Please note: This post has a different comment policy from the usual one. That policy is at the end of the post.
Let me narrow that down somewhat. I’m not talking about when people say crap that’s aimed at us, at a marginalized group we’re part of. I’m talking about when people say crap about another marginalized group. I’m talking about what white people should do when people say racist crap; what men should do when people say sexist crap; what cis people should do when people say transphobic crap; etc. I’m talking about how to ally.
I’ve seen very good cases made on both sides of this question. I’ve read very good pieces by African Americans saying, “Please block the assholes saying racist shit in your Facebook page already, why on Earth are you tolerating that?” (Alas, I can’t find the pieces I read saying this — I really need to learn to bookmark this stuff. Links in comments would be appreciated.) And I’ve read very good pieces by African Americans saying, “Don’t just block these folks. That’s the easy way out. We don’t have access to these people, you do, we can’t educate them — so as painful and difficult as it is, it’s up to you to do that.” (Here’s one example of this, the one that keeps getting cited when this topic comes up.)
It’s one thing when people demand, “Educate me!” — and then ignore, derail, move the goalposts, argue without listening, repeatedly ask questions they could get answered with ten seconds of Googling, and generally show bad faith and a complete lack of interest in being educated. I’m not talking about when willfully ignorant fools demand, “Educate me!” I’m talking about when people I’m working to ally with point to those fools and say, “Educate them!”
Please note: I’m not asking whether I have the right to block people. I know I do. I’m not talking about what I have the right to do. I’m talking about what’s the right thing to do. I’m finding myself somewhat stymied, and I want to hear from people I respect.
Here’s the conundrum I’m experiencing. On the one hand: Yes. As a person on the privileged end of whatever spectrum we’re talking about (in my case, as a white, middle-class, college-educated, reasonably able-bodied, cisgender American), I do have access to people that folks on the marginalized ends of these spectrums (spectra?) don’t have. If privileged folks don’t educate the people who share our privilege and whose attention we can get, those folks may not get educated. And if we block them at the first sign of toxic bullshit, that’s not going to happen.
I ask men to speak out about sexism for exactly these reasons. Although I don’t, in fact, ask them not to block people who say sexist and misogynist crap. I want them to speak — but I’m fine with them blocking when their speech gets shitty responses. In some cases, I actively want them to, and get angry and frustrated when they don’t. Which leads me to the other hand.
On the other hand: I want my online spaces to be reasonably safe. I don’t want the people in my space who are trans, blue-collar or working-class, African American or Hispanic or other people of color, to have to deal with racist and classist and transphobic bullshit. I don’t want my space to be yet another place where they have to do Remedial Racism, over and over and over again: I want my space to be, among other things, a place where we can have the 200-level conversations. (When I’m coming from one of my own axes of marginalization — being a woman, queer, kinky, poly, mentally ill — I often get really irritated when people with privilege let people spew toxic bullshit in their spaces, under the banner of “free speech” and “dialogue” and “how are we going to educate anyone if we don’t engage with them?”) And I just want my space to be relatively free from toxic bullshit. I want that for myself, and I want it for my readers, friends, followers, and commenters.
Now. I do realize that I have some personal contexts that skew this question for me, but that don’t necessarily apply to everyone, or even to almost everyone. One is that I’m a feminist woman on the Internet. As a result, a bunch of the harassment I get is in the form of, “You don’t have the right to block people! Blocking people makes you a terrible, close-minded, non-skeptical, censorious, fascist bitch! You are morally obligated to listen to anyone who wants to talk to you, whenever they want, for as long as they want, wherever they want including in your own spaces, no matter how horrible the shit is that they’re saying to you — and you’re obligated to do it forever! If people are libeling you, degrading you, threatening to rape you and kill you — or if they’re doing it to other people — you are a terrible person if you block them! Freeze peach!”
For many feminist women on the Internet, this trope is one of our most common forms of harassment and abuse. And it’s extra insidious because, to people who aren’t clued in to the reality of being a feminist woman on the Internet, it can sound very reasonable. The mere fact of having boundaries, the mere fact of making decisions about who we are and aren’t willing to engage with, gets us framed as close-minded, non-skeptical, censorious, fascist bitches. So it’s hard for me to hear, “You shouldn’t block people,” as anything other than, “You have no right to have boundaries. It is your job to listen, patiently and politely, for as long as people want to talk. Men have the floor, and women are the audience. You are a woman, and that means you’re a public commodity, and you have to give access to yourself to anyone who wants it. Quit whining, and engage with every abusive asshole who wants to engage with you.”
To be very clear: I get that this isn’t what’s being said here. I’m saying it’s the context I hear it in. Know that.
I’m also coming from another context that skews this question for me: I’m a public figure. My social media isn’t a couple/few hundred friends and family members who I know reasonably well, who I have some sort of personal connection with and some reason to think that my good opinion will matter to them. My social media is thousands of “friends” and followers, most of whom I’ve never even met. And I’m a public figure — which means that when I post about controversial topics (you know, like the “controversy” of unarmed black people getting shot by cops every four days), I often get discussions that are hundreds of comments long. Monitoring and moderating that shit is exhausting. It’s a huge time suck (drawing time away from, among other things, my actual paying work), and it’s a huge psychological and emotional energy suck.
Yes, I know. As draining and depressing as it is for me to moderate that shit, it’s a hundred times more draining and depressing to actually experience it. I get that. It’s one of the reasons it’s important for allies to speak up. I certainly value it when straight people speak up about homophobia, and when men speak up about sexism and misogyny — because it means I don’t have to beat my head against that wall one more fucking time. I just have limited spoons, and I’m trying to figure out the best use of them. There are plenty of times when I’m willing, more than willing even, to spend my mental and emotional spoons fighting for other people. And I do want to listen when people say, “Yes, if you’re fighting for us and alongside us, this is how we want you to spend your spoons.” If there’s a consensus that yes, educating assholes that I have access to is how folks want me to spend my spoons, I will take that very seriously. But I also have to take my mental health very seriously indeed.
Again, though — all of this isn’t true for everyone. Not everyone is a highly public feminist woman on the Internet. And not everyone has chronic episodic depression. So maybe I’m not the best person to be parsing this issue.
I do realize that this isn’t an either/or question. Or at least, it doesn’t have to be. This doesn’t have to be about “whether to block” — it can be about “when to block.” It can be about how many chances we give people before we give up. Since I started reading “don’t just block your racist friends, try to educate them” from black people and started pondering this question, I’ve been instituting an informal “one chance” policy: if someone is saying awful shit, I’ll preface my response with, “You get one chance, and one chance only,” and I’ll end it with, “Knock it off, or lose your commenting privileges.” That gives me at least some opportunity for education, while still preserving my spoons and my sanity.
It can also be about “what to block” — about “just how bad does it have to be before I draw the line.” Overt and grotesque racist slurs will get the boot immediately. Standard liberal hand-wringing about riots that derail conversations about the systemic, institutionalized, racist police violence that motivated the riots in the first place? I’ll probably do at least one or two rounds of back and forth before I give up.
“What to block” can also combine with “when to block.” I will sometimes engage for a while with people who are being at least somewhat civil and reasonable and who seem like they sincerely want to engage — and then give up after several rounds of them ignoring, derailing, moving the goalposts, arguing without listening, repeatedly asking questions they could get answered with ten seconds of Googling, and generally showing bad faith and a complete lack of interest in actually learning anything.
And it can be about “how to block.” Lately I’ve been playing with modified versions of blocking. On Facebook, you can set your settings so anyone can read your posts, but only friends can comment; on Twitter, you can Mute people, so they can still read you but you don’t see them. That’s been a somewhat helpful compromise for me. If I unfriend or mute, I’m not cutting someone off entirely. I’m just not letting them participate in the conversation in my space. They can still get educated. I’m just not doing it one-on-one.
But I’m still not sure.
Comment policy for this post: I am only interested in hearing from other social justice activists (“activist” being somewhat loosely defined here as “someone who cares about social justice and translates that concern into some sort of action”). I am not interested in discussing whether privilege is even a thing, or whether social justice should even be a thing.
I mostly want to hear from people about their own marginalizations, and what they want from allies.
And I am only interested in hearing from people who respect people’s basic right to moderate their own space. I am not interested in re-hashing the question of whether free speech means people have the right to force you to listen to whatever they want to say, whenever they want, for as long as they want, in whatever space they want, in as ugly a manner as they want, and that you’re obligated to listen, forever. I want to have the 200-level conversation, and I do not want that conversation to get derailed into Remedial Internet.