Tuesday, April 30, 2013

A Letter to John Aravosis (and Other Progressives Who Just Don't Get It)

Dear John Aravosis:

Evidently, it's really hard to be you lately. 

In case everyone else reading this doesn't know who he is, John Aravosis is the founder and a major contributor to a liberal-progressive blog called "AMERICAblog." Back when I was a baby blogger, I read AMERICAblog, among others, for inspiration and motivation to become the writer that I am (and hope to be). Before I radicalized to the extreme left, I looked up to bloggers like Aravosis. Their work became a model and a goal as I developed my chops as a voice in the LGBTQ blogosphere.

Recently, however, I've been a little disturbed by the rhetoric coming from you, John. In fact, Sue Kerr of Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents and I published a piece on the Huffington Post's Gay Voices blog skewering a particularly troubling Tweet in which you chose to cast aspersions on the survivor of the Steubenville rape due to her drinking:

Turns out that was a bad week for our friend John, as just days later you used the term "bi" in reference to Gov. Christie's flip-flopping attitudes on gay rights. Essentially equating bisexuality, of course, with wishy-washy political stances. On Twitter and behind the scenes, a huge backlash resulted, putting you on the defensive. 
Evidently these are not the only public image and rhetoric fracases you have faced, as you published a particularly defensive piece today on your blog addressing a phenomenon that you choose to label "Outrage Inc.":
It’s part of a growing problem I’ve noticed for years, but have recently felt coming to a head. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to comment about far too many things in the public sphere without offending someone and creating instant outrage, often unmerited. As a result, you end up not wanting to write about the possibly-offending topics, which works to the detriment of the topics involved, unless the writer is a flaming bigot.

In the past few months I’ve been accused of supporting rape, terrorism, and hating trans people, bisexuals, women, immigrants, and Bradley Manning, which apparently encompasses a larger category of mom-and-apple-pie things that I’m sure I must hate or at least have no respect for (apparently I hate Manning because I asked a simple innocuous question in order to better understand what most angered his advocates).... 
...The need to be outraged about everything, and usually for insufficient reason, I’m calling Outrage, Inc. It’s the Change-dot-org-ification of advocacy, where with only 30 seconds of effort, you too can be mad as hell about anything, everything, and nothing. 
I say this, ironically, as a lead gay and progressive activist who has never backed away from using “outrage,” when appropriate, as a means of effecting change. But outrage must be measured to be effective. Being a good and effective activist and advocate isn’t about always being angry. It’s about being angry when it matters, when it can make a significant difference, and channeling your anger appropriately. It’s also about getting it right, i.e., getting angry when anger is merited.
Reading this piece, of course, made me a little... perturbed. Just call me the President of Outrage, Inc.

This piece is problematic in numerous ways. For one, you appear to be setting himself up as the definitive authority of what is or is not offensive to numerous groups to which you don't seem to identify with. As a presumably cis non-bisexual person who (and this is not something I know for certain but would not ask as it is private anyway) has likely not experienced the trauma of sexual assault, it is not actually your place at all to determine what rhetoric is oppressive or not to these groups. Frankly, you have no frame of reference and your assertion that this critique of oppressive language is appropriate while that one isn't is simply unwarranted and wrong.

That's not, of course, the only thing objectionable about your defense of your behaviors. You paint a surreal picture. Not only should you be allowed to determine which of your stances are offensive and which are not, you create this idea that suddenly this great, effective movement that you have belonged to for decades has suddenly turned on you and people like you. The culture, you appear to be saying, has suddenly become intolerant, easily offended, and hamstrung by its need to nitpick at every little thing you say. You are being hampered in your effectiveness, my friend, because we don't want you to use oppressive terminology.

Leftists are, sadly, well-known for this behavior. Since we all ascribe to vague notions of liberatory politics (generally anti-racist, anti-sexist, and anti-homophobic sentiments), we are able to absolve ourselves when we are accidentally racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise. "But I support all your causes! My ignorant comment couldn't possibly be biphobic, because I'm giving you guys a hand in solidarity!" This is all too common a defense (and yes, I'm looking at YOU, Dan Savage) we take when called out on oppressive behavior because we really don't like realizing we're part of the problem.

Don't get me wrong. I like you, John. You're a fun guy and you makes good points and hey, if it weren't for folks like you I probably would not be a blogger. However, this notion that you can't be offensive because you like the people you're offending is ridiculous. One might even say... outrageous?

To be frank, it's not that the culture has suddenly become more prickly and more hateful, it's that your rhetoric and positions are no longer acceptable. Just as it is no longer acceptable to make racist or homophobic jokes, it is now no longer acceptable to make jokes about bisexuals or to blame victims of rape due to their intoxication. Why? Because these narratives actually do in fact promulgate a culture that marginalizes these people. I don't care if you support rape survivors and bisexuals, my friend, because if you are blaming them for the oppression they face or if you use them as a punchline in a joke, you are contributing to their ongoing harassment and even the violence they face.

What's particularly troubling is that when these jokes or narratives get called out, defensive behaviors like the one that spawned "Outrage Inc." on AMERICAblog immediately are quick to point out that their intent is not to offend-- therefore no offense should be taken. Let's be plain: intent is entirely divorced from impact. One example is the prevalence of the word "bitch" in the gay community. This word is used in almost every other sentence among mainstream gay America, heedless of the offensiveness of the word. This word is used to oppress women and contributes to a culture of violence that ends in rape and physical assault on non-male persons (BTW, guys, "bitch" never ever means "female dog" when referring to a person, so quit with that lame-ass excuse, gays). Is the fabulous queen who uses it with his friends intending to oppress? No. Are they actually part of an oppressive framework that impacts women negatively? Yes.

John. You, and people like you, need to realize this: no matter your intent, your impact is what matters. Did you intend to be biphobic? No. Were you actually using biphobic rhetoric? Yes. Your defensiveness isn't necessary, John. Your apology, introspection, and reformation into a better-- a more effective-- activist is. After all, how can we be effective... while being oppressive?


Outrage Inc.


  1. It sounds as though the poor guy might not be cut out for releasing public statements of any kind.

    If he doesn't want to make statements that offend his potential audience, then he ought to consider learning how to speak to his potential audience.

    There is a second choice, of course: Just learn how to deal with the fact that he might occasionally offend some people. It's going to happen from time to time, and if he can't bear to see it happen, well... There are other lines of work.