I've been thinking about a thing that happened recently. Which I am going to disguise the details of, because it's a very common thing that people do and I have zero desire to put it on anyone specific because, well, "because" will become clear, I hope.
So someone asked for advice on writing a story in which one of the romantic leads has a marginalised identity, which the writer does not share.
And a lot of people responded helpfully, and a lot of people responded helpfully and encouragingly, and a number of people responded reassuringly: you're a good person and a good writer, you'll be fine, just go ahead.
It's that last response that I want to talk about, because it didn't sit well with me, and it hasn't sat well with me when I've seen it before — and I've seen it a lot. But I couldn't pin it down, what was bothering me, beyond the basic fact that it nearly always seems to be offered from, and to, the side with the privilege. I had observed repeatedly that asking for or taking that particular reassurance tended to lead to bad outcomes, and I had a rough notion of what was going on, but I couldn't have told you what was specifically wrong with the reassurance, or the context of it, or what. So I chewed on it a bunch.
This is a common problem for me — I don't know if it's a common problem in general — when it comes to thinking about oppression and marginalization and privilege. It's a difficulty, not of believing people, but of believing people and then not knowing what to do next: learning that a thing is wrong doesn't necessarily gift me with an understanding of why and how it's wrong, and not knowing what is wrong with a thing makes it hard to address effectively.
In other words, a desire not to hurt people is not, in and of itself, a toolkit for not hurting people. You have to do the work of understanding what hurts, and why.
I mean, "don't do that, it hurts people" is an incredibly valuable thing to be told. I'm not saying it's not. It just doesn't give you a lot of help in avoiding the many, many related ways of hurting people that you will, probably, move on to next if you leave it at that.
I have spent quite a lot of time fighting the despair that comes with the notion that the only way to address my privilege, in areas where I have it, is by systematically harming the people I come into contact with and then apologizing and making amends until I run out of problematic behaviours or, much more probably, friends. Eventually - much more slowly than seems reasonable, looking back, but I am a slow thinker - I realized that I didn't necessarily need to be a better person: I needed to be a better-informed person. Then I moved myself out of a lot of then-ongoing conversations and did a lot of reading, and then I asked some more questions and then I did more reading, and this has been working much better. For everyone, I think.
Again, this might just be me, in which case this isn't going to be as generally helpful as I might have hoped, but one can only try.
So. The "you're a decent person" problem.
Well, the first thing is that in that context it's invalidating, while looking and sounding like validation: "Can somebody tell me how to fix my front brakes? I never learned." "Oh, sweetie, you're a good person. You'll be fine."
You won't though. Try to teach yourself how to fix brakes without doing the reading or getting the right tools or getting someone to teach you, and you'll probably crash, actually, and you may well hit and injure or kill someone. And the thing is, you know that, or you wouldn't be asking. So while responses like that sound much more supportive than "that's too complicated for you, you can't fix your own brakes", they're functionally the same: they ignore the question and in doing so they invalidate the asker's reality, while making it harder for them to learn to do the thing well.
Telling someone who is asking for pointers to acquire the tools they need to do the work they've set themselves that they can just go out there and fake it because they're a good person is obscuring the point, and profoundly unhelpful at best, dangerous at worst.
(You don't ask someone who makes their living as a mechanic to drop everything and teach you for free, mind you, unless you're really good friends who regularly do each other large favours. But you ask someone, in person or via a manual or both, paying as appropriate for that instruction.)
(Related: the "you're a good writer" problem, the shaming flipside of which is often expressed after a failure of representation as "that's just bad writing." (Allowing the person who says it the self-reassuring corollary: "I am a Good Writer, so I am safe from that and related errors.) Which isn't wrong, exactly, except for the word "just". There are a lot of kinds of good writing and a lot of kinds of bad writing and even if we all agreed on which were which, which we do not, that's a bit like telling someone that their spelling is terrible and not mentioning that there are such things as dictionaries: you're not obligated as a casual critic to mention the dictionary thing, or go find them a suitable one, but I do think you shouldn't tell them they just need to Try Harder at Being A Better Writer. You do need to Try Harder to be a better speller, or writer - or a better anything - but you also need to know what, specifically, to try harder at.
Fail Again and Fail Better is real, and true, but it's not everything. And now I am tempted to derail myself with a whole discussion of how we overvalue "originality" and the individual and the iconoclast and the autodiadactic in writing and elsewhere and how that hooks into a number of deeply messed-up paradigms and if someone else wants to write about that please do because it is outside my current scope but oh wow I want to read that. Anyway. Where was I?)
So again, what happens when someone says, oh, I don't know, "I'm thinking of hiking the West Coast Trail, with a group of friends, they want me to organize the trip, I've done these kinds of hikes in these places, got any advice?"
What doesn't happen is this: people aren't overwhelmingly inspired to respond with "well, you're strong and brave and your heart's in the right place, just head out, you'll be fine." I mean, there are people who do say and believe things like that — right up until they try it, generally, at which point the Search and Rescue people usually get involved.
Mostly, though, what happens is this: people who have done the trail will — assuming they don't take one look at your current skill and experience and fitness levels and suggest you pick a different route — post links to their entire packing lists, which will feature discussion of the number of milligrammes to be saved by removing the handle of your toothbrush (no, seriously) and in-depth comparisons of blister treatments and merino vs synthetic baselayers and extensive discussion of bears and they will show you their extensively annotated maps, and they will look at your estimated km/day and tell you where you're being unrealistic, and in general people will school the heck out of you, partly because anyone who has hiked the West Coast Trail can and will discuss the topic for hours at the drop of a (waterproof, deet-stained) hat but mostly because when someone expresses an intent to hike the West Coast you probably, even if you do not hike yourself, understand that this is an incredibly difficult undertaking which is going to require not just courage and determination but a large amount of data, a number of slightly unusual skills, some fairly specific equipment, and a lot of physical conditioning, because if you try to do this thing without knowing what you're doing and how to do it, you or your companions will get seriously hurt or quite possibly die.
So when that person asks for help and information and advice and the benefit of your experience, you give it to them. You don't try to tell them that they can do the trail in their gardening sandals, armed with good intentions and a single bottle of water.
(Originally I was using the Appalachian Trail as my example, but random pointed out that you can do quite a lot of the Appalachian on guts, brute force and ignorance without doing yourself or anyone else a serious injury. Most people who nope out of that trail make it out on their own feet - however bloody and bruised. Which is a different, if related, metaphorical thingy, also somewhat relevant here.)
Now, look, you say.
And it's true that if one more piece of fiction makes it into the world with some regrettable assumptions left intact it is unlikely on its own to directly cause serious, long-lasting harm to someone. Nevertheless, somebody might - very likely will - get hurt.
And the regrettable assumptions themselves? Yep. You caught me. I'm not only using car repair and hiking as a way to talk about writing, I'm using writing as a way to talk about anti-oppression work in general. The regrettable assumptions, and their perpetuations, absolutely can and do injure and kill real people.
Being a decent person in an indecent system is not enough. It's necessary, but it's not sufficient. A decent person who is easily fooled by indecent arguments is functionally indistinguishable from a bad person, alas.
That approach also leads to the assumption that all failures are failures of decency, which just isn't so. Some are, for sure. We've all encountered that situation. But many, maybe even most, are not.
Trying to introspect, or abuse, yourself - or someone else - into becoming "more decent" is missing the point, badly: that is not what "educate yourself" means. It really isn't.
I suspect that the two things - the shame-driven endless quest to root out every scrap of evil from your own heart and the reflexive reassurance of our own basic goodness that misses the point - are not only related, they're the same thing at heart: heart-searching and self-criticism, if that's all you do or if you do it without finding some kind of support for yourself, eventually bottoms out and then - because it is a basically very healthy response to realize at some point in that cycle that you're not that horrible person, you're really not - feeds directly into the mutual reassurance cycle: it feels good to tell your friends that they're good people, decent people, people who want to do the right thing. It feels good to be the sort of person who has friends like that, and says things like that to them. It really does.
And there's a time and a place for doing that, for reminding each other of our basic decency. One of the things about unlearning privilege — any kind of privilege — is that it's extremely easy to take a wrong turn and end up stuck fast in the Pit of Shame. There are excellent reasons why this is often treated with, hrmm, brisk unhelpfullness by the unprivileged, mainly that it doesn't actually help them, you, or anyone and when a privileged person has a meltdown it usually takes up a lot of space which the people they have harmed were possibly intending to use, and makes a lot of noise, which often drowns out the conversation that was going on before the meltdown started - but it's still a shame-based meltdown and shame-based meltdowns are painful and awful and destructive and just because it's not the job of the people you've harmed to walk you through it and look after you and remind you that you're valuable doesn't mean you don't deserve those things at all.
Besides, it's not like people never do valuable work from a place of deep self-loathing, but it's sporadic, unreliable, inefficient, usually ends in a spectacular flameout and is basically the least effective way of creating real positive change ever.
Shame is not a sustainable power source. Sort of like alcohol, it acts as a stimulant in the short term, but is ultimately a depressant. Also, it impairs your judgement and reflexes.
In order to make useful change, you have to a) genuinely desire it ("be a decent person") b) believe that you are capable of learning how to make that change, and that your basic motives are reliably good, which is to say, you can't be, or can't continue to be, swamped in shame and self-loathing, because it doesn't matter how much you want something if you believe yourself to be incapable of it, and then you can c) learn the information and practice the skills required.
You can't skip b), any more than you can skip a) or c). If you skip b) you end up ping-ponging uncontrollably between "I am an awful person and must fix everything about myself" and "I am a good and caring person and need fix nothing about myself." Both are bad for you without being good for much else.
If you skip c) you can end up stuck at performing decency and anti-oppressiveness to your own personal choir, at the expense of practicing them and of getting better at them, or as a way of avoiding admitting that they require work, because you've made a basic error about the correct use of decency, that is, to give you a desire for the work, not to replace it.
And that's what's wrong with responding with reassurance when somone's asked for help.
Don't be the anti-oppression version of the hiker who ends up in a Medevac helicopter, and don't encourage other people to be that person.
And carry extra water. It never gets heavier.