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May 13 2013

[meta] On Tone, the Policing Thereof, and What It Is I Do Here

So my “Why You Shouldn’t Tell That Random Girl On The Street That She’s Hot” post went a little bit viral and I’m still responding to comments on it. One thing that has come up a lot are guys telling me that they basically agree with me, but that they are very concerned that the tone with which I delivered that message will keep other guys from agreeing with what they do earnestly believe is a very important message.

I ended up responding to one such comment with such a long rebuttal that I thought I’d repost it as a regular post and perhaps clarify some things for people who don’t understand why I dislike the tone argument* so much, and what I’m actually doing with this blog anyway.

~~~

Here’s the thing with concern/tone trolling and telling writers/activists how to be writers/activists.

Actually, here are the multiple things.

1. The fact that a given rhetorical approach does not work on you is not, in and of itself, evidence that it shouldn’t be used because it doesn’t work on anyone. Different people respond best to different argumentation styles. Some people need more hand-holding that they’re going to get here. That’s fine; there are other spaces where there is more hand-holding. Some people respond well to much harsher tactics than I ever use here–for instance, PZ Myers’ blog, Pharyngula. Someone once told me that it was PZ and his harsh commentariat that made him abandon his anti-feminist beliefs. Yup! Different strokes for different folks.

I’ve convinced many people of many things in the short few years I’ve been blogging. I’ve also failed to convince many people of many things. That’s okay. Either those people are best convinced by a different strategy, which I’m sure they’ll find their way to eventually, or those people are just too set in their views to be convinced. Yes, that’s a possibility, and I fully accept it.

If you are not satisfied with the style used in this space because you think it’s too harsh, you are welcome to start your own space, whether it be a blog, a forum, a subreddit, a meatspace discussion group, you name it. I will warn you, though, that hand-holdey spaces for anti-feminist men can go very, very, rape-apologetically wrong, à la the Good Men Project. But if that’s your passion, give it a shot.

Regardless, what is under discussion in this post and its comments are the ideas I’ve laid out in the post–not my writing style, not my tone, not anything else related to how I do what I do. Not only is that simply off-topic, but also, I did not ask you for advice on my writing style and tone and activism. That’s not to say that I never solicit or accept such advice–I do, but from fellow writers and activists who know what they’re doing. I promise you that there is plenty of discussion going on inside feminist spaces on how to reach men/non-feminists and all sorts of other issues that we face as a movement.

One reason you may have received such a hostile response from my commenters is because you don’t seem to realize that 1) we discuss and debate this issue vigorously on our own, and 2) you are not the first person to come in here and offer us unsolicited advice on something we have more experience with than you. I’m sorry if that sounds rude, but that’s how it is. You are not the first person to do it on this post, you are not the first person to do it on this blog, you are not the first person to do this on ANY online feminist space, you are not the first person to do this in the history of the movement. And, by the way, if you look at the history of the feminist movement, you’ll see that it’s been massively successful despite people from the very beginning being all like “BUT HOW ARE YOU EVER GOING TO CONVINCE MEN IF YOU ARE SO ANGRY.” Somehow, we did it. We got the right to vote. We got anti-employment discrimination laws passed. We made marital rape a crime. We made abortion and birth control legal. We got Title IX. We will end street harassment, too. Maybe not this year. Maybe not even this decade. But we will end this shit. Promise!

2. You may be misunderstanding what it is I do here. My aim with this blog is not to convince every single viciously anti-feminist man to be a feminist. In fact, it’s not to convince any viciously anti-feminist men to be feminists, although if I get a few then that’s great. If that were my goal, though, I would’ve burned out years ago, because it’s very rare that that happens. Not because I have the “wrong” style or techniques, but because that depends mostly on the person being convinced and not on the person trying to convince them.

And, yes, the title of this post literally addressed men; that is, it was written in second-person. That’s because I would like men to read this post and think about it. But also, because it’s a good rhetorical strategy that gets attention. A post titled “Why I Personally Believe Men Shouldn’t Tell Random Girls On The Street That They’re Hot” is clunkier and less attention-grabbing, and also sounds kind of dumb. That’s all there is to it.

So, if I don’t write in order to convert people who vehemently disagree with me, why do I write? To give people things to think about. To provide people who agree with me but lack the words to express it with arguments they can take away and use elsewhere. To show people who struggle with the same things I struggle with that they are accepted, understood, not alone. To tip the people on the fence over to my side. To inform people of things they didn’t know about before. To have fun.

Accordingly, the way I judge my own writing is not, How many people did I convert?

It’s, Have I expressed myself clearly and eloquently? Have I stayed true to my own values and opinions? Have I given people things to think about? Have I made people who are struggling feel a bit better? Have I taught them something? Did I have a good time writing this, and did people have a good time reading it?

So, not only are you giving me advice that I did not ask for, but you’re also giving me advice that I don’t actually need.

3. You, and many other commenters, claim that I and those who agree with me don’t “understand” the male perspective or don’t “take it into account.” Oh, but we do. It is impossible to be a woman in this world and not “understand” the male perspective. The male perspective is on TV. It’s in the papers. It’s the professors giving our lectures at school. It’s our fathers, and our mothers who echo our fathers. It’s shouted at us on the streets. It’s provided without solicitation in every space we ever enter, including the online spaces we try to create for ourselves.

You cannot be a woman in a patriarchal society and not understand men. But you can be a man in a patriarchal society and not understand women.

This blog is not a space where I have to provide anyone’s perspective but my own. While there’s much more to me than being a woman, one thing that I’m definitely not is a man. You will not see the “male perspective” in my writing, and nor should you.

~~~

Some excellent resources:
A Few Things To Stop Doing When You Find a Feminist Blog

Derailing For Dummies

Geek Feminism on the tone argument

Geek Feminism on concern trolls

Greta Christina on arguing effectively on the Internet

~~~

*It is not, by the way, that I think tone doesn’t or shouldn’t matter, or that there are never important considerations to be made about tone. I just don’t think this is one of them.

15 comments

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  1. 1
    Lou Doench

    I really like this piece a lot. My only quibble would be that when “hand-holding” is going on (elsewhere, not here of course;) that it be given the benefit of the doubt. If an ally is trying to have a 101 level discussion in order to advance the cause it can be very derailing to have a lot of 201 level folks barge in. I lurk at Shakesville for a good reason, I’m not qualified to add much to the discussion. By the same token The average Shakesvillian might not have the patience to work through 101 level stuff at say… Daylight Atheism.

  2. 2
    mythbri

    I didn’t realize you were still getting comments on that excellent post, Miri, and I discovered that my one comment there somehow spawned a thread of many others.

    Guys, these things are truth:

    1. There are women who almost never like to be complimented by strangers in public.
    2. There are women who sometimes like to be complimented by strangers in public and sometimes don’t like to be complimented by strangers in public.
    3. There are women who almost always like to be complimented by strangers in public.

    4. You cannot tell, just by looking, what the preferences of the woman you don’t know but wish to compliment away are. And since you cannot know her preferences, you are absolutely substituting your preferences for hers if you choose to compliment her anyway.

    5. If the woman you don’t know but wish to compliment anyway doesn’t respond to your compliment the way you think she should, that is not her fault.

  3. 3
    zhuge, le homme blanc qui ne sait rien mais voudrait

    This was very good!

    I agree with you 100% on the “different strokes” method. There were times in my life when I couldn’t bear to read PZ because it was too harsh and I was too fragile, but as I grew to be a stronger person I’ve found that PZ’s method has been fundamental to my views with regards to feminism, because the blunt expression of “you’re wrong and fuck you” suggests to me now not hate but pain, and makes it much more clear and compelling why I should support or go against different things that the hand-holding method doesn’t always do.

    I mean I think we all know different times in our lives we use different tacts. I’ve told one person I know to “fuck off” for being a bigot and I’ve had calm conversations with another. What’s useful depends on the person and the conversation. I think we can all generally understand that, so I don’t know why one would write in and say “this won’t work” unless it’s given a very particular situation(which a blog post is not!)

  4. 4
    Onamission5

    Holy almost 400 post comment thread. And here I didn’t think there was anything particularly harsh or controversial in your post at all, but that’s probably because I am a woman and therefore my opinion about whether I want to be hit on in public or not is irrelevant to the conversation. /sarcasm

    How many of those comments start with “I’m not a woman, but…” or something equivalent? I lost count.

    Giving a hearty YEAH THAT to your point #3. Sort of like PoC are well aware what white people think, PWD know fully the perspective of abled people, and LGBT folk are experts in cis+heteronormative culture. Dominant perspectives are, well, dominant. You sort of can’t get away from them.

  5. 5
    Elaine

    Not only that (“that” being everything you said in this post) but also, we have been “nice” about it. As a movement, and most of us as individuals, have tried and still do try to ask nicely, tell people nicely, have patience, hold hands, etc. It usually gets us nowhere, except ignored, laughed at, ground down, and tone trolled to be still “nicer.” So:
    1. It doesn’t matter how nice you are, you will always be told you are not being nice enough and need to be still nicer for people to listen to your argument.
    2. Nice doesn’t always work. In fact, it doesn’t seem to even USUALLY work. It’s good to employ multiple strategies, so even if you consider yourself part of a movement, and you think someone else’s strategy on your side is ‘too mean,” instead of tone trolling them, you go be good cop and let other people use the strategies that they’ve learned work best for them.

    1. 5.1
      CaitieCat, getaway driver

      THIS. Exactly this. People think I haven’t tried nice? In thirty years? All it gets me is heartache and stepped all over.

      Also, what Miri said, all the way down.

    2. 5.2
      Xtina

      Shit, if being nice helped feminism, most of my early 20s would’ve been put to good use, rather than just me coddling men’s fuckin’ egos. At least by being loud and angry about my feminism, I put off the men who just can’t haaandle it oh my goooodness, which means I have more time to spend on learning how to code.

  6. 6
    miles

    To back Miri up here with a personal testimony….

    I was raised by a dad that used terms like “feminazi”.

    I started reading PZ after Richard Dawkins quoted him on Bill Maher (this was a few years ago). He was fiery, sometimes angry and/or exasperated, well spoken, all around awesome. Granted, I was not really much of an adherent to my dad’s opinions in general (my mom being a domestic violence counselor and feminist – separated, obviously) but I was very uncomfortable about feminist issues, racism, etc. Hard to explain, beyond that thinking about racism and sexism and whatnot was a difficult thing for me. I didn’t want to be a racist or sexist, and any suggestion that anything in any part of society I liked (or anything I’d done) was racist or sexist was very hard for me to hear.

    That slap in the face tone was the perfect thing for me, because that’s what I needed.

    When the whole FTB thing got together, I started reading all the other blogs here – things like that Schrodinger’s Rapist post, the stuff here on Brute Reason, No Country For Women, etc. – it really educated me on things I never thought about (I’m a guy, what can I say), but I might have been not receptive (or more likely, not interested) if I hadn’t had that barrier broken.

  7. 7
    fantysq (a Radical Feminist and a Militant Atheist)

    This post made me think about how I’ve never really encountered any feminist writing directed specifically at anti-feminist women, all the 101 stuff I’ve seen was about explaining stuff to men. Does anyone have any links?

  8. 8
    Christopher James Stephens

    … huh. I’m going to take a completely different tack here. I’m a guy who hears a less-privileged person’s perspective way easier if it’s patient and explanatory rather than harsh and angry, though I have at least learned the lesson that Miri describes above, that different people are best confronted with their privilege in different ways (so I know better than to tone-troll other feminists, at least, especially women).

    What really confuses me is … men thought that the “Why You Shouldn’t Tell That Random Girl On The Street That She’s Hot” post was harsh or mean? I thought it was extraordinarily patient and gentle. Miri went out of her way to specify, “don’t worry guys, I’m definitely not saying that you’re a bad person for being attracted to women on the street,” etc. It almost borderline coddles men and their sexual egos, even.

    I’ll have to dive into that comment thread to look at men’s actual complaints, but knowing that men took such offense to (what seemed to me) such a patient, straight-forward explanation of women’s perspectives sounds to me like men taking umbrage at any criticism of their sexual impulses (and painting a woman who makes that criticism as angry and hysterical).

  9. 9
    doublereed

    Huh? I think you show understanding of the male perspective perfectly fine. That’s a particularly odd criticism for your blog, in my opinion.

    But of course, they’re probably just doing the “What about the menz?” thing.

  10. 10
    smhll

    So, if I don’t write in order to convert people who vehemently disagree with me, why do I write? To give people things to think about. To provide people who agree with me but lack the words to express it with arguments they can take away and use elsewhere. To show people who struggle with the same things I struggle with that they are accepted, understood, not alone. To tip the people on the fence over to my side. To inform people of things they didn’t know about before. To have fun.

    I love how you said this! And I really enjoy reading your blog.

    Also, I happened the comment thread of doom (before it metastasized) on my iPad while driving with my spouse on a very long, dull stretch of I5 on an 8 hour drive the other weekend. We had run out of conversation, so I appreciated the mind-stimulating entertainment very much.

  11. 11
    scenario

    I don’t get complaints about tone for that post. It just read to me as a matter fact statement of what Miri believes. I can see someone disagreeing but why tone? The only time I have a problem with tone is when someone new to the blog says something mildly off by the standards of the blog and they get ruthlessly attacked. I like the John Cleese method. Give mild offenders the benefit of the doubt a time or two and then attack. Blatantly obvious trolls are in a different category.

  12. 12
    Improbable Joe, bearer of the Official SpokesGuitar

    Considering that I was grossly misrepresented in those comments, I can see why someone would immediately reject complaints about tone. There’s no reason to assume that those complaints are even made in good faith, let alone weigh the validity of them. There’s better ways to waste your time.

  13. 13
    Meghan

    What strikes me is that the problem was so clearly NOT your tone. You were quite gentle in that article, in fact. The problem is that people knew it was a feminist post and, not really understanding what that means, felt they needed to jump on it. I know you don’t write to convert everyone who disagrees with you, so maybe you are more resilient than I am, but it frustrated me to no end that people (men and women) seemed to want to misinterpret what you were saying as “I hate men. No man ever has any right to do so much as look at me” because that’s what they think of feminism.

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