Recently a friend of mine wondered aloud on Facebook about whether he might sometimes be too forceful in his arguments for equal rights for LGBTQ people in the US. My friend, who is gay and engaged to be married, had read an article claiming that some gay activists alienate potential straight allies by being too politically correct, too argumentative, too aggressive, and so on.
This, of course, is a topic that is much discussed in and around various groups that advocate for the rights of minority populations – whether it’s to do with equal marriage rights for gay people, the Black Lives Matter movement for racial justice, disability rights in general or autistic rights in particular. I don’t wish to speak for the entire group of authors at Respectfully Connected, as each of us can do that for ourselves, but I can say that we have discussed this topic too as we brainstorm together online and write for the blog.
In person, I’m pretty reserved. In certain situations I do like to make my opinions known, but as I loathe direct confrontation, I tend to phrase things carefully, in a gently persuasive way. Sometimes I am so soft as to merely suggest. If my audience seems completely opposed to my point of view, I won’t speak at all. I assume I won’t convince them, and will only feel panicky if we argue.
When I write, I’m more confident and opinionated. Of course, that’s fairly common in the online arena. On this blog I’m pseudonymous, but even with only the sheerest of technological veils, most people tend to be more straightforward on the internet than they are in the room with you, for better or for worse.
I tend to think that for members of groups who are systemically oppressed and silenced in any given culture, it’s an invaluable resource to be able to let your stronger online voice ring out. These are often people who are censored all the time by the dominant culture; finally given a microphone, why should you censor yourself?
The article that my friend read criticized gay activists for policing “microaggressions.” It seems to me this discounts the pressure that builds up in people who face those microaggressions on an almost daily basis throughout their entire lives. It’s easy for the privileged straight person to imagine that they are the ONLY person who’s ever asked a gay acquaintance an offensive question. It’s harder for the gay person to pretend they haven’t been inflicted with this question a thousand times. And why should they?, I wonder. It’s almost nonsensical for a human being who is fighting for equality and justice to pretend that the oppression they are fighting does not exist, for politeness’s sake.
Of course, I do understand that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. And ultimately the message we are all preaching is positive: it’s one of love, acceptance, equality, and justice. I know that many will turn a deaf ear to a sermon that sounds too angry and makes them feel defensive. But in my opinion, the most effective activists, the greatest champions of justice, have known that you can, and must, speak both with love and with force.
Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that.” He also said, “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” These two statements are not contradictory, but complementary – the light of which he speaks is the light that the outspoken oppressed pour out into the darkness when they demand their freedom.
There is room in the autistic rights movement, and any other equal rights movement, for all sorts of voices. Some are poetic, some gentle, some aggressive, some angry. We need them all. In fact there may be no other community in which it is more crucial for us to be heard on our terms than in the autistic community – a group of people on whom so much of the burden of communication with the dominant (neurotypical) group is already placed. I believe that the only “correct” way of speaking out against injustice is to do it with authenticity, whatever that means to the individual activist. To speak your personal truth in your own voice.