Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Recognizing Abuse In Internet Conversations

[Trigger/content warning: this post contains examples of misogynistic and homophobic slurs, and a discussion of abusive behavior]

A wise woman once told me that sometimes the most valuable gift I could give to myself was the gift of peace. Today, I want to talk about that advice in the context of Internet civility.

Over the years, I have had countless Internet interactions with people of varying backgrounds, experiences, and viewpoints. In general, I enjoy this interaction. I enjoy debate as well as friendly banter. Like many people, I don't enjoy hostility. For me, being on the receiving end of hostility has given me a greater appreciation for not wanting to engage in hostility.

I've made mistakes. I've been hostile. And, even when it hasn't been my intent, I have offended people. But, I do continually strive toward patience and civility, which I would define as treating other people how I would like to be treated, even when treated with hostility in return.

There is, however, only so much hostility a person can take.

That threshold varies for everyone. My threshold happens to be pretty high, but lots of good reasons exist why people might have lower thresholds for tolerating hostility.

My threshold is reached primarily when dealing with a certain type of abusive person, at which point I have to walk away. This might seem counter-intuitive, but I find it easier to deal with people who will just outright call me a bitch, a cunt, or a dyke. When those slurs are uttered, many (though certainly not all) reasonable people readily recognize that incivility has occurred. The interactions I find to be more problematic, and more difficult for me to recognize as abusive, are as follows:

People who post incredibly inflammatory articles and yet- no matter how civil, kind, and peaceful my intentions, no matter how reasoned or logical my arguments in return- refuses to believe that I am participating in the conversation in good faith, instead insisting that my sole purpose on Internet is to attack hir. And then, based on this belief that ze is under attack, this type of person then feels justified in making a barrage of unwarranted and false accusations about my intentions, character, and motivations.

These people are smart enough not to say "dyke," but they also often feel that questions like "is homosexuality normal?" or "is homosexuality a moral error?" are still, like, legitimate questions to ask or that articles like "TV shows are being infested by gays!!" constitute a legitimate "other side" to conversations about LGBT rights. As though there's just so much acceptance of LGBT people in the world that they just have to "balance" out the scales a little more toward the side of intolerance. Because, hey, that's only fair.

Now, I know that we are capable of hurting people even if we do not intend to hurt people, but I'm not talking about that situation. I'm talking about people who will hurt you and then when you defend yourself will then back up with their hands in the air and frame your self-defense as an attack against them. I'm talking about people who post problematic pieces and yet who are unable to participate in a debate about those pieces without interpreting every. single. bit. of civil disagreement as a gross violation of their human rights.

I have engaged with several people like this on Internet. If you participate on Internet at all in "un-safe" spaces, you probably have too.

I find it incredibly frustrating that such people insist, despite all evidence to the contrary, despite my every protestation, that my sole purpose on Internet is to hurt people like them, rather than to defend people like myself (from people like them).

I have learned to walk away from such people. Even though it feels like "failing." After all, walking away often means that these people dig in their heels, become even more entrenched in their beliefs, and continue to post really problematic pieces.

And yep, I know I'm being vague here about who specifically I'm referring to, and that's purposeful. The mere existence of this post in which I am expressing my experience and viewpoint, rather than centering their delicate abuser feelings, would be, to them, akin to waterboarding. It would be further proof as to how very persecuted they are.

I'm not even going to try to delve into the psychology of why these people are the way they are. I think, for me, the most important thing to remember is that it is not healthy or productive for me to engage with such people and that a good first step in dealing with these people is to recognize when I am, in fact, engaging with such people.

In my experience, if these people have comment moderation privileges, they exercise them with a power-trippy "I'm going to delete your civil commentary and respond to it anyway as though you've just unleashed a string of threats and obscenities at me, and then I'm going to tell you what a horrible, abusive person you are" approach to deleting comments and interacting with you, even if you've been incredibly polite in the face of their outright problematic-ness.

So, suddenly we're not talking about an article's homophobia or sexism or trans*bigotry or racism at all anymore, we're talking about, placating, and soothing the hurt feelings of the person who is only capable of hearing "BIGOT BIGOT BIGOT" and who is therefore shutting down and threatening to end the conversation because ze feels that ze is UNDER. ATTACK.

Meanwhile, these same people will continue to be found discussing the horrible awfulness of, say, the Homosexual Agenda with like-minded thinkers, as though that's a totally civil thing to do, especially when ze isn't even allowing lesbian, gay, and bisexual people to engage in that conversation. As though that conversation is of no concern to actual lesbian, gay, or bisexual people.

Their whole approach to Internet "conversation" is akin to the "it's sad when black people experience racism, but what's even sadder is when white people get accused of being racist" approach of talking about social issues. Except these people don't even make the pretense of being allies.

And so, I have swallowed shit and made concessions and have publicly and privately held people's hands and told them things like, "Now, I don't think you're a bigot or anything but hey, can we talk about that article?" But people like this will take and take and take from a conversation and never give a single concession in return or even one tiny acknowledgement that some people actually are bigots and haters against LGBT people or feminists or people of color, and if they can at all squeak that admission out it always comes with some sort of "both sides are just as bad" statement, after which they fall ass over heels onto their fainting couches feeling all ACCUSED of bigotry.

And, the sad truth is that I recognize that this Tone Argument crap is the reality we have to navigate as people interested in social justice, and I keep doing it anyway. Because, if we are at all interested in dialogue with people who have opposing viewpoints, these are the issues we have to navigate.

I don't have any big revelations about how to deal with people like this, I just know that I have this experience enough that I thought it might resonate with others.

My partner hammerpants, who is not as active as I am on Internet, recently jumped into a conversation in a very civil manner with a person who opposes same-sex marriage. Now, my partner doesn't have a mean bone her body, and she certainly didn't say anything out of line, and yet the blogger gave her this unwarranted "you are being SO MEAN TO ME! GO AWAY!!" treatment.

My partner didn't really know how to react, but I saw her begin to doubt herself, her morality, her basic goodness, and her own intentions.

And I told her, "Don't."

"It's hir, not you."

Some people are really invested in seeing us as monsters who ACCUSE THEM OF THINGS FOR NO REASON AT ALL!

I think it's important to be critical of ourselves and mindful of hostility we might be putting out there. But, I've seen too many good people with valid, legitimate, and reasoned things to say silence themselves because abusive, self-centered people whose HURT FEELINGS and bruised egos are the sun around which all important conversations must revolve have accused them of being abusive.

Recognize that it is a common tactic of abusers to plant seeds of doubt in good-hearted people's minds and accuse the people they abuse of abuse. Recognize that abusers often frame self-defense as abuse.

Recognize that it's not you. It's them.

It really is.

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