Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Toxicity, Hostility, and the Limits of Online Civility

In a way, I agree with Freddie deBoer about what he calls "online liberalism":
"It seems to me now that the public face of social liberalism has ceased to seem positive, joyful, human, and freeing. I now mostly associate that public face with danger, with an endless list of things that you can’t do or say or think, and with the constant threat of being called an existentially bad person if you say the wrong thing, or if someone decides to misrepresent what you said as saying the wrong thing. There are so many ways to step on a landmine now, so many terms that have become forbidden, so many attitudes that will get you cast out if you even appear to hold them. I’m far from alone in feeling that it’s typically not worth it to engage, given the risks."
deBoer continues by suggesting that liberals ought to gently educate people, rather than calling them out so vehemently.  The first order of business is that this phenomenon is not just a liberal one, but we'll get to that.

For those not already liberal or progressive, I imagine it's confusing and frustrating to be seemingly told, "Check your privilege! Educate yourself! I'm not here to educate you!"

As a progressive blogger, I enjoy learning for the sake of learning, even if it entails re-examining my current opinions. I've also learned to be quite picky about from who and what sources I do the learning, as well as what their motives are: is someone looking to play "gotcha" with me? Are they outright assuming the worst about my motives and everything about me?  Is it someone playing "Devil's Advocate" assuming he (often it's a he) has lots to teach myself and everyone at my blog?

From 7 years of blogging, I also know that a blogger can quickly become a container for those involved to displace their anger, accusations, threats, hobby horses, and hurt.  One mis-step, one thing you've said (or not said) that's misunderstood or misrepresented, and Bam! You as a blogger are a Very Bad Person. A bigot, racist, a sexist, a misandrist, a misogynist, a religion-phobe, a cat-hater, or what-have-you, despite any other long-standing track record you've built up.  (Free tip of the day for not pissing people off while blogging: Don't Blog!)

If one's goal is to convince someone else to change their opinions, what motivation does one have, really, to immediately go out and research their privilege or problematic thinking and then change?   From a practical standpoint, I know I'm highly resistant to "learning" from someone who assumes from the outset that I'm an awful person. I mean, when they have that basic factoid wrong, I'm going to find the rest of what they say highly suspect.

Although, I also acknowledge that blogging and interaction doesn't always need to have the goal of changing people's opinions - I certainly don't write this blog with the number one goal of convincing anti-feminists to become feminists!  I write this blog more for those who are already feminists, as enough people have written to me over the years, expressing gratitude for validating their life experiences.

But (and I hope you knew there'd be a but, here), deBoer's piece also seems like the usual complaining that many privileged people engage in when others call out, in an insufficiently nice manner, the problematic things they do.  So:

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I think people can be genuinely jerky about call-outs, but oftentimes, there is no way to gently educate, as deBoer suggests, other people (especially those with various privileges) about something problematic they said or did without that person perceiving it as an attack on themselves.  When I was a resident lesbian, feminist guest blogger at the conservative-leaning Family Scholars Blog, we seemed to have these conversations on practically a weekly basis for at least a year!

No matter how tepidly we tip-toed around the dreaded b-word (bigot, that is), no matter how many assurances I and other pro-LGBT folks gave that we believed equality opponents could still be generally kind people, if we admitted that we thought their opposition to equality was "anti-gay," they perceived that label to be an abhorrent attack meant to silence them. The term bigot and anti-gay were, to many of them, hostile. Abusive. Harassment.

Like, I had actual conversations in which I assured Maggie Gallagher, one of the largest opponents of LGBT equality, that I thought she was an okay person.  I'm agnostic on that point (I don't personally know her well enough to say!), but at the time I recognized that showing her that I didn't outright assume her to be an irredeemable Awful Person was a necessary first step in (a) letting the conversation progress and (b) having her somewhat hear the other things I was saying.

And gawd!

What queer person wants to continually have such conversations with folks who think we are irredeemably flawed and sinful?  What feminist wants to continually, oh-so-gently educate (assuming they're even here to genuinely be educated by us) every man who pops in at our blogs with a, "Now, let me just play Devil's Advocate here" just so we can possibly get more people being feminists?  Those interactions, I have found, take a toll and I find it disturbing whenever I grow numb and complacent to arguing with people who treat my basic rights and human dignity as an intellectual, abstract debating exercise.

Yet, it does seem to be a practical reality that, in any conversation with political opponents, we have to be civil to those we find hostile to us (or "problematic") if our goal is to try to get them to understand us, let alone change their minds or behavior in the ways we want.

And, of course, all of this gets complicated and jumbled in actual conversations when people co-opt and appropriate the language of privilege, abuse, harassment in these really polarizing ways such that if one is (or believes themselves) to be a victim in one context, they believe they are justified in inflicting harassment in another context (while calling it self-defense or justifiable).

Lastly, I'd note that it's certainly not just a liberal phenomenon to think people are existentially bad for liking certain things or being a certain way.  Social conservatives certainly have their own orthodox lists of things that shouldn't be said, done, read, watched, drank, eaten, or smoked by people who are Good.  And, for all their whinging about political correctness and oversensitive liberals/feminists, they have their own silly things they are gravely offended by, such as swearing, sex in general, and having to bake cakes for lesbian weddings.

I'm still trying to better articulate my thoughts on these topics as I continue further teasing out the nuances.  Before I get accused of saying otherwise, I think it is absolutely necessary to render critique within social movements (and at political opponents).  It also often seems that a key issue here is people being extremely quick to mistakenly treat people as though making one, or several, mis-steps means they're 100% evil.  Even though, in reality, even - like - Fred Phelps wasn't 100% evil.

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