Then I popped back onto Twitter a few days ago, and realized the young adult reader/writer part of the internet had exploded while I was gone. Seems it all started when Andrew Smith did this interview, in which he said this:
“I was raised in a family with four boys, and I absolutely did not know anything about girls at all. I have a daughter now; she's 17. When she was born, that was the first girl I ever had in my life. I consider myself completely ignorant to all things woman and female. I'm trying to be better though.”
I wasn’t around for the direct fallout of this interview, but it seems to have gone something like this:
1. Lots of angry responses from people who felt Smith’s comments were anti-feminist and destructive to women
2. Lots of angry responses to those responses from people who like Andrew Smith and/or his writing and/or didn’t find his comments anti-feminist
3. At some point in the debacle, Andrew Smith removed himself from social media entirely
I thought long and hard about whether or not I should blog my own thoughts about this controversy—largely because I hate conflict, and being associated with conflict in any way makes me pace my living room heavily. But in the end I decided I should I weigh in. I needed to. I’m a woman, so issues of feminism matter to me. I’m a writer, so issues of language matter to me. And I’m a human being, so the feelings of other human beings matter to me.
So for what it’s worth, here are my thoughts. And they are hinge on two words: “oops” and “ouch.”
About four years ago, I was involved in founding an English class for 8th graders that focused heavily on ethnic and gender studies. Early in the founding of the class, another teacher gave me a trick for facilitating heavy discussions about complex issues: set a norm for using the words “oops” and “ouch.”
Here’s the idea. When Person A says something in a conversation that hurts Person B, Person B says “ouch.” This is the cue for Person A to realize that they just said something hurtful. Maybe Person A realized they said something potentially hurtful; maybe they didn’t. But either way, it’s now out in the open that they did, and it’s up to them to learn more from Person B why their comment was hurtful.
“Oops” is essentially the flip side of the scenario. When someone says something that they’ve just learned is hurtful, or that they worry may be hurtful, they cue the group in by saying “this is an oops” (or whatever works…it can be a weird word to fit into conversation at times). It’s a way of offering reparation or asking for support with better understanding others’ feelings.
Basically, the point of the exercise is to separate intent from impact. My 8th graders never really got into the whole “oops” and “ouch” thing (they still don’t appreciate The Sandlot either…kids these days), but the concept is definitely something that’s stuck with me over the years. As I’ve started to use social media sites like Twitter and Tumblr more, I’ve often wished there was such a thing as an “oops” and “ouch” hashtag specifically for conversations like these. Let’s face it: the internet is filled with people who say hurtful things without meaning to. It’s also filled with people who are hurt by those comments and either don’t express their hurt or express it with such vitriol that they end up saying very hurtful things. I’ve been on basically all ends of this spectrum at some point, so I speak from some experience here.
Here’s the thing about Smith’s comments in this interview: what’s spurring the hurt feelings is language. As author Maggie Stiefvater brilliantly tweeted not long ago:
"I'm not sure why people act as if HE is on trial rather than our culture's language."
This is a LANGUAGE issue, people. Our culture uses language all the time to insinuate that women and men are inherently different and therefore can never be understood by one another. There was a bestselling book called Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, remember? This isn’t a new ideology in American culture.
So it’s worth noting if you’re one of the women in the world who finds this language and ideology hurtful. It’s definitely worth nothing, because you are a human being and your feelings matter, and this ideology will not stop being a part of American culture unless people speak up and say that this type of language bothers them. So “ouch” that moment for sure, and let the world know.
But this is also a moment where Andrew Smith and the rest of us need to be able to ask questions. We need to learn more about why you’re upset and hurt. We need to be able to apologize that you’ve been hurt and ask to know more about your feelings—otherwise nobody learns. I say “we” here because—quite honestly—I don’t fully understand all the painful reactions to the ideology behind Smith’s comments. And I’ve got two X chromosomes. So clearly I can stand to learn something here as well.
Basically, I’m “oopsing” for everyone out there who also is confused by this dialogue. I’m asking to learn.
Why is it important that we have norms around these types of discussions? Because otherwise, these conversations can breed a lot of anger and a lot of hurt. I’ve seen some tweets out there indicating that some people think it’s “not the responsibility” of a person who’s been hurt by someone else’s comments to educate those doing the hurting—especially not politely. Another YA author had this reaction to Smith’s words:
“I’m not asking for boycotts or apologies, I’m asking that we keep talking about this, keep pointing it out, keep making it shameful and at least annoying to say things like this.”
If that’s the world we’re turning into—a world where people deserve constant shame for their actions and words—I’m truly screwed. Because there are a lot of ideas and people and feelings in the world I don’t know or haven’t come in contact with yet. As such, I’m bound to say something hurtful to another person at multiple points in my life. And if that person doesn’t tell me when I’ve done that, I might do it again. And while you certainly don’t have to educate me politely…well, it would be nice if you didn’t berate me, either. I am a human being, just like you are. And I want to learn from you. I will always understand if you’re angry at me for something hurtful I said; you have every right to your feelings. But no matter how hurt you are, please don’t make my learning come at the expense of my dignity and self-worth.
Let’s take the shame out of these conversations and have some conversations about what’s really at stake here. Like the way we, as humans, use our language to write and speak about each other. Or the way we, as humans, treat each other. Or the way we, as a race of more than two genders, all talk about issues of gender. Let’s be as honest as Andrew Smith was in that interview, and lets stop being shameful when other people say honest things that hurt us. We’ll all have some “ouch” moments, and some “oops” moments, and hopefully that will be okay.
And then let’s all get together and watch The Sandlot. Because my 8th graders just don’t know what they’re missing.