mind about what gender can be. Or, at the very least, he might have been more respectful toward transgender, non-binary, and gender queer people in the future. None of that will happen if people respond to him with nothing with hostility. In fact, there is a good chance that it will only increase his hostility toward them, because he will begin to feel like that community hates him.

I am proud to call myself an intersectional feminist. I want to do my best to learn about the experiences of other people, to spread awareness of the issues faced by women, LGBTQ+ people, people of colour, disabled people, people dealing with mental illness, whatever the case may be. But there are many people who feel the same way as me about this who respond to people with differing opinions with hostility.

And I’m not going to pretend that I don’t understand where the hostility comes from, because it comes from a few places. It comes from the belief that all people need is more education and they would change their minds about the matter. It comes from the belief that it isn’t as simple as saying that they have “different opinions”, because these are opinions that involve the very existence of certain people, or the very basic human rights that they deserve. It comes from the frustration that inevitably occurs when you are trying to get your government to recognize that you deserve to be acknowledged and treated equally, but others refuse to allow it when they don’t even know your experience. And it comes from the belief that it is not the life purpose of a person of colour to teach white people about what their experience is, or a transgender person to teach cisgendered people – it is something that you should go out and learn about yourself.

And I get it, I do – as a bisexual woman, sometimes I get tired about talking about the experience of being a bisexual woman. Sometimes, I’d really rather people didn’t see me as just a bisexual woman, but as a person, more than a representative of my community. But I also understand that, if you are not a part of this community, then there is also a good chance that you are too busy dealing with your own dumb life to go out and learn about mine. And it is very easy when society constantly tells you “this is right, and this is what people are” to just accept that message without thinking twice about it.

But more than that, regardless of a person’s reasons for believing something different from me, I love my cause too much to let it earn the hostility that it will inevitably get if I am too dismissive of other people. Personally insulting other people and calling them stupid and wrong makes them upset. It makes them hate the person who called them that, and whether you care about that or not is your deal, but you should care about the fact that it will also make them hate the subject that you are arguing about. It will close them off from ever hearing anything more from you. It will keep them from learning more, from becoming educated, from understanding why it is you feel the way you do.

And I understand that it is sometimes hurtful to hear the sort of comments that are made. It is hurtful to be told that you don’t exist, that your perspective doesn’t matter, that you don’t deserve basic human rights – I understand that completely. And sometimes, when people are hurtful, your instinct is to be hurtful back. But in many cases, even when these people are being harmful, they are not doing it because they want to be – they are doing it because society has made them believe that they are in the right. They believe in what they are saying. And so getting mad at them will get them no where, but talking to them, having a rational discussion where you explain your perspective and you listen to theirs, might. And maybe you won’t turn them into an ally overnight, but you will have introduced something to them that they can think on. Maybe they won’t think on it. Maybe you change nothing. But isn’t it better to be the bigger person and try to make them understand your side, than it is to bully people for not being on it?