Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Allies' Education: A Rant

After a couple of months of it hanging around under the Recent Editor's Favorites at Feministing, I decided to actually read Allies asking questions. And it wasn't exactly the post I was anticipating. I don't know what kind of post I was expecting with that title, but this far exceeded my meager expectations. It offered a measured, sympathetic look at why would-be allies ask the question, "How am I supposed to learn if you don't teach me?" It looked at how we are told throughout our lives there is no such thing as a dumb question. It delved into why someone of a certain group may not want to be on call to answer the would-be ally's question. And it talked about a better way to become not only better educated, but a path toward becoming a better ally.

And yet, the comments section was filled with comments that seemed to bypass the whole, "Here's a better way to handle this situation, person with a question!" and moved directly on to the "How could you suggest that the thoughts in my head, the very ones that have only now occurred to me, have been asked multiple times before? And even if that is true, how could I possibly know that? And if I don't know that, how could it possibly be my fault? Hmmm?!" A sampling:
But the person asking doesn't know that you've been asked it over and over. If its been asked over and over on the same thread that the person was presumably reading, that's one thing, but if this is the first time they've thought of that question, they don't know you've answered it enough to be sick of it, or where to find the same kind of answer you would give.
Spiffy McBang:
when you say, if you're privileged you need to go learn, even though you may not know you're privileged, it sounds like you're throwing that out there at anyone who wants to ask something... but how is somebody supposed to figure that out if they don't see a post like this explicitly stating as much?
I personally would much rather have to take the two minutes to write a response to an honest question from someone who just wants information from the source than to have them google it and come across a site that is run by some ass hat and have them be misinformed.
There were comments that thoughtfully engaged with the post from the other side, like:
I feel a responsibility to answer Commenter A's questions, even though it gets very taxing and annoying. Answering privileged people's questions is a duty I owe to other non-privileged people, so that there will hopefully be one more knowledgeable person in the world, and our cause will advance just a little.
And I specifically do NOT want peple going to Google or Wikipedia to learn about an issue that I live out everyday, when they should be asking me directly. If I think that there is a particularly good article online, I will refer people to that. But so much of the internet is utter bullshit -- I would never just cite it as a general source.
But generally, a lot of the response was, "But why can't I ask questions?" and "But where else am I s'pposed to find the answers?"

Even though I think SociologicalMe's original post was fairly compelling and not out of the boundaries of the possible and the polite (and I wholly suggest reading it), I think s/he may have missed a few key points. Namely:

• Commenter B has already educated Commenter A. The post went into formal schooling and how blogging is not equivalent, but the analogy it didn't make was that of the research paper. As in, not all schooling is in the passive learning style. So, say would-be ally is on a site; would-be ally sees a term s/he has never seen before, or reads of a theory s/he has never heard of. S/he has already been educated. S/he has been educated to the fact s/he is entirely ignorant of a subject/subject matter. And, if would-be ally is truly interested in learning about the subject at hand, s/he now has something to go on, something to Google. And, like a research paper or homework, the would-be ally now has the ability to go off and do some of the hard work hirself.
• Commenter A may not be a known entity to Commenter B. rebekah made mention of writing an answer to an "honest question". The problem with blogs and with pseudonyms is that there is no interpersonal relationship between Commenter A and Commenter B. Due to that, Commenter A has no reasonable expectation that Commenter B knows the question asked has been asked in good faith. If the only people who ever stumbled upon a blog and asked a question were people who were honestly interested in learning, then perhaps the dynamic would be different. That is not the case. But even if it were, it doesn't change the fact that Commenter B owes Commenter A nothing.
• Commenter B owes Commenter A nothing because Commenter B has a life of hir own. Commenter B may have answered the question at hand a thousand or so times. Commenter B may be looking to get into the nitty gritty of a specific issue on a specific thread without the whole of the conversation being brought back up to a 101 level. Commenter B may have little interest in figuring out if this particular Commenter A is different from all of the others and really wants to learn, when Commenter B has other things going on - kids to play with, dogs to walk, food to eat. But mostly Commenter B may just not care about making the learning process extremely easy for Commenter A, because the living of it hasn't exactly been peachy keen for Commenter B.
• Commenter B may actually have been asked the same exact question a thousand times before. This goes to Pantheon's point, that "the person asking doesn't know that you've been asked it over and over". And that's true; no one can possibly know what another person has been asked before, let alone how many times. However, a person would have to be fairly obtuse to not even consider that the question s/he wants to ask has been asked before; possibly on that very site, possibly to that very poster, and possibly not that far in the past. Only a Very Special Snowflake indeed would assume the opposite, that this is an original thought only occurring to them. Which leads to the two last points, and ones I think SociologicalMe definitely should have mentioned.
• Many, many sites that encounter this problem have a handy-dandy search bar, or some other search tool to aid in the quest for knowledge. Feministing has a search bar, handily labelled "Search Feministing". Shakesville has one, helpfully labelled "Search: • Shakesville, • Google" with the option to search either Shakesville or Google. Feministe has both the option to "Search Feministe" or to browse the archives, category or tag. Many other sites employ the "cloud" technique of making available labels used on posts. So, if the would be ally wants to know about feminism, s/he could search that very site that prompted the question via search engine or tag. Amazing!
• Also, many, many sites have links on the side. So, if would-be ally has a question about, say, feminism, s/he could take a few seconds and scan the available blogs linked and take a gander at one called Feminism 101. Voila!
• In order for one to truly become learned in a subject, one cannot be spoon-fed the answers. One has to think, to work, to do a lot of the heavy lifting hirself. Commenter A denies hirself an education when s/he fosters all of the expectations upon Commenter B. Learning takes work. End of story.

In this time with more information available to each person with an internet connection than in any other time in history, with Google (kind of scarily) archiving all of the books under the sun, the idea that the only way we can learn is by getting the crib sheets from another in Real Time instead of actively reaching out to gain the knowledge ourselves is not only ludicrous but insulting. And the idea that others exist within cyberspace for the sole purpose to service our educational needs on the spot when directly questioned is also insulting, to both our ability to look into the problem ourselves and to the people upon which we impose.

In order for one to truly become learned in a subject, one cannot be spoon-fed the answers. One has to think, to work, to do a lot of the heavy lifting hirself. Commenter A denies hirself an education when s/he fosters all of the expectations upon Commenter B.

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