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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.

Advocacy = Elation + Exhaustion

We need to fully decriminalize prostitution.

I wrote a short essay responding to the whorephobic Marshall Project interview that I called out last week, and they published it. Please read my argument for decriminalizing sex work, because it’s very important to me personally and many stigmatized laborers globally.

“Most sex workers do it for the reason that anyone does any job: they need money to live or to support their family. Punishing consenting participants in an exchange of money and pleasure does nothing but limit the economic options of someone who likely had few to begin with.”

Mostly this is a positive incident — I’m glad that I contacted TMP and I’m glad that editor-in-chief Bill Keller solicited a more developed version of my opinion. But it was an emotionally draining process. Getting worked up in the first place was scary and triggering and felt horrible. It wrenched to put my reasoning into words — I kept trying to intellectually shy away from the process. Debating whether to go ahead and be “out” entirely was painful. You get the idea.

I mostly avoid media pertaining to sex work or feminism, because the general experience is so upsetting. I resent having to write about these issues over and over again, having to rehash the same thoughts and memories. The world should go ahead and improve now.

Book Review: Stolen Sharpie Revolution (Plus, Short Interview With Author Alex Wrekk)

My boyfriend and I recently got back from a road-trip through the Pacific Northwest. My favorite place that we went on the trip was Portland Button Works, which is a zine distro as well as a button-making business. I had never seen so many zines in one room! It was thrilling! The shop is run by Alex Wrekk, author of the perzine Brainscan and the book Stolen Sharpie Revolution, an introductory guide to zine-making.

Serendipitously, the day before I visited Portland Button Works, I got an email from Alex’s publicist asking if I wanted to review the new edition of SSR on my blog. I picked up my review copy in person, which was cool! Meeting Alex had me a bit starstruck, because she’s such a renowned underground author, second only to Aaron Cometbus or Cindy Crabb in terms of longevity and recognition. She also bravely exposed Joe Biel of Microcosm Publishing as an abuser and manipulator. (You can read about that online if you’re interested in the ethics of your reading material—which you should be.)

Stolen Sharpie Revolution Blog Tour Banner

Stolen Sharpie Revolution is the perfect gift for a weird, moody teenager, or even a kid in middle school. Beyond the practical how-to stuff about page layout and wrangling photocopiers, what’s important is the emphasis on taking control of your own story. Alex writes, “We all have stories to tell and no one is going to tell them for us.” The next step, after figuring out how to tell your story, is to publish it. Zines are an under-utilized way of sharing your words with the world.

I have to go off on a quick tangent here. As a beginning writer, it’s tempting to throw your hands up and say, “What’s the point? Everything has already been written, right?” To an extent that’s true, because the basic human conflicts and emotions haven’t changed since Homer recited the adventures of Odysseus. But every generation has to write the stories again. A young voice can make an old story accessible to new ears. Human stories deal with ancient themes, ancient archetypes and problems, but the language and the social mores are changing constantly. Don’t worry that it’s all been done before. It hasn’t been done by you, in the here and now.

Aesthetically, Stolen Sharpie Revolution is like a traditional cut-and-paste zine, done with a typewriter, scissors, and glue. It’s a great introduction to zine culture, and the only thing that I think it lacks is a section on desktop publishing using computers. However, that would also be vastly complicated to include, since not everyone has Microsoft Office or even the basic technical skills needed to format a zine using a word processor.

The review on Books and Bowel Movements kind of peeved me off, because Cassandra implied that Alex wrote her book like it was THE ONLY, MOST DEFINITIVE guide to making zines. In fact, Alex explicitly says that she’s just sharing what works for her. Stolen Sharpie Revolution should be seen as a window into what some zinesters do, and a starting point for learning more.

Speaking of learning more, I asked Alex a couple of questions, basically just because I could. Flora’s Forum did a more in-depth interview. Anyway, here’s my dialogue with Alex:

Sonya: How do you deal with “activist burnout”? I ask because this is something that I wrestle with, feeling hopeless and exhausted by the hugeness of the bad parts of life, and I would appreciate counsel from someone who’s held onto punk/anarchist/DIY ethics for a long time.

Alex: I have a couple of strategies but I’m not exactly sure they work for everyone. The main one is to let others do the heavy lifting sometimes. You can’t take on everyone and everything if you don’t have some space and time for yourself, so be good to yourself.

I also like to look at things in small chunks to avoid the hopelessness of drowning in the big picture. What can you do to make your house better? Your neighborhood? Your community? Recently I became a member of the advisory board of my credit union. I knew nothing about what I was doing there but I was putting myself in a new space and learning new things, like the actual difference between banks and credit unions. I was about to apply this new info to my personal feelings about capitalism.

Be an ambassador for your ideas in places you didn’t know you could. When I first moved to Portland I worked at an arcade. After after a few months my boss said, “You’ve made me punk friendly!” and offered to give me May Day off and the next day “just in case you get arrested”. Also, you can drop out sometimes and come back to your work later. Knowing AND expressing your boundaries in activism is really important. I don’t feel like I do as much as I used to, but that’s okay. I needed to learn to be okay with that. I’ve built relationships and communities where I am comfortable but also where there is room for growth.

Sonya: Near the beginning of Stolen Sharpie Revolution, you explain that we all have the opportunity to tell our own stories. Do you remember when you realized this, personally? Have you always been a writer?

Alex: I don’t think I ever really consciously thought about it until 2003 or 2004 when there was a camper I had taught at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp For Girls who was interviewed afterwards and said something like, “In the zine class we learned that we can tell our own stories because we can’t expect other people to tell it for us,” and I was like, “Wait, I said that in that class? I did say that!” To me, there wasn’t really a barrier there, it was just something I knew. I joke that I’m “DIY by Default”. I’m always looking at stuff and going, “How can I make that?” I think I got that from my mom. Getting involved in punk when I was 15 in the early ’90s was a vehicle for that. Once I found zines I thought, “I can make these too!” And it gave me something to do with all the notebooks lying around with ideas and lists in them. I don’t think I’ve always been a writer, but I do think I’ve always been a storyteller.

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