Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Fair Rarely Means Balanced

This is about specifics and about generalities and about all points in between. Really, it's about the life cycle of an open mind. I've lived on the internet for enough years to know better but I always hope. I hope that whatever community I wind my way into, on whatever topic, will resist the quiet whispers of the Civility Police. You would think, as a person that moderated boards for AOL before that was a badge of shame, that I'd know better.

Here's how it goes.

Someone (or a group) decides the problem with their current habitat is an excess of moderating. They decide to form a new group where open conversations are the rule, not the exception. Big girl (and boy) pants are handed out. The community grows because people enjoy open conversation. Fervent disagreement educates as much as it link baits. Eventually, the community faces a crossroads. Are they chicken, or are they fish?

Always, the question comes couched as the question of civility. It's the tone argument. The strong voices, the ones that build the community, attract conversation, and distinguish it from the bland, are undervalued. There are important people not being heard. Fearful people. Quiet people. People who send emails and whisper in ears and quake in the self satisfied boots of the pious. It doesn't have to be a book community. I've seen it play out in places as absurd as travel communities. On the face of it, it seems so reasonable. Rather than institute an ignore feature or tell people to man up, the choice is made to change. To become more like the place they fondly remember as great, before the moderation drove away the strong voices and the self policers.

The thing is, I've never been interested in people who hold civility up as a goal. The poison they drip is far more vile to me than the frontal assault of a true believer. When asked "You don't want to make people uncomfortable, do you?" I say yes. Yes I do. I want the gays to marry, the people of color to party at the beach, the country club to celebrate Purim, the headscarf to be worn at the school play. Yes. I want people to be uncomfortable. I do. When you are uncomfortable you are forced to examine if you are right.

Then the argument is made that passionate debate is still welcome. Just not with that voice, not in that tone, why are you taking it personally? Yes, these people may be directing their words at you but... and but.. and but. Wait your turn. Raise your hand. Think about the other person but don't expect them to think about you because you, you're loud. You make people uncomfortable. You want them to defend their words instead of bask in them. Often those who are most vehement in their tone arguments are the most hateful, the least inclusive, the quickest to uphold the status quo and wave away the dissent. Class issues? Race issues? Pish and tosh. Pish and tosh, we say! How you speak becomes more important than the content of your speech. More important than the content of your character.

Civility goes hand in hand with solidarity. Trust in us! Support this feminism and that feminism will follow! Believe in the past instead of the present! Every book is a good book for someone! Toxic messages are in the eye of the beholder! If that fails, then it is generally pointed out that the ball is owned by the rule maker, and the rule maker makes the game. Which is why I run a series of blogs instead of communities. I believe that communities belong to those who populate them, not those who begin them. A lack of civility is not abuse. People no longer sharing your taste is not disdain.

Some of you have been in communities with me for ten, twenty, maybe even thirty years. You know that nothing I say here is inconsistent with any position I previously held. Some of you don't know me at all, and that's fine. Choosing to honor the whispering horsemen of the nicepocalypse isn't a crime. Having the right to take an action is not the same as being right in your actions. Communities rise and fall, they struggle on or enjoy rebirth. Somewhere there is someone thinking about building a new one. It may be six weeks, it may be six months, but one thing I know about the internet is a new home is always under construction. My choice forever is to go with the loud girls, the proud girls, the girls we say we want but almost never support.


  1. Well said. Demands for civility inevitably come from a place of privilege, and are all too often made of the unprivileged. The current example of egregious tone policing is an example of that.

    This link seems very apt right now:

    1. I can't love Dawkins shout outs but that's my thing. Otherwise, a good read.

    2. I'm with you on Dawkins, actually. A perfect example, in fact, of a privileged policer of tone who demands free reign to speak exactly as he finds, but who denies it arbitrarily to anyone he disagrees with.

  2. I've been thinking about this. I have no problem being told, "Your opinion is stupid." It may well be stupid. But there are those people online who believe--at least I interpret their actions this way--that the person who expresses a stupid opinion is herself stupid, and anyone who points out the stupid person's stupid opinion is permitted (dare I say "privileged"?) to point out both the stupidity of the opinion AND the stupidity of the person.

    In other words, not only is my opinion stupid, but by definition it proves that I'm stupid. And, presumably, I'm too stupid to know that I'm stupid.

    I may be stupid on a specific topic. I may be stupid across the board. And these people may have an absolute right to point out my stupidity. But by attacking me, have they advanced the discussion?

    Two problems seem to crop up immediately. First, the commenters who point fingers--"Your opinion is stupid, so you are too!"--don't seem comfortable engaging in a discussion on their own actions. If I say, for example, "I understand you think I'm stupid, but how do you know that I am? Where's your evidence, beyond my holding a single stupid opinion?" then I'm accused of being defensive, argumentative, and (yes) privileged.

    Second, we end up so far down the rabbit hole that the merits of my original opinion--remember? the one I made that was deemed stupid and upon which the entire rest of the discussion hangs?--are lost.

    Which is a shame, because if my opinion is stupid, wouldn't it be better if I could see why it was stupid? And doesn't that "teachable moment" happen if the commenter avoids the ad hominem declaration that I'm stupid?

    I don't know where "civility" got such a bad rap, so I won't use that word. Let me just say that I don't believe it follows logically that someone whose opinion is stupid is herself stupid. In fact, some very smart people have some very dumb ideas, in my experience. I'd rather engage their intelligence by sticking to the merits of their thinking while respecting them as educated, interesting, and open-minded.

    Of course, that's just me. And you're entitled to think I'm stupid for feeling this way.

    1. God, I love this comment because it's textbook. Which means you're not going to like my answer.

      You derail the conversation by turning the exchange into a referendum on yourself, because of your expectation that a certain opinion of you will be maintained. What the opinion is exists in yourself and is a result of the class/race privileges you hold. You define the offender as being unwilling to engage because they refuse to move the referendum to your person. They don't need to supply, refute or debate evidence about your person because it is irrelevant. They have decided, based on your words, that they consider you stupid. So what?

      So. What.

      You've said something they find so stupid they decide you are stupid. The next move is yours. You can explain why what you said has merits by staying on topic and addressing the points you are making. You can examine if, perhaps, what you said IS that astoundingly stupid and adjust accordingly. You can state your opinion for the lurkers if you feel a point you wanted to make was obfuscated. Or, you can freak the fuck out that someone on the internet used profanity, called you a libtard, or a neocreep or a racist or stupid and lead everyone down the rabbit hole of your hurt feelings.

      Both in your fictional set up and your post you have positioned where the conversation will go entirely around your feelings. How you feel is the most important thing in the room. That is textbook privileged thinking. We all have privileges, the important thing to conversation is recognizing when they are working against our goal. It is incumbent upon all of us to be less stupid, not to demand that the person who finds us so tell us in a nicer way, a gentler way, a teaching way. It is incumbent on all of us to consider that perhaps the person calling us stupid is simply wrong and to ignore the flag of our feelings and move forward with our speech.

      "How DARE you say that to me!" never won a debate or changed a mind. Yet that is what your point boils down to. How DARE they say THAT to ME. ME ME ME ME. How dare THEY say that. Everyone's threshold for what constitutes and attack is different. When they pass out the big pants it's with the recognition that everyone involved is responsible for their own emotional reactions, that those reactions are not more important than the conversations at hand.

      I've been called stupid on the internet (and in life) countless times. So what? Sometimes I am. Sometimes I'm not. Sometimes the person calling me stupid is a drooling idiot. I keep walking forward because sitting down in the road and crying about isn't going to get me where I want to go.

    2. Having answered the content of your words, I've now clicked through to the content of your person.

      Your confusion about the word civility and the value of same is probably culturally rooted, as is my disdain for it. As an American, I am used to civility being used to segregate, to maintain a status quo, to define people along lines of class and worth. I can't speak to the meaning of civility to you, culturally, as an Englishwoman. When we use words, we use them in the context of our own lexicons. It's impossible to speak globally, so what happens is an aggregate of voices determine the majority culture of a given conversation and adaptations are made or explanations sought to define the difference. These are personal obligations.

      A common event in internet conversations is a white person coming to a conversation between people of color and demanding the focus shift to their issues, their language and their need to be taught. I call it Toddler Time, but there are other descriptive phrases. I find this cropping up in multi national comment boards as well. When speaking primarily to people from a certain nation, I try to understand the differences in meaning, intent and history words have if I don't understand the impact they have made. I do not try and hold my own culture dominant.

    3. Where did you find that I'm British? I'm not. I'm American, born and raised in the Northeast. I have degrees in biology, philosophy, law and I'm working on an MFA. I'm 57, fat, happy and extremely lucky, which you are welcome to redefine as privileged.

      Your research skills need some work.

      I'm glad to read that you don't cry at being called stupid. Anyone who disdains civility must surely need a thick skin.

    4. And you are absolutely right. I didn't research you. I confused you with another person who I wanted to give the benefit of the doubt as coming from another country. As a native of our own, well educated and well situated your initial take makes even less sense.

      See? Easy to admit an error. I don't need a thick skin at all. My first assessment, based on your post, was correct. My second one, based on confusion of personal identity, was wrong.