The Eleanor Roosevelt Misquote I Wish Everyone Would Just Quit Using
It's a quote we see all the time, often when someone is trying to absolve themselves of being an asshole:
No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.
Okay, so that's not exactly true. I just said that because I loathe this quote. You caught me.
However, I loathe this quote because I see it used quite often by people who have been assholes, or by people who don't understand why some people get all riled up about assholes. Being a jackass and then blaming someone else for thinking you're a jackass is, like, some kind of meta jackass superpower. And yet, over and over again I see people trying to use this sentiment to blame people for being insulted.
Now, I appreciate this quote for what it is whenever someone claims it as their own and uses it as a source of personal empowerment. It's a great quote when internalized this way, and I personally know quite a few strong and powerful women who use have claimed it as their personal mantra. But put into the wrong hands; into the hands of someone who is using it to excuse reckless behavior, it twists into a garbage heap of mockery.
No one controls your feelings but you, they say almost flippantly. YOU are the one deciding to be all butthurt. Also, you're a fucking whiner.
Classy, guys. Really, really classy.
So awhile ago, after one particularly infuriating "reminder" that we are all totally responsible for our own inferiority complexes, I did a bit of rage Googling and nearly high-fived myself when I found the Quote Investigator article on this exact subject.
The article is definitely worth reading (or rereading, if you're as rage filled as I), but wasn't completely satisfying. (Again, with the rage.) A bit of QI inspired digging had me nearly high-fiving myself again and thanking my lucky stars that Google is such a pack rat.
A quick rundown:
In 1935, UC Berkley had booked Frances Perkins to give their Charter Day speech. Martha Ijams, 1901 class secretary and prominent alumni, kind of threw a fit when her preferred guest and speaker, Mary Emma Woolley wasn't given that honor. Ijams refused to host the traditional Charter Day dinner, saying "It seems to me entirely out of place that the first woman to be so honored should be a mere politician."
The press, of course, ate that shit up.
The Milwaukee Journal, Pittsburgh Press, and others carried the United Press story because bitches be fighting. Nevermind that Perkins and Woolley were both total badasses and listening to either one of them speak would have been a phenomenal way to spend an evening. But the press did what it do, and fixated for awhile on some titillating bit of political society.
Shortly after the 'incident,' occurred, Eleanor Roosevelt held a White House press conference. When asked about the apparent snub, she responded:
A snub is the effort of a person who feels superior to make someone else feel inferior. To do so, he has to find someone who can be made to feel inferior.”
The First Lady went on to say that she didn't think that the Labor Secretary could possibly be snubbed. You can almost see Roosevelt giving some reporter the hairy eyeball, saying "Bitch, you're talking about Frances Fricking Perkins, here. US Labor Secretary. First woman ever appointed to a presidential cabinet. Why are we even talking about this? Go invent soap operas, fellas. You obviously need something to do."
(OH WAIT, THEY WERE INVENTING SOAP OPERAS, ONLY IT WAS CALLED JOURNALISM.)
(OH WAIT IT STILL IS.)
The worst/best part about this whole thing is that the Berkeley brouhaha occurred less than two months after the Committee on Economic Security presented its final report to President Roosevelt. The committee's report would become the basis for FDR's groundbreaking Social Security Act.
The chair of that committee? Frances. Fricking. Perkins. You bet your ass this woman didn't fit the description of "someone who can be made to feel inferior."
Eleanor Roosevelt knew that strong views and strong people would be met with strong opposition. That people react strongly, and sometimes immaturely, to words and actions. But she expected us to stand up for the things we believe in anyway and not get bogged down by theatric criticism. "We must know what we think," she says in her 1963 book Tomorrow is Now, "and speak out, even at the risk of unpopularity."
Now that, my friends, is a very different sentiment than the quote that we've been passing around for awhile.
I don't for a minute think that Eleanor Roosevelt ever told people that it's their own fault if they feel insulted by assholes. Or that people who hurt others with their words or actions are somehow absolved of their human responsibility to treat other people with respect. Even the laziest reading into Eleanor Roosevelt quotables shows that she expected more, from herself and from others. She understood that we are responsible for our choices and for our actions. Part of that responsibility means that we walk humbly, meeting each other with charity and love.
She also urged all of us to know ourselves and our convictions. To speak out; act boldly. I don't think she wouldn't have wanted anyone to compromise the integrity of their beliefs just because they got into some hot water. As First Lady, she understood full well how hot the water could be, and aspired to integrity and decency regardless.
Where, exactly, is the integrity in using a quote about inferiority and consent in defense of hurtful words or actions? Even if that is a real Roosevelt quote, how can we use it to place the burden of equality onto the shoulders of someone speaking out against haughtiness? Especially when there exists a quote that lets us claim our refusal to compromise on what we view is the exact right course?
When our opinions bring us attention and criticism, we have choice in how we react. We can either check in with ourselves and make damn sure that we believe in what we are saying. That we are acting humbly and charitably, but with firmness and conviction.
Or, you know, we can tell people that they're responsible for their dippy little feelings.
"The choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility." That's another Eleanor Roosevelt quote. But it doesn't seem like folks huffing about the consent of inferiority really care about things like that.
So from now on, whenever I see someone misquoting Eleanor Roosevelt in an attempt to deflect criticism, I am going to see it for what it is: an inability to assume responsibility for their convictions. Otherwise, they probably would have done so outright, rather than just call everybody else on imaginary inferiority complexes.