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{#transparenttuesday} The problem with “understanding.”

As of last week, the Boy Scouts are now accepting girls.

I learned this while sitting with a person who responded “That’s insane– why don’t the girls just form their own camping club?? Why do they have to join the BOY scouts??

I was struck by the impact of these two sentences, because I have heard them spoken so often.

“Why don’t they just…?” “Why do they have to…?”

These two sentences seem to form the basis of conservative argument against every single social progress and human rights issue that have come up in my lifetime.

I remember hearing them thrown around constantly, when gay marriage was becoming legal.

“Why don’t they just enjoy their civil partnerships? It’s the same exact thing. Why do they have to be “married”?

I heard it again about transgender people.

“Why do they have to go through all that surgery and everything? Why can’t they just crossdress sometimes and deal with it?

Or even worse, anytime marginalized people (trans/fat/queer/you name it) step into the spotlight:

“Why do they have to flaunt it? Why do they have to throw it in my face? Why don’t they just live their lives and leave me out of it?

And when gender identity became a conversation, there it was again:

“Why do we have to call them by a different pronoun?”

Or racial issues:

“I’m totally fine with them protesting, but why do they have to do it during the national anthem?”

Or victim blaming:

“Why doesn’t she just leave him?” or “Why wouldn’t she have just run away?”

Even body policing, like when I post a nude or semi-nude photo and someone responds with:

“I get that you’re empowering women to love themselves, but why do you have to show so much skin?”

And so on, and so on.

I assume this line of reasoning and resistance will sound familiar to you. Perhaps you’ve said some of these things yourself, or people have said them to you.

While these kind of statements might seem harmless, or like a genuine attempt at empathy, they’re actually statements of oppression, privilege, and power.

These statements say “I have never had to deal with this problem, and so it is not important or valid.”

They say “this situation makes me uncomfortable, and my comfort is more important than your rights.”

They strip people of their autonomy and freedom, asserting that “your experience is wrong, and I know better than you do how you feel and what you should do.

Maybe you’re thinking that’s a bit harsh.

It is harsh. I’m equating these commonly said sentences with privileged selfishness at best, and emotional abuse at worst.

But what if the person really is just trying to understand?


Inherent to this line of questioning is the fact that the speaker doesn’t understand why another person does what they do. This comes up in my private coaching calls all the time:

A desire to understand why assholes do asshole stuff. A desire to understand why people make wrong choices. A desire to understand why they don’t just do it differently.

Inherent to this line of thinking is the belief that we must understand why someone else does what they do, in order for us to support them or offer them compassion and kindness.

This makes sense, since we’re taught to try to understand everyone, right?

We must seek to understand, so that we may have compassion. We must seek to understand, so that we may treat people with kindness.

This is lovely, in theory.

Of course, it’s very easy to “understand” people who are similar to you, and very difficult to “understand” people who are different from you.

So you can see where this gets sticky.

A white person can’t understand why people of color are so upset, because they have never personally experienced racism, and decide that a lack of personal evidence is proof it doesn’t exist.

A man can’t understand why women are so upset about sexual harassment and inequality, because they have never personally experienced it either, so they decide that we must all be wrong, seeking attention, or crazy.

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This is why I would like to publicly take issue with the whole concept of understanding.

We don’t need men to understand the sexism that women experience. We simply need them to believe us.

We don’t need white people to understand the racism that people of color experience. We just need to assume that when POC talk about their experience, they are telling the truth.

What if, instead of seeking to understand each other, we just assume that everyone’s experience is 100% valid, believe others when they talk about their own experience, and recognize that other people always have a good reason for doing what they do, even if we can’t understand it?

This is what real compassion and kindness looks like.

You do not need to understand why girls wanted to join boy scouts, you just need to know that they obviously wanted to badly enough that they faced enormous obstacles to do so. I for one imagine that they had a damn good reason, and I don’t need to know what that reason was in order for me to support them.

You do not need to understand why some people prefer to be identified by certain genders or pronouns. Let’s just assume that if they are asking to be called a different gender than they were born with, than it must be really important to them. We don’t need to understand to use the proper pronoun.

And for anyone who is guilty of using the reverse-oppression argument (that is, anyone who feels oppressed by the fact that they have to be super careful nowadays not to “offend” anyone) let me remind you of the difference between oppression and inconvenience:

  1. Needing to check yourself and make sure you’re not invalidating someone else’s experience is an inconvenience, not oppression.

  2. Needing to check yourself to make sure you’re not gaslighting or emotionally abusing someone is an inconvenience, not oppression.

Having your experience be consistently ignored, disputed, ridiculed, erased, and invalidated? That’s oppression. And most likely, it’s not something that you’ll ever be able to “understand” unless you’ve experienced it.

So let’s stop trying to understand, and just start assuming (and acting as though) other people are telling the truth when they share their experiences.

Let’s listen, and believe them, and support them, and offer our compassion, all without ever needing to “understand.”

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<3 Jessi

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