When I Ask for a Life Preserver, Don’t Tell Me to Say Please

Nicole Hallberg
8 min readSep 6, 2017

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Sure, fight for your rights — but don’t inconvenience me when you do it.

That’s the message I heard thunderously loud and clear at a BarCamp event here in Philadelphia last fall. BarCamp is an “unconference” — members of the Philly tech scene show up every year, and sign up to give talks on whatever topic they fancy. Attendees vote on what they want to see, and everyone gets a room to present in. BarCamp 2016 was held on November 12th — just four days after the election. The crowd was a group of urban progressives who have startups or freelance in tech and digital and content. We were precisely the “East Coast elites” that Trump marshalled his base against. In a room full of activists, vegans, and Twitter journalists, I’m not exaggerating when I say that the mood felt funereal. It was very much like what I remember 9/11 feeling like as a kid — we were all publicly mourning a national tragedy.

Nearly every single panel pitched had something to do with Trump, and several were titled “What Do We Do Now?” I signed up for a roundtable panel on feminism, looking for some camaraderie and hoping for…well, some hope. The room was packed to the gills, with a surprisingly high ratio of men. I should have taken it as symbolically significant that there were women standing at the back of the room. The seats had all been taken.

The panel discussed feminism for maybe all of five minutes. People wanted to have a group therapy session over the election loss. Fine by me. But I started to get uncomfortable when the discussion derailed totally into “what could be done” about the poor, rural voters who couldn’t be trusted to vote for their own interests… which just so happened to coincide with what this group of coastal elites wanted to be their interests. I’m looking around the room, and women are struggling to get a word in. I’ve been networking and freelancing for a few years, and I’ve taught myself to be loud and finish my thought no matter what looks I’m getting. Of course, I was getting sighs and interruptions, that’s nothing new. But several men were taking turns monologuing, one after the other. And they weren’t sharing their thoughts on how to dismantle the patriarchy — they wanted to impart their thoughts on why we lost the election, as though anyone had a clue and hadn’t spent the last four days binging ice cream and soup. At a feminism panel.

I noticed my best friend, Marty, standing at the back of the room. He was calling attention to women who were trying to speak but couldn't get called on, and asking women to repeat themselves when they got too quiet to hear. Supportive, helpful, in the wings. Not grabbing the megaphone and white-knuckling it until his every opinion was heard. I was reminded of a conversation I had had with him years ago, back when we had been coworkers.

We had just finished another frustrating meeting between our boss and the two of us, where I was ignored and talked over as usual. When the boss left, I turned to my friend and said “God, I’m so frustrated, I hate how he-”

“ALWAYS interrupts? Yeah, he’s TERRIBLE at that!” I stared at him to see if he was deliberately making a joke. He wasn’t.

“You know that you do it it too, right? Sometimes just as bad, if not worse, than he does? In fact, you literally just did it.”

We talked about it. He got it. He asked me what he could do. I told him that it would help not just me but any women he was speaking with if he used the fact that people naturally paid him more attention to direct more of that attention to women who are struggling to be heard. And the meetings got better.

Now, we were at a feminism panel. Everyone there was, theoretically, a feminist. So, I naively thought, perhaps they would like to learn how to be better allies! Surely they would be receptive to a gentle suggestion. When I was called on, I started, “Hey dudes, I just wanted to point something out. I’m glad you’re all here, and this isn’t directed at any one person at all, but…” and I explained how the men could be better allies by using their spotlight to help shine it on the women that they were theoretically there to support.

Someone directly behind me was called on next.

“I am not a dude.”

“Uh, sorry, what?”

“I am not, and never have been, a dude.” I couldn’t figure out what he was trying to tell me — I thought he was telling me that he was trans.

“Oh, okay, how do you identify then?”

“As a human being.”

He got a round of applause. And that’s when the room turned on me. One woman followed with how we need to speak less as white people, not more. Others echoed and agreed with not-Dude’s sentiment. And the conversation spun on.

I was so angry, I was dizzy. What the fuck just happened? I lost them at the word dudes? THAT was their problem? Why were they even there? What did he think I was accusing him of with that word? And if “dude” does somehow contain a nasty connotation that I’m not aware of, he sure as shit earned it with his tone policing.

I went straight to my best friend as the panel started to let out, shaking and struggling to pull it together. As he was giving me a hug and helping me get my head screwed back on right, we were interrupted — because of course we were — by another man in a suit.

“Hey, I agreed with your sentiment, but you have to find a better way to say it, or else no one is going to take it seriously.” (You will kindly recall that I hedged my words to make it more palatable to the men in the room several times in the first sentence alone.)

This is when I went from rage to nuclear. Sorry, Suit-guy, but next time learn to read a situation and consider not offering unsolicited advice about how to be a feminist to a woman who already looks like she’s ready to put her coffee stirrer in your jugular and tap you like a tree.

“Yeah, you know, that sounds like super great advice, except that I’m tired of being told again and again and again and again that I have to fight this battle with my hands tied behind my back because I have to be nice. I can’t say what I need to say, because the ways to offend cis white men are endless.” I added the Pocahontas wave to demonstrate how endless they were.

“See, now that offended me.”

“EXACTLY!!”

Marty pulled me away before this conversation somehow managed to get any less productive or I turned him into a human sugar maple.

I have no time for the allies who want star stickers for being super Woke on the condition that it involves exactly zero inconvenience or personal sacrifice. I have no time for the “allies” who use feminism as a platform to broadcast their own sense of moral superiority — the monologuing white man who needs to be validated in how much better he is than the poor, rural, stupid, red-voting types.

The problem here is not that activists aren’t dressing up their causes prettily enough for mass consumption. Black Lives Matter and antifa and feminism don’t have a PR problem, they have an audience problem. If you need the people behind these causes to turn down their megaphones to a respectable whisper and tie a bow around the idea that “Black folks and women are people” before you can sign on, maybe you are actually part of the problem.

Tone policing is the idea that “I agree with what you’re saying, but you should have said it differently.” It puts the comfort of the listener at a higher priority than the needs of the oppressed. Think about Colin Kaepernick — white football fans love to pretend that they would support his message if he had just found a more respectful way to make it. Apparently, “innocent people shouldn’t be murdered by police” is not a message worth making if the whites who hear it feel offended. But I have bad news for the activists hoping that appeasement and good PR will eventually win the day: it never, ever will. They will always be offended, because they believe at their cores that blacks, gays, immigrants, women, and everyone else should stay silently in their place on the bottom rungs of society, causing no trouble. Black Lives don’t matter — White Feelings Matter.

Tone policing requires women to put extra time and effort into hedging her opinions and prettying up her speech, turning the already exhausting process of speaking in a group into a battle she’ll never win. How can you expect me to talk in circles around your precious ego when I need to rush just to finish my thought before I’m inevitably interrupted?

What allies need to understand is that this whole “feminism” thing isn’t a fun hobby. Not for us. This isn’t the academic debate club, where there are no stakes and the form matters as much as the message. Women are suffering under institutional sexism in a measurable way every day, and it’s costing us jobs, money, healthcare, and occasionally, our lives. If we ask you for a life preserver, don’t demand that we say “Please”.

Real allies need to recognize that tone policing isn’t the way to fight a patriarchal system, it’s an extension of it. In not-Dude’s world, he should never have to feel the slightest discomfort — especially not coming from a woman. Women’s jobs are to comfort and please. If he does feel uncomfortable, this does not indicate to him the need for introspection and change. It means that someone needs to be put in their place — which is exactly what he chose to do. He took a space that was meant to be safe for women and demanded that I instead make it safe for him.

Remember — the patriarchy was built to facilitate men’s comfort, dominance, and success. If a man who claims to be a feminist demands you change when you challenge him or make him uncomfortable, he doesn’t want to change the world to make it better for you — he likes it just the way it is. It is operating as designed. Disestablishing the patriarchy means that he would have to accept respect, not deference. He would have to accept a fair shot, and not his usual golden ticket. He would need to take his place as a citizen of the world, and no longer be the yardstick by which it is measured and for whom it is built. And that means — yes — sometimes ladies will talk back to him.

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Nicole Hallberg

Philly freelance blogger. Follow @nickyknacks for the personal stuff and www.nicolehallberg.com for my work stuff.