ELAYNE RIGGS: On owning one’s errors
"Sorry seems to be the hardest word" – Bernie Taupin
As I alluded to in last week’s column but didn’t have the space nor desire to go into at length, the comics blogosphere isn’t the only place wherein disagreements among feminists have cropped up lately. From time to time debates occur as well amongst political liberal and progressive feminist bloggers who otherwise agree on many major principles and actions. The latest example is the talk about whether blogger Jessica Valenti’s new book Full Frontal Feminism is inclusive enough of the experiences of women of color (certainly not an unfamiliar argument in the comics scene either, as Cheryl Lynn ably demonstrates).
The discussion is a bit involved for anyone coming into it without any background, although Feministe blogger piny has a helpful collection and timeline of sorts here), but I mainly wanted to talk about how Feministe’s Jill Filipovic posted to the critiques of her glowing review of Jessica’s book, as I think it’s a good example of how to graciously acknowledge when one realizes one has wronged others, and apologize accordingly. You know, what we used to call civility. The relevant excerpts appear at the end of this column — and that’s just her introduction! (You can read the whole thing here.)
Now granted, Jill is fairly well known and respected in the feminist blogosphere, but at the moment her real-world influence is somewhat limited. Can you imagine anyone in an actual position of power and privilege crafting that kind of a response?
Not only do I never expect to hear anything close to Jill’s quote uttered from the mouths of, as Heidi puts it, authority figures regarding a widely-criticized subject. All we seem to read are variations of "lie back and enjoy it." Instead of considered language respecting the critiques and acknowledging the valid points they’ve raised, responses have ranged from "it’s all in your head" to "you’re wrong" to "you’re ignoring positive stuff that’s completely irrelevant to your argument" to "I [meaning you] have no idea what you’re talking about." Every bit of that condescension is almost deliberately calculated to add insult to injury. That’s nowhere near apology territory; it’s hardly in the area of possibly acknowledging your critics might have a point even though you may disagree!
And how hard would it have been to do that? How honestly hard is it to just acknowledge that, even if you may not have meant to do so, you’ve caused someone offense and for that you’re genuinely sorry?
Offended people, particularly those with less societal power than those doing the offending, don’t need to hear, for instance, "is it really a sexist or misogynistic act if it wasn’t intended that way on the part of the people doing it?" for the hundredth time. Besides, as Melissa Krause notes, "It doesn’t work that way. Adam Hughes does not get to determine what of his work offends people. Joe Quesada does not get to determine what covers set us off. No one gets to make that decision except the person who is offended. To that person, the work is offensive. And someone doesn’t have to intentionally imbue a sexist message for that message to be there." That being the case, what’s so gosh-darned difficult about saying to someone "I’m sorry if this offended you," even if you don’t perceive or agree with said offense?
Why are we so eager to blame others instead of letting go of our own egos just a teensy bit in favor of greater harmony and understanding? One blogger who’s sick of this stupid game of demonization observed, "I sometimes think that the shorthand definition of feminism, that it’s the radical notion that women are human beings, needs expansion, because I’m not sure we’ve even grasped yet that human beings are human beings." Is it that power automatically corrupts and warps so one cannot imagine or see any views past one’s own prvilege? Is it the fear of losing that societal or corporate position through showing perceive weakness, even though it seems to be mostly the people who offend with impunity who look at apologizing as weakness rather than a genuine aspect of civility?
As with so many things, I think these attitudes are top-down condoned. Look at the radicals currently running this country. They seem congenitally unable to acknowledge mistakes or apologize for offenses. It’s always someone else’s fault, never theirs. They act as though immunity from scrutiny is not only their privilege but their God-given right. To them, compromise means nothing less than the "other side" completely capitulating to their every whim. And the vast majority of people they govern aren’t fooled one bit; we know this is going on, and that it’s wrong, but we also sense we are relatively incapable of changing an increasingly-rigged system.
And so we concentrate on attitudes that just maybe we can hope to change, or at least enlighten a bit. We need to remind each other, now more than ever, that there’s nothing wrong with apologizing, even if you don’t think you’ve done anything wrong. A person your actions have hurt is still hurt even if you "crossed the line, but didn’t mean to," in the hardly-immortal but definitely-immoral words of Monica Goodling. And there’s great power in owning one’s errors, great bravery in voluntarily tearing down the ego walls temporarily to allow in other points of view. Considering that, as Shakespeare said, "there is more in heaven and on earth than is dreamt of in your philosophy" often leads to a win-win situation. People are even likelier to give you more slack, even if you don’t agree with what they’re saying, if you’ve shown you’re willing to listen and give legitimacy to their concerns, and that simple consideration is often its own reward.
Here’s how Jill handled things:
"I’ve pissed a lot of people off — and justifiably. I’m glad that so many people have shown up in the comments and on their own blogs and called me out. Various aspects of my first post were unfair.. I was trying to only focus on the nasty criticisms, but I ended up conflating the more substantive criticisms with the personal ones as I read and wrote… I guess I just want to point out that I’m hearing your criticisms, and I’m grateful that you’re generous enough to take the time to write them all out. I’m genuinely sorry that my post has started a huge mess, and I’ll shoulder the blame for that, because I should have been much more careful with my words, my issues and my structure…
"I think my tone and some of my arguments were problematic. I’m not asking for anyone who is legitimately pissed off at me to just forgive and forget. I can understand that when you spend your whole life marginalized it’s especially frustrating and hurtful to be fucked over by someone who you thought was an ally. I understand that those wounds do not heal easily. I understand if there are many people who will use this incident to write me off entirely. That’s fair. I don’t deserve support or the benefit of the doubt simply for existing. I guess all I can say is that I’m trying — and I know that isn’t good enough, so I’m trying harder… I apologize for the things I got wrong this time around. I am trying to be a better ally, and to be more cognizant of my own privilege. I am very far from where I want to be in that respect, and I’m working on that.
"I’m a very bull-headed person and a very loyal person, and my first response when I feel attacked — or when I feel someone I care about is being attacked — is to come out with guns blazing. This is certainly not the first time I’ve regretted the harshness of my tone or the thoughtlessness of something I wrote. Apologizing is not particularly easy, and I think most people hate admitting that they messed up, but I can stand to do that here, because I’m realizing that as I’m digging my heels in to defend myself, I don’t even agree with what I’m saying. I want to be the kind of person who can admit when I’m wrong.. The primary thing I did wrong was to marginalize the voices of women of color and women who were making very fair criticisms of FFF. I contributed to a conversation dominated by white feminists and the interests of feminists like myself at the expense of women who are routinely pushed aside. I’m embarrassed by that. That is not the kind of feminist movement that I want to be a part of, let alone promote. So for that, I am genuinely sorry.
"I do not expect to be treated with kid gloves when I screw up. As I wrote earlier, I am incredibly grateful that other people have responded to what I wrote, and have responded strongly — it’s not your job to teach me or to correct me, but I am learning from you. I need to do a lot more work on my own. But thank you for your generosity, and for engaging instead of giving up or writing women like me off as hopeless causes — and if you have written me off as a hopeless cause, then that’s my problem, and I’m sorry for the frustration, anger, and general irritation I’ve caused."
Elayne Riggs is ComicMix’s news editor, and apologizes for any unintentional offense this column may have caused. Any intentional offense is, of course, another matter entirely.