It’s Not Right That You Got Screamed At, but It’s Good

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I write a lot about the importance of civility when discussing and debating beliefs and experiences (even though I personally want to throttle some people with certain disgusting, ignorant views). It’s a matter of pragmatism, if not principle: People can’t think when you’re yelling at them. People are less inclined to hear you when you hurl insults at them. Plus, it’s unkind and unloving and all that.

That is true. I believe that. I believe we all need to take that to heart — victims, minorities, the oppressed, everyone. Everyone needs to extend grace and understanding. Love begets love, hate begets hate, ignorance begets ignorance, understanding begets understanding, and so on.

But, on another pragmatic note, I’m realizing that not everyone can, will, or wants to extend grace, understanding, or even the pretense of civility. Trauma, oppression, stress — it impairs people’s ability to self-regulate, just as being cussed out for your opposing viewpoint impairs your ability to listen and extend sympathy. As a person of privilege, it’s my job to hang in with what I perceive as tough conversations or unfair treatment or misunderstandings that make me, for that moment in time, feel dismissed or unheard.

It’s not because I think that my hurt is less valuable. It’s that I usually have less to lose if I’m unheard and misunderstood than disadvantaged people are. Hurt feelings and harsh encounters are no fun, but at least my way of life doesn’t ride on me persuading others to hear, understand, or accept me.

I think it’s important to sit with the hard conversations where I feel attacked and misunderstood, if only for this pragmatic reason: oftentimes I don’t truly understand a minority person’s lived experience unless they are speaking without any limitations or fear of repercussions at all — especially the limitation of civility or the fear of being “not nice.”

In my ongoing journey of becoming a foster parent, I joined a Facebook group that sought to give adoptive parents and hopeful adoptive parents the honest-to-God truth about adoption from adoptees’ perspectives. One of their rules was absolutely zero tone policing of adoptees. None. There were no protections for adoptive parents or hopeful adoptive parents. Adoptees could say exactly how they felt in whatever way they felt like it.

It was a brutal experience. Unsuspecting new members left in droves, unable to withstand the cursing out, the taking to task, and the rude, unsympathetic treatment of their questions or experiences. I almost left myself. Like I said, I value civility and nuance, and I didn’t feel like that this group provided that. I felt unsafe. I struggled to learn. I didn’t experience any grace. I was afraid to ask questions or say anything for fear of evisceration.

But I hung in there, and finally, slowly began to understand this group’s perspective — and even value the space’s no tone policing rule as critical to my learning process. Adoptees cannot share their honest opinions about adoption or their adoptive families because they’re out on the street (emotionally or literally) if they can’t figure out how to appease their adoptive families and fit in. Plus, there is such an entrenched narrative about how amazing adoption is and how lucky adoptees are, such a strong parent-centric focus, that any dissenting voices in the conversation get brushed away. There are so few places for adoptees to speak candidly about their experience that nobody is listening. Nobody is sitting with their full experience — especially not their pain, anger, and powerlessness.

As a person privileged enough to be unattached to adoption issues, I am not going to have a chance at understanding their life experience if I want to deal with only the civilized, sanitized version — a version they didn’t experience.

It’s a frustrating reality for everyone on all sides of conversations where disadvantage and privilege exist: it’s difficult to learn about another person’s pain when it’s coming at you no holds barred — and it’s difficult to learn about another person’s pain when it’s presented tactfully, civilly, and graciously. It’s difficult to be humble and compassionate towards someone when she’s lambasting you for a microaggression — but it’s difficult to be humble and compassionate enough to recognize just how much of a negative impact your well-meaning action had when someone calmly explains your mistake.

If I’m remembering this anecdote correctly, Ta-Nehisi Coates heard a white student share about experiencing prejudice on an historically black campus — something along the lines of others openly looking at him as if he didn’t belong and wasn’t welcome. Coates commented (paraphrased), “It wasn’t right, but it was good.” It wasn’t right that the student experienced such a shunning and an unwelcoming, but it was good for him to understand that this is the black experience in predominantly white America. Perhaps that was the only way he could understand.

It’s never right to treat another human unkindly, and it’s not right to codify unkindness as a communication method. We all carry our pain that deserves sensitivity; we all deserve dignity and respect, regardless of what privileges or disadvantages we posses. (And we all are a mosaic of privileges and disadvantages.)

But there are many not right things in this world, so many that it would require an impossible measure of strength from people who are already laid flat to accurately but civilly convey their experience to people who mean well but don’t get it. Since there are so many flaws both in delivery and reception of hard-to-fathom experiences between the privileged and the under-privileged, it is always good to listen and learn from all people — even the ones uncivilly screaming in your face. Everyone matters, but when we triage for justice, we must prioritize those facing oppression, discrimination, and prejudice over our own hurt feelings.

(P.S. I’m extremely bad at this.)

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8 thoughts on “It’s Not Right That You Got Screamed At, but It’s Good

  1. telltalesnotlies

    You say you are extremely bad at this, but I’ve a sneakin’ suspicion that you are better than you believe. I understand the web site you told about. My daughter started out life as my granddaughter, until her mother died. Even though she was with my husband and me her whole life, she still has times when she feels she doesn’t belong or is powerless. There are no holds barred when she expresses her opinions. Unfortunately, I don’t always take the high road either. Thanks for this blog.

    Like

    • Bailey Steger

      I think (I hope!) that simply acknowledging and holding space for as many no-holds-barred moments as we imperfect people can makes a big difference. Just the fact that you do that sets you apart from a lot of parents — whether biological or adopted. And thanks for your encouragement.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Allison Caylor

    I think the story about the adoption group is really neat, and a good way to illustrate what you’re trying to say. In that context, the adoptive parents or hopefuls are explicitly seeking out education and can consent to receive it as given or leave the group. It sounds so beneficial and needed. But this whole idea that if you’re oppressed/marginalized enough, you have no obligation to be civil or kind to people whom you consider part of the group that oppresses you… that’s so slippery. The conversation is never about, say, a raped person dealing with their specific rapist, or a former slave dealing with a former slave owner. It’s about a member of an oppressed group dealing with a member of an oppressing group; and the latter is often just a random person of a certain demographic, whether male or white or rich or what have you. And this reasoning is used to excuse the actually wrong treatment of innocent people. If screaming profanities at someone is fine if you’re traumatized by oppression and you associate them with it, then where is the line? When is the onlooker allowed to make a judgment? Is punching someone okay if you’re oppressed enough? What about shooting them?

    I understand you’re making a distinction between “right” and “good” here, but I’m not sure I get it. In the adoption group context, the adoptees were giving needed education to willing participants in the most effective way. The black students at the mostly-black college weren’t doing anything morally wrong in looking with surprise at a person they didn’t expect to see. What wrong things create good experiences?

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    • Bailey Steger

      I totally agree that this is a slippery slope, that trauma is not an excuse for hate or violence, and that prejudice, hatred, and violence are NEVER okay. I’ve been on the receiving end of people’s anger toward whatever group I belong to, even though I hadn’t done anything wrong. It’s so incredibly painful. I hope I made that clear through the first half of my post.

      The context you mention is the key. The relationship is the key. This post is aimed solely at people who have taken it upon themselves to enter into an “other’s” experience, to truly understand, and to show unconditional love. It is absolutely okay to walk away from situations where you are being abused, judged, or hurt, and it is absolutely okay to feel hurt by it and to name it for what it is. It just might not get you anywhere with that person or group — and that’s what I want to highlight in THIS post.

      It’s not that wrong things create good experiences. Hearing adoptees tear apart adoption itself or respond unkindly to people wanting to ask question was a wrong thing and not a good experience. They were not simply being blunt. They were being unkind. The black students shooting looks of prejudiced dislike toward another student because he’s white was a wrong thing and not a good experience. They weren’t looking with surprise. They were looking with dislike.

      It’s about redemption. It’s about using those moments — which are wrong and painful and ugly — to show grace, love, and understanding. And there IS a choice here. Some people need to set up boundaries and walk away from those kinds of situations and conversations and people, because yes, it IS wrong and destructive for people to yell profanities and judge you simply because you belong to a certain group. But if you have made the decision to really listen, you’re (1) more than likely going to experience this sort of thing so (2) you’re going to have to learn redeem those wrong things in order to stay in relationship with them.

      On a smaller scale, if my husband comes home and snaps at me, I can respond with offense and move away from him because, absolutely, his tone and his words were unkind. But because I love him and am committed to him, I can also redeem that ugly moment and say, “Hey. You seem really upset about something. Do you want to talk about it?” That horrible moment just got redeemed into a moment of love and connection and greater understanding. It would have been FAR better had he simply said, “I am so stressed today and need a hug,” but since he didn’t, and I’m still called to love him, I choose to respond with grace.

      Did I clarify my stance a bit more?

      Like

    • Bailey Steger

      Oh, good, I’m glad that part came across clearly! There is a fine line between explaining bad behavior (which is what I’m trying to do in this post) and excusing bad behavior, and it feels like there’s a lot of the latter going on in progressive call out cultures.

      Like

  3. Korie Veidel

    The group for adoptees sounds very interesting! I have mixed thoughts on adoption (as many people do with many complex subjects).

    I’m glad you are blogging (somewhat) regularly again!

    Like

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