CW: Transphobia, Racism
This post was originally inspired by the treatment of transphobia in the sex blogging community. But I think it’s also a useful framework to think about the recent bullshit around VoldeTERF, and the responses to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Something which comes up a lot when you
give a shit about marginalised people and don’t want to be a bigot are socially conscious is that you need to give people the benefit of the doubt. This idea that if you look past the harmful things people say you’ll realise that this person is intrinsically good and the things they said came from ignorance or a mistake. For example the years that trans people have been told that Rowling definitely isn’t a transphobe, she just had another middle aged moment. Or white people who say they support BLM but think the protesters shouldn’t be so disruptive.
The issue is that “benefit of the doubt” is used to excuse the real harm that the things people say can cause. It too often places the labour of educating people about these issues on the very marginalised people who are being harmed. It asks them to make themselves vulnerable and be kind and polite in the face of their own dehumanisation. It frames the issue as “you need to empathize with them” rather than “they need to educate themselves before hurting people”.
A big part of the problem is the assumption that you are somehow entitled to being given the benefit of the doubt. That when your “mistakes” become a pattern of behaviour you are still entitled to being treated with the assumption that you didn’t mean it. Being given the benefit of the doubt is a gift, not a right, and to understand this you have to consider that individual statements don’t exist outside the context of the rest of the world.
A few months ago I accidentally tweeted that I was pro-life instead of pro-choice (in the context of a poem entitled “I am Mike Pence’s Living Nightmare” xD), and thankfully the people who spotted the mistake gave me the benefit of the doubt. I am grateful they gave me that trust (which was not misplaced). But if I made a habit of tweeting things like that and kept claiming it was an accident or they misinterpreted it i would quite rightly stop being treated with that.
We all screw up sometimes, and if our social norms don’t make space for human error before leaping to judgement then we’re all fucked. But every time you give the benefit of the doubt it takes energy and leaves you vulnerable to getting hurt, and at some point you have to protect yourself from that. It’s never going to be easy deciding where to draw the line, I certainly don’t have all the answers. But if somebody gives you the benefit of the doubt recognise it for the gift it is, put in the work to educate yourself and be grateful for the act of kindness it is.