The other day, I updated the folks at Family Scholars Blog that I will be taking a break from blogging there until a more specific civility policy is applied. (I will, of course, still be blogging here in Fannie's Room).
As I wrote there, "I have concerns about that policy [which simply states, "...don't be mean,"] both in its content and its application. I know that readers have also emailed me with concerns and confusion over what is and isn’t acceptable commentary in [there], who does and doesn’t get to be 'mean' [there], and whose commentary [there] is and isn’t open to critique."
I know from commentary to my piece, and to other pieces there, that some people are exasperated at the notion of a more specific civility policy that might give people more guidance than "don't be mean." They seem to think it will interfere with people's free speech or that it might "stifle" dialogue.
Yet, I counter that argument by noting that, certainly on Internet, it is rarely a problem that people are being just too goshdarn nice and too aware of other people's experiences, feelings, and sensitivities when they talk about controversial topics. And, you know, there's a really big Internet out there and if people want to blast away without "censoring" themselves, countless forums exist to do so.
As a culture, we say we revere peacemakers and advocates of non-violence like Martin Luther King, Jr., and we wring our hands and cry "why?" when bullied kids commit suicide, and yet it's not lost on me that it's also simultaneously incredibly difficult to create intentional online spaces where civility, and having sincere conversations about what that even means, is a shared value.
Simply put, the norm in US culture, emanating from the top down, and coming from politicians, radio personalities, pundits, bloggers, and numerous commentators with powerful voices is.... to be mean. It takes work, and it takes being mindful of this constant reinforcement to overcome this pervasive conditioning.
I still believe in what I think some of the folks at Family Scholars Blog are trying to do, which is create a space where people of varying beliefs, backgrounds, and experiences can have civil dialogue about contentious issues.
But, I have also been thinking a bit about the different power dynamics at play when people of relative privilege express exasperation at civility policies and when only some people have the power in different spaces to say what does and doesn't count as "mean" and "civil."
The resulting conversations can sometimes condone problematic behaviors and suggest that, in any conversation, it's just as mean to call out, say, bigotry as it is to actually be bigoted.
Over at Geek Feminism Blog, Tim Chevalier has written:
"...adopting a laissez-faire 'free speech' policy in an organization is to take a political position: it means taking the position that existing power dynamics from the larger society will and must recreate themselves in your organization. To do nothing is to let bullies be bullies, because bullies always bully when they get the chance to and when there are no checks and balances against bullying.I also find it interesting that advocates of civility are quite often suggested to be oversensitive, hysterical, or overreacting. They suggest that they themselves aren't easily offended as though they are "above" having feelings. This claim, we learn, can often quickly be proven false if we suggest that these same folks who purport to be "above" having feelings might be sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, or showing any other sort of problematic behavior.
So in reality, the choice isn’t between taking a laissez-faire, neutral position; and adopting a code of conduct that excludes some form of speech. The central conflict is:
Shall we implicitly exclude people in socially stigmatized minority groups, or shall we explicitly exclude people who cannot or will not behave with respect?"
If we, even in relatively gentle ways, suggest that these folks might be problematic, the response is often a swift, "How dare you!?" and "How abusive of you to call me sexist!" before entire conversations get shut down for "lack of civility" on the part of people calling out problematic behavior.
To add to what Tim writes, unspoken rules of civility often mean that we are actually placing a premium on the feelings of relatively privileged folks to never have to feel uncomfortable, or as though they might be harboring problematic beliefs, in conversations while reinforcing dominant cultural narratives that make marginalized people uncomfortable but aren't readily recognized as problematic (like, having "friendly debates" over whether or not homosexuality or being transgender is pathological or immoral).
Many marginalized people will feel unsafe and uncomfortable participating in spaces where it is also not acceptable or "civil" to call out other people's problematic statements and patterns of engagement. Purported free speech proponents rarely express concern about the stifling of speech of these lost voices, however.