Monday, May 08, 2017

Jokes, Violence, Change, Welcome

by J J Cohen

Middle English Dictionary, "welcÇ’men"

Some three word sentences that are difficult to utter: I am sorry. I screwed up. It's my fault. That's my ignorance. I'll do better. I will listen. I have learned. Defensiveness comes easily and first: I was kidding. Can't you take a joke? Why are you making a big deal? People need to lighten up! What is this, Stalinist Russia? What about my feelings?
But what matters is what comes after the impulse to dismiss or self-justify: can you listen to what is being said to you, even if it hurts? Can you commit to not relying on others for further instruction, as if it were their job to teach you? Audre Lorde called this the pedagogical burden, the unspoken expectation that people of color will endlessly undertake the labor of teaching white people why and how to be less racist. You cannot pretend it is up to other people to instruct you in being less sexist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist; that work is yours to undertake for yourself. When what Sara Ahmed calls a feminist killjoy challenges your humor -- jokes as a form of violence that create community by excluding those not in power or not possessing your access or privilege -- will you listen seriously and strive to do better? To fail is also to experience a chance to grow, and growth at any age hurts, but also offers a moment for deciding who you will be from now on ... and who will be welcome to stand with you.
I say all of this with the approaching #Kzoo2017 conference in mind. On a non-official page dedicated to discussion of the annual International Congress on Medieval Studies it was announced that "#Kzoo2017 staff will be modeling pronouns on badges to encourage write-in participation in advance of requiring it for all 2018 registrants." Some people immediately applauded; some made jokes or made light. Those actions were called out, since it takes a certain security in your own gender identity being read as you desire it to be read and not being met with violence to make light of what for many is essentially a new welcome mat being placed at the conference entrance. I won't rehash what unfolded in the aftermath other than to note that there was much discussion in which some people really did strive to do better in ways that matter. I'm grateful to those who challenged and those who listened. But I also note for example that a dude from Iceland who places images of pre-Nazi swastikas into his feed because they are "hilarious politically incorrect humor" has, not surprisingly, not changed his attitude. I'm not cherry picking this example: to believe that pre-Nazi swastikas are funny and people need to lighten up when swastikas appear in Facebook posts is to refuse to acknowledge the pain and feelings of endangerment that such humor inflicts on some. It's not funny. And I will say again what I wrote in the thread: "My firm belief is that it is *never* OK for a privileged group to make light or make jokes about race, sexuality, gender identity. If you are fortunate enough not experience acts of physical violence or verbal aggression against your very being in the world, then why would you from your position of safety crack jokes about a policy made to help those who are or might be GLBTIQ feel more safe and better welcomed at Kalamazoo? I applaud the ICMS announcement."
Sorry to go on for so long. I have heard that some queer/trans/non binary attendees of the conference now feel unsafe. I think it's important to keep in mind that the pronoun policy came from the conference organizers; the jokes unfolded on a conference fan page (and were met with vociferous challenge and engaged discussion; swastika guy was an outlier). I also want to remind all who are reading this that there is a QUEERDIEVALIST gathering for queer medievalists and allies at the Radisson Bar May 13 at 9 PM. I will be there. I will also be around for the entire conference. I will do what I can to make you feel welcomed -- and I know that I can say the same for all five other "In the Middle" bloggers, all of whom will be at the conference. I am certain the same is true of MEARCSTAPA, the Material Collective, SMFS, BABEL and so many other groups that make the conference a lively, inclusive place. In closing allow me to append ITM's statement of values, because these words so well articulate the medieval studies I and many others among us want:
"We welcome the weirdos, the obsessives, the lovers of the minute, the constitutionally uncertain ... Our medieval studies would not be possible without feminists, without queers, without posthumanists, without those who insist that the paired notions of a “white medieval Europe” and a “Christian Europe” are cruel anachronisms ... Our medieval studies is attentive, excited, empathic, at times sad, and above all careful, of itself and of its community."

No comments: