In case you missed it, yesterday Tony Jones said something foolish. I know you must all be as shocked by this as I am. It’s true, though. The same man who brought us the blog post about the absence of women, followed by blocking and/or arguing back with the women who commented, also gave us this treasure about how he’s not a racist.
I’m not interested in tearing apart that post. I think several people better with words than I am (or maybe just with the energy to use them) have done an admirable job already, and Twitter exploded with people talking about it. I haven’t bothered with Tony Jones since his aggressive, misogynistic behavior in the comments on the first post I linked above. But there are a number of people I usually respect who have rushed to his defense, and I think that’s worth addressing.
It happens all the time. Someone who is considered a Big Shot among non-conservatives says something offensive and gets called out for it. Next thing you know, a hundred people are standing in line to chastise those who dared criticize him. Pointing out the bias results in defenders taking it as a personal attack. Protests range from “But he’s a nice person!” to “He’s been instrumental in supporting [insert cause].” It’s as though doing decent things somehow earns a pass on saying really crappy things in a speech or on a blog.
Newsflash: Nice people can be racist or misogynistic or homophobic or otherwise biased in some way. We all have blind spots and places where we need to learn and grow. Being a “good person” isn’t somehow a magical forcefield of wonder that protects people from their own prejudices. Not only that, being a champion of one cause doesn’t guarantee that a person will support others. When I worked in health care, the same people who were first in line to secure their right to take smoking breaks also demanded that fat people stop “draining” the system. I’ve seen people come down hard against racism yet make wildly inaccurate statements about women. Some of the same people who fight for marriage equality are blatantly transphobic. Often, these failures stem from a denial that there are ever any intersections among these things–non-white women are invisible, gay people must all be cis, and no one with a disability is ever anything else.
Some months ago, I had an online exchange with a couple of other women and author Peter Rollins. What started the conversation was his tweet that he only reads men in regard to feminism. I pointed out that if he wanted to know what actual women have to say about ourselves, he needed to read some women who write about feminism. He explained that he doesn’t read what women have to say about feminism and faith because of the “bias” those women have. I could go on forever about the irony of claiming that cis white men are unbiased, and I could also point out that I never instructed him to read Christian feminists–merely that he should read the work of women feminists. We left it with the open possibility that he “might” read some of the recommended writers. I was justifiably angry that a man thought it was okay to inform me that we women are “biased” while men are not. Instead of listening to me or the other women involved in that discussion, several other men began tweeting at me that I should stand down because Rollins is a “nice guy” who means well.
The overarching theme I see is a complete failure–both on the part of these “progressive” superstars and their defenders–to acknowledge what those being oppressed are saying. Tony Jones shut down the people who pointed out his sexism and racism, and his defenders tried to deflect it by insisting that he’s really just a very nice, misunderstood guy. I was chastised by Rollins’ groupies for pointing out his sexism. Sometimes, it feels like so much noise–we’ve tried the kinder, gentler approach, and we’ve tried standing two inches from their ears and screaming. None of it does any good.
This is not okay. It’s not all right for anyone to defend people based on friendship or appreciation for their work. When public figures have done the wrong thing, and people have been marginalized as a result, then it’s our duty to ask why their words are a problem. It’s our responsibility to dig deeper into the attitudes that underlie those words. It is also our job to correct the person making the remarks, regardless of how much we like that person. Will we get it perfect? No. Sometimes I miss things; sometimes I get scared and I don’t say anything at all. But I cannot think of a single time when I’ve excused someone’s words, actions, or attitude because it was someone I admire.
Are we that afraid to take these people on? I know that for many of us, when we find an ally in our cause, we’d rather not lose that person. If the allies are superstars with a large following, we may be worried that they will ditch our cause and take the others with them. But if that person so easily gives up on supporting our rights and our dignity, was he or she really an ally to begin with?
Others of us might fear losing the person who helped us move to a better place spiritually. We see him or her as a hero of the faith, blazing a trail for us. It can be hard to let go of someone we’ve almost deified, particularly if we aren’t sure to whom we can turn. It might be hard to build trust if we see someone’s shortcomings. We might believe we have to either take all of what that person says or none of it, especially if we’re still in a vulnerable place. Those aren’t the only two options, though. We can still appreciate the work being done while understanding that a person says wrong things.
I am now deeply distrustful of Tony Jones and Peter Rollins, despite any good they may have done, because of their refusal to admit their biases. I understand, however, why others might still see value in their work. I’m not asking anyone else to stop reading their words. All I’m asking is that people stop defending them and instead acknowledge the problematic things they’ve said. Following that, I ask that people take those concerns seriously and do their best to examine their own views for prejudices. Ignoring the concerns won’t make them go away; it will just make it easier for the superstars to get away with it again and again. And that simply isn’t an option.