4 Things Never To Say To An Activist

Bullshit FairyAnyone who spends any amount of time standing up to a screwed up world (aka engaging in activism) is bound to hear these, and could definitely live without them:

1.  “They are allowed to do that.”  or “What they are doing is legal.”

When someone points out discrimination, there’s always someone who wants to come along and point out reasons that the discrimination is legal.  These people are missing the point by so much that they can’t even see it from where they are.  Activism isn’t about whether or not discrimination/poor treatment is legal, it’s about whether or not we are are going to stand for it.  And if we’re doing activism then people can go ahead and assume that the answer to that question is no, we’re not.  There is always someone willing to justify discrimination – ask yourself if you really want to be that person and, if you do, consider being that person somewhere else.

2.  It probably won’t happen.

When I announced that I was going to do an IRONMAN triathlon, two people contacted me to tell me that they were going to register for the IM so that they could drown me during the swim. When I talked about it, people (many of them trolls from the same internet communities that the death threats came from)  told me that I shouldn’t worry about it (and some suggested that I shouldn’t talk about it) because they probably wouldn’t do it. I’ve noticed this happens basically any time an activist discusses the rape, violence, and death threats that we receive – often the message comes from the same communities that issued the threats in the first place. Let’s keep our eye on the ball people, threatening someone with physical violence is never ok, and it’s hardly justifiable because they probably won’t actually rape, hurt, or kill us.

Another iteration of this is when we point out dangerous discriminatory things that are being proposed – like legislation to fine the parents of fat kids – and people say “don’t worry, it probably won’t happen.” The fact that these things are proposed is a massive problem in and of itself (using our legislation example, if the world were not in such a ridiculous place around body size, that legislation would never be introduced in the first place) If you don’t think that something is worth talking about, then I would suggest that you to not talk about it, rather than spending time discouraging someone who clearly thinks that it is worth talking about.

3.  There are bigger problems. 

The thing about this is that if we all only ever worked on the biggest problem nothing would get done because we would spend all of our time arguing about what the biggest problem is.  Each of us gets to choose how, when, and why we do activism and if someone thinks there is a different issue that needs to be addressed, then I definitely encourage them to address it. (Note that this is not meant to discourage discussions about intersectionality, what I’m talking about here is someone saying that they want to do activism around what clothing sizes are available and someone suggesting that they shouldn’t because fat people’s access to medical care is a bigger problem.)

4“If you’re happy just live your life and don’t worry about what other people think!” Other phrasing includes “If you were really happy with yourself, you wouldn’t have to talk about it all the time” and “Don’t meet hate with anger just be nice and stay positive!”

As always, people are allowed to deal with the oppression that they deal with any way that they want and I’m not suggesting that any of these are inappropriate reactions, I think it’s important to realize that they aren’t obligatory and it’s not ok to tell someone who is dealing with oppression how they should deal with it – especially if they didn’t ask for your opinion.

I think it’s important to talk about things that are oppressive, especially since it’s easy for those who aren’t part of a marginalized group to ignore them – not because they are necessarily trying to or because their intentions are bad, but because they don’t have to deal with them, so they don’t have to think about them. (And part of being a good activist is learning about and fighting oppression that other groups are facing.)

I also think that it’s important to look at the balance of power.  The suggestion that if I’m happy I should just live my life and not care about what others say is a nice one, but I don’t think it takes into account the stereotyping, stigma, bullying, marginalization and oppression that fat people face, and the impact that has on our lives.  The government is encouraging people to wage war on me because of my size. Doctors are allowed to refuse service to me based on my size, and it’s ok for them not to have equipment that will work for me – beds that won’t hold me, chairs the won’t fit me, instruments that are too small for me.  Medical practices, and other business, almost everywhere in the country are allowed  – and do –  refuse to hire fat people or fire us strictly because of how we look, and regardless of our actual skills or job performance.

People who are dealing with oppression are allowed to ignore it, meet it with constant positivity, and carve out a life around it – there’s absolutely nothing wrong with those choices, sometimes that’s how I react as well, but in general it’s not my style. Engaging in activism – including calling out oppression – helps me to know that I am doing something about the bullshit I have to deal with, and that helps me deal with it. I think that ignoring bullies allows them to bully in silence without any push back, I want to end bullying and dismantle oppression and for me that starts with speaking up about it, and the last thing I need is someone, however well intentioned, telling me to quiet down.

Random Requests:

1.  I want to get in touch with Beth Ditto for a possible collaboration – if you know her, I would love an introduction you can e-mail me at ragen at danceswithfat dot org

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16 thoughts on “4 Things Never To Say To An Activist

  1. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that tired old ‘but it’s perfectly legal for x to deny y their civil rights’ bullshit, well, let’s just say I wouldn’t be praying so hard for a large lotto win right now. In fact, I could probably start my own national lottery and not miss the money I handed out in it.

    I’ve said it before and I’ll keep on saying it until I’m in my grave: just because it hasn’t been made illegal to deny someone their rights doesn’t fucking make it right!

    As for ‘shut up and smile while I oppress you’, no. And no thanks, either.

    I work on the problems that seem biggest to me from my perspective. Everyone has their own priorities. You work on yours, I’ll work on mine, and when they intersect, maybe we can work together. I’d like that. But we each get to choose which problem strikes us as biggest.

  2. #1 really made me stop and check myself, because I’ve gotten into many discussions about many issues online and found myself in the position of explaining why something is legal even if it’s wrong. But I do try to only do that when (a.) someone is complaining that something can’t possibly be legal because they don’t like it, or (b.) they’re demanding a law change in a way that’s outside the process and I’m trying to explain that there is a way to change it, it’s just not the way (or as easy as) they think it should be.

    I do try to always say that being legal doesn’t make it right or mean that I agree with it, but that part is apparently as easy to not see as the entrance to Diagon Alley, for some reason.

    But still, I’m going to watch the way I do that, because while I think explaining the legalities can be helpful, I would never suggest that everything legal is a good thing. There are lots of perfectly legal government powers that are very bad things.

    1. It sounds to me as though you’re trying to add something constructive to the conversation about what is wrong rather than acting as if it isn’t a problem because there isn’t a law against what is happening.

      But you’re right; the phrasing is important.

      1. Thanks! That is what I try to do — but the internet being what it is, I get called all manner of names in the process. For example, I was trying to explain one day that while the defeat of the Defense of Marriage Act is a wonderful thing, it being struck down didn’t make gay marriage legal under federal law; it just drop-kicked up. Further action, probably by SCOTUS, needs to be taken for that to happen. And of course, I got called a homophobe for saying so. (I also got called all manner of names by conservative trolls for being glad DOMA was gone, which just goes to show how messed up the interwebs can be, I guess. Or maybe that it’s hard out there for a libertarian.)

        I am going to try to be even more careful about the phrasing, though. I definitely don’t want to be “that guy”.

        1. Sooo… You were called a homophobe by saying that the people who want to make same-sex marriage legal still have some more work to do to achieve their goal?

          I don’t think the word means what they think it means.

  3. Oh, and as far as #3 goes, that one really drives me up the wall. Because it’s not like being mad about fat shaming prevents me from being mad (to varying degrees, of course) about the Russian government denying civil rights to gay people, middle-eastern countries not allowing women to attend school, the government trying to power-grab the internet with net neutrality, people assuming others are abusing handicapped tags just because they can’t see the disability, this stupid winter weather, the fact that a half-gallon of ice cream is now less than 1.5 quarts across the board, or that the government wants to tell people whom they can and cannot marry. My irritation has layers like the world’s largest onion, I promise.

    And I would think that the vast majority of people have an ability to register unfairness and injustice that far outstrips our ability to do activism, since you can be upset about a lot of things but generally can only speak about one at any given moment and in any given context.

    Regan’s right, though. If we worried about the “most important” problem to correct, we’d be arguing about what that was. And heck, even if we could come to consensus, we’d still have to argue about the solution. It’s just not realistic.

    1. I believe they don’t really *mean* it when they say that. It’s just a classic diversionary tactic, designed to make themselves look holier than thou, while making you look petty. It says a lot about a person that they would use that tactic.

      Oh, and the ones who tell you to just stay happy and positive and nice in the face of oppression and bullying – that is EXACTLY what the bullies want. They want us to quietly smile and suck it up and become doormats who say, “Thank you,” when they punch us in the heads. This behavior makes THEM happy, but it does not encourage them to improve their behavior. That is, in short, the most ineffectual response to bullying, if your goal is to actually end the bullying.

      Of course, if your goal is to let the bullying continue forever, then it is the best response. So whoever gives you that advice, you know what their goal is.

  4. Another thing that bothers me: “Just do it yourself! ‘Be the change!'”

    Me: I hate that there are no clothes available in my size!
    Them: You know how to sew, so why don’t you make that happen!! “Be the change”!!!

    Me: There are so few positive images of fat women in mainstream media.
    Them: Take a filmmaking class and make your own media! “Be the change”!!!

    Related: “why don’t you just sue them”.

    Me: I suspect that my doctor withheld necessary care because I am fat.
    Them: Then sue them!!

    It’s so annoying because yes, I would like it if someone made clothes in my size available in most stores, and yes, I would like it if someone made media with positive depictions of fat people, and yes, it would be great if someone successfully sued the pants off of a company with a horribly punitive “wellness” program. But these are not things that most people can do by themselves. I don’t have the resources to do most of those things. I don’t have the skills to do those things. I don’t have the personality type to be successful at those things. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have a right to complain.

    1. You know how to sew? Yay! Do you also know how to design an entire line of clothing, with new clothes every season, to accommodate all the shapes and sizes you want to see have the options? Do you also know how to run a fashion company? Do you know how to navigate the fashion world? Do you have the money and connections to create a successful business? Do you have the public clout to make it work?


      Well, GET IT! It’s EASY! Of course you can do it. BE THE CHANGE!!!!

      Argh. People. They dole out directives to do Herculean tasks, as if they are telling you to do the dishes or mop the floor.

      What we need is a grass-roots uprising, with more and more and more people each doing a little part, to achieve a great end. One person can’t do it all.

  5. “That probably won’t happen.” Makes me wonder how often that was said in Nazi Germany. Then it happened.

    If you don’t take threats seriously, one of them will turn out to be true. It’s a pain in the ass to be that cautious, but there it is.

    This is why women out on the street alone are alert to their environment.

    This is why kids are taught about “stranger danger”.

    This is why we have seat belts and fire alarms!


  6. The biggest ones I see are: there are bigger problems- yeah, so what? We are allowed to be upset by big and small problems. Similarly “why aren’t you doing x instead?” which may be why aren’t you focusing on this other issue instead, but also can be why aren’t you doing something more meaningful as activism- usually said when you talk about something online.
    Everyone had different abilities and interest in activism of course. For me, my profession is a form of activism so I’m constantly engaged in various types of activism. Though offline much of it isn’t related to fat. I mostly am involved in violence against women work and to a lesser extent lgbtq activism. But that doesn’t stop the accusations that if I have a blog about size acceptance topics then obviously all I do for activism is blog and I must think this is more important than all other types of oppression.

    Your #1 also reminds me of another one though- saying it isn’t legal when referring to activism/civil disobedience. This is a valid form of activism that has accomplished a lot, saying someone shouldn’t break the law when challenging unjust laws is… well just completely ridiculous.

    #2 Besides direct threats there is also the issue of minimizing fear in general. I get this a lot from people about being queer where the issue is not any direct threats I’ve ever received but just having fears around discrimination or homophobic violence. Yeah, sometimes I’m worried when I don’t need to be- like I was afraid to come out to my family but they have been nothing but supportive. But still, I think I did have a right to be worried about it because this is something that still often carries a lot of stigma. And yes, I really do get afraid of violent reactions to people finding out I’m queer. Most people won’t respond that way, but hate crimes happen more than people acknowledge so don’t act like it’s just all in my head to have some fear around it. (And even now saying this I feel like I need to justify that it’s not even like I have an overwhelming fear around it, but a few times I’ve mentioned to someone close the issue and they just act like I’m completely crazy to acknowledge that there is some risk to personal safety for being queer/identified as queer).
    Obviously applies to any kind of oppression, this is just the example for my life that resonated most for me.

  7. One of the very first things I learned in legal studies is that what is legal is not necessarily right, and what is right is not always legal. See also: slavery, segregation, denying women the right to vote, criminalizing homosexuality, etc.

  8. Lots of things are LEGAL that are not moral. Cheating on your spouse, abandoning her when she has cancer, giving your children food and shelter, but never once giving them any praise or assurances of love. All of these things are LEGAL.

    That’s a lousy argument.

    Lousy arguments are also legal. That doesn’t mean we should put up with them.

  9. I just remembered. Until 1976, it was perfectly legal to murder a Mormon in Missouri. Thank you, Extermination Order and Governor Boggs!

    “But it’s LEGAL” is the worst excuse in the book.

    Also, I would like to thank the activists who pointed out the crummy laws in Missouri and encouraged the governor in 1976 to celebrate the American Bicentennial by abolishing several of those crummy laws. A great way to celebrate freedom, in my opinion.

  10. Just read an article in a german paper that if fat shaming doesn’t work, rage shaming (if that’s the right english word for it) is another way to hold people, mostly women, down and not take them seriously. That’s totally your nr 4. And if I meet rage shaming in real life, I have much more difficulty finding good responses as with fat shaming.

    And “there are bigger problems” … *sigh*. But if everybody would do something about ONE problem, no matter how big or small it is, a lot could be done.
    I always get told I shouldn’t care so much about animals and plants as long as there are still humans starving to death. But I think all these things are connected, We need to save animals and plants – and one can see how difficult it is to grow something without the bees who are duýing massively at the moment.
    The same with fat shaming and all that. A person might argue that there are more important problems. But if this it not so problematic, soon other discriminations will be not so problematic, too – and as soon as it affects the arguer himself, it WILL be an important problem for him

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