When is the right time and the right place for a challenging conversation? When there is a disagreement, or there are conflicting views being shared – views that cut close to the bone – who among the parties involved determines how the topic will be addressed: in what format and on what terms, and within what parameters?
The reason I bring it up is that I have recently observed two men of my acquaintance, both of whom I admire as intelligent men of integrity, suggesting that an online exchange with a woman would be better placed in a “face to face” setting. The first of these was a friend, speaking within a small group discussion thread; the other was Paul Kingsnorth, replying to this blog post in its comments section.
This reminded me of an incident that occurred in the 2011 Uncivilisation festival, when a woman in the audience challenged Paul (face to face) about power structures, including the aspect of gender representation among decision-makers. He replied that the topic was too complex for discussion in that forum, and must be looked at separately, at another time. Whether she would be available to contribute to the discussion at Paul’s preferred time was not clear. It didn’t appear to matter that she was attending the festival as a Dark Mountain Project supporter, and that the session was an open invitation to discuss the future of the project. Her concerns were not on the agenda and her adamance was interpreted as a disruptive hijacking of the forum’s purpose.
My own experiences and observations tell me that it is common for someone who is being challenged to reassert their own control by postponing the discussion (I do it myself when my daughter raises a complaint or criticism at bedtime – and damn if she isn’t her mother’s daughter, digging in her heels and refusing to be put off. I love her for it.) Likewise, I have noticed that when I myself am in a position of disagreement, challenge or conflict with a man, I am often dismissed with the judgment that it is not the right time or place or format.
I have exchanged comments in blog posts only to be told to move the discussion to email, where it can be thrashed through in privacy. I have been told in email exchanges that this is too direct and personal, and more appropriate in the formal, neutral space of a public forum. I too have been told that face to face exchanges are better than the impersonal sphere of cyberspace, but shushed and diverted when speaking in person. (In fact, it has frequently been me shushing myself, in obedience to my conditioning as a good, quiet, agreeable, supportive woman.) I have been in the ironic position of being told that debating is not permitted – as this taints a conversation with the machinations of negotiation, where dialogue is a more effective method of sharing views. (I don’t disagree with that ideal, but the problem is that dialogue never takes place in a vacuum of power, it takes place between individual people who are each embedded in social roles whereby negotiation is inevitable.)
I have been told – or told in as many words, in as many ways – that my concerns are peripheral, divisive; that they do not matter as much as other issues and are diverting energy away from those issues that take precedence. I’ve got it wrong, and should leave well enough alone.
All in all I’m left to wonder: when and where exactly may I share my tuppence without speaking out of place?
Perhaps my views are uncomfortably provocative, indeed some would say too critical, not constructive enough – and unsurprisingly, I don’t agree. I believe that my views are as valid and worthwhile as any other person’s, and just as important an ingredient in the soup pot of mutual learning. I’m reminded of the postcard on my kitchen billboard, quoting Rebecca West: “I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is. I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat…”