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.

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

  1. Thanks for writing this, Ariel. I agree that sometimes it seems that comments online are vying for the coveted “more-progressive-than-thou” title rather than actually attempting to further the discussion (and, thereby, their cause in the first place).

  2. I think this is such a timely issue. Not just on the Offbeat Empire, but also Jezebel and other “progressive-ish” online spaces. On one hand, it’s good for people to understand their privilege, and semantics can be extremely important. On the other, replying to my last sentence with “BUT WHAT ABOUT THE PEOPLE WITH NO HANDS?! HAND PRIVILEGE!” isn’t helping anybody.

    Although it’s tempting to conflate values with opinion, as you mention — especially on the internet, where opinions are so much easier to peg — we have to remember that the best way to teach others is rarely by being nasty or through bullying tactics. Sure… it’s no one’s “job” to teach lucky folks how lucky they are, but I think if you’re going to decry someone for participating in what you perceive as hate speech, you might as well turn it in to a teaching moment. After all, you’re already taking the time to write a missive with good intentions … why not turn those good intentions into some good? Just my two cents.

    • I can’t even read the comment threads at Jezabel anymore, it’s such a clusterfuck of absurdity.

        • Which is why I love the Offbeat Empire. Because Ariel and team’s active moderation helps keep the comments treads civil, making the Offbeat sites largely exempt from the Don’t Read The Comments rule of the internet. Which, aside from just being refreshing, means that actual interesting, useful conversations can and do happen in the comments. Which is fantastic.


    • Um, as part of the population traumatized by nightmares of handlessness, that comment should have had a trigger warning!

    • Oh gosh yes!!!

      There was this one Jezebel article that didn’t apply to this one reader and she was ROYALLY PISSED OFF about it. No one was understanding, everyone was ignorant, wrong, ageist, anti feminist, blah blah! She was so angry and hypocritical in her discussion that I couldn’t BELIEVE people were replying to her!!

      It’s just as well my login isn’t working anymore! Lol!

      I really like this post. I work with Indigenous kids and as a Whitey White McWhite, I try really hard to not-be-ignorantly-racist. It’s a work in progress. Every teacher at my school is trying. It’s hard sometimes, but we’re in the boat together of trying-really-hard-to-not-be-racist-because-of-our-white-privilege. After working all day in this supportive environment, it’s frustrating to read comments where people are shooting others down.

      Story: I was telling a class kids about the Canning Stock Route and how Alfred Canning was a horrible SOB (didn’t use those words) to the Indigenous peoples in the area. I was telling them all about how horrible white people can be. They told e that I was a lovely wonderful white person; Me and Mr S and Miss P and so on. It was really sweet. I told them in response that sometimes we’re not that good, but we’re really trying and we’re learning too! Education funtimes!!

  3. Thank for posting this. I agree with you that we must constantly strive to find that center – one that’s not acquiescence to allies or alignment with enemies – where we can rationally discuss the important stuff and actually get something done. Keep up the good work!

  4. Hail Yeah.
    I read this and was quickly reminded of Rumi;
    “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there.”
    Thank you for this post, Ariel. You have my vote in the Rally to Restore Sanity on the Internet 🙂

  5. I really like the comments that are “Just so you’re aware, the site/language you are supporting also promotes/supports ____, which I find problematic.” They are informative, progressive, and undemanding. The impression is that they genuinely want you to know of a potential problem, They give you the benefit of the doubt that you probably didn’t know, or that if you did you had reasons for making the decision you did. They stand in stark contrast to those comments that states “I am appalled that you would promote ____ because it is obviously terrible and I never expected to see such trash on this site.” These comments assume that you were being intentionally or willfully offensive, and clearly expect an apology or retraction.

    I totally get making the informative comments publicly. Since you aren’t pushing for the article to be pulled, or even for the language to be changed, you simply want to make sure that your counterpoint is also considered by the thousands of people that read the article. But if the goal of your comment is to have the article altered or pulled, then it makes far more sense to contact the editor directly.

    • “Just so you’re aware, the site/language you are supporting also promotes/supports ____, which I find problematic.” They are informative, progressive, and undemanding.

      They also seem to carry behind them a strong desire for a kind of ideological purity or cleanliness that human systems don’t have.
      Which is a scary thing, especially when heard from the mouth of a supposed progressive.

      • It can carry that desire, but it can also carry a genuine interest in informing you out of respect for your integrity.

        For example, my friends know that I’m vehemently against cosmetic animal testing. I had been using a shampoo that was made by a company with a long cruelty-free tradition, but I hadn’t re-researched them (because that seemed silly) to find out they’d been *bought* by a corporate mega-giant and scrapped the cruelty free commitment.

        I mentioned them in my space, and a friend said, “Hey, just so you are aware, (company) has been bought by (corporation) and the product is now tested on animals.” Obviously, that’s a thing I wanted to know, because I certainly don’t want to buy it any more.

        There’s a tremendous amount of diversity in awareness online, as information filters through, and as communities shift and change their wants. The author talks about having to explain to a generally-aware parent that ‘tranny’ has become taboo. I had to tell my grandmother that we don’t say ‘colored’ any more. She wasn’t a racist; she just hadn’t gotten the information that the people to whom she was applying the word would rather be called something else.

        If you’re aware of the ethics/principles of the person you’re addressing, and you have information that might affect their choices, then there are gracious, respectful ways to say, “I know that you’re very active with regard to same-sex marriage, and I wanted to be sure you were aware that the company you endorse here has given a lot of money and time to fight it (a conversation I’ve had a couple dozen times about Chick-fil-A).”

        I believe the problem is not in increasing awareness or sharing the information, but in being a smug, entitled jerk about how you do it.

        • THIS: “I believe the problem is not in increasing awareness or sharing the information, but in being a smug, entitled jerk about how you do it.”

          That’s the summary of my entire post, really.

          • Right, but who decides what’s smug, and what are the criteria? How do you determine what the impetus the commenter had for making the comment? Especially on the internet, where tone is really difficult to read, and when the person hearing the comment is likely to react defensively no matter what? And who gets to decide what acceptable dialog looks like? And why is it often less okay to call someone out than it is to have said the thing in the first place? I mean these as genuine questions that I’m struggling with, too, and don’t intend to come across either smugly or dismissively. 🙂

          • Jacquelyn, I think that two people get to decide what’s smug: the speaker and the listener.

            If I think to myself, “I would like to educate this person about a privilege being displayed,” I try to ask myself some questions. Do I have standing? Has my input been solicited? Are we friends? Do we have a relationship of some sort? Is there an established mutual respect in which I can expect even unsolicited criticism to be received in the spirit it’s given in? How are my own credentials on the matter? Am I walking the talk that’s about to come out of my mouth? Am I speaking angry or hurt? Have I considered both context and intent? Is this a pattern or a one-time event? Do I want to make the other person genuinely consider something, or do I want to be right about something? Most of this passes in about a second as “Is what I’m about to say true, necessary, and kind, and is it my place to say it?”

            If I’m the person on the receiving end, I ask myself similar questions. Who is this person? Do I care about this person’s opinion? Did I invite the expression of these thoughts? Is it a reasonable criticism of what I’ve said or done? Does this person appear to understand my context and intent and history? Is this person responding to what I said or did, or to a general anger at the world that I’ve happened to trip over? Is it possible that I HAVE been insensitive here, and that I should reconsider my actions? This all passes in about a second as, “Who is this and where did that come from?”

            All I can really do, ultimately, from the *outside* of the exchange, is look at patterns. If someone consistently finds fault and never contributes anything but that to a community, I value their opinions less. If someone is frequently thoughtful and interested, and engages in open discussion as a habit, I’ll take more notice of the privileges or problems they highlight.

          • Ya, seriously: the publisher decides who’s smug. If you don’t like it, you can go to another website — it’s a big internet out there.

  6. I think a good way to self-check this is to also frame your OMGPrivilege! check as a question. Asking questions invites discussion, right? It begs for peoples to respond, creating dialogue. Authentic questions, though, notsomuch the rhetorical type, or the bullying-but-in-a-question type of way. Hmm… maybe the question isn’t a solution, but it’s a starting place. “Is this a case of…” feels more like a dialogue than “THIS IS A CASE OF!” to me, though.

    • Yeah, I absolutely agree with there being a value in public questions. I’ve learned some amazing things from questions being raised by our commenters. Questions (true questions, not rhetorical questions that begin with “UM, not to be a jerk, BUT DIDN’T YOU KNOW…”) almost always promote a dialogue.

  7. UM we are not called “liberal bullies” because the term “liberal” implies that we are free, when in reality we are all chained prisoners of the patriarchy and Western consumer “values,” and use of the term “bullies” does a disservice to the anti-breed-specific-legislation movement. Some prefer the term “lefterly-inclined assholes” but I think that promotes body shame and a bias towards those with traditionally “left brained” skills.

    So unless you hate dogs, artists, bodies, and love Walmart and rich white men, I’m going to have to ask you to simply refer to us as “Correct”.

  8. Totally agree, I’m seeing these kinds of comments everywhere, more than before!

    Unfortunately, though, it seems to be a common problem with progressive groups, especially activist ones. I’ve been witness to the collapse of multiple activist communities when a select few start either picking on others for their slightly different POVs, nit-picking on tactics, or obliviously only playing lip service to the systems that are inclusive and anti-oppressive so they themselves become the dividing factor (or a combination of all three).

    Those last bullet points are right on the mark! Thanks for this.

    • “I’m seeing these kinds of comments everywhere, more than before!”

      Yep, I think that’s part of what concerns me — if it was just something we were dealing with, I’d be like, “Jeez, we’re really fucking up a lot lately!” But it’s EVERYWHERE, all the time, constantly, at everyone. This doesn’t mean that my editors and I don’t make mistakes (because we do, and I appreciate it when people let us know), but it points to a larger cultural trend that’s happening right now… one that I don’t think actually furthers the progressive causes it’s supposedly championing.

      • As a bit of an old-timer to these sorts of things, it really is everywhere. It’s almost to the point of being a truism where any progressive community will eventually divide itself over some sort of purity battle.

        And yeah, the end result is that it actually does a lot of harm to those causes.

      • this post is great and so true. THANK YOU. it’s happening more and more on our (queer feminist) website too and we don’t know what to do about it because it’s making us all insane.

      • Reminds me of the federal government seeding anti-war protest groups with infiltrators meant, not to stop or report on them, but to push them to more extreme tactics so that they would be more easily villianized by the public, and broken up.

  9. I absolutely love the offbeat empire’s approach to these types of conflicts, and I’ve been impressed at the speed at which a response is made. Once, I complained about an ad that I was fairly certain didn’t fit within the spirit of what you’re trying to do here and it was taken down within minutes. Even better you didn’t apologize or act like the empire did something wrong. It was just – thanks for catching that, we took it down. That’s pretty impressive.

  10. Perfectly stated. Thanks for sharing this post. I just experienced some of this on my blog and handled it as well as I could, and felt proud of how i did. This post really affirmed my personal experience.

  11. I wish I had a comment that could explain how much I agree, without giving examples that make me seem ablist/whitest/somethingist… LOL. I can’t explain it succinctly, but I agree with this post x1000!

  12. This is part of why I love the Empire. I love having questions raised, love problematizing the expected or accepted. But the point is not to show that I know better. I’ve never felt like that gets anyone anywhere. I love having someone else open my eyes to an issue I would never have thought of. Sure, maybe I’ll decide I’ll stick with my first opinion but at least I will have made a conscious choice.

    I think that concept of conscious choice is central to the Empire so the more we can embody that not just in the articles and the editing but in the comments, the better for all of us!

  13. There’s a reason the “Social Justice Troll” has reached trope level now, they are everywhere and numerous. Unfortunately. If only it was a phase that would pass already…

  14. This is a great, well thought out post. I think most people are far more likely to really listen to what someone has to say when they frame it in a respectful discourse, rather than shouting their point and refusing to allow any room for other perspectives.

    I don’t think there are many people who set out to do harm to one another, even people whose views are directly opposite mine, so if you can try talking instead of shouting there’s so much more room for rainbows and unicorns!

  15. Some time ago I spent a while thinking about how I could/should moderate some of my language on the basis of potential offence (what others might call ‘Political Correctness).
    Having read this article, I now realise that it’s completely fucking pointless and I’ll stick to my mid-90s list of Words & Terms that cannot be used, because, quite frankly, if someone is going to complain about using the word ‘balloons’ because they’re ‘globophobic’, there’s really no point in attempting to keep up.

    • I think of using non-hurtful language as any other social contract. Let’s use, say, driving regulations as an example. Regulations are passed or repealed regularly, and the ways regulations are enforced also change on a regular basis. There’s no way I could keep up with every change. Still, I try to obey the ones I know about, because I know it makes driving safer for everybody.

      For me, moderating my language is an ongoing process, not something I learn once, take a test, and get a grade. I use language I hope is non-hurtful, and if someone says I said something hurtful I apologize and try not to use that term to that person again. It’s really not that difficult.

  16. Some of the SJ Sallys made me cringe, haha…I like the idea, but I think the submissions aspect lets some awful ones get through!

    Just throwing it out there (for dialogue, really! :P) that I think a lot of the “Um…” comments are meant to be condescending, but sometimes it’s a way to feel like you aren’t being as intrusive with what you’re saying. I dunno…anyone else read them this way sometimes?

    And yeah, I think asking people not to be bullies about it is totally legit…as long as we ARE still trying to check our privilege (and it seems like we are here). I guess that’s my problem with a lot of those SJ Sally submissions…they aren’t critiquing the means, they’re critiquing the message.

    • Sometimes it’s a way to feel like you aren’t being as intrusive with what you’re saying.

      That may be the case, but I still think it’s an ineffective communication style. Starting a complaint with “Um” doesn’t make it less intrusive — to me, it just makes it feel petulant and condescending. Obviously, everyone has their own communication style, but prefacing a strong statement with a weak filler like “um” just strikes me as not a great way to kick off a difficult exchange.

      Unrelated: I totally agree that some of the SJ Sally submissions are gross. I linked to the one that felt relevant to this discussion, and chose to ignore the others.

      • Be intrusive. Stop qualifying your statements. If you mean it enough to say it, you don’t have to make yourself smaller to say it.

        I just finished having a conversation with our intern about over-apologizing and how it can negatively impact you in the workplace, especially as a woman. I then ended it with – an apology for talking her ear off, which she playfully pointed out with irony. What I was doing there was admitting that what I was saying that I really truly believed in was not worth taking up her time — but I didn’t truly believe that! It was just an automatic reaction.

        So – check your qualifying before you post. Don’t undersell what you mean to say.

      • I am definitely guilty of prefacing comments with “umm”. It wasn’t meant to be condescending though. I honestly was unsure of what I was saying- not sure if I sounded dumb, was wording the question with the proper politeness, or if asking the question at all was going to rain a shitstorm down upon me.

    • To me, ‘um’ comments are totally condescending in text form. Interjections have a place in spoken word, but in online discussion they’ve been relegated to the use of snarky comment preface in my mind.

      I also want to expand on your ‘not being intrusive’ thought: I find that the vast majority of “SJ Sallies” are (self admitted) women/girls, and as such we have been socially conditioned to not want to seem intrusive with ideas. Combine that with social conditioning to be catty towards one another and you have a noxious mix of online commenting styles.

  17. Yeah, I think they usually are pretty condescending.
    And yeah, maybe that’s part of my question/point? It is totally a scary combo, but a lot of that combo is conditioned, like you’re saying, by the ways we are told we are allowed to express our opinions as girls and women. It’s definitely not an excuse, but it’s interesting.

  18. Anyway. Sorry. You’re right. It isn’t an effective communication style regardless, and especially after having a conversation about it, people should try to stop. And sorry for the million comments!

  19. I’m conflicted by this post, in a number of ways. First, I disagree that public comments are all necessarily about being visibly right– otherwise, why make any comment public? why not privately agree, for that matter? Often when I make a comment about privilege (or to a climate denier, as another example), it’s public because education is most valuable if we do it in the open. I may not change the mind of the person I’m commenting to, but I may get many people in the silent masses thinking. I think that is important.

    I understand that it’s a frustrating process to try to please everyone, when the landscape of social justice changes. I get that being called out by one angry person or bandwagoned by many is not fun (I disagree that it’s a derail, however– at least in the definition of the term as applied to dialog). I struggle with the idea of the tone argument at times, too. But I am deeply unsettled with conflating people who ask you to check your privilege –often from marginalized or actively oppressed groups and their allies– being conflated with bullies, or trolls. Yes, the balloon example is extreme. But there have been– there continue to be– some very basic, high-profile examples if blatant cultural appropriation, racism, sexism, able-ism, and fat phobia in otherwise liberal forums. I think the only way we change that is by having an open dialog, and that may mean people end up in a position of discomfort as they realize they have privilege.

    What it sounds like you’re saying with this post is “I am tired if having to think about this stuff, and dealing with it is annoying me.” Now, by labeling people who call someone out as a troll and a bully, we can dismiss those people, and silence their concerns. The problem is, it won’t be the balloon examples– and this is already happening– it will be the examples of calling out overt misogyny (as in the skeptic community) or racism that will see the brunt of this labeling.

    As a feminist and an ally, I’m learning that language does matter. That failing is okay, but it’s what we do when we fail (and how we strive to be better) that matters. That controlling the dialog with a member of an underprivileged group by outright silencing, or dictating the terms of that dialog, is wrong. As a liberal community, we’re feeling growing pains as we learn about our various and intersecting forms of privilege. It will inevitably cause frustration, resentment, and discomfort (and I speak for myself, too!). I very much think it’s important that we as a community do a better job of sitting with that discomfort, and not being reactionary when we blunder. And this feels like a very reactionary post to me.

    • Thank you for being much more articulate about this than I was but saying what I wanted to say (but didn’t because I didn’t want to be a bully, haha)

    • Thanks for this comment, Jacqueline. Even as the author, I share your conflicted feelings about this post. Pretty much every word you wrote in your comment was part of the conversation I had with myself in the four months that I’ve been writing & revising this piece.

      Ultimately, the community manager in me felt the need to get this perspective out. As a liberal, I’m all for sitting with discomfort and my own privilege… but as a community manager and publisher, I see the ways the kind of comments I describe in the post can hold back dialogue and community development.

      • Thanks for this response. I think it’s a really important discussion, and it’s worth revisiting periodically (and I posted a few more comments above–questions, really– to that effect). You bring up a fascinating point about the perspective of wearing two hats– one as someone who cares about social justice, and the other as a manager/moderator looking to objectively make sure that dialog happens. I can empathize with the frustrations that might emerge from that. I do think it’s possible to do both, by holding everyone to the same standards, and providing good examples of how to respond when comments are called out (I love some of Jay Smooth’s Ill Doctrine videos on this topic, like this one:

        Ultimately, I also try to have empathy for people who are angry and tired, because they have to deal with the physical and emotional consequences of racism, or sexism, etc., every single day. It’s easy to have activism fatigue, especially when you see people failing who you think (as liberals) should otherwise get it. I can understand that. As white, heterosexual, able-bodied ally, I see part of my job to make sure that we don’t always rely on other folks to do the educating for us. So if someone is angry at me and makes a snarky comment because I’ve just said or done something really stupid, I work on not being reactionary and holding it against them. What I would have loved to see here instead is a post educating readers on that– helping us all to figure out 1) ways to be better readers and commenters, and 2) how to react when we get called out, rather than throwing up our hands and redirecting the responsibility to the folks who are the ones putting themselves out there to work for equality.

      • I think Jacquelyn made a good point here when she said: ‘So if someone is angry at me and makes a snarky comment because I’ve just said or done something really stupid, I work on not being reactionary and holding it against them.’

        If we want to play Oppression Olympics, I am a queer woman of colour, poor but not working class, mental health issues but I don’t identify as disabled. Basically, the world is generally not a safe space for me, and sometimes that can make me angry — particularly if I think that I was in a safe space and something suddenly shifts.

        So, yes, my snarky comments aren’t the most productive, but does it always have to be my job to ensure that my contributions are always productive? Why do I have to make myself heard in a way that appeals to the privileged others? It is possible to continue dialogue to and with an angry post — I’ve seen it done countless times before, although not on this website.

        I have to say that this post — and your comments — read to me like an attempt to police the way the dialogue _should_ go to make you (and other privileged people) feel comfortable about having a dialogue. My job is not to make you feel comfortable. My response is valid, no matter how it comes out.

        • As one of very few women in a physics department that operates 10x worse than what you see on Mad Men, I too am tired of having to be the bigger person and swallow my anger and hurt when I am the marginalized one. Why should I be striving to make the perpetrators feel comfortable?

          But I think that all Ariel was trying to say is that an angry response is valid, but not necessarily productive to building community. And more importantly, the Offbeat Empire community is more accepting of each other, and more willing to listen, learn, and discuss things like compassionate people than most of the others out there. Having a rational discussion with the guy who has repeatedly told me I don’t deserve to be a physicist because I’m a woman is not going to happen. So yeah, I may just get pissed and snap at him.

          But in the Offbeat Empire community, I think it’s worth giving the person the benefit of the doubt and opening up a meaningful discussion.

        • I really dislike the argument that by saying comments should be moderating, you’re being told you can’t be angry or frustrated or that you always have to be a teacher. Because that’s not true at all. I understand, sometimes, people get angry and are on edge, and sometimes, they snap out for no reason. But there’s a really easy solution for this. Close the browser window, and walk away. Go bitch to a friend. Come back another day. You don’t have to be a teacher every day, especially if you’re already frustrated.

          And heck, if you do snap out, come back later and apologize. This stuff happens. Hopefully, they’re good people get it. If they really are on your side, they’ll understand you are human, and get frustrated.

          I dislike that kind of argument, because it seems to make the assumption that other people can make mean, uncalled for comments, just because they’re not part of some minority. And well, I don’t think that’s the case. If I call someone a bitch because I’m tired and grumpy, no one goes “Oh that’s okay, you’re white.” They either call me out, or get hurt because I called them that. If I made that sort of comment here, I fully expect it would be deleted. Anger might be a valid response, but I don’t think that unconstructive, harmful comments are something that have a place in a community.

          It’s not about phrasing your comments in a way that appeals to privileged people, it’s about phrasing it in a way that appeals to people in a general sense.

        • “So, yes, my snarky comments aren’t the most productive, but does it always have to be my job to ensure that my contributions are always productive?”

          I think yes, actually. You and everyone else who wants to be a part of a healthy community.

          This feels obvious to me. Am I missing something?

      • I’m reassured to read that you’ve already figured the points that Jacqueline makes, but as a community manager, isn’t there a problem on a liberal progressive site when you frame the role of managing the site around what those Social Justice issues that are important to you?

        One of the main reasons socially marginalised groups struggle, even within liberal progressive culture, is because the majority groups within that culture often centre issues around their experiences and concerns? The sidelining of women of colour and non western perspectives, within the feminist or LGBT movements, is an obvious example.

        Perhaps you could clarify how you aim to help include marginalised voices in spite of the difficulties you describe? I feel the article would have benefitted from it as well, especially if it’s being circulated on other sites where the implicit context of your own view and sympathies is not as clear as, presumably, it will be to this community.

        I should disclose I’m a first time visitor here: saw the CC of this article on the Guardian and was going to reply there, but was put off by the comment section where people reinforced my concerns: exemplified in one brief exchange where a trans woman was told that tranny was a “neutral” word. Frankly, it’s hard to find even progressive, broadly inclusive safe spaces online, if you are transgender; I know a couple but I’m always on the lookout for more.

    • “I understand that it’s a frustrating process to try to please everyone, when the landscape of social justice changes.”

      Trying to please everyone is not frustrating, but pointless. You can’t.

      I certainly don’t try. And I don’t try to keep up with shifting language. Especially since a lot of that language (that is, what you *can’t* say, and should, if anything, say instead) is, in my view, often not defined by those who *could* be offended, by the very members of some group (un(der)privileged, marginalized, whatever-the-term-of-the-week-is), but by *others*. Who found something new to regulate.

      And yes, part of it is PC Gone Wild (oops, that may offend… humor often risks that).

      I’m not against “PC”, or, watching your language. Was on the phone with my grandma’s sister this week, and she used the term “Neger” (which translates as “Negroes”, I think). I don’t use the term. Did I correct her? No, because I know which fights are worth to be picked. This one isn’t. She’s almost 90, and grew up in Nazi Germany. She’s a great example that indoctrinating kids in school actually *does* have an effect. 🙁

      In closing, full disclosure: I’m a german white heterosexual male. So, can I be marginalized/oppressed at all? I’m wondering myself (I think yes, I can and am… details on request ;-))

      • there’s a great song by the max levine ensemble that addresses “pc” being used as an insult. lyrics include, “”f*** you I’m not PC,” well is that all that you can see?
        if it’s down to black and white, then i’ll do what i think’s right,
        and if caring about my friends, is just conforming to a trend,
        well then f*** you, f*** you, f*** you, i’m not pc.”

  20. Stephen Fry sums it up nicely.
    “It’s now very common to hear people say, ‘I’m rather offended by that.’ As if that gives them certain rights; it’s actually nothing more….. It’s simply a whine. It’s no more than a whine. ‘I find that offensive,’ it has no meaning, it has no purpose, it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. ‘I am offended by that.’ Well so ****ing what?”

  21. I am afraid of balloons. And no, I am not joking. And you can write about them all you want, as far as I’m concerned without a trigger warning. Just keep them away from me, don’t give them to people who scratch at them, or to evil little children who might burst them. Then we’re good.

  22. Nail. Head. Hit. Just brilliant.

    If we could just introduce a month-long moratorium on the use of the word “problematic”, the world would undoubtedly be a better place. Let’s reclaim that word to deploy on occasions that really warrant it, to tackle racism, sexism, transphobia, not just to derail discussions and show the world how very liberal we are.

      • In an ideal world where I had been appointed benevolent despot, it would be me.

        As the electorate has thus far shown a strange unwillingness to sign over their democratic rights, I’d say that, as a general rule, “problematic” should be used to challenge writing or behaviour that is bigoted or attempting to stir up hatred, rather than fellow travellers who happen to express themselves slightly clumsily. Problematizing absolutely everything and everyone is only going to stop the wider public from engaging with the very real issue of tackling prejudicial language, at least that would be my take on it.

    • THIS! for the linked blog, especially this line:

      ‘You need to let go of the notion that you are The Good Guy. Let go of the notion that you shouldn’t/can’t fuck up and stop wallowing in your guilt when you do.’

    • (Numbers referencing the linked posting.)

      2. Nobody’s saying that we’re perfect and incapable of mistake. We’re just saying that hostile nit-picking criticism is not always the most helpful response to something, judged from the perspective of long-term goals.

      3. “But unfortunately, the other people have to be interested in a discussion.” — My experience is that the people who are eager to throw out accusations of privilege or offensive speech also tend to be uninterested in dialogue. Attempts to engage often result in a snarky “bingo card” posting, or you’ll be told “You’re so blinded by your own privilege that it’s not worth trying to explain it to you”. Except not that politely.

      “I’m not saying that an aggressive approach is necessarily ALWAYS effective or that calm, attempted debate should NEVER be attempted.”

      How about trying the calm approach first, before moving on to the aggressive one? It may waste a little time in many instances, but it will probably be more productive in the long run.

      4. “I really love someone analysing how marginalised other people supposedly are or telling me what I can and can’t be upset about or dislike based on assumptions about who I am and what my marginalisations are.” — And yet, the liberal critics are constantly telling me how privileged I am based on assumptions about who I am, and telling me that I don’t understand because I’m not as oppressed as someone else. So again, it goes both ways.

      • You could have commented on my blog, but that’s just fine.

        “2. Nobody’s saying that we’re perfect and incapable of mistake. We’re just saying that hostile nit-picking criticism is not always the most helpful response to something, judged from the perspective of long-term goals.”

        And black women are often assumed and called “hostile” before they even open their mouths. Who the fuck get to decide who’s “hostile” and who’s “nit-picking”? (Spoilers: Privileged People). Women are seen as “hostile” frequently just for opening their mouths. And who are you to tell anyone what their own long term goals are? This is the problem with white feminists, with “allies” who have the audacity to tell other people what the hell their own goals are.

        “My experience is that the people who are eager to throw out accusations of privilege or offensive speech also tend to be uninterested in dialogue. ”

        I’m not interested in hearing excuses for people’s ignorance when I call someone out. I don’t care about the reasons for it. I don’t care about the explanation. Intent is not magic. And if you’re arguing that people should “be nicer” then why not take your own advice and show some empathy to those snarky cards. If you’re so right about how well niceness and dialogue works, then follow your own advice. Hrm. Kind of seems like you know your advice doesn’t work.

        “How about trying the calm approach first, before moving on to the aggressive one? It may waste a little time in many instances, but it will probably be more productive in the long run.”

        How about you not police people’s emotions? How about the assumption that calm approaches are always much more effective is bollocks? How about the fact that when you deal with marginalisations and constant oppressions, it’s not all that easy to be “calm”? How about it’s not my responsibility to politely educate every ass that decides dropping the T bomb is a good idea around me?

        “And yet, the liberal critics are constantly telling me how privileged I am based on assumptions about who I am, and telling me that I don’t understand because I’m not as oppressed as someone else. So again, it goes both ways.”

        No it doesn’t. There’s a difference. Let’s try an example. Say you don’t think the word “bitch” is misogynist. Let’s try that on for size. I decide to call you out. First thing I do? Look at your profile picture. Looks like you’re a white dude. Now, I can make the assumption that you’re cis. And I can say so. And you can correct me and say, “Actually I’m a trans guy”. Okay you’re a trans guy. Does that make your argument any better? No. It doesn’t. It means that you’re a trans guy who, despite feeling the marginalisation of NOT being cis, still doesn’t understand some of the basic concepts of sexism. It doesn’t HELP your argument. It makes it worse. Because assuming you’re just a cis white dude, that’s actually me giving you the benefit of the doubt. Because it means I think there’s a pretty decent reason for your ignorance.

        That is not the same as, for example, you commenting to someone on here for using tr*nny and me going, “You’re cis so you can’t be that angry about it!”. It’s a totally different argument. Totally different circumstances. And totally different application.

        But nice try.

        • Hey, I could have commented on MY blog, but I was trying to keep the discussion from fragmenting too fast.

          Regarding people being perceived as hostile — I was talking about criticism that is hostile, when compared to other commentary by the same person, perceived by the same observer. Is there any other definition of ‘hostile’ that even makes sense? Obviously different people are perceived to have different baseline levels of approachability or hostility, and obviously different observers have different levels of sensitivity to hostility.

          “If you’re so right about how well niceness and dialogue works, then follow your own advice. Hrm. Kind of seems like you know your advice doesn’t work.”

          I tend to follow the tit-for-tat strategy, which empirically does work. So if you start out with hostility with me, you’ll likely get hostility in return.

          I also tend to assume that other people are smart, and are therefore also going to follow a tit-for-tat strategy. That’s why I favor trying niceness before getting the flamethrower out.

          “How about you not police people’s emotions?”

          This isn’t about policing emotions. You can have whatever emotional responses you want. The question is whether it is gainful to you to express those emotions towards the person you believe caused them.

          “How about the assumption that calm approaches are always much more effective is bollocks?”

          Do you have any evidence for your apparent belief that starting with vitriol is a winning strategy? Has it led you to have more pleasant and productive interactions with people, overall?

          “How about the fact that when you deal with marginalisations and constant oppressions, it’s not all that easy to be “calm”?”

          Nobody said effective communication and making the world a better place was going to be easy. Lashing out is definitely easier all round. It’s easier for the angry person, obviously. But here’s the thing: it also makes it a lot easier for the person you get angry at to dismiss what you’re saying. In your specific case, it makes it all too easy for them to say “Oh god, another touch t****y, it’s the hormones talking”, and dismiss everything you say. And even worse, you’re reinforcing that stereotype.

          “How about it’s not my responsibility to politely educate every ass that decides dropping the T bomb is a good idea around me?”

          It’s not your responsibility to fail to educate them while making yourself feel better, either. If you can’t have a productive interaction on the topic — one that makes things better for everyone, including you, in the long run — there’s a third option you can consider taking.

          But again, I’m not the emotion police. Go ahead and flame away if it makes you feel better. But I suggest that the short-term gain to you might cause a long-term loss. And there are other ways to dissipate the anger without actually souring your interactions with other people.

          “And you can correct me and say, “Actually I’m a trans guy”. Okay you’re a trans guy. Does that make your argument any better? No.”

          And does any of this make your hypothetical argument any better? No, because your hypothetical argument of “Oh look, he’s a white guy” started out as an ad hominem, so it was bullshit from the beginning.

          And incidentally, that’s your hint that we’re approaching the point where tit-for-tat makes me want to start treating you with the condescension and hostility you brought to the discussion.

          One final comment: When it seems like every interaction you have with other people is negative, yes, it can be the case that there’s some terrible systemic bias against you that makes it that way. But sometimes other possibilities are worth considering.

        • A (not so) brief comment, that may or may not make a point.

          Most of the comments on here I have read in their entirety, even the ones disagreeing with the original post, because the poster has been articulate, polite, and has given the original author the benefit of the doubt in regards to their intent and motivations.

          By contrast, the vitriol in this exchange has made me skim over the whole thing and not really process most of the points made against the original article because I am too uncomfortable. While the other dissenters made me want to engage in a discussion with them (which I didn’t only because other commenters covered it before I did), which may or may not end up swaying me regarding certain nuances, these posts just made me want to avoid them.

          If the goal of commenting and pointing out a privileged position is to actually get the poster or the readers to examine their perspectives and feelings towards a minority, then the non-vitriolic tactic is clearly more effective – at least on people like me.

          • Maybe you should be uncomfortable. The point is to make people uncomfortable so they examine their own actions/thoughts/feelings. So the misstep sticks with them and doesn’t happen again.

            But beyond that, pointing out privilege is not for the person who’s been offensive, really. It’s for the person who’s been hurt. It’s for the oppressed party. It’s not about making a teaching moment, in an “articulate and polite” way.

          • MJ, I’ve been reading your comments, trying to think of a way to respond to you for awhile now, because I wasn’t sure I could do so nicely. But I’m giving it my best shot.

            So far, I’ve seen you say that you respond to people who use language you’re uncomfortable with in an aggressive manner. You’ve said this is because you want them to stop using it, and because you WANT them to feel uncomfortable. You also want to do it to make yourself and anyone else who feels offended feel better. And that you don’t care if this makes people uncomfortable or hurts someone’s feelings.

            My argument to this is that if you feel that this is acceptable behaviour for you, what stops this from being acceptable behaviour for EVERYONE? If someone doesn’t like women, is it acceptable for them to throw around sexist language, in hopes that women will feel uncomfortable and not want to be around them? Same thing for people uncomfortable around people on the LGBT spectrum, or around people of a different race. Many people also insult people who are different because they see them as an acceptable target and want to feel better about themselves. If you then insult them to feel better about yourself, are you behaving differently? Isn’t “bullying” more or less defined by trying to intimidate or force someone to do what you want, using superior force or aggressive, hostile language?

            In order for a drama-free, peaceful, accepting community to exist, it is the responsibility of every person within that community (Regardless of what labels they have) to act in a drama-free, peaceful and accepting manner, and to resolve conflicts in a similar manner.

            In the end, I suspect that this is a fundamental difference of values here. I can only police my own actions, I can’t stop someone who wants to hurt another person’s feelings from doing so (able-bodied or not). All I can do about those people is not associate with them.

            I think I might have failed my goal of staying inoffensive here. But what I’m really trying to say is that if one person can be rude and aggressive, then everyone can be, and if your goal is that no one is ever rude and insulting, the only place you can start is with yourself.

    • I get the impression you didn’t read the same article that I did. For example, you wrote: “But no, I must always be the one to educate someone politely and kindly. I must slap on my smile and become a tour guide through the Museum of Bigotry. And if I can’t say anything nice, I should never say anything at all.” Do you think that’s a fair characterization of anything Ariel wrote?

      What I took home from Ariel’s post not that anyone ought to self-censor, or always be polite, or stop calling people out – it was what we ought to treat people we agree with 90% differently from the people we agree with 10%. You didn’t do that. You said that she “does not understand the definition of privilege.” I would urge you to remember that there are people out there who *actually* don’t understand that concept, and they don’t spend hours crafting thoughtful posts about thorny aspects of social justice.

      • “What I took home from Ariel’s post not that anyone ought to self-censor, or always be polite, or stop calling people out – it was what we ought to treat people we agree with 90% differently from the people we agree with 10%.”

        And my point is that you can’t always tell who those people are. And just because someone agrees with you about feminism does not mean that they won’t be dicks when you call them out for being racist.

        She does not understand the definition of privilege if she has the audacity to compare anything like this to the WBC. That was an insulting and ridiculous comparison.

        I’m well aware that not everyone understands the concepts of privilege. I come from a working class family. And I work in a male dominated work environment. And I live in this world where 95% of people don’t understand or accept the concept of privilege. I pointed out that the author didn’t understand the concept because they ARE a social justice blogger and they SHOULD know that making this comparison is fucked up.

        • Also, kind of really annoyed that I can’t respond to that bullshit that “mathew” posted. Did you see the shit he pulled in the last comment, basically saying that systemic oppression wasn’t an issue I faced and it was just my bad attitude? You might want to think about who agrees with you here and what kind of attitudes they have. Because if you’re trying to support “allies” like mathew…

          [Note from moderator: you can respond]

          • Well, you could easily respond to Matthew, his only comment was that at this point, you are moving away from having a reasonable discussion, and into open hostility. Which you have.

            You may have experienced systemic oppression in your life. And you are by all means allowed to be mean and nasty regardless of what minorities you belong to. But being a jerk has consequences, regardless of who you are.

            Also, just to note, the Offbeat Empire isn’t a social justice blog. This is the umbrella site for wedding, parenthood and home decor blogs. They just happens to be very inclusive sites.

          • ‘Also, kind of really annoyed that I can’t respond to that bullshit that “mathew” posted.’

            Why can’t you reply? Are you being moderated?

            ‘…basically saying that systemic oppression wasn’t an issue I faced and it was just my bad attitude?’

            I said that IF you find all your interactions with others are negative, then it is POSSIBLE that your own attitudes might be part of the explanation, and that it’s POSSIBLE that it’s not JUST systemic oppression from everyone.

            I’m not in any position to make a definitive statement on the matter, and didn’t intend to suggest otherwise. I’m just putting an idea out there for you to consider, if you aren’t happy with your current social interactions.

            I don’t know, maybe you’re actually a very happy and friendly person who gets on with everyone in real life. It doesn’t seem likely to me from what I’ve seen here, but I’ve been wrong before.

            Maybe I’m completely wrong. Maybe your policy of immediate anger and hostility to any perceived slight is making your life better, gradually reducing the oppression you apparently suffer. Again, it doesn’t seem likely to me, but if it works for you and gets you the kinds of interactions you enjoy, keep going for it. Do what works for you!

  23. I’m really glad you guys wrote this. This is something that’s been rolling around in my head for a while, but I’ve had a really hard time articulating what was bothering me. The few times I did I just ended up sounding like an asshole.

  24. One of the big problems of the left is that we’re positively eager to criticize our fellow travelers. In fact, it often seems like we’re more keen to tear into those who basically agree with us. It’s a long-recognized problem, mocked quite beautifully by Monty Python with their “People’s Front of Judea” bits in Life of Brian.

    As to why it is, I’m not sure. I’ve wondered if it might be because it’s easier to “win” against someone who agrees with you than against someone who disagrees fundamentally. As the joke goes: “Why is academic infighting so vicious? Because the stakes are so low.”

    • I think it is also that sometimes it feels safer to criticize “our fellow travelers,” as you said. When we find ourselves in spaces like the Offbeat Empire, where there is generally open and positive communication, where our ideas feel validated or at least accepted. So – we feel safe to criticize, and ironically, forget that our ALLIES make it safe for us to criticize!!!

      (Side note: I liked the joke, but it occurs to me that maybe academic infighting is different – your success is so often predicated on tearing somebody down, that you either do so, or fail as an academic. How messed up is that?)

    • Because when you enter into a place that’s supposed to be welcoming or safe and find “allies” who refuse to listen about the very offensive things they’re doing, it’s more depressing than any Evangelical picketer could ever be.

      These are supposed to be my allies, friends, supporters and they won’t even listen to me on issues they have no hope of understanding (in my case, it’s usually disability). It cuts deep.

  25. A pleasure to read. Absolutely spot on. I had a nasty experience recently after a handful of people took offence at a very inoffensive blog post I’d written. The overreaction was astonishing. You’ve captured/explained my experience perfectly – I feel normal again!!

  26. I’m with you, with one limited caveat: for myself as a reader, the “email me directly” gets me 90% of the way to believing someone’s trying to avoid public responsibility. It is without a doubt the appropriate response in many cases and particularly valid if it prevents a derail of more worthwhile conversations. But I try to remember with regards to my own readers that I keep a comment section very deliberately so I can engage with them. I need to be very clear and very careful when I try to shut down their use of that engagement section when they try to use it to engage. Even if their engagement is inappropriate.

    Or more briefly – “I think that’s a valid use and I stand behind it” or “We’ve had this discussion in the past and come to a conclusion, we’re not going to rehash it again” BEFORE “email me directly if you’d like to discuss it” is important to not seem like you’re trying to avoid public accountability.

    • Great points! It really is a challenge to balance the public accountability with the desire to keep discussions focused and constructive. Your suggestions are excellent.

    • If I didn’t read so much from the Offbeat Empire, I could see how someone could view this post from the atheismplus commentor’s perspective. But I have read a ton of things Ariel has written, and I deeply admire the online community of tolerance and understanding she has built and continues to foster. And this person’s reaction is not at all what she was trying to promote in this post.

  27. This is a wonderful article, but I have to disagree in a way that some of these bullies are well-intentioned. They have their ideals, and some of them are quite noble, but what they are doing in addressing these issues on the internet is not trying to spread information, or educate, or help, or offer insight. They are trying to be *right*, and that is never well-intentioned.

    I guess there’s a cultural expectation that no one is expected to be a teacher, so maybe I’m the one committing the faux pas on this, but I don’t believe in getting into a discussion if I’m not willing to educate the other person. It seems silly to expect them to understand my position all on their own, without my help. If I don’t feel like teaching them, I simply don’t have the discussion. I do understand that sometimes a discussion takes an uncomfortable turn for people, and certain topics are touchy to explain for others, but contextually, this is almost never the case when I hear people toting that they’re not obligated to be a teacher. There are many more (and much more polite) ways to disengage from a inappropriate conversation topic besides linking to the “Let Me Google That For You” site.

  28. I think you’re misreading the motivation behind some of the detracting comments. For me at least, it is not about being self-righteous or showing off. And it’s certainly not about embodying my values or respectful sensitivity. It’s about protecting myself or someone I love. It’s about fighting back. I couldn’t care less if this makes someone uncomfortable, hurts their feelings, or exposes them to criticism.

    My reaction to internet offense is the same as the one I use in my everyday life with strangers and loved-ones alike. Just to use an example, if someone says the word ‘cripple’ around me, I vehemently tell them to stop using that word, no matter the context or intent. My tone is sharp and angry because I don’t want it in my presence, and that tends to be very effective. Far, far more so than any long discussion has ever been for me. Simple requests are usually met with silence or derision, so I will unleash that tone privately or in public, doesn’t matter. It either stops the offense in it’s tracks or gives me a platform on which I can fight with equal footing without having to painfully police my emotions down.

    I’ve learned a lot from other people calling me out in that manner as well. It’s not personal, it’s just a tool.

    You know, it’s funny to me that the very people who often accuse ‘social justice’ supporters of being too sensitive can’t handle anger directed their way about very delicate issues. Who’s being over-sensitive now?

    Yeah, a lot of us are cropping up on the internet. Some of us are ridiculous, some bully and erroneously accuse and butt in where they shouldn’t. Human error and all. But the vast majority of us, in my opinion, are finally coming together to carve out a safe space in an environment that has long been hostile. Of course we’re starting with progressive websites, it’s where we hang out and where we’re most likely to be heard.

    Or not, as the case may be. Because look at all this lovely backlash. That’s alright. Ruffling feathers is part of the point when you’re trying to make changes.

      • Wondering if a mod could remove the url in my last comment. Looking at it again, I don’t wanna cause any more drama.

      • Wow I feel really bad for the blogger you just linked too. But it makes me have a whole new appreciation for Ariel and everyone else on the offbeat staff for making this web space pretty peaceful for the most part. I thought that blog had an awesome message about aging and fully enjoying life, and then bam out of nowhere this poor blogger gets attacked about white privilege. I am a seriously introspective person, and those comments terrified me, and made me completely afraid of ever having my own blog.

        A little bit about my own background, Chicana, grew up in poverty, been to more funerals than I can count, high school continuation teacher by day adult basic skills teacher by night.If that even puts any perspective on where I supposedly stand on some imaginary privilege scale.

        I have rarely ever been offended by anything posted in any of articles on Offbeat, and I definitely was not offended by the blogger you linked to, nor did it ever occur to me to diminish her experience because she is a white female. It doesn’t matter where you come from, or the color of your skin, if you have a positive message to spread, then that should be the only thing that matters. I wish I could be more eloquent, but writing has never really been my forte.

        • And this is the drama I didn’t want to start. We can have the conversation on that blog if you’d like, because I have responses, or you can email me, but I don’t think this is the place for it to be brought up AGAIN

          • I’m sorry I misunderstood; I thought you were giving the blog as an example of what Ariel was writing about. I still stand by what I wrote. It’s just sometimes life can suck balls and all you want to do is read something positive and uplifting on the internet, with out having it marred by negative comments.

          • yeah, I was frustrated because I felt I brought these issues up in a way that was very intentionally meant to be a dialogue and didn’t feel like it went that way. i appreciate that here, even when people aren’t as polite, we can still have dialogue about things. but yeah, i get the appreciation of positivity. in that particular case, i felt the positivity had the potential to make other people feel bad, though. i really am interested in discussing more, if you’d like..just don’t want to derail this too much!

          • I went back and read the blog again, and looking at the end. I can see where you are coming from. The “suck it up” part can come off pretty harsh to people who haven’t had the same success. I owe you an apology I should have read it more carefully. So I am sincerely sorry Becca,for commenting before carefully reading everything.

          • Wow, so awesome you would take the time to go back and read it again and rethink (regardless of whether or not you changed your mind). Thanks for giving me another chance. 🙂 I went back and read it again too, trying to see it from an outside perspective, and I can definitely see why it seemed like I was bringing privilege up out of nowhere. I think I am so used to being in spaces where that is continuously part of the conversation that I forget that it isn’t like that everywhere and maybe I should be a little more mindful in how I approach the topic in those spaces. And Ms. O, yay for us for talking nicely and being open minded, which kind of seems like the point of ALL of this conversation!

      • Becca, here’s my take on that exchange… the author who posted the piece you responded to has written online about her dyslexia and fibromyalgia, and it feels awkward to publicly privilege-check someone dealing with a learning disability and a chronic illness. I don’t know if you knew these things about the author — if not, it suggests that you made some significant assumptions about her privilege based on what you could SEE, which feels risky.

        If, however, you DID know about her disabilities, then perhaps her privilege of being white and straight negates them for you… but then you start to get into “who’s the MOST marginalized” and “oh sure, you might be disabled, but you’re white!” debates. These arguments may be completely valid within a social justice conversation… but I can see why they might not go over all that well in the context of responding to that post, where you basically have an author with a disability and a chronic illness sharing an accomplishment… only to be told she should check herself because while she may be marginalized, she’s not marginalized enough.

        • Thanks for posting that Madeline! I didn’t know about the disabilities issues. So when I read the comments over there, I was quite taken aback by her shutting down the privilege conversation. It makes MUCH more sense now you provide that information.

          I’m keen to give Becca the benefit of the doubt and assume she didn’t know about that either. 🙂

          • I guess the larger issue is how much can any of us REALLY know about the person we’re about to privilege-check? Do you know the details of their economic background? Do you know their medical history? How much do you really even know about their cultural or ethnic heritage? As Madeline said, it can be “risky” to make assumptions about privilege based on physical appearance.

    • Hi MJ,

      You have raised some interesting points. I am curious about the use of the word you mentioned – is it ok used in the correct context, or is it a blanket ban on being used at all?

      If it’s a blanket ban, then are there words which are more accurate?

      Feel free to ignore this if you would rather not answer my questions, I’m just interested in your perspective on the word.

      • ‘Cripple’ has been used as an insult enough times that its picked up quite a negative connotation, and I find it offensive when used to describe a person. Not all disabled people feel that way, but enough do that I think its best not to use it. It’s often dehumanizing.

        I use disabled. Differently-abled isn’t a term I’m fond of, but it’s not offensive. Some people prefer it.

        I didn’t used react so strongly when people said ‘cripple,’ because I figured polite correction would be met with, at the very least, some listening. But 9 out of 10 times, when approached that way, people lash out. They say someone else told them it was fine, they tell me to not be so sensitive, they act defensive. The ‘eff off’ approach has been far more effective for me.

        But polite questions don’t bug me in the least.

        • Thanks heaps for your response. I don’t recall ever hearing (or using) the word as an insult, although I’ve heard similar terms used, so I wasn’t sure if it was in the same vein. It may just be that it’s not commonly used in my area.
          I can understand how having a better hit rate for the aggressive approach than the “nice” approach would encourage you to use the former.

    • I think you make many good points, and that this comment is not bullying or “trollish”. But in response to this blog post in particular … you say it yourself perfectly here:

      “Some of us are ridiculous, some bully and erroneously accuse and butt in where they shouldn’t. Human error and all.”

      I’ve read every comment in this thread, and the linked blog posts (so far). I’ll likely continue to read as they pop up — I’m interested in this discourse. But I think some people, maybe you included, are not seeing this post for its central point: it’s error to bully and accuse and be ridiculous. That’s all. Does pointing out that error take away from the power of the ‘good’ corrections? Can’t people be right most of the time, but wrong some of the time?

      I think it’s OK in a place like the “Offbeat Empire” to correct each other as needed to allow dialog. I’ve read a few posts now about the “power of rudeness” — my paraphrasing — and while I think that might help in some Real Life situations (as in your example), I just don’t think it’s effective in a 90% written environment like the internet. You’re right that it’s just a tool, but why use an ineffective tool?

      • I see your point, but the author and I disagree fundamentally on what constitutes bullying in this context. I don’t think it’s bullying to react with anger when someone is offensive. I don’t think it’s bullying or incorrect to not be interested in starting a reasoned dialogue with someone who has deeply offended, or to go into a discussion with the no intent to make peace. I don’t think it’s bullying not to care about whether someone remains an ‘ally.’

        There are true bullies in the social justice crowd, I agree on that. Just as there are bullies outside it. But we don’t see eye-to-eye on who’s being ridiculous and who’s not. It’s an error to /erroneously/ accuse, but it’s not an error to accuse in general.

        Being clear and sharp has been far more effective for me in all environments than attempting polite discourse. Obviously, there are exceptions to every rule. But the energy and added hurt that happens when I attempt to engage someone who said something ignorant? It isn’t worth the risk to me anymore to try. Nine out of ten times I’m met with silence, defensiveness, and even insults.

        Defending myself is a healing experience for me. Knowing others support me in this is also healing. And in my opinion, getting a genuine emotional response from someone can be a powerful learning experience for all involved.

        • I absolutely agree that anger has a place – an important one- in social justice thought and work. I also see that angry comments are ineffective in online communication. So part of my struggle in thinking about this is: how do we deal with the intersection of those two ? An effective online social justice community… it’s helpful to have some guidelines to promote communication. (and some guidelines on how to respond and self-check when you DO get called out, though that is not the focus here )

          Obviously Offbeat Bride (the Offbeat Empire’s flagship publication) is a wedding blog, so it has a set of limitations. And yet, it’s kind of remarkable how effective it seems to be in expanding definitions of relationships, sexualities, genders for many of its readers.

          • I don’t find them ineffective at all though, if the goal is protection of myself and others. I find them very effective. And I do not agree with the guidelines posted above. Just a fundamental disagreement really. *shrug*

          • I think MJ has a very different goal from the ones being discussed previously. If your goal is to make people understand a different perspective, relate to an oppressed minority, etc. then opening up a dialogue along the lines of “Hey did you realize that people see that as offense because of _____” is a great way to start.

            If you goal is simply to make people stop saying *that* in any place where you have to see or hear it, and you don’t care why they stop, or if they understand the issue, just as long as you don’t have to hear it, then a harsh and vitriolic condemnation is a perfectly good tactic – because them stopping out of fear for your response is just as effective as them stopping out of understanding of your position.

            However, these kind of comments also aren’t the kind Ariel is talking about. The ones she’s condemning are far more passive aggressive than aggressive. As an avid reader of all three sites, I can conjure up exceptionally specific examples (but I don’t want to call anyone out by name because that’s mean). They aren’t the MJs of the world, though.

  29. It’s good to see someone recognizing this. Personally I would take it a step further and say semantics trolling of any kind is abhorrent; I refuse to abide neo-political correctness where people seem to be actively thinking of ways to be offended by common language in order to put regular people on the defensive. I view it as a form of Newspeak and people use it as permission to be smug and take a supposed moral high ground. All of it simply polarizes people further rather than fostering civilized discourse, I know for example I immediately revile & tune out anyone employing those tactics.

  30. Ariel – I just went to the Guardian website looking for an article on breastfeeding, and saw your face on the homepage! I was like ‘wait is this just MY computer, or is that actually Ariel?!’ Was so excited to see one of my favorite authors on a mainstream website. And of course really appreciated your article. Glad it has made it to a wider audience as well. Well done offbeat empire 🙂

  31. I do find the comparison to Westboro inappropriate. WBC cause real harm to people, an angry social justice activist is going to upset a person at worst. Also, it all feels worryingly close to the tone argument – what’s wrong with a minority being angry? Putting the onus on the offended party to be nice about it is surely derailing in itself. If you’re a privileged person who feels like your whole group is being picked on (eg white people, cis people) remember – IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU. That’s the whole point of pointing out privilege, stop co-opting the pain of minorities.

    • “WBC cause real harm to people, an angry social justice activist is going to upset a person at worst.”

      I’ve seen more than a few cases where Social Justice Warriors engage in some straight-up harmful behavior. Campaigns against perceived witches and bad guys that end up crossing the line into real-life stalking and harassment. Some might remember when Laci Greene went offline for a month after being threatened – what’s less remembered as that this threat came from a hugely misguided “social justice” type upset about LG’s ostensible transphobia and “Islamophobia”.

      I’d also add that even when overzealous social justice types don’t cross the line into creepy behavior, the quite often have the effect of turning a lot of people off to the very kind of politics they’re trying to promote. And while it might feel very good from a purist point of view to drive away people who are Not True Allies(tm), it’s damn poor politics.

      “Also, it all feels worryingly close to the tone argument – what’s wrong with a minority being angry?”

      I’d turn that around and ask what’s wrong with the tone argument? Like it or not, tone communicates a message just as much as any other part of your speech does, and it’s nonsense to say that just because the rest of your argument is sound that tone doesn’t matter.

      Also, being part of a marginalized group (or “a minority”, as you put it) is not some kind of moral blank check. While social disadvantage can be a relevant point in an argument, it really is not license to behave in a nastier way than anybody else reacting to a real or perceived slight, especially while expecting deferential behavior from the other party.

      “Putting the onus on the offended party to be nice about it is surely derailing in itself.”

      Surely you know that in any argument, no one party has a monopoly on “offense”.

      • I should also add, I think it’s in some ways *worse* when social justice people resort to these shitty tactics. Because, major disagreements I have with the specifics of “social justice” ideology aside, much of social justice politics does represent worthwhile political goals, and behaving like assholes in support of them means those worthwhile goals gets messed up by extension.

        The fact that Westboro Baptist Church embarrasses both themselves and the rest of the religious right with their horrible rhetoric and actions is ultimately for the good, in my estimation.

      • I’d turn that around and ask what’s wrong with the tone argument?

        In many places, a tone argument can be used when the substance of the argument is one which the co-party chooses to ignore. It can be a more subtle form of racism, in many cases.

        While it’s not the 100% blanket rule, and I agree that in a place like this the tone argument can be specious, in other places where people of disparate privilege are brought together, the tone argument can be seen as “silencing” the other person’s point.

        I’ve seen it used most primarily against People of Color in disagreement which hinge around race relations and cultural identities. A PoC will respond with an objection, which may not even be phrased angrily, and be met with an answer along the lines of “I don’t have to answer that because you’re tone is offensive to me”.

        tl;dr — a tone argument can be used as a shield to deflect blame from the person who initially spoke to the one who is reacting to that which had been said.

        • *point of clarity, silencing was put in quotation marks to signify it as a feeling of being silenced, and not to denote that silencing does not exist.

        • I understand that criticism of the “tone argument”. Certainly, I’ve seen more than a few cases of people being *extremely* condescending while claiming to be civil, and burying some pretty unreasonable arguments under cover of being moderate and reasonable. That kind of attitude deserves some degree of calling out.

          But dismissing the importance of tone entirely is not called for either. To do so is to give free reign to rudeness and hostility, and quite often serves as simply an excuse to be an asshole. Unfortunately, the latter is where too many “social justice warriors” are coming from.

          After all, what is the goal of argumentation? Is it simply to polarize the situation and promote ingroup cohesion by stigmatizing a hated outgroup? Or is it to persuade those who are undecided, and maybe even change the mind of those on the other side? Either may be a goal of argumentation, but I’d say the latter is much more worthwhile, and the latter is decidedly undermined by being a jerk.

          And the thing is, it is perfectly possible to present a strong, unapologetic argument for a position without being a jerk about it, nor does one need to compromise principals just to seem reasonable. The idea that one has to take a nasty tone to present a strong argument is utterly misguided.

          • I don’t disagree with you at all in what you said. Truth be told, I’m hesitant on anything tone argument related because, on the internet, tone is implied and not definite. Especially when there are people who don’t think out their response wordings, fail to edit and then post. It’s very easy to misinterpret what’s been said.

            Being an asshole is totally not cool and calling out being an asshole, however, isn’t exactly the same as using the tone argument. An ad hominem is very different than tone, and I think that the tone argument, on either side, devolves everything too quickly.

            I see it as a distraction, but that’s because I like to give everyone the benefit of the doubt because LORD knows I am fucking terrible at putting my thoughts into the right words sometimes.

      • Speaking of minorities, women make up about 51% of the US population. They’re actually a majority now. The dialogue has shifted to “oppressor/oppressed” rather than “majority/minority”. Of course, I think putting people into either category because they’re part of one group or another is inherently limiting. Heck, I’ve had my own opinions on race dismissed because the other black guy disagreed with me, even though he had literally just said “any minority will agree with me on X” and I proved him objectively wrong about X.

        TL;DR: confusing generalities (people in group X are generally privileged) with absolutes (people in group X are inherently privileged (and therefore their opinion is worth less)) is a great way to alienate the very people you want to convince.

  32. So, I read this the other day and realled loved it.

    And then I go on the Guardian today and THERE IS ARIEL’S FACE. ZOMG.

    Amazeballs, so glad this great piece has made it into the paper. I’ve only read the first few comments over there, but it seems like the reaction is pretty positive all round!

    Ariel wins the internet. Again.

    • While I totally appreciate the enthusiasm (thank you!), I’m not sure I’d say I’m winning anything. In fact, I’m losing readers over this post as we speak. While I’m totally comfortable with that (as I’ve said before, my sites can’t be everything to everyone) I do hope the post captures how deeply conflicted I am about this issue. Ultimately, I understand (and even agree with) much of the criticism of the piece.

      I feel strongly that this perspective needed to be put out there, but I’m not sure I feel like I’m winning anything at all.

      • Oh wow, I’m sorry to hear that! I hope my enthusiasm was only a positive thing to hear, it was really meant as such. Because I think you’re such a star for doing things the way you do. I know I’m not alone in this.

        I really only had positive reactions to your post. I definitely understand your conflictedness on this, and having followed your posts for a while on this kind of thing, I feel I know where you’re coming from. You’re trying to cultivate a community that is run in a way that you and your editors can enjoy and that feels good.

        Perhaps some readers of this post have less context on what you do and how you do it than your long-time readers?

  33. I think a major part of Ariel’s point is that when a reader is so quick to accuse a commenter or blog writer from the Offbeat Empire of being intolerant, they are forgetting about how open and caring this community is as a whole. If any online community member deserves to be given the benefit of the doubt, it’s all of us, right here. Angry responses might be the most effective, protective method to deal with jerks in the real world, but in this corner of the internet, we are different. None of us means to be a bigot, or flaunt our privilege. All of us are more than willing to fess up to our mistakes. And if we all take the time to calmly teach each other, our community will only grow stronger and better informed.

    • Intent doesn’t matter. Even if you didn’t mean to be offensive, that doesn’t lessen the harm you caused another person.

      Example – I’m from the UK where the term ‘oriental’ is not offensive. I used that in a mostly-US forum and quickly got called out on it. Even though I didn’t mean to be offensive, that didn’t matter and I was still in the wrong.

      • I never said we don’t cause each other harm with our mistakes. I pointed out that this specific community (readers of the Offbeat Empire) is fully capable of apologizing and learning from our mistakes. So let’s all try to open dialogues instead of shutting people down.

        • It’d be nice to assume everyone in social justice communities is capable of apologising and learning from their mistakes. They aren’t always. Being aware of one issue does not make you magically aware to all.

          • I would agree with you on the whole. But specifically in the daily posts in Offbeat Home, in two years I have never seen a member not be able to take a step back and consider what someone else is upset about. This particular thread is full of comments that are from non-regular readers and honestly, I am disappointed in how some of the comments are framed.

          • But that’s just the point isn’t it? In a community like the Offbeat Empire, the first assumption is that someone misstepped due to not being aware that there was an issue, not bigotry or chosen apathy. As such, simply informing people that an issue exists is usually enough to get an apology, a correction, or at least a well thought out difference of opinion.

            To jump to the conclusion that the poster must support racism/sexism/____ism instead just tends to make nice people defensive. It is completely possible to point out a mistake with out making it an accusation.

  34. By the way, thank you for not using trigger warnings. I have a lot of issues with those. The Empire articles just have very specific titles so I know to avoid articles that I’m not interested in or I’ll be bothered by.

  35. How can I get in touch with you by email? I found your comment about people needing unusual trigger/content warnings to be incredibly dismissive and inappropriate for this article, and I would prefer to explain why privately. If you would like, you are welcome to send an email to me (if you can see my email address) if that would be your preference.

    Thank you.

  36. Great post, Ariel. Unfortunately, I think those who most need to hear this message are going to be the quickest to dismiss it. (In fact, at least one of the more, shall we say, combative Freethoughtblogs already has.)

    • …which is absolutely what I expected. My goal with this post was only to communicate my own policies on my own websites to my own readers.

      Unexpectedly, the post hit a nerve and has been shared widely… but I certainly do NOT expect that my commenting policies would apply to other publications, or that everyone should agree with my perspective. It’s the joy of the web: each web publisher is free to communicate on their site in whatever ways work best for them.

      For me, on my sites, semantics-scolding doesn’t fly. I’ve always been pretty clear that I absolutely understand the Empire’s commenting policies won’t work for everyone. I totally respect that for other people, on other sites, semantics-scolding is completely acceptable with the publishers of those sites.

      • I think the problem with online bullying (of all types – liberal, misogynist, or whatever) is way bigger than any one blog’s moderation policies. I’ve seen too many aggressive bloggers start hate campaigns against others, on- and offline, and I’ve seen the effect that this can have even in cases where one doesn’t pay attention to the aggressive blog in question.

        The problems with online bullying and, more generally, a super-uncivil online culture are becoming endemic. Ironically, it’s some of the feminist/social justice bloggers that have started to raise the issue with their bringing attention to online misogyny. Unfortunately, they also often exacerbate the situation by painting it as a problem with only one side, conflating any and all disagreement with feminism or social justice politics as the same as bullying, and completely letting themselves off the hook in terms of being responsible for their own behavior. (It seems as if some social justice types believe that making an effort to behave responsibly and ethically is only necessary to the degree that one has privilege.)

        I think the norms of the internet can be changed for the better, even if there will always be pockets of incivility. (And given that I’m fundamentally against censorship, I don’t expect a fully hate-free internet.) But the norms of what is considered reasonable discourse overall can be changed, and I thank you for being a voice for changing things in that direction.

        • I’ve seen too many aggressive bloggers start hate campaigns against others, on- and offline, and I’ve seen the effect that this can have even in cases where one doesn’t pay attention to the aggressive blog in question.

          In one case I saw, it was an innocent misreading of a certain webcomic. Unfortunately, because of it, the blogs became the target of trolls, even after the webcomic’s creators corrected the misinterpretation. Thing is, the creators never told anyone to troll the blogs, never even linked to it, yet they were accused of doing so. The whole thing turned into a big mess, where more and more incorrect accusations were levelled at the creators, attracting more and more trolls, and more readers countering the trolls, and so on.

          The funny thing is that the creators specifically avoided talking about the incident after their denial, besides on their personal Twitters, presumably to avoid attracting more trolls, yet their critics were doing things like assuming a single song in a multi-hour playlist set to random was chosen specifically to needle them because the singer had a connection to the issue in question. They only addressed it publicly when a critic threatened their families, and told everyone involved to cut it out.

          The odd thing is that the critics didn’t actually condemn the guy who made the death threat. They condemned the creators for not saying something sooner, despite the fact that they had already openly contradicted the primary assertion.

  37. Hi Ariel and the rest of the OffBeat team! I just wanted to say that I always appreciated the inclusive nature of each of the OffBeat websites, and I always felt that you have dealt with several sensitive topics with a lot of dignity and tact. I’ve learned a lot from your posts and the OffBeat community, and I just wanted to say thanks.

    (After reading some of the more critical comments, I felt the overwhelming need to post something supportive. Keep up the good work everyone, I really appreciate it!)

    • The thing is, even in heated arguments like this, it seems to me arguments ultimately get effectively debated, at least if such programs have any worthwhile moderation. This is generally not how online shouting matches go – it generally degenerates to the point where the rational argument to name-calling ratio gets very low, whether it’s a protracted flame war between two equally-matched sides, or a pile-on against a minority position.

  38. As a frequent reader (and a Tribesman!), I wanted to weigh in a little bit. I’ve been following this thread for the almost-week it’s been up, and I think that it’s turned a bit meta — especially in some of the interactions going on between commenters.

    I’m a little disheartened that a post which says “GUYS OPEN MIND” in a lot of ways, is being responded to with a lot of snap-judgey kinds of comments.

    I don’t want to be the sunshine-bearer of all things unicorn and rainbow here, but I think that the way in which this community is run is really quite amazing. The posts on all three sites are really well done and the Tribe lives up very well to the expectations of the site.

    Ariel, I think you nailed this post and the comments, I think, reflect the need for someone to say it. I’m especially glad you did it, and on here, because it adds a level of clarity to the perspective as you and the team are *so* consistent. I’ve long appreciated the site.

  39. Why I like privilege-checking: it reminds me I actually have allies.

    I like that it’s public, because it means a wider audience is forced to check themselves on wider privilege issues, instead of just that one blogger getting to issue a private “sorry about the language.”

    I like that it’s not phrased as “questions or invitations to discuss the issue”, because my status as a human being with rights is not up for debate, no matter what some non-marginalized people who claim to speak for me think.

    I like that it’s focused on isolated incidents, because there is enough self-hatred in marginalized communities like mine that people will advocate for their own group’s oppression under certain circumstances–I’ve seen it happen.

    A concrete example of what I mean: a liberal blogger writes after a school shooting about how we all need more public funding for mental health services. They mean well. But they are also perpetuating the false prejudice that mentally ill = violent. Because of this myth, me and my friends have been locked up for committing no crime but talking to the wrong person about our feelings, for periods ranging from weeks to almost a year. Because of this myth, me and my friends have had drugs forced on us–violently, as in pushed onto a table, pants pulled down and forcibly injected. I’m getting pissed off, but luckily somebody who’s into privilege-checking writes in the comments “um, that’s really able-ist” and a bunch of other do-gooder types chime in agreement. That means that everybody reading that blog who might’ve otherwise unthinkingly agreed is forced to confront their prejudiced assumptions head on. You can’t get that with a private discussion.

  40. Oh thank you for saying this. Thank you, thank you, thank you. One of my favorite websites is being over-run by this sort of liberal thought police. It has made me reluctant to discuss my political, social, and philosophical values in many places that I should, but cannot because I am called “a special snowflake.” Yes, I support gay rights, women’s rights, trans rights, and many other social justice issues, however I believe in building bridges not making enemies. I do not attribute to malice what can be explained by ignorance and believe in the general good intentions of people.

    So when I see someone innocently asking a question that could be rude or offensive but not meant that way, but just asked from ignorance, just to see them chewed up and spit out by the privilege police as the equivalent of Hitler, it disgusts me.

    Thank you for showing them to be the intolerant, divisive, hate mongers they are.

  41. Speaking to your points, the morning after the recent election I went surfing on some liberal sites to listen in on how they might feel post democratic victory after having only been about spewing angry names at the right to that point. I wanted to see if there was another side to the left of some substance other than name calling. I mean these sites were not inviting any Republican commentary, nor did I see any red responses there anyway. But instead of talking about what was going to happen now, how their great cause would be forwarded, all I saw was more name calling, not at one another, but at the beaten Romney, and they parrotted past arguments and one-two punches they had delivered…still fighting..still fighting even after victory. No sign of graciousness anywhere. The only graciousness I heard was in the video one of the bloggers was running of Romney’s concession speech. And then this blogger’s comments were so ugly in comparison, it was actually shocking.

    • To be fair, I haven’t seen a sign that the Republicans are graciously accepting defeat either. Not with articles like “The top 10 Republican tempter tantrums” that I caught on Jezebel, where one guy proposed that if you’re a Republican married/seeing to a democrat, you leave her, you disown any Democrat relatives, and quit your job if the boss voted Obama. Or the site about “White People mourning Romney” which is exactly as it sounds, with pictures of people crying, or worse, social media where they talked about it like it’s the death of the country. Seems this election brought out the worst in a lot of people.

  42. Wow, this entire post and (most of) the comments are deeply disappointing. That people seem perfectly willing to conflate hateful comments made from a privileged position and an angry reaction from a marginalized position would be boggling to me if I didn’t see it so often. I think a lot of this plays into the popular Myth of Liberal Tolerance, which is that progressives–theoretical advocates of tolerance!–must equally tolerate ALL views. Even harmful ones. Even ones that erase them. Even ones aiming to further marginalize them. Even ones that threaten their well-being or safety or insult or dehumanize them. To call out harmful views with anything other than painstaking politeness is to end up stamped with the “you’re a bully worse than the bigots!” mark. What I see is a lot of people who are so afraid of being made uncomfortable that they want to silence others. Their comfort is more important than not harming someone, and so being called out is, naturally, bullying. If you opt not to learn something from a call-out, however harsh, that is a personal choice. It reflects solely on you as a reader. It does not mean the person who called you out was wrong to do so.

    I can’t say it better than it’s already been said, so I’ll just leave this (unfortunately still relevant) quote from Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail here:

    “First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

  43. This article reads like a bingo card of everything that makes me want to pull my hair when it comes to “Liberal Tolerance.” I’m not sure what the worst part is — that you assume people who are wording their critiques harshly, sometimes in an inflammatory way, and/or publically, are simply engaging in “performance art” (and not, you know, actually hurt, offended, or feeling the brunt of someone engaging in oppressive behaviour or language), or the fact that you would compare people soliciting a re-think of one’s actions, even harshly (!), to a group as vile and OPPRESSIVE as the Westboro Baptist Church without making any distinction between the complaints of marginalized people and pure, straight-up bigotry. Look, even if you disagree with someone asking for a trigger warning for balloons (and, full disclosure, I would be disinclined to put trigger warnings on balloons, so no, I don’t actually blithely agree with every such request, nor do I think you being Obligated To is the point), and even if you think that’s excessive, it’s not actually oppressive, and it’s not actually in any way comparable to WBC. That you could even make such a comparison is so offensive to me that I am having trouble articulating it. Plus, the aforementioned bad faith of assuming that a public call-out is just a chance to show how Liberally Superior someone is — and what are articles like this, if not performance art? What are all your pleas for Discussion and Discourse if not to push people to engage in “superior,” probably more academic, more “rational” (Western) intellectual theorizing? The extreme focus on Rational/Intellectual/Discourse comes from ages of male/masculine/patriarchal/collegiate/Plato-esque modes of thought, and is a pretty darn privileged form of language/exchange, unto itself.

    But, ultimately, I disagree (quite fundamentally) that you are entitled to receiving discourse/discussion on some things. I am not suggesting, for the record, that you can’t keep doing whatever you’re doing. I’ve never seen any of the kind of people you’re quoting make that suggestion. If a person uses a transphobic slur, for instance, I cannot physically come across the computer and force them to stop using it. But whether they cease and desist or not, it doesn’t change that their actions are oppressive, and I don’t owe them a 10 paragraph essay to delineate the oppressive action for the oppressive person (also, Google exists). The point is that an oppressive action is occurring, not that all actions are liberally equal and all deserve equal “discourse” even when one party is in a position of power relative to another; that can lead to the privileged party thinking they can simply Discourse oppressive actions into not being oppressive, which the oppressive party tends to do… probably the vast, vast majority of the time. [Seriously, for all the belly-aching about how Callouts Must Mean I have to Do What You Say, Oh No… I almost never actually see anyone respond well or thoughtfully to a call out? They usually just tell the other person they’re Overreacting. So where are all these folks just acquiescing and bending over backwards when Called Out? I don’t see ’em.] And I disagree that that is a thing you can just do just because you have a penchant for rationalizing actions. As a feminist, I don’t stand for it when guys try to Discourse with me about how sexism is nonsense. As a queer person, I don’t stand for it when evangelicals try to Discourse with me about gay rights. And as a liberal, I don’t understand why we think anyone is any other marginalized group is obligated to sit and have some kind of debate about this same kind of a subject. Some things are non-negotiable. That doesn’t mean you must cease doing them, for indeed, no one can force you to, but the offense of some actions remains non-negotiable. I suppose you might reply that while this is true for some topics, the topics you’re faced with are always Much More Minor than anything like this — but the overall tone of your post, your (extremely ill thought out) comparisons, and your repeated insistence on conversation, as well as your bad faith point about the “public” nature and the “performance art” lines … well, those fairly undermine, to me, any sense of reasonable distinction, and simply make this post feel like a very long, elaborate Tone Argument.

    • Oh wow, I’ve now heard the Tone Argument used against BOTH types of Tone. Both to claim that “Hey, I can be angry because I’m X minority, and you should have to accept my points despite the aggressive nature.” is acceptable and that asking people to solve their problems in a polite manner is a tone argument. Or perhaps that is the same thing there. In the end though, I don’t understand why people try to cling to this “Tone Argument” since the very premise of it seems flawed to me. The idea that “Someone offended me unintentionally, now I can try my damnedest to offend them back while making my point.” is basically an argument for why rules don’t apply to you. Personally, I read Ariel’s post as one saying that if you find another person’s language offensive, rather than try to call them out publicly, (Which would be on someone’s wedding or parenting post) you should try talking to the person who can actually change it, privately. Calling it out on the post in those cases is just publicly chastising someone about the language they use on themselves or loved ones, which really isn’t the job of internet strangers.

      And why do people think that others should sit around and logically debate the topic? It’s not really that they need to logically debate it, but more that they should be able to explain their position without reverting to insults. Oh no, I’m expecting people to abide by “Western” rules of engagement? Maybe a little, are you going to tell me that other cultures typically resort to conflict resolution that doesn’t involve calm discussion? That involve whomever screams the loudest wins? Whomever can insult the other person the worst is the obvious victor of the conflict? Potentially, I could see conflict resolution that amounts to duking it out (I know some guys who operate that way), but that’s not really reasonable to expect online.

      Also, “Oh hey, Google exists”? Yeah, not that great an answer. For every person explaining why something is insulting, there’s a dozen explaining it terribly or flat out wrong. Rather than send someone on a scavenger hunt to find out your opinion, sharing your position so it can be understood is just good form, and stops people from coming in with wrong assumptions about your argument.

      I’m just not sure what makes this a hard concept. Talk to people how you want to be talked to. Unless you want to see people try to publicly embarass or insult you if say the “wrong” thing, perhaps that shouldn’t be the reaction to defend. (And wrong is rather subjective, let’s not forget. What upsets one person doesn’t upset everyone)

      • The Tone Argument refers to telling people in a position of less power to speak more Nicely to those in a position of power. As far as “Google exists” — marginalized people have been doing the legwork on these topics for ages, and their work is not at all difficult to locate. I know because I’ve Google’d plenty of topics when I saw these issues floating around my dash. Furthermore, posts on why X or Y is harmful or about X or Y history or whatever word, float around all the time on the blogs of people for whom these issues touch. If you’re a Tumblr user, it’s fairly likely that a post about the history of US colonization of Puerto Rico or the problem with Native American appropriations will float across your dash at some point, plus racismschool and similar blogs, etc.

        “Maybe a little, are you going to tell me that other cultures typically resort to conflict resolution that doesn’t involve calm discussion?”

        Not quite my point. Many POC cultures have fostered ways of writing which don’t fit the Master Narrative. Many bloggers prefer appealing more to emotions and less use of academic language (compare Judith Butler to Gloria Anzaldua, if you want an rl example — Butler uses rigid, often difficult-to-decipher academic jargon, but Anzaldua, the chicana theorist, compares herself to a spiritual serpent). I still remember seeing one woman of color’s post at Feministe being snarked to hell and back when folks disagreed with her point… for her lack of capitalization. Not because of the substance, but because of how she said it. And yes, I do think some of the insistence on Academic Rationality opens the door for the idea that whoever is using the biggest, best words is making the best point. I remember once when I got into a debate with some horrible racists. The POC/WOC in the conversation were understandably angry and saying angry things. When I, a white person who doesn’t have to deal with racism day in and day out, came into the conversation speaking much more coolly because of my privilege, I was immediately applauded for Speaking So Nicely… until I revealed that I completely agreed with what the POC/WOC were saying, and admitted that if I had to live with racism day in and day out, I’d be just as sharp as they were, but I also pointed out the many Nicely Written articles by POC/WOC WHICH ALREADY EXISTED and which no one was paying any attention to in their rush to paint people as aggressive shills. Oh, and my speaking nicely and citing articles didn’t actually help. One commenter just dismissed all the well-cited articles I linked as being “liberal spin.”

        The problem I have with the way you and the OP view this issue is the assumption that every single “call-out” originally begins in a particularly angry way. Someone says something sexist, racist, or transphobic, and the mean women/minorities/transpeople just pile onto them as aggressively as possible. Quite honestly, my experience, having seen this a million times, is that the comments usually begin in a much more benign tone, then become increasingly aggressive as Power proves that it won’t listen NO MATTER how nicely you phrase the issue. For instance, I remember when someone replied to a photograph of a girl wearing a “Native American” costume for Halloween prep to tell her that this is a racist thing to do (it is). Her literal reply? “Too bad.” Then, naturally, yes, folks became insulting. And suddenly all these nice white folks come rushing in to defend this poor, put-upon white girl against all these Angry, Aggressive minorities, assuring her her racist act wasn’t racist at all.

        The bare fact of the matter is, there are whole heaps of people who see “that’s racist” as a personal insult rather than a comment on activity. You can talk about niceness all you want, but many people see that, UNTO ITSELF, as abusive language, or else so many posts on the Interwebz wouldn’t begin with the famous “I’m not a racist, but…” I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve simply pointed out that an action was racist (or sexist or what-have-you, but race tends to provoke the sharpest reactions) only to have the other person become intensely indignant and flounce away from the conversation. Power doesn’t just bend over to lend an ear if you phrase things in your sweetest, most academic, or most ladylike (ha) voice. FFS, one of the comments on the first page is ALREADY TALKING about how this article is being used to tell transpeople that “tranny” is a neutral word and they’re too sensitive? It just isn’t that hard to understand why big huge lectures directed towards (probably, implicitly) minorities asking them to speak more nicely are going to be ideal bigot-fodder fuel, especially when the OP didn’t really do a very good job of making this post exclusive or specific enough so it couldn’t be signed off on by actual bigots. Which tends, in a nutshell, to be my problem with posts like this. If bigots can sign off on your posts, I see a problem, so yes, I’d rather err on the side of angry, intolerant (OF BIGOTRY, mind you), and not-appealing-to-bigots, than liberal, pacifistic, calling for capital-R rationality from oppressed minorities, and being cheered on by bigots.

        And, finally, call-outs aren’t really supposed to feel good. If someone is doing something absolutely offensive to me, I don’t really WANT them to feel good about it, honestly. That doesn’t make it “performance art” or mean that I’m insincere. It means I’m fed up of encountering the same nonsense day in and day out (and it’s always, always, always a day in and day out thing, never a single, isolated island of bigotry floating out in space) and I want to make that absolutely, painfully clear to whoever I’m speaking to.

        • Assuming I’m a tumblr user is a rather odd stretch of logic. I know this post went and got spread around an awful lot and some people don’t recognize the context of what this site is. This isn’t a social justice blog, or a tumblr post. The Offbeat Empire site is the behind-the-scenes business blog for a company that publishes Wedding, Parenthood, and Home blogs featuring user-submitted posts. The people submitting the content published on these websites chose their own language to identify themselves.

          Also, while I’m at it, last time I tried to figure out the deal with “Derp”, I found a dozen people on tumblr claiming that it was ableist because “If you google search it, you get images of mentally challenged people.” Actually, Derp is used first in a South Park episode, by a character implying he did something dumb, and most of the image searches in google show people making dumb faces, some of whom are famous (Ie, Obama), some of whom are probably high, and almost none who look like they might actually have any kind of disability. So, there’s google for you. When I did peek into Tumblr, every post I saw about why something was offensive was followed up by at least 2 people saying “I’m X minority, and I don’t see this as offensive at all.” Offense is subjective.

          And no, I refuse to hand people a blank card to be assholes, just because they can check off some box of what minority they belong to. And you might claim this never happens. On the other hand, I spent a long time in high school trying to explain to one girl in particular that no, I didn’t hate her because she was black, I hated her because she was a backstabbing bitch who kept “borrowing” my money and stuff and never returning it. Just because you’re some minority, doesn’t mean you get to stop acting like a decent human being. And that seems to be a lot of what is going on with these “call outs” and “privilege checks”.

          Heck, you want to quote things going on in the comments on this post, there’s also a discussion about a someone privilege-checking a women, who shut down the discussion because (surprise!) she has both a learning disability and a chronic illness. My point here is that this is the internet. You don’t know anything about that other person that you’re trying to privilege check. And again, the context of this site is that these people being privilege checked are normally describing themselves.

          So, yes, you’re also saying that your goal is to publicly shame someone and make them feel bad. And no, I can’t sit here and applaud you for a doing a good thing. Sure, it’d be nice if no one ever said anything that anyone found questionable. But the world isn’t that place yet. So, now your goal is to appear to be that “This person hurt me, I’ll hurt them back!” Why is it not alright for them to be offensive, but it’s okay for you to be offensive? Like they say, two wrongs don’t make a right. All that’s done is further a stereotype that all minorities are angry and aggressive.

          And no, I don’t think “all” minorities are “Angry” and “Aggressive”, but I do know that I don’t like associating with people who I can assign those traits to. And so I don’t. Regardless of what labels that person has. My friends and family have a very dry, biting sense of humour in general, but I don’t consider “Hey, that really offended me, please don’t say that in the future,” in a reasonable tone to be too much to ask.

          • I don’t assume that you’re a Tumblr user, but these debates take place in real time on Tumblr quite often, and Tumblr has become the much-cited Bastion of Irrational Social Justice, with some of what is being lumped under that umbrella not really being social justice at all, but rather personal blogs, but we live to rant another day. As far as “herp derp,” being ableist… well, you could’ve Googled a little more deeply, Alexandra. “Herp derp ableist” reveals this debate: [ ] in which people are discussing the issue and deciding that, while there is some ambiguity, what exactly are these “silly faces” pantomimimg? “Derp” didn’t just fly into South Park out of the blue. As many commenters note, [ ] kids for ages now have been using that chest-thumping, strabismus, tongue-lolling look as shorthand for mental disability. Who are we trying to kid? Now, if you want to continue defending your rational revelation about this word springing to life from South Park, denying that those faces are meant to signify anything in particular rather than just random faces apropos of nothing (this, to me, feels like a real stretch of logic), then you’re free to do so, but yes, I do find it ableist, and I do think you blithely dismissed some very good reasons for why this is.

            I don’t require “applause.” Again, you’re re-contextualizing my actions in terms of “performance art,” which is your re-writing of why I say what I do. Doing the right thing should be one’s own reward, and I do count calling-out people for doing the WRONG thing as doing the RIGHT thing. I don’t require you to “hand me a card” to do anything. The very fact that you guys keep using language that re-centers the debate on you and what you can give (handing out a card, providing applause) evinces the problem I have with this post and its comments. The point is not “to hurt them back.” THE POINT is NOT the other person’s feelings. The point is that if a racist/sexist/transphobic thing is being done, then it is not wrong to say so. If that’s “hurting someone back,” that’s a problem, because it means we’ve reduced doing the right thing to a show about feelings, performance, applause, or whatever other constructed concept. You completely elided my point that simply calling something racist/sexist/etc. is understood by many people to BE abusive, even though it is neither abusive nor aggressive. No, it may not feel good for the other party, but it is certainly not abusive, and if it’s “shaming” insofar as it provokes the emotion of “shame,” well, maybe there’s a good reason for that.

          • Well, Amber, you’re right in that I’m phrasing my language around my own approval of your actions. But there’s also a very simple reason for that. I can only control my own opinion, and approve or disapprove of an idea for myself. At the end of the day, you’re still probably going to go off with your own opinion, and I’ll just be some terrible “privileged” person you heard online. Which, to that extent, this is going to be my last post, a month old post isn’t a great soapbox.

            And I did see that argument, which basically amounts to “Implying something is dumb or that an action was stupid is ableist.” And I simply think that’s a slippery slope that I don’t want to touch. So, I can’t use the word derp, because it’s implies something was dumb. And I can’t laugh at something that seems dumb. Which means I can’t laugh at myself for doing something I know better than (which is where derp is mostly used), because someone out there might not know better. I can’t use the words dumb or stupid or derp, because they’ve been used to hurt people. I can’t call something/someone smart then, because the implication is that something else was less smart. In the end, any word can be used as an insult, and people will laugh and insult anyone for any reason. And I can’t change the world to make everyone stop offending others, just myself. I can try to point out to others that what they’re doing is offending others. Sometimes it works. Sometimes, people try to come up with reasons why when THEY insult people, it’s special and different because they’re changing the world. But it’s all the same hurtful words to me.

            And there are earlier comments in this thread about why specifically, “Um, no offense, but X is sexist/racist/etc” or “Um, check your privilege” is condensending and offensive, which is actually rather the point of this message, to hit messages like that, and why they should be emailed instead. I didn’t specifically ignore it, but it’s not something that I find personally offensive, so I can’t quite comment on it.

            But like I said, I don’t think this is quite the right soapbox for this back-and-forth, so if you really need to continue this, I can give you my email, but don’t plan on posting on this thread anymore.

  44. I find myself in a similar position as you and have watched the dynamic for over 30 years. I have pretty much come to the conclusion that it is about power and not social justice. Thought you might like Doris Lessing’s comments on it:

    There is obviously something very attractive about telling other people what to do. I’m putting it in this nursery way rather than in more intellectual language because I think it is nursery behaviour, very primitive stuff. Deep in the human mind is the need to order, control set bounds. Art, the arts in general, are always unpredictable, maverick, and tend at their best to be uncomfortable. Literature in particular has always inspired the house committees, the Zhdanovs, the vigilantes into, at best, fits of moralizing, and at worst into persecution. It troubles me that political correctness does not seem to know what its exemplars and predecessors are; it troubles me a good deal more that they may know and do not care.

    Does political correctness have a good side? Yes, it does, for it makes us re-examine attitudes, and that is always useful. The trouble is that, as with all popular movements, the lunatic fringe so quickly ceases to be a fringe; the tail begins to wag the dog. For every woman or man who is quietly and sensibly using the idea to look carefully at our assumptions, there are twenty rabble-rousers whose real motive is a desire for power over others. The fact that they see themselves as antiracists, or feminists, or whatever does not make them any less rabble-rousers.

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