During my undergraduate days, part of my room and board cost was paying for the in-room telephone. Every student was assigned a telephone line, and our phone number was information that anyone could easily access, along with our student ID numbers, by going down to the front desk of our dormitories. It was also the only way that any of our teachers or supervisors could really get in touch with us.
One Saturday, when I was waiting for an important phone call, I don’t remember what for, my line rang. I picked up the handset. “Hello?”
“Is this LARRY THE CUCUMBER?” Someone, a man, shouted into the line. Someone I didn’t recognize.
“Wait– what? Who is this?”
“Is this LARRY THE CUCUMBER?”
“No, it’s not. Who is this?”
“Are you telling me you aren’t Larry the CUCUUUUUMBER?”
At that point, I realized that it was some sort of juvenile prankster playing on the sound of the middle syllable of cucumber. I hung up. Not two minutes later, my line rang again.
“Why’d you have to hang up on me? That was so mean.”
I shook my head, not overly amused, but only slightly frustrated. I didn’t really blame him– there weren’t that many things to do on a Saturday afternoon if you were stuck on campus. “Could you please not call me again? I’m waiting for an important call.” I hung up again.
Thirty seconds later, it rang again. Exasperated, I answered it. “Hello?”
“This is Junior Asparagus calling for Bob the Tomato. He’s fat and grumpy.”
“Please, this isn’t really funny. I’m waiting for a call. Please, please don’t call me again.” I said as nicely as I could manage, and hung up.
Ring. I answered, again with a polite hello because it could have been whoever I was waiting for (and no, there wasn’t caller id. Don’t be ridiculous).
“Are you sure you’re not Bob the Tomato? You’re sure grumpy enough. I’m sure you’re more than ugly enough.” I could hear laughter from other people in the room. At this point, I’d had it.
“Call me again, and I’m reporting you for harassment.” For one brief moment, I was thankful for the Orwellian monitoring system the campus kept in place. They kept records of every single phone call, and who called who– and prankster calls where technically against the rules.
“Wow, there’s no reason to be such a bitch. You on your period or something? Don’t got a sense of humor, or are you just a bitch that needs to get laid? I’m sure I can show you how to have fun for once in your life.”
I took one long, deep breath in through my nose and out through my mouth before I replied. “Call me again, and I’ll report you.” And I hung up. He didn’t call me back.
This is an issue I’ve been going over quite a bit for myself, and for the people I interact with online. In the blogs that I read, on twitter, in the groups I’m in on facebook, I’ve found a community of believers, thinkers, and workers of all stripes that has felt more like home to me than almost anywhere else I’ve ever been. But, there is one drawback to this community– many of us are withdrawing from harsh, legalistic, bordering-on-cult-ish religious environments, and we’re dealing with the fall out from that. This means that a lot of what we talk about, a lot of what we react to, is overwhelmingly negative. That happens here, on my blog, while I do my best to keep it about the problems of ideas and just sharing my story of where I come from and where I’m at now. I have a lot of learning I’m doing, and I’m excited to share all of that with you.
However, there’s been some recent discussions that have come up. A lot of the more popular bloggers, like Preston Yancey, have started re-examining their own approach, and have decided to go in a radically new direction. A post at her.menuetics by a writer I hugely respect wrote a thought-provoking article about the tendency of the blogging community to react to each other— and sometimes, not so very nicely.
In a conversation I had with Handsome the other day, he made a comment that initially frustrated me: that “feminists aren’t really known for being nice.” I balked at this, because, to a huge extent, that is a stereotype– a stereotype purposefully and intentionally perpetuated in order to discredit feminism as a bunch of strident, angry bra-burners. My response is that feminists aren’t hugely concerned with being perceived as “nice.” Typically, we don’t go out of our way to be mean to people. To be honest, I can only think of an insignificant handful of articles and posts written by feminists that were mean. There’s plenty of articles out there that are angry and snarky, that’s for sure, but mean? Not so much.
But there’s a reason why being perceived as “nice” isn’t really a huge concern for me.
I think that, in general, I’m a pretty nice person. I fail at that an awful lot, and I can think of a dozen examples of men and women who are much nicer than I’m pretty sure I’ll ever be. Here on my blog, and elsewhere, I try to be polite and respectful when I can’t quite manage nice. I deal with pretty hard issues a lot, and sometimes, there really isn’t a whole lot of room for nice.
The problem I have with worrying about whether or not people think I’m nice enough is that, in my situation, there really isn’t such a thing. I’m a woman– a feminist woman– talking about things like theology and fundamentalism and rape/consent and really messed up elements of Christian culture. To anyone and anything that I critique, there’s no way to offer that critique in such a way that ensures, beyond all doubt, that whoever I’m critiquing will read my post, decide that I was nice enough to listen to, and that they’ll have learned something. To a lot of people, the point of offering a critique is to start a conversation with whoever it is you’re critiquing.
But, I’m not the one making the rules, sadly. I spend a lot of time– most of my time, actually– talking about deeply entrenched ideas and patterns held by powerful, privileged people. I speak out against the abuse these systems perpetuate and the people who perpetuate them. However, as a woman, as a feminist, as a person who in the view of those I critique do not have the right to be listened to and heard, there’s no way for me to be nice enough. I could try– I could do my best to be accommodating, to be supremely careful how I word things in order not to offend those responsible. After all, shouldn’t I just assume that the people in power haven’t really thought through what they’re doing, and they just need a lovingly offered corrective?
And, sometimes, I suppose that could be true.
But, even if I do try, I’m not the one who gets to define what “nice enough” means. The person in power dictates that– and, frequently, those in power invoke the “you’re not being nice to me!” excuse as an effective means of silencing people like me.
Yes, I want to start a conversation, so I usually try to present my critique in a way that isn’t completely alienating and so furious that no one who disagrees with a part of it (or all of it) is willing to talk with me.
But am I worried about being nice?
Not so much.