To Block Or Not To Block: A Social Justice Question

Please note: This post has a different comment policy from the usual one. That policy is at the end of the post.

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I have a question for all you other Social Justice Warriors out there. When people say racist, sexist, classist, ableist, homophobic, transphobic, etc. crap in our online spaces — should we block them? Or should we engage with them, and try to educate them?

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.

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It’s also the case — crappy but true — that a lot of people are more likely to listen to me than they are to the actual marginalized people talking about their own damn marginalization. That’s part of what privilege means: you get listened to more carefully (or indeed at all), you get taken more seriously, your words are given more weight. And when it comes to oppression and marginalization, this is weirdly even more true. When marginalized people speak on behalf of ourselves and people like us, we often get seen as selfish whiners. When privileged people speak on behalf of others, we’re more likely to be seen as reasonable. (Not always, not by any stretch — but more likely.) It sucks, but it’s true.

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.

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I also think there’s value in showing people that there are boundaries — and that there are consequences when they violate those boundaries. I think there’s value in showing people that certain ideas are flatly unacceptable, even monstrous. and that expressing them will clearly put them outside what’s considered acceptable by ethical people. That’s one of the ways social change happens. It doesn’t just happen when people say, “That’s not nice, and here’s why” (although that can certainly be effective). It happens when people say, “I can’t believe you would say that, that’s repulsive, if you really think that I want nothing to do with you.” If I adopt a policy of, “I don’t like racist/ classist/ transphobic bullshit in my online spaces, but I will nevertheless let people spew it indefinitely in hopes that they might be educable” — that’s a policy that basically says, “You can spew your toxic bullshit for as long as you want, and nothing bad will happen. Some people will argue and tell you you’re being a jerk, but you still get to participate.” I’m not okay with that.

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.

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What’s more, it’s depressing — and I don’t just mean that in the colloquial sense. I mean it in the mental health sense. When I’m considering whether to post about some social justice issue that’s likely going to spark a lengthy firestorm, some of that equation for me is, “How is my mental health right now? Am I feeling pretty robust — or am I feeling a little more shaky, like a depressive episode could be set off pretty easily? Do I really have the spoons for this?” And knowing that I can block people gives me more spoons. If I’m feeling okay about being Blocky McBlockerson, I’m more likely to go ahead and post. If I’m feeling like having a hair-trigger on the Block button is making me a bad ally, I’m less likely to post: I’m more likely to think, “I do not have this conversation in me right now.” And that’s obviously not being a good ally, either.

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.

Thoughts?

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.

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Greta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.

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To Block Or Not To Block: A Social Justice Question
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26 thoughts on “To Block Or Not To Block: A Social Justice Question

  1. 1

    The simple answer is ‘it’s your space, do what you like’. People can say what they like; you’re not obliged to listen. Which you pretty much cover.
    I think beyond that, you just go with your gut feeling. I might disagree with you on the subject of hate speech, or something (I’m not saying I do, just using it as an example): if you think it’s a productive conversation and at least one of us might learn from it, I think it’s good to have that discussion, but if I’m just shouting at you, you block me because I’m wasting everyone’s time.

  2. 2

    Greta, I think you’re already doing mostly the ideal approach already. But maybe you should be a little less patient with people who don’t seem sincere listeners to you. This will be different for every commenter, but you should lean a bit more towards self-care. Self-care is not selfish, as you wisely pointed out a couple of years ago. When it comes to discussion spaces, put on your own seatbelt/blocking before assisting others with theirs. It won’t do the rest of us any good if you go and pass out on us.
    One possible suggestion tip is this. For each issue, such as feminism, make or select a blog post that cites 4 or 5 other posts, and can be considered as Femminism 101. Or find an ally who writes trans* issues 101, and so on. Then, when you read an ignorant comment on an issue, give a very short reply that might if you wish include a brief comment on the matter at hand, but also says here is the link to Femminism 101, go read it. Then if their next attempted post is humble and shows they’re trying to read it, they get another chance. But any later attempted post that violates the guidelines of the cited 101 reading assignment means they are asking to be blocked.
    So, educate when you feel comfortable, but use references to save your spoons. You get to decide in each case when school is in session, and for whom. Some potential students need to pursue a primary education elsewhere, with your 101 post’s guidance, before they are eligible for admission. Humble people may audit your courses, as long as they are not disruptive or wasting your energy. Considering your low/free tuition rate, it is a privilege to dialog with a true doctor of social justice, such as yourself. After all, you and your coauthors you cite are the ones who are collectively writing the textbooks for both lower- and upper-level coursework in enabling a just society. Thanks for all you do.

  3. 3

    I think it is a really tricky judgement call as to who/when to block/unfriend. Much like arguing with Creationists. Is there a benefit to doing so? Sometimes. Might they see the light? Yes (rarely.) Is it worth it, even if they don’t just to put the conversation out there for everyone else to see (possibly changing minds of the audience?) Yes, but hard to know how much that happens (especially for non-public figures.) There’s also the history and behavior of the racist friend to consider. Do they acknowledge anything you say or are they just spouting Fox talking points endlessly? Do they even understand the basics of Structural Racism, Privilege etc.? In short: are they conversing in good-faith, listening, absorbing, or are they just trolling. That’s usually the gist of my decision-making process. There’s also the relationship you have with the person. Do you have to deal with them in Meatspace on a regular basis? Are they hyper-defensive and possibly retaliatory when they feel like someone has made them look bad? I actually tend to more often engage in discussions with other friends’ friends. There’s more opportunity because I don’t have many racist friends myself, usually a bigger audience since I don’t have tons of friends and the option of more easily exiting the conversation if it becomes clear that it’s not going anywhere. Also I don’t feel as restrained as I would if it were one of my own friends. Of course the downside is that my words won’t have as much weight as if we knew each other better.

  4. 4

    my friends’ safety takes priority every time. Sexist and racist people are hurting my friends, and once I take care of that situation, then I can move on to education.

    On the flip side, I recognize that my friends’ friends are easily blocked, so if they don’t unfriend people who marginalize me, I don’t make it my issue.

    I guess this, like many things, is a case-by-case situation.

  5. 5

    It’s a conundrum. I want my white/straight/male/allosexual ally friends to “come get their cousins” when someone shows their ass in my space, but i also don’t want those said friends to get burned out having to deal with ignorance all the time. And there’s just some people who aren’t going to listen – and personally I’ve asked those to just hush when I bring up one of their hobby horses in my space.

    There is so much nuance to consider, you know?

  6. 6

    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.)

    Most stuff I’ve seen in this vein has related specifically to comment/space moderation – the argument is that NOT blocking disruptive (because they’re spouting crap that makes members of marginalized groups feel unsafe) people derails what might otherwise be productive conversation and pushes members of the targeted populations out of the space in question. Here’s a discussion some of Slate‘s writers had on the subject. I’m pretty sure there have been numerous posts on blogs here (FtB) about the issue as well, though I don’t have any readily bookmarked.

  7. 7

    I don’t mind hate speech when it, and the speaker, are clearly objects of collective disapproval. One of the forums I consider a very safe space is noticeably center-left overall, and the most prominent posters are vocal and hardcore Communists (in the positive sense). I go there knowing that between the time a bigoted comment is posted and the time I read it, the author has most likely already been laughed out of the forum.
    In places with less activity and less communal solidarity (say, a public exchange between two people, one of whom is an ally), I would prefer people apply the same policy I uphold in my private interactions — blocking, and ceasing conversation, when the bigot is arguing in bad faith, employing rhetorical tactics like
    – selective radical skepticism (“there are so many different opinions out there that intelligent people like me I prefer not to have an articulated one, thus I will persist in my unexamined bigotry”),
    – arguing from prescriptivist dictionary definitions (“discrimination means treating a social group differently, so you’re just discriminating against us bigots”),
    – fallacious middle-ground demands for “unbiased” opinions (“you say you’re in favor of [social justice issue], which means you’re actually biased toward equality, so you should incorporate some anti-equality sentiments into your worldview until you have a properly balanced opinion”),
    – denying you the right to a qualified opinion in the first place (“I know how fragile and emotional you are and how strongly you feel about the subject, so I’m right no matter what you say”).
    These people are hopeless without a strong emotional motivation to reconsider not only their beliefs but their whole mode of thinking. Basically, they need to encounter a non-bigot role model whom they would want to impress and/or emulate, and if someone is arguing with you on ther internets instead of doing the research, you’re not this type of role model for them.

  8. 8

    Teaching is work. It can be exhausting. It’s good to do it when you have spare energy and patience, but not when it’s going to be a huge drain on you.

  9. 9

    Clearly all of this is going to come down to contextualized judgement calls, and I certainly think the processes and considerations you list that influence your ban/block decisions make sense.

    I wonder if a distinction between, for example, homophobic bigotry and systemic heterosexism might be useful in some cases. Someone coming into a discussion to spam homophobic slurs and spread defamatory lies about gay people is a disruptive influence who is unlikely to add anything valuable to the discussion space. Someone arguing that the separate-but-equal system of civil unions for same-sex couples and marriage for different-sex couples is a good idea is still advocating a heterosexist policy agenda, but that person is, in my experience, a more likely candidate to have zir mind changed. I’m curious if others see the issue the same way: do overt bigots make spaces less safe or welcoming than (perhaps well-meaning) people advocating policies that play into systemic marginalizations?

  10. 10

    From your blog, it sounds like you have two goals of education and that of a safe discussion space, and that a great deal of energy is going to reconcile the irreconcilable.

    I would invite you to consider extending your own temporary solution. Right at the bottom of the blog you state very clearly

    Comment policy for this post: I am only interested in hearing from…

    It seems clear that a one-size-fits-all approach isn’t working for you. Instead, make it clear what kind of discussion you are — and are not — hosting for each blog.

    Much joy to you!

  11. 11

    I think that both engagement with people whose beliefs are harmful AND social penalties (e.g. blocking) for beliefs that are harmful can, in the right circumstances, be good or bad calls. Sometimes the difference in those circumstances is what you’re up for or comfortable with. Other times it’s any of a HUGE number of other considerations.

    Either way, I think Nathan is right: while the decision itself may go different ways, specifying what decision you’re making can, like content warnings, tell people what they might be getting into by participating in the discussion. That part is easier: definitely be explicit about which way you’re gonna be going with respect to blocking vs engaging if you’re drawing a particular line. You’re pretty good at this part already, I think.

    In a broader sense, the question of “When do you argue vs when do you apply social pressure against harmful things people do” is definitely a tough one.

  12. 12

    One of the major changes between blog comments and USENET which preceded it is the power dynamic of community consensus versus the owner/moderator. When we built the first Web comment forum in 1994, this power shift was quite troubling. The Web was meant to free up discourse, not make it a monopoly. But the lack of moderation caused USENET to collapse due to spam in the space of about 24 months so it has become a necessary evil.

    I think people need to ask why they are blocking, is it really because someone has crossed the line, is being boring or is it because they said something that makes them uncomfortable because they don’t want to accept a contrary point of view?

    I regularly block people trying to argue about global warming being a hoax or why the second amendment is holy scripture because I find the arguments they make to be incredibly stupid and tedious. I also block any posts that cite Brietbart or Fox News. But not because I find the ideas unacceptable, I just find responding to propaganda repeated again and again boring.

    I don’t think all blocking is legitimate though. One person on Freethought blogs has blocked me until I apologize for pointing out that getting progressive candidates elected by voting for them is rather more important than having precisely the right set of progressive values. Now I make absolutely no apology for that because what she is really demanding here is that I retract my position and tell her that it is OK to spend hundreds of hours complaining about bigoted politicians and then sabotage attempts to replace them because the alternatives don’t quite meet some ridiculous standard.

    Blocking people for making you feel uncomfortable about something you should feel uncomfortable about is not the same as blocking people for being boring.

  13. 13

    One person on Freethought blogs has blocked me until I apologize for pointing out that getting progressive candidates elected by voting for them is rather more important than having precisely the right set of progressive values.

    Phillip Hallam-Baker @ #12: Did you say that in the face of her saying, “I’m not interested in hearing that, don’t bring that here”? I see a lot of “They blocked me for disagreeing!”, when what actually happened was “They blocked me for violating a clearly stated boundary.”

  14. 14

    When people say racist, sexist, classist, ableist, homophobic, transphobic, etc. crap in our online spaces — should we block them? Or should we engage with them, and try to educate them?


    Hard question and I can see no easy answer. As was stressed by you and many commenters, both strategies are needed.

    Part of the difficulty is that the general answer just given (“both are needed”) sounds almost vacuous, as it doesn’t translate well into individual decisions. Engagement and education is needed? Hmm … let’s say that we had a party and now the apartment is in a dire need of cleaning. Easy to say, but who is to do this? George is still drunk, Kate is puking in the bathroom, John cut his hand with a glass shard, and so on, and so on. The outcome is that no one in particular can be required or even seriously expected to work. Everyone has a “mitigating context”, everyone has a valid explanation of why s/he should be left alone. On the one hand, the job needs to be done or we will have a lot of rot in the apartment; on the other, the responsibility is very thinly spread and valid excuses abound. Tough shit, isn’t it?

    Answers of the “do what you like” and “gut feelings” sort (see #1) need a broader picture in the background. How dire is the situation? How urgent is the need to engage? These are to me the basic questions. I’m not sure at all about the answers.

    Assume that I block someone for sexist crap, for valid reasons (but with the person possibly not even understanding the nature of the offence). And here are the two basic possible scenarios.

    1. The blocked person can easily find a decent place to discuss the issue. We are diverse enough to have also such spaces – or, if you prefer, even though Kate is sick, there are still lots of other people out there, ready to clean the apartment.
    2. The blocked person has almost nowhere to go – that is, apart from spaces inhabited by people promoting similar or even worse sexist crap on a regular basis. We are not diverse enough in this respect; vast majority of our spaces would block or ban him as well.

    Is the reality more like 1 or like 2? I truly *do not know*; my picture of feminist spaces is too fragmentary. If 1, then (imo) it’s really not a problem at all and the advice “do what you like” holds water. If 2, then I would say that something went deeply wrong. Which is it?

    Last remark: as I see it, the situation is made even muddier by the promotion of 101 spaces as solutions – as “the” places to send the offenders to (see #2). Here is the thing: from what I see, these people usually *do not* see themselves as pupils, and you as the professors. They want to discuss (I’m not talking about trolls, ok?), and yes, sometimes to quarrel and to fight as well! They expect to be treated as partners, not as pupils. No wonder that in such a setting being sent down to a 101 space (“come, poor little dear, we will educate you!”) is received by them as arrogance. I saw it happening too many times. In short: if 2 is a problem, I’m very skeptical about 101 educational spaces as solutions.

    But is 2 a problem?

  15. 15

    Greta, not at all.

    She posted something about third party voting by someone else suggesting that progressives should not criticize people’s voting decisions. I pointed out that no, if it is OK to criticize people for voting for bigoted candidates then it is perfectly OK to criticize people who let bigoted candidates in by campaigning for protest candidates.

    Ever since that she has been saying I owe her an apology which I certainly do not. She raised the topic of third party voting and set out her position. I pointed out that her actions have consequences. She is not blocking me for the disagreement, she is blocking me because I made her feel bad by pointing out that her actions have consequences and we can hold her accountable for them just like she tries to do to everyone else.

    I do not have particularly high standards for being part of the progressive fold. I do not insist on people having exactly the right views on any topic. But if anyone is presenting themselves as being a leader of the progressive cause they do have to pay the toll and that means working to get the best electable progressive candidates nominated and in most cases to get the progressive candidate elected.

    If people are going to set themselves up as arbiters of the progressive cause and pass daily judgement on who is a worthy standard bearer, they have to be willing to be held to account themselves.

    To get back to your original question, if someone raises a topic for discussion then they should be prepared to discuss it. I don’t find it acceptable to make something you did a topic for conversation and then demand apologies because people criticize your actions in ways that make you feel bad.

    When folk try to turn a thread I start on academic discourse into their personal platform for their climate change denial nonsense, I have no qualms about shutting them down. If on the other hand I start a climate change thread I am probably not going to block them unless they are being disruptive in other ways.

  16. 16

    If people are going to set themselves up as arbiters of the progressive cause and pass daily judgement on who is a worthy standard bearer, they have to be willing to be held to account themselves.

    Phillip Hallam-Baker @ #15 – Are you saying that you should be entitled to post in someone’s space even if they’ve asked/told you not to simply because you disagree with their political position?

  17. 17

    I have a trick that helps me when engaging with people who appear to be ignorant or an asshole or a troll (unfortunately, one will generally never know which it is). I don’t necessarily view that person as the ultimate audience for my response. If the person is just ignorant, I may have a shot at changing their mind but, if they are an asshole or troll, nothing I say will make a difference. However, for every person writing something I disagree with, there are orders of magnitude more people reading it. I keep in my head that the lurkers may be the only people to whom I have a change of getting through, and it helps temper my emotions; I’m not angry with the lurkers who may be just be ignorant.

    Being less personally invested, people on the sidelines at far more likely to actually listen to the arguments on both sides. There have been many cases where I have changed my mind as an observer to an argument. At the very least, seeing bad ideas challenged might make the minor assholes a bit less likely to spew their bile and might give decent people a bit more courage to speak up.

    I absolutely agree with Spectra in the link you posted when she said that white allies have a better chance of getting though to racists than the people who are the target. I work with kids and this applies to pretty much any form of bullying. Anti-bullying techniques tend to focus heavily on bystander intervention (in addition to personal advocacy). The bully has already decided that the target is beneath their concern so the target has little power to change the bully’s behaviour. Bystanders are the ones that the bully thinks should be on their side. The main thing to avoid is speaking for the target. E.g. “Zaphod doesn’t like what you’re saying/doing to him,” is not as good as “I don’t like what you’re saying/doing to Zaphod” (even if Zaphod has directly said that he doesn’t like it). The second statement doesn’t take any agency away from the target, shifts the focus from the target, and makes it clear that the target isn’t the only one who disagrees. It also makes it easier for other bystanders to add a “me too.”

    To directly address the question of your post, do what you can but don’t use up all your spoons (another great article). I think it is perfectly fine to block people who aren’t engaging in good faith, who immediately cross serious lines, or who have simply hit your frustration limit. When appropriate, concluding the conversation with a simple, “This is why I am no longer interested in having a dialogue or giving you a platform,” is sufficient (even just for the benefit of the lurkers). It seems to me that what you are already doing is a pretty good balance.

    Further nuance to this question is what relation the person is to you. Is it a personal friend, a co-worker, a visitor to your site, a random person in meat-space, or a random person on the internet? The closer the person is to you, the more effort is justified; partly because there are other facets to your relationship and partly because you have more chance of getting through to them. Probably the toughest one is when it’s a co-worker because there may not be any bonds of friendship and you can’t easily escape the environment. That’s when a good manager or HR department comes in handy.

    A few years ago, I finally ended contact with a friend from childhood. He had always been rather volatile but was basically a decent person. I don’t believe he has ever actually been in a physical fight (and I’d known him since grade 1) but his temper was something to behold. He had some legitimate reasons to be pissed off at life, the biggest being chronic pain from back problems, but it sometimes manifested as absolute rage at people who didn’t deserve it. It was kind of like road rage without needing to be in a car; some minor infraction would open the flood gates of threats and curses (including c*nt, grrrr). Note: the target of his rage was usually mostly unaware, since he rarely confronted them directly (mostly passive-aggression); he’d just subject his friends to weeks/months/years of periodically yelling about it.

    The final decision was when my wife and I were going to have a kid. Being his friend had always been taxing at times and I was willing to take him as a whole package, but my wife and I didn’t want to risk our daughter ever witnessing the level of anger he was capable of. Her well-being trumped my willingness to be his friend and keep trying to help him. As a final attempt, I pushed harder than usual for him to seek counselling and it just resulted in him directing the rage at me. To be honest, although we also had a lot of good times, my life is much easier and happier without him in it. I realize that’s selfish but selfishness is sometimes necessary.

  18. 18

    She posted something about third party voting by someone else suggesting that progressives should not criticize people’s voting decisions. I pointed out that no, if it is OK to criticize people for voting for bigoted candidates then it is perfectly OK to criticize people who let bigoted candidates in by campaigning for protest candidates.

    Ever since that she has been saying I owe her an apology which I certainly do not. She raised the topic of third party voting and set out her position. I pointed out that her actions have consequences. She is not blocking me for the disagreement, she is blocking me because I made her feel bad by pointing out that her actions have consequences and we can hold her accountable for them just like she tries to do to everyone else.

    I do not have particularly high standards for being part of the progressive fold. I do not insist on people having exactly the right views on any topic. But if anyone is presenting themselves as being a leader of the progressive cause they do have to pay the toll and that means working to get the best electable progressive candidates nominated and in most cases to get the progressive candidate elected.

    Phillip Hallam-Baker @ #15: Well, unless you link to the conversation, I can’t evaluate it. What I will say is this: If you’re going to have a meta-conversation about blocking or not blocking, you need to let go of the content of the conversation, and whether or not you were right and they were wrong. You need to not re-argue the content of the point, or insist that they blocked you because they didn’t want to hear you because you’re right, and here are all the reasons you’re right. Which brings me to this:

    To get back to your original question, if someone raises a topic for discussion then they should be prepared to discuss it.

    No. No, no, no, no, no. That is the entire flipping point of the right to block (a point I set out in more detail here). People have every right to say, “I have limits about what I’m willing to discuss about this topic.” I did it right here in this very post: I said (paraphrasing), “I want to discuss some nuanced questions about blocking, and I’m not interested in hearing people say that blocking is always bad.” And on more than one occasion, I’ve raised a topic and said, “I do not want to host a debate about this.” When yet another black person is killed by a cop or a security officer or neighborhood watch, and when the killer gets off free and clear, I will often state my response, and then clearly state that I am not interested in debating it. People have every right to say, “Here’s what I’m willing to discuss, and here’s what I’m not.” They especially have the right to do that in their own space.

    Without a link, it’s not clear from your description whether they set out those limits clearly. But if they did, they had every right to do so. Expressing an opinion about something does not give people with opposing opinions the right to force you to listen.

  19. 19

    No. No, no, no, no, no. That is the entire flipping point of the right to block (a point I set out in more detail here). People have every right to say, “I have limits about what I’m willing to discuss about this topic.”

    This is rather different as it is declaring the limits as limits in advance. But again, as with every simple statement, its a bit more complicated and nuanced.

    If George W. Bush wants to have a debate on the situation in the Middle East today but declare the actions of his own government off limits for discussion then people should call bullshit.

    Equally, how do we react if someone says ‘lets talk about X and I only want to hear bad things about them’?

    If someone asks to narrow the field of discussion to a particular topic, thats fine. If they don’t want to deal with racists, homophobes, chemtrail conspiracy nuts etc. also fine. But if someone is declaring the limits of debate to make an argument on false facts then it is perfectly OK to call them on it. If people want to call me narrow minded for blocking links to Brietbart and Fox News that is fine, I am more than willing to give reasons. What I am not willing to do is to give liars a forum for their propaganda.

    What it comes down to is that if people are going to block on arbitrary grounds so as to claim they have won the argument then its not OK. They have the right to do that of course. But other people have the right to call them on it.

  20. 20

    Phillip Hallam-Baker @ #15 – Are you saying that you should be entitled to post in someone’s space even if they’ve asked/told you not to simply because you disagree with their political position?

    People have the right to do what they like in their space. But if you call a space “freethought” and then decide to set arbitrary limits on the thoughts you consider acceptable then folk have the right to call bullshit.

    Insisting on politeness and honesty are one thing. Insisting that people don’t point out that you don’t meet the ridiculous standards you set for other progressives is not.

  21. 21

    But if you call a space “freethought” and then decide to set arbitrary limits on the thoughts you consider acceptable then folk have the right to call bullshit.

    Phillip Hallam-Baker @ #20 (and @ #19): If you think a commitment to freethought means you have a moral obligation to have any conversation that anyone wants to have, on any topic, for as long as they want to have it, I am going to call bullshit. If you think a commitment to freethought means you have a moral obligation to listen while other people tell you what a terrible person you are, and to host that in your space, I am going to call bullshit. If you think “But I was right and they were wrong!” is in any way relevant to the question of respecting people’s limits, I am going to call bullshit. Also, if you think bloggers writing personal blogs and moderating conversations in them is even remotely analogous to the President of the United States debating policy that he was elected to represent us on, I am going to call bullshit.

    And if you think you have some magical understanding of which limits are and are not “arbitrary,” I am seriously going to call bullshit. You don’t know why other people set the limits that they do. You don’t know whether — for instance — they’ve had this argument a hundred times before and are sick of it, or whether they want to take certain assumptions as axioms and have the 200-level conversation based on those axioms. or whether it’s reminding them of an upsetting conversation they just had with their sister, or what. I don’t know how much more clearly I can say this: OTHER PEOPLE’S LIMITS ARE NOT ARBITRARY. RESPECTING OTHER PEOPLE’S LIMITS MEANS NOT TREATING THEM AS ARBITRARY. PEOPLE DO NOT OWE YOU AN EXPLANATION FOR WHY THEY’RE SETTING THE LIMITS THAT THEY’RE SETTING.

    What’s more: It’s hard not to notice a pattern, which is that this trope of “you are a hypocrite and a bad skeptic if you don’t engage in every debate that anyone wants to have with you” gets aimed WAAAAAAY more often at women than it does at men. It feeds straight into the notion that women are doing something wrong if we aren’t rapt listeners to anything any man wants to say — or if we set limits on what conversations we’re willing to have.

    Nothing you have said in your description of this interaction has led me to think that you were in the right. It’s entirely possible that you were — but so far, you’re not convincing me. So far, your own description of this interaction is not making you look like a reasonable and respectful dissenter who got banned purely for dissenting. So far, it’s making you look like a dog worrying a bone, who will not drop it. It’s making you look like you don’t respect people’s limits, like you don’t even understand the core principles behind limits and respecting them. If that is not, in fact, true, I suggest you step back and take a good look at how you’re coming across, And if that is true — if you really do think other people’s limits are arbitrary, that they owe you an explanation for why they’re setting them, or that they’re hypocrites and bad freethinkers for setting them — I strongly suggest that you leave my blog, now. I do not want people who don’t respect limits participating in discussions in my blog. I won’t subject myself, or my commenters, to that.

  22. 22

    So that everybody’s on the same page, I believe this is the conversation Phillip is talking about. Personally, I see Ophelia’s request for an apology as reasonable – she’s not asking you to apologize for disagreeing, but rather the holier-than-thou attitude you showed (intentional or not) while doing so.
    The big problem I (as an individual) have with being asked to educate sexist/racist ‘friends’ is that I can’t reach them either. I could let them know that I have issues with what they said, but for the most part, they already know what the problem is and they just don’t consider it important. The only real option I have is blocking them and letting them know why – and it’s the option I take.

  23. 23

    So that everybody’s on the same page, I believe this is the conversation Phillip is talking about. Personally, I see Ophelia’s request for an apology as reasonable – she’s not asking you to apologize for disagreeing, but rather the holier-than-thou attitude you showed (intentional or not) while doing so.

    Parse @ #22: Thanks for the link. That’s helpful. It’s very telling to note that several people in that thread expressed strong disagreement with Ophelia on the actual content of the topic, and Phillip Hallam-Baker is the only one she wanted an apology from — not for disagreeing about voting, but for the “make you better than other people” line.

    And with that, I am calling a halt to this particular conversation. It is a total derail. I specifically said that I wanted to discuss the question of “to block or not to block” AS IT RELATED TO BEING AN ALLY, as it related to white people responding to racism, men responding to sexism, etc. Phillip Hallam-Baker’s concern about Ophelia Benson blocking him in an argument about voting is, to put it mildly, not on topic. It is exactly the conversation I said I didn’t want to have here; the 101-level conversation about people’s basic right to block. I shouldn’t have let it go on as long as I did.

  24. 24

    To everyone who participated in the actual on-topic conversation: Thanks, This is really helpful. (Continue, please, if you’re so inspired.)

    I particularly like Nathan’s point @ #10, about how education and creating a safe space are goals that come into conflict. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that they’re irreconcilable — but they can conflict, to some extent they conflict by their very nature. I see it more as a balance than trying to reconcile the irreconcilable — but sometimes, you do have to choose one.

    Several people raised the point about lurkers, and how the people being educated aren’t necessarily the ones you’re arguing with. True. The “education versus safe space” issue is still there, as is the issue of my own energy and mental health — but yet, that’s a very valid point, it’s not just about educating this one person.

    And just hearing the general consensus of “this is hard, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution” is very helpful. It makes it possible to make a decision of “try harder to educate” without feeling like that’s committing me to thousand-comment-long conversations that are clearly going nowhere, with people I despise.

  25. 25

    In those blogs where KillFile and suchlike add-ons are available, I find I only killfile those posters who are not advancing the discussion. I have no objection to people disagreeing with me if they present facts I’m not aware of or make me examine my opinions. I don’t care for posters who keep repeating the same arguments over and over, ignoring all criticism and rebuttals (often claiming no rebuttals have been made), even if I agree with them.

    There is a regular poster at a website I frequent (I will not embarrass Pharyngula’s Nerd of Redhead by mentioning any names) who keeps making the same argument all the time. It gets quite annoying, even though I think the argument has some validity. If it were my blog, I’d have a strong urge to tell this poster to start using other arguments when confronting people or risk getting blocked because he is not advancing discussions by making his boilerplate argument all the time.

  26. 26

    Well sorry if you don’t like my choice of example. But the reason I didn’t want to talk about racism as the example is that it is very hard to draw general conclusions when tiptoeing on egg shells. If the principles apply to situation X then they should apply to situation Y as well.

    I remember when the holocaust deniers first hit the net and for the first few months they were quite successful in their real aim of starting arguments. One of their favorite tactics was to put one fact in among a group of lies, wait for blanket denials and then pick a fight on the one issue they hadn’t lied about. Things don’t seem to have changed much since. I don’t like circular firing squads.

    When it comes to issues like Gamergate and Vox Day’s sad puppies trying to pack the Hugos, there is an opportunity to turn them into a teachable moment but not an obligation for every blogger to do it. And while there is a probability that you will persuade more people that the obnoxious views are not acceptable than the obnoxii, many people who are not as experienced in dealing with such folk will not. And a lot of folk will win the argument but get so stressed out doing it that it isn’t a net win anyway.

    Different people have different views on what the model of the medium is. Which is OK. People who pay for the equipment and service have the right to set their own rules. But the question of who owns a Web community is not one sided. But people have a right to walk away as well. And some people are going to walk away if they feel that the blocking scheme is unfair and some are going to walk away if they feel that there isn’t enough.

    Part of the issue might be the tools at hand. Most blogs only give the option to block or not to block and control lies with the blogger and site mods. Slashdot’s moderation scheme is rather more interesting, rather than trolls and ‘first post’ responses being blocked, they get down voted and become invisible unless someone asks to see them.

    A personal blog is not an open forum. But that isn’t the only type of forum on the Web. Which is why I don’t see any obligation at all to try to educate folk on a personal blog. But perhaps we should try to recreate the USENet environment of an open commons that existed before the spamopocalypse. Perhaps having people be elected lead blogger for fixed three month terms might be worth trying.

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