I had lunch with a close friend a few weeks ago. Outside of being women, we are about as far away from belonging to a marginalized group of individuals as we can get. We are both young, healthy, straight, white, have or are working towards advanced degrees, don’t worry about where we will sleep each night or if we will get to eat each day, and are gainfully employed in professions that fulfill us. We were born in America and raised in two-parent, middle class homes. Personal traumas and other disturbances aside, our lives have been simple with the hands we have been dealt. And because of this, there is for me a fear that, for lack of a better term, my good fortune will blind me to the pain of marginalized individuals and groups or that, at the very least, my desire to learn more or better understand perspectives outside my own will come across as disingenuous, contrived, or pitying. I worry at times my sheer existence on this planet is unintentionally offensive, elitist, or over privileged.
In a recent post, I shared about a campaign I initiated here in Nashville to collect tampons and pads for homeless women and women in transitional housing. Social media has fueled the majority of the campaign. On a post I was tagged in, an individual who I do not know asserted that the campaign was not inclusive of non-binary individuals. Despite feeling like a relatively in-the-know person most days, the term “non-binary” was one I did not know. Looking it up, I learned it means any gender that is not exclusively male or female. The commenter offered no suggestion or solution for how this population of individuals might be better included in the campaign. The goal of the comment seemed only to poke holes in something that was born out of a sincere desire to help others.
Days later, at lunch with my friend, I described what took place and how it had made me feel, which was mostly annoyed. Not annoyed because the person was offering up the perspective of a marginalized group, but annoyed because it felt like an attempt to shame me and the efforts of the campaign while also failing to offer a solution. I told my friend I didn’t know what non-binary meant until I looked it up. I said, while we’re at it, I’m also not sure what the I in LGBTQIA stands for or how the Q should be used in relation to the other letters in the acronym.
As someone who tries hard to be sensitive, to be educated, to begin to understand what I don’t understand as much as possible, I felt frustrated and afraid. That old adage, No good deed goes unpunished, played over and over in my mind. Was the campaign close-minded, unwelcoming, or insensitive? I didn’t think so, but was I allowed to say that as a non-marginalized person?
As I worked through all this in conversation with my friend, a woman approached our table. She calmly, kindly, and politely said, “I overheard your conversation and wanted to tell you the I stands for Intersex.” She explained a little more and offered a few details about herself that illuminated why she was knowledgeable about the topic. The whole exchange was maybe two minutes long but profoundly impactful. With her approach—non-aggressive, non-shaming, with an intent to educate and not embarrass—she taught me something new.
That interaction could have gone in a totally different direction. She could have easily sat there with her back to us, listening to two straight women talk about not understanding terminology unfamiliar to their everyday lives (and yet having a desire to better understand it) and absolutely skewered us, recounting in real-time on Twitter or Facebook what we were saying or in real life by confronting us. Instead, she chose to teach us something. It was beautiful.
I think about shame a lot. I think about how it is a tool to silence people, to coerce or manipulate people, and to keep people stuck in fear. I think mostly about how it is an ineffective tool for bringing about change; it is a mechanism for short-term gains, not long-term advancement.
Here’s the truth: I am terrified of people on the Internet. They can be cruel, unforgiving, and brutal. People will say things online they would never say to another human being’s face. For all the good the Internet has done in bringing people together, sharing ideas, and expanding worldviews and intellectual horizons, it has also taken town square shaming to epic proportions. It seems like not a day goes by where someone isn’t eaten alive online by unrelenting and ruthless media or commenters seemingly determined to shame people into another way of thinking. I’m terrified to share this post. I’m terrified of all the ways I may have inadvertently offended someone or exposed myself as someone who doesn’t know everything about everything. I am about as human as they come I’m afraid.
Shame is paralyzing. Shame is humiliating. Shame does not heal, educate, or encourage dialogue. The proliferation of shame as a tool for affecting change, especially online, worries and saddens me. What are we teaching people when we shame them? To continue to cling to false ideas, misconceptions, or in my case, a simple lack of knowledge, but now in the private recesses of their minds where they won’t be judged? What are we teaching people when we shame them but offer no alternative voice or solution, or offer that alternative voice or solution with a vitriolic delivery? What are we teaching people when we shame them after their best intentions come out sideways?
We don’t know what we don’t know. So what if before we launched an attack, sprayed harsh words, lobbed painful or contextually inaccurate comments, we looked for an opportunity to teach, to share, to offer up an idea in exchange for a mistake, confusion, or miscommunication? A true trade of one idea for another, an answer for a question, possibility for possibility? What if we allowed people to be human and loved them anyway? What change would be possible then?
For more LGBTQIA-related definitions, visit this helpful resource.