Thursday, April 14, 2011

On defensiveness

Recently I've been looking around for topics that combine critical thinking and queerness.  It turns out there is a lot to talk about!  Not just places where we can apply critical thinking to queer topics, but also lessons we can learn about critical thinking from queer discourse.

Case in point: How Not to be Defensive when Accused of Transphobia
2) Breathe. Stay calm. Stay civil. Don’t assume that because someone criticized your action as transphobic that this means they’re saying you’re a bad person through and through. Your first reaction is probably from your defensiveness, not your brain.
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4) Don’t Make It About You. The best thing to do is apologize for what you said and move on. Resist your desire to shift the conversation into a lecture on How Against Transphobia You Are or How Accusations of Transphobia Are Just Silencing Tactics to Shut You Up. The subject of the conversation is probably not the many trans people you know, and your deep and abiding acceptance of their life choices.

5) Don’t Make It About Your Accuser. Just as you shouldn’t try to defend how you’re not transphobic, you should not also try to turn the criticism around and attack the person who accused you. Don’t tell them they’re trying to silence you – they’re not, they’re trying to tell you how your words and actions hurt them.
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These are tips on how to avoid defensiveness in the situation where you are accused of transphobia (or racism, or sexism, or homophobia).  But really, this is just a good critical thinking skill in general.  I suppose it's pretty similar to open-mindedness, but "open-mindedness" is too vague to be a useful idea, while "avoiding defensiveness" is specific and direct.

The cognitive bias in play is people's belief in their own essential goodness.  So if someone criticizes you, you think, "But I'm a good person!  So I can't be wrong!  You must be wrong!"  But that's missing the point!  It's not about whether you're a good person or not.  It's about the ideas, and whether they are right or wrong.  To put it bluntly, your own goodness as a person does not even come into the equation, though it may be a victim in the aftermath.

Personally, I think most people are good people.  Call it my own cognitive bias.  But good people can have wrong beliefs and do wrong things.  And what are we to do about that?  Whenever I criticize someone with the intent to persuade, and I have a smackdown argument, the number one thing on my mind is, "How do I say this without making them defensive?"  There is no solution to this problem.  And so, countless times, I have to watch people squirm around, combating their own defensiveness.  I don't enjoy it.  But it's pretty much all I can do.  It's great when there is an occasional success.

So that's what I think about whenever someone criticizes me and I feel defensive.  I channel my own experiences criticizing other people.  I think about how much I hate it when other people react defensively, only thinking about the implications to their own moral character.  I hate that this is an unavoidable risk.  And then I try to avoid that same reaction in myself.

1 comment:

Larry, The Barefoot Bum said...

Good points, and very sensible.

On the other hand, non-defensiveness can be taken too far. When I was in the cult, one tactic of the leader to maintain control was to make really wild, exaggerated accusations (I personally was accused of being a "monster"), and then when the person resisted the accusation, to charge them with defensiveness.