Here’s the thing. You can say what you want. Other people can be offended about what you said. And ultimately it is up to you to form a judgement as to whether you consider what they said to be valid.
You can consider their point valid, but their delivery problematic. Some people will say you are “tone policing”, but there’s a difference between someone being shouty because they’re het up on a topic (which is understandable: it is valid to be emotional about an issue because everyone gets emotional), and someone offering to cut you. Objecting to someone crossing that line isn’t “tone policing”. It’s normal policing: you know, the sort where something is illegal.
You can consider their point valid, but not want to engage with someone who has just stamped all over you in public. That’s perfectly reasonable.
You can consider their point invalid – although, a word of advice here: try to make that your last resort. If someone tells you that they find something you said offensive, the polite thing to do is to apologise for having inadvertently offended them and either talk to them, or – if they don’t want to talk (which is fine, they were not put on this earth to educate you and google exists for a reason) – go away and try to figure out whether you understand how it was a problem.
Contrary to popular opinion, trying to be better at intersectionality doesn’t spell the end of language. It just doesn’t.
I heard this argument used in the 70s when it slowly became uncool to call black people “Chalky” and Indian people “paki” and gay people “poofter”. People reacted violently to the idea that not only was it uncool to say these things, it was also uncool to think like that. Nowadays I’m seeing the same anger from people who object to being labelled “cis”. I’m seeing it from groups of men who can’t bring themselves to think of women as human beings, and from people who can’t get their head around the fact that trans men and women are .. you know, men and women. Ignorant language is still everywhere – it’s just different ignorant language. Yet somehow a lot of us manage to have perfectly reasonable conversations without using misogynist, homophobic or racist terms etc (because we do not assume that misogyny, homophobia or racism are normal). If we can do that, we can broaden that ability further. We can educate ourselves out of the gaffes and assumptions we make about other people. And what’s more, we SHOULD.
All that’s happening is the internet is making groups that have traditionally been smaller and therefore easier to ignore, visible and impossible to ignore. Partly this is because the groups are getting bigger and more coherent: when there’s already a group of people like you, you’re a bit more likely to join in with it. People who were previously silent, separate little pockets of oppression are now joining up and gaining a voice: and good. Good.
What I’m seeing a lot of – online and in real life – is people effectively shouting “It’s PC gone mad!” or “this is language policing!” about a term that is new to them, while being perfectly OK with the elements of intersectionality they were brought up with, and which they factor in without even having to think about. Most of the people I’ve seen get bogged down on this recently are people who are pretty cool, definitely not bigots. They’re the good people, the ones you want to be up and championing this stuff. Very often they’re people who are already celebrated for championing an oppressed group. It seems to me that people are having a problem not with intersectionality, but with having to internalise being wrong about something.
A week ago I was told – quite angrily – to go out and buy the Guardian rather than reading it free online by two Guardian writers. It’s colossally insensitive, because I’m actually housebound about 99% of the time. When I pointed this out I was told that I ought to have my disability in my bio if I expect anyone to actually consider that disabled people may exist when speaking to a stranger.
No. Disabled people shouldn’t have to wear a badge so you know when to guard your language. Any more than gay people should, or trans people, or people of non-European heritage. You shouldn’t have to guard your language, unless you actually think that disabled people, gay people, trans people and people with a different ethnic or cultural heritage from you are somehow abnormal. Well, we’re not. We’re just people. It’s no more difficult to factor in “some people can’t walk” to your thinking than it is to factor in “some people are gay”. IT IS NO MORE DIFFICULT.
And the thing is: you’ll get it wrong. I’m probably getting a load of things wrong right now. Our biases and blind spots are trodden into us like fag ash into a pub carpet. We’re not aware of them: they’re part of us. Everyone – everyone – is a bigot, because each of us faces the world armed only with our own experience of it. But what we can do is try to be aware that blind spots are there, and when that learning curve smacks us in the face, try to separate carpet from stain. Try to broaden that internal definition of “normal”. While doing that, it is important to realise that the learning curve doesn’t have an end. There will always be some group you haven’t factored in because you’ve never encountered them before. There will always be someone who has a very personal objection to something that nobody else you’ve met has a problem with.
And that’s ok. It’s ok to get it wrong. It’s also ok to sometimes decide you disagree.
What isn’t ok is to stop trying, or to decide that because you already consider n groups when you speak, there’s some cutoff point where you are allowed to stop adding more.