Memes, Context and Unguarded Places

13245432_193001741094399_2178145280221345906_nAttributed to Eris Koleszar and it quite nicely summed up the discomfort I felt when I saw the original meme. Many of the comments on the edited photo also quite nicely summed up the discomfort I felt seeing who chose to share it.

One of the things that is easy to forget about the internet is that people who don’t know you, who can’t hear your tone of voice; who don’t know how you live your life or how you treat the friends, enemies and strangers you encounter every day; or have any context at all for your comments see the comments you make.

This means–more often than not–the unknown person on the internet who sees your comments also sees unintended subtext or unexamined subtext (often resulting from unexamined or privilege). Perspective is personal and it is an impossible task to live every moment or to choose every word with a complete–or even skillful–understanding of every perspective someone might bring to your words or actions. Sometimes, you’ll be confronted with a meaning in your words you had no idea was there. But it is. And when someone shows it to you, you should try to understand how it could be there without you meaning it or why it could harm someone you’ve not consciously meant to harm.

It’s not always possible to anticipate this. It is, however, always possible to learn from it when it happens.

When I saw the original meme, I was surprised that the thoughtful woman who had shared it (a woman who is responsible for my understanding of intersectional feminism, for a little perspective here) had missed the othering subtext. But I realized that my friend was only seeing the part of the graphic that said “I don’t give the slightest concern to who is in the bathroom with me, as long as there is parity in the facilities and I don’t have to wait twice as long to pee because I’m using a toilet, not a urinal.”

I realized this because I know her and am familiar with her perspective. (<–that, by the way, is the privilege at work–the luxury of being able to reduce the entire issue to the convenience of peeing now, as opposed to the safety of peeing now)

The meme was–to the mind of a hetero-normative, cis-gendered, graduate-level-educated, middle class American woman–a statement of exasperation that she’s supposed to worry about people with penises in the bathroom, when most of the time she’s aggravated because she can’t get into any bathroom at all. And I had that moment of recognition at the sentiment because while I don’t have any problem with sharing a public bathroom or a locker room with a transwoman and can’t think of a reason why I should care that there is a transwoman in the bathroom or locker room with me, that does not mean there is no there there. For me, transwomen in the bathroom is not a problem, and I will happily oppose attempts to make it a problem, but that does not relieve me of the responsibility to consider my words before I attempt to deflect the suggestion that no problem exists.

So when Eris Koleszar (whom I do not know–I choose the “she/her” pronoun both because the name is a woman’s name–to my knowledge–and because the one reference I saw to her was a mailto link with the phrase “contact her “. I apologize if that’s incorrect) reacted to the meme and made explicit the harmful subtext in it, she was not making a fuss over nothing. Koleszar was not being over-sensitive, nor making up an insult to react to. The re-made meme simply exposes the subtext that a wider context brings to the original expression.

I saw many people accuse the remade meme of making mountains out of molehills. Of missing the intended subtext. Of creating hate where none was intended. Which the remade meme simply does not do.

And, to my original point, people who think the exposure of unintended subtext is an attack on their character are wrong. They must stop reacting that way and do the difficult work of setting aside their own ego in order to listen.

No-one is capable of never making a mistake, of never speaking unguardedly. We will all sometimes miss the alternate meaning of our words, no matter how kind or progressive or successful our actions when we are being intentional. If you’ve got privilege of any kind, you will speak from a position of privilege at the wrong moment. When that happens, acknowledge it; learn from it; and continue trying to do better. If you’re calm, respectful and willing to listen, not only will you better understand the world around you, but you’ll better understand yourself and how the world has shaped you. You’ll have more to offer someone whose difficulties don’t resemble your own and be better positioned to solve your own problems without unintended harm to others.


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