Jokes, Connect-The-Dots, and Microaggressions

(Note: This post is in reference to some stuff going on at Family Scholars Blog. –Amp)

Fannie’s post seems to have reached its maximum number of comments, but I had already written a comment. So I’m starting a new thread to continue that conversation.

Matt made a joke about running away from a link he put down. Fannie said that joke was problematic. David B. commented:

At the same time, I cannot for the life of me find anything objectionable, from any point of view, in what Matt wrote. I mean, not even .000001 percent problematic.

It’s like a connect-the-dot drawing. You don’t see a puppy dog by taking the perspective of one individual dot. “That’s just a dot. There’s no puppy dog there, no matter how I look at it.” That’s true. But when you look at the pattern as a whole, the puppy dog is there.

What’s problematic isn’t in what Matt wrote. If Matt’s comment stood alone, not fitting into a wider pattern, I doubt Fannie or anyone else would have given it a second thought. But it does exist in a context: this same joke (or minor variations) has been made across thousands of conversations. And when the same joke is heard a lot of times, that pattern cumulatively sends a message.

What is that message? Hugo Schwyzer, who teaches gender studies and so witnesses this sort of behavior a lot, wrote:

All of this behavior reflects two things: men’s genuine fear of being challenged and confronted, and the persistence of the stereotype of feminists as being aggressive “man-bashers.” […] Joking about getting beaten up (or putting on the football helmet) sends a message to young women in the classroom: “Tone it down. Take care of the men and their feelings. Don’t scare them off, because too much impassioned feminism is scary for guys.” And you know, as silly as it is, the joking about man-bashing almost always works! Time and again, I’ve seen it work to silence women in the classroom, or at least cause them to worry about how to phrase things “just right” so as to protect the guys and their feelings.

This comes back to “centering” (something Fannie’s talked about before). If we “center” Matthew’s view, and put ourselves in his shoes, it’s hard to see anything at all wrong with Matthew’s joke, and it’s unfair for Matthew to be made to feel uncomfortable because he told a joke. What’s important becomes “did Matthew intend to give offense?” And the answer is no, Matthew (who is a nice guy) had no such intent.

But when we center Fannie’s position, we see that there’s a pattern here, of the same joke being told by different people over and over and over again, always implying that by disagreeing with feminists (or gay people, or black people, etc etc) the speaker has put themself at risk of violence. And the question isn’t “what did Matthew intend,” but “what message is this pattern sending to women?”

Another word for this sort of pattern is microaggressions. “Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.” (Bold added by me).

My co-blogger Mandolin (at my home blog) wrote a blog post on this subject, in which she pointed out that the metaphors seem to get even more violent when both race and sex are involved in the discussion.

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16 Responses to Jokes, Connect-The-Dots, and Microaggressions

  1. 1
    Megalodon says:

    Hugo Schweitzer, who teaches gender studies and so witnesses this sort of behavior a lot

    You mean Hugo Schwyzer, right?

  2. 2
    Ampersand says:

    You mean Hugo Schwyzer, right?

    That’s exactly how I spelled it!

    (Walks away, whistling innocently….)

  3. 3
    Elusis says:

    Mandolin’s post is one of my all-time favorites on this blog, and one of the main reasons I started reading here regularly.

    And it’s depressing how regularly I have to refer back to it because yet another person has pulled out the “your disagreement with me is the equivalent of lynching/rape/abusing me/etc.” fallacy.

  4. 4
    Mandolin says:


  5. 5
    Sebastian H says:

    I’m a fan of meta-jokes that expose micro-aggression:

    1. How does every racist joke start? (looks around suspiciously over both shoulders…)

    2. What do you call an Arab (or Black or Gay) man flying a plane? Pilot.

  6. 6
    Elusis says:

    I find it really frustrating and disingenuous that they keep closing comments over there. I mean, it’s their website, but come on. Fanny’s point was right on and exposes the hypocrisy of the whole “you’re victimizing me with your social justice-ness” stance, which is isomorphic to the whole “you’re victimizing me with your gay marriages/calling me anti-gay” stance (FTR I’m not 100% clear on the blog’s relationship to Maggie G and NOM but she sure seems to show up a lot, then vanish without answering anyone’s actual questions for her).

  7. 7
    Ampersand says:

    I definitely don’t agree with every blog moderation decision they make over there, but – maybe because of my many years as a blog moderator – I’m inclined to be very forgiving of blog mod decisions I disagree with.

    I definitely disagree with how the moderation has gone this week (and have told them so). But I also think that the people running FSB have genuine good intentions, and I think it may improve.

    I agree with you about Fannie’s post.

    Maggie is in theory a co-blogger at FSB (she and I are listed right next to each other on the bio page! :-p ), but she posts very rarely. She does leave brief comments fairly often, but I agree, usually they seem more like drive-by comments than conversations. I assume that the issue is that Maggie’s just a very busy person and doesn’t have much time for FSB.

  8. 8
    Eytan Zweig says:

    I don’t disagree with FSB’s policies, but I find the way they implement them to be very odd. The whole “cap comments at 30″ thing means that discussions end at random points, that may or may not be the point in which they run their course. And the moderators only post themselves in pretty random occasions, so often it’s not possible for a casual reader like myself to know if a discussion was closed for a particular reason or whether it just was ended because no one saw the need to have it continue.

    In all honestly, I thought that Fannie’s post was important and illuninating and completely wrong for FSB, where the site’s ethos seems to prefer judging people’s words by their intentions rather than their effect. I think that there is a value in having spaces where that’s the rule, and if FSB’s mods want to go with that, then they should, and let posts like Fannie’s and Amp’s discuss these problems elsewhere. But their passive-aggressive form of moderation, where it’s not actually possible to tell their attitude to a discussion until after it closes, is rather unhelpful.

  9. 9
    fannie says:

    Hi Barry,

    Thanks again for posting this article, and backing me up with the micro-aggressions analogy.

    And, to those who have commented here, thank you as well. It’s resonating to hear you call my post important and right on, because many vocal commenters at FSB seem to think that my post was “abusive” and incredibly out of line, which kind of baffles me.

    I think the experience has illuminated, for me, just how very tepid criticisms of privileged folks have to be in order for criticisms to not be seen as an attack. I think I said several times comments along the lines of, “Now, I don’t think it was Matt’s intent here to be problematic…” and Barry, in his post, outright said Matt’s “a nice guy,” and still…. we are commanded to “lay off” of him?

    And, to circle back to my point about the problematic nature of men entering conversations with feminist women by saying things like, “I’m going to get clobbered for saying this, but” and “I’m just going to post this and run away,” I noticed that, well…. Matthew kind of did run away from the entire conversation as soon as he was seriously challenged on an issue from a feminist woman, which suggests to me how not jokey his “joke” was.

    So…. I think I was exactly right in thinking, okay, just how delicately do I have to put any sort of criticism of his post here?

  10. 10
    Elusis says:

    just how very tepid criticisms of privileged folks have to be in order for criticisms to not be seen as an attack

    I have said it before (I think here; maybe not?) and I’ll say it again: The cake is a lie The tone argument is a red herring. If labeling privilege, or identifying someone’s behaviors as unfair/prejudicical/hurtful/etc. is inherently attacking/insulting, then there is no “tone” in which one can say such things that will be considered OK. Attempts to respond to the tone argument assume that all parties involved are operating in good faith, but if “afflicting the comfortable” is assumed by some parties to be inherently out of bounds, then efforts to find an acceptable “tone” are just busywork, a convenient way to de-rail the argument and take the focus off of the person making the tone complaint.

    It is the ultimate Sisyphean task, IMO. “Just roll that rock up the hill one more time, and maybe this time you’ll get it balanced just right at the top! Surely you can manage that!” Metaphors of Charlie Brown and the football also come to mind….

  11. 11
    Myca says:

    If labeling privilege, or identifying someone’s behaviors as unfair/prejudicical/hurtful/etc. is inherently attacking/insulting, then there is no “tone” in which one can say such things that will be considered OK.

    Right! Right right right right right.

    The faux distinction between style and substance is absolutely infuriating to me.

    I find the suggestion that gay folks ought not have the same civil rights as straight folks really fucking offensive. If I say that, and suggest that advocating for discrimination is inherently uncivil, the reaction is that we need to be able to discuss such things, and we should be able to do it in a civil way, no matter the substance. So style is what’s important!

    Except, of course it’s not.

    Stylistically, Fannie’s post couldn’t have been more civil – gentle, even! It’s not the style that they’re reacting to.


  12. 12
    fannie says:

    In the future, if people find it offensive to be told that their views are problematic/sexist/racist/homophibic/etc, maybe we should take Maggie Gallagher’s approach of suggesting that listeners have a duty to not get all offended at stuff ;-)

  13. 13
    AMM says:

    Ever since this was posted, I have tried to read and digest this post, but each time I do, I hit that (apparently approving) reference to and quote from HS, and my digestion rebels. It’s as if I were reading a post on anti-racism by a supposed ally of anti-racism efforts and found, right in the middle of the post, David Duke being referenced as an authority on race relations and quoted approvingly.

    I know we’re not supposed to get personal in this blog, but I’ll just say that, given HS’s well-known history, I am automatically wary of anyone who considers him an ally.

  14. 14
    Mandolin says:

    *shrug* Hugo Schwyzer wrote the post long before the conflict, and it’s been used and quoted here for a long time. I refuse to discard an idea I found useful.

  15. 15
    AMM says:

    Hugo Schwyzer wrote the post long before the conflict

    The only “conflict” I know of is when Clarisse Thorne tried to present him to the Feministe crowd as some sort of feminist hero. The “known history” I was referring to predates that by quite a while, since I got most of it from reading HS’s own writings on his website at least a year or two earlier.

    But it’s not my blog, so I’ll leave it at that.

  16. 16
    fannie says:


    I too have serious issues with Schwyzer, both from a personal and a feminist standpoint.

    But, like Mandolin, I found the quote useful. It aptly described what I felt was happening in the conversation at Family Scholars. I don’t think the quote was offered to make the point that Schwyzer is an “authority” on feminism or an “ally.” I think the quote was offered because it stands on its own as a valid point.

    And, sadly, as I pointed out in a comment that got deleted at Family Scholars, I think non-feminist men who don’t think much about gender issues do have a tendency to give more weight to an argument or observation if it’s made by a man rather than a woman.

    I would have loved to have possibly observed that dynamic at work following Barry’s post. Too bad that comment thread got shut down too.