Hi-dee-ho, there, FreeThoughtBorg. I know a lot of you are eager to-be activists and even more of you have a lot of philosophy under your belt buckles. But you may not know yet that being Philosophy Dudebro in a grassroots action is terribad form. And if you don’t yet know this, you need to know this. Thus, I am writing to address you today with why that is, using my experiences over the past year in pro-choice activism to provide a context. For anyone who can’t guess from the choice in terminology alone, a Philosophy Dudebro is any guy who walks up to either a demonstration being attended by a grassroots counter-protest (think pro-life and pro-choice in the same space) or a grassroots demonstration on its own (think isolated pro-choice demo) with the expectation of unlimited time, energy, and attention for playing around with thought experiments and endless debate (see also: not protesting; pointless exercise; mental masturbation). Both pro-lifers and men who consider themselves pro-choice (but who haven’t checked their male privilege at any time in the past decade) do the Philosophy Dudebro thing, and it’s equally antagonizing no matter where on the issue your politics align. Some so-called “pro-choice” Philosophy Dudebros can’t even stop themselves from their pointless exercise when they finally stop engaging the pro-lifers.
Trigger warning: This post makes brief mention of graphic depictions of genocide, ethnic cleansing, mass murder, and abortion—one of these things is not like the others—in the context of these histories being blatantly misappropriated by “pro-life” campaigns to “unmask the genocide” and “end the killing”. It’s disgusting. It’s beyond words. In fact, it’s just plain obscene. This is why I treat the entire pro-life movement as a hate movement of Westboro Baptist Church calibre.
Tone Police warning: I’m using a fair amount of profanity in this post because I am aggressively challenging the blood-boiling sexism embedded in this issue. This choice is deliberate but well-controlled and not at all impulsive. I am not going to play nice with people who critique the tone of my delivery, so just don’t bother.
This past week, University of British Columbia was presented with an abhorrent and graphic display of a chopped up child from the genocide in Rwanda next to alleged fetal remains from an abortion. That was accompanied by equally graphic displays of mass graves at Auschwitz and Wounded Knee, child corpses in a killing field in Cambodia, and a Black person being lynched, each photo next to alleged post-abortion fetal remains. It’s a once-annual “campaign” by Canadian Centre for Bioethical Reform called Genocide Awareness Project, which declares that getting an abortion is exactly the same as sending millions of Jews to the gas chambers. They have shown up every year on International Women’s Day (that was Friday) at the UBC campus for the past 15 years with these grotesque depictions of pornographied genocide and abortion porn.
It gets even better. These displays are also used in mass postcard drops by CCBR, which prints out tens of thousands of these same images and pops them into mailboxes at random across the country. If you’re in the United States and starting to feel left out, don’t worry — CCBR is just the Canadian sister organization of Centre for Bioethical Reform in the US. (You’re welcome.)
So I went to counter-picket this absolutely obscene bullshit. I simply could not sit on my hands and get upset about it without doing a damn thing. In the blog post I wrote about the first day, I directly engage from an actively decolonizing standpoint with my pro-choice politics. This particular university campus used to be a First Nation village before the band that lived there was nearly wiped right out of existence by smallpox at the turn of the century. These horrendous displays (one of which, I will remind you, featured a swastika flag superimposed over a pile of corpses in a mass concentration camp grave) were also in the plaza onto which the Jewish students’ building looks out. In the blog post I wrote about the second day, I probed deeper into the active process of decolonizing my politics on the subject, as well as into a psychoanalytic perspective of what was going on in this demonstration. Under the dominant, over-arching, colonialist cultural structures in this society, all oppressions are analogous to each other in some way, but they are also intersecting all the time. We can use this understanding of oppression to our advantage, so I did. Also, the issue (and colonialist mythology) of sex-selective abortion and the role of women in Chinese culture also came up due to a blatantly racist private member’s bill that is coming up for debate in Canadian Parliament. This is one of the times when simplistic analyses of abortion simply will not do. We need intersectionality in our activist utility belts, or when we answer this issue, we will simply be demoralising ourselves.
Last year, when no one was doing anything about the “genocide awareness” campaign, a student of the campus felt compelled to strip down to her skivvies and sit directly in front of it. She was promptly badgered by campus security (even though what she was doing was 100% non-violent and fully legal!), and she wrote this blog post about her experience. That blog post was the first I had ever heard about GAP, and it wasn’t long before I was counter-picketing the very same organization when it launched a blatant co-option of the original Abortion Caravan of the 1970s (which was started in Vancouver, BC and upon arrival in Ottawa, ON, successfully shut down Canadian Parliament for the first time in its entire history).
While I was at the UBC campus on the first day (from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.), I observed several Philosophy Dudebros contending with the university’s pro-life club by engaging them in endless debate for literally hours. I was grateful for the buffer zone security was enforcing on this particular day, as usually, we don’t even have a sidewalk that wide, and I have to either tell them to take their conversation somewhere else or cut it the fuck out for everyone else’s sanity. Many men who passed by within ear shot actually started yelling and swearing at everyone on that side of the plaza. A couple of particularly enraged people knocked pro-life signage over, and one or two people who mistook my friend and I for pro-lifers yelled at us in the first couple of hours. Many women avoided the plaza all together, but some walked through the middle of the demonstration, trying to keep out of earshot but failing. Then one of the Philosophy Dudebros was shoulder-to-shoulder with all of us pro-choice grassroots, engaging in the very beginning of an endless debate within our allotted 15 square feet. When I told him to take his conversation somewhere else, he started a fight with me about it instead, while the man he was debating darted off somewhere. It is a result of thinking about this interaction for several hours (and nearly a year of observations of very similar behaviours), that has inspired me to write about this topic today.
In fact, I wrote most of this post before the second day, during which I observed several clusters of pro-choice women engaging with the pro-lifers. But as the issue is fully de-contextualized for men and fully contextualized for women, the effect of this tactic is radically different when women are engaging in it. First of all, groups of women tend to cluster around those women who walk up and attempt to engage alone, whereas Philosophy Dudebros will only engage the pro-lifer alone, and will actively ignore anyone who attempts to interject, even if they are obviously representing the pro-choice side. Literally, Philosophy Dudebros have actually stared me straight in the face when I ask them a point-blank question, and then turned to the person they had just been “debating” before continuing on as if I was not standing right fucking there waiting for an answer to a simple and direct question. While a Philosophy Dudebro will tend to engage in something abstract such as theological arguments that keep the issue fully de-contextualized and essentially meaningless, women generally engage in the matter of direct personal experiences of women who have had various kinds of abortions, been exposed to various kinds of sexualized violence, and/or had children (unplanned or intentionally). Thus, the comparison between men and women doing similar things is not valid for several reasons; so for the intents and purposes of this blog post, Philosophy Dudebros are basically always (pro-choice) cisgendered men who get off on pretending to play the Devil’s advocate. And before any hand-wringing or pretend crying starts, that is not an insult. It’s a comment on unchecked male privilege.
1. Abortion Is Neither A Debate Nor A Thought Experiment
It’s simply not a debate. It’s not a thought experiment. It’s real life, and women are the ones living it. Full stop. It is a human rights issue when anyone attempts to interfere with a woman’s decision to prematurely terminate an unwanted or non-viable pregnancy. On August 3, 2011, the United Nations General Assembly declared that access to the best available sexual and reproductive healthcare (including abortion) is a basic function of several human rights. You can read about it here (where you can also download the UN General Assembly report). I only ever see men treat the subject as though it were a legitimate debate, and it’s only ever men telling me that even though it weighs dramatically in favour of women, it’s still somehow a debate. This isn’t a coincidence, since exactly 0% of them will ever be pregnant and faced with the decision of what to do with their own bodies while they are stigmatized, shamed, and stalled in every direction they turn. If you are pregnant and don’t want to be, you can’t simply get an abortion at the snap of your fingers. Much of Canada is without any abortion clinics at all, meaning that women frequently find themselves fighting against the clock between ultrasound appointments just to find someone who will provide a safe abortion before an unwanted pregnancy either ruins their life or threatens it (such as when they take a coat hanger to a public washroom to give themselves an abortion). Abortion is not a debate. As unfortunate as it is that women ever need abortions, it’s a choice between actual rights for women and hypothetical rights for fetuses (that have yet to even be conceived). Canadian law decidedly removed its hands of the issue in 1989 (which also means that it isn’t a protected right under Canadian law and is subject to constant undermining by the hate movement that is called pro-life).
2. You Can’t Wear Them Down Or Change Their Minds
What a lot of Philosophy Dudebros think they are doing by directly engaging with these bigots is taking up their time, energy, and attention, so that the pro-lifers can’t spend it talking to other people who are not thinking critically about the subject, passing out pamphlets, or attending to the needs of their equally disciplined fellow picketers. But this is stupid and small-minded. People who are already not thinking critically about the subject just move on to the next person or interrupt your little debate session. That is, when they aren’t just walking up to pro-choicers at random and spewing heinous shit at them. They are already on the mailing list for this organization and multiple others. They are already following CCBR on YouTube and may actually come armed with a tablet and a pre-loaded CCBR propaganda video to heckle an abortion rights press conference (this actually happens — I was there for it). On top of all of that, you’re trying to “debate” someone who has been trained specifically to perpetually derail, deflect, topic-change, and answer yes/no questions or concise statements with loaded questions, in order to perpetuate endless “debate” that isn’t even marginally sincere. They aren’t listening to anything that you’re saying and they aren’t prepared to ever change their minds. They are listening for things they can exploit with their tactics, and just waiting for their turn to speak and bring up some random red herring that you can’t answer concisely. They are actively trying to antagonize you by doing this, because they think that once you start to go apeshit, that’s their window of opportunity to change your mind and convert you to take up their cause. This is all part of their demonstration protocol. You are merely demoralizing and depleting yourself (to accomplish sweet fuck all for it) and if you happen to be doing this within earshot of pro-choice activists, you’re doing it to them too (your non-consenting audience).
3. You Are Not An Original Genius
There is no argument that you can come up with that several decades of feminists prior to you have not already thought of, written about, spoken about, painted onto a sign, and challenged pro-lifers with. There just isn’t. You are not an original genius, Philosophy Dudebro. There is no code phrase that you can say to a pro-lifer that will magically make them stop their brainwashing programming and CCBR protocol to go think somewhere. There is no pass phrase that spontaneously converts pro-lifers to the pro-choice side. We’ve tried it all already. For the sake of fuck, we shut down Canadian Fucking Parliament for the first time in its history over this very issue. You think maybe we might actually know by now what we’re doing and who we’re dealing with? Not to even mention, they know exactly what they are doing by framing their entire perspective in the particular manner that they have. No matter how you attempt to engage their views, your answer will be rejected on the principle that you’re “pro-death” for disagreeing with them. And no matter how sophisticated or straight-to-the-point your views are, what you have to say will be rejected on the principle that you’re failing to acknowledge or appropriately adhere to this “pro-life” versus “pro-death” dichotomy. They’ve stacked the deck and sandwiched it between brainwashing and groupthink. Sure, it’s appetizing in theory to take a bite out of that, but in reality, it’s not very fulfilling. Trying to de-bunk their shit to their faces is a lost cause, and feminists have known this already for several consecutive decades. We don’t protest to de-bunk their views—we protest to challenge everyone else to think critically about the issue and the way it is being presented by pro-life groups.
4. You Are Also Not Smarter Than Several Decades Of Feminists Collectively
Philosophy Dudebros always seem to think they know everything that’s been going on behind their backs at all times while they’ve been spending hours upon hours moving from one person to the next in meaningless Make-Work debate that really accomplishes a heaping portion of Fuck-All. They also seem to think that feminists and pro-choice grassroots who refuse to engage directly with pro-lifers are just not doing so because they aren’t smart enough to keep up the debate. Well, they’re wrong on both counts. While Philosophy Dudebro from day one of the Genocide Awareness Project counter-picket was busy with his back turned to the pro-choicers, several pro-lifers walked up to anyone who either seemed eager to say something to anyone who would listen or seemed easy to physically isolate. They then tried to bait every one of those people in circular, demoralizing, and emotionally depleting debates. One of those pro-lifers had even already been standing for hours with the camcorder next to the obscene displays before skulking around on our side of the plaza, trying to listen in to what people were saying. He was fishing for a way to bait anyone who would start with him into an endless debate, and his preferred targets would be those whose arguments are bordering on completely uncritical or who are easily physically isolated from the group. He wound up picking me because I was staring him down after I informed everyone within ear shot of exactly who he was. Before, during, and after all that was going on, there were also several men with cameras taking multiple consecutive pictures of our entire protest without asking anyone but me if it was OK to take our pictures. But would Philosophy Dudebro know any of this was happening? Of course he fucking wouldn’t, because he doesn’t even know to pay attention for these things and yet thinks he’s smarter than someone with as much experience as I bring. I am quite content to yell at someone like him until he gets too uncomfortable and just goes home, because frankly? His presence is more taxing than it’s worth to keep him around, and I’m not there to tip-toe around his delicate feels.
5. A Grassroots Protest Is Not A Debate Club Or A Megaphone For Your Shit
So what did Philosophy Dudebro get into an endless debate about, while shoulder-to-shoulder with pro-choice grassroots who had no room to get out of earshot from him? I heard fragmented snippets. What I heard sounded like an angry anti-theist who reads too much fucking Dawkins and is missing significant social justice concepts such as racializing and colonialism (evidently, Dawkins is missing these concepts too). After just a few minutes, those snippets genuinely sounded like a racist tirade about how all Muslims are Islamist jihadists. I told him to take his conversation somewhere else, and that’s when he started a fight with me. Over his “choice” to… stand there and start a fight with me, I guess! Because he sure wasn’t going to accomplish any fucking thing else! I also neglected to mention it in my blog entry about that day, but I was completely covered from head to toe, except for a very narrow strip of exposed flesh on my forehead, but he just assumed it was OK to be heard sounding indistinguishable from a racist if you were too busy protesting to listen close enough. You know. About ten feet from several graphic depictions of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and mass murder being co-opted for an attack against women’s rights. Because I guess that just wasn’t racist enough. Apparently I just needed an extra helping of bigotry (whether perceived or actual, it doesn’t make a difference) from snippets of Dudebro’s conversation. One of the things he attempted to counter with was “Well if you actually heard what I was saying…” It’s as if, in his mind, I hadn’t come there to counter-picket these bigots ten feet away from us, but instead had come there for the express purpose of being lectured by a man whose very existence was unknown to me until he started debating the existence of God in the middle of a grassroots protest. Don’t be this asshole.
6. The Real Grassroots Won’t Trust You
On the second day, I overheard a woman concisely explain to some Philosophy Dudebro that she was fiercely staring him down and deliberately trying to avoid speaking to him. Quite simply, after observing him spend more than an hour “debating”, she didn’t know whether or not she could trust him, and couldn’t tell him apart from the sneaky fucking pro-lifers taking our pictures and trying to bait us into their bullshit. It reminded me instantly of a time I watched someone I obliquely know walking up to a demonstration outside the abortion clinic. He just so happened to have attempted the previous year to police my identity and tell me I’m not Jewish because I’m not Hasidic like him — or like, Hasidic at all, but not that this has any bearing on my ethnic make-up (there’s that intersectionality thing again!) Well, that day, he approached the pro-lifers first (as both Philosophy Dudebros and pro-lifers pretending to be Philosophy Dudebros tend alike to do), and I overheard him attempting to police the emotionality of one of the picketers (also called tone-policing). I hate tone-policing, and find it incredibly patronizing, even when it’s not directed at me. So when he walked up to me after a few minutes and started addressing me immediately in the same tone of voice he had just used to be a patronizing asshole to one of the bigots, I was reaching my boiling point already. He just so happened to be “on our side”, but I just about tore him 17 new assholes because I couldn’t fucking tell the difference. Don’t be this asshole either. He thought he would talk them out of using their sandwich boards, one at a time, until they had no options left and stopped showing up. He got one person to stop using one, but they just put it on someone else, and he never came back anyway.
If you’re going to become involved in grassroots activism, keep your expectations of entitlement to unlimited attention and emotional availability from every woman around you at home. And check your privilege at the bus stop down the street so we don’t have to do it for you. We’ve got enough going on already, in case that wasn’t yet apparent. Or put another way: Oh, hello, useless waste of time and energy—we meet again. Well, fuck off. I’m not in the mood for giving metaphorical handjobs in the form of back-patting. I’m too busy actually accomplishing shit.
There is a strong need for male allies in pro-choice protests, but absolutely zero need for Philosophy Dudebros. If you want to help, start by understanding where you fit into the abortion conversation. Use this understanding to inform the slogans and tactics you utilize. Use it to take up the right kind of space, rather than (for example) taking up as much as you can while the wimminz disappear behind your attention-whoring for feminist points. Even better yet, check back next week for my next blog article here. I’ll be publishing about specific grassroots counter-tactics that have proven effective, so that relatively inexperienced activists looking for a way in to the front lines (regardless of whether it is pro-choice or something else) can do their homework and come equipped with (some) ideas about effective methodology.
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