By Logan Hall
Marginalized people – those with non-normative sexual identities, non-white people, religious minorities, or any groups that the androcentric power structures of the Western world oppress presently and throughout history – have good reason to be angry. Their mobility is constantly limited by a society with a hierarchy of privilege: a hierarchy that positions able-bodied white men (which I am) at the top. White men can be very ignorant to the oppression contemporary society’s structure facilitates. The oppressed are outwardly shamed, and sometimes they are even physically brutalized. On top of this, marginalized and oppressed groups can experience even more barriers, such as socioeconomic and professional immobility. So, with so many acknowledged obstacles, why have these structural flaws gone unchecked, why haven’t those at the top taken notice? Why should it be the responsibility of the oppressed to teach their oppressors why these types of prejudice, and all of their manifestations in mainstream society, are wrong?
Obviously, it isn’t. It’s unclear, however, if it is productive to be angry with everyone who adheres to social norms and who is ignorant because of the way they were raised and socialized. It is, undoubtedly, their responsibility to educate themselves. Still, for progress to be made, sometimes explaining to someone why they might be wrong is a worthwhile endeavor. I have heard plenty of people use homophobic slurs, and I’ve confronted them: I asked them why they chose to use that specific derogatory language. Ninety-nine percent of the time, the answer would be “I don’t know, I guess it’s force of habit, and next time I’ll think about it before I say it.” It might not be my responsibility, and it might be tiring, but I think that it’s absolutely worth it. Most people have good intentions, but letting one’s anger obscure that fact makes changing hearts and minds more difficult. It is, after all, the personal connections that advocates make that advances social causes and promote progressive norms.
Nonetheless, I think that a hostile environment, where anger obstructs the ability of a situation to become a learning opportunity is counterproductive.
Another issue that arises from the extremely valid anger surrounding issues of marginalization and oppression is that many students feel unsafe speaking in class when it comes to discussing these issues. They are afraid that if they say the wrong thing, they will be immediately ostracized for their ignorance, lack of political correctness, and even perceived malice and stupidity. I have seen this happen, and it has happened to me. What help is it to chastise someone you are trying to teach, though they don’t know it? Who wouldn’t be defensive if they thought they had done nothing wrong yet got verbally assaulted for some unknown trespass? See, that’s the thing about ignorant people: they don’t know that they are ignorant. It should also be said that ignorance is not a crime, it’s usually a matter of circumstance.
Here again anger becomes detrimental. No matter how valid anger surrounding marginalization, oppression, and exploitation is, political progress cannot be fully realized until this anger is superseded, or circumvented in the face of ignorance. Sometimes it can be healthy for an advocate or ally to question their preconceptions, and sometimes their own ego: challenging these can be an invaluable educational tool. If a student has been silenced because they feel that class discussion is a hostile environment, then they will never have that opportunity to make a mistake and learn. Those advocating for marginalized groups and oppressed people need to be better at not creating an atmosphere of trial by fire. If someone is ignorant to an issue an advocate feels strongly about, the best way to reach that person is through discourse, not diatribe.
It’s also obvious that someone saying something offensive, unethical, or politically incorrect can also make others feel that the discussion space is a hostile environment. But even if someone is offended by a statement or opinion, they can respond in a way that expresses their anger and its validity without personally attacking the student who upset them. Certainly, some will not feel comfortable with direct confrontation – and that is where the professor should come in. Ideally, the professor would take the responsibility of mediating conversation, both in the context of when someone has been offended and is unwilling to speak out, as well as when someone is personally attacked for saying something controversial. Anger at ignorance cannot be directed at the ignorance; that just reinforces hostility.
Marginalized people – those with non-normative sexual identities, non-white people, religious minorities, or any groups that the androcentric power structures of the Western world oppress presently and throughout history – have good reason to be angry.
It’s important to recognize the issue of double-burdening, meaning that marginalized people are often given the responsibility of speaking on issues that most affect them. I do not believe that it is the responsibility of marginalized people to educate others on the issues that affect them. Nonetheless, I think that a hostile environment, where anger obstructs the ability of a situation to become a learning opportunity is counterproductive. It can be detrimental if anger goes beyond mere obstruction and is misdirected, reinforcing the original offending behavior.
Anger surrounding the issues of marginalized people should not be silenced, and I do not mean to insinuate that it is in any way invalid. However, many spaces for intellectual discourse have become places where some feel unable to join in on conversations pertaining to issues that might not immediately affect them for fear of being vilified for their perceived ignorance. I have even seen instances of dialogues being hijacked by individuals to express personal vendettas against specific individuals or groups: grievances that have little to with the issues at large, and tangibly detract from creating an intellectual learning environment. I want to address this issue in order to promote a learning environment where people keep in mind the fact that others come from different backgrounds and are exposed to different issues when these issues are addressed. One where nuance is considered, and as many people as possible are able to learn.