Writers of Color 50 Book Challenge

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Policy Discussion: Insults, etc.
Escher Snakes
sanguinity wrote in 50books_poc
I'm elevating this to a new post, because the mod team is small and we want a wider range of input than what we can bring to bear ourselves.

The topic under discussion is whether or not insults, mocking, jeering, and/or personal attacks are acceptable on the comm, in what context, and directed toward whom.

First: that's probably not a complete list. One of the things I'm noticing in the comments and pms is that people have different characterizations of what is in dispute here.

Second and related: not everything in the list above may be comparable to everything else in that list. We might choose to give a pass to some of the above and yet reject others.

Third: I'm expecting that there might be some context dependency in these decisions. My gut sense is that insulting an author is not the same thing as insulting another comm member. Being white and being POC is not symmetric. Being the original poster and being a non-OP commenter in an exchange may also change the context. There may be other factors.

So let me lay out some of the issues that the mod team has been discussing.

Because of the way the tone argument gets used, we have been reluctant to implement a blanket "no insulting, no jeering" rule. There are times when it is more important that something gets said than how it gets said; there are times when the clearest and most straightforward way to communicate an idea is to mock the original statement. Additionally, any given demand for politeness or patience made by this community is happening in the context of numerous asymmetric demands for politeness and patience; as mods, we strongly dislike the prospect of increasing those burdens as the price of participating in the comm.

We are trying to negotiate two conflicting chilling influences: one of them is the chilling effect of someone knowing that they might encounter insulting or jeering comments if they post; the other is the chilling effect of a "don't say it any meaner than this" rule. The latter can make people walk away from a comm just as the former can. (I personally have walked away from a comm because it wasn't worth it to me to deal with the emotional stress of trying to negotiate such a rule; I have heard more than a few similar stories from others.) What particularly worries us as mods is that who walks away because of either environment is often asymmetric along axes of privilege.

(Obviously, I would prefer a policy that doesn't have people walking away, if we can swing it.)

I additionally have concerns about how this plays into our sense of who the community is "for". There are at least three distinct ways that members use this forum. Some are using it for personal improvement, trying to correct biases or lacunae in their own personal education, environment, or knowledge. Others are using it as a tool to focus attention on authors of color, who face systemic biases in the publishing, reviewing, reading, and fan communities. Others are using this community as a social refuge, as a place where conversations about books are not forever reverting back to white authors and white norms. (Obviously, these uses are not exclusive to each other: there are many people who use this comm in two or more of the above ways.)

I am not at all sure that the comm serves the last group well. In the process of setting policy on this, I would like to avoid making this community serve those people less well. Unfortunately, it is not clear to me what would or would not do that.

So, the questions we have for you:

What constitutes a personal insult?

Are they never acceptable, sometimes acceptable? Are some more acceptable than others?

Does it make a difference if the insult is directed at an author or at another community member? Where another community member is concerned, does it make a difference as to whose post it appears in the comments to (your own, or someone else's)?

Do we want one blanket policy of acceptability for the entire comm? Should OPs moderate their own comments as they see fit? Some combination of the two?

Are we correct to be worried about an asymmetric effect on white and POC/chromatic members of the comm? And if so, what kinds of policies do you specifically see being a problem? What would be acceptable?

What are we missing?


If you wish to reply privately, you are welcome to PM me or send me an email (this username at gmail).


ETA (6/29): I've turned anonymous commenting off -- there's at least one person who is harrassing people. If you have something to say and need privacy to say it, you've got my pm and email.

ETA2 (6/30): My draft position on some of the interactions under discussion, specifically some of the earlier posts about N.K. Jemisin's books. Re everything else, I'm still reading, still digesting. I haven't begun replying to pms yet, but I'm reading those, too.

ETA3 (7/5): FYI, we're still working on the policy post; we hope to (but cannot promise!) to have it posted by Friday.

ETA4 (7/9): progress updates here.

ETA5 (7/13): Policy post is now up. Comments here are locked.
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I don't think the tone argument should be used as a shield or an excuse for an "anything goes" policy.

What's wrong with keeping to the simple guiding principle that posts and comments should be topical and appropriate to the primary purpose of the comm? Which is, according to the FAQ and the profile, getting more people to read works by people of color (bold emphasis per the profile page). I'm not sure how personal insults directed toward either an author or a fellow comm member would achieve that purpose. (Happy to be corrected with an example, but I'm skeptical.) If it doesn't serve that purpose, it should be considered off-topic and inappropriate, and swiftly shut down.

Otherwise, the mods or OPs or whoever gets appointed for the task will have to police every post and comment to determine whether something is "more acceptable" or is asymmetrically upsetting white people versus POCs. In my opinion, that kind of debate makes more sense in a discussion space with a broader/different focus than this one. (Also, I really don't like the idea that comm members would have to be "counted" for race purposes.)

As for what constitutes a personal insult, I think the distinction between attacking a person and attacking a statement or action of that person is a helpful one.
(Frozen) (Thread)

(Deleted comment)
It means that I don't like the idea of comm members having to declare their race just so the mods can determine whether an insult they made is acceptable or not. Which is the implication of the mod's questions: "Are we correct to be worried about an asymmetric effect on white and POC/chromatic members of the comm? And if so, what kinds of policies do you specifically see being a problem? What would be acceptable?"

Bottom line: the comm's stated purpose is to get people reading more works by people of color. Posts and comments should remain geared toward that purpose, and I don't see how personal insults (whether made by white people or POCs) could ever be deemed "acceptable" for that purpose.
(Frozen) (Parent) (Thread)

(Deleted comment)
I'm fine to continue talking to you if you want to stop playing Oppression Olympics and address the actual point of my comments. Or do you only talk to people you believe are POC?
(Frozen) (Parent) (Thread)

The whole point of this community is the idea that it matters who says something, specifically that their race matters. Presumably you agree the race of a book author matters when you are trying to interpret what they wrote, or you wouldn't be here. Why does race not matter when you interpret a comment someone writes online?
(Frozen) (Parent) (Thread)

Sorry, can't edit: I am not saying it's okay for people to insult you as long as they're not white. I don't believe that at all. But it does not seem consistent with this community, or with reality, to claim that it doesn't *matter* what race someone is when you read what they say. It's clearly more complicated than that.

Also, I am white.
(Frozen) (Parent) (Thread)

I don't think you're reading my comments correctly. I did not say that race doesn't matter. I'll try to rephrase more plainly: personal insults are not appropriate to or useful for the stated purpose of this community. And the idea that personal insults might be deemed more acceptable or appropriate if made by POCs would, in my opinion, lead to comm members having to declare their race during every confrontation. I am not comfortable with that, because it leads to Oppression Olympics (see, e.g., the other comments in this thread) which has a tendency to shut down or derail conversations.

I also said that kind of exercise would make more sense in a comm with a different purpose. There's a time and a place, but this comm, as self-described, is not it. If the mods want this to be that kind of place, then they need to change the stated purpose and FAQ accordingly so people can make an informed decision on whether to stay or go.
(Frozen) (Parent) (Thread)

Maybe I don't understand what you mean by Oppression Olympics. I always thought that meant when people of different marginalized groups get competitive over whose marginalization is worse. How is viewing white comments differently from POC comments an example of that? You speak of concerns over what could happen in the future, but right here in this thread you said that winterfox was playing Oppression Olympics with you. How is she doing that? I don't see it.
(Frozen) (Parent) (Thread)

[Standard disclaimer: I'm not hesychasm nor do I play hesychasm on tv.]

One example of destructive inter-racial Oppression Olympics might be multiracial/multicultural people whose "authenticity"/validity, from their personal opinions to their physical existence, is already constantly questioned in some cultures/societies/social circumstances. There are many privileges AND disprivileges in race/culture intersections of identity more subtle than white+western or non-white+non-western.
(Frozen) (Parent) (Thread)

Did it ever occur to you that hesychasm may not be white, that they may belong to a marginalized group, that by questioning whether they are white or not is a classic method of trying to silence a POC (and even more insidious when online)?
(Frozen) (Parent) (Thread) (Expand)

I admit I'm playing a bit loose with the term, so I apologize for causing confusion. To me it's like this: a white person is never going to win Oppression Olympics, so pulling out a trump card of "Are you white?" (or declaring that someone is white) is a lazy tactic used to stop or derail the conversation. Notice how the actual substance of my comments never got addressed. Would they have been if I answered winterfox in a way they deemed worthy?

As for what could happen in the future, yes, I do think it would be problematic for this comm to become a place where people felt they needed to declare themselves on some race or privilege scale in order to prove their comments are more worthy than others'. Aside from the danger of Oppression Olympics, that kind of atmosphere just seems skeezy and uncomfortable to me. And again, how would all of that support the purpose of the comm?
(Frozen) (Parent) (Thread) (Expand)

When I asked "Are we correct to be worried about an asymmetric effect on white and POC/chromatic members of the comm?" I was thinking specifically about differential outcomes, not differential application. E.g., given that POC have a different set of things going on in their lives than white people do, can/would a given proposed rule create a heavier burden on POC members of the comm than it would on white members?

One possible way to prevent that heavier burden is to have two sets of rules, sure. Not my first choice, because it'd be hard to mod, and it puts people who already have highly-questioned identities in a tight spot, as spiralsheep pointed out.

What I was thinking about / hoping for was to come up with a policy that is more neutral in result, or if that's not possible, is more awkward for our white members than our POC members. If across-the-board application of a rule is going to create disproportionate difficulties for someone, I'd be happier if it was the white members having to deal with that.
(Frozen) (Parent) (Thread)

I understood what you meant, but I was having a hard time picturing a policy which would NOT have a differential application even though it's ostensibly only aimed at outcomes. I still can't picture it. I don't envy you mods the task of figuring this out!

I wonder if we just have philosophical differences about whether a blanket policy of "personal insults are off-topic, full-stop" creates a "heavier burden" on POC members versus white members. Because to me that seems the simplest and most neutral solution, so I'm having a hard time figuring out how to approach your concerns. But I do appreciate you taking the time to respond, as well as the opportunity to weigh in via this post.
(Frozen) (Parent) (Thread)

One example of how a neutral policy can affect people differently is that some white people find the concept of "having privilege" insulting, whereas most POC, in my experience, do not. So saying "no personal insults" could have a chilling effect based on differing ideas of what constitutes a personal insult.
(Frozen) (Parent) (Thread)

That is true, but it is also true of any prohibition on any type of conduct: "no kyriarchical insults" brings the question of what people do and don't consider kyriarchical insults, for example.

But it's quite possible to say "I didn't like how so-and-so exhibited privilege, for example x" - thus calling out someone on their privilege in terms of their actions.
(Frozen) (Parent) (Thread)

That does tend to be what moderators are for. Because sometimes, an "insult" isn't.

But I do agree that care has to be taken in the construction of the policy, if indeed such a policy were to be taken up.
(Frozen) (Parent) (Thread)

It's disturbing to me that we could actually be at a point where we don't believe it's possible for us to express anger without actually insulting someone. And if this thread is an example of what is considered acceptable behavior - where a member has tried to silence another POC by demanding racial credentials, making broad assumptions and throwing around the term "white women's tears" (deleted or not, it was said) - acceptable as long as it's being done by a POC, then I think we've moved from actual discussion to farce.
(Frozen) (Parent) (Thread)

I understand you're talking about a specific thread in a specific context but in more general terms "white women's tears" is a description of a social phenomenon not an insult (although it can be used as an insult... or a valid critique... like "you're [being] racist/sexist/whatevz"... depending on circumstances). Just sayin'.

/digression
(Frozen) (Parent) (Thread)

I don't know what gave the impression that I needed a lesson from you. But if you'd like to continue deflecting attention away from winterfox's history of insulting and offensive conduct, and their specific insulting and offensive conduct in this thread, go right ahead.
(Frozen) (Parent) (Thread) (Expand)

Am I misreading you when it looks like you're suggesting that negative reviews of works by PoC are also against policy, becasue they'd be discouraging reading of those particular works?

The whole point of encouraging readership of works by PoC is to add to a worldview awareness that enhances social justice, isn't it? A PoC work that has intersectional failings, or even worse, highly problematic and kyriarchy-reinforcing tropes ... is this something to be papered over?

I don't think the essentialist reading of PoC vs. white works here, especially in light of the review that sparked this all off in the first place.

Are we in agreement but highlighting different things? I see (my reading of) your position as having issues I suspect you don't support.
(Frozen) (Parent) (Thread)

Yes, you're misreading. I'm seeing a lot of people taking arguments to extreme conclusions in the comments to this post, and I'd like for that not to happen with my words. Finding personal insults off-topic does not mean I want to silence negative reviews. I don't think negative reviews necessarily always dissuade people from reading or consuming things anyway. But I do think that a post which contains personal insults, or a comm member who attacks fellow comm members with personal insults, leads to a "chilling effect" on discussion (to borrow sanguinity's words elsewhere in these comments). And stifling discussion of works by POCs doesn't seem to contribute to any purpose this comm might have. Does that make sense?
(Frozen) (Parent) (Thread)

I appreciate the clarification. (It really wasn't clear to me from your words, although I inferred a different intent...which is why I asked.)

"Personal insults" is really diffuse. But I think...pending confirmation by action...that winterfox has agreed to moderate the actions that lead to a quelling atmosphere from (her?) commenting style, and the entry has been amended to remove the (in my opinion as well!) problematic namecalling.

I'm not advocating for a flamefest friendly comm, and I don't think anyone else is either. I don't know if it's actually possible to draft a set of rules that allows for mocking takedown of kyriarchical fail while still creating a "safer space" for discussion. And it seems to be a cultural clash to me.
(Frozen) (Parent) (Thread)

"Personal insults" is really diffuse.

I agree, and the problem is also that it's going to be somewhat (in some cases a lot) subjective.


I'm not advocating for a flamefest friendly comm, and I don't think anyone else is either. I don't know if it's actually possible to draft a set of rules that allows for mocking takedown of kyriarchical fail while still creating a "safer space" for discussion. And it seems to be a cultural clash to me.

I think I get where you're coming from (and if I don't, plz correct me!): That quite often the tools for dismantling hierarchies are mocking and sarcasm, which are perceived as personal attacks, along with the ubiquitous -- "your tone is too angry for me to engage with, if only you'd said this more nicely" . For this reason, any rule change would probably make the less privileged wary of posting, and create a safer space for discussion only for the more privileged.

And, as I said above, let me know if I'm wrong, or missing something?

Where I'm coming from: I feel like some of the people who currently feel uncomfortable engaging are also those less privileged, and one of the reasons is that there are usually more consequences/repercussions to deal with from personal attacks, than there would be for someone with more privilege.

For this reason, a rule change that disallows personal insults, and yet makes clear that negative reviews and mocking takedowns of fail are very okay, along with the appropriate modding, I think could create a more safe space for both challenging kyriarchies & discussion.
(Frozen) (Parent) (Thread)

Mostly in agreement with you.

I've spent almost 24 hours away from this discussion (if not more), and I'm concluding for now that this is something that is too open to rules-lawyering and contention if set down in words, and has to rely on "I know it when I see it" and trust in the mods.

I think privileging "sensitive to anything other than perceived-to-be-nonhostile language" over "speaking stridently" is problematic, because for some people, especially because they're talking about something that challenges the status quo, it takes a great deal of effort to overcome the fear of speaking up...which can then manifest in forceful expression.

"Do not mock things which may be personal taste, as opposed to kyriarchal manifestations" ... but even then, how does one draw the line objectively?

I think it's all subjective. Messy, but rules, in this case, IMO are unwieldy and unworkable.
(Frozen) (Parent) (Thread)

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