The political right loves to make a big deal of liberals’ constant “virtue-signaling.” Most of the time they’re just complaining that someone else has shown empathy or compassion. However, it’s hard to deny the phenomenon of performative allyship — commentary, never supported with action, meant to center the speaker as acutely troubled by a social problem that affects others.
When there’s pushback against such empty, self-serving rhetoric, things get even trickier. Take the abortion debate currently raging thanks to the reversal of Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court. On the one hand, you have pro-choice women saying they don’t need to hear men’s opinions on the matter, since it’s not our bodies under assault, and we can take most of the blame for the problem. On the other, women might note that “men’s silence is deafening,” that men should be speaking out more, that men have to project their solidarity with them. It’s a no-win situation; you’ve got to do two things at once. Chime in to say you’re not chiming in.
Thankfully, Twitter visionary @ipadbabygf has given us the ideal formulation for the guilty white person who needs to express their awareness of privilege and attention to social justice causes: “I sat my white ass down and listened.” Originally used in reference to the horror film Get Out, in which a seemingly harmless Caucasian family turns out to be abducting young Black people and using them as new vessels for the consciousness of elderly whites, @ipadbabygf’s coinage took off when applied — more absurdly — to an irreverent cartoon created by three white men, one of whom voiced the Black protagonist. The choice of The Cleveland Show pointed out the shallowness of a would-be ally’s engagement with other perspectives or cultural narratives.
And while the avowed pupil is turning to unhelpful or faulty sources for their education, they are also defaulting to passivity. It is not for them to learn; they must be lectured by those who already know. This is so often the problem in tackling systemic prejudice and inequality — the burden is placed on the victimized to explain why these conditions are wrong, or how they manifest and persist even among “tolerant” circles. Of course anyone with status is infantilized enough to believe they can become a better person by absorbing the moral lesson of a movie! They really think that’s labor, therapy and research all rolled into one humanizing experience.
Good thing we now have this joke as a prism through which to see laziness disguised as interest, and narcissism packaged as respect. Like the corporations that say “we hear you” when accused of harm, the overbearing listener isn’t really offering a platform or opportunity to the marginalized — they just want it to sound that way. The good news is, you don’t have to listen to them.