Revisiting "Derailing" and Other Conversations That Silence

After our discussion in Friday ‘s class, I went home feeling very troubled – both as a woman and as an instructor. Overall this semester, I have been impressed by the thoughtful, engaged, and intelligent feedback from students in class, both women and men. But here’s what I noticed about our talk on Friday that stood out to me:

  • A set of statistics/research was systematically dismissed, despite the fact that they were backed up by several reputable studies. There was a general air of resistance/denial this time around. (Which  – let’s own it – is also a dismissal of my authority as an instructor, particularly as an instructor of Women’s Studies. Would we have questioned statistics handed out in a history or economics class? I suspect not.)
  • These statistics/studies were dismissed despite a lack of knowledge about their parameters and methods.
  • The conversation was dominated largely by the men in class for the first time.
  • Students I almost always hear from (mostly women) were strangely silent – what a change from Wednesday’s class! Many women sat with their arms crossed over their chests (sometimes considered in psychology a protective posture).
  • Lots of derailing comments popped up.

It’s important to remember that derailing usually isn’t done out of meanness – but it is still an act of silencing – and we need to reflect on and understand this dynamic in Friday’s class. Our classroom is a microcosm of our larger culture, and as such, we have a unique opportunity to address these power dynamics of our dialogue on a smaller, less daunting scale and then carry that experience out into the world at large.

DERAILING AS SILENCING

After class on Wednesday, a lecture that empowered several women in class to speak openly about their experiences with abuse and bad relationships, such denial effectively dismissed their experiences and silenced their voices. As a woman and as the instructor, this is what I want us to address together to make sure such a dynamic doesn’t occur again in our class. 

[Take the Derailment Refresher Quiz.]

Now, as an instructor reflecting on our class over the weekend, here’s what I actually hear when listening compassionately to these comments. It’s true that I don’t actually know what students are thinking, but I do know that derailing most often comes from a place of fear, anxiety, and/or discomfort.

This rape trend makes me really uncomfortable.

  • Good! It should. Most of the time, especially when we talk about really difficult or ugly realities, what we really want are the statistics that will exonerate us or let us know we’re not part of the problem, or at least that things are getting better. But sometimes they’re not. Sooo…what can we all do about it, men and women? Get pissed! Harness that anger for change.
  • Self-Reflexive Question: “What can I do to help change this trend in my own community or group of friends?”

I’m afraid that some women have good reason to hate men OR has this happened to any of my women friends (and how could I not know)?

  • Well, ya know, some might. There is something about women’s anger specifically, that seems deeply threatening to us as a culture. BUT most women, most feminists, don’t hate men, though this is the stereotype. Many of them love the individual men in their lives. They are angry at patriarchy – a system of domination and subordination that continues to give men privilege and allow violence against women and minorities to continue – not at “all men.” It’s also crucial to distinguish between the broken social and institutional systems that reinforce such violence and the other men  in our lives who may be compassionate, supportive, and wonderful people who will help and support us.
  • Self-Reflexive Question: “Do I do anything that might give people from a marginalized group a good reason to be angry me?” (e.g., saying degrading or dismissive things about women; making racist jokes; using derailing comments to shut down conversations.)

Wednesday’s class – where women in class spoke up about their experiences with abusive partners – made me really nervous.

  • Wednesday’s class was pretty powerful, and we should all feel amazing that we have created a safe enough space to make people feel that it is okay for them to talk about their difficult experiences here – and those experiences were absolutely relevant in this discussion. What an incredible space to learn from one another! let’s not succumb to backlash here. Let’s not shut that down!
  • Self-Reflexive Question: “How can I actively listen and think critically about these issues without knee-jerk feelings of guilt or defensiveness? If I do have those feelings, what do they stem from?”

I’m afraid some woman/ex-girlfriend/etc. might accuse me of rape at some point OR why haven’t I heard about this before now?

  • It’s important to remember that accusing someone of rape often draws an awful lot of attention to the victim, which means that women – even those women who have been raped – don’t often sling that accusation around willy-nilly. In fact, according to the FBI, less than 1% of reported rapes are proven to be false accusations.  Add on top of that a dose of public shame, the paperwork and police interrogation and ongoing red tape, and it’s unlikely a woman will, out of the blue, accuse someone of rape for petty reasons like revenge. In addition, there is such a culture of silence already surrounding this issue that our knee-jerk reaction to not believe a woman who does speak up has been largely conditioned by the media’s treatment of rape victims, and it only contributes to further silencing those women who have been victims.
  • Self-Reflexive Question: “Would my female friends feel comfortable coming to me for help with such an intimate issue? Do I know how to help a friend who tells me she’s been raped or assaulted?”

Do I actually know what qualifies as rape? OR Is there some woman out there who thinks I was sexually aggressive toward her?

  • Many men and women don’t know exactly what constitutes rape or assault (which was evident in those statistics), which can lead to feelings of doubt for both parties. In addition, the images of sex and relationships in our culture overall tend to reinforce rapey sex as not only acceptable but desirable. It’s no wonder we’re confused.
  • Self-Reflexive Question: “Have I endeavored to find out so I know for sure what counts as consent or assault?”

That article ragged on fraternities and I love my fraternity, man!

  • Now, now….first of all, read the article more carefully. Not every fraternity is the same, and some fraternities have bad reputations for fostering climates that aren’t safe for women, while others are great, fun space where women feel comfortable. Read the authors’ thesis without that defensive shield: it’s talking about trends, it’s not generalizing. Think of their research as a great way to improve the organization you love and take pride in.
  • Self-Reflexive Question: How can we make our fraternity a great, safe space for women and earn a good reputation as a house? OR Since we already have a great reputation, how can we work with other Greek organizations to make sure that every space, including the rest of campus, is a safe space for women?

ON THE FLIP SIDE: CHALLENGING DERAILMENT WHEN IT HAPPENS

So if I notice that this conversation on Friday was dominated by the men in class, I must also notice that the majority of women were uncharacteristically silent for the first time as well—which leaves me to ask the following:

  •  Did any of the women have thoughts about or reactions to this denial of rape culture?
  • If so, why did no one speak up and/or challenge the comments being made about the statistics and the other material being presented in class?
  • Did any of you recognize the comments as derailing the conversation? If not, why not?
  • Did any of you feel silenced? Had you encountered a similar dynamic before, in other classes?
  • Did any of the women also question the statistics? If so, for what reasons?
  • Did you worry that you wouldn’t have “back-up,” or did you worry there would be repercussions if you spoke out (from me or from other students in class)? Where did these fears come from, and how can we address them in the class?

In such situations, it’s crucial that the derailer be self-reflexive enough to consider whether what he or she says is, in fact, derailing, and own the mistake; but it is also crucial that the person/people being derailed challenge the party doing the silencing. There is responsibility on both sides of this dialogue.

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