I had a saddening encounter this weekend. On a panel about civil verbal disagreement, an audience member asked what to do when people use terms that are viewed by one side in a debate as slurs (such as “climate-denier”) and was told that in such a case, rather than getting upset one should stay quiet and introspect on their situation and see if they can understand why the other party would say such things. So I turned to my fellow panelist and told her that sounded very self-serving. Yes, we all dislike climate-deniers and don’t find anything wrong will calling someone literally what they are. But by way of comparison, if someone called me a “fag,” should I also introspect on my situation and see if I can understand why someone would say such a thing, rather than getting upset? She said of course not, and there was some concession that maybe this wasn’t the most fair-handed advice, but the topic was quickly moved past because panels are fast-paced and many people had questions/comments to get to.
(I know that “climate denier” is obviously drastically different. No one’s ever been kicked out of their house or beaten to death for being a climate denier. But after a failed attempt using a more analogous example, I found this was the only one that could get my co-panelist to consider how someone from the outside would view her call to ponder “why am I so bad?” rather than anything remotely realistic.)
Importantly, afterwards the panelist told me privately that she didn’t mean to be unfair or anything. It’s just that the person who asked the question was a White Man, he obviously needed to reflect on himself. And implicit both in her words and the “you know…” look she was giving me was that white men can have no legitimate complaints about how they are treated, and that was the basis of her answer. They are a class that can only ever do violence, and no verbal abuse can be visited upon them that is not morally justified. The only thing she knew about the question-asker was that he was white and male and somewhere north of his 40s, and that was enough.