Why I Hate the Command: “Do Better”

 

Arguing Against the Use of the Command “Do Better” by Advocates and Educators

 

Firstly, I will try to lead from my own perspective, and so I will preface my arguments by sharing some aspects of my life that might have influenced my perspective.

Preface:

  • I am a white cisgender man and I have been perceived as one my whole life.
  • I have been in leadership positions for most of my academic career.
  • I want to be a high school social studies teacher and study education.
  • I am attending a 4-year university and have a lower-than-average amount of student loan debt because of academic scholarships.
  • I am attending a 4-year university and have tremendous access to education and information which is not available to people not enrolled in a 4-year university.
  • I am middle-class and higher education was not only accessible to me but was an expectation for me.

 

Secondly, I am not debating whether “call out culture” is good or bad. That is another blog post. Rather, I am specifically focusing on the use of the phrase “do better” in the command tense, primarily used in an engagement between two people.

  • I do not care about when “do better” is used like:
    • “I really need to do better at remembering their pronouns.”
    • “General education teachers need to do better by students with disabilities.”
  • I do care about phrases like:
    • “You’re trash. Do better.”
    • “Stop assuming people’s sexuality. Just do better next time.”

 

Now, on to the reasons I don’t like “do better”:

It is unnecessary.

Before I begin, let me define “teller” in the following argument as “the person speaking, who would say “do better”, and define “recipient” as “the person listening, who would be told to “do better”.

By itself, the phrase doesn’t accomplish anything because it is so unspecific. Telling someone to “do better” can only confuse the recipient of that phrase, instead of enlighten them of what they did wrong. When it is attached to more explanation of how someone can be more socially just, the phrase “do better” becomes unneeded because the explanation itself is sufficient to accomplish the goal of calling out oppression. Every response we give should have a purpose, and “do better” doesn’t have enough of one, in my opinion. The following engagement: “I think assuming someone’s gender identity based on their voice over the telephone perpetuates gender norms and transphobia. Do better.” is just as effective (or actually less effective in my opinion) as “I think assuming someone’s gender identity based on their voice over the telephone perpetuates gender norms and transphobia.” There is no purpose of the “do better”, it is just two more words uttered from the teller.

This first argument is hinged on the assumption that if you can engage someone using the above statement, you feel safe, confident, and empowered. My assumption is that if you feel threatened or endangered in a situation, not only would you not utter the entire above engagement, you would not even say “do better” as a phrase on its own. My assumption is that you would not engage at all. Thus, when people feel threatened, they don’t say “do better”, and when people don’t feel threatened, they don’t need to say “do better”. So it is unnecessary.

It is egocentric/self-centered.

Now let me define “standard for basic human decency” as “the minimum level of respect you give any person you interact with.” For some, this could just mean acknowledging their existence. For others, it is not assuming sexual orientation or gender identity or pronouns, and acknowledging their own expertise over their experiences and ideas.

The phrase “do better” asks the recipient to evaluate THEIR actions based on YOUR standard of basic human decency. Instead, what we should be doing is trying to raise the recipient’s standard of basic human decency so they hold themselves accountable to be more socially just. Essentially, I think holding everyone else to your own standard is ultimately futile, because everyone will consistently fail to meet your expectations (because no one is actively to meet your own standards but yourselves).

Additionally, it is easy for the recipient to learn the right words to say and words not to say around you, but that doesn’t mean the recipient actually works to be socially just when you are not around. We must engage the recipient in a way that encourages them to integrate social justice into their core belief system, which will in turn raise THEIR standard for basic human decency. And that means they will be socially just even when no one else is around.

I believe using the phrase “do better” makes the teller out to be “superior” or a kind of authority. It forgets that the teller is on their own journey of education, is a work in progress themselves, and used to have an un-elevated standard of basic human decency similar to the recipient’s. I think that the recipient will feel insulted, patronized, and condescended to when someone tells them to “do better”, because they do not view the teller as superior or an authority. This can turn them off of social justice altogether.

“Do better” also perpetuates a social justice groupthink in which there is only one correct way to be and act socially just, which is wrong in my opinion. I believe there are multiple truths in our world and there are multiple ways to be socially just. We do not how far the recipient has come in terms of being socially just. But if we only judge them by OUR standard for basic human decency, then we erase the recipients experiences and progress. The idea of some “perfect” social justice advocate is toxic. It leads to the inability to forgive mistakes, to humanize people, or meet them where they are when trying to educate them.

This is not to say there are not some universal aspects of standards of basic human decency. Everyone should feel safe and should be acknowledged for who they are, what they think/feel, and what they’ve experienced. Everyone should be allowed to self-identify and live their truth.

But we should recognize that people might interpret those universals differently or they might not have been educated on those aspects yet.

It assumes education is (easily) accessible to the recipient.

While I believe education is a right that everyone should have, not everyone has equitable or equal access to their right (especially to education). This lack of access is one manifestation of oppression. So I think telling someone to “do better” could be viewed as a form of pointing out the recipient’s oppression.

“Do better” is in the command tense. To me, it is reminiscent of a wealthy person telling a poor person to “get a job” if they want to escape poverty. Or perhaps a white person telling an African-American or Latino person to “stop antagonizing the police” if they wanted to stop disproportionately high police brutality, disproportionate rates of incarceration, or racial profiling. I think other social justice advocates would identify the problem with those two example phrases I just shared: the privilege of the teller is blinding them of the complexities of the issues and the obstacles faced by the recipients that are not faced by the teller. An educated person telling an uneducated to “do better” minimizes the complexities of becoming educated.

It minimizes the work it takes to be socially just.

It forgets the effort, energy, and courage it takes to tear down previous conceptions of the world and adopt new ones. Asking someone to “do better” minimizes a lot of work, courage, and accomplishments needed to become aware of oppression, inequalities, and systems of privilege and begin to work to fight those.

The journey of education is not easy, there is no map which follows paved roads. It is hard, it can be full of discomfort, anxiety, and embarrassment. But that is what happens when a person is on their “learning edge” as some call it. It takes courage to be willing to reevaluate your beliefs and perceptions as you learn new information and experience new realities. Simplifying one’s progress to becoming a decent human being as a simply act of “doing better” trivializes a lot of emotions, experiences, late-night talks, arguments, reading, etc.

 

We should always be trying to improve ourselves and be better people. And if you really want to help someone else improve, we should give them specific advice, use “I” statements, try not to insult them, belittle them, or be condescending.

Anyway, that’s my point of view. Let me know what you think.

-Brian (@iambriam)

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