Mary Anne Mohanraj

An Ongoing, Erratic Diary

11 March 2009, 10:11 AM
  On Trying to Have Productive Discussions Online:

There are many aspects that make RaceFail 09 hard to follow, even if you're willing to give up a day or two to reading posts. (If you read or write sf/f, I think it's worth your time, even if that means giving up a writing day or two. I did, and I'm not sorry.) It's a big sprawling discussion, with several different major issues in play, and a variety of actors who can be hard to keep straight. And there are a few aspects that I find particularly hard to deal with:

  1. Livejournal
  2. Anonymity/pseudonymity
  3. Anger
  4. Hero worship
1. A lot of RaceFail '90 takes place on livejournal, and god, I really dislike livejournal. I think the format is ugly. I hate trying to figure out who people actually are -- it's amazingly non-intuitive for me. I hate that I have three or four times now created accounts just so I could comment and then somehow lost the info and failed to be able to recreate it. Okay, I finally figured out today that I am mmohanraj on livejournal. But I had to google to figure that out because when I tried to do the lost login thing, it kept telling me that I was failing the identity test. Argh. I do realize that a ton of sf/f fandom makes their home on livejournal, including some of my friends, but after a decade of disliking the forum, I have to overcome my own resistance to be able to wade back in there. All that said, I found wading back in to be worthwhile this time, and I am trying very hard to give up my prejudice against livejournal, at least for this discussion.

2. Anonymity and pseudonymity bug me. I've asked people to not be anonymous when commenting on my own journal. Often, comments tagged 'anon' come off as attacks to me. And even the pseudonyms -- well, I can't bring myself to give quite as much weight to people who aren't writing under their own name. Part of that is because so often in the last fifteen years I've seen anonymity and pseudonymity used as a shield for obnoxious behavior online. For the most part, when people use their real names, I'm more inclined to listen to what they have to say.

But all that said, I do think there are valid reasons for both anonymity and pseudonymity. I've had so many letters over the years from people who wanted to thank me for writing frankly about sexual issues when they felt that they needed to stay closeted -- to protect their marriage, their jobs, their children, their relationship with their parents...etc. and so on, up to and including their very lives. Fair enough. I respect that sometimes there are good and valid reasons to be anonymous or pseudonymous, and so I work to overcome my own initial distrust of people posting without their real names. But it's not easy for me.

3. I don't deal well with anger. I am a conflict-avoider by nature; in a tense situation, when voices are raised, I will try to defuse, or I will walk away. I grew up in a family that tended towards the loud and shouty; perhaps as a result, I have chosen to live my life as calmly as possible. In seventeen years of partnership with Kevin, we have never yelled at each other; we have never raised our voices. I can count the occasions (four) when we have so much as snapped at each other. That doesn't mean we don't get frustrated, or angry with each other. But both of us strongly prefer to engage each other calmly when we disagree. I do reasonably well maintaining that pattern in my offline life, which is perhaps why I am so upset by anger when I encounter it online. My instinct is always to withdraw from the conversation. And if I manage to nerve myself up to stay, I find myself wanting to say, "Please, can't we all just talk about this calmly and rationally?"

In this discussion, I've had to remind myself, over and over, that too often, accusations of being 'overemotional' or 'hysterical' or 'too loud' or 'too angry' have been used to silence people of color and women. And if I try to shut down the anger, I risk feeding into that pattern. It's a hard line for me, because there have been times, engaging with my own relatives, when I've needed to say to them -- "I can't talk to you when you're this angry. Call me when you've calmed down." And I think that was the right thing for me to do in that situation. I'm still trying to decide what the right thing for me to do is in these online discussions. But I think the answer is something like:

When people are loud and angry, let them speak as they feel they need to. Don't try to shut down those emotions, which are often born out of deep and grievous pain. If I need to step away, to recover myself, go ahead and do so. Come back and engage with the actual points they were making, and don't derail the conversation into a discussion of the tone I wish they would use for my own comfort.

4. Hero worship. One of the most frustrating parts of this whole discussion for me is when, over and over, someone moderately famous posts something, and his/her comments are immediately flooded with enthusiastic and often entirely thoughtless praise of their post and dismissal of any possibility of counterarguments. I saw it on Elizabeth Bear's site and on John Scalzi's blog (particularly frustrating in the latter case because so often Scalzi's commenters are willing to be critical and engage with him, and he encourages that. Thankfully, after the first wave of mindless agreement there, we mostly settled back down into normal critical and thoughtful discussion). I saw mindless agreement far too often on Making Light, which is part of why I stopped reading that blog. I think this is just part of human nature -- when someone we admire posts something that at least initially sounds persuasive, particularly if they seem personally outraged on the subject, it's just natural to assume that they are right, and that they need support. And if they've been brilliantly articulate and scathingly funny in their initial posting (as Teresa and John so often are), that just increases the pile-on effect.

This has happened to a lesser extent on the other side of the debate as well, and it bugs me there too, but because the main people of color engaged in this aren't nearly as famous, the effect is far less pronounced and aggravating.

I want to be clear -- I'm not saying there's no value in saying 'me too' or in thanking someone for articulating something that's been bothering you for a long time and which you didn't know how to put into words. I think marking that can be very valuable, and there's a social weight to that agreement and support. But I truly hate the thoughtless pile-on, which is so often just a response to your hero's single post, with no individual thought behind your response. If you engage in that behavior, please stop.

And I suppose as a final category, I should add:

  • Loaded words
Loaded words like 'racist' and 'privileged' (and 'sexist', 'ableist', etc.) can be very hard for people to hear and engage with calmly. I didn't put loaded words on my initial list because, finally, I've gotten to a point where I can be pretty okay with these words. It helps a lot, having so much academic training. I can usually now take these words as factual descriptors of the world we live in, the situation we've all inherited, and not as personal attacks. But it was a long slow process to get here, and I occasionally backslide, especially on first reading, especially if the person flinging those words at me seems angry (see 3 above). So if it's tough for you to handle those words calmly -- sympathies. You're not alone. We're all working on it.

If you still want to make sense of this mess, and I hope you do, read the posts Rydra Wong links to. Skim or perhaps better skip the comments to those posts. Most of the comments are 'me too', so you don't need to spend time on them if you're short on time. And quite a lot of the over-the-top thoughtless reactions are in the comments. Sticking to the actual posts will give you a much better sense of the interesting elements of the discussion.


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