Kate (kate_nepveu) wrote,

WisCon: Discussion Methods & Modes Set (1/4): Vigorous Debate, or Verbal Harassment?

I was going to post about three panels together, but even though I hate splitting discussions it would have been just unreadably long. But they are all a set and I strongly encourage reading all three panel reports; the other two are The Body Language of Online Interaction and FAIL!. The fourth post of this set is for my general thoughts and for comments spanning more than one panel; you can of course leave comments specific to one panel on the report for that panel.

This is a panel I was on, which means that I have notes for what I was planning to say and a couple of scrawled notes from during the panel on things I wanted to return to. What follows behind the cut is therefore a reconstruction of what I said and some things I remembered other people saying. (Which nevertheless turned out ridiculously long, even after considerable editing. Sheesh.) Please do add your own recollections, correct mine, or request clarification.

Panel description:

One of the strengths of the SF community is that it's almost always open for discussion and debate. Unfortunately, when discussions get intense, the line between "vigorous debate" and "verbal harassment" can go from blurry to invisible. How can we tell when a discussion has crossed that line? What do we do if we're the one who's crossed it? How can we step in to call back a friend who's crossed it? Let's discuss how to recognize verbal harassment and brainstorm strategies for addressing it within a community where everyone is a friend of a friend.
M: Jess Adams. Andy Best, Kate Nepveu, Maevele Straw

(I was convinced that this had been changed to leave out the "Verbal" in the panel title as well, but the online schedule doesn't reflect that.)

First, I'm going to excerpt from the updated version of a post I wrote last year, How to Discuss Race and Racism Without Acting Like a Complete Jerk. That post was in two parts, steps to take and things to consider; the steps to take are quoted below because I referenced them during the panel.

  1. Don't insult people in terms that you wouldn't use before your boss, your parent, your grown child, or the person whose good opinion you value most.
  2. Avoid the following very common red-flag statements:
    1. "I don't want to sound racist, but."

      If you find yourself wanting to say this, the odds approach certainty that what you are going to say is racist. Don't.

    2. "I'm not really sure what this is all about, but."

      If you find yourself wanting to say this, the odds are extremely high that you are about to say something unconsidered and, as a result, stupid. Ask yourself why you feel the need to speak about something you don't know about and why you can't inform yourself first.

    3. "Why can't you just enjoy (some work of art)? Why do you have to analyze it?" (Alternatively, and more broadly: "Why do you have to be so serious?")

      This boils down to a statement that other people shouldn't express their opinions, but that you get to express your own (by telling them what they should do). Don't.

      (See also Moff's Law, for an angrier and more thorough response to many such comments.)

  3. Link to ongoing discussions to provide context so your readers can judge for themselves.
  4. Don't lie.
  5. Don't delete evidence.
  6. Sit on your hands for several hours, preferably overnight, if you want to leap to the defense of someone or something.
  7. Don't, except in very rare circumstances, connect online happenings with someone's offline life (out a pseudonym, post home addresses and phone numbers, contact an employer, etc.). A possible guideline is that it should only be done to protect your safety or the safety of others, not to punish or as a debate tactic. In any event, it is an irrevocable step that demands thorough and calm consideration.
  8. Bonus: if you decide you were a complete jerk in the past, apologize. It's never too late, and it does matter.

And now, the panel report proper.

After introductions, I started by saying that these questions, while important, could very easily slide into the tone argument, i.e., "if only you uppity angry brown people (women, queer folk, etc. etc.) would be more polite, we would listen to you!" Which ignores that (1) the vast majority of the time, the uppity oppressed people started polite and still weren't listened to; (2) even if they weren't, society does not normally demand that people respond to offensive rudeness with niceness (a.k.a., the privilege of politeness); and (3) people from a dominant population who say the exact same thing in the exact same way get listened to and praised for their contributions to the discussion.

Besides the steps I excerpted above, I added one concrete step that I thought was important to this topic: read all the comments first. Honestly I was surprised I didn't get any pushback on this, because it can represent a significant commitment. And I would like to hear other people's thoughts.

My reasoning is that it is irresponsible to enter an ongoing discussion without knowing the full content of that discussion. Further, where there has already been significant discussion, someone's goals and/or methods may change depending on what's gone before.

As far as goals, I think it's useful to remember that there are multiple goals you might have in a debate. I can think of three:

  1. convincing the person whose actions are under discussion of your position;
  2. convincing bystanders of your position; and
  3. putting your position on record.

And particularly in heated debates, I recommend being clear to yourself what your goals are, and perhaps even stating them up-front (more so for the last two).

As far as methods, I think that they are very context-dependent. For instance:

  • Do you know the person whose actions are under discussion or who you would be engaging in discussion?
  • Are people who appear to know the person already engaging them with arguments similar to what you would say?
  • Many discussions of oppression are long-running and repetitive. Many processes of learning about oppressions are slow, stop-and-start, and difficult. Can you tell what stage the discussion is in or which stages the people in the discussion are at?
  • Are you a part of the community where the discussion is taking place? If not, do you know the community norms? (Are you sure?)
  • Are your own thoughts still works in progress? Are you learning and considering new things as a result of the debate? Are you prepared to do that processing in public, or might it be more fruitful to work out your thoughts in restricted settings?

And now I move away from the essay I appear to have slid into writing and go back to panel reporting. This is going to be out of order when I think it makes more sense that way.

One person asked how to disengage from a conversation that was clearly going nowhere. I said, "Willpower." More seriously, I said that I tended to leave one last comment explicitly stating that I wasn't agreeing but I was withdrawing because it wouldn't be productive to continue. I tend not to stop reading, but it's a point of pride to stick with a departure like that. Other people didn't go in for the leaving statement, but bargained with themselves that they would leave something alone for a day . . . and then another day . . . and then it would be old enough that they could just drop it entirely. And either way, people suggested going offline or taking other practical steps if they didn't trust themselves to genuinely disengage.

(I'm trying to write this as much as possible to apply to online life and offline. But the panel was working on the assumption that we were talking about online life, and no-one questioned this until the very end. I do think that the principles discussed should be and are applicable in both areas (more on that in my fourth post), but the mechanics may differ, as in the above paragraph.)

We talked some about methods, starting with moving discussions from public areas to e-mail. I observed that in the past I have considered and rejected e-mailing someone to say "I am really bothered by what you said" and posted an LJ comment instead, because e-mail felt like an implicit message that I thought they couldn't handle my comment in public. My counter-example turns out to have been not quite correct: during RaceFail, John Scalzi said cluelessly dismissive things and then apologized; I'd remembered the apology as resulting solely from e-mail, but he does also cite blog comments as well.

So my question about possible different norms between blogs and LJ wasn't good to start with. With regard to this question of different norms, someone referenced tablesaw's post on RaceFail '09 as hypertext (though this does not talk as much about LJ things like as username conventions and profiles as much as I remembered; anyone have other links to hand?). We talked about the difference between internet discussion spaces with flat comments and threaded comments, and how LJ/DW norms accept side-discussions in comments partly because of threading.

(Those of you on LJ/DW: you know that you can append ?view-flat to any URL and get unthreaded comments, right? (Or use these bookmarklets.) Further, you can track only specific comment threads (pushpin/bell icon for a particular comment); on DW, you can also track just top-level comments, which may be a useful though imperfect way to keep track of new discussion branches.)

We also talked about stream-crossing, as it were, in the context of Facebook and difficult conversations with family/old friends. I admit I initially groaned at the idea, but that's because of how I use FB; another panelist used it to share a mix of status updates, silly things, and links about more serious issues. So it's a matter of reader expectations (as is so much else). But it was generally agreed that mass mixing of mutually-unfamiliar communities tends to have unfortunate results.

And we discussed moving things into e-mail quite a bit. It was generally agreed that you should not e-mail people continue discussions if the discussion had been contentious. There was my concern, and also a feeling that e-mail was more intrusive. Enough people had stories about that first e-mail being abusive or presaging a bombardment that just seeing an e-mail like that can feel threatening.

As far as responding to such e-mails, I've never read The Gift of Fear, but I've seen Carolyn Hax describe it a lot (I have a terrible weakness for advice columns), and she emphasizes that when you're dealing with someone who is harassing, abusive, or otherwise trying to push/cross your boundaries, it is critical to make one clear unequivocal statement and then completely disengage, because otherwise the harasser is being rewarded by your attention. This strikes me as highly relevant.

The bit in my steps about online v. offline life is something other people brought up at the panel and that I've now added in. (I guess I thought it was too obvious to say before?) This came up in the context of concerted harassment campaigns, of which we had at least two different examples from people who'd been the targets or saw first-hand. I think the panel consensus here was that the proper response was a really hard question with no clear answer. At some points it may be appropriate to get ISPs involved, but I don't know whether that resulted in action. (I don't believe the police were ever brought up; I'm not clear on whether the examples under discussion might have involved criminal acts.) While it's valuable to name people who do this (e.g., Will Shetterly), the service to the community has to be balanced to the cost to the person being targeted, and that that's a decision that only that person can make.

I also remember an audience question from someone who was trying to have online discussions about social justice issues, to little success, and was concerned that the lack of a single set of etiquette norms was making such discussions more difficult. (This is heavily paraphrased. I had a long conversation with the audience member in question later and their concerns were very multi-layered and nuanced, but I'm trying to restrict myself to the discussion in public.) The first thing I asked was where the person was trying to have the conversations; one of them was magazine comment sections, and I was only partly kidding when I said, "Well, there's your problem." The panelists were pretty uniformly against the idea that you could have a universally-applicable Internet etiquette (at more than the very most basic level that we'd been talking about, I mean). Unfortunately at this point I can't really remember what we offered as constructive suggestions—I know we had some, but I'm afraid I'm getting them mixed up with the later private conversation. Possibly we brought up the very slow processes involved, the need for self-care, and the existence of more supportive spaces and the importance of seeking them out?

We also had a question from someone who wondered about the existence of toxic spaces where the entire culture was based around tearing people to shreds for any perceived sexist/racist/etc. behavior, no matter how slight. We were pretty dubious about this as a widespread phenomenon. Maybe some communities might have dealt with so much deliberately offensive behavior that they became hyper-vigilant, in kind of an immune-system metaphor? But generally it was not our experience. (I could not use "How To Describe Nonwhite Characters Sans Fail" as a counter-example, because it hadn't happened yet.)

Finally, later someone asked me if I thought apologies should be made publicly or privately. I said publicly if the activity in question was public, but it might be possible that if you had a good apology and you had reason to think that a specific person being apologized to wouldn't see it, you could e-mail them with a link and a statement that you weren't expecting to hear from them or trying to engage them further. But on further reflection, I think you can probably rely on the person's friends to bring the apology to their attention if they think it warranted, and while you might ask in the public apology for people to do that, you shouldn't do it yourself.

I was pretty happy with this panel, not that I thought we'd solved the problems of the world or anything, because obviously we hadn't, but it seemed that people were listening and interested and that we were able to get a good amount of discussion across in a fruitful way. However, I am aware that I talked a lot, and though at the time it seemed not excessive, I would genuinely welcome feedback and constructive criticism as to my conduct. Seriously: no-one wants me to be that person, least of all me.

Note: after I had finished this and moved on to the other three panels in this set, I saw [personal profile] bcholmes's writeup, which contains a number of things I had forgotten; please do take a look.

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Tags: cons, cons: wiscon, cons: wiscon: 2011
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