We all have that one friend who just gets on everyone’s nerves but you can’t get rid of them for whatever reason – they’re married to someone you actually like, they’re good friends with someone you care about, they’re living in close proximity, whatever. Individual relationships in the real world often are more complicated and more interconnected and complex than any simple form of praxis can tackle.
For the feminist, rubber meets the road in those relationships. And it’s often a major source of tension to be a feminist with friends who actively disagree with you.
The first thing to know is that no one can be “on” 100% of the time. Feminist Goddesses aren’t going to strike you with lightning if you choose to let a joke slide or decide you don’t have the energy for what will be a large fight. Letting it slide is okay. Ultimately, you have to make the decision of how you want to handle your relationships and do the cost-benefit analysis yourself. This is especially true if you are a marginalized person speaking with people of privilege.
But being a feminist also means not being quiet when something isn’t okay and it means setting boundaries around yourself. I have a few friends and relatives who are in my life more or less for good – and we disagree on everything. One, for example, says “cisgender” is a slur. This, as you can imagine, is a source of tension and something that would end a friendship with me under normal circumstances.
But the situation is such that I can’t easily cut ties. So I set some boundaries – we’re not Facebook friends, I don’t read what they write, they don’t read what I write. If the topic gets brought up in person, I refuse to engage. I set boundaries for my own mental health and for the dignity of my fellow human beings – I refuse to engage in debate over something that is simply accepted fact. Engaging in debate in that sense, especially as a cisgender person, lends credence to the idea that trans* identity is something that can be debated, as opposed to being an accepted fact of humanity.
Therefore, at times, refusing to engage can be an element of praxis – though like humility and action before it, such refusal cannot be the whole. We don’t fully enact a feminist praxis by outright refusing to engage in discussion. But, strategically not engaging can be an extremely useful tool, both for our own mental health, the health of a friendship, and for advocacy.
I’ve said many, many times before that agreeing to have a debate over something means, essentially, that you agree that thing is debateable. If I agree to have a debate with a misogynistic pastor over whether or not a woman can work outside the home, I’m acquiescing from the get-go that there is something to debate on the subject. Entering into a debate necessarily means admitting that you might be wrong – and that admittance is dangerous when it comes to discussing the humanity of marginalized peoples.
Lots of supposed allies to the feminist movement think that there is something to be gained from engaging our ideological opponents at every opportunity – if we don’t spend our time arguing with them over this, how can we possibly affect change? And that’s a legitimate argument in some respects – ideology enacted in isolated groups is quite dangerous, cultish behavior. But it’s also an argument that frequently comes with an unwieldy burden on marginalized persons – this is how educating our oppressors about our oppression becomes A Thing. It forces us to justify our existence to people who don’t give a rat’s ass about it one way or the other.
Such discussions, especially if they happen in a public forum, also immediately signal to our more marginalized friends that we think they are up for debate. It tells them that not only is the bigot in their friend circle unsafe, but so is the person who willingly engages in debate with them. After awhile, if you're willing to open the floor to any and every type of discussion, you'll soon find your friend group to be pretty homogenous and void of marginalized peoples.
What the argument about engagement is trying to get at is the idea that engaging in relationship with people who are different from us is how we change and learn about how to love our neighbor. But such things require existing relationship – which also requires boundaries. When I think about trans* advocacy, I think of the email I got from a friend last year where she came out to me as a transwoman - one of five or six people she was out to at that time. I think of my dear friends who struggle with gender dysphoria and anxiety over their gender presentation. I think of the people I know who have found happier, more fulfilling lives now that they are living out and proud.
These friends are the ones I set boundaries for. It does them no good for me to debate with a bigoted friend about my trans friend's humanity. It does my nonbinary friends no favors for me to cede the idea that their gender might be wrong. It does me no favors to buy into the idea that my own sexuality is an object up for debate. What changes people’s minds is knowing people from those groups, not really impassioned defenses of them from well-meaning allies.
This doesn’t mean we can’t still take action – we can. But action doesn’t have to mean destroying all personal boundaries in the name of some higher good of possible improvement. My mental health is more important than a bigot’s need to debate. My friend’s humanity is more important than a bigot’s need to discuss their “lifestyle.” My ability to be a safe person for my marginalized friends is more important than winning a debate against a bigot.
This is why boundaries are a necessary part of praxis.
Such relational approaches do come with an encouragement and a caveat – there are times when standing up for yourself is absolutely necessary and a good. You simply shouldn’t feel bad if you need to set boundaries where you don’t discuss the work of social justice, where you don't discuss your own identity. Don’t burn the candle at both ends. But you should also allow a feminist praxis to change you and how you react. If you are comfortable, and have the time and energy, by all means, tell a person what they did was wrong and why you won’t tolerate it anymore. Don’t treat it as something to debate – treat it as “this is the way it is with me now.”
A case in point: my oldest brother has Down Syndrome. I grew up in a culture where “retarded” was consistently used as a pejorative. But anyone who became my friend learned quickly that they could not use that word around me without me walking out. And it stopped – in fact, after awhile, many of these friends valued my friendship in such a way that they began to call others on it. Because of that existing relationship – and because many of my friends met my brother – the stigma of that word spread and people in my larger social circles stopped using it. This was a point when standing up and setting a boundary created change.
Do what you can, when you can, where you are. You don’t need to be marching on the capitol to create social change, and you don’t need to be constantly vetting your friend’s words. You get to decide what level of praxis works for you and what fits the dynamics of that particular relationship. You get to set boundaries.