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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

SPC Series Part II: Purpose & The Rules of Engagement

(Before reading this, check out SPC Series Part I: Introduction to Stop Porn Culture! Conference)

So what was I, a porn-positive, pro-sex-worker rights individual, doing at an anti-porn conference? I wanted to:
  • Listen. I wanted to hear about anti-porn thought straight from the horse's mouth. Or, in this case, horses' mouths; there were many presenters and their views were not 100% aligned with each other's. I not only wanted to learn what they thought, but how they presented it, and why they thought that way. What better way to gain insights into all this, and what type of people attended this type of conference than by attending the conference myself? What better way to understand "their" tactics and thought processes than by walking among them and taking notes? What better way to address their concerns than to know exactly what those are, and the nuances of their production and dissemination? SPC promotes something similar from their end (though it obviously sounds less interest in dialogue than just learning about "the enemy," but still)
    • "This isn’t for everyone, but it can be helpful to surf some porn sites every now and then to stay up on the pornographers’ latest tricks. Reading Adult Video News online (avn.com) and other news sites about the industry (xbiz.com) is helpful in understanding pornography." 
  • Humanize "my side" and present at least one good face of sex/porn-positive activists and activism. Similarly, I wanted to humanize the anti-porn activists, because too often there is intense mudslinging at faceless enemies and we forget that, at the end of the day, these are all PEOPLE--individuals with lives, ambitions, and pressures. Need I remind people about the hate-mongering and vicious bulletins Donna M. Hughes (one of the presenters), Margaret Brooks, and Melanie Shapiro (both in attendance at the con) put out about Maymay and my/our events? They dehumanized us, and it was also easy to dehumanize them because all we could see was that they were The Bad Ones. I think if we all actively thought about our humanity more often, we would feel more empathy and there would be less douchebaggery out there from BOTH sides. Once someone can connect faces to a movement, faces they might relate to on some level, it makes it harder to easily and blindly spread hate + vitriol (not that it doesn't happen, OF COURSE). It's not about respecting other's hatred; it's about respecting others as human, and respecting their positive aspects (because no one is 100% bad). And if someone calls me naive for saying this, I will fucking scream; being respectful and realistically optimistic is not naive, so stop being an asshole kthxbai. Also, again, SPC has a "tip" regarding presentation-etiquette that I find relevant regarding this (emphasis mine):
    • "For the discussion after the slide show, come into the audience if possible so that you can stand near the questioner, looking the person in the eye and acknowledging them. Listen attentively to each question, even if you’ve heard it a thousand times."
  • Ask insightful questions and correct factual inaccuracies if I spotted them & had the info to back it up. I wanted to make people at the conference THINK, and at the very least be slightly jolted if I asked a question they hadn't thought about before. This purpose wasn't entirely fulfilled because I only attended the second day, which was less lecture-heavy and apparently less tense, but I did speak my mind a few key times.
  • Give some semblance of a voice to pro-porn ideals in the midst of all the anti-porn people by speaking up. I wanted to show them that there were people who disagreed (& how), but were nonetheless interested in learning, interested in dialogue, interested in fostering some sort of understanding while still having their own agenda, values, and goals. Maybe some would even be inspired to attend OUR events as well! One can only hope.
  • Find the places of convergence and swim through the sludge to get at the ACTUAL concerns being clouded by thoughts of "porn is evil" so we could somehow address those and hopefully effect change regarding them. What concepts did both sides talk about most? What ideas did we share? Where could we build bridges? And at the same time, where did we have seemingly irreconcilable splits (and why)? Between this and listening, I think those were my main goals because they would be the most effective later.
What did I NOT do at the conference?
  • Try to radically change the minds of seasoned, extremely-anti-porn activists. 
  • Be rude! I didn't name-call, glare at, condescend, or otherwise mistreat anyone.
  • Get into heated arguments.
To elaborate upon these points:

Some folks accused me of wasting my time trying to change the views of "leading anti-sex-worker extremists," but that wasn't my point. I wasn't there to somehow magically & forcefully change their minds, especially when so many of the most "notable" presenters at the Stop Porn Culture! Conference have made careers out of their anti-porn stance. I was there for the MODERATES, for the audience, for those who have little information. (Sure, if you're already attending this conference, it's more likely that you're leaning in the anti-porn direction, but still. There were definitely people there seeking information, who weren't hardcore anti-porn folks) Y'see, this is another place where the pro/anti-porn people converge as well: we're all out to get the moderates. It sounds predatory, but it's true.

I've heard it countless times in both camps; we are not going to sway the loudest, most intense people from the opposition, but we can definitely sway those in the middle, or those seeking information. We may not be able to change the views of "leading anti-porn activists," but the thing is MOST PEOPLE AREN'T LEADING ANTI-PORN ACTIVISTS. Most people are normal folks, who may or may not yet have opinions on "the porn debates," but haven't devoted their entire lives to it. These are the people we can inform and "win over" through mature activism instead of blind fury that only serves to alienate others and give credence to the anti-porn extremists who vilify us.

How do we engage with these people, though? The first thing we have to do is NOT BE ASSHOLES. I fucking hate it when people are rude and condescending. Thus, I strive to NOT do that to other people, and call them out if/when I see them doing it to others. If I'm ever condescending, it's because I'm purposefully trying to be cruel, and I'm not particularly proud of that. Anyway. At the con, I firmly stood my ground, looked at people in the eye, smiled, and engaged. It's bizarre to be in a room where most people have some views that are radically different from one's own (esp. when they regard one's entire LIFE and even personal safety), yes, but it's not an impossible thing to tackle, especially with a support network. I had the fortune of not being personally disrespected (aside from 2 incidents with Donna M. Hughes, which I will blog about later, but that wasn't surprising at all), and I found no excuse to be anything but respectful back (not that I was looking for one in the first place).

It's not about "turning the other cheek" and taking violence with a smile, just begging for more. It's instead about not resorting to the shady tactics of those we consider our enemies and STILL acting positively to further our goals. It's about not being rude, about not debasing oneself to the practices we revile in others. It's about minimizing harm and striving for ideal situations of engagement. Again: it's not about being NICE or KIND or FRIENDLY; it's about *NOT* being an asshole. The first demands an action; the other demands that one restrains from an action. 

To those that CAN be friendly with "the enemy," more power to you. Like Rachel D. said, those who can be kind, should, but not everyone is required to do so. I, personally, am on the fence re: how I deal with "my enemies." First of all, I don't draw such neat lines, boxing some people as "enemies" and others as "allies." I usually just draw big Venn diagrams, where everyone is a circle, and I can find our places of overlap/difference and then act based on those, not the entire circles, y'know? (Sounds kinda like "hate the sin, not the sinner.") Secondly, I'm torn because I find pleasure in being kind to "mostly enemies" because I feel it's a slap in the face to them and their ilk, and that it's embarrassing for them in the eyes of other people. However, at the same time, I don't want to even engage with them sometimes, because it's hard to be positive and optimistic when people are threatening your life, livelihood, and entire...well, everything! Still, I usually strive for positive engagement and know that being a hostile little fuck won't get me anywhere with them.

On the SPC website, I found a particularly pertinent tip. While they're giving the tip so people can effectively present one of their antiporn slideshows, I think it applies to any person giving a presentation about which they feel passionate (emphasis mine):
It is important not to come across as overly hostile or aggressive, both while narrating the slides and when answering questions. It’s understandable that we feel angry and sad when we see these images, and it’s OK to let the audience see that. But remember that audience members (especially women) are in a very vulnerable place seeing these images for the first time. They need to feel like you have things under control. Also, by keeping your own emotions in check, you allow them more space to experience their own feelings and reactions.
I repeat: it's understandable to feel angry and sad. Heck, it's understandable to feel so utterly outraged and upset that you want to smash things/people with a hammer. However, it is my belief that we should strive to channel strong emotions (as they are definitely important catalysts!) into more practical and useful weapons for change. Furthermore, to quote Emma: "We need to be strong, mature advocates of our viewpoint. Disagreement doesn't mean we can take others lightly."

Once again: I'm not against ANGER or people's personal feelings, but I *am* against letting that anger result in vicious attacks that don't do anything but alienate others, both on "our side" and "the other side." I think it's useless to go into a conference (or general situation) swinging the battle-axes. We need to listen and engage first so we can properly educate, demystify, and ACTUALLY create some positive change. We need to make our "enemies" respect us as people too, and hopefully get them to engage in the same way with us.

I think it DOES harm our causes of promoting a healthier sexuality, more open communication, sex-workers' rights, gender-justice, size-positivity, anti-racism, and all other such worthwhile movements when we act with condescension, disrespect, and immaturity. This doesn't mean there's no room for humor, but  that we cannot wave away other people's concerns or comments with sarcasm and jokes. I'd feel insulted if someone dismissed MY points of view and didn't engage with them, so I strive to avoid making others feel that way as well.

Finally, we must simultaneously remember our insignificance AND our power. Our actions have the potential to ripple off into many individual people's lives, and that's definitely not something to be underestimated. Also, that just because we don't engage with "the enemy" doesn't mean they magically disappear. Just because we close our eyes or turn our backs, it doesn't mean their opinions go away. Thus, instead of ignoring them (for whatever reason), I feel we have the imperative to face them head-on.

Stay tuned for Part III!

P.S. More on this later, but I want to highlight early on that we DID find spaces for dialogue. One of the presenters commented--not just to us, but on her Twitter and the Scottish Coalition Against Sexual Exploitation Facebook--that she "also had the chance to sit and speak to the folks from yesterday who were live tweeting. really productive and positive conversations and hope that it helped in keeping options for dialogue open. Understand alot more how they felt as individuals in a room full of people where they were unsure of how they would be treated. nice to see the tweets today taking a different tone."

6 comments:

Iamcuriousblue said...

Just to clarify, I don't have a problem with you, Maymay, and Megan attending the conference and representing "our side", and trying to win over moderates.

Though my feeling about the SPC attendees is that if they reached the point of going to the conference – traveling across country in many cases – they're probably pretty committed to a hard-line anti-porn fight.

I do think you're a bit quick to propose outreach and coalition building. And do realize that many of us on the "pro-porn" side basically see these people as the feminist equivalent of the extreme religious right, hence, see very little common ground there at all.

maymay said...

realize that many of us on the "pro-porn" side basically see these people as the feminist equivalent of the extreme religious right

That's because many of anti-porn people ARE extremist religious right neo-conservative fundies. Donna M. Hughes, headliner at the FAP conference, is a great example.

I don't think Aida is unaware of this reality, iamcuriousblue, and I think you would do well to temper your contempt, at least in public, because Aida's optimism, not to mention astounding fucking bravery, deserves all the support we can give it.

Either way, I'm looking forward to talking with you, specifically, more. I think you and I have a lot to offer the other.

Iamcuriousblue said...

I don't have "contempt" for Aida. I just happen to think she's wrong on some points and have yet to be convinced otherwise.

Iamcuriousblue said...

Now as to the specifics of their politics, yep, I'm quite aware of Donna Hughes died-in-the-wool neocon status, and the same is true of Laura Lederer and Phyllis Chesler. The thing is, Gail Dines identifies quite specifically as a leftist and gets a lot of space in places like Counterpunch as a result. However, I can see hardly a dimes worth of difference in terms of actual sexual politics between Hughes and Dines.

Marty said...

Such a great post, Aida. I can't wait to read more.

We need to make our "enemies" respect us as people too, and hopefully get them to engage in the same way with us.

Yes! This isn't a naive position at all, but is demonstrably effective at swaying the middle, and is something the skeptical/scientific community grapples with all the time. For example, parents are more likely to trust other parents about vaccine safety and to distrust government sources (via Skeptic's Guide to the Universe), precisely because of the personal connection. I am not in love with Richard Dawkins for this very reason. When he breathes fire about intelligent design (or whatever) it clearly draws attention to the issue and mobilizes the base, but it risks alienating some of the population he's trying to convince.

I don't think it will surprise anyone that people evaluate their sources subjectively, but the point to take away is that being right is not enough. Even when every shred of evidence is on your side, your message will work best when find a balance that allows you to both firmly confront bullcrap and establish trust with a novice audience.

Iamcuriousblue said...

Marty:

Again, not real sympathetic here.

As a died-in-the-wool atheist and somebody with a background in evolutionary biology, I think Dawkins is one of our best advocates.