For many of us working to make the world a better, safer, more equal place, we may find ourselves at opposition to the world around us, especially in social settings. When we’re with groups of people, we’re often found facing down the old dilemma of whether we should swallow or pretend we didn’t hear a highly dubious comment or line of conversation, or dive right in. The longer you work, the older you are, the more frustrating and tiring this internal debate becomes, because despite what many people seem to think, it’s actually not at all enjoyable being ‘that person’ who has to speak when no one else will, and we’re not actively ‘looking for things to be offended by.’ Believe me, we don’t have to look that hard.
On the one hand, there’s the option of just ignoring it and letting it slide past. It’s not worth the effort, we don’t want to make a fuss. We need to make a good impression on people, or we don’t want the person who brought us to feel embarrassed or awkward for introducing us to her friends, colleagues, or family. Everything will just go more smoothly if we don’t say anything. We won’t potentially end up in an explosive situation or a protracted debate — because you never know how these situations are going to fall out. You never know if a meek, polite ‘I’d really rather people not refer to people with intellectual disabilities as ‘retarded” is going to end with a quick, polite conversation about the word’s history, or someone digging in their heels and deciding this is the hill she wants to die on.
But remaining silent runs contrary to everything you believe in, to yourself, to your core ethics. If you remain quiet for the sake of the group, aren’t you just replicating the same social structures that keep some social groups at a disadvantage? What kind of advocate are you if you see something happening and you’re not willing to say anything because you’re too afraid of the consequences? Will you be able to live with yourself later if you choose to remain silent? Will these slow, repeated digs end up eating away at you until you explode one day, channeling all your fury and frustration?
Speaking up, though, gets you branded as ‘that person.’ You know, the unfun one. The difficult one. The person who can’t relax and just take a joke. Oversensitive. Looking for something to be offended by. Feminazi. Uptight. Can’t you just settle down and enjoy a social situation like everyone else. You’re making everyone uncomfortable. You’re being strident. Can’t you set this aside for just one night. Why do you have to make people feel bad. What’s wrong with you, can’t you see he’s old and doesn’t know better? Why do you want to leave the party? Everyone else is having fun. What do you mean you don’t feel welcome here.
Every time someone speaks up about something that is bothering them, this rubric is silently moving in her head, even if it’s only fleeting and she’s not consciously aware of it. Every day, we wake up with a reminder that we should choose our battles, save our energy, because so much is wrong, everywhere around us, that we can’t possibly deal with it all at once. We might speak up about language sometimes but not at others — we might take the bait to be dragged into yet another debate over our basic humanity when we’re fatigued and not thinking, we might choose to engage with someone who seems interested in a social issue on some nights, but politely decline when we’re not feeling up to it.
Engaging with people to tell them that they’re doing something not just hurtful and offensive to you, but hurtful to an entire class of people, is difficult, and many people seem to underestimate this. You’re just branded as not fun, and you sink into a deeper and deeper silence because you don’t want to argue with people — while at the same time, you long for real socialisation with people you can actually talk to. This gap can become huge when some of your friends just don’t get it, and you find yourself virtually voiceless at their gatherings even as you wonder what it was, what it is, that you have in common, what drew you to them in the first place.
Being the unfun one, bluntly, is not fun. If you think it’s not enjoyable for someone to ask you not to use harmful language, or to treat women like human beings, or to not act like trans women are some sort of exotic lesser category of humanity, or to not stereotype young Black men, or not to treat disabled people like burdens on society, well, it’s also not enjoyable to be the one making those requests. Having to be continually on duty even in casual spaces — dinner parties with friends, a group of people meeting to play games — is frustrating, and it’s also depressing, because you start to wonder if your work will ever make a difference.
People aren’t doing this to nitpick, or make you feel bad, but because they care. And, often, because they believe that you care too, and that you may not be aware of what your actions are doing to other people. Being unfun isn’t something anyone wants to be — none of us like ruining a moment, and none of us like the censuring looks we get for it. But some things are too important, and one of those things is equality — which we can’t fight for if we aren’t allowed to say something when we see something.
Image: Skeid — Kristiansund, Anders Vindegg, Flickr