Reprinted from magistrate – On the obligation to educate the uninformed

Reprinted with permission from Magistrate. The following is by former student of mine who is a science fiction and fantasy writer, as well as a generally awesome person.

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On the obligation to educate the uninformed

There’s something I see a lot in discussion of race, of gender, of any sort of marginalized group, really – someone who isn’t part of that group will come up to someone who is and say “Wow, I didn’t know. Could you tell me more?” And the person they’re asking will say “No.”

And then it usually explodes.

I want to write out exactly what I see as going on in that situation, to the extent that I know it, to tell people why they’re getting that “No.” – and this is a lesson I had to learn after looking at posts by people who refused, and thinking Well, that’s unreasonable, isn’t it?, and really sitting down to try to understand why that refusal was happening. Why someone who was a victim of ignorance would refuse to educate others.

Yes, it’s counter-intuitive. But it’s not unreasonable. Here’s, to the best of my current understanding, why:

Educating others is an arduous and often thankless job, especially when you’re educating someone who may be skeptical of your point of view, especially when it’s topic which affects you deeply, personally, and emotionally. If you ask someone to put in the time and energy to educate you, whether or not (but especially if) you’ve given any indication that you might not agree with what they’re trying to explain, whether or not (but especially if) it’s a topic which is significant and personal to them they are not obligated to educate you.

On an issue like race, or sexuality, or gender, reams and reams of information have already been written. A little digging, at a decent library or on the internet, will give you a wealth of information on the topic – usually written by those who do sincerely want to educate others. By preferring not to sit down and discuss issues, people are not denying others access to that information. They’re saying that they personally can’t, won’t, or don’t want to teach it.

No, oppressed and marginalized people are not morally obligated to educate their oppressors or the mainstream. In fact, the constant need to defend oneself or one’s lifestyles is a symptom of oppression and marginalization.

I personally don’t find it offensive when people ask me to educate them. I may not always have the time, energy, or inclination to do so, and I may scoff at the notion that I am capable of speaking or qualified to speak as though I represented my entire demographic, but I generally assume (unless they indicate hostility or skepticism) that they’re asking in good faith. This doesn’t mean that I will always step up to educate them – as said before, it takes a lot of time and energy, especially emotional energy. And while I’d try to turn away people I didn’t want to educate myself kindly, hopefully with a few edifying links or directions on where to turn, were I in an emotional state, I can’t guarantee how that would come out. It might come out in a very hostile way – and if it ever does, I apologize.

The hostility. Not the refusal to educate. Because while I think that basic civility is a right of people in dialogue, having someone personally educate you is not. It is a privilege – yes, I said the P-word – and should never be demanded of anyone.

But, I hear someone say, people need to be educated, and if the marginalized and oppressed don’t do it, who will? Excellent question.

The problem here is that people think the marginalized and oppressed can be tokenized down into the particular marginalized or oppressed person they happen to be talking to. People do educate on this. People write, people manage campaigns. People take social and civic action. Yes, people both from and outside of the marginalized and oppressed groups take it upon themselves to educate others and to work for equality and justice.

This doesn’t mean that they, or other members of their community, have to work on the schedule of anyone who asks, or for anyone who asks, or because anyone asked. In the same way that you can’t just grab an unemployed person off the streets and say “You, write a letter to your congressman about the economy – well, come on, hurry up; it’s your responsibility!”, in the same way you can’t tell a victim of police brutality or even racial profiling “You, here’s a pen and paper, write a letter to the editor of the local paper because the public has to know!”, you should be aware that people have their own lives to live and their own concerns and their own apprehensions and hangups about stepping into that role and are not obligated to perform any civic duty to fulfill your sense of moral propriety.

And even asking that question reveals another one: why should it rest on the backs of the marginalized and oppressed? Pragmatically, yes, it usually does, but if you’re asking the question, that indicates that you both come from a position of privilege and recognize that there’s a problem that needs solving. Kudos to you, and that’s a genuine kudos; you’re ahead of a lot of people. The next step is to educate yourself.

You can do it. It’s not even that difficult. It’s the information age.

Educating yourself is likely to give you a much more solid grounding in the state of things, anyway, unless the person you’re talking to is heavily involved in social action or has a degree in the subject you’re asking about. People are great for personal touches and idiosyncratic experiences, but if you’re coming in as someone who knows nothing and wants to learn, you might want more than personal touches and idiosyncratic experiences anyway.

I’d like to say here that I personally don’t think there’s anything inherently offensive about asking someone else for their opinions or for the basics, so long as you respect them and their right, if they choose so, not to tell you. I have to amend a caveat, though: in saying this I am very much not interested in being used as anyone’s marginalized friend in an argument such as “oh, well, draegonhawke says se doesn’t see anything offensive about it.” Do not tokenize me. My opinions are what I think, not what every person in my situation thinks or should be expected to think. If you ask someone and they’re offended by it, apologize and don’t ask any more. If they rip you apart for asking and apologizing, maybe that’s not someone you want to talk to about this subject. It happens.

Disclosure. I am a member of marginalized groups. I’m biracial, asexual, non-cisgendered. I am also a member of privileged groups. I’m college-educated, American, able-bodied. Most people are combinations of privileged and non-privileged – this discussion, as with most discussions of privilege, applies to people acting on both sides, and should be considered in this light.

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6 Responses to Reprinted from magistrate – On the obligation to educate the uninformed

  1. 1
    Ali says:

    Thanks for sharing this Mandolin. I’ll definitely be keeping this link handy in the future.

  2. 2
    PG says:

    I think there’s a question that precedes the questioner’s obligation to educate himself, however, and it is “How do you identify a particular group as marginalized and oppressed — particularly, marginalized and oppressed in a way that you should feel a desire to redress and improve?” John Derbyshire may have felt marginalized and oppressed by the avalanche of opprobrium that fell on him after he suggested that women’s bodies are really only worth seeing naked at “puberty, and for only a few brief years thereafter.” But I think his ideas on sexual attractiveness, related behavior, and thus possibly he as a person inasmuch as he is promoting these ideas (would I want this guy around my 13-year-old daughter? ICK), should be marginalized and oppressed. I don’t want them to be treated as a perfectly reasonable perspective that people ought to feel free to hold and express without being severely criticized for it.

  3. 3
    RonF says:

    You’re going to get people from all different perspectives who will come onto a blog like this. Some of them will encounter perspectives on here that they’ve never even considered may have existed, or that they have seen highly stereotyped and don’t really understand. So when you tell them “You need to start ‘here’” (by which I mean a particular reference point of political/sociological understanding, not a link), remember that they may not have known that ‘here’ even existed.

    If someone comes in with a non-hostile attitude I think it’s only fair to meet them with at least a minimal amount of personal interaction, even if you find their perspective offensive – remember that your evaluation of that is colored by your understanding and perspective and that no one, regardless of whether they belong in what you consider a privileged group or not, has control over their own background and experiences. However, it’s also entirely fair to say “You’re asking me to cover a lot of ground that will comprise a big imposition on my time and frankly on my emotions as well. So take a look ‘here’ and ‘here’ and then come back.” and provide them with some links.

  4. 4
    NancyP says:

    It is always nice to give the sincerely curious beginner a “starter” reference. The intertoobs has a lot of schlock out there. I think that a polite curious person isn’t out of line in asking if you have a favorite book recommendation or favorite author or favorite website – as long as the emphasis is on “you” the individual, or “you” the expert on topic X. That’s a one-line answer, and you can always say “ask your librarian” or not answer if you are out of steam or too busy. I don’t expect everyone to chime in when a topic “favorite book on topic X” is announced. If the person is sensible, zie will go ask their librarian should their favorite bloggers be busy, or go nibbling away at other sites on a blogring, or…

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