Trusting the Alarm Behind Supposedly “Alarmist Rhetoric”

There are numerous alarms about how far off the tracks we’ve gotten as a people. While many people are facing insurmountable odds, injury, and even death, many are also desensitized to violence and going about business as usual. Against a background of ever-increasing injustice, I’m still hearing people caution against “alarmist rhetoric,” and I’m wondering:

If we’re not alarmed now, then when?

I don’t believe the alarm is coming at the wrong time, with the wrong urgency, or under the wrong conditions. Rather, I believe it’s a matter of choosing whether or not to trust the alarm that’s being raised. That is, choosing whether or not to dismiss urgent and life-saving alarms as “alarmist rhetoric.”

Today’s Alarms and Why They Matter

People in the United States and around the world are being killed daily and in many ways: directly through hate crimes, police violence, military force, and other means AND indirectly through denial of healthcare, living wages, stable housing, quality foods, and so on. Through direct and indirect means, we’re undermining the basic value of life, of humanity. And this undermining happens at a time when humans as a species are facing extreme precarity—arguably, unlike any we’ve seen—of “accelerating extinction risk from climate change.” Life is devalued. Life is at risk. Life is written off.

This devaluing impacts most greatly the very people who are raising the alarm: people who are dehumanized, exploited, and oppressed. People of color, indigenous people, LGBTQ+ people, poor people, and other marginalized peoples. These are the people who are sharing first-hand knowledge to raise the alarm. This is why we hear repeated assertions: #BlackLivesMatter, #MuslimLivesMatter, #TransLivesMatter.

It’s no coincidence, for example, that Trump’s election occurred alongside the DAPL protests. It’s also no coincidence that the language of staying “woke” to name social awareness originates within the black community. It’s no coincidence that black news sources and journalists report on the everyday realities that are ignored, minimized, or glossed over in “mainstream” (read: white) news sources.

Communities of color and other marginalized communities are constructing and sharing new knowledge, naming what’s otherwise hidden, obscured, or unknown. Yet, this knowledge is systemically devalued, just as marginalized peoples are systemically devalued. Similarly, distrust of the alarm is rooted in distrust of the people raising the alarm. And the alarm calls on all of us—especially white folks, folks with privilege, and folks with power—to WAKE UP.

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The Consequences of Ignoring Alarms

In February, I saw activist-journalist Shaun King speak here in Milwaukee, and he called us to action, saying: “If you’re waiting for an emergency, this is it.”

It’s one thing to ignore an alarm clock, which creates annoyance and noise as a wake-up call. It’s another to ignore sirens or fire alarms, alarms with the purpose of saving lives. These alarms help us see the importance of recognizing and responding to emergencies. They also help us see the relationship among denial, disbelief, and the costs/consequences of deferring responsibility.

In terms of denial, here are some ways I’ve found myself literally ignoring alarms:

  1. I’ve been conditioned to expect sirens as part of regular equipment testing, and so when I hear a siren, I believe it’s only “a test” and not a “real alarm.”
  2. I haven’t changed the batteries in months, so when the fire alarm goes off, I assume it’s the fault of old batteries and not an actual fire.
  3. I’ve set off the alarm when cooking because it’s located too close to the stove, so I believe it’s simply too sensitive and not a true predictor.

For various reasons (these and others), I’ve had occasions of choosing not to trust a siren or alarm. At times, I’ve chosen to believe it’s not reliable or precise enough; I imagine it to be broken or malfunctioning; or I imagine that it’s incorrectly programmed. These are beliefs that motivate dismissal of the alarm: beliefs that provide reasons for not trusting the alarm. And the costs of not trusting can be especially high, because sirens and alarms serve as warning systems—to alert, caution, and prevent serious harm.

One time I told my mom that the tornado siren was “just a test” because it was during a weekday and the skies appeared clear. We found out afterwards that a tornado was indeed in the area, and it had caused real damage only miles away. We never took shelter, much less looked around or acted with real care/caution. My dismissal of the alarm could have had real consequences for my mom, who was trusting me when I told her with certainty that it was only a test.

Thinking metaphorically, I can see how fables like “the boy who cried wolf” lead to a cultural expectation for not being too “alarmist” OR too sensitive to alarms. This story leads to the justification of idleness or lack of response. It’s as though we worry more about being falsely alarmed than we do about failing to heed an alarm. Yet, alarms have real purposes—often connected to the preservation of life—and so we have real responsibility to listen and act.

At this time—a time of emergency—we’re hearing alarms and being asked to respond. Complaints about “alarmist rhetoric” are like me saying “it’s only a test.” The distrust of alarms is preventing recognition that there is an actual emergency.

Building Trust in the Alarm

To respond to the alarm—to wake up, to evacuate, to fight fire, or to take other action—we need, first, to trust the alarm. And if trustworthiness is the matter, then I must ask: Who do you trust? And why?

My academic research has been teaching me that some people—by virtue of positioning within systems of power, privilege, and prejudice—are listened for and believed over others. That is, people with institutional power and privilege already benefit from what Miranda Fricker calls “epistemic excess.” Think, for example, about assumptions in a hospital space: without ever having met a physician before, it’s likely that if a white man in a white coat walks into the room, he will be assumed to have the credentials and expertise to be a physician. It’s also likely that if the patient is white man—especially one who’s younger, well-educated, able-bodied, cis-gendered, and thin—he’ll be taken seriously, and his health complaints will be assumed to be true.

In contrast, people marginalized within institutional power and privilege—people who are further away from what Audre Lorde has called the “mythical norm”— already face assumed “epistemic deficit.” In the same hospital space, we know that white women and women of color, men of color, people with visible disabilities, and others are more likely to be questioned. Think, for example, about when a woman walks into the room and is assumed to be a nurse instead of a doctor. Her credentials are further undermined when she is challenged about her diagnosis and questioned about her recommendations. Or consider if the patient is a woman instead of a man: then we know that complaints of pain are likely not to be taken seriously. She may be left waiting for longer periods of time, not given medication, assumed to be experiencing only emotional and not physical pain, and called “hysterical.”

I give these hospital examples to explain epistemic injustice, defined as harm done to people in their capacity as knowers. Epistemic injustice is always already operating in the world and shaping what we hear (and don’t), how we listen (and don’t), and who we believe (and don’t).

These assumptions highlight prejudice that we all carry with us, which is why it’s so important to develop bias literacy—an understanding of the unconscious, internalized, and structural bias that shapes day-to-day life, including ideas about ourselves and others. The question isn’t whether we have prejudice (we do), but how we can work to unlearn prejudicial judgments. How can we learn to see and experience the world differently? How can we short-circuit unjust assumptions? How can we undo the problems associated with assumed epistemic excess and deficit?

Whose Alarm Is Listened to, When, and Why?

Getting back to alarms, epistemic injustice helps to explain why some people’s voices are listened for and trusted over others. Some people—by virtue of being positioned with privilege, power, and epistemic excess—already have a louder volume, are already pitched for reception, and are already placed in homes or other places where their alarms can be heard.

In contrast, other people—again, by virtue of being positioned within inequitable and oppressive systems that perpetuate epistemic deficit—aren’t being heard. Their alarms are already called into questioned, assumed to be unreliable, or perceived as mis-programmed. They are already “presumed incompetent.” It doesn’t even matter what the alarm conveys; it’s already facing disbelief and distrust.

To counter epistemic injustice, we must ask ourselves often: Whose voices are we listening to? Who are we trusting? And why? In the case of raising alarms, we must similarly ask about who we choose to trust and who we don’t.

Those who are best positioned to raise the alarm—people of color, indigenous people, and other marginalized peoples—are saying these are urgent, desperate times. “The earth is in crisis.” “Shit’s going down, and it’s going down now.” “They’re killing us. Our lives don’t matter.” Or, in Shaun King’s words: “If you’re waiting for an emergency, this is it.”

Certainly, the inability to hear the alarm can be deeply emotional—like the desire to remain in a warm bed, blissfully asleep, snoozing the morning’s alarm, and not yet “woke.” It can also be about conditioning—about cautions against raising alarms too often or too soon, or else face the creditability loss of “the boy who cried wolf.” And, undeniably, it can operate unconsciously without awareness of the prejudice, racism, and perpetuation of injustice associated with unearned epistemic excess/deficit. Acknowledging these emotional and unintentional dimensions of the problem softens my heart, as I see my own complicity as a white woman with varied privileges and prejudices. I soften my heart as I see how deeply mired in the muck we all are.

With a soft heart and a lot of love, I affirm: Yes, it’s time to be alarmed.

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A Final Note

The only people I’ve seen criticize “alarmist rhetoric” are white folks, which is why this critique seems so clearly about epistemic injustice—about the denial of experience, knowledge, and earned expertise within communities of color. I want to ask, therefore, all of us but especially white folks to listen for, acknowledge, and choose to trust the alarms. For alarms lead to action, they demand response, and they ask us to wake up. This moment is about no less than who we want to be, how we want to live, and how we see ourselves in relation to others.


This post is written by
Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Microaggressions Matter,” “Today Resistance Looks Like …,” or “Swinging from Sweet to Sour.” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

Author: Beth Godbee

I’m an educator living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with connections to many places, including East Tennessee, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C. I write from my identities as a white, feminist teacher and researcher; reiki and yoga practitioner; hiker and vegan. These commitments lead to me to think and write about intersectional identities, embodiment, power, and rights, among other matters. My deepest commitments are to equity, justice, and peace. In this blog, I document my ongoing efforts, struggles, and attitude of “try-try again” to align with these commitments.

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