Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Speak up and expect to be dismissed, petulant child.

(cross-posted from Feministe)

The past few months of my life have made one thing startlingly clear: At 21 years, I am too young to be taken seriously by some people who are older than myself, and quite frankly, it’s beginning to piss me off.

I am not the type of woman who has ever been able to watch injustice unfold and do nothing. I often confront people who I believe are acting in hurtful ways because I hope that people would do the same for me so I could learn from my mistakes. In fact, that is the only way I ever have learned much.

I have stood up to people older than myself and this has almost never turned out well.

Start with Situation #1.

My hometown is a small place, and unfortunately, it is not very open-minded. This town is not often outwardly hostile, but I have never been comfortable with the bigotry displayed by many individuals there.

A few days ago the ex-fire chief updated his Facebook status, wondering if a type of deodorant was for men or for women. I saw this as a good opportunity to voice my opinion that if he liked it, I hoped it wouldn’t matter gender it was “meant” for. My comment was immediately followed by another grown man from the community saying that I must have meant that it was ok for the poster to be a “homo.”

I immediately commented back to clarify that I had meant nothing of the nature and that using the word “homo” as an insult was offensive and hurtful.

This man never acknowledged my words and instead took to making fun of me. Eventually another woman commented and told me that using “homo” as a type of insult in this instance was not offensive because the person being called the “homo” was not offended by it. I replied that just because the person being insulted wasn’t offended doesn’t make the use of the word any less hurtful and that excusing this behavior was problematic. I was then told off by that woman who called me “sweetie,” said I knew nothing about her, and that God would be the final judge.

It was the “sweetie” thing that bothered me the most, because with that languge, the kind that is usually used to address children, it was blatantly clear that she was through listening to me. She had already made up her mind that I had nothing worthwhile to say. Turns out I was right about this.

Annoyed and feeling as if this woman had a completely false idea of what I was trying to accomplish, I sent her a private message offering to talk in detail. She made it clear that she did not feel a discussion with me would offer her anything, an attitude which she indicated through her constant claims that she has more “life experience” than I do, and the fact that she has attained higher levels of education.

Now, on to Situation #2.

At the end of June I attended a meeting for queer youth. At this meeting, there was a misunderstanding between myself and another female attendee that ended with the woman getting very upset and leveling several insults at me, including one about my personal life that was completely irrelevant to the current situation. She then stormed out of the building.

A few moments after she left, the man running the meeting turned to me and told me, in essence, that it was my fault that she had verbally attacked me. He then got up and started doing some light cleaning. This act of silent approval of the woman’s behavior left me feeling attacked and without an ally at this meeting, a feeling that prompted me to leave and not return that night.

So a few weeks later I messaged this man on Facebook (as I was without a phone). I explained how disappointed I was with his behavior, how he had made me feel unwelcome, and how I felt that it was inappropriate for him to place the blame squarely on my shoulders when I was the one who had been attacked.

He responded that I should come back and see him if I wanted to have this discussion, which was fair, but I explained that in my current situation, I had no transportation. He told me that was my choice, and I said I was disappointed in him not trying to work something out with me. He responded:

Your inability to to get or find transportation is no concern of mine. You want to be treated as an adult, then start behaving as one not as a petulant child.
This was the end of our correspondence, and it left me incredibly ticked off. Not only did I feel that my words did not warrant such a critical response, but he was completely dismissive. Not once did he acknowledge what I had said, or give any sort of idea that if I were to find a way to meet with him that he would acknowledge what I had said. He kept things on his terms until he decided to end our correspondence. That’s the problem in both of these situations.

Both of the people mentioned above are twice my age and both of them clearly had problems with me, but not outwardly so until I challenged them on their behavior. However, while I’ve been sitting on this post, I’ve tried to put myself in their shoes because I feel that that is only fair, and I think I can relate to them to some extent.

It’s difficult and uncomfortable to be challenged by people who are strong in their convictions, no matter their age. It makes me feel insecure about my own ideas and beliefs when this happens to me. It must be especially difficult when the person challenging you is much younger because I know that most people who are much older than me tend to be of the mind that children are not supposed to question their parents or authority in general, so when this role of submissive child is broken, I can imagine it being shocking. And maybe this shock is why these two people spoke down to me when I voiced my criticisms.

However, this dissmissing of my ideas based on my age leaves a big problem. If people set some arbitrary age until which they will not take people seriously, they are missing out on many opportunities to learn valuable lessons. People of various ages and life experiences (and I do not buy into the idea that just because someone has been alive longer that they have more “life experience” than someone younger) will bring very different ideas about how to solve problems, and it is that kind of melding of ideas that is most likely to come to practical and workable solutions. But it also requires that people want to listen to others who may not agree with us or may be younger than us.

I am open to the idea that perhaps I could have handled myself better in these situations, and I have been giving this some serious thought. Should I not have said anything? Would these people have been more receptive if I had sugar coated my criticism? Would they have taken me seriously then? Will people who perceive me as angry (rightfully or not) ever be able or willing to truly listen to me?

All I know for sure is that I did make every attempt to express myself firmly but not impolitely. I know that what I had to say was not going to be easy to hear, but I tried to say it in the least offensive way possible. But my attempts were met with dismissal and cruelty. Neither of these people seemed to have listened to anything I said. Their behavior was, as they made clear, largely based on my age.

These people that I have been bumping heads with are hiding behind the idea that their years give them experience that no idea in my head will make up for. None of my thoughts or my own experiences mean anything simply because these people have been alive longer and, in their minds, know better. This is extremely frustrating because it makes no sense. Dismissing someone based on their age and supposed lack of experience is easy, but it is harmful, too. If we cut people out of our lives by believing they have nothing to teach us, how much can we really know about the world we’re living in?


Sunset said...

*waves from feministe*

Hi...I'm here and hooked now.

*goes to read archives*

Amelia said...

I'm happy you found your way over here. :) I have some awesome writers here that help pick up my slack. Hope you enjoy your stay!

Victoria said...

Amelia- I am so sorry you had these experiences. I think being young, and especially a young woman, gives people an excuse, not a reason to patronize you.

In both of those situations people had their worldview questioned by someone younger and, since they obviously didn't want to change their behavior, used your age as an excuse for ignoring your arguments.

Again, it sucks that you were belittled because of your age (especially considering at 21 YOU ARE AN ADULT). I have never experienced ageism this blatant, but unfortunately, I think most outspoken young women have been patronized by adult.

cass_m said...

got here via Feministe.

I know people my age have problems being gracious when confronted with different ideas from younger people because they don't socialize with younger people and a lot of people are not used to explaining/defending their ideas. They feel challenged by people willing to assert ideas out of the mainstream. I agree you are being brushed off by people who's attitude are unlikely to change. If it was, they would approach you to discuss your ideas after thinking about your points. They don't want to cause themselves discomfort by thinking about whether you have a point.

Unfortunately, if you were a tall, dark (haired not skinned) and hansom young man you would be less likely to run up against this type of dismissal. The problem is theirs not yours.

Anonymous said...

Have you ever read Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals? It's an oldie but goodie. I mention it here, because, in an only slightly indirect way, he gets at the very issue you're describing.

The problem he poses is how (generally young, progressive) activists can be effective organizing people unlike themselves. He explains that most young activists he talked with (this is in the 1960s) went into working class communities dressed like hippies and presenting their ideas in a way that, however well intentioned, came across as unfamiliar or aggressive to the older and more staid folks they encountered. Unsurprisingly, they got poor results and were often received with hostility. Alinsky's solution was simple: meet them where they are, speak to them in their own language. He explains this more crisply and profoundly than I do.

This sounds a lot like your situation: you find yourself trying to interact with people very unlike yourself around political ideas. The way you present yourself and those ideas can have a big impact on how they (and you) are received. Now I'm not saying that you need to act all cute and girly and deferential, and I'm certainly not saying you shouldn't stick to your guns. But it does sound like you'd find more success with folks like this if you took some of Alinsky's advice and found a way to speak your mind that older people could be more easily receptive to.

That said, these two sound like jerks, and I'm sorry you had to deal with them.

Amelia said...

Anonymous, I have in fact read an excerpt from Alinsky's Rules For Radicals (but not the specifics you mentioned).

I understand what you're saying, but I think navigating those ideas is difficult, especially when the burden is placed on the disadvantaged person to make all the adjustments. When I'm being put into situations in which I am already being tuned out because of my age, I find it difficult to accept that it's solely my responsibility to make changes to my behavior.

This may not help my immediate goal of educating people and being able to speak my mind and be listened to, but it strikes at the root of a larger problem in which some older people sometimes feel entitled.

But until that larger problem is solved, I take your suggestions seriously, but somewhat grudgingly.