Short answer: People talk about subjects that interest them and that they are passionate about because these tend to be the areas in which they have the most experience. Choosing to concentrate on one thing does not mean that the person thinks that it is the most important subject, or that it’s the only subject that they ever focus on. Not every discussion can, or should, include disclaimers that list all the “more important” topics that the author deals with elsewhere, because persuading others and planning productively means that there are times when it’s necessary to concentrate selectively on a certain subject.
The relationship between X and Y
A common argument that is used on people who are talking about special interests — such as feminism — is to say that, instead of talking about Special Interest X the person should instead talk about Important Issue™ Y. This proposed correlation between X and Y is problematic on a few levels:
- It assumes that X and Y are mutually exclusive
- It assumes that there is an objective determinant for what is “important” and what is not
- It creates a hierarchy of issues, which in turn creates a supposed “correct” order/path that must be followed
Just because a person decides that they want to address one specific topic does not mean that they don’t care about, or address, other topics. Most people have more than one area of interest, and therefore will have more than one topic that they discuss.
Furthermore, just because someone decides to spend an article, or a series of posts, or even an entire blog entry to one specific topic does not mean that they think that said topic is the only important — or even the most important — issue to discuss. Nor can we assume that the discussion of Special Interest X is the only thing that the person is doing; for all we know they could have a gaggle of other posts devoted to Important Issue™ Y, or be involved with activism related to Y, or even be active in discussing not only Y by Important Issue™ Z and W as well. What their discussion of X does mean is that they have something to say on that topic and that they think it’s worth spending the time and the effort on talking about it.
It also should be noted that what is important to one person isn’t necessarily important to another person, so trying to determine which subjects other people should be discussing ends up being a losing proposition because there is no objective way to determine what is, and is not, important.
On top of what one personally finds important, there is also the issue of intersectionality to consider. While some issues have a more direct and immediate impact than others, that doesn’t mean that they are necessarily more important. This is because more often than not, Seemingly Unrelated Issue A does have a connection to Seemingly Unrelated Issue B because they are part of a larger system that manifests its issues in a variety of ways. Therefore even though focusing all of one’s efforts on B seems to be more effective at achieving one’s goals, the truth is that working in separate, but parallel, ways on both issues will actually lead to a more full and robust solution than all people focusing on B alone.
The right time, place, and way to discuss Y
Arguing that Special Interest X should make way for Important Issue™ Y because “it’s so much more important”, especially when this is done in another person’s space, is disruptive. It is a very common trolling tactic, as well as a long acknowledged as a cheap rhetorical trick: just another red herring.
Not all people who use it are doing so in bad faith, but even when one is genuinely and adamantly of the opinion that discussing X is a waste of time in light of the importance of Y, it is still inappropriate to disrupt other people’s discussion, not to mention that it is unlikely to make them sympathetic to your arguments.
This tactic is not limited to a particular group, but can be seen all across the board; even within the broader feminist movement there are people who feel that other people discussing, say, sexism in video games is taking away from other important subjects such as domestic violence or the wage gap. But this tactic is no less disruptive when it’s feminists using it on other feminists, and actively works against feminist solidarity. There is room for all kinds of discussions in the movement, and it is important that we understand the value of fighting for equality on multiple levels.
No matter how you identify (feminist, non-feminist, anti-feminist), there are ways to phrase your stance which, instead of shutting down discussion, can actually open up the floor for discussion on what you feel is important.
To better foster discussion on subjects you find important, try this: On your own chunk of cyberspace, write about the issues that you think should be discussed and why they should be discussed. Then, on the original discussion thread that talks about X, write a short comment saying something like, “By the way, I’m also hugely concerned with the problem of Y, and I’ve written about it [here] if you would like to discuss it”. Doing so not only allows you to bring attention to issue Y, but allows the discussion of X to stay on track, and creates the potential for a productive discussion of Y taking place in parallel. Everybody win! (Except the trolls.)
- Amanda Marcotte (Pandagon): Whatever you do, don’t figure out that it’s systematic
- Ampersand (Creative Destruction): In Defense Of Generalizations and “Petty” Complaints
- tekanji (Official Shrub.com Blog): Changing Pop-Culture to Change Ourselves
- How this tactic shuts down conversation:
But no, these folks never drop in at Cute Overload to suggest topics more relevant than fluffy baby ducks. Almost exclusively, they drop their little steaming gems of admonition at blogs where the “trivial” topic they decry occupies one post in a thousand. The important subject being offered in its stead can often be found in a thread less than a week old.
Thus, the scolders don’t mean “you should talk about more important things than Issue X once in awhile.” They mean “you should not talk about Issue X at all.” (Sometimes they also mean “I’m too much of an idiot to see whether you’ve mentioned more important things in the post immediately prior to this one before alleging that you never do.”)
It’s a form of purist hierarchy, usually indulged in as a result of discussion of Issue X making the scolder uncomfortable, often because Issue X deconstructs a form of privilege or bigotry from which the scolder benefits. It is first cousin to the refrains often voiced by sexist pigs during the birth of Second-Wave Feminism: “First we gotta stop the war/end pollution/make the white man give us our due, and then we can focus on whether or not you chicks deserve to get beaten up by your putative brothers.” You can take it back further than that, of course. “We have to keep the farms at full production to support the revolution, but once the Bolsheviks are triumphant we can collectivize and that will fix everything.” Or “True, your family is hungry and the Church is building a new cathedral, but your reward will come after you die.”
- On how this tactic allows the denial of responsibility for sexism:
Everyone knows this one, right? The one where someone interrupts a feminist conversation by raising a comparison to some Other: if we’re discussing the United States, we’ll get comparisons to places like China or the Middle East; if we’re discussing states in the Northwest or New England, we’ll get comparisons to places like the South; if we’re discussing the behavior of predominantly white populations, we’ll get comparisons to people of color. Hell, it can even come down to comparisons between the speaker and another person in the conversation, that other guy who’s “so much more sexist than me.”
Not only is this behavior problematic because of its tendency toward racism – or really, any bias that makes some group into the Other, and therefore a potential scapegoat – it also lowers the speaker’s opposition to sexism that hits closer to home. If a guy is spending all of his time bemoaning how sexist they are over there, it lets him pretend that he’s really a good guy who gets outraged about sexism. He can believe that he’s a good guy, or even a feminist guy. But he isn’t helping our cause over here by calling it (relatively) unimportant – and he sure as hell isn’t helping the Other when he demonizes them like that. All he’s doing is giving himself a pat on the back for not being the worst sexist around, which means that he’s far less likely to examine his own male privilege.
- On what makes a “real” problem:
Another favourite from the pop-culture bingo board is to make the argument that one should be focusing on real problems instead of this. You know, I’d really love to find the mythical quality that makes something “real” because it seems that everyone has their own opinion on what qualifies as a topic to be discussed. Women’s issues? Try again. Racism, that’s got to be “real”! Not unless it’s obvious. Oh, wait, I know, I know! Men’s issues. If they aren’t real, nothing is! That would be another negatory.
What I’m trying to say is that when you label an issue as “not real” in an attempt to dismiss the person speaking about it, the word “real” loses all meaning. It becomes shorthand for “things I believe in,” but, guess what? Just because you believe that one thing is more important than another doesn’t invalidate the subject at hand. Novel concept, I’m sure! You don’t think pop culture is important? Great, there’s the back button. Hit it and find a subject that does interest you.
Furthermore, this “I get to define what’s real and what’s not” argument is often used in place of actual criticism — dismissing the premise of the original argument means that the points made in it can continue to go unaddressed.