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?

The Failure to Listen: Conservatives vs. Liberals

I don’t know how the world got to be so divided. I don’t know how attempts to destroy binaries like ‘white vs. black’ or ‘men vs. women’ has instead resulted in creating an entirely new binary: ‘conservatives vs. liberals’.

And I won’t lie; like most people, I take a side in this binary. I am not an American, but I am very liberal. I believe that all people, regardless of gender identity, race, sexual orientation, whatever it might be, deserves the opportunity to live their fullest life and receive every right that they are entitled to as human beings. This is something that I believe in with all my heart. This is something that I am more than willing to fight or die for if need be. But at the same time, I also believe that every perspective needs to be listened to and understood. I believe that sweeping another person’s perspective under the rug as simply wrong is reductive and unfair, and this is something that both sides of the binary are guilty of right now, and it is creating so many problems.

From the liberal perspective, conservatives are uneducated, stupid, and hateful. From the conservative perspective, liberals are attacking their rights and threatening their freedom to support an agenda that they don’t agree with. From either perspective, the other side of the binary is dangerous.

I have spoken to liberal-minded people who have said that they like talking to conservatives because they’re curious to know what it’s like to be “so wrong.” The problem with thinking like this though is that it’s instantly reductive: you aren’t listening to them because you want to have an actual conversation and make progress between the two of you. You are listening to them to mock their beliefs, leaving you both in the exact same position that you were when you started talking. You haven’t grown. You haven’t learned anything. You just leave them thinking they were an idiot, and they leave you thinking you were a jerk.

And I’ll admit, I have been at fault for thinking this way in the past as well. I’m not perfect. Sometimes, it is really hard for me to see someone verbally abusing a woman who wants an abortion, or telling transgender people that they can’t exist in certain spaces because it makes them uncomfortable. When I see that, it’s very difficult for me to see anything other than blatant ignorance and hate. In order for me to see beyond that, I need to really think about things from their perspective. I need to take the time to remember that this is a person who honestly believes that abortion is murder and transgender people are mentally ill or transgressive from nature. Whether I think they’re wrong or not really doesn’t matter; they think they’re right, and that is important for me to remember if I’m actually going to have a conversation with them.

And the same thing can be said from the opposite perspective as well: it is just as important for conservatives to remember that liberals might have a reason for believing the things that they do, because it is really frustrating for me to have a conversation with someone where I am trying to explain my beliefs and yet I am constantly being told that I’m wrong and that my beliefs are dangerous to your way of life. Maybe I’m not wrong. Maybe you’re not wrong. Maybe the path toward progress can be found somewhere between the two of us, and maybe the only way to find this path is to listen to the other.

The problem nowadays is not liberals, and nor is it conservatives: the problem is that we don’t listen to each other. We are so quick to dismiss the other as wrong that we don’t even stop to consider the possibility that maybe there is no right or wrong here. Maybe there are just people who need to be taken seriously and have their perspectives heard. Or maybe I’m wrong. Who the fuck knows at this point, really? All that I’m trying to say is that we aren’t understanding one another, and when we don’t try to understand, then we turn instead to hate, and there is far too much of that in the world already – we don’t need more. I think that’s something both sides can agree on.