Pushback, Prejudice, and Ignorance

There’s something I have been mulling over since Tasha Fierce wrote ‘But You Have Such A Pretty Face‘ in response to the pushback she was getting at Bitch Magazine. Before I delve into what I’ve been mulling over, a brief thumbnail, for those who haven’t been following ‘Size Matters,’ Tasha’s blog at Bitch (if you’re not following it, you should be). ‘Size Matters’ is an examination of the role of fat bodies in pop culture, and what Tasha discovered almost immediately when she started posting was that readers were very resistant to the idea of discussing fat, using the word ‘fat,’ and talking about fat identities. I wrote about it myself in my own series, ‘Push(back) at the Intersections.’

Tasha responded to the furor in her comments with a post laying out some basic information about fat acceptance, saying ‘there seems to be a basic lack of understanding of fat acceptance among many readers here.’ Predictably, comments on that became equally filled with problematic statements as people wrestled with the idea that some people are not only fat, they’re perfectly fine with it, and not only that, they want to talk about it!

Tasha’s post made me ponder the role of ignorance in pushback. It’s pretty common to see people pushing back viciously against unfamiliar ideas, and one could certainly argue that this is rooted in ignorance, even when those ideas are presented in an informative, 101, educational way designed to make people more familiar with those ideas. Pushback becomes even worse when content starts happening at a higher level, with people assuming that readers have done their research and they are familiar with the topic at hand and ready to start engaging on a more meaningful level with the work at hand, while some readers, even knowing it’s advanced content, feel a need to voice their opinions anyhow.

But is ignorance really solely at fault? Because I see a lot of educating happening, and people don’t seem to respond to that education by changing. I am wondering if unfamiliarity (not necessarily the same thing as ignorance) and time are more important factors. For example, when I was first introduced to the concept of fat acceptance, I thought it was a ludicrous idea. Fat people were disgusting and unhealthy and everyone knew that. I read a lot of 101 content and was very thoroughly educated, but still unfamiliar, and I still pushed back, hard, on the concept. Fortunately, being naturally shy and hating comments sections and conflicts, that pushback all happened internally, rather than being directed at people.

It wasn’t until time passed, time without being pressured to think a particular way, that I started coming around to the idea of size acceptance. It wasn’t education that I needed, although education certainly helped, it was the seed of an idea and the time to let that seed grow. I saw the same process unfold with other aspects of my introduction to social justice. Once I’d had time, then I got interested, and then I actively sought out more education and more advanced material and then, slowly, started putting out my own tenterhooks and engaging with it in public spaces.

It is a scary thing, when you realise that everything you have thought all this time is actually fundamentally wrong, and you start reading people picking apart the foundations of that thinking. It’s pretty natural to want to push that away and shut it down rather than dealing with it; people who are willing to overcome that initial visceral response and start engaging are actually relatively rare.

Is it ignorance, or is it neophobia?

These are two different things and it is important to tease out the differences here. Many people can be educated about a topic, but still be new to it. They can find it frightening. The seed is planted and something is growing but it’s fragile and a frost can nip it right in the bud. With time, however, the approach to complicated discussions isn’t rooted in that initial fear, and starts to be rooted in not just knowledge, but familiarity.

It’s not enough to read up and get educated on a topic. It’s also necessary to get inside it, as much as that is possible to do. To ponder it. To read opposing and contradictory theory. To become, in a word, familiar. You may never become comfortable with a topic, but it can become something you know. It’s the difference between driving down a curvy road you know and driving on a road you’ve never seen before.

Pushback, I think, can come from two places. One is pure and simple bigotry. Some people, no matter how long they read up about something, no matter how much time they spend thinking about it, no matter how much energy they invest in understanding it, will still, ultimately, be bigots. This is unfortunate, but it’s true, and it’s good to recognise it, because we shouldn’t be wasting our energies trying to engage with bigots.

That other place, though, is the unfamiliar place. Neophobia is a very common human response, and it’s not at all peculiar. It’s rooted in who we are because what is new and unknown might just be the thing that kills us. If people can stick it out through the neophobia, can push through that, can familiarise themselves with what they are encountering so that, even if it’s scary, it’s still a known quantity, they can experience a shift in the way they think and interact with the world.

That said, I do wish that neophobia was explored more in private and less in public. While I understand the origins of this form of pushback, it’s still quite boring and extremely irritating to see playing out over and over again as people are introduced to new concepts and move through the various stages they need to go through to come to grips with it. Believe me, people, everything does not have to processed in public. Really.