On calling out bigotry

A couple of weeks ago I was at a meal at a friend’s place. We were talking about the process of peer review for a paper; one of the other guests commented “you’re lucky it doesn’t get sent to India — you’d never hear about it again”.

The other day I was working in my office. Since this was during my official office hours, I kept the door open so my students could find me. Unfortunately this meant I could hear the loud conversation taking place between my two fellow (male) grad students in the office next door. They were looking up pictures of large women in order to fat-shame them, saying things like “There’s no excuse to be that fat. The only reason women get that size is because they’re too weak to just stop eating. If they didn’t eat at all they would be thin. They should just not eat anything.”.

What would you have done?

In the first situation, the room was silent. I gave the person my I-think-you’re-stupid look and said “I don’t think that’s true”. The conversation moved on; I didn’t notice anyone else react either to the comment or to my response.

In the second situation I sat in my office, trying to work, but being distracted by the comments and by thinking of possible responses. I suspected such behaviour was against some school policy or other, but reporting it seemed like overkill and did not seem like it would improve my working relationship with these colleagues. I thought about telling them that I had to keep my door open because of office hours, so if they were going to make misogynist comments, could they please at least shut the door. I didn’t think this would go down so well either. In the end I did nothing at all. I figured that the guy making the worst comments either didn’t know that they were offensive, or knew but didn’t care. In the latter case, there’d be nothing I could do; to change the former it would be necessary (and possibly not sufficient) to come up with a well-reasoned calm rational precise description of the problem on the spot, which I wasn’t able to do.

But changing the views of the person making the offending remark isn’t the only reason to call them out on it. Other reasons include

  • If they’re making comments about a particular group, any members of that group within earshot may hear the offending comments and assume the whole environment is hostile to them; calling out the offensive remark lets them know this is not the case.
  • There may be other people listening who are uncomfortable with the comments and don’t feel able to speak up, but once one person says something it’s much easier for others to agree.
  • There may also be people in earshot who hold similar bigoted views and assume everyone else does too. Letting these comments go unchallenged may be seen as confirmation that everyone really does think that way.
  • Conveying to the person making the offending remark that I think less of them for it, and while I may not be able to change their views, I’m less likely to want to spend time with them.

So in theory I’m very much in favour of objecting when I hear offensive remarks (as long as it’s safe to do so). But it’s not always so easy in practice.

I hope that in the first situation I at least managed to convey “that’s not cool” to the other guest, and to anyone who happened to catch it. I know that in the second situation I achieved nothing; what I’m still wondering about is whether there’s an approach that would have achieved something positive.


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One Response to On calling out bigotry

  1. One idea for the case that happened in your office: Giving this direct answer to their question of why some women become and remain “that fat”:

    It turns out that a history of physical and/or sexual abuse, especially in childhood, are significant predictors of obesity in women.

    There are several different ways what they were saying and how they were saying it was terrible. This might be one angle from which to jar them, and perhaps start them thinking in a different way. Although, given the shame that too often goes with being abused, I don’t know if saying this would have the right effect in terms of others feeling more safe in your office, or in general in terms of that association being more widely made in society.

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