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Sonya Mann's active website is Sonya, Supposedly.

Hostility & Online Discourse, Round Two

This is a follow-up to yesterday’s somewhat controversial post about politeness.

My thesis consists of these points:

  • Expressing anger respectfully is more useful to any movement you happen to belong to than expressing anger viciously.
  • Lashing out at well-meaning but uneducated people is counterproductive. (Note that this does not apply to people who’ve had ample opportunity to be coached — however, identifying these people without knowing them beforehand is difficult, so I think it’s better to default to being kind. This also doesn’t apply to, for example, unsolicited dick pics or equivalent acts that are themselves way outside of respectful norms.)

If your goal is to convince people to agree with you, berating them whenever they try to start a conversation is not the best strategy. If your goal is to repel those people and make them think the subculture you belong to is full of jerks, then this is exactly the type of response you should have. Crucially, it doesn’t matter whether you’ve heard their question a million times before — they will still think, “Yeesh, lighten up.”

I made this argument about feminism yesterday, but it applies equally to any other belief system or cause that’s trying to recruit. Just to throw another example in the ring, open-source software development is often chastised for being awful for newbies. And if you look at any community that is explicitly trying to boost their ranks, the evangelists never begin their spiel by saying, “Here are the reasons why you suck, along with everyone who fits into a category with you.”

Those Christian missionaries who show up at your door don’t open with, “Hey, if you weren’t such a shitlord you would already be researching ways to avoid the eternal hellfire of divine condemnation.” Instead they say something friendly like, “Good morning, have you accepted Jesus Christ as your savior?” Their uninvited sales pitch is still annoying, but it doesn’t make me think, “Wow, people who identify as Christian say I’m a terrible person. When I ask them to help me figure this out, they say I’m an even more terrible person for not reading the Bible on my own. I don’t want to interact with Christians. Whenever the topic of Christians comes up amongst my friends, I’ll warn them that Christians are jerks.” (Whether or not certain groups of Christians qualify as jerks for other reasons is beside the point.)

As an example from the opposite side, vegan activists are notorious for being judgy and aggressive. I’m sure this is frustrating to reasonable vegans who just want to explain their ethical stance and share recipes with people. And it does exactly zero to make people want to experiment with veganism. PETA’s shenanigans have had the opposite effect in at least one case. An explanatory approach like Food, Inc. is much more inviting.

Various people told me I was tone policing yesterday, and after having thought about it more, I agree that I am. According to the Geek Feminism Wiki:

The tone argument is a form of derailment, or a red herring, because the tone of a statement is independent of the content of the statement in question, and calling attention to it distracts from the issues raised. Drawing attention to the tone rather than content of a statement can allow other parties to avoid engaging with sound arguments presented in that statement, thus undermining the original party’s attempt to communicate and effectively shutting them down.

I fundamentally disagree that holding people to high standards of discourse is equivalent to “effectively shutting them down.” I believe that people can argue without resorting to verbal abuse — and if they can’t, what is the point of arguing? No one who doesn’t already agree with you will be swayed.

There are situations where it is obnoxious to tone police, and the reasons why people get angry totally make sense (see this comments thread for lots of examples; TRUCEConf is another exasperating example). I am angry for many of the same reasons! However, if someone is slinging around ad hominens or saying things like, “Your comment is trash,” they’re not debating at an object level either. When I discuss an issue with another adult, I expect them to use phrases like “that attitude makes me angry because of xyz” instead of “I can’t believe you fucking said that”. And if they don’t maintain that level of civility, I disengage, because targeted hostility stresses me out.

I think there are appropriate ways to express anger — this open letter to a father who doesn’t pay child support is a great example of what I mean — and ways to express anger that alienate anyone who doesn’t already understand your grievances and share your context. In my view, activists should try to optimize for the former method of expressing rage. This is especially important on the internet, where everyone is talking in public, because random people will see your arguments. Some of them will be totally unfamiliar with your subculture or ideology, and if you’re not calm and reasonable they will notice that and associate it with your subculture or ideology.

This is how I closed my first post on this topic, and it reiterates my two bullet points from the beginning:

It’s true that sometimes people enter conversations, especially about social justice, with ill intentions. But treating everyone as an enemy until they prove otherwise is very harmful — it ends up burning the people who just couldn’t figure out why you were upset without more guidance and more information. Assuming good faith is not always accurate, but it’s a much more useful stance than defaulting to hostility.

Then again, some people take the cynical view that activists’ main function is to generate controversy and stay in the news. But I’m sad to see people who champion causes that I care about follow that pattern.

3 thoughts on “Hostility & Online Discourse, Round Two

  1. Well done, Sonya! (if I may be so bold as to “judge” ;-) ) This is an incredibly important topic. Online hostility is like a virulent disease or a parasite–it is not doing anyone any good except for the brief burst of relief that we get from venting.

    You make a number of excellent points, and if I might summarize a little, they seem to be centered around _effectiveness_. That is, “this thing that people do does not advance their cause”.

    While that is certainly helpful, there are other aspects to this that could be brought in as well that are not often discussed on the subject of “tone”.

    In no particular order, they are:
    • Morality
    • Relationships
    • Motivation

    At the moment I feel as if I could write a thousand words—easily—on each of these, but since eyeball time is precious in this hyperactive digital age, let me illustrate each with a few questions that I have learned to ask myself lately as I have realized that my activism has made many of those I love angry and resentful.

    Morality: if I am advocating for X and you are either resistant or to some degree indifferent, do I conclude that I am a “better person” than you?

    Relationships: to what degree are my most important relationships—with parents, siblings, children, friends—conditioned on their sharing my point of view, and valuing my activism?

    Motivation: if my answer to the first question was “yes”, how does that make me feel? Sad at the other person’s moral poverty? (I.e., pity.) Secretly thrilled by the awareness that my self-esteem is practically invulnerable, because “History is on my side”, or “God is on my side”, or “The Truth (capital T) is on my side”?

    Let me repeat what I said earlier: my goal here is not to shame or intimidate anyone. I know my own “tone” can be somewhat snooty and off-putting, and one might read the above as a redirect or verbal jiu-jitsu, etc. My sincere desire here is to extend a warm, well-intentioned invitation to look at things from some other perspectives—very personal—perspectives.

    I make this invitation as someone who asked these questions of himself, and is happy that he did.

    To any of you who are still reading, thank you. I sincerely feel that the way to change the world and to be happy doing it begins with self-awareness.

    PS: these are “big” questions. It took me months to answer them for myself, and the help of an excellent therapist!

    1. I agree, those are big and important questions! Certainly ones that I haven’t fully worked out the answers to =/ And so I blog.

      Thanks for sharing your perspective — I appreciate it.

    2. You’re welcome! I needed to start asking myself those questions, because my wife of 27 years and our adult children no longer show any interest in talking to me. I guess they finally had enough of my old-man grumbling! :-)

      I used to be OK with the thought that I was right, they were wrong, and that was that. That I was informed and they weren’t. That although they were smart, I was smarter. Oh, I was never saying these things out loud, but it has been perfectly obvious to them that my opinion had approximately zero percent chance of changing.

      Since I have embraced various causes over the years–some progressive, some conservative, some libertarian–I come at this from the perspective that invincible arrogance can be found everywhere on the political spectrum. I seriously want us all (left, right, and those in outer space) to take a few deep breaths and ask ourselves what are we doing to each other? For example, this Twitter person who has tweeted a torrent of abuse at you (I omitted her name on purpose)–I wonder what her personal life is like? She seems pretty young, so if she stays with her present style, what is her personal life going to be like in 15, 25, 35 years? How many people whose love and companionship she once had will have she have driven away?

      Botttom line: we have no choice but to get old. But are we going to be old and lonely, too?

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