Yesterday, I admonished you to read a Colorlines piece that details, in a step-by-step fashion, the way that majority spaces react when minority members speak up about discrimination. I put a particular emphasis on step three:
Step 3: Play the ‘Middle’ Between Rational and Frothing Racist
You know how mainstream news shows discuss global warming by pairing an actual scientist who points to decades of consistent research with an oil-company shill who says global warming can’t be real because Al Gore said something dumb once? And you know how the news anchor moderating the discussion gets to occupy the “rational” “middle” ground by saying “more research is probably needed”? You’re that guy now. Crackpots don’t get people fired, people who validate crackpots do, so get to work.
Let me get you started on your “common-sense” blog post, article or mainstream interview: “We can all agree that the behavior of these Internet trolls is unconscionable. However, let’s not discount their concerns because of a few bad apples…”
You’ve got some primo poli-sci Overton Window triangulation going on now! By assigning the Internet trolls one end of the alignment spectrum, you’ve successfully shifted the terms of the debate from, “What can be done about rampant unjust outcomes for women and people of color?” to “How many racial epithets is it OK to fit in a tweet?” Also, don’t moderate the comments on your blog post, even if they overtly threaten women and people of color. That would be, like, censorship.
The reason I highlighted this point, apart from my personal exasperation at the “tone” argument as a whole, is because I want to talk about something else I read yesterday.
Those of you who are familiar with the online atheist community are all-too-aware of the fact that atheist spaces are currently grappling with their own failures to attract women and people of colour. The problem mirrors one that the American Republican Party is having, and the people arguing against structural changes make many of the same arguments – that what is needed is merely a ‘pinkwash’ or a ‘brownwash’, rather than a concerted effort to change the culture. I have summarized my view of how we got to this position in a previous post, but the even summarier summary is that people began asking why women weren’t participating, but only some of those people accepted the answers they were given.
In response to what is (sincerely by some, ironically by others) being called the “deep rifts” within atheist communities, an Open Letter was drafted, and several high-profile secular groups signed it. It calls for, among other things, a détente between people on “both sides” of the “deep rift”, and a pledge to model more “constructive” standards of communication. I quote from that letter selectively:
Insults, slurs, expressions of hatred, and threats undermine our shared values of open and candid discussion because they move us away from an exchange of views supported with reasons.
Unfortunately, the discussion of these issues has suffered from the same problems that plague online discussion in general—although arguably to a greater extent. Some blogs and comments actually exhibit hatred, including rape threats and insults denigrating women. Hatred has no place in our movement. We unequivocally and unreservedly condemn those who resort to communicating in such a vile and despicable manner.
Any organization or individual engaged in blogging or administering a forum has an obligation to moderate comments. Slurs, threats, and so forth beget more of the same. Keeping our online spaces free of these elements creates a civil climate that makes it much easier for people to engage issues productively.
While these excerpted sections are far from the biggest problem I have with this letter, it is worth comparing it to the quoted section from the Colorlines piece: a focus on the extreme behaviour, coupled with a litany of admonishments to the discriminated-against party to “be more charitable” and “give the benefit of the doubt” and any other pearls of “common sense” wisdom that place the burden predominantly on the oppressed (while saying nothing about the oppressors except to demand that they be held to an identical standard for non-identical behaviours).
No mention, of course, of the fact that even those who do dispassionately describe the abuse are subject to the exact same level of vitriol – suggesting, perhaps, that there is no method of criticizing the majority that they will find acceptable. No mention, of course, of the fact that while “both sides” claim to be the target of slurs, the slurs that one side complains about are not slurs. No mention, of course, that only one “side” is having their credibility and worth as human being questioned. No mention, of course, that some anger is legitimate, and that some issues need to be evaluated on their merits rather than assuming that the “real” problem is bad behaviour.
No, for that, you’ll have to go to the top of that page and read what is a splendid takedown of the letter by Mary Ellen Sikes, President of the American Secular Census:
Let me state very clearly what I wish the Open Letter had said: Women who are harassed or cyberstalked are not being harassed or stalked over some failure of theirs to practice appropriate online discussion techniques. They aren’t being targeted because they see grouping patterns among their harassers (what the Open letter appears to condemn as “guilt by association.”) They aren’t singled out because they lack the patience to educate others. They are being victimized because their harassers have a pathological need for attention, a feeling of entitlement, or some other deficiency that leads them to attack other human beings. Harassment is the fault of harassers, and harassers bear the responsibility for stopping it.
The unfortunate truth ignored by the Open Letter is that there are good guys and bad guys in many of these situations, each group needs to be dealt with differently, and in the case of stalking and threats, only trained experts should be offering advice.
Their dissent is echoed by Kim Rippere, and the board of Secular Woman:
As a secular feminist organization committed to understanding and exposing societal constructs that contribute to the inequality of women and other oppressed groups, we have no desire to listen to, respect, or continuously debunk overtly sexist viewpoints. Just as most scientists are not interested in debating the beliefs of creationists, we are not interested in debating gender-biased, racist, homophobic, or trans*phobic beliefs.
Although the document contains reasonable recommendations for increasing effective communication, some of these techniques have been used to silence women (and other oppressed groups). When people express opinions that challenge sexism ingrained in social structures and conventions they receive a significant amount of pushback and harassment. Those of us working to challenge systemic sexism should be under no obligation to listen to or be more charitable to our opponents.
Perhaps because they represent entire organizations, or simply because they are more polite than I am, both of these letters are very diplomatic in their criticism of the open letter. I, however, represent nobody but myself, and have nothing either to lose or to gain in saying exactly what I think about this open letter: it sucks and I hate it.
I do not, for example, acknowledge the “good intentions” of the letter. I do not think the goal of the authors of the letter is to improve the situation for marginalized groups – I think it is to move the fighting out of the spotlight so they can return to ignoring the issue. I think they are tired of having to devote time and energy to an internal fight while the “real battle” is still “out there”. I think they honestly believe that there is blame to be shared around “both sides” of the issue. I think they see anger on “both sides”, and therefore assume that the problem is that everyone is angry, rather than recognizing that one side is angry because they’re being harmed, and the other is angry because they don’t like getting called on their bullshit.
This is the problem I have with this and any other proposed “civility pledge”. It presumes that “angry” and “correct” are non-overlapping states, and that all criticisms must be presented politely in order to be valid. It presumes that oppressors need merely to be cogently talked out of their oppressing behaviour, and that they will do so once the ‘perfect’ argument is presented to them (because, after all, we’re all reasonable people here, right?). It presumes that the problem lies on the surface, and that nothing more than superficial changes are needed to address it. It presumes that there is a “middle ground”, and that the role of organizations is to bring “both sides” to that place, rather than deciding what its values are, and fighting for them.
This open letter is merely a pledge to uphold the status quo, and to treat all anger as “counter-productive”. It beggars belief, in fact, to imagine that a similar letter would garner the support of these organizational leaders if the subject was how we talk about religion, rather than how we talk about feminism. I would be surprised indeed to see David Silverman, for example, proclaim the virtues of “dialing down the drama” when it comes to criticizing creationism or the World Trade Center memorial cross. Perhaps it is only when the people we are criticizing are “on our own team” that it becomes more important to preserve hurt feelings than it is to decry bad beliefs.
So while I wish the solution to the problem was as easy as writing an “open letter”, when the people writing the letter have not bothered to understand the problem, the only “open” thing I’m looking for is the door. Until there is a real effort to understand why there is a problem, rather than simply bemoaning the fact that there is a problem, no progress can be made. And as long as major organizations are insisting on chiding “both sides”, all the while assiduously affirming that they deplore the extremist behaviour, they are doing worse than not helping – by perpetuating a cycle designed to resist change, they’re fighting to preserve the status quo.
In closing, I would like to quote from a much better open letter – one that these secular leaders would do well to read carefully:
I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. 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.
I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.
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A commenter at the Skepchick piece rightly points out that this letter was apparently crafted without the input of a number of principal targets of misogynistic abuse. This is a basic, elementaryl failure to represent the needs and preferences of the very group this letter purports to address, which pretty well confirms my suspicion that the writers do not actually care about solving this problem.