Learning to Push Back

image via pixabay.com
image via pixabay.com

As a kid, I was the proverbial “good girl,” a rule follower, a goody two-shoes, and I liked it that way. Truth be told, I still like it that way. Not surprisingly I put a lot of stock in correctness and being polite. In high school I avoided debate, opted for tech theater instead. Crafting arguments and counter-arguments has never felt natural or pleasurable for me. Yet, in the course of my academic career, I certainly learned to write convincing prose; to back up assertions with data and evidence.

When I encounter a position with which I do not agree, I mentally prepare my pushback, yet hesitate miserably before I dare to write anything.  My disagreement is usually real, has both an emotional and intellectual anchor, and something in me wants to speak out.  As I hash out my thoughts, I often second-guess my ability to build a coherent and air-tight rebuttal.  I talk myself out of using my voice with conviction. Instead, I wait until someone else – who is braver, more eloquent, given to snark – posts the protest I wish I had written and I piggy back on it with a modest retweet.

I could stop there and say, well, it’s a case of individual choice. Which it is. And it is also indicative of a larger pattern.

Since I have become active on social media, on Twitter in particular, I have learned to pay attention to the dominant narratives and what constructive pushback looks like. To do that I had to find some  models and there are plenty.  And in choosing my models I have been highly selective: I have sought out women of color who comprehend intersectionality;  who understand from the get-go what it means to be more than “just one thing” in society, most often from a marginalized perspective.

For both artful and substantive pushback I turn toTressie McMillan Cottam @tressiemcphd, Melinda D. Anderson @mdawriter, @RafranzDavis, @nicloecallahan, @arissahOh, Shireen Mitchell @digitalsista,  and Nicole Sanchez @nmsanchez. These women regularly point out weak argumentation, demonstrate skillful presentation of evidence, employ sass, snark and nuance at will, and tirelessly remind whoever will listen about the issues which mainstream media typically neglects,  higher ed research may sidestep, and industries would rather gloss over.

Some worthy examples:

Tressie McMillan Cottam points out that while everyone rushes to quote Paul Krugman in his NYT Op-Ed, he’s not the first to make the case that education is not the great equalizer:

Because of course, she has said as much and more so often in her writing about  inequality in higher education with a special emphasis on the for-profit sector.

Or Melinda D. Anderson raises questions about what appears to be white paternalism towards civil rights groups with regards to educating children of color:

On another note, Arissa Oh diplomatically distances herself from the widespread Oscar kerfuffle:

And following an exhausting exchange over the wage gap comments of Patricia Arquette at the Oscars, Nicole Sanchez tweeted  a series of portraits of women of color at the top of their game and in conclusion offered this as a positive reset cue:

The lessons here for me are several:

As I cultivate my own voice of dissent, I need to

  • Pay attention: to the message, the messenger, the power dynamics, who is speaking out and who’s voice is missing.
  • Know my intention first and then think about how I will speak my mind.
  • Be clear about what is at stake and prepare to be heard (and also misunderstood).
  • And if I think my voice doesn’t matter, I must know that someone else who is not in my corner is counting on precisely that.  Here is where I have to give myself the benefit of the doubt, rather than defer to the status-quo.
  • Finally I have to recognize that baby steps count. Each teaspoon of resistance contributes to the next. Pushback can be learned and accommodated without becoming a default stance.

It seemed to take a long time to get this post out. And the more I write and participate in social media, the more I think of that as a good thing. I want to remain wary of knee-jerk reactions and the tendency to pile-on after a celebrity misstep. Role models are important throughout our lifespan and I take great pleasure in seeking out new models in new territory.  These mavens of artful pushback provide me with guidance, inspiration and positive examples of meaningful social media engagement. No doubt, I too, will learn to disagree without becoming disagreeable, to bravely push back rather than holding back.


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