I was first introduced to Laci Green in college. A member of my school’s LGBTQIA student group mentioned her as an example of an inclusive, sex-positive feminist. And even though she wasn’t always on top of the latest inclusive language, she spoke at legnth about feminism and always made an effort to include LGBTQIA identities in her conversations. She wasn’t perfect, but she seemed pretty #woke.
Until she released a controversial video back in May, titled “Taking the Red Pill.”
As with most YouTube videos, the title and thumbnail are slightly misleading. Laci didn’t completely abandon feminism and join the alt-right. But she has re-branded herself as a “skeptical feminist” and plans to have live debates with ~both sides — feminists and anti-feminists — to help find common ground. Which seems like a respectable goal — until you dig a little deeper. In attempt to have “nuanced” and “balanced” conversations, she has, in effect, turned her back on the most vulnerable members of the movement and, worse, given people who actively advocate against the rights of those people yet another platform to express their opinions.
This move was frustrating to me because it reflects a history of cisgender white women turning their backs on vulnerable people in order to push their own agendas. Still, she was just one voice (albeit a popular one) in a sea of content creators, many of whom are creating inclusive content without legitimizing problematic viewpoints.
But then Dylan Marron, a popular internet personality known for his “Shutting Down Bullsh*t” videos, announced his new podcast, “Conversations With People Who Hate Me.” Though it’s difficult to tell exactly what direction the podcast will take, since only a three-minute promo video has been released so far, this move reinforces some of the same ideas as Laci’s recent YouTube videos.
For starters, the teaser makes clear that this podcast isn’t about shutting people down, unlike Dylan’s popular video series — which is brilliant in the way it debunks the opinions of bigots while raising up the voices of the people targeted by their rhetoric — and unlike Laci, he doesn’t seem to have any interest in full-on debates. But in a weird way, that almost makes it worse. While Laci’s choice to host live-streamed debates actively gives a platform to people with harmful beliefs — while also likely putting money into her pocket — Dylan’s choice to side-step straight-up debates in favor of “productive conversations” (whatever that means) sends the message that marginalized people need to tip-toe around the feelings of their oppressors.
One particular moment from the preview of “Conversations…” stuck out to me — one caller described his high school experience as “hell,” and rather than dismiss his experience, Dylan validated his pain and related to him. “That’s awful,” Dylan says. “You know, I was bullied in high school, too.”
On the surface, that was a great move on Dylan’s part. He led by example, focusing on the other person’s pain instead of trying to deflect from his concerns. He was “the bigger person,” as they say — and that’s admirable. But marginalized people are experts at being the bigger person — we often have to internalize so many emotions and thoughts just to survive. Not to mention, setting the expectation that marginalized people need to prioritize the feelings of their oppressors…. is oppression. It’s textbook tone policing and respectability politics — we need to behave and express our needs in a way that pleases people in power before our humanity is recognized.
Now, for all I know, the full version of the podcast could feature a nuanced discussion about the specific ways LGBTQIA people are targeted by bullies, and how that is both a reflection and result of a system of attitudes and beliefs that keep LGBTQIA people oppressed in other ways. But I doubt it, not only because the podcast is, as Dylan says in the trailer, not about politics but “about the fact that behind they keyboard, we’re all people” — but also because the response to Laci’s videos proves that people aren’t tuning in to learn, but to reinforce their own views and demonize social justice advocates who won’t entertain their bigotry the way Laci does.
Peep the comments on her “red pill” video and see for yourself:
The result isn’t “Wow, maybe feminists have some good points, I should do some reflection,” it’s “Finally someone from the other side who’s open to my side,” and “Glad she’s not like most feminists.” People aren’t coming to appreciate or understand feminism and social justice, they’re latching onto Laci and her watered-down brand of feminism (if you can even still call it that). Even then, it’s only because they see it all as proof that other advocates are unreasonable for not having the patience or privilege to engage with their hateful ideologies. and that those ideas deserve to take up space in social justice discussions.
Change takes time, of course. These issues are complex. These people won’t turn into woke baes overnight. And though I’m sure it’ll get some people to seriously reevaluate some of their beliefs, I have to wonder — if it takes so much effort and so many tiny conversations just to get someone to leave a YouTube comment that’s honestly still mostly about them (“omg FINALLY a SANE liberal who agrees with ME”) — is it really worth it?
I want to be clear that I support people trying to educate others and fight for change in whatever way feels right to them. In this political climate, especially, we need as many advocates as we can get. And it’s no doubt these polarizing and divisive political times that are causing this trend of “fair and balanced” public debates. But I think it’s important to acknowledge that these conversations can never truly be fair.
Because social justice is a response to the systematic barriers that keep marginalized people oppressed, any conversation with people who directly benefit from that oppression and hold beliefs that maintain those power structures is inherently imbalanced — especially when those conversations reinforce concepts like tone policing and respectability politics (an even bigger concern when those conversations occur on such a large and public scale). Marginalized people spend our entire lives working around the feelings of people who disagree with us and hold power over us. That’s why these conversations feel so reductive. They’re not an act of justice or liberation — they’re the status quo.