In real life, I can be hot-headed. I can speak before thinking, and sometimes this involves a notable lack of decorum. That sometimes bleeds through onto my internet dealings, but I do make an effort to keep that to a minimum.
I am also very intolerant of intolerance and bigotry — I really hope that fact bleeds through, because it’s pretty much at the core of my character. I’ve dressed down co-workers and acquaintances for ridiculous bits of bigotry in the past, even at potential personal cost. Two specific incidents spring to mind immediately: “that’s so gay!” used to refer to something the woman didn’t like, and “what does WIFE stand for? Washing, ironing, fucking, et cetera!” from a friend’s newly-introduced male fiancee. In both cases, I tried to register disapproval in such a way that it was both about their words being unacceptable generally, and because I was personally offended. In the latter case, my friend — let’s call her Laura, which is neither her name nor initial — and others were present, and she did not chime in, so the encounter ended effectively immediately after I registered my disapproval. The conversation moved on from there.
I am lucky that, in Laura’s case, the bigot did not escalate, causing problems between them and a rift in our respective friendships. It turns out that latter encounter might have done some unintentional splash damage to Laura. If I had stopped and thought about it a little longer, I might have realized that I was putting her in a tough spot — something that seems rather obvious in hindsight, actually, given the circumstances.
My hot head bled through onto the internet recently on this thread at Stephanie’s, exposing a few gaps in my understanding of a commonly-used phrase, “white knighting”. Those gaps owe almost completely to there being two definitions at play here. The first and the one I thought most commonly used was created on the internet by anti-feminist types for the purposes of shaming any man attempting to stand up for women, declaring that they simply wanted to get into their pants (e.g. doing it “for the cookie”, the pat on the head, or literally for sex). The other has apparently existed in feminist theory since the 60s, calling a white knight someone who swoops in to defend a woman while simultaneously disregarding their situation, whether they needed or wanted help, and whether they were particularly inclined to even have that fight at that exact moment.
Erasmus asked Giliell why sometimes the women who were present didn’t react well to his speaking up about sexist behaviour. Giliell said:
I think the problem you have here is “white knighting”
It can become pretty condescending pretty quickly although you never notice. You can quickly come off as knowing better what women feel than they themselves.
That’s why I said “casually”.
But I admit that it’s not easy and I can’t give you a recipe for all situations and contexts. Personally I’d say you’re doing it right if I get the impression that you would back me up if I chose to get into that topic, but I’d be pissed off if came off as fighting the fightfor me.
Through some more conversation, I made a declaration, because I’m personally tired of seeing bigoted nonsense slide in casual conversation:
Accusations of white knighting be damned, I’m sick of hearing about these blow-ups over and over. If I’m present, and I hear something sexist and recognize it in realtime, I’m saying something about it. If someone thinks I’m doing it to get into their pants, they’re wrong. I’m doing it to make an ordinary situation extraordinary, so that the next time someone comes along demanding extraordinary evidence for something otherwise ordinary, I can provide it.
I don’t want to fight others’ fights when that help isn’t requested, but I want to have the fights that I personally want to have, for my own reasons, when I want to have them. If I take someone on for saying something ridiculous, my modus operandi is to expect people to dogpile on me, not to join me. That way I’m pleasantly surprised, and I’m not also dragging people into fights they don’t want to have. So before this whole conversation, I figured if I’m picking a fight, I’m the one involved in it by default, not others.
The fact that I was misconstruing the white-knighting to mean what the feminist backlash brigade has made it mean, is secondary here. I realize my error shortly, don’t worry.
Giliell points that fact out to me, and also explains why going into full-out attack mode isn’t always the best choice:
Let’s just assume that we’re in such a situation. We’re in mixed company, chances are good that I’m the only woman, or one of a minority of women.
Some guy, some popular guy in this group makes a sexist remark.
Now I have to calculate my options quickly: Do I let it slide because I’m afraid of the backlash? Do I confront him?
You’ve been faster than me and you remark: “Duh, that’s sexist bullshit.”
Now my sitution has changed. I know that should I choose to confront him, I’m not going to be attacked by every other person in this group, I know I have an ally. Yeah, warm tickling in my toes. Maybe I’ll still let it slide, because it’s been a long day and I’m exhausted, maybe I’ve been arguing some point or other all day long and actually just want to have a gin tonic and some chatter and after all I’m not the fucking feminist action squad with a purple light on my head who has to turn up each and every time.
But should you insist to go on, to carry on the fight on my behalf, you’re forcing the topic on me.
Again, it’s not about “saying something”, but about what you say and how you say it.
Further, with inline blockquoting of my response:
When I pick my battles — and I often pick them poorly — I don’t expect others to be forced into acting on my behalf, I often expect people to gang up on me instead.
Yeah, but it’s inadvertedly going to happen.
Let’s remain in our little fictional meeting. You’ve made your casual comment and I think “thanks Jason for noticing. Isn’t it exhausting? I should say something but I really, really don’t want to have this conversation again.”
It can end there. Maybe later when everybody goes home I’ll remember to acknowledge this to you.
But let’s say that instead of making a casual comment, which has all the positive effects you mention, like me feeling more comfortable and welcome, like showing the dudez that this is not acceptable and so on, and letting me choose to go for confrontation or not, you start a fully fledged attack. Now, since the topic is sexism and misogyny I will of course be drawn into it, being the only woman present. It’s a situation I can’t win. Either I enter the fight, which means that you guys just decided what I have to do and what not with my time and energy, or I back off and have a guy “fix it for me”, sending out all the wrong signals in every direction.
So the conclusion I drew from this conversation is that general sexism and even explicit sexism can be confronted without appearance of white-knighting pretty easily — and even by means of my quick “dude, that’s sexist bullshit” — without turning the fight nuclear and doing splash damage to the other participants in the conversation. In cases where the sexism is specifically targeted at an individual, try to take cues from them before defending them. In some cases leaping to their defense is merited and wanted, but in others it’s not. If they’d rather walk away from the conversation, that’s their prerogative, and my going on the offensive offers them with a poor choice: either let me defend them, thus get “white-knighted” (by the proper definition), or have that fight then and there, resulting in my having inadvertently curtailed their option to let it slide or leave the conversation altogether.
The best option, then, appears to be to register disapproval and try to have the conversation move on from there. You make it known that the behaviour isn’t welcome in the conversation without turning it into a fight. If the bigot then escalates, you’re significantly less responsible for what happens from then on — the proximally-aggrieved parties are still free to take their leave to find a drink or take the fight to this shitheel at their discretion, and so are you.
If you’re in a group made up of none of the underprivileged group in question, though, and you don’t speak up, you’re doing nothing to correct the underlying problem. You can be damn well certain that if I’m in a situation where I’m “one of the guys” and the topic of conversation turns rampantly sexist, I’m saying something, even if that means I won’t get invited back to that particular circle in the future. Because, you know, I’ll learn to live with myself somehow without their camaraderie.
I will note, though, that the specific case of Laura’s fiancee making that comment should have been taken as a warning sign — their marriage apparently ended a few months after it had happened, with his having cheated on her, by some accounts repeatedly. Clearly he was not the most enlightened of chaps. I’m sad that my attempt at enlightening him failed so miserably, and that it ended in undue hardship for Laura, but I suspect my friends and I probably couldn’t have handled the tough situation any better than we had managed on that day. Even with hindsight, there weren’t a lot of good options. Though we’ve since drifted apart, if I could have successfully parlayed a full-out assault into less overall pain for my friend even at the cost of ending our friendship prematurely, it still wouldn’t have been the right thing to do right then.
[This article was originally published at Lousy Canuck on May 23, 2012.]