Shut Up and Listen

We do not like to be told we are being jerks. We do not like to be told we are being demeaning, or belittling, or discriminatory, or bigoted, even if by accident. Particularly we skepto-atheists, who so pride ourselves on our rationality, our grip on reality, our ability to coolly evaluate information on its merits.
But, inevitably — and especially if you are a white male — you will be called out. You will say something, you will write something, you will assess an idea or a cause or a feeling expressed. It will contain, in this assessment, this comment, or what have you, a word, a sentence, a supposition, a slant that causes offense. Someone, likely not a white male, will point out how this comment is hurtful, how it exacerbates a stereotype, how it reveals one’s unacknowledged social privilege, how it seems to minimize the grievances of another group.

You know what happens next. The blood boils, the eyes widen, the hackles rise, the jaw tightens. You argue back. How could you think this of me? How could you accuse me of such a thing? I am enlightened, I am sensitive, I am progressive, I am rational. I am not one of those white males. What I said was devoid of bigotry, it was not demeaning, it was not belittling, it was not in any way tainted by privilege.

You may even be right!

We see this play out every day, and I have been on both ends of it myself. Recently, in a discussion among some of the Freethought Blogs writers, PZ Myers had this advice in the midst of just such an exchange (and I’m quoting here with his permission):

If there is one thing I’ve learned in my years of wrestling with these problems…

When a member of a marginalized group tells a member of a privileged group that their efforts, no matter how well-meaning, are wrong, there is one reasonable response: Shut up and listen. You might learn something.

There is also a terrible response: arguing back. It always makes it worse.

It’s not that they are infallible and we are totally stupid. It’s that THEY are the experts and the subject of the discussion.

When I first read this, I had a gut response, and then used my brain for a bit, and had a different response.

My first reaction was exasperation. You just can’t win! Even if you’re one of the good guys, you get no allowance, no slack. A person misinterprets what you say to be racist, misogynistic, ableist, what have you, and you’re just screwed. You can’t say anything, you just look like a sad puppy and apologize. How is this rational? How is this fair?

Then I allowed myself a few breaths, and decided to let this advice play out in my head for a bit.

It is natural for anyone, especially skepto-atheists, to become hung up on a point of fact, particularly when it colors how we are seen, when an interpretation of words reflects on us as people. When called out for saying something or for holding an opinion that seems to reveal a lack of sensitivity, a social ignorance, or an over-abundance of privilege, it stings, and our obvious recourse is to counter the accusation (or the polite consciousness-raising) with more words. An additional three or four paragraphs, surely, will clear this whole mess up.

Has it ever?

Take a longer view with me.

Let’s assume you’re, like me, a white male. Let’s assume you’ve said something to elicit the kind of response I’ve been talking about. Let’s assume, even, that this response is wrong, that you are totally in the clear as far as the merits of your words go, and you are being wildly misunderstood through no fault of your own. Does PZ’s advice still make sense?

Yes. The fact of the matter is that we can never be perfect in our understanding of the experiences of those in oppressed or maligned groups. Though you are the Most Enlightened of White Males, you can never fully appreciate the feelings, injuries, and injustices known by members of those groups. You may have grokked all the data, you may have fought on the side of goodness and equality all your life, but you can’t know what it’s like.

Here’s the good part: You can always learn. You are not doomed to your current level of ignorance. Though your understanding may never be absolute, you always have room to become better informed, to become wiser.

Accept that opportunity. Accept it selfishly, even.

Remember, I’m presuming in this hypothetical that you have said nothing wrong, but were perceived to have done so. I know, it hurts. It sucks. It brings up a swirl of poisonous emotions.

But you can take it, can’t you?

When you are called out (and you will be), accept it. Listen. Think. Do the intellectual exercise, put yourself in their place as best you can. Absorb it.

Can it be enough that you know you intended no harm, no offense? Do you have a sense of self strong enough that you can allow yourself to be criticized, nicely or not, about your choice of words, your perspective’s slant, your unintended belittling of another group or person?

Chances are, you were wrong. But more to the point, chances are you probably can’t know if you were wrong, not really.

Take this opportunity to see if you can understand how you were wrong, how what you said could hurt. Instead of a war of words to prove your equality-cred in the moment, decide to take in the criticism as a tool for next time. Use what you’ve learned to get better at expressing your ideas. Use what you’ve learned to better understand where people who have lived very different lives are coming from.

You’ll have so many chances in your life to be right. You’re a skepto-atheist, after all. But in times like this, it’s okay to be wrong. It’s okay, as long as when you have been called out, you take the opportunity to improve yourself through acceptance of the criticism.

Use what you’ve learned to become wiser.

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83 thoughts on “Shut Up and Listen

  1. Who was it that did the “supposed virtue of not being offended” post a week or two back? This is totally the yang to that piece… and good advice, I might add. Hopefully you reach some folks.

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  2. Notung –
    When you are able to choose to be LBGT, female, a POC, mentally ill etc… then you can talk like that. It is possible for anyone to experience religion. It it not possible for, say, a middle class, white, straight, neurotypical cis-male to experience life as even one of the groups over which they are privileged. The -only- insight that is possible from a position of privilege is that gained from dialogue with or observation of people who are part of those groups.
    It’s not a blanket dismissal of the opinions of the privileged, it’s asking people to check their privilege before contracting foot-in-mouth disease when told they’re wrong by a member of the group they’re opining on.

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      • ” I don’t see how ‘being part of a minority’ is different.”
        That part. The choice is what makes it different, as is the axis of privilege. Religious people are privileged over non-religious people, but they also choose to be religious, and can choose not to at any time. Religion is possibly the only kind of privilege that is a choice*.
        You (I assume you are an atheist here, if not, apologies for doing so) might encounter a theist raving on about how atheists are immoral, that they bring their so-called oppression on themselves, that it’s a christian country and that atheists just hate god, so on and so forth. You might go on to correct those misguided assumptions, seeing as you are in a position that likely has direct experience with these issues and their actual causes and circumstances. Do the arguments of the theist have the same weight behind them as yours, which are backed up by real experience?
        Yes, experience is subjective. Data points, however, are simply experiences. Are data points only ever useful when collected into a peer-reviewed study? As atheists, we don’t (often) dispute amongst ourselves that religious people have privileges that we don’t share. Theists scoff and say we’re making it up, we have just the same opportunities and that we want to strip their rights and treat them as second-class citizens, that our own experiences of persecution are simply subjective experience, playing the victim card.
        It’s the same for any non-privileged group. If you’re in the privileged position, you simply don’t have the experience to back up claims dismissing the experiences of the people in the group lacking that privilege.
        *The issue of belief and choice is another kettle of fish altogether, but there is definitely choice involved at some point, unless the person never encounters a challenge to their beliefs.

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      • I still don’t understand how ‘being part of a minority’ is the only reason we should ‘shut up and listen’ to someone. What about ‘shutting up and listening’ to anyone who is giving an honest opinion, or talking about their unique subjective experience?
        What’s wrong with simply saying ‘listen to other people, and interpret what they say in a charitable way’?
        Also – suppose you’re right (as the OP says: ‘you may be right’), you shut up and listen to someone in a minority and they fail to convince you (suppose they’re trying to convince you of something that isn’t fully subjective). What then? Should you just be quiet, out of the fear of offending? But isn’t that rather patronising? Or should you then try to convince them that in fact you are right?
        Because the ‘vibe’ I get from the OP is that you shouldn’t do that. As if you should pretend you’re wrong (or try to make yourself believe you are wrong) even if you really know you are not. Believing what you know ain’t so, as Twain put it!

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      • I don’t think it’s the only reason, personally, shutting up and listening to many kinds of people is a good way to learn, even if it’s only to learn how wrong they are about something.Do you have to concede you were wrong? No. You’ve always got the option of just being quiet. You may not be wrong by your own definition, you may,. however, be wrong by the definition of the person you’re speaking to. If the issue is one of privilege, you’re likely unaffected by the implications of your words, but they might be affected greatly, as the issue may be one of life or death, or even one they deal with on a daily basis.
        You may be blameless, but is arguing really going to help matters at all? It’s not a matter of feeling patronised, it’s courtesy. If you’re hurting someone, regardless of whether or not you feel they have the right to be offended or hurt, they’re hurting. If you like, you’re free to continue speaking in a way that hurts them, but it does make you an arsehole for continuing to engage in arguments for the sake of you not feeling slighted, especially on issues where your hurt feelings are pitted against theirs – where they might face real persecution and you simply feel a bit huffy for a while.
        In essence, the offense you feel isn’t as important as theirs. Yep. Said it.
        It’s context, really. Take gay marriage as an issue, and the position that religious and “traditionalist” groups take. In reality, gay marriage doesn’t affect them personally at all, yet they use the issue as a bludgeon, going on about it as if their very lives were being threatened. They have no basis to comment at all – no experience being persecuted, and even if the issue was decided and gay marriage were declared legal everywhere, they STILL wouldn’t be affected, at least in a negative way.
        The offense that the anti-gay brigade would feel at having their views attacked by pro-gay advocates are NOT as important as the feelings of the gay people affected by their hateful rhetoric. The people they harm with their views face the possibility of real violence, hiding their sexuality, dismissal from jobs or even ejection from family or social circles. Real, life-changing or even life-threatening concerns. Their attackeers face none of these issues, and cannot understand the real magnitude and implications of their words.
        They (anti-gays) should shut up, listen and even if they don’t agree their views are wrong or harmful, should still just shut up.
        It doesn’t matter if you -agree- that your views are harmful or not, you can still mitigate any splash damage by just shutting up. You don’t have to, but you’re probably hurting someone much more than you are capable of understanding due to your privileged position.

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      • I think you misunderstood my rhetorical question about holding my tongue being patronising. I’m not the one being patronised – the ‘minority’ is. If I treat them extra sensitively because they’re from some social group and I think they are therefore somehow incapable of handling what I have to say, I’m patronising them. I’d rather not do that – I’d prefer to treat them as equal human beings.
        I have many black relatives, and, knowing them as I do, they’d be horrified if they thought I was tiptoeing around some issue in their presence simply because they are black!
        By the way, what you say about gay marriage complicates things somewhat, to my mind. Obviously as a liberal I’m on the pro-gay rights side. But how do you tell someone who thinks that the Gay Agenda is all-powerful and that Christians are marginalised, that they should ‘shut up and listen’? They think that they themselves are the ‘oppressed minority’! They’re wrong, of course. But it sort of goes to show that you have to have already accepted that someone is saying something to want to listen to if you’re going to be listening in the first place.
        I’m going to offer another apparent counter-example here. What about murder victims’ families who argue that we should bring back the death penalty? I don’t think they have any authority on the issue. Sure, they might want the person who killed their loved one to fry, and it might give them ‘closure’. I have no idea what it’s like for a family member to be murdered (thankfully). But that doesn’t mean we should start hanging people in the Tower of London again. I should have as much of a voice in that debate as victims’ families do. The only thing I can’t offer anything on is what it is like to lose a loved one to violence. Similarly, I can’t tell you what it is like to have EDL members call you a terrorist because your parents are Pakistani, etc.

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      • I see your point, sorry for misunderstanding there.
        On how to tell people they should shut up and listen? Generally, if they’re the kind of person who’s doing what they’re doing, you can’t. Stuff like this is pretty much a personal thing, you either reign yourself in or, once knowing the potential harm you could be causing, ignore that and collapse into full arsehole mode.
        I wasn’t using it as “we should make this happen”, rather as an axis on which, as an atheist or liberal (or, obviously, if you were a gay person) you yourself might be oppressed. That feeling of helplessness in the face of people who spout bullshit about THEM being oppressed is the exact feeling that a person on a different axis of oppression might feel if you happened to say something insensitive. That’s kind of what I was trying to illustrate, just badly, apparently.
        I’m not sure I like your counter-example, as it seems to be a human rights issue rather than an issue of privilege. Our society doesn’t oppress murder victims’ families by denying them the right to kill others. I don’t see it as a similar issue. The emotional turmoil is very real, very raw and can have people call for all sorts of nasty things, but someone calling for the death penalty isn’t remotely the same as someone calling for equal rights.
        On a question of an argument in which a person who had suffered the loss of a loved one to murder, you might be accused of being insensitive and not understanding if you opposed their call for the death penalty. Even though the issue isn’t one based on ingrained societal privilege, you might still be doing that person harm, and it’d be up to you whether or not to simply say “I cannot agree with the death penalty for X reasons, but I understand it is a painful issue for you so I will not continue to argue.”
        Remember though, people with murdered family members who want the death penalty aren’t a group like non-whites, gays, women or the mentally ill that are systematically discriminated against, against whom we all probably still possess ingrained bias. Also, minority groups aren’t generally calling to curtail the rights of other humans, they’re seeking equal treatment, so equating it with stripping the rights of even criminals is a bit on the nose, honestly.
        On that point also, it is -possible- for you to experience what it’s like to have lost a loved one, even if it wasn’t to murder. It’s still not possible for you to experience the life experiences and upbringing of, say, a black lesbian.

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    • Notung –
      When you are able to choose to be LBGT, female, a POC, mentally ill etc… then you can talk like that. It is possible for anyone to experience religion. It it not possible for, say, a middle class, white, straight, neurotypical cis-male to experience life as even one of the groups over which they are privileged. The -only- insight that is possible from a position of privilege is that gained from dialogue with or observation of people who are part of those groups.

      Oh, is that right. Well you go have a religious experience then, right now. You go replicate the moment of revelation that many believers claim to have occurred in their lives. Trust me, darling, I tried to be religious for a long time. Apparently it isn’t something you can conjure up at will, much less choose even with the most sincere effort.
      According to this toxic reasoning I should now not allow myself to use my stock answer for this. Perhaps, you didn’t really speak to god. Perhaps there are other explanations. Nah, I’d be atheo-splaing wouldn’t I? Not listening hard enough. Probably a bigot, to boot.

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      • Being a member of a marginalized group is not like believing in God.

        toxic reasoning

        The reasoning is sound. Your defensiveness is toxic.
        Think about it some more.

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      • 1. A religious experience is different from being part of a religion.2. Being part of a religion does not demand adherence to all it’s supernatural claims
        3. A belief (however strongly held) is t the same as an aspect of someone’s body. (Like skin color, eyes, hair)
        4. Enjoying the privileged state many believers have in places like the US only requires observing a handfu of rituals and calling yourself a believer.

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      • I have no idea what you read to come up with the “probably a bigot” thing. Wow.
        I’ll agree with Julian – I’m not talking about some kind of mystical woo experience, I’m talking about privilege extended to people who are perceived as ‘religious enough’. To get that privilege, you don’t have to believe in anything, you don’t have to necessarily even follow the religious doctrine, you just have to choose to pay lip service to a few religious rituals and not rock the boat. As long as you’re seen to be playing along, you’re generally fine.
        Where you got “religious experience=OMG I SAW $DEITY PRAZE EET” is beyond me, frankly. I’m talking real world, here. You know, religious experience being going to a place of worship, engaging in the rituals and mingling with the flock. That’s all they do, that’s all you’d have to do.
        THAT is the choice, and that’s the difference between religious privilege and most other kinds.
        Anyone can technically ‘pass’ for religious, however distasteful and morally reprehensible it might be. Not everyone can ‘pass’ for white, male, cisgendered or neurotypical.

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  3. Hi miles, that would have been Miri, posting this over at Brute Reason.
    There’s been some notable examples of the “surely another three or four paragraphs will clear up this mess” attitude recently, but the record-breaking teal-deer of the month has to be this three thousand word epic over at Pharyngula, as the commenter’s first post in the thread. And he’s a commenter I respect on many topics, but on this one he decided to go digging for the opposite side of the earth.

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  4. It’s important to listen and try to understand where someone is coming from. Of course we’ll run into situations where people are either being ridiculous or controlling but, on a whole, we’ll do far more good than wrong taking our blindspots into consideration. Whether it’s something like poor choice of words (Brazilian transsexual) or something more severe (going on a tirade against a trans conspiracy) you’ll stand a much better chance of “fixing” the issue by pausing and listening for half a minute

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  5. As Mark Twain said* “Never miss a good opportunity to shut up.”
    *I don’t know whether he actually said it or not, but it’s good advice either way.
    I’ve been on both sides too and I’ve had cause to wonder if I was being too thin skinned and whether a short, “Please don’t say that. It’s offensive to [fill in the blank].” would have been better than swearing. Typos happen. Mistakes happen. And not every situation calls for going after the offender with every thing you have.
    The internet doesn’t forgive easily. We should try and change that and be willing to accept an apology if someone offended out of ignorance or couldn’t find the best way to frame a metaphor. If no harm really was intended, don’t they deserve the same courtesy?
    Of course if they were being mean intentionally, forget what I said.

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    • Well I certainly think one could post “calm the hell down and breathe before you type” all over the internet and maybe maybe maybe do some good.

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      • I think there should be a pop up window before one posts any comment on social networking sites, blogs, etc. saying exactly that.

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  6. Do you have any recommendation as to when to speak? Or maybe we should just go somewhere else? Leave that person alone and be done? I’m not being facetious.

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  7. very good post. thank you for sharing. Being an ally is a responsibility. You don’t have to be perfect & know all of the rules. But listening and being willing to correct self (then others of your privilege groups – later) are steps in the correct direction.
    thank you

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  8. So when will Melody Hensley, Amy Roth, and now Rebecca Watson do this: “When you are called out (and you will be), accept it. Listen. Think. Do the intellectual exercise, put yourself in their place as best you can. Absorb it.”
    They aren’t listening to any of the women who feel bullied and unwelcome because of their gossip, malicious remarks, and outlandish accusations.
    http://www.saramayhew.com/blog/index.php/2013/01/why-is-rebecca-watson-acting-like-an-awful-person/

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    • Considering the kinds of things you’ve been saying, you have absolutely no right to talk about anyone being petty or gossipy. The person who should be apologizing is you.

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      • By all means, show the supposedly nasty things I’ve said. But I don’t name-call, use vitriol, or bully and gossip about other women.
        But the people who claim this behaviour is unacceptable are dishing it out themselves. They are told they are driving women away, but don’t listen.
        People defend this behaviour from them because of friendship, brand loyalty, and the fact they are women. They refuse to even consider their behaviour was hurtful and wrong.

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      • I’ll leave it to others to point out how you’ve been petty.
        But

        People defend this behaviour from them because of friendship, brand loyalty, and the fact they are women.

        I don’t know any of these women and do not like some of them.
        I defend them for the same reasons I defend Ann Coulter when people call her a tranny, for the same reason I defend Sarah Palin when people tell her she should stay bare foot and pregnant and for the same reason I defend black Republicans when others laugh about sending them back o the plantations.
        I defend them because they’re being targeted with bigotry and I object to that more than I object to Watson being rude and inconsiderate to a student over a ago.

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      • Sara, You are simply lying when you claim that you don’t “name-call, use vitriol, or bully and gossip about other women.” As Sassafras indicated, you posted a link to Thunderf00t’s bullying, lying, vicious video on your blog and you agreed with it! A good person does not do this. Amy, Rebecca, and Melody receive ugly hatred directed at them EVERY SINGLE DAY, in part because of TF’s campaign against them. Please stop your bullying. You are wrong and and you are hurting people.

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    • You didn’t actually write a blog post about the “ragged on” thing? I would have thought you’d want that one forgotten about… I saw that twitter exchange and seriously O_o how can you make that leap with a straight face! “Ragged on” is a gendered, slur(?), statement(?), what exactly? Other than you trying to score some points against Rebecca and failing spectacularly…..

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  9. Couldn’t this be extended to cover all interactions, not just those where you’re responding to someone less ‘privileged’ (which is a rather tricky concept in itself)?
    If yes, then we end up with the principle of charitable interpretation – listen to what the other side is trying to convey and consider their arguments in the best possible light.
    If no, then I don’t see why not. It seems that if we’re saying that X should listen to Y because Y has some unique subjective experience then since X plausibly has subjective experiences unknown to Y, mutatis mutandis Y should also ‘shut up and listen’ to X. ‘Privilege’ doesn’t need to come into it, except insofar as it provides one of many reasons we might have different subjective experiences.
    Having said that, there are problems with the premise. Religious people have a ‘unique perspective’ on what it is like to be religious, while as a life-long nonbeliever I have no idea. I don’t see them as ‘experts’, unless they are eminent theologians or philosophers, and that’s not on account of their subjective experiences but on account of their academic training. I don’t see how ‘being part of a minority’ is different. We should judge arguments on their own merit, rather than on ad hominem considerations.

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  10. Sara,
    After the conversation I attempted with you yesterday I am very disappointed that you are re-visiting this yet again. Let’s put this into some perspective, shall we? Do you see how upset you are about one tweet? Where did the sentiment for that tweet arise out of? Listening to you.
    Turn up the volume by 10,000 and that is what other women are dealing with.

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    • EllenBeth,It wasn’t just one tweet. There were several. And it was from a CFI Director prior to me speaking at their event. It’s all Hensley’s history of gossiping about other—which I provide a screenshot of in my post.
      This behaviour has been going on for quite some time. And you continue to defend the behaviour. Victim blaming would’ve been called on you if Hensley and Watson were men.
      If shut and listen only applies if you’re a white dude, then it’s kinda pointless. I try to point if the hurtful and divisive behaviour without using vitriol but no one listens. They have there mind made up already that “their friends” couldn’t be wrong.

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      • Sara, I haven’t defended anything. Okay, you got what you thought were some hurtful tweets. You have embarked on a campaign to get someone fired for a couple of tweets! You have enlisted your friends to help you in this campaign. You have written insulting, belittling and bullying blog posts and denied doing same.
        Even if I thought that the tweet(s) was inappropriate at the beginning of this nonsense, your behavior since has been way more egregious

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      • Check your spires. Only Stephanie Svan made up the nonsense about me trying to get Hensley fired. I didn’t organise a campaign. People wrote individually, and not with the intent to get anyone fired.
        Hensley, Roth, and Watson made belittling remarks about me, personally. Hensley made an accusation. These are NOT the same as criticising someone’s work or what they’ve said.
        Saying that women speakers are after male approval when they “rag on” Skepchicks, is a sexist accusation.
        Shut up and listen.

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      • Sara, I’ve been listening to you a lot lately if you hadn’t noticed. I have been coming to your blog and listening and attempting a conversation with you.
        As far as not orchestrating a campaign? You post on your facebook, twitter and blog and ring a bell and like Pavlov’s dogs, people responded. Do you think those letters got written spontaneously?

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      • What exactly did Roth, Watson and Hensley say about you? I remember Hensley saying all she liked about you was you were your shoes but that’s about it. Nothing nearly as personal r hateful as the hings being said to the 3 of them by the people who wrote in on your behalf to get Hensley fired. (For sexual harassment of all things.)

        As far as not orchestrating a campaign? You post on your facebook, twitter and blog and ring a bell and like Pavlov’s dogs, people responded. Do you think those letters got written spontaneously?
        That’s hardly fair to her. Watson did more or less the same thing to Dawkins. People are right to petition groups and organizations when they see an issue and the are right to criticize note worthy members when they see them behave inappropriately but even if 100 people are prompted by one person’s letter you can’t say they organized a campaign/
        It may look like it, but really all they’v done is voice their objections. These objections resonated with others and they added to them. Maybe one of those people started organizing- who knows? But just because someone is the catalyst or their name is borrowed does not mean they organized an kind of campaign against someone.

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      • And Melody Hensley has been called out on her tactics and nastiness in the past, for instance just recently on her behavior towards Greta Christina. So claiming that she gets a pass on bullying is kind of strange.

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  11. What? Humility? On the internet? Surely you jest. Clearly we must call people idiots first.
    It is very important to shut up and listen and consider. It is a critical step to being a decent human being. The funny thing is, it applies equally to white people, black people, gay people, and well, all other types of people. Everyone likes to get a say in how they are treated. So don’t worry so much about who the speaker is – as long as he or she is human, they will appreciate you listening to them and responding in a decent way.

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    • Everyone likes to get a say in how they are treated.
      True. But there’s a bit more to it than that.
      No individual knows exactly where another individual’s coming from–their formative experiences, their personal and intellectual history, their pain.
      But marginalized people,

      generally speaking

      , understand the point of view of the more privileged a bit better than the latter that of the former.
      Think “person” and describe the image that pops into your head. Was it a white male?
      The people who have the most power in our society, the ones who are most often represented in the media–they are the ones whose narratives and POVs have historically gotten the most exposure, and most everybody is aware of those narratives and points of view at least to some extent. Also, those more socially powerful people’s anger is taken more seriously than others’.
      When somebody from a more marginalized group speaks up, it is especially important to, as we say, “check your privilege,” tolerate any feelings of defensiveness, and make that effort to shut up and listen.
      In a platonic, abstract world, the two of you are equally likely to be right or wrong, or (a better way to put it) understanding or misunderstanding the other. But we don’t live in a platonic, abstract world. Some people’s voices are listened to above others. And experiments in social psychology show that we all do that preferential listening to some degree, quite unconsciously.
      So listen.

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      • they are the ones whose narratives and POVs have historically gotten the most exposure, and most everybody is aware of those narratives and points of view at least to some extent.
        I am curious what exactly separates a member of privileged groups with a nonstandard narrative (which just so happens to not fit into one of the recognized minority groups) from a member of underprivileged groups.
        In my estimation the difference is that the member of underprivileged groups will have a more widely known narrative than the member of privileged groups with a nonstandard narrative, and the possibility of having a nonstandard narrative will be entirely ignored by every onlooker and participant in the conversation. In the “calling out” situation this may very well result in the member of privileged groups actually being less privileged as an individual, but because their lack of privilege doesn’t fit into one of the recognized “underprivileged categories”, they wind up being treated as a terrible person for even politely asking the other person to listen to their side of things, even after having listened to the other person chew them out. At least, that’s my experience with these situations.
        My solution, by no means original to me, is that “listen calmly to the other person’s position, and interpret with charity” is a good behaviour for everybody, though I will agree that it often needs additional emphasis among privileged groups.

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      • No doubt. It is good advice for anyone who sees thing through this “privilege” model to understand that people don’t view themselves, and can’t be defined simply as race/gender/sexuality. While all of these things greatly impact people, and the privilege model is very useful in having some perspective on what you know and don’t know, any thoughts that you understand an individual based on these broad characteristics is foolish. It is the antithesis to the civil rights movement, as people clearly cannot be defined based on their race, gender, or sexuality.

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  12. Excellent article, Paul, and great advice. As a female and member of an ethnic minority, I would also like to say that this advice should be heeded by everyone, not just white males. Many of us have privileges over others and very often think that if we made it, if we are this tough, or this good, or whatever, others should stop whining, grow a thicker skin and get to work. But it’s impossible to know a person’s perspective or background, exactly, so it is always a good idea to listen to those that are telling you that your statement was hurtful or unhelpful, or feeding a pernicious stereotype. Even if there are “professional complainers” out there, in my book it is best to risk giving too much attention to the occasional prima donna or primo uomo, than ignoring people who truly have a point and from whom one would have a lot to learn. If nothing else, a new perspective on the world.

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  13. This.
    You have perfectly described one of the great waking up moments that have been afforded me since I climbed up out of years of magical thinking, stood up, and called myself a skeptic/atheist. As a gay man, I really believe that I “couldn’t be sexist.” After all, I’d been called faggot and homo and queer and (insert favorite slur here) since I was a child. Most of my best friends were girls then and are women now. Nope. Couldn’t possibly be sexist. Oh, but how wrong I was and how I hated having pointed out to me. How I resisited.
    There’s a very long story behind my awakening, involving a comment thread on Science Blogs (well before elevatorgate) and women who simply, politely, requested that we not use the feminine perjorative to insult the mysogynist troll that was infesting our thread. There was resitance from the male commenter. There were personal stories of what it’s like to be a woman in science. Descriptions of privilege. Descriptions of being thought of as forever less-than. As the commenter who had used the gendered insult continued to dig his “I’m not sexist” hole, I slowly moved away from supporting his viewpoint and ended up feeling sorry for him. I wanted to tell him to stop digging. We were wrong about this.
    I had never heard the term feminine perjorative before this. It’s awful meaning boils down to “the worst thing in the world I can call you is a woman.” I thought about the homophobic slurs I had endured, all of them, followed to their logical conclusion said the same thing. “You are like a woman and that’s bad.” The gay community is rife with femphobia and I had managed to overcome that decades ago, but I never made the connection. And then I felt it like a punch in the gut: a whole life of less-than with no way out but to fight or surrender. I imagined a lifetime of maybe having a Ph.D. in physics and still being automatically seen as a pair of tits, or a coffee gofer, or unserious by the majority of males in my field. I imagined being harassed or passed over for promotion for being too beautiful or not beautiful enough. It made me deeply sad and heartsick. I thought of my mother, my sisters, my aunts. Then I thought of the wonderful, smart, curious little girls in my life, what did they have to look forward to?
    It also led me to examine my own privileged position in society. Because my sexuality is far from the first thing you would notice about me, I “pass” all the time, I am automatically assumed to be straight. As an aside: I have since noticed that when I am in meetings with female colleagues, a constant, sometimes subtle, deferrment to me take place even when my business partner’s area of expertise is being discussed. So, I got that first and foremost, I’m a white male. When I first started to grapple with this, a huge wave of “I’m not privileged” resistance swept over me, but then I remembered my hapless brother, rigidly digging his hole. What drove it home was when one commenter said something that made me stop in my tracks: “Being privileged doesn’t make you a bad person, but acknowledging that you are might make you a better one.”
    Thanks for this post, I’ll be sending folks of both genders over to read this.

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  14. Nicely said. Some of my best epiphanies occurred soon after I asked, “Hey, what if I’m the one in the wrong here?”
    Works in science.
    Works in relationships.
    Works at the job.
    All at the measly cost of a (temporarily) bruised ego.
    The conclusion might still be “I’m not wrong after all,” but for a brief shining moment you get to pull your head out of your own arse…

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  15. “When you are called out (and you will be), accept it. Listen. Think. Do the intellectual exercise, put yourself in their place as best you can. Absorb it.”
    Best advice in a very well-written piece.
    Speaking as a psychologist and a white man married to a black woman, let me just confirm pretty much everything written in this essay. The art of listening is key to clinical work in my field, and it isn’t always easy. I’ve had to bite my tongue when a father describes his “valid” reasons for beating his 2-year-old son, or a teenager explaining to me why his girlfriend really wanted to have sex with him, even though she’s insisting that he raped her. It is very difficult to shunt emotions to one side and listen, with empathy and sincerity, while the other person informs you of things that are objectionable to you.
    But it is a valuable skill. As Paul noted, you may not have done anything wrong, or be absolutely correct in your position,….but it isn’t a question of right or wrong, it’s a question of how to communicate, and most importantly how to LEARN from the experience.
    Despite being married to a black woman, going on 17 years now, with two daughters, I’ve actually had black individuals in the past accuse me of racism. My first gut instinct is to scoff, point out my wife’s ethnicity, and completely dismiss the accusation. It CAN’T be true, right? But if I did that, then I couldn’t learn what it was that I said or did that triggered the accusation, can I? I can’t avoid future problems in similar situations if I’m unaware of these complications.
    And never forget, someday you may be the one calling someone out for an insensitive act or remark. It isn’t a good feeling to share your discomfort with those words or acts and be told you are making much ado about nothing. It’s important to you, and the least they can do is listen.
    People in this community (skeptic / atheists) need to stop trying to argue who’s right and who’s wrong, and start practicing good listening skills. It’s starting to sound like typical American B.S.: instead of reasoned debate and rational argument, it’s more about demonizing the other side.
    For independent, nonreligious folk like myself, it’s getting hard to differentiate between the Christian groups and their snipes at each other, and the atheist groups with their own ridiculous battles.

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  16. @22
    I was with you until the last two paragraphs. What you said about understanding why someone thought you were being racist, (even when you are absolutely sure you are not), was very true.
    This, however:

    For independent, nonreligious folk like myself, it’s getting hard to differentiate between the Christian human groups and their snipes at each other, and the atheist human groups with their own ridiculous battles.

    FIFY
    While an argument about whether the Rapture will happen, before, during, or after the Tribulation is ridiculous, the argument about the need to delete gendered slurs from our language is not. Yes, ending gendered slurs will not make us all non-sexist. But every gendered slur is giving aid and comfort to sexism, whether we mean it to or not.

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  17. What a wonderful post. If only more people truly listened to what other people were saying. I’ve been on both sides of this (making stupid statements based on my own privilege and challenging others for making stupid statements based on their privilege). ANd the thing that makes it easiest to resolve the issue on BOTH sides is both sides listening and clear explanations of why “x comment” was offensive.
    Sometimes those who are offended lash out very aggressively when someone of privilege blunders with a statement they can’t see is offensive. This gets backs up and encouraged days/weeks of name calling etc.
    Sometimes the privileged person is completely oblivious to they have done which is offensive and a calm explanation is all that is needed to get them understanding why they have offended. This can be a challenge if you are the offended party, but in the long term you save time and effort and often win an ally.
    Having said that I know there are people who purposely needle others and don’t listen. Patient conversation is no use in dealing with this type of “privilege” they are just too stupid to understand privilege and/or lack the empathy to care

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  18. While an argument about whether the Rapture will happen, before, during, or after the Tribulation is ridiculous, the argument about the need to delete gendered slurs from our language is not. Yes, ending gendered slurs will not make us all non-sexist. But every gendered slur is giving aid and comfort to sexism, whether we mean it to or not.
    It may be a legitimate argument. But people may disagree with you, not because they are sexist or privileged or whatever, but because they disagree with you. Their disagreement is a good reason to listen to what they have to say, consider it, engage in more conversation and move on. It isn’t time to start busting out slurs.

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  19. Any disagreement over the usage of slurs is going to be an argument with an axis of privilege. If you’re the one punching down, you’re the one who needs to shut up and listen. It’s that simple.
    If you’re arguing that the usage of the “n” word* can be just fine and dandy and you’re white, you’re punching down.
    If you’re arguing that the “c” word is fine to use in some contexts and you’re male, you’re punching down.
    If you’re arguing for the use of “fag” or “faggot”, and are straight, same thing. Also “retarded” if you’re neurotypical, that sort of thing.
    The usage of such words in and of themselves do no disservice to you, because you’re not being equated with something derogatory.
    *not sure if there’s a filter here, so erring on the side of caution.

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    • You I don’t know that privilege is really something that matters in that context. Why do people insult each other in the first place? It is to make their target feel bad, marginalize them, and entertain the insulter’s friends. It can be a numbers game – what makes someone an “outcast” on the playground? The bigger group of people have isolated and insulted them. It really isn’t much different for white males, who have more numbers and power than any other group, and thus the slurs against other groups have been harmful because they have been especially effective.
      However, that doesn’t change the fact that insults are insults, regardless of privilege or not. If you get insulted on a web site, it can still sting, no matter your race or gender. People aren’t insulting others because of some privilege or non-privilege. They are insulting people because they want the approval of their friends and they want their target to feel bad about themselves. It is generally just poor behavior, privileged or not, and certainly not indicative of someone who is trying to listen.

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      • Supposed to be “You know” to begin there. Or just dleete the “you.” It’s early and my fingers don’t work.

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  20. Well, if in this thought experiment you (you happy white male) really are entirely blameless…then I don’t think you should stop and take deep breaths and listen and then agree that you are to blame. I think you made your task in the post too difficult by putting it that way.
    But then that’s not how these things work, is it. It’s more a matter of being wrong through unawareness and the like – not knowing that UK “twat” (rhymes with hat) is not identical to US “twat” (rhymes more or less with hot), for instance.
    Or else, you’re just not wrong, in which case you shouldn’t agree that you are wrong, because that way madness really does lie – the madness that feminist-haters are always espying when we say “don’t call me a cunt.”
    There’s a lot of territory between “Hey, bitch, I’ll call you a cunt all I want to. Cunt.” and agreeing that you were wrong for calling someone a cuddly bear.
    I say this as the current poster witch-hunter Nazi inqusitionist for (gasp) saying Michael Shermer tapped into a stupid harmful sexist stereotype. I certainly think Shermer should have listened, but I wouldn’t think that if he had said something completely different.

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    • I followed that a little bit, and it seems to me Shermer did listen to you. He even wrote a long, long response, so obviously he thought enough of you to do that. But, your original article insinuated that he didn’t think women could think. That’s a pretty harsh accusation, and pretty unfair compared to what he said. So instead of being gracious, he got on his high horse. I think it’s a lesson that listening is an important skill, but so is speaking. His remark was a perfectly good thing to aim at, but the guns blazing approach is not always the best.

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  21. I hadn’t seen Sophia’s comment when I wrote mine.
    If we’re talking about slurs and epithets, then I agree you should just shut up and listen. If the part about “you are actually not wrong” just means the not-wrong of “but it totally doesn’t mean that in my neighborhood” you should still shut up and listen, and then explain that you didn’t realize and avoid the word in the future except with your homies. I’ve said this for years. Or is it centuries now. It’s not that difficult. If I visit Poland and use a word that I think means “daisy” but actually means “shit” then I don’t argue, do I, I learn, and don’t make that mistake again.

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  22. I’ve had the experience too. Was a relatively minor thing, someone said the language I used showed something about how I think about the races. Certainly something where my first instinct was to jump on the person for implying I was racist, but then I thought on it and realized what he meant. And he was right. In fact, I’d known I had some of that latent thinking from how I was raised (including some very uncomfortable moments when I realized what we were probably saying when my older brother and I used to snipe playful insults at each other while calling the other one “boy”. I was a bit young and didn’t even know the signficance of that, but I think he did.)

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  23. I feel bad for you, white males. You carry with you so much racial guilt that you feel that you have to make up reasons why your opinions, no matter how right, are always wrong.

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  24. I am responding to Julian’s comment because it won’t allow me to underneath
    “It may look like it, but really all they’v done is voice their objections. These objections resonated with others and they added to them. Maybe one of those people started organizing- who knows? But just because someone is the catalyst or their name is borrowed does not mean they organized an kind of campaign against someone.”
    Allow me to offer an analogy. Orly Tait voiced objections to the legitimacy of Obama’s citizenship. These objections resonated with others and they have added to them. Maybe one of them started organizing. Is there a campaign (Birthers) organized against him with some powerful names now involved (Trump, Arpaio) ?
    What Sara has done is turned around the issue. She has made herself into the victim after being the initial aggressor. Perhaps she didn’t even recognize the fact. I will grant her that may be the case but this is a phenomenon known as secondary justification wherein she is claiming that her actions now are justified based upon the tweets. In reality, the tweets were response tweets but these were viewed as aggression.

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    • Except that Mayhew never called for Hensley to be fired. Other’s did citing her offense as reason enough to.
      I don’t think Mayhew is guiltless (she definitely would like to see Hensley fired) or that she hasn’t egged on the people spitting sexist garbage but that still doesn’t mean she’s responsible for any petitions to have Hensley removed.

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  25. This comment should be renamed “wharrgarbl”
    In all serious though, how does, listen to the person you’re talking to translate to be gullible.
    The world may never know…

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  26. Excellent post. And definitely something that people, in general, should keep in mind.
    It also goes the other way around though. Once the “white male”(to use your own example) has shut up, and listened to what the other person has to say, that other person should, just as much, give the “white male” time to say his piece, and actually listen to, and think about, what is said.
    If one person takes offense to something you have said, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you were in the wrong, or even used a “wrong” word or phrase. It could just as easily mean that the person you are talking to, is easily offended. You should still listen to what they have to say, when they call you on it, but one person not liking what you have said, does not mean that you should change the way you speak.
    To give an example: For the sake of the example, I’ll use African-Americans as the minority in question.
    Let’s say you are talking to an African-American, and that person takes offense from something you have said, and calls you out on it.
    Should you listen to what the person have to say? Absolutely.
    Should you think about what the person said to you? Most definitely.
    Should you, right off the bat, change your way of speaking, to exclude the word that the person took offense to? No.
    What you should do, is take what the person has told you, and actually do a little “research”(for the lack of a better word). Talk to other people of the same minority(in this case, other African-Americans), and find out if the word is actually something that offends African-Americans, or if it was just that one person.
    There are several billion people in the world, and we can’t accommodate every single one of them. So if an individual takes offense to something you say, or do, then there is really no reason for you to change anything about the way you speak, or act. It could simply be a case of that person needing to grow up.
    If it is something that is offensive to the minority though, then there might be a need for you to change something about the way you speak or act.
    I can already imagine some of you, thinking “might be?!”. Yes, might be.
    Let’s use a concrete example: You’re sitting in the park, talking to an atheist friend of yours. You make a comment about how the Mormon(to use a different minority) religious beliefs are ridiculous, and a few moments later, a person comes up to you and tells you that he is a Mormon, and that he was offended by what you just said.
    Now, should you listen to what the Mormon here is saying to you, and actually think about what he’s saying? Absolutely. Is there a reason for you to change what you say, i.e. stop calling the Mormon faith “ridiculous”, so as not to offend Mormons? No, there isn’t. Those of us that know what the Mormons actually believe in, know that the Mormon religious beliefs are ridiculous.
    What about if something you say offends a Young-Earth Creationist? They’re a minority as well.
    To finish up, and summarize: Should you listen to, and carefully think about, what other people say(regardless of who they are, and what they’re saying)? Yes, you absolutely should. But you probably need more, than just one person’s words, in order to have sufficient reason to change your behavior, or how you speak.
    If you get offended by something another person says or does, and you point it out to them, explaining exactly why you got offended. Then you should also listen to what that person has to say, after you are done explaining it.
    Otherwise, you would be just as bad, as that person would be if he(or she) did not listen to, and think about, your grievances.

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  27. This is of course true — but it’s advice which applies to everyone, not just “traditionally privileged” groups.
    You may find yourself talking to a jackass who is denying *your* experience, as happens when some idiot claims that men are always benefited and never hurt by patriarchy (yeah, so then where did the “you should just fight back” response when other boys are beating me up come from?).
    In fact, that particular one has irritated me more than once: there is a shallow strain of thought which refuses to listen to the experiences of men in the patriarchy, experiences which by definition *most women don’t see* because the patriarchy enforcers behave differently when there are no women in the room. This is actually “privilege” as experienced by women: a good example is that there are, in fact, men who will sexually harass or assault other men, but only when there aren’t any women looking. I have no idea why. Sigh.
    Now, since it’s on my mind, I’m going to offer a mostly unrelated free piece of information which may help some people….
    I’m lucky enough to be from an intersection of groups which is quite privileged in many ways — notably class. I’m able to spot some (not all) class privilege because class gets *so rarefied* as you get near the top and the privileges associated with it get *so blatant* that if you’re in a group with anyone who has less money you get lumped in with them and start noticing things immediately.
    What people who are not close to the top frequently do not realize is that *almost everyone* is in an oppressed group. Yes, the theorists of kyriarchy understand this. But a lot of people don’t. If you are in the supposed “privileged” group, you will quickly spot that most of it is being marginalized and oppressed by a smaller elite.
    This becomes more and more obvious as you get near the top and realize that among the richest 1%, there is a constant struggle by 0.1% to stay on top and crush the dreams of the rest of the 1%. I’m not at all sure who really qualifies as being fully privileged — perhaps the Pope, or the Koch Brothers. The main tool used by the people at the very top is to convince the people lower down to blame someone else.

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  28. I remember a tiny story related to fishing when I was a little girl. It was in rainy season and it rained for almost everyday. I was visiting my relatives who lived quite far from the city, a suburb area, actually. In front of the house, there was a strange dry long canal and a wooden small bridge. I have always wondered what it was for and then, after a few days of constant raining that I realized “ahhh… now it is a actually a water-filled canal!” It was for fishing. It was such an amazing experience for me to go fishing in such a small stream of water! I mean, where did the fish come from? Was the canal connected to any river? Even there were many questions in my head, I did not ask. I just went with the flow, sit on the wooden bridge, holding the old-fashioned fishing equipment which was an old long piece of bamboo stick, hooked with a worm as a bait. There were 5of us, my brother and I, cousins and my daddy. He taught us how to do the fishing. It was quite boring at first but suddenly, my cousin screamed out loud with joy and said “I got one! I got a fish!”. My eyes were wide opened to see a fish hooked up. I was not happy,though. It seems like I was hurting the fish and the fish does not deserve this. So, I asked my dad if we could let it go back to the water and he agreed. Hence, we just sit there playing around, fishing and letting the fish back into where it was. It was a great day,though. I am also finding a place to start this joyful activity,too and waiting for the answers from other people just like Mister ambassador. Thank you for reading my childhood story. It is kind of childish but it was so much fun and I just wanted to share. Thanks again,

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  29. Hey I heard that Citr was looking for a visual artist for maybe some ads or some posters? I’m not sure, I can’t remember where I heard that, But if you guys are looking for an artist I would love to give it a shot! Just contact me if there’s any good opportunities?

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  30. Another reason to default to listening to someone with less privilege than you when the subject is about them, even if you may not be wrong, is that the discussion is not about you. To insist that you be understood is to shift the focus on you in a world where that’s the default focus people less privileged have to deal with every day.

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