One thing Greta Christina did in criticizing DJ Grothe was refer back to a previous post she had written, Why “Yes, But” Is the Wrong Response to Misogyny. When I saw this post, I thought it was pretty obviously problematic, for reasons that don’t require any preamble to explain, so I want to talk about that now. Here’s the core of the post:
When the topic of misogyny comes up, and men change the subject, it trivializes misogyny.
When the topic of misogyny comes up, and men change the subject, it conveys the message that whatever men want to talk about is more important than misogyny.
When the topic of misogyny comes up, and men change the subject to something that’s about them, it conveys the message that men are the ones who really matter, and that any harm done to men is always more important than misogyny.
And when the topic of misogyny comes up, and men change the subject, it comes across as excusing misogyny. It doesn’t matter how many times you say, “Yes, of course, misogyny is terrible.” When you follow that with a “Yes, but…”, it comes across as an excuse. In many cases, it is an excuse. And it contributes to a culture that makes excuses for misogyny.
Whether this is right or not depends on what kinds of situations Greta is talking about. Situation 1 is where someone says, “this is an example of horrid misogyny” full stop, and someone else changes the subject. In that situation, the second person definitely seems like they’re trivializing misogyny. But then there’s situation 2, where someone says “this is an example of horrid misogyny, and also X” and someone takes exception to the “and also X.” It’s hard to see how a rule against taking exception to the “and also X”s in situation 2 could be justified.
For one thing, if such a rule ever truly came to be accepted in a particular community, it would invite abuse. People could cite instances of misogyny to push any crazy agenda and then invoke the rule to block criticism. But even without active abuse of the rule, there’s still the possibility of cases where the “and also X” is problematic in important ways, and it doesn’t necessarily trivialize misogyny to discuss that.
Now, Greta’s initial “yes, but” post was made in a context that made what she said sound pretty plausible. A 15 year old girl had made a short post on Reddit’s atheism community (known as r/atheism) with a picture of herself holding up a copy of Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World with a message saying, basically, “look what my mom got me for Christmas!” The post got a lot of nice comments, but it also got quite a few nasty, sexual, harassing comments. Obviously that was horrible.
But even then, the “yes buts” weren’t directed only at people saying “that’s horrible.” Rebecca Waston’s post on the incident was titled, “Reddit Makes Me Hate Atheists,” and ended with “Fuck you, r/atheism.” It’s not surprising to see pushback against this, especially from r/atheism users who didn’t contribute to the horribleness.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to say in Rebecca’s defense here (such as “it should be obvious from context that she didn’t mean all atheists,” “r/atheism really is especially bad,” that r/atheism’s moderators need to delete those kind of comments, etc.) The point is that it’s not reasonable to expect people to refrain from pushback as a matter of general principle, and the defensibility of Rebecca’s post doesn’t make “no yes buts” a good general principle.
The dustup with DJ is a pretty good example of why “no yes buts” is a problematic general principle. For starters, Greta doesn’t seem to be sticking to a strict “no yes buts” position. Instead, she says:
My problem is that — when weighing on the one hand, “Greta did something that in my opinion was unfair by quoting someone out of context,” and on the other hand, “Ryan publicly stated that he wanted to ‘slap the bitch’ and ‘kick her readers in the cunt’” — you seem to think that the former is of greater concern than the latter. You have certainly devoted significantly more space to discussing it. In the discussion on Stephanie’s blog, you devoted one sentence to saying that “there is never any defense for real or pretend threats of violence”… and 2,371 words discussing other matters, including 602 words (by a conservative count) justifying Ryan’s behavior, defending it, explaining the context for it, expressed a wish that people have sympathy for it, defending your own reaction to it, and blaming me for having instigated it.
Those priorities are, in my opinion, exactly backwards. If you’d spent one sentence saying, “Yes, I think Greta’s behavior was unfair,” and then spent the rest of your comments on the topic saying that obviously the important issue here was threats of violence, specifically gender-based, sexualized threats of violence against a female writer and her readers… we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
Though it’s a little unclear, this makes it sound like her position is that it’s okay to say “yes but” as long as you don’t dedicate too many sentences to the “but.” The underlying idea is that how much attention you devote to different issues reflects how important you think those different issues are. However, while importance is one factor people use to decide how much attention to pay to different things, it’s only one of many. This makes the whole idea of criticizing someone based on how many sentences they devoted to different points a little strange.
For one thing: when you agree, all you have to say is “I agree.” You can elaborate, but it isn’t always necessary, and it would be a waste of time to rehash absolutely everything the person you’re agreeing with said. But when you say “I think you’re being unfair,” it’s natural for people to expect a somewhat detailed explanation of why you think they’re being unfair. In fact, I think if anything DJ could be faulted for not explaining himself enough.
Furthermore, part of DJ “defending his own reaction” here was DJ responding to some not very nice comments about himself, in particular “DJ Grothe has a problem, an ongoing problem with a pattern, and that problem is him” (from Stephanie Zvan). Had DJ followed Greta’s suggestion in the second paragraph quoted above, he wouldn’t have been able to respond, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect people to not defend themselves against such remarks. (Maybe Greta didn’t mean to suggest that, and she was just giving one example of one thing DJ could have done instead, but if so, it’s not a very helpful example.)
But maybe Greta didn’t mean to say that “we wouldn’t be having this conversation” if only DJ had distributed his sentences differently. She certainly does make other criticisms of DJ, and I’ll talk about them in later posts.