"Educate Me!" "Go Google It!"

A common dynamic online:

  • Person A is writing about or discussing Social Justice Things online.
  • Person B comes across Person A’s writing or discussions, perhaps on Twitter or Tumblr, and has a basic-level question about Social Justice Things–sometimes the particular ones under discussion here, or maybe just something else that Person A might know about.
  • Person B asks Person A a basic-level question, hoping to learn more about the topic.
  • Person A is annoyed at the request and responds angrily: “I’m not here to educate you!” “Go Google it!” “[link to Let Me Google That For You results]”
  • Person B feels embarrassed and hurt, and concludes that Person A doesn’t really care whether Person B understands Social Justice Things or not. Person B may develop a very negative opinion about Social Justice People and Social Justice Things, because that’s how cognitive bias works.

Here’s another common dynamic, perhaps an even more common one:

  • Person A has a blog or a Twitter account that they use to discuss Social Justice Things with like-minded folks. Person A posts something.
  • Person B comes across Person A’s writing or discussions. Person B is privileged relative to Person A on the issues being discussed–gender, race, class, etc. Person B feels annoyed at this discussion. They find all this Social Justice Stuff to be whiny and irritating and they don’t understand why people keep making such a big deal over such little things.
  • Person B asks Person A a basic-level question, perhaps worded in a way that reveals their irritation (“Yeah well, how are men supposed to meet women if we can’t even compliment a cute girl on the train?” “Okay so are you suggesting that white people just stop accepting job offers because a Black person should get them instead?”).
  • Person A is annoyed. They were just trying to discuss Social Justice Things with people they trust. They have answered these exact questions on their blog or Twitter dozens of times, as have many other writers. Maybe right now they don’t want to discuss basics like why street harassment is street harassment, or what affirmative action actually is. They are irritated at Person B’s entitled-sounding tone and the fact that Person B doesn’t seem to have done even the bare minimum to teach themselves about these issues.
  • Person A responds angrily: “I’m not here to educate you!” “Go Google it!” “[link to Let Me Google That For You results]”
  • Person B’s confirmation bias leads them to view this as yet another example of Social Justice People being awful rather than viewing this slightly rude response in the context in which it happened.

Here’s the problem: in practice, these dynamics can be almost indistinguishable.

I’ve been mulling this issue over in my mind for a while, trying to keep my own privilege in mind but also trying to understand the perspectives of everyone in this situation–the person who innocently asks a 101-level question hoping to learn more, the person who asks a 101-level question hoping to derail the conversation, the Social Justice Person tired of being expected to serve as a free tutor for anyone who asks, the other Social Justice People who feel that we have a responsibility to be kind to newbies, the people who are observing this dynamic from the outside and, more often than not, handing down edicts that they want the Social Justice People to follow without necessarily understanding our perspectives and situations.

Thinking about all this has led me to make a number of observations, some of which contradict each other, and none of which are going to please everyone.

  • Not everyone who talks about Social Justice Things online is doing it for the purpose of educating others.

A common assumption made by those who ask these basic-level questions if that if someone is blogging or tweeting about social justice, they are there to educate. Here’s the thing, though–for some of us, it’s just our daily lives, and we share them with each other because it brings us comfort and connection. If I post a tweet about how I’m really shaken up after a guy followed me down the block screaming sexual obscenities, some men may see this as an invitation to ask me why this is harassment or what the guy should’ve done instead or how exactly I suggest we fix this problem, just throw all the men in jail or what? But I wasn’t posting to educate. I was posting because I’d just gone through a traumatic experience and wanted people to know what I was dealing with and support me.

  • Not all online public spaces actually function as public spaces.

Recently there’s been a lot of conversation about this. For example, one thread of the conversation concerns the use of people’s tweets in news stories without their permission. After a controversial Buzzfeed story collected sexual assault survivors’ tweets without asking the person who has started and was leading the conversation (though the journalist did ask the authors of the individual tweets), media types all over the internet insisted that “Yeah, well, Twitter is public.” Technically, yes, but what does this mean in practice?

In practice, many people use Twitter to connect with others that they might not know in person. That’s the power of Twitter. Making our accounts private wouldn’t do the trick. In a recent Pacific Standard interview, Mikki Kendall discusses the “fetishization” of Black Twitter, which is exactly what it sounds like–Black people on Twitter connecting with each other and discussing things that are relevant to them, whether it’s the Eric Garner shooting or the latest episode of Scandal. Sometimes, clueless white people stumble onto Black Twitter discussions and expect the participants of those discussions to educate them about racism. They don’t understand that those people are there mainly to interact with each other, not to teach white people.

Twitter and Tumblr are public, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is invited to the table–just like if you see a group of friends talking at a restaurant, that is not an invitation to barge in and ask them questions, even though you are able to see them and hear their conversation.

  • Even discussions meant to be educational happen on different levels.

If I’m trying to explain to someone how the fight for same-sex marriage is actually marginalizing more urgent queer causes and essentially demanding that queer folks assimilate and act as straight as possible in order to receive their rights, that may not be the time to show up and ask how I presume same-sex couples could possibly instill good morals in their children. If someone is discussing how laws and police officers and incarceration is not a good solution for street harassment because it doesn’t get at the underlying problem and will only serve to further oppress men of color, that may not be the time to demand to know what’s wrong with telling a hot girl that she’s hot.

To do so would be the equivalent of bursting into a Physics 301 classroom and demanding to be taught basic mechanics. But people don’t realize this because they don’t see social justice as a discipline, a method, a field of inquiry that has many levels and layers of knowledge.

This is why some people refer to basic-question-asking as a form of derailment. The folks who get told they’re derailing often find this difficult to understand–how can just asking questions possibly be derailing? It’s derailing in the sense that you’re trying to get the person to stop talking about what they want to talk about and instead talk about what you want to talk about.

  • The reason many marginalized people don’t want to answer basic questions is because those situations often turn confrontational and nasty.

Yes, it always starts the same–someone asking a basic question. Sometimes I answer and they say, “You’re right.” Sometimes I answer and they say, “I don’t agree, but thanks for taking the time to explain your view.” Sometimes they say, “Huh, I’ll think about that, thanks.” But a disturbingly large percentage of the time, instead, I get drawn into a horrid gaslighting argument that may or may not include the use of personal insults and slurs, or even threats of violence.

I explain this the same way I explain street harassment. If you’re a nice guy who just wants to tell me I’m pretty, you don’t understand–because you have the privilege of not dealing with this on the regular–that so many of the guys who came before you followed that up with FUCK YOU, YOU UGLY SLUTTY CUNT. (Or worse.) If you’re a nice person who just wants to get some answers about some stuff you don’t understand, you may not realize that a bunch of the people who asked me those questions before have turned out truly nasty. And I can’t tell from reading a single typed sentence from you which of those you are.

  • However, people who don’t know much about social justice are unlikely to know/understand much of what I just wrote.

In that way, social justice is very, very unlike physics. If you don’t know much about social justice, you won’t know how ostensibly public platforms are functioning for marginalized people. If you don’t know much about social justice, you won’t know why I need support from people to process an incident of street harassment, or why a person of color might be looking for support to process a recent police shooting. If you don’t know much about social justice, you might not think those things are even a “big deal” in the first place. If you don’t know much about social justice, you might not know about the harassment and abuse that less-privileged people have to deal with online from people who initially come across just like you.

So when we get angry at people who ask basic questions because we think it’s obvious that the questions are not appropriate for the situation, we might be overestimating how much they really understand about what’s going on. Just like I might get angry at an American who shows me the middle finger, but maybe not at a foreigner who does the same. The foreigner might not realize that it’s a very rude gesture. Social justice spaces bring their own culture shock.

  • Meanness to newbies isn’t a Social Justice Problem. It’s a Human Problem.

Perhaps it’s people with an overinflated opinion of Social Justice People who assume that we are somehow magically immune to the flaws that plague the rest of humanity. But every bad thing you find in any group of people–sloppy thinking, meanness, tribalism, abuse, self-centeredness, sexism, racism, any other -ism–also exists among Social Justice People. Maybe slightly less for some of those, maybe slightly more for others–but it’s our virtually-universal human flaws that contribute to all of these issues.

Have you ever tried to post a basic question on a tech or gaming forum? Ever got told to “go read the fucking manual, idiot”? I have! That’s why I don’t post on tech forums when I need help with Python or HTML. Ever asked a professor a basic question and gotten snarked at? I have! I asked a psychology professor in college–a respected expert in her field–a question about APA citations, and got in response, “Are you even a psych major?” Ever posted a question on Facebook or Twitter and had your own friends condescendingly tell you to Google it? I have! And so it goes.

Are you also upset about tech forum admins telling newbies to “go read the fucking manual”? If so, great. If not, you are being hypocritical. And keep in mind that tech forums, unlike someone’s random Tumblr, often are explicitly meant for teaching and learning.

Anyway, I don’t think that being mean to newbies is a Tech Problem or a Gaming Problem or a Psychology Problem or a College Problem or a Miri’s Friends Problem; I think it’s just a problem. I think the irritation we feel when someone wants basic answers is understandable; I also think we should try to think rationally about whether or not it’ll help anyone–our own selves included–to express it.

That said, I’m extraordinarily unsympathetic to people who seem to have made it their mission to root out every example of Human Problems in social justice circles as though we are somehow exceptional in this regard. (The phrase “get your own house in order,” while admittedly unkind, comes to mind.) And while some might argue that we have some sort of “responsibility” to be better than others–well, I think we try. I think we often fail, because being a human is hard.

  • Googling is unlikely to yield a good social justice education.

That, I think, is the central problem of telling people to “go Google it.” The social justice information that is easily found through Googling is likely to be written by and for straight white able-bodied American middle-class people. We, as Social Justice People, know this and understand why it’s a problem; Hypothetical Newbie does not. Unless you want Hypothetical Newbie to receive their entire social justice education through Jezebel and white male writers, I’d advise against telling them to Google their question. (Remember, too, that Googling certain issues is also likely to land them on MRA sites. Nobody wants that.)

If you don’t know what you’re missing anything, you won’t know to look for what you’re missing.

  • Unfortunately, the response to being angrily told to educate yourself will rarely be to educate yourself.

(With the huuuuge caveat that a lot of what gets interpreted as “anger” when coming from women or people of color or women of color in particular is not actually anger, or wouldn’t be interpreted as anger when coming from white men. It would be considered being direct. But sometimes it really is.)

Anger can be absolutely 100% justified and still cause people to shrink and shut down and go away. That is, in fact, one of its purposes. For most people, getting yelled at is not conducive to the sort of mood–hopeful, curious, alert–that is conducive to learning. Many of us have had awful grade school teachers who yelled at us; some of us might still remember what that was like. I do. I didn’t learn squat-diddly-doo in that class, so focused was I on making myself small and unnoticeable and calming myself down.

(That class, by the way? It was English. The grade? Seventh. That was the year I started getting really, really into writing. I am thankful every day that out of all the ways that teacher wrecked me, destroying my love of writing wasn’t one of them.)

So there’s sometimes a difference between behaving in ways that are absolutely understandable and justifiable, and behaving in ways that are likeliest to get us the results we want to see. When I think about how to respond to someone online, I think about what I want to happen here, and how I can best make that happen. It sucks that we can’t always express ourselves fully if we are to achieve certain goals, but that’s part of being realistic and goal-oriented.

Where do we go from here? How do we resolve these tensions? If educating others is important to us, how do we do it without burning out, giving in to entitled expectations from others, or demanding that Social Justice People be stronger and smarter and better and kinder than everyone else at all times?

My only two suggestions are that if you ever feel like yelling at someone for asking you a question, first consider one of these alternatives: 1) ignoring the message, or 2) linking them to a good resource that might answer it for them.

To that end, it might help to start amassing a database of links for common questions. One incredible example is Aida Manduley’s Ferguson masterpost. Shakesville’s Feminism 101 is also great, though perhaps not entirely 101. Another, much more general one is my own. If you know of others, please link to them.

I try to encourage people to have compassion for each other. This means, fellow Social Justice People: I know it feels impossible, but we need to try to remember that not everyone who cannot be discerned from an asshole is an asshole. Not being willing to take the risk is perfectly okay, but I think it’s better to not take that risk in a way that minimizes hurt to people who did nothing wrong. For instance: ignoring/blocking. And, not-Social Justice People: try to remember that when we’re hurting and angry, it’s because of lifetimes of death by a thousand cuts that you can’t see because you haven’t learned to see them yet. I hope you find a way to learn, but in the meantime, try to cut us some slack for being upset.

To close, I’ll link to Ozy Frantz’s excellent post, “Certain Propositions Concerning Callout Culture.” Their piece is sort of about the general case of what I’ve discussed here, and I echo many of their views, caveats, and recommendations.

~~~

Here is a great article about a very similar problem plaguing another great community: Wikipedia. Although the situation is not analogous in many ways, hopefully it will serve as an example of both the harms and the occasional inevitability of Newbie Hate/Fear.

Official policies tell editors to tolerate newcomers’ innocent mistakes (“Please do not bite the newcomers”), but active editors often reverse newbies’ contributions without explanation. “Activists have been at it five and 10 years and don’t tolerate little mistakes,” says Jensen, an editor since 2005. He recalls running a workshop in which a well-known expert on Montana history tried to add a paragraph to the site, only to see it immediately erased.

Editors distrust newcomers for a reason: bitter experience. “Trolls come,” Jemielniak tells me in an interview. “If you spend time reviewing recent changes, after an hour or two you will have a feeling that the world is composed mostly of primary school students and cranks.” Some vandals simply replace an article’s text with random characters: destruction for its own sake. Instead of improving article content, editing often means acting as a human spam filter. Jemielniak and others may decry Wikipedians’ emphasis on edit numbers, but valuing lots of small changes, even out of testosterone-fueled competitiveness, has an unsung benefit: It encourages editors to discover and repair damage. Eternal vigilance keeps the site’s contents from decaying.

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"Educate Me!" "Go Google It!"
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31 thoughts on “"Educate Me!" "Go Google It!"

  1. 1

    It’s hard to convince oneself that someone might be a ‘type 1’ case, when the question they’ve asked was answered five comments/ two posts ago. Or when you give them a link to a website with the answers and they instead repeat the question demanding you explain it to them because they ‘don’t have time to go through all that’.

    Someone may, yes, genuinely want to know what 2+2 equals. However, if they come in to an advanced calculus or Russian literature class and start asking people to stop what they are doing, give them the answer, and explain how they came to the answer, then even if their desire to learn is genuine, they are still assholes.

  2. 2

    Perhaps a difference between the tech and social justice is that with tech, I kind of feel the newbie is almost certainly asking in good faith. With any sort of Social Justice issue, I’m not 100% sure. But probably it’s good to take a more ‘let’s not assume the worst’ with anyone encountered asking such questions until it starts to look like obvious trolling. There’s also a difference in how things work online and in meatspace.

    Thanks for the danger of ‘google it!’ Again with tech, with certain tech questions google will get something useful, but with Social Justice, not likely.

    1. 2.1

      Perhaps a difference between the tech and social justice is that with tech, I kind of feel the newbie is almost certainly asking in good faith.

      Some tech forums also have a problem with a class of people who are asking questions in bad faith: students who post their homework problems in the hope that someone else will do the work for them.

  3. 3

    For me, like with most things, it depends on the situation. For most of my friends, I’m the only bisexual genderqueer person they know, so naturally I’ll be their first source of information. However, I don’t just want to be a teachable moment, and nothing more. I want to be seen as a friend, y’know?

  4. 4

    Culling the type one questioners from the type 2 assholes is a job those of us who have progressed beyond 101 level (or 2nd level social justice warrior, so to speak) are well situated to address. If you are fortunate enough to be able to partake in a sj discussion but have the privilege to not be directly affected by the issue at hand, perhaps you could metaphorically let the newbie look at your notes? If they are honest folk they’ll appreciate the help and maybe you’ll make a friend. If they aren’t, well that’s what the block button was made for?

  5. 5

    Another important issue we overlook with ‘just google it’ as an answer is the bubble effect. Your google search results, as someone with a history of social justice things, is going to be different from someone who does not. The internet has begun having a constraining effect on people’s world view as invisible processes change search results priority or even remove results from your view.

    To get an idea of how extreme this is, try searching for common things on duckduckgo instead of google and see what you get.

  6. 6

    I have had a conversation with a good friend for weeks now. He can’t seem to get past the notion of “offense” as something people with good manners do not take. Time after time I explain, he seemingly gets it, then he goes away and has his head scrambled by people who are good at sounding “reasonable” when they support the status quo. My friend is actually sympathetic to the social justice side of the argument, but keeps returning to the “why must people take offense when no offense was meant” question. I hope I’ve answered that adequately in my last e-mail to him.

    Do I mind doing this? No, because I see signs that he’s really trying to understand, and I really AM the type who “educates others”. And because I’m the teacher type, I give people the benefit of the doubt sometimes in cases when they’re not even giving it to themselves. Maybe those of you who “aren’t in it to educate” can direct your bona fide questioners to someone like me, who is. Maybe alongside our FAQs and lists, we can have a group of people who really are in it to sort newbies. 🙂

  7. 7

    Anybody who uses the “I don’t have time to educate you, google it” line should first try actually googling it. Then ask themselves if they are happy sending somebody to a website that claims (for example) that feminists believe that men cannot be victims of domestic violence and that if one does show up seeking help at a DV shelter, he will be accused of being the abuser? Because that’s what I get when I google “male victims of domestic violence”.

  8. 8

    WithinThisMind #1:

    It’s hard to convince oneself that someone might be a ‘type 1′ case


    I agree: it’s one of these ideal types which you rarely encounter in practice. Reason: social justice people became too visible for that. They are not some exotic minority: on the contrary, it’s very easy to find them. In effect the newcomers are rarely (if ever) that innocent as to come to a conversation without some serious preconceptions.

    Miri wrote:

    A common assumption made by those who ask these basic-level questions is that if someone is blogging or tweeting about social justice, they are there to educate.


    Hmm, all I can say is that it doesn’t accord with my own observations. If this was true, it would mean that people asking basic level questions view the situation in “professor-student” or “expert-layman” terms, recognizing and accepting the inequality of experience and knowledge – it would mean in effect that they are expecting the experts to give a professional and competent answer, dispelling their doubts. Well … that’s indeed what happens on tech fora. But, Miri, is this really your experience with social justice discussions?

    Mine is the opposite: my impression is that in the area of social justice, the newcomers typically consider themselves equal partners in a conversation. It is my impression that typically they do not see themselves as humble pupils at all: they want to discuss, they want to be treated as equals, not “educated” by some haughty teacher.

    I think that’s one of the basic differences between the tech fora and social justice discussions: on a tech forum, you can reasonably expect the newbie to grasp the distinction between an expert and a layman. On social justice sites, a part of the task is to convince the newbie that it is a distinction with a difference. The thing is that it’s not an innate knowledge and *they do not know it*. On the contrary, they seem to think that their voices are as important as yours. As I see it, it’s often a serious problem, corresponding to the following online dynamic:

    • Person A is writing about or discussing Social Justice Things online.
    • Person B comes across Person A’s writing or discussions and has a basic-level question about Social Justice Things, thinking of this question as important and (perhaps) quite troublesome.
    • Person B asks Person A a basic-level question, possibly with the intention of indicating problematic aspects of A’s position.
    • Person A is annoyed at the request. From A’s point of view, the question is basic, boring, derailing, answered many times, and *not problematic at all*! In effect A responds angrily: “I’m not here to educate you!” “Go Google it!”
    • Person B feels embarrassed and hurt, and concludes that Person A is a haughty ideologue not interested in examining her/his position.

    I saw such dialogues often enough to think of them as typical. Moreover, I’m extremely skeptical about the value of linking to “Feminism 101” sites in such contexts. Reason: person B is *not* ready to apply the “expert-layman” distinction in social justice contexts and will *not* see the 101 sites as containing expert information. The situation will be made even worse if these 101 sites are of the “read and accept” type (that is, if they are not designed for discussion): this only strengthens B’s belief that social justice people are not interested in examining their position in an open debate. In effect the real impasse is reached. Is there any way out? That’s the question.

    The only solution I can think of is diversity: various types of sites, created by social justice people. Some of these sites would function as safe spaces for groups of friends; others would be more like open places, more friendly to outsiders and newbies. At the moment it seems to me that both types are badly needed. I find it also quite hard to believe that anything else than diversity will do the trick.

  9. 9

    Thing is: folks on Pharyngula put together an extensive list of links to which they link in case somebody comes with a basic question. Problem is that even those who honestly want to ask a question instead of trolling hardly ever appreciate this. They often DO feel entitled to people’s time and expect them to perfectly tailor the answer to them.
    I am an educator. I often explain things. I think I’m quite good at it. But unless you pay me, it’s basically me donating my work. That’s something people should appreciate, not feel entitled to.

    1. 9.1

      And if it’s on something like Twitter, doing work for free AND trying to find a way to make it read clearly in the short character limit. That in itself is exhausting.

  10. AMM
    11

    I’m pretty pessimistic about the whole thing.

    Most of the people who waltz in asking people to “explain” aren’t willing to admit to themselves or anyone else how misinformed and miseducated they are. The people who are willing to admit it — and there are more than you might think — generally don’t come in and ask stupid questions, they lurk and listen. They’re the ones who will visit 101 sites.

    As for the “go away” reaction — I mostly see that in response to people who ask ill informed questions and then double down and refuse to admit that the questions are ill informed. Those who are polite enough to say things like “I don’t understand X, can someone point me to a good discussion of it?” don’t get that reaction. They’re also far more likely to actually read the stuff.

  11. 12

    Well, my friend came back with another question that showed he gets it a little more than before, but not all the way. Back to the drawing board. 🙂

    I remember that when I was first questioning, I went to a chat that I thought would be hospitable. I tried to be gracious, but when I asked what they thought about faith, I was summarily booted and banned. I didn’t go back to chat with questions again for a long time. That’s the main reason I try to give askers the benefit of the doubt until they abuse it.

  12. 13

    The only solution I can think of is diversity: various types of sites, created by social justice people. Some of these sites would function as safe spaces for groups of friends; others would be more like open places, more friendly to outsiders and newbies. At the moment it seems to me that both types are badly needed. I find it also quite hard to believe that anything else than diversity will do the trick.

    Agree 100%. Having spaces for venting or higher level discussions where 101 questions are frowned upon, is totally understandable and needed. But it is also good to have spaces where newbies who are interested in being allies can ask for clarification on stuff without getting chased away (assuming they aren’t obviously trying to derail.) I’ve found it very helpful when websites had some sort of warning at the top of the page or on a particular post that lets a visitor know the culture of the Original Poster and regular commenters. Or a link to an FAQ giving commenters an idea of what to expect and what is expected of them if they want to participate in the discussion. Especially on posts that are ripe for derailing attempts by trolls or subjects where a bunch of new eyes may stroll in who don’t know that everybody is tired of explaining the answer to the question which seems new to them. It’s certainly not the duty of a blogger to do this, but if they want to welcome new readers/commenters it probably helps avoid inadvertent derails.

  13. 14

    I have a different perspective, based on experience of very culturally diverse spaces, being the cultural isolate and working with other people who are. The Internet is such a space, one in which you can virtually guarantee the absence of a shared common ground, and spaces within it have a very high ‘churn’ rate.

    If its members want such a society to go well they need to be willing to constantly and amiably inform new people again and again of stuff which seems rather obvious to them, to correct obvious errors with kindness and humor. to direct people to suitable sources of information and to deal with trouble-makers in a way that doesn’t alienate others, and ideally, in way which defuses them. And if they want it to really work, they must not hate doing so.

    I’m not making a moral statement. I don’t think this is a matter of shoulds and shouldn’ts, it’s a social mechanism and it just works like that. People can hate explaining themselves, choose not to do so, believe they shouldn’t have to, be too tired that day, or not even know how to explain a situation well. They can quite legitimately feel that they already have major practical and emotional burdens to deal with. If it was a moral question they might very reasonably be excused, but if it isn’t. If they abstain from doing this work, the diverse environment in which they’re participating will not go so well. Period. Also any leadership roles within it will go to those who can and do. So then, it’s a question of what each person wants, how much they want it and what kind of communication skills they have.

    1. 14.1

      Are you aware that this explenation-owing only ever goes in one direction, from non-privileged people to owing privileged people an explenation to which they are entitled?
      New people don’t grow on trees and they aren’t raised by wolves. They get a socialization. And right now, certain groups get raised with an attitude that every space is their space and they get all huffy and puffy when they’re denied access.
      I’m really willing to educate newbies. Many others are, too. There ARE resources on the web for newbies and people WILL kindly link to them. But that doesn’t mean that you always have to stop your advanced level discussion in order to take care of the newbie.
      I teach languages. I teach different levels for adults. And I am paid for answering questions, I encourage people to ask questions. But when I clearly label a class as “advanced” and somebody comes to that class and wants to know what “I” “you” and “the” means in Spanish, I’ll kindly inform them that this is not the place for them and that there’s a beginners class at some other point. It would be highly unfair to the advanced learners if I stopped our lessons on the use of different tenses to go back to things they covered 2 years ago. That doesn’t make those newbie questions stupid questions. It just means they’re highly inappropriate in that setting.

      1. Are you aware that this explenation-owing only ever goes in one direction, from non-privileged people to owing privileged people an explenation to which they are entitled?

        It actually turns out that in a diverse environment an awful lot of people are non-privileged in some aspect of their lives at least some of the time (intersectionality), so that the vast majority of us have to deal with it at least some of the time. I’m white, able-bodied, reasonably comfortably off economically – but I’m female, a perpetual foreigner everywhere, an atheist (which matters in some places more than others) and it turns out I have some gender identity thing going which doesn’t even have a label. Don’t you have one or two?

        New people don’t grow on trees and they aren’t raised by wolves. They get a socialization.

        I think insufficiently socialized is exactly what some people are with respect to multiculturalism and diversity. Their backgrounds and past experience absolutely haven’t prepared them to cope. Sometimes they’ve been a counter-preparation.

        But when I clearly label a class as “advanced” and somebody comes to that class and wants to know what “I” “you” and “the” means in Spanish, I’ll kindly inform them that this is not the place for them

        I agree, but a lot of spaces on the internet are a lot more like public spaces than classes. Sure, you could have very clearly labelled spaces. You can have closed groups and tests for entry into them or require some variety of qualification. I expect you do test your language students. I’ve participated in such spaces on the internet, often. But a lot of time I’ve seen these kinds of issues crop up, it didn’t involve those kinds of spaces.

    2. 14.2

      Anne, perhaps – just perhaps – your perspective is not that different from mine.

      I’m not making a moral statement.


      I understand this. It’s like washing the dishes: every person can have a perfect, legitimate excuse not to do it … but if everyone refuses to do it, there is a big problem!

      If its members want such a society to go well they need to be willing to constantly and amiably inform new people again and again of stuff which seems rather obvious to them


      It boils down to what it means for a society “to go well” and it is here where I would emphasize diversity. The thing is that societies can have different goals and different standards of “going well”. On one side of the spectrum, you will have relatively closed and selective groups, with purely internal criteria of “going well” (mutual support, friendship, safety for members); on the other, there will be groups actively engaged in wider politics, fighting for influence: for such groups external recognition will be an important part of “going well”. Both types are legitimate. Both types are needed. However, the strategies of dealing with new people in both cases can be very different.

      As I see it, the real trouble begins when one wants to have it both ways – that is, when you want both support/friendship/safety and external influence. Then the tension arises: how to reconcile high selectivity (the first goal) with reaching to others (the second goal)? Sorry, but at the moment I don’t have anything optimistic to say about this. Instead I will just say: if you really want external influence, then indeed be prepared to do a lot of washing the dishes, like it or not!

      (It is in this last respect that our standpoints – as I gather – do not differ much).

      1. Yes, I think we do agree. Also, if you want high selectivity, you tend towards a non-growth orientated group. So there can be stable support groups, which are quite likely the better for being many and small and involving people who get to know each other well, but if you imagine social justice as something you want to grow and spread then, yes, I think you have to wash dishes.

        BTW, some people quite like doing this task and are good at it. I think that’s worth acknowledging. Perhaps one thing to do is not jump down the newbie’s throat until it’s seen if any of them is willing to step forward. It takes up no space at all to ignore a question you don’t want to answer. Also, I’ve had quite good luck in some situations where it’s possible to take a conversation in and out of the public space, e.g forums where it was possible to mail the other users privately. I can imagine this being a problem in heavily subscribed forums with rather reactive users. It’s rather easy for someone to end up feeling mobbed.

  14. 15

    And the sad truth is, with some people:

    If you are still at the point where you think _______ is a valid and reasonable question, then you aren’t going to be able to comprehend the answer.

    It’s like ‘well if evolution why are there still monkeys’. The question itself demonstrates such ignorance that if it is being asked seriously I have to spend so much time laying the groundwork for the answer that I might as well cancel the rest of my appointments for the week.

  15. 17

    Good post on a difficult topic.

    Many social justice discussions (at all levels) serve as a barrier to non-entry because of the academic language. Shoot, I went to college and appreciate intelligent discussion, but sometimes I’m put off by the word usage. For something so important, I really appreciate lay-terms. There are days when I dont have the brains to work through a discussion. I know social justice is a valid discipline/area of study, but fuuuuck…the wordy words! Is the reason its presented in such an academic fashion a way to assert credibility? To get more respect? The way these discussions are framed cater to those with the privilege of a college/university education. Is the end goal to only reach the formally educated? Thats my peev with the movement.

    1. 17.1

      What shocks me is that the people with the most dismissive attitudes often don’t have relevant academic qualifications and are really educated lay-people. There are limits to their methodology and analysis and sometimes it feels like they’ve acquired a new set of social rules and are running around imposing them on others using the age old tactics of scorn, disapproval, contempt, ostracizing, etc, because they don’t really know how to support them. I think people who have a firm grip on any relevant branch of academia are more mitigated in their statements and hopefully more humble in their judgments. Social justice is a long, long way from being an exact science with precise results as yet. But like most specialists in any academic discipline, once you get social justice oriented pros started, the only problem is making them stop. Feeling all superior about not having to educate people is about a million miles from where they’re usually at.

      I suppose the other side of the coin is that people who don’t have in-depth relevant knowledge probably shouldn’t be trying to educate people.

      1. Anne:

        Feeling all superior about not having to educate people is about a million miles from where they’re usually at.


        Hmm, I still can understand the reluctance.

        Ok, I’m not a social theorist, but like some other people here, I also work in education. And yes, occasionally I encounter on the net lay discussions concerning my area of expertise. I must say that in such cases the temptation to leave it alone is quite strong: “oh, my, not this again, I surrender, I’m not at work here!” – aren’t you familiar with the feeling? Not at all? Lucky you, then!

        Nevertheless, sometimes I do engage and then I usually try not to present myself as an educator. It’s the net after all, not the lecture room! These people do not know me and there is absolutely no reason why they should trust me or treat me in any special way. In effect in such situations I try my best to be a partner in a conversation, not a teacher: it’s not “I will educate you”, it’s more like “let’s try to go through this together”. (Yes, even if it’s a make-believe game to some degree.)

        kellyw. and Anne, I think your comments are spot on. Academic language *does* function indeed as a tool permitting one to gain credibility and it *is* used by people with no qualifications for exactly this aim. There is also “scorn, disapproval, contempt, ostracizing” from those who don’t really know how to support their claims. Maybe learning to have normal conversations should precede any attempts to educate others? I don’t know what to think.

  16. 19

    Re: people not respecting the distinction between experts and laypeople. The problem is that, from the perspective of an outsider, it’s not immediately obvious that the advanced topics have any validity whatsoever. Consider theology: there is an enormous body of academic work that’s been done since before the invention of the printing press. There are experts, there are graduate schools, there are passionate followers. And yet we atheists think that they’re completely wrong at the most basic level, and that their entire field, perhaps even their very identity, is invalid. Anyone who’s ever received pamphlets or links with 101 level “refutations” of atheism knows how unhelpful they can be. I still wouldn’t advocate showing up to a seminary harassing people about why their religion is false, but I would like to request that 101 spaces take skepticism seriously, engaging people as equals rather than treating them as pupils to be instructed.

  17. 20

    That said, I’m extraordinarily unsympathetic to people who seem to have made it their mission to root out every example of Human Problems in social justice circles as though we are somehow exceptional in this regard.

    Well, okay. A major reason for this is that you (general “you” here, that is, the social justice community) spend a great deal of time trying to cultivate empathy in other people (after all, that’s the fundamental building block upon which all this stuff is built). I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect you to practice what you preach.

    I realize that we’re all human, and I don’t think you’re obligated to hold yourself to some saint-like standard in the face of, say, Gamergaters, or Men’s Rights Activists. Some people just need to be told to fuck off. But it is extremely annoying to see certain individuals and groups imperiously demand empathy from (for example) men, while simultaneously engaging in pretzel logic to justify why they don’t have to even attempt to reciprocate (and may thus gleefully engage in “misandry” jokes without feeling like the arrogant hypocrites they are.)

    I challenge this idea, so popular in SJ, that anger is necessarily productive, or inevitably drives progress. You may have heard of MIT professor Scott Aaronson’s recent comments about his mixed feelings regarding feminism (in short: he can’t accept the concept of male privilege because he was bullied as a child and later made to feel shame for his sexuality by the Dworkinite feminist authors he read.) It’s very heartfelt and I feel compassion for him, but it’s ultimately a fairly typical misunderstanding of the concept, in that having privilege doesn’t mean your life can’t suck. (Also, I think that Aaronson may well be suffering from some kind of undiagnosed general anxiety disorder, and if so that likely has more to do with his crippling fears than feminist indoctrination via sexual harassment seminars.)

    Anyway, there was the expected gaggle of twitter-based SJ assholes mocking him, calling him a Nice Guy, retweeting that tired Margaret Atwood quote, and so on. (If you want a representative example, there’s this terrible post from Amanda Marcotte, in which she ironically fails at empathy as she castigates Aaronson for his lack of empathy.) But there was also this spectacular article from Laurie Penny, the second-best writer to emerge from the feminist blogosphere. It is a very compassionate piece that nonetheless doesn’t treat Aaronson with kid’s gloves – she explains exactly the issues she has with his comments, and the empathy she brings to the table gives her criticism that much more credibility. I have to say I agree with every word of it.

    But it’s not about what I think. The fact is that Penny’s post has gone viral; Penny’s post might even reach some young, angry, non-feminist men. Marcotte’s post, on the other hand, is mostly fodder for inter-SJ circlejerking. Who, in this case, has done more for the advancement of their respective politics?

    1. 20.1

      To clarify, I’m not saying that anger is never valid; sometimes it is necessary and it does drive change. But its effectiveness is contingent on the particulars of the situation, is my point. If that sounds complicated and difficult and too hard, well, duh. If this stuff was simple it wouldn’t still be a problem.

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