I’ve been thinking about this whole, how harsh should you be online, thing a lot lately. You know, if someone says something dumb or wrong, are you justified in going for the throat each and every time you respond? If it’s a feminist or social justice issue, are you doing your cause any harm by reverting to vitriol and anger?
And man my feelings have been flip flopping all over the place!
On the one hand, I genuinely don’t care if someone who says deeply problematic things gets their feelings hurt by rightfully angry responses. Fr ex. if you’re going to be a sexist jerkwad, then I think you deserve it if someone goes to town on you. If you make comments that are bigoted and prejudiced (or excusing bigotry and prejudice), then I don’t think you are even attempting to engage in a useful discussion. If you make them in an explicitly feminist/SJ space, then you’re definitely being an asshole and feeling sorry for yourself because people called you out on it doesn’t exactly garner any sympathy in me. I also don’t care if you genuinely believe that you’re in the right – when you make comments that dehumanise, mock or attack different oppressed groups, you don’t get to complain when those groups don’t hold their tongues and check their rage.
On the other, there is sometimes a real culture of aggression (not just from feminists or social justice peeps! I mean you just need to look at any comments on a news post), and I think that can be a real problem. There is a difference between someone expressing a malicious opinion as above, and someone either making a mistake or searching out information. In a lot of places, and especially on Tumblr and Twitter, there can definitely be a tendency to treat anything that’s bigoted (or perceived to be) as an attack that needs a quick and violent rebuff. And here is where I am conflicted – if someone feels constantly besieged by a society that doesn’t accept them, a society that may actively be trying to harm them, then I completely understand the jump to an extreme response. It’s like being in constant pain, which I think makes it hard to give moderate or nice responses to what is seen to be yet another attack, or another symptom of an oppressive system.
But constantly being on the offence, constantly using extreme (or hyperbolic, in some cases) language very rarely results in a positive resolution to a situation. I don’t think anyone goes away from these encounters happy – the person who made the mistake may be confused and upset, the person (or people) on the attack are now adrenalised, angry and upset and pretty much nothing positive has happened (except maybe you got in a good zinger? but was it worth it?).
I think somewhere along the line, some people have lost the ability to gauge how extreme their response needs to be. Not everything needs a “all [group a] need to not exist” response, y’know? I get that you’re angry, I get that you think you have every right to be angry and I get that in most cases, what you mean is “all problematic members of this group need to not exist”. Sometimes, yeah, I am so done hearing straight white dudes and their opinions (most of the time, actually), but it’s not because I hate all straight white dudes as some monolithic entitity (on an individual level, many have some superb redeeming qualities! my brother is a straight white dude!) – it’s because their voices have been privileged above all others and I think it’s time they gave some space to other people. However I’m not going to be able to convey that to someone when I say “god so sick of hetdudes, I wish they didn’t exist”. That kind of shorthand is useful in a context full of people who understand I’m not wishing for a genocide on vanilla bros, but is much less so when I’m trying to communicate with anyone not in my Tumblr bubble.
It’s also been important for me to look at this issue as if I weren’t someone deeply invested in social justice. I have to stop looking at these arguments automatically backing and supporting the people saying the anti-bigoted stuff and I have to admit – it’s been hard. It has been hard to disentangle my personal politics from the posts and conversations I’ve seen, it has been hard to take my approval of a person’s political position out of the equation and evaluate the manner in which they’ve expressed themselves. It’s been especially hard, because in a lot of cases I do disapprove of the things they say. I would never approve of that kind of hate being directed at anyone outside of a SJ situation, I would never approve of that kind of performative rage, I would never agree with the pointless negativity some people express.
When we respond to each other online, it’s so easy to forget that yes, there really is someone at the other end. When thinking this tangled issue over, I’ve basically come down to this – if I were speaking to this person in real life (and not afraid of a physically violent response), would I still say that? I mean, yeah, making allowances for the language pattern of whatever site I’m using, would I convey my message in roughly the same manner if I was looking at this person face to face?
I’ve tried to take that approach to online interactions for many years, but I’ve never held other people to that standard. It’s not up to me to dictate how other people communicate and express themselves, it’s not up to me to tell someone not to be so angry, it’s not up to me to demand people respond in a way that I wish. However, if it were up to me, I think I have “would you own your words in real life?” as the mantra to go by.
By the way, this (confused, convoluted and incoherent!) post is because my friend Marlene has been making me think about this issue a lot!