matters of the heart
Transcript is below:
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My name is Callie Wright, and this is Queersplaining
I have a puppy. He’s a dauchshund and his name is Wedge. He’s the sweetest, most adorable little guy on the planet. I take him for walks almost every day. We really only skip if its too hot for his little beans on the street, or if it’s storming or something like that.
I’ve gotten to know the lay of the neighborhood pretty well cause I walk around it almost every day. I know what houses have dogs so I can try to teach Wedge not to freak out when they freak out, and I’m also just a huge fan of dog spotting, because I love dogs. Have I mentioned that? I’m best friends with every dog. Almost every dog.
So there’s this dude that lives about 4 doors down from me on the opposite side. We’ve lived in this house for about 3 months now, and at least once or twice a week, I see this dude let his dog out into his front yard with no fence, no leash, no underground invisible fence or anything like that.
I’ve watched this dog run up and down the street, run into neighbors yards to shit, and the other day it just so happened he was out when Wedge and I were taking a walk. I kept Wedge close because I don’t actually know if this dog is friendly or not.
The dog approached us, and he kinda sniffed around for a minute and then ran off. Wedge was nervous, but not exactly scared. I was nervous, but not exactly scared. This was a medium sized dog, not the kind that could do serious serious damage to me in my estimation, but you never really know. Probably could’ve killed Wedge had that been a thing he decided he wanted to do. But like I said, none of that happened and everyone’s okay.
I yelled at the dude “man you make a habit of just letting your dog run the neighborhood off leash doin whatever the fuck he wants to do?” He goes “sorry i’m trying to find this package that got stolen off my porch” and I responded “yeah dude that’s fine but this happens all the time. And it’s pretty fucking irresponsible.” He shooed his dog inside and went back inside himself.
I can’t help but think about what might’ve happened had things gone differently here. What if the dog bit me hard enough that I needed medical care? What if he got ahold of Wedge and killed him? That’s some seriously scary shit. And I think we can all agree it was mega fucking irresponsible of this dude to just leave his dog hanging around outside with no real means of stopping something bad from happening.
In this hypothetical situation, I can think through a couple of different conversations I might have, and the questions people might ask. And you know what I can’t possibly imagine being asked about in this scenario? What was my neighbor’s intent? Did he mean for you to get hurt? Did he mean for your dog to get killed? Did he realize this stuff could happen?
These questions aren’t entirely useless, but in this scenario it doesn’t really fucking matter what this guy’s intent was. What matters would be that he acted irresponsibly and someone could’ve gotten hurt or lost a beloved member of their family as a result.
And this is the story that’s on my mind lately as we litigate, yet again, the question of intent versus impact. “what was in your heart when you did that bad thing?” “Look, I know I said some transphobic things, but I’m not actually a transphobe,” and so on.
One of the hottest topics in the world of organized atheism right now surrounds a YouTuber named Stephen Woodford, he calls himself Rationality Rules, and this video he made about trans people in sports. Shortly after making this video, he was invited to guest on The Atheist Experience and other Atheist Community of Austin shows, and you can probably pimagine the backlash that followed.
Honestly, I could probably make several episodes of the podcast out of this mess. But I’m not really interested in re-telling the entire story. I do think, however, there is a lot to unpack in here about the specifics of how we engage in conversations about trans issues, what it means to be an ally, and how to apologize when you get something wrong.
When this mess kicked off, there were a few people I wanted to have conversations with about it. Stephen Woodford himself was on the list. One of my favorite podcast episodes I’ve ever done involved me having a conversation with someone who’d said that trans people made him uncomfortable. We ended up having a great talk, he’d changed his mind, and everything was wonderful.
The optimistic Callie who wants to see the best in everyone thought something similar might be worth it here. See, when I looked further into it. Stephen had actually already posted on social media that he realized his video was bad. It used hurtful language, got lots of science and argument wrong, and was just generally hurtful. He’d promised an apology/correction video. This made me even more eager to have a conversation with him. Frankly the guy has a huge audience. If I can talk to him and steer him in the right direction, that could be a huge win. YouTube can be a fucking cesspool, and we need all the positive voices we can get.
So we connected, and we talked. For about an hour and a half. The conversation was not recorded, and this was deliberate. Shit’s just different when you hit the record button, Even for folks like him and I who spend a significant portion of our lives doing this kind of thing.
There were some encouraging moments, and some frustrating moments, but at the end of it all, I left our conversation without a lot of confidence that he understood what the foundational problems are with this whole thing. I was content to wait for his official apology/correction video to see where things ended up. He’s an affable fellow who I do think means well, so I was rooting for him to do it right. But frankly, he didn’t.
So this week, I’m going to unpack this mess, my conversation with Stephen, and what this can teach us about allyship, and how to make things right when we mess up.
Avoiding hurting people in the first place.
So, step 1 is to just do your best to avoid hurting people in the first place.
Human beings make mistakes right. Everyone does. We usually don’t try to hurt people. I like to think most folks operate in good faith. But that doesn’t change the fact that you ARE going to fuck up in life, and you ARE going to hurt people. It’s one of the universal truths of human existence when you have relationships with other people. You WILL fuck up, you WILL hurt someone. But there are lots of things you can do to avoid doing that in the first place. So before we talk about how to apologize, let’s talk about reliable ways to stop yourself from hurting people in the first place. Lets talk about allyship…
Step 1. Cultural competence
When you’re stepping into a conversation that involves a marginalized group like transgender people, you cannot enter that conversation without also entering the politics of identity. You just can’t. The two cannot be separated. Our very existence is political, to say nothing of our inclusion in spaces like women’s sports and the conversation that surrounds that.
Stephen got this wrong on a few levels. Based on our phone conversation, I get the sense that Stephen didn’t realize he was entering a political discussion. He told me that being trans is just not that big a deal in the UK, and so in his mind it’s very easy to separate the conversation about trans folks in sports from the political conversation around trans identity. But frankly, he’s just wrong about this. He shared with me a few anecdotes about some trans friends of his. But I kept thinking a trans friend of mine who lost her job over there. I kept thinking about TERFs taking over pride marches.
I think about the backlash against schools that included trans education in their curriculums and the staff who quit the NHS in protest of their affirmation of trans identity in children.
All I could really say is, “maybe consider you’re not quite as plugged into the trans community there are you think you are?” He repeatedly brought up these cultural differences throughout our conversation, right up through the end of it in fact. I hope he’ll do some looking into it, because based on what I know from friends who live in the UK, and lots of things happening in the political and social discourse over there, I feel confident saying that he’s just dead wrong about that. So, you have to know the cultural context of the conversations you choose to take part in.
Step 2. Recognize your voice may not be the one to lead a particular conversation.
Its so interesting to me to watch this false dichotomy come up about whether we should or shouldn’t be “having the conversation” about trans issues. Whether we’re talking more generally about the people who are quote “just asking questions”, or about more specific issues like trans women in sports or access to healthcare. In our conversation Stephen kept referring to this as a binary issue. “I think there needs to be a conversation, and people seem to be saying there shouldn’t be.”
I found it telling that the obvious third option didn’t seem to occur to him, and it doesn’t often seem to occur to lots of folks. Maybe there is a conversation to be had, maybe there isn’t. But if we agree there is a conversation to be had, also maybe consider you’re just not the right person to take the lead on it? Maybe there are already people doing this work who are far more informed and qualified, and maybe we should just amplify their voices?
And listen, I get that most of us who make content for the internet, myself included, are not credentialed experts on a lot of the stuff we talk about. We’re often just people who read a lot, and have strong feelings and opinions based on the things we read and our life experience. I get that. But if I get my facts wrong in a story about gardening, there’s almost no chance someone gets hurt. If you get your facts wrong in a story about trans people, people can get hurt. And that’s something someone who considers themselves an ally HAS to consider, especially when good and correct information is so readily available and easily accessible, and there are so many people who are ready and willing to share their stories and expertise with people who are willing to listen. There’s just not an excuse.
Step 3. Be willing to do the difficult and uncomfortable work of fixing it when you fuck up.
I’m pretty fond of saying there’s a big difference between the words simple and easy. Apologizing, taking responsibility and doing better can be incredibly difficult and very very uncomfortable, but it is DEAD simple. The third basic component of allyship in my view, is knowing how to take responsibility for your mistakes, correct them, and do better.
Once you fuck up, you’ve got to take responsibility
So lets say now that despite your best good faith effort and pure hearted intentions, you fuck up. You get something horribly wrong, and people are mad at you. There’s a right way to handle this, and a wrong way to handle this.
Step 1 in taking responsibility: Don’t be defensive.
If someone brings to your attention that you said something racist, transphobic, homophobic, ableist, and so on, defensiveness is about the worst reaction to have. Don’t bring up your ally credentials and talk about what a good person you’ve been in the past. Don’t talk about your trans friend or your black friend. None of that is the point. I get it, it’s hard. You know you weren’t trying to hurt someone. In your heart of hearts you really do want to do right by folks. But none of that is the most important thing to litigate. You don’t demonstrate good will and intent by being defensive when people are upset with you. You do it be earnestly listening, apologizing well, and changing your behavior.
Now, I actually did think there were a few bright spots in Stephen’s apology video that he released. But they came sandwiched in between some seriously defensive and deflective statements about the hypersensitivity of his critics, policing their feelings and their words, and the parading of a trans woman who’s position seemed to be that what Stephen did wasn’t really THAT bad. In fairness, he also does thank those of us who reached out to him to talk to him and teach him. Which is cool. It just didn’t quite sit right with me that he gave actual airtime to people who were ready to minimize the impact of what he did, and the rest of us got a generic, “hey thanks for reaching out and talking to me” and that came with a big ole side of “but people were real mean too, and if that’s all there was I probably wouldn’t have changed my mind.” Good apologies don’t come with qualifiers like “but” or “if.”
Part of taking responsibility is being willing to take the heat when you fuck up. If you really understand why what you did is bad, you should be able and willing to accept the strong feelings of hurt and anger that your fuck ups engender. And really, aren’t YouTube debate and discourse folks supposed to be the thickest skinned people on the internet?
Now, to his credit, Stephen does acknowledge that whatever blowback he gets probably doesn’t compare to how difficult it can be to exist in the world as a trans person, but if he really understood that, I’d think he would spend a lot less time going on about people being mean to him. You should want to do better for the sake of doing better, not because people are nice to you.
Step 2 in taking responsibility: Understand that impact has priority over intent
There are people who will tell you intent is meaningless. I’m not one of those people, at least not in every situation. Someone hurting me accidentally and someone hurting me intentionally, obviously that’s not the exact same thing. But when you say and do anti trans things, it has the real possibility of getting people hurt. at the very least it contributes to a climate of hostility that we live with daily that’s just plain fucking exhausting. None of us are less hurt because you didn’t mean for that to happen. And even if we agree that your intent is good, you have a responsibility for the impact of your actions. ESPECIALLY if your actions were a result of negligence on your part.
And this is one of the primary sticking points in this conversation or any other for that matter about how to handle mistakes? Something Stephen actually said to me was that he understood that some of what he said would very much lend itself to people who are transphobic, but he doesn’t accept the charge of being transphobic himself. In conversations like these, what’s in your heart does matter, but the impact you have matters more. And the distinction between “I said transphobic things” and “I’m transphobic” barely exists, and matters less.
Someone with truly pure intentions should understand this concept and be absolutely falling over themselves to make it right. What they wouldn’t do is center themselves, brandish their ally credentials, and deign to police how people express how upset they are when you yourself claim to understand why they’re upset and acknowledge they have a right to be.
And Step 3 in taking responsibility: Understanding WHY your behavior was wrong, and naming it as such
You can’t really apologize or change your behavior if you don’t understand the foundational reason you were wrong in the first place. Stephen’s video includes a clip of Joe Rogan yelling “SHE’S A GUY” about a trans woman. That’s really gross. That’s also a surface level manifestation of the problem, not the problem itself. Stephen’s actual mistake was not working to fully understand the cultural context this conversation exists in, and thinking that it still made sense to wade into the conversation as a thought leader with an important and necessary take. Everything that I can point to as being wrong in this situation boils down to that as the primary causal factor, in my view.
At the end of our conversation, I didn’t really get the sense that Stephen understood this. Frankly when you’re this poorly equipped for a conversation, the solution to the problem is not a video where you espouse yet another position on a subject you’ve just barely just begun to understand. The solution is to listen, and to amplify the voices of the people who actually have skin in this fight. I don’t want to pass judgement on this hypothetical forthcoming correction video that doesn’t exist yet, but given our phone conversation and the apology video, I’m not optimistic.
The second overall component of a good apology is taking steps to remedy the damage you’ve done, and changing your behavior.
And this is a story that hasn’t been entirely written yet. His video went up mid march. He start promising an apology soon after. When the backlash from the ACA appearances happened, it took him roughly two days to nail to a cross as a martyr at the hands of the ACA for their statement denouncing him and release a video brandishing his ally credentials, while dismissing many of his critics as hypersensitive. He apparently moves SUPER fast when he feels he’s owed an apology. Less so when he owes one to other folks.
A week later, we got his apology video, without the correction and update to his position. I thought this probably would’ve been the right move to make in the first place anyways. If you’re going to make a second video, it makes sense you’d want to take the time to get it right. After all, moving too quickly into a conversation he wasn’t prepared for was kinda what precipitated this whole thing. So cool, take your time on that.
If you really understand what’s happening here, an apology should be pretty quick work. But it wasn’t.
The aforementioned defensiveness and deflection that were on display pretty thoroughly blunted the impact of the meat of his actual apology. Because the actual apology statement itself wasn’t bad. If that had been all he said, I would have a lot more credit to give him. But like I said. Good apologies don’t come with qualifiers like “if” and “but.” This apology came with a heavy dose of qualifier, swiping out at the people he feels wronged him all along the way.
When it comes to taking action though, I do think Stephen is due at least some credit. He took the step of demonetizing his video, and he pledged that the money he made from the video before that would be donated to a trans charity, and that the revenue from his apology video would be donated to that charity as well. And honestly, I think that’s a pretty fantastic way to try to mitigate some of the damage done. He also edited the title of the original video to indicate that his position on the issue had changed. I still think the better step would be to take the video down, but those things are positive steps.
At the end of the day the old adage applies, the best apology is changed behavior. What I’ve laid out here is good and important, but its not the whole story. Ultimately you have to demonstrate your character and intent by an actual change in your actions.
Given the apology that was released, I’m not sure I feel confident that we can count on changed behavior in the future. And its important to point out that this video was not his first and only problematic take. There was this gem of a clip where Stephen’s talking about Ben Shapiro.He says, and I quote “I’m with him when he’s dispensing unrehearsed emotional college students who embody the regressive left,” followed by a clip of Ben Shapiro saying “I’m not denying your humanity if you’re a transgender person. I’m saying you are not the sex which you claim to be.” So unless it affords him an opportunity to criticize religion, I’m not sure we can count on Stephen being any kind of vociferous ally any time in the near future.
There’s been so much talk in this situation about Stephen’s character. Is he transphobic? Is he an actively hateful and bigoted person? Is he a good guy who just got some stuff wrong because of his ignorance? And that’s where these conversations tend to go. It always comes back to intent versus impact. Whats in your heart versus what you do.
I’ll be honest and say that my read is that Stephen is a guy who ultimately means well. I don’t think he’s an actively bigoted or hateful person. I don’t think he actually hates trans people. But I also don’t really think those are the important questions to be focusing on.
I do think Stephen was ignorant, and that ignorance led him to make a bad video. But in March of 2019, with access to the internet, when you have an audience of over 200,000 people. that level of ignorance is negligent. It’s dangerous negligence that he needs to be held to account for. We’re all ignorant of lots of things. We all make mistakes based on that ignorance. But we don’t all have platforms that can lead us to unwittingly weaponize that ignorance against vulnerable people. Platforms equal power, and that kind of power comes with a serious responsibility to get this kind of shit right.
His good nature frankly just matters a lot less than people think it does.
I want to thank you for listening, my friend. I hope you learned something or got some perspective on this whole thing. Not just the Atheist Community of Austin or Rationality Rules, but about how to be a good ally, and how to handle it when you make mistakes. These are tips that I try to exercise in all my interactions with folks when I’m trying to be a good ally. It can be very difficult and very uncomfortable, but its so, vitally important when we’re trying to create space for marginalized folks in our circles and in society more generally.
If you think this kind of stuff is important, please consider heading to patreon.com/queersplaining to make a donation to help support the production of the show. At this point, as I approach the end of my severance from my old job, Patreon and ride share driving are about to become my main sources of income, so anything helps. It all makes a difference. Thank you, and I love you.
Before I go, I want you to know that if you’re lost, you’re hurting, you’re scared, if you feel like no one cares and no one understands. You need to know there’s a community out here that loves you, cares for you, knows that you’re capable of amazing things and that you ARE worthy of love. If you’re struggling, please don’t be afraid to reach out. Until next time friends, my name is Callie Wright, and this is Queersplaining.