Regular readers know how much I dislike “yes, but” comments. The word “but” is a term of negation. When used, it typically means that the preceding phrase or sentence was untrue in some way. When people use it to make a point, it comes across as an excuse. So Greta Christina’s general point about people not using “yes, but” when discussing misogyny makes sense. Even if all the things following the “but” are true, it comes across as an attempt to change the subject or play tit-for-tat.
However, there is a wrinkle in Christina’s advice, and no, I am not talking about the irony of a feminist complaining about people resorting to “yes, but” to shut down someone’s argument. I am talking about this:
When the topic of misogyny comes up, and men change the subject, it trivializes misogyny.
When the topic of misogyny comes up, and men change the subject, it conveys the message that whatever men want to talk about is more important than misogyny.
When the topic of misogyny comes up, and men change the subject to something that’s about them, it conveys the message that men are the ones who really matter, and that any harm done to men is always more important than misogyny.
And when the topic of misogyny comes up, and men change the subject, it comes across as excusing misogyny. It doesn’t matter how many times you say, “Yes, of course, misogyny is terrible.” When you follow that with a “Yes, but…”, it comes across as an excuse. In many cases, it is an excuse. And it contributes to a culture that makes excuses for misogyny.
Did you catch what she did? Read it again, in context to the concept of people using “yes, but” to downplay the importance of an issue. The first comment is untrue, however, it is easy to see how one could make that assumption. The other three are just attacks on men and their concerns. Christina implies that nothing men talk about could be more important than misogyny, no harm done to men could be more important than misogyny, and that any attempt to put sexism against women in context compared to other issues is just excusing misogyny.
Christina’s comments can be summed up as, “Yes, men have problems, but misogyny’s more important.”
Here is an idea: if you want people to take your advice, you should follow it yourself. You should not take the opportunity to trash someone else’s issues or concerns by saying that their issues are important, but should be discussed somewhere else.
Here is another idea: not every instance of a “yes, but” is wrong. In plenty of cases, it is a fair criticism because of the way that things are presented. Oddly enough, Christina’s initial list of “yes, buts” provides examples of that:
“Yes, but… not all men are like that. And if you’re going to talk about misogyny, you have to be extra-clear about that.”
“Yes, but… misogyny doesn’t just happen in (X) community (atheist, black, gay, etc.). In fact, it’s worse in some other communities. So it’s not fair to talk about misogyny when it does happen in (X) community, as if it’s something special that we’re doing wrong.”
“Yes, but… (X) community where misogyny happens has some great things about it, too. It’s not fair to paint everyone in it with the same brush.”
“Yes, but… gender expectations hurt men, too. Why aren’t we talking about that?”
“Yes, but… do you have to be so angry and emotional and over-sensitive about it? That doesn’t help your argument or your cause.”
“Yes, but… what about male circumcision?”
“Yes, but… why is it so terrible to ask a woman for coffee in a hotel elevator at four in the morning?”
Depending on the context, all of those are valid criticisms. Yes, they technically side-step the original comment, however, that may not be an issue if the initial comment is in question. It is fair to ask why all men or a whole community should be painted with the same brush. It is fair why we should pretend that men never face unfair expectations. It is fair to ask about how certain issues also affect men. It is fair to say that how a person reacts to a comment affects their argument and cause. And it is fair to ask why it is wrong to ask a woman out for coffee in a hotel elevator at four in the morning.
In the case that Christina writes about, the “yes, buts” are clearly meant to change the subject and defend attacks on a girl who posts a picture of herself with a Carl Sagan book. However, that only applies in that one instance. Every other instance is different and must be looked at in full context. It certainly does not apply to every instance of “misogyny” that feminists point out. However, the irony is that in making her point Christina resorted to some cleverly worded “yes, buts” herself.
Perhaps her title should read “Why ‘Yes, But’ Is Sometimes the Wrong Response To Sexism.”