24 March 2014

On activism and speaking up. Does it make me the fun police?


"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."  ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

I'm pretty outspoken, saying what I think, telling people I don't agree, and reasoning why there's a different way of thinking. Just over the weekend I told a sales assistant who was glued to his phone while serving my Mum at the market that serving her is just as important as his phone call. Since I've been blogging here and using social media, I've been more vocal than ever in speaking up about the things that matter. These aren't just the things that matter to me, but the things that matter for equality, kindness, harmony and empathy.

Last week a friend made ableist remark on Facebook (no offence intended, of course). Another friend made a racist remark about women wearing burkas (or balaclavas, as they said). I called them both out on it, publicly. My responses were "wow" to the ableist remark, and "If you're referring to a burka, then it's not a balaclava. It's cultural dress. The woman probably isn't going to go skiing nor rob a bank. How lucky we are to have freedom to express and uphold our culture through our dress, without being discriminated against." (And then I saw a meme saying "counting peoples' sins doesn't make you a saint" - oh the irony!)

It got me thinking. Does calling out prejudice - like ableism, racism and homophobia make you seem superior or easily offended, or strong? Is it a way to influence people or lose friends?

As an activist, I constantly think about people see me as a victim or over sensitive for speaking up or blogging about ableism or discrimination issues. I wonder if people think I'm a whinger or the fun police? Am I a busy-body when I comment on things that aren't directed at me? Am I a sanctimonious bore? And then it's tiring having to explain why something is discriminatory or offensive when a person says "but language evolves, it's ok to use retard", or "I wasn't intending to offend". Or even having an opinion based on experience rather than viewing a program out of choice. I can no longer count the amount of arguments I've had due to my stance on Embarrassing Bodies. I have an opinion on it - based on my own experience and observations of how others react - but I won't watch it. And I think that's ok.

Some friends constantly advocate on social media for equality. Like, more than I do. They share articles, photos, rants and blogs. They're forever battling with peoples' prejudice beliefs - reasoning, providing evidence and experience and sometimes blocking. I wonder if they're tired?

I recently prefaced a conversation with 'I made international news for speaking up about discrimination, but I'm not a victim'. This was because I was involved in what became a heated discussion about discrimination towards people with disabilities by taxi drivers and someone suggested that there is a lot of victim playing happening. I added that while lots of things are said to me about how I look on a daily basis, I don't write about all of them. I don't apply the word discrimination lightly in my own circumstances.

I don't want to remain quiet when I see injustice. If something discriminatory happens to me or someone I know, I'm going to speak up about it. It's cathartic, raises awareness and creates results if I speak up on social media (I have had a difficult time getting what I need on my upcoming flights - even speaking to someone in the special handling departments has been doffiuclt, and social media seems the only way I get results.) It's standing up for what's right.

And there's this.

"The standard you walk past is the standard you accept."

(Watch this speech. Just watch it.)

There are standards I won't accept. I will say something if a friend is racist. I will say something if the R word is used. I will politely speak up if it's a friend, family member, colleague, relative or, if it's safe to do so, a stranger. I will raise awareness about things that matter to reduce discrimination.

I do wonder (not worry) about what people think of me when I advocate for equality, call out prejudice or openly make a complaint about discrimination. But then I remember, it is making a difference in some way. It's showing strength and integrity.

And it might even lead to people talking about my activism.

(Julie McKay who is the director of UN Women Australia told me: "Carly - we are at the UN Commission on the Status of Women in NY. It's the UN's policy forum on gender issues. Your blog/ work was mentioned in a side event on media/ access to information. Really global!")

It's easier not to speak up on occasion. Reasoning can be tiring. But I'd always wish I had have said something in hindsight.

Do you speak up against injustice? How do people react? Is there a time you wish you hadn't?



  1. I find it is best to pick my battles. I work in aged care and see lots of things that make me angry. If I cracked it all the time nobody would take me seriously when I was super-angry. I generally think most people are decent, and I let a lot of things through to the keeper because I don't think they meant any harm, but try to respectfully disagree.

    Having said that though, you have had more than your share of nasty comments.

  2. I find outright abuse is easier to work against as everyone recognises it. But subtle abuse or discrimination is harder. Question a joke and you are the fun police or need to get a sense of humour. But it is the humour that makes it palatable to a wider audience who would see the problem if it was a straight piece. It is grey and more subtle and therefore harder to question. But the humour in things like the meme I wrote about the other week, dehumanise the person, they are simply a prop in the joke and therefore not worthy of respect. That dehumanisation creates an 'other' and makes it easier to abuse or discriminate in a wider context. If we don't speak up nothing changes. But it is exhausting. I do think you have to pick your battles or the message becomes diluted, but it can be hard some days when it is so common place.

  3. Hi Carly,

    I've got the thyroid condition that leads to what used to be called cretinism, and in my case did until my condition was identified at age 4 or 5 and I was put on supplements. I hear people use the word cretin as a stronger word for idiot, which offends my mother but really doesn't offend me, probably because I didn't learn what it meant until I was a bit older. I probably wouldn't be hurt unless it was knowingly directed at me. At school I was subjected to repeated bullying which was often physical and often carried the threat of violence, and (contrary to what people who knew me as a child believe) I don't find words hurt that much and I'm not that sympathetic to people who go round correcting others' language except where it's clearly offensive, obviously racist or when it's linked to bullying (like retard). I think adults need to act like adults and stop expecting that nobody hurt their feelings, ever, even unintentionally.

    I also think people should be careful of their tone when they call people out for these things. There is a dogma that states that if you object to the way someone does this, you're contributing to their 'oppression' - there's no shortage of articles on various blogs about this. And people are individuals, not groups - you're not talking to the whole white race or all able-bodied people but to one person (and you may be bigger than them or they may perceive you as such, particularly if you're shouting at them). The dogma is often used as a licence to bully.

  4. I think we should choose our battles carefully when speaking up against perceived injustice. There's a difference between willful ignorance & bigotry and a thoughtless comment. The way I respond to questions about my ichthyosis depends entirely on how the question is asked. I've always thought people have a right to be curious but they do not have a right to have their curiosity satisfied.

    I tread lightly when defending someone whose cause I don't directly share. Opting always to point out that all people should be treated with dignity. I never speak in terms that make it seem like I'm speaking for the other person, if that makes sense. Recently, during lunch with a friend, who I know to be very conservative, he used the word "indoctrinate" regarding LGBT people and children. I pointed out that amongst my LGBT friends the majority of them knew they were LGBT when they were as young at 5 or 6, even though they may not have known the term. I explained that making something seem wrong at that early age can irreparably harm a child. In this instance, I felt qualified to speak based on personal experience and anecdotal evidence from my friends.

    We run the risk of infantilizing people when activism becomes rushing strongly to the defense of every perceived slight. I think we need to give people the chance to fight their own fight, especially in online comments, etc. There's nothing wrong in calling people out, especially when they're friends or acquaintances who should know better. That being said, there seems to be a bit of an age gap. I'm older than a lot of people I know and I'm, for lack of a better way of putting it, a little more tolerant of SOME intolerance. I let some stupid opinions lie. I don't let actions that are out & out harmful lie. That is, it's always wrong to support discriminatory government policies.

    We can't cover people in cotton wool and protect them from everything. I know it's important to change laws & make organizations aware that they need to treat everyone with dignity. But activism has to be more than walking around on high alert looking out for injustice. It's clear that the willfully ignorant and the bigots do not want to change. I'd rather use my energy to remind people who fall outside the norm that they're perfectly fine the way they are.

  5. It is a hard one - I don't react publicly as often as the internal me has a reaction to some people's bigotry, but then I spent a lot of my teens and 20s fighting far too many battles and making too little impact.

    I try not to do it myself, and for those friends who I believe should be wider in their world view I will offer the Snopes or suggest another perspective on how things could be received...

    I don't think the counting sins comment would be directed at this - definitely on those who judge though - educate is different to judge.

  6. It is a difficult one Carly. Overplay your hand, calling out every injustice you see, and people will stay away. You'll soon find the only friends you have are others who get similarly publically outraged over lots of things, and are forced to put up with each other because more moderate people steer clear - it's exhausting for people to be around others who pass judgement on every perceived disagreement. How far you go depends on context. You might find a critique of Indian taxi drivers, and the poor service many of them offer, done in private, is just an offhanded comment you disagree with. A statement on social media, meant for public-ish consumption that disparages a group with a serious accusation (eg all xxx are violent misogynists) is a different matter, and should be called out.


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