I am semi-masochistic, I think. My most painful addiction: trawling through comments in response to Commentary articles. I start reading with a sort of horrified fascination – each comment leaving me increasingly depressed – and find myself unable to stop. I feel a bit dirty after reading them. I rarely contribute myself.
Why don’t I? For the same reason that deters many of us on campus from participating in online debates, specifically in relation to articles representing the perspectives of marginalized identities, and addressing issues of oppression. A lot of pretty vicious criticism arises in response to articles like this, and not a whole lot of visible support. (Most notably, this came up throughout Christiana Collison’s column on black feminism last year – although the same applies to most of the Commentary pieces discussing rape culture or racism on campus). This is not to say that the support isn’t out there: I hear it, frequently, in personal conversations, mostly from people grateful to have their perspectives represented in a public forum. And yet the majority of responses to these articles are critical. And the majority of people reacting to them are white men. Whoa. What a shocking coincidence.
There’s a lot of misguided theory about the way that online debating has opened up dialogue. In some ways this is true. Theoretically, anyone can participate, and all responses are afforded an equal amount of respect. And we all live in a magical castle made of candy where the sky rains baklava and nobody cries, ever. The reality is that online spaces can be just as hostile as physical ones, and while it’s true that no one is forced to reveal their identity online, this doesn’t necessarily make participation easier. Reading many comments is enough to deter any marginalized person from speaking up; these spaces are often already shaped according to specific participants, and in ways that make it very clear what an acceptable opinion is. Anyone who dissents is dealing with a wicked backlash. Not so much debate, really, as public crucifixion.
The responses to articles that dare to bring up issues of racism, rape culture, or anything else related to calling out oppressive bullshit usually use the same formula. These tactics aren’t restricted to the virtual world – they are the same methods of shutting down the concerns of marginalized people that are used in everyday interactions. I like to think that they fall into three broad categories: Evasion, Silencing, and Deflection.
Let’s start with Evasion. This category includes tactics designed to take attention away from the point that is being addressed. It is much easier to do this than to engage in legitimate debate, as none of the uncomfortable points that the author raises actually need to be dealt with. Evasion includes things like:
1. The personal attack. Degrading comments about the author’s identity. (Collison wants to talk about black female sexuality? Probably she is a frigid bitch who doesn’t get any action.) It’s a great way to delegitimize the argument being made; why give any credit to someone who is bigoted/hypocrital/angry/egotistical? Has an inferiority/superiority complex? Has too much sex? Doesn’t have enough? The list goes on.
2. “Awkward syntax.” Harping on details, like the inadequacy of the writing style, or finding grammatical errors. Anything to avoid talking about the overarching issue.
3. Trivializing. The “we’ve heard it all before” response. The claim here is that the issue isn’t worth talking about because it’s already “been done.” Or this response’s more subtly evasive cousin: “Look at how many other important things we should be talking about.” For some reason, the logic seems to be that addressing specific issues of oppression will take away from our ability to think about the world’s “real” problems.
Category two: Silencing.
1. The “shut-down.” Denial that the concern being voiced is actually real. The author is admonished for being too sensitive, or reading too much into things; clearly, there was no harm intended, and they’re ruining the fun. This tactic is one of the most effective – it allows people to dissociate themselves from the guilt they’re feeling at being called out, and removes any onus for taking actual responsibility. Because really, the whole thing is just an overreaction.
2. The “shut up.” Demanding that the person voicing the concern should be stopped. There are several call-outs for contributors to be banned from publishing. (An aside – if you hate the piece, the appropriate response is not to try and get it banned. Stop reading it.)
Category three: Deflection. This includes the typical knee-jerk responses of someone being alerted to their privilege. These responses try to throw blame back at the person voicing the concern.
1. “If you don’t like it, leave.” The implication being that we choose to live within systems of oppression, and can dip out whenever we like.
2. “You’ll only be happy when….” A comment that implies the article’s author is asking for a radical social reform that would upset the structure we have in place now. (They probably are). And that this is undesirable, or unrealistic. (It’s not).
3. “Why don’t you do something about it?” Conveniently overlooks the fact that the author is already doing something about the issue, by bringing attention to it in the first place.
This isn’t an exhaustive list, of course, but the basic attempts to undermine people talking about oppression usually use some combination of these techniques. I hate to be grounded wholly in theory, so here are some concrete examples of Commentary responses from The Daily’s website:
“These are horrendously cliché arguments to trot out…Such crap is totally out of tune with reality.” Evasion, denial.
“[The author is] convinced that
every interaction with something that has a penis is the reflection of an
uncontrollable anxiety to fuck them which is enough to comfort their own petty
objectified ego.” Personal attack.
“…the only thing that I can answer to you is that you are the fucking racist and self-hating black. You are the one who allows the existence of such nonsense stereotypes by asserting them…” Personal attack and deflection combo. Nice.
Little wonder, then, that people with similar views to the author might feel uncomfortable speaking up. The fact that these online spaces are dominated by such violent critique is not coincidental. It is a blatant reflection of real-world interactions, and how consistently people addressing issues of oppression are attacked, undermined, or ignored – a fact that only serves to highlight how necessary it is to keep having these conversations. Think about that. I look forward to reading your responses.
Esther Harvey-Peake is a U3 Honours Philosophy student. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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