The answer would seem to be never, and that is often the wise course of action. Just see “Don’t Read Comments.”
But sometimes the stakes are so high that not engaging doesn’t seem like an option.
And sometimes it is worth recognizing the power of social media, in its ability to connect people instantly all the time, to have conversations that would normally not take place or take months, years, or centuries.
Let me start with some feelings that I have, and that I share with others whom I love.
It’s exhausting to explain how terms and concepts such as patriarchy, microaggressions, oppression, privilege, heteronormativity, and whiteness, are not academic things to debate about, but ways that I understand what is happening in my life and the lives of people I care for. Every time these terms are tossed around in an armchair discussion, it looks like people are taking my life and deciding how to tell its story.
It makes me want to shout, “Just stop it! It’s not all about you!” And take the still frames of my life that you are pitching over my head, like a perverse game of monkey in the middle, and jump high to snatch them and stash them in a duffel bag, run straight home to a deep, dark closet, zip it up, lock it tight, and slam the door, with me in it, clutching the bag like it’s my life, because it is my life, and it’s the only one I know. I want to sit in that closet, with the safety of the darkness pressing in all around me, even when it begins to choke me from the inside, even when it gets hard to breathe, and I feel so, so, very alone.
I know it seems disingenuous or presumptuous to ask people to stop thinking so much about their experience in order to take time to think about my experience, and it’s unproductive to entertain games of “who is oppressed more?”
So here’s a test:
When discussing sociological terms that describe theories of race, gender, sexuality, income, and ability, do you feel-
a) Like you know what’s right, and people who are wrong are just not hearing you correctly or are oversensitive?
b) That you are curious about the subject and want to know more from people who have a greater stake in the subject or know more about it than you do?
c) Deeply that someone (other than yourself) is being violated (in a I-may-have-to-seek-therapy-after-this sort of a way) and that you need to express dissent or clarify further to prevent further pain?
If a, please stop and listen before you talk, if you talk at all.
If b, curious learners are wonderful! But people are not search engines, so go do your own research, then be a good listener, and rock on with your bad (I mean, good and awesome) self.
If c, take a moment, take three deep breaths, pray or meditate, assume the best intentions of the other party (if possible), and compose a kind, productive response. If the response will not be productive, then do the above, and instead of crafting a response, go outside (if there is ample sunlight), absorb some vitamin D, and then do something that makes you feel awesome (like eating chocolate or chasing a squirrel).
Some of you will hate this test, because people on the Internet are wrong! And if they are wrong, they just don’t know! And if I give them enough statistics and history and theories and logic and reason and all the tools of Greek philosophical thought and the scientific method, then they will get it!
Look closer. Do you have a preexisting relationship? Do you have a relationship in which you are constantly conversing, and not just about these academic terms that also function to describe others’ lives? How is that relationship? Is it shaky? Is it one in which you are always arguing?
If your relationship is not on solid ground and you are not always in conversation, that means you don’t have the time and energy to pick up the pieces. It is not responsible or productive to cause an earthquake and not be there to pick up the pieces, to put out the flames, to hold people who are crying. It is not kind or empathetic. It does not make people want to change their minds.
It makes people want to snatch their lives away from you, put them in a black duffel bag, and run to the nearest closet and not share their lives with you anymore. It makes it hard for people to trust you. If they aren’t the running and hiding type, then they are the fighting type, and what do the fighting type do? They put on armor.
It is hard to talk to people when they are in armor.
You may hate the test because you may disagree with me about what interactions are about.
To me, interactions are about relationship. The minute you open your mouth, or the moment you press enter to a few keystrokes on a keyboard, you have created a relationship, as temporary as it might be. And relationships, to me, are about a back and forth. A give and take. And relationships, to me, are meant to make people well, and to make people feel supported. When there is no give and take, and when there is only give give give of information, or take take take of energy, this can make people defensive or tired. Especially when there are power dynamics at play. Regardless of what your intentions are, think about history and the signals you are giving off. Sometimes it’s body language. Sometimes it’s dress. Sometimes it’s skin color. Sometimes it’s the height of your chair. Sometimes it’s the tenor of your voice. These are all things that convey power. If you hold more power, you hold more responsibility.
I mean, just ask Loki, amirite?
Let me give you a little bit of tough love.
If you don’t have a relationship grounded in genuine intentions AND actions that work toward wellness, you are treading on dangerous ground when you attempt to correct someone else on academic terms that describe their lives. This ground is laden with emotional mines. When you charge ahead to correct them, without a prior relationship that aims for support AND without first doing the test to see whether this correction will be productive, you are showing that you don’t care about them.
You are showing that you, in that interaction, at that moment, only care about yourself.
You are showing that you, in that interaction, at that moment, are being selfish.
Think about what you are doing.
Think about the world you are creating.
Think long and hard about your choices.