Toward a “Dental Hygiene Model” of social justice conversations (and also, of every other kind of conversation)

“When you believe that you must be perfect in order to be good, it makes you averse to recognizing your own inevitable imperfections, and that lets them stagnate and grow.” – Jay Smooth

This is possibly the laziest blog post ever, because it mostly brings together some ideas from other blog posts and video presentations. I’m going to start by riffing off Brene Brown’s TED presentation: The Power of Vulnerability.

Brown, a sociology researcher, says that what gives meaning to our lives is a sense of connection to others. What prevents us from forming connections is shame; shame is fundamentally the feeling of being unworthy of connection. She found that people who do feel connected are willing to be vulnerable, to take risks, and to accept their own imperfections. They accept that they are imperfect and nevertheless feel compassion for themselves – and it turns out that those who don’t feel compassion for themselves, also have difficulty feeling compassion for others. Perfectionism, the need to feel that you never do anything wrong, gets in the way of vulnerability and compassion. I’m not summarizing it very well but it’s a really entertaining presentation, go watch it!

In the very different but equally awesome video My TEDx talk: How I learned to stop worrying and love talking about race, Jay Smooth points out that when a person is told: “That thing you said sounded kind of racist”, they will usually reply: “But I’m not racist!”. It seems that we are really bad at distinguishing between a criticism of a thing we did and a criticism of who we are as a person. Our tendency to immediately get defensive makes it hard to have these conversations at all.

On one level, the “But I’m not racist!” reaction could indicate that the person has a very simplistic view of racism: they could believe that in order to be racist you have to deliberately try to be racist, or that the intent behind their words is more important than the words themselves. Of course reality is much more complicated than that, and unfortunately we all grow up surrounded by racist messages, some blatant and some subtle, so it is very possible to say something racist without meaning to.

Another explanation, which Jay Smooth and Brene Brown both talk about in different ways, is that we have a cartoonish all-or-nothing view of ourselves: we see ourselves as either perfectly good or perfectly evil, with no room for shades of grey in between. Brown sees this as an ugly flip-side of perfectionism; a perfectionist has a very fragile sense of their own worthiness, so that any criticism which implies they are not perfect feels like an attack. In his video Jay Smooth jokingly calls this all-or-nothing view the “Tonsils Model of Social Justice Conversations”: “What do you mean I said something racist? I had my racism taken out in 2005!”

Jay Smooth proposes a solution: we should work towards seeing our “goodness” not as an intrinsic state of being, but as a daily practice. Being “good” doesn’t mean never doing anything wrong, it means (partly) trying to listen and understand when someone tells you that you’ve done something wrong. This is the “Dental Hygiene Model”: you don’t just clean the plaque off your teeth once, you keep working at it every day.

Lastly I want to look at abusive or harmful ways of communicating. This a topic that’s been all over the feminist blogosphere lately (thank you, feminist blogosphere, for yet again pushing forward the boundaries of feminist knowledge!) These are some of the strategies we might be tempted to use when someone offers criticism that’s hard for us to hear. These are all about silencing the criticism-offering-person and making them feel small, rather than actually addressing the issues they have brought up:

  • You’re being too sensitive / emotional
  • You’re being unreasonable
  • You’re stupid
  • You’re crazy
  • That’s ridiculous
  • That’s not important / no-one cares about that
  • You have no sense of humour
  • That’s not what I said (literally denying reality)

I’ve definitely used some of these in the past when someone criticised me (um, and if any of the people I did this to are reading this, I’m really really sorry!) I think recognizing these can make it easier to avoid using them, and also to recognize when someone else is using them.

Here are a bunch of blog posts that discuss these kinds of harmful communication in detail (in different ways):

Huffington Post: A message to women from a man: you are not “crazy”

Feministe: More on Gaslighting

Shakesville: Harmful communication part 1: Intent is magic

Shakesville: Harmful communication part 2: Emotional auditing

Captain Awkward: Derailing: how not to talk to people who are telling you something sad

So (as part of the practice of good daily mental hygiene) it would be good to think about practical solutions to these harmful ways of communicating. This is the sort of thing that would be better done by a group of people, in a workshop, but, well, I’m not good at organising social things so… (look at me, recognizing and accepting my own limitations! I lovingly accept myself and all my flaws! Awesome!!!)

Here’s what I came up with:

When someone criticises you and you feel defensive and want to lash out at them:

  • Slow deep breaths
  • Remind yourself the person has good intentions and is not a demon sent to smite you with their fiery criticism
  • If necessary, say “I’m sorry, I’m too tired and stressed to have a useful conversation about this right now. Would you like to arrange to meet tomorrow / next week to talk this through?”

When someone is using abusive language to bully or silence you

  • “No, I’m not being too sensitive / emotional / unreasonable / crazy / ridiculous, I’m talking about something that is important to me, and I’m surprised and saddened that you are treating me with so little respect. This is making me reconsider our friendship.”

When you want to offer someone criticism and maximize the chances of it being accepted

  • Give compliments along with constructive criticism
  • Make sure the criticism really is as constructive as possible
  • Start by saying “I wanted to talk with you about X, is now a good time?”



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