On Trying to Have…

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.

16 thoughts on “On Trying to Have…”

  1. Me too! j/k

    Yeah, you make some good points. I think the hero worship on Scalzi’s blog is quite a bit less than others I’ve seen or engage in, but it’s still there.

    I do want to say that the word “privilege” gives me some issues. It took quite a while to admit I had any sort of privileges in society – I still reject “White Privilege” as it is used in many circles – as I mentioned before, like a club of victimization. But I accept privilege as a contextual reading of a situation where one person/group/whatever has a leg up in some way over others.

    Anyway, if you were worried that some people over on Scalzi’s blog would be offended by what you posted here, I’m pretty knee jerk about these things sometimes, and I wasn’t. So, there you go. Good post.

  2. I think Mac said this on Whatever, but I second him; one of the good things to come out of the entire discussion is that I’ve discovered your writing and blog.

    You may be talking about me when it comes to hero worship! I promise you I don’t. Worship Scalzi, anyway. I concede a level of admiration for people who are gifted with more clarity than I have online (I rely heavily on body language in communication, which adds an extra level of fail when it comes to text-only mediums.) Like many others, I find myself often fumbling to articulate what I think and feel until someone who has skill with words writes it for me. From your writing, I’d guess you’d be the last person to underestimate the feeling of relief when the comparatively mute find a voice, even by proxy; sometimes I (and others, probably) are quick to jump in with a seemingly non-critical, knee-jerk reaction ‘thank God, yes, THIS!’ as a result. Discussion comes after, once the pent-up frustration gets its payoff. Working on that. Day by day, in every way….

    Parenthetically–I think this also came up in the Whatever thread–the whole thing about wanting to ask people to lower their voices is a point I hadn’t considered. I suffer the same instinct for all sorts of reasons, but having been on the other side of the wall in being asked to tone it down and be rational, I’m torn. Detaching myself from not unreasonable anger was hard, but I think it helped me gain credibility in the argument and long-term, served me more than it hindered. On the other hand, my experience is in no way relative to anybody else’s, so … dunno.

    (I did say “comparatively” mute. I think I’m physiologically incapable of keeping my mouth shut, even if there’s nothing in my brain to keep it going.)

  3. Thanks for this one, too. And re the pseudonyms, I can understand that, but just so’s you know, I have pretty much the same name at LJ a_d_ medievalist and as above (often shortened to ADM). Those have been my online names since I started my blog in 2002 (I think — 2003?), and the filtered me who is a writer and blogger is really just me with my ‘writing for an audience’ hat on. And weirdly, pseudonymous blogging is recognized by many people in academia as being acceptable (if possibly a timewaster that keeps us from publishing scholarly work!). But there have been many discussions of it, in the Chronicle of Higher Ed and other journals, and what often comes out of it is that the pseudonymous bloggers are often women and junior faculty or on the job market. Despite the pseudonymity, it turns out that Anthony Grafton, a historian at Princeton and one of the officers of the American Historical Association, actually reads some of these blogs, and wrote in one of our professional journals that senior faculty really should be reading us to see what life is like for us.

    I think that that is one of the real differences between the people I know who have academic blogs, and started in a place where we couldn’t lock down, and people who started with LJ. I think there’s a different understanding of the interactions and purpose of online writing, but all pseudonyms look alike to someone who doesn’t know you.

    Anyway, sorry for taking up so much space.

    And I did have one question – Where is the accent placed in your last name?

  4. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    Heh. Hero worship was overstating the case a bit, I admit. And again, it’s totally understandable — when there’s someone out there who you respect, and who has built up a fund of credibility with you, whose opinion you trust, and then they come out swinging on something — well, of course you’re likely to start out wanting to agree with them. I do it all the time too.

    I really do understand that there are excellent reasons for people to use pseudonyms, and I totally support anyone’s right to do so.

    I just hate ’em, personally, and am waiting eagerly for the day when we don’t need them anymore. I probably won’t see that day, but maybe my daughter or granddaughter will. I certainly have been able to say far more, far more frankly, than my mother or grandmother would ever have been able to, without fear of private or public retribution.

  5. I have not read much of the RaceFail “discussion” but what I have has made me despair of ever being able to write fiction in any reasonable way. I used to think I might work on it as a second career after retirement, but I will stick with topology. I think I have a better feeling than most white people may about the experiences of people of color, and even so, it now seems hopeless to write about a character of another race in an appropriate way.

  6. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    I really hate that white people are getting that out of the discussion. My next post will be on how you can write characters of color.

  7. This is the only place and only comment I’ve made throughout my reading of the RaceFail posts since January.

    Why? I felt that I had nothing of value to add to the discussion (it was all being said and often better than I could say it), especially if all I could talk about would be my own personal anecdotes or fears about the way the conversation was heading, because it was stated over and over that bringing my attempts at empathy into the conversation would be taking the focus away from the issues about the true challenges faced by PoC and perceived as my attempt to put the light back on me, a white woman, to make it all about me, etc.

    I read in comments that my intent to empathize wouldn’t have been what mattered, but that the perception would be that talking about any other -ism I might experience, say as a woman in a male dominated workplace/industry, does take away from the discussion of racism – which was the topic at hand and that has a chilling effect.

    All that above is to illustrate why I felt it was important not to disregard the comments.

    I understand what you’re saying about them, but so much additional context comes from the comments – seeing how people react, learning the language. For example, terms like: cookies, white women’s tears, spoons, etc – the commenters using those terms, and the links they provided, or making Google searches to understand them, are what brought me greater comprehension of them.

    If you’re going to invest in understanding, I think investing in the comments is important.

  8. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    Dawn, that’s fair. But even just barely skimming the comments adds a significant time burden to the conversation — if you’re coming into it now and trying to catch up, that may just be more than you can manage.

    I agree that if you have the time, the comments add worthwhile information to the discussion. Although I still think there’s a much lower ratio of signal to noise in the comments than in the main posts.

  9. Yes, what you say is true – wending one’s way through (especially LJ comments with all the “expand” stuff going on) is a huge time sink.

    I just feel so strongly that the comments are where the real overarching insight into the emotions and subtexts is going on.

    But, that’s my opinion and my last mention of it.

    Thank you for your insight, by the way – I regret I didn’t make my thanks and appreciation for your post known above – often I just dive into the “business at hand” before remembering the social pleasantries.

  10. You are allowed to take it as you choose, and there is certainly more license frequently taken with pseudonymity than with “real names”, but my professional life could be compromised by my personal beliefs. My hobby job could be compromised by my personal beliefs. My safety and health could be compromised by certain people in my past finding me (not likely any more, but it was). My name is as recognizable (not as famous, just close to unique) as yours, Mary Anne, and equally Googlable, and people in my business do, before they hire.

    So my real name goes with my professional internet “face”. My pseudonym (which, actually, I have responded to IRL for years) goes with my personal “face”; and it is constant and consistent. That is the difference in my mind between pseudonymity and potential sockpuppetry.

  11. I totally agree with everything you said here about anger and about thoughtless pile-ons. And about loaded words, too, which I had thought from past discussions that you and I disagreed on.

    The main reason I’m posting this note is to link to a fascinating and insightful comment from Nora J. from last April, about expressing anger, especially this line:

    as white allies begin to talk with each other, they may need to remember that this is a tremendously painful, infuriating, crazy-making subject for some of us.

    And this:

    Not saying its your fault, but you might be surprised to realize that your very lack of anger triggers anger among some PoC.

    Yikes. I didn’t know that, and I’m very glad that Nora wrote about it. It makes a lot of things make more sense to me–not only in race discussions, but in all sorts of discussions where one person tries to respond to another person’s anger in a calm/gentle/soothing tone. Sometimes, of course, a gentle soothing tone is exactly the right response; but it’s useful (though difficult) to me to know that sometimes it isn’t.

  12. I am glad to see that your post on RaceFail09 was about the nature of the discussion, instead of a continuation of it. I got into it for a short while early in January, but found it so toxic that I bailed. (my lj name is the same as my email btw)

    It wasn’t the anger that bugged me, or the pile ons or even the Hero Worship, but it was the raging absence of nuance. There was a side, you had to be on a side, if you disagreed with someone you were calling them a racist, etc and so on.

    It seems to me that there is a large middle ground to that discussion, and most, not all, but most of people reside there. It seemed after a while that the people who got overinvested in RaceFail09 had staked out a certain kind of emotional territory and were going to defend it to the death, long past the time it made sense.

  13. Thanks for mentioning the loaded words issue, because that’s one that sometimes gets to me (in general race-related discussions, not this one specifically). When I think of someone who is racist, I imagine someone who fundamentally believes that the worth/ability/potential of a person is related to the color of their skin. That opinion is less prevalent than it once was, but still out there.

    I have to think that most of us who engage in these discussions absolutely don’t believe that, particularly writers who intentionally choose to include characters of color. That’s not to say that there aren’t below-the-surface prejudices, or unconscious assumptions, or emotional reactions that don’t correspond with actual beliefs – I know I have all of those things, and I struggle to move past them. But it’s still hard for me to hear the word racist and not get defensive. It may be that the definition of the word really does include the whole spectrum, but those core values feel like a substantive difference to me. It’s so much easier for me to engage in discussions that acknowledge that distinction, and those who are making an honest effort to do better on these issues, than those which seem to lump everyone together.

    That said, I know that there are important ideas out there that come linked to the word, so I’ll keep trying to push past that and focus on the substance rather than getting defensive about word choice.

  14. Thank you for a very excellent post. I think there have been a lot of loaded words slung around by both sides and that always makes it difficult to plow through to get to the really important discussion.

    For me, the decision to use Sierra Wyndsong came as I realized that both my maiden name and my married name are shared by other people. I don’t want anyone to harass them for things I might say or post because experience has shown me that most people jump to their own assumptions, mount an attack and never bother with the truth. And I don’t want those people to get blamed for something I might say.

    That said, I also don’t conduct myself in an inappropriate manner or commit reprehensible acts and then hide behind my alias.

    I treat Sierra as a secondary identity. So when you come to my journal or email me, you are dealing with me and I would not be different were we in person. Except in person, I could hand you a glass of tea and likely speak more informally. And I don’t normally rhyme like that in person.

  15. Pseudonymity is odd. I have minor reasons for mine here, and probably can’t tell you without giving it away. I think you could find out, IPS addresses etc. but I’m sending a clear message that is not the intent. That facade is the point, not the secrecy per se.

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