#ActivistProblems · International Issues · Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights

Hypervigilance vs. Underthinking

This morning, I almost walked off of the morning show that I co-host. Because of a picture.

To be specific, it was a picture of this woman – Caitlyn Jenner. To be even more specific, it was two pictures, one of which possibly being of her as a man, Bruce Jenner.

Here’s the story – we’re less than 5 minutes away from the end of the program, and just came from a light conversation about some before and after photos of Trinidad and Tobago’s Miss World representative, Kimberly Farrah Singh. In that (somewhat uncomfortable) segment, my host said “Whoever made that drug called makeup…did a hell of a job, baby!” It was harmless enough. Some might even say it was funny. So far, so good.

Then, we get to the break, and the audio guy yells from the Master Control booth that he wants to show another before and after photo – this time, of Caitlyn Jenner.

Now, here is the part where I admit that I made a series of serious assumptions. There are, to me, a host of logical reasons why. I work with a very small team of all men, with the exception of two other hosts and one female administrator. None of these men are particularly conscious folks. In fact, during the break, my host dead-named Jenner in an attempt to justify the segment, and didn’t understand my displeasure when he did. Just last month I got in a shouting match with the same host here about whether Donald Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim immigrants was justified (he said yes). A few months before that, I had an argument with a group of the guys working at the station about whether Therese Ho was…well…I’m not going to make the same joke about her last name that every other feckless media practitioner has.

So, when they said the name ‘Caitlyn’, some instinct took over me. I asked what they were going to show about her, and the same audio guy said that it was a before and after photo, connected to my host’s point about the makeup. My host picked up my wariness and asked again. The audio guy said that he was going to run a photo of Bruce Jenner against a photo of Caitlyn Jenner. To show how magical makeup is.

I stood up from my chair. The director of the show, silent up to this point, asked why I got up. I said very plainly that if that’s what’s going to run in the final segment, I won’t be on set when it does.

And, with all things media, there was a quick exchange of harsh, unnecessary words that all fizzled into smiles when the commercial ended. I was still on set. They didn’t run the photos. But it was said that I had not thought the entire situation through…

And I can concede some of that. Firstly, I hadn’t seen the photos, so I had no idea what they would run. I could’ve asked more specific questions, like why bring up Caitlyn’s name in a conversation about makeup and beauty pageants. I could’ve even remained silent, let them run it, and blast them on TV for all the viewers to see how displeased I was. But, instead, my inner activist awoke at the mere expectation that these men would take this as a perfect opportunity to dead-name, misgender and ridicule a woman for owning her own gender identity.

Again, I had all the reasons to expect they’d do that. I have reason to expect that any media person without a background in human rights or activism would do their worst when it comes to issues of sexual orientation and gender identity. Hell, I think that the average Trinbagonian isn’t sensitive enough to deal with these issues – with these people – with Compassion and mindfulness.

In my vigilance to speak out on these issues, I saw the first sign of a threat to that Compassion and mindfulness for people and I pounced. In a way that could’ve cost me my job. And while I’m not ashamed of doing that (I’d definitely do it again, mind you), I can’t help but think…was I hypervigilant, maybe?

When I use the term here, I’m speaking about activists’ tendency to see or perceive the potential from harm in behaviors that resemble other discriminatory or distasteful ones. Just like trauma victims, witnesses of discrimination are constantly vigilant for future harm.

I’ve actually wanted to write something on this for a while. This is the edit of a months-old draft about how those with privilege responded to #BlackLivesMatter and anti-GamerGate activists, saying that they were making up their own suffering, that they’ve created such a large spectrum of problematic behavior that it’s difficult¬† – near impossible – to not do something to piss the millennial Afro-conscious/feminist activist off.

To the average person, us ‘social justice warriors’ are literally upset about everything.¬†Those average folks are afraid of words like ‘sensitivity training’ and ‘political correctness’ because they think it means that we want the power to create the standard of what’s right and wrong. We don’t. We just want you to think about what you’re saying and doing about other people.

This is genuinely what most folks think of activists…as though someone somewhere said this… (which no one did)

For a while, though, I was starting to think that this potential for hypervigilance is a problem. There’s a friend of mine who, without any real bad intentions, finds himself looking at certain kinds of women only as sexual objects. He never gets that I think it’s problematic to just think of women as nothing more than a thing to derive sexual pleasure from. He never gets that I think that if someone is able to do that to any woman, they potentially have that thought for every woman. He doesn’t get that I don’t accept that, and that I will bring it up every time I get whether I think he’s serious or not. Because otherwise he’s a decent guy. So I must be overthinking it.

But the problem is that, to be frank, everyone else is underthinking it. And when approached with a different level of thought, folks get defensive and angry at the ‘social justice warriors’ that are busy trying to make their lives miserable with their touchy-feely politics.

Take, for instance, what almost happened this morning – instead of three grown gentlemen realizing that juxtaposing Caitlyn Jenner to the person she no longer identifies herself as is disrespectful and triggering for her and the countless other trans people, they got defensive. They argued that I was obviously seeing and hearing the wrong things. They tried to make me seem overly sensitive or hypocritical, instead of simply critical of their motives and impact.

I’ll admit again that I also did some things rashly. I skipped past the reasoning and rationalizing and went straight to ‘this is a bad idea, and I’m not gonna do it’. But, in light of folks who would’ve done it whether I shared this blog post with them or not, I’d do the rash thing again if it happened tomorrow.

I am hypervigilant, constantly mindful of every single utterance or action that can happen in the space that I share. I have to be, in a world where so many others are not at all mindful of the things they say or do about others. I have to be, because in my youth I make many a mistake, and am due to make some more. We all have to be, because it’s easy to make a mistake like potentially dead-naming and shaming a woman on national television and then yell at an activist for bringing it up, but it’s hard as hell for all of us to admit that we should be more Compassionate to folks who feel a hurt that we may never know…


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