When Ignorant Folks Ask Questions
Part of who I am is a feminist. The people around me - my family, co-workers, significant others, etc. - know this. I have developed a bit of a reputation in some circles, sometimes with a prideful air about it, and sometimes with a Warning label. As a result of this part of my personality, it isn’t uncommon for people to address questions pertaining to feminism toward me. I feel somewhat conflicted about this, because I know these questioners usually ask, ignorant of obstacles that I am quite familiar with. Recently in such a situation, it occurred to me that these “Ignorant Questioners’” lack of understanding on the topic they ask about implies that they probably aren’t considering what is going on in my mind when they ask. This is not to say that I am above being an ignorant questioner, but that my own experiences have given me valuable insight that I think is worthy of passing on to others that perhaps haven’t overthought it quite as much as I have. Here we go!
The problem with explaining a social justice concept to someone is hard, because
Usually people ask without having the fundamental knowledge required to understand a more detail-oriented branch on a particular social justice tree
This dynamic is akin to asking someone to break down a calculus problem, without having an understanding of multiplication or division.
Depending on how much the Questionee relates to the subject matter (i.e. a person of color explaining a structure in racism), point 1 can easily become an insult, and a carrot on a stick
Of course, it IS possible, but, much like expanding a calculus equation for someone that doesn’t know algebra or multiplication, it may take hours at the least. Generally, the question/topic/concept is much broader than the Questioner realizes, which comes with its own consequences.
When I first dive into answering someone’s niche question, I first realize that in order for the person to understand why I hold a particular view, they would need to understand a few concepts. For example, a man recently asked me why I felt it was problematic for him to say that a friend of ours “deserve[d] a woman,” because he was such a hard working man; In order to break down my reasoning for him, I realized I would first have to explain objectification, entitlement, and the ways that language can indicate our unconscious perspectives. All three of these concepts take time to understand on their own, much less to synthesize and be able to apply to concrete situations. When I approach this type of realization, I usually feel a part of me respond with hopelessness, as I consider the low chances that both of us will have the time and/or space to have such a discussion, and the stronger probability that the person will not be able to fully understand why I hold such a different view than them. Part of me also feels insulted that someone could think a broad topic of oppression could be reduced for them in a timely way, with little external effort on their part to understand it. This generally results in me feeling frustrated, and pitying the other person - “how dare you think I can reduce this vast, nuanced topic into a few easy sentences?” Any awareness of my own hypocrisy chooses to stay silent during these thought processes.
Sometimes, discussing these topics causes the Questionee to call upon their lived experiences, either as examples or involuntarily, from discussing the topic; A “don’t think about the color red” kinda situation. Not only can these associated memories bring up trauma, causing cognition to become foggy, they can also move the conversation from a relatively impersonal quandary into a very vulnerable, personal [and often unequal] divulgence. It’s worth noting that a person’s lived experiences, possibly traumatic experiences, are not small talk. Consider this before indulging your curiosity.
The Questioner might become defensive, which is a great way to totally shut down a conversation:
When people feel like they are wrong, or confront a problematic view/opinion/behavior that they hold, they usually are no longer in a state of mind that is receptive to understanding the question at hand. They are caught up thinking about themselves, or the way the other person is perceiving them: Possibly becoming angry at the mere suggestion that they are wrong; Often seeking validation because they don’t want to feel like someone views them as having problematic thoughts or actions. When people become defensive, they are closed off to new information and usually incapable of doing anything but rectifying their perceived wrongness.
My advice: If you are in a situation where you feel compelled to ask someone why they hold a particular view about a topic directly relating to identity politics (systemic racism, sexism, classism, ableism, feminism, veganism, ecofeminism, etc.), including why a person views something as problematic apart from any of the ism’s, think before you speak. Examine your motivations for asking. Are you just looking for something to talk about? Do you think the other person enjoys talking about these concepts, simply because they are willing to? Are you trying to prove something?
For the sake of my tendencies to overthink, here’s a helpful flowchart for deciding whether or not to ask:
In conclusion, if somebody asks me a question about my views or about a cultural norm, I will almost always answer because it is more important to me that my opinion be heard, than the possibility that it will be misunderstood. I am not ashamed of my views and I am ever hopeful that people will take the ideas that I share with them and eventually be able to see with a more integrated lens. I only hope that I can retain the self-awareness to practice what I preach.