Liberal bullying: Privilege-checking and semantics-scolding as internet sport

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You might ask yourself, "Hmm, what's the biggest challenge the Offbeat Empire deals with on a daily basis?" You might ask yourself, "Is it complaints from advertisers who are offended by the content?" (Nope: that's happened exactly once in almost six years. Our advertisers work with us because they like our content.)

"Is it angry comments from conservative readers who are offended by the content?" (Maybe once a month, we'll get a drive-by hate blast from someone who thinks gay marriage is awful, or breastfeeding is gross, or family cloth is disgusting. But really, it's pretty rare.)

So, if it's not advertisers or conservatives, what's the biggest community management challenge we deal with every day? It's attacks from our fellow progressives.

Over the past couple years, I've watched the rise of this new form of online performance art, where internet commenters make public sport of flagging potentially problematic language as insensitive, and gleefully calling out authors as needing to check their privilege. As a publisher who spends a lot of time thinking about community management issues and comment moderation, and who also serves hundreds of thousands of readers who identify as both progressive and marginalized (in many different, varying ways), this issue is hugely important to me.

As a progressive myself, it's also complex and challenging because while I very much share the political values of the folks who engage in this kind of thing, I'm not on-board with the tactics — which essentially amount to liberal bullying, and are way worse than anything we see from the conservatives who swing by. The sad truth is that when it comes to the motivations behind this kind of commenting, it's basically the same as the GOD HATES FAGS guys — even though the values are the polar opposite.

Common call-out culture trends:

  • Focus on very public complaints. I can think of exactly one time when someone emailed their concern about problematic language. These complaints seem to be always intended for an audience.
  • Lack of interest in a dialogue. These complaints aren't questions or invitations to discuss the issue. They're harshly-worded accusations and scoldings (which I've written about before).
  • Lack of consideration for the context or intent. The focus is on this isolated incident (this one post, this one word, this one time), with de-emphasis on the author's background, experience, or the context of the website on which the post appears.
  • And on a more stylistic note, these complaints are often prefaced with phrases like "Um," and other condescending affectations.

It's challenging for me because the values motivating these complaints are completely in-line with both my personal politics as well as my professional passion for catering to niche markets and semi-marginalized cultures. I say "semi-marginalized" because let's get real here: Offbeat Empire readers are eminently more likely to be a 20-something white plus-size roller derby player or an introverted 30-something information sciences grad student — neither of whom who are "marginalized" in the same way as, say, a gay Cambodian amputee immigrant living in Mexico City. THAT SAID, do you see Style Me Pretty prioritizing transgender weddings or discussion about cultural appropriation? Offbeat Bride is definitely the largest-trafficked wedding blog committed to serving marginalized communities.

[For visitors unfamiliar with the Offbeat Empire's marginalized community content, please see this comment.]

Increasingly, I've started recognizing this kind of behavior for what it is: privilege-checking as a form of internet sport. It's a kind of trolling, with all the politics I agree with, but motivations and execution that turns my stomach. It's well-intended (SO well-intended), but when the motivations seem to be less about opening dialogue about the issues, and more about performance, righteousness, and intolerance for those who don't agree with you… well, I'm not on-board.

This is where it starts to feel like the "GOD HATES FAGS!" sign-wavers. While the political sentiments are exactly opposite, the motivations are remarkably similar: I WOULD LIKE TO DERAIL THIS CONVERSATION AND HAVE AS MANY PEOPLE AS POSSIBLE WITNESS HOW RIGHT I AM. I don't care if your politics are progressive and your focus is on social justice: if you're shouting at people online and refusing to have a dialogue, you're bullying. I don't care if you're fighting the good fight: your methods are borked. It doesn't matter if you're fighting for the one true phrase that we should all use to describe the Romani people, or fighting for the one true God… if you're fighting in a way that's more about public performance, shaming, and righteousness, I'm not fighting with you.

(…even if I agree with your goals!)

My big challenge as a publisher is knowing how to respond to this kind of feedback, which comes in almost daily. Sometimes it feels like I have two options:

  • Acquiesce to every complaint of anyone anywhere on the internet, until we're putting trigger warnings at the top of posts that mention balloons because some people are globophobic (TRUE STORY!).
  • Align myself with insensitive assholes who defend their right to hate speech.

Again, I'm extra conflicted because I love observing and following the ways that language shifts. It's exciting and fascinating to watch as the semantics of marginalized communities evolve. I recently had to talk to my aging lesbian mother and her partner about how the word "tranny" causes a lot of issues for folks in the transgender community. They're totally aligned with the cause, and totally active in LGBT communities… and yet hadn't gotten the latest memo.

I'm totally on-board with the reasoning behind shifting the language from "illegal immigrants" to "undocumented immigrants." I get why the word "gypsy" is problematic (even if I still don't agree in silencing people who've chosen to describe themselves using the word). I've appreciated the discussions I've had with readers about words like "Derp" and "Tribe." (Because these were DISCUSSIONS. Dialogues.)

I love learning new things about how cultures are defining themselves. I love that people take the time to try to improve my publications by sharing the latest language that communities are using. I love that readers feel safe enough to voice their concerns. I love this shared concern for sensitivity around language. I love the social justice motivations, and the encouragement that we all be self-aware of how the language we use has powerful, sometime unexpected impacts on the people around us.

BUT. But. Seriously, I'm just not down with:

  • The derailing of conversations to debate semantics
  • The need to process it all publicly (look at me look at me look at meeee! I am the very MOST aware of my privilege and am therefore the very BEST progressive on the entire internet!)
  • The righteousness
  • The intolerance and inability to respect that those who share your values might not share your opinions on this particular subject

This is where this kind of conversation begins to feel more like liberal bullying, where the only correct response is agreeing and acquiescing. Any other response is seen as ignorant at best, hateful at worst.

My priorities with online discourse are dialogue and respect. In my little corner of the online world, I keep my focus on constructive critique and articulate, compassionate communication. Shouting down people who disagree with you (even if I agree with your argument!) simply doesn't feel productive or helpful. If I had a dollar for every time we have to delete a blog comment that I personally agreed with because it was stated as an attack… I could get rid of banner ads. Being an asshole: it's not just for the GOD HATES FAGS people anymore.

Ultimately, when these complaints come up (which has slowly gone from "monthly" to "weekly" to "almost daily"), my editors respond with comments like, "I understand what you're saying, and share your concern — but I disagree that this usage is problematic." Alternately, sometimes we just say, "I agree that this usage is problematic, but I'm going to leave it." I want to make sure that folks know readers' concerns are heard, but that it doesn't always guarantee that we'll make changes.

We're especially unlikely to make changes when readers refuse to have a direct dialog with us. I often respond to a semantics-debating comment with an invitation for the commenter to email me directly to discuss the issue… and guess what? NO ONE EVER DOES. Because having a one-on-one dialogue with a publisher who reaches 1,000,000 readers a month apparently isn't as edifying as performance art.

For those of you who like to fight the good fight for social justice and language sensitivity online, before writing that Tumblr missive or firing off that privilege-checking comment, I'd love to encourage you to take a moment to ask yourself these questions:

  • Am I living my values with this exchange? If my goal is tolerance and sensitivity, am I embodying both those values in this conversation?
  • What are my motivations here? Do I want to make a difference, or just feel like I'm right? What would "making a difference" look like in this context?
  • Is this person an ally? How can I best communicate with them to ensure they stay that way?
  • What is my ultimate goal in my activism? Is this exchange the best use of my time to achieve that ultimate goal?

In terms of my ultimate goal with this post: I want to support progressive activists in their very important work for social justice, but also beg them to carefully consider their methods and strategies with online communication. We're fighting for the same team, here. I wish we didn't have to spend so much time fighting with each other.

Follow up

In the years since this post was published in October 2012, it's spawned some truly constructive and powerful discussions, including many thoughtful critiques. (This Metafilter post does a great job of gathering many of responses to the post into one place.) I mentioned this in the comments below, but I want to reiterate here: I remain deeply conflicted about call-out culture, and I totally see the validity in many of the concerns that have been raised about this post.

The fact that this post still incites discussion means that it absolutely accomplished what I was hoping for: it kick-started a conversation between publishers, community managers, and online activists about how we discuss difficult issues. I don't expect us to find a consensus, but I'm grateful for the opportunity to be part of the discussion.

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