Learning in Front of the Internet: How Do We Respond to Insensitive Speech in the Book Blogosphere?

Discussion Post

To many of us these days, being aware of our language choices to ensure we are being sensitive, respectful, and inclusive seems seems like an obvious step to take.  Discussions about racism, homophobia, sexism, gender exclusivity, colonialism, and privilege are becoming more prevalent.  Indeed, recent events in the U.S. presidential election brought questions about the treatment of women, harassment, and rape culture into the national spotlight and generated a national conversation.  It feels like we’re making progress.  Or we like to hope that we are.

However, the increased prominence of such discussions can blind us to the reality that, actually, not everyone is having these discussions.  Hanging out on Tumblr or on a college campus or in other areas that might see a predominance of young or liberal individuals can skew our perception of reality.  It seems like everyone knows about how these subjects and how to talk about them–but not everyone is in the demographic that frequents Tumblr.  Not everyone is in the demographic that’s had a college education.  Not everyone is aware.  Just try reading some of the news coverage about responses to the leaked audio between Trump and Billy Bush.  You’ll read dozens of comments from men that essentially say “I was vaguely aware of this issue, but I had no idea it was so prevalent.  I had no idea my wife/girlfriend/sister/friend deals with this on an everyday basis. I thought it was someone else’s problem. I  thought it was infrequent.”

Moments such as these are teaching moments.  They give us an opportunity to shine a light on the issues that some people have been able, for whatever reason, to ignore.  And we should embrace these moments and try to find ways to turn something negative into something positive.

However, the Internet means that some of these teaching moments are now occurring, not in the privacy of a friendly conversation or in the semi-seclusion of a college classroom, but in front of the world.  It’s the vlogger who’s never been in a college humanities course and has never heard of the word “colonialism,” much less about what its effects are and how it might carried out in art, and so gushes about a text others find problematic.  It’s the blogger who tries to be gender inclusive, but isn’t quite sure how and ends up using language that offends.  It’s the author who wants to celebrate diversity, but ends up reinscribing some of the problems she meant to challenge.

It’s easy to respond to these moments with outrage, to direct our friends and followers to the offending individual’s channel or blog, to ask them to barrage the individual with hateful messages until they take down their videos, delete their account, and leave the Internet.  Good riddance to them and their hateful messages!  But this kind of response deprives us of the opportunity to use these moments to extend a hand and to ask, “Did you really mean what you said?  Are there ways we can help you do better?  What do you need to know to be the individual you meant to be–the individual who is respectful and inclusive?

Talking about art, about diversity, about social issues is fraught with danger.  There are words you are allowed to use and words you are not. There are words some people are allowed to use but others are not.  There are words that used to be acceptable but are no longer acceptable.  Not everyone comes from a background that has enabled them to distinguish the differences.  Not everyone is yet aware that the differences even exist.

We have to keep in mind that the Internet is full of people from all types of backgrounds, not just ours.  We may have learned about colonialism in a college course, but others have not.  We may have heard about gender inclusivity in a high school class but others have not.  We may have learned from our favorite blogger or from an active Tumblr user about how to talk about a certain religion, but others have not.  They may not have chosen to offend.  They may simply not know.

And many individuals on the Internet, especially in the book blogging community, are young.  A blogger who says something offensive may be a teenage girl.  What are we saying to that girl when we harass her into closing her blog when she says something offensive?  What kind of behavior are we modelling for her?  And how are we presenting ourselves?  Will she want to identify with the group that personally insulted her and bullied her off the Internet?  How will we get her to listen and to understand the importance of inclusiveness if we do not reach out to her with compassion, assuming that she meant the best and is willing to learn and to do better, but instead respond with hate?

I do not naively suppose that everyone on the Internet means the best or that people who spew hate and division do not exist.  However, I think it could be profitable to consider what kind of response model would best effect a positive change in the book blogging community.  Do we ironically model the same kind of hate we’re claiming to combat?  Or do we teach others how to be respectful while also modeling respect?

Krysta 64

24 thoughts on “Learning in Front of the Internet: How Do We Respond to Insensitive Speech in the Book Blogosphere?

  1. Risa says:

    A very thoughtful and sensitive post. I’m not sure I can contribute to the discussion constructively except to say ‘you are absolutely right’.

    …and to add that I have often not posted or commented for the mere reason that I am afraid my thoughts will be perceived in a wrong way, because communication does not really happen at 100%, no matter how clearly one believes they are putting their opining across. It is a very risky thing — communicating.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Yes, the fear of backlash often causes individuals to self-censor. Some might argue that this is good and that the whole point it to silence people with views we don’t like, but we’re not only silencing people who are saying hateful things. We’re also silencing people because they don’t want to be the least bit controversial.

      I’ve gotten backlash twice for posting on this blog: once for suggesting that we need to be more understanding of peoples of faith and represent them more in literature, and once for suggesting that people not commit the crime of stealing books. Neither, I would argue, is a particularly hateful opinion–asking for understanding and asking people not to steal money from authors. And yet they turned out to be controversial pieces and I had to deal with the emotional fallout. Would I see an influx of hate mail? Would someone start a Twitter mob to go after my co-blogger? These are not things I should have to worry about when voicing my opinion.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Briana says:

    I have often thought that it would be great if the Internet (or people in general) could take a step back and think “Was this person actually trying to be kind/sensitive and failed, or are they actually sexist/racist/otherwise offensive?” The Internet mentality is so often “This person said something wrong, so we should band together and yell at them until they go away and take their offensive opinions with them!” Sometimes people try to frame the bandwagon yelling as “educating,” but I’m not sure anyone who has been the focus of an Internet mob actually feels they are being “educated” by people who “honestly are trying to help them” or whatever.

    And it is so often true that people are coming from different places. Many people really learn about feminism, colonialism, etc. in college, so it often seems unfair to me to expect high schoolers or college freshman to have the same background as someone who’s a college junior or college graduate. There’s also the issue of, yes, privilege. A friend was telling me about an article (I wish I had the link) that addressed this topic awhile ago. I believe the gist was that “Political correctness is very often the marker of an in-group.” If someone, say, never received a college education or doesn’t hang out in social circles that address these issues, that person will never learn the “correct” terms or “correct” ways to approach sensitive topics. And how can we judge them for that? (Apparently the reaction to the article was highly negative, however, as the Internet went back to saying it’s your fault for being offensive, even if you didn’t mean it, the end.)

    And, yes, I totally agree there ARE people who are genuinely offensive, but I think we should be careful about judging who’s open to learning about why what they said might bother other people and who’s not open to listening.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Krysta says:

      I think you’re right to point out that even people who want to learn may find the learning process a negative experience. I’ve found that even college students who want to learn how to be inclusive and sensitive often feel intimidated by taking courses that focus on political issues because they’re so afraid they’re accidentally going to say something wrong or offensive in front of a group of people they believe will judge them for it. We really need to find a way to help people learn without scaring or scarring them in the process.

      Like

      • Briana says:

        Well, for many people the modus operandi has become 1) see a blog post or tweet that’s offensive to you, 2) quote it with outraged commentary to your own followers, 3) start an angry bandwagon talking ABOUT the post/tweet/person, 4) never directly speak to the person whose words you didn’t like, 5) but maybe encourage your followers to yell at them even though you personally will never engage with them.

        I know many people, online and in real life, who are afraid to speak up about sensitive topics because they don’t want to be misunderstood or accidentally get it wrong and then end up either ostracized or berated. Yet, at the same time, people are asking questions like, “Why won’t the Big Bloggers talk about Topics X or Y?” I don’t know. It’s very possible they just don’t care about Topics X or Y. But it’s also possible they just don’t want to deal with controversial subject matter. If your blog is popular from doing whatever it is you’re currently doing, why risk saying something that might start a Twitter mob?

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        • Krysta says:

          Yes, that kind of response bothers me. It indicates that it’s really not about starting a discussion or engaging with another person but instead trying to silence them through an emotional and verbal attack. The part where the instigator never directly addresses the original offending party is particularly troublesome, as it prevents the original party from having the opportunity to respond and clarify.

          True. Perhaps the secret to popularity is to attempt to avoid offending anyone, though that kind of mentality would seem to prevent you from talking about a host of serious and interesting issues.

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  3. Stefanie says:

    I love the point you are bringing across here. I definitely agree with that everyone just needs to look at the intent behind a message and needs to take care of how they respond. There will always be a difference between the intent and how something comes across, especially if it reaches people of other circles.

    I remember a couple of years back a video surfaced, and was even on the news, about a girl, about 14 years old, who was beating up another girl of about the same age. She got so much hate mail and death treats that it was unbelievable.
    And all the time I was thinking “how are these people who are writing these hurtful things doing better than that girl”? Yes it’s true beating up people is a very big no-no. But sending hate mail and death threats is right up there as well in my opinion.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Yes, so often we respond to negativity with more negativity, and it’s difficult to see how this is helpful. The assumption seems to be that “Negativity and hate are okay as long as they are being used for the right cause,” which is putting us on tenuous ground as it enables people to reframe bullying as something necessary and good when they’re the ones doing it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Stefanie says:

        a very good point you have here! “as long as it’s used for the right cause” is such a horrible thing, because everybody generally thinks they are in the right.

        Like

  4. Briana says:

    I also think we should remember that learning is a process. If my views on Topic X were developed over a 13 week college course, or over 4 years of college courses, or over my entire life due to my personal experience with Topic X, I don’t know that I can fairly expect to “educate” someone with a single Twitter thread. So often we seem to take the view that, “Ugh. I just explained to you in 500 words or less why you’re wrong! I’ve educated you! If you don’t change your mind and your behavior right now on the spot, you are a lost cause.” But, for humans, changing our minds is often a lengthy process. It doesn’t usually happen immediately. My brief comment may help someone realize that they have a lot to learn, but I don’t think I should be surprised if the person doesn’t immediately come around to my way of thinking. (And barraging someone with comments won’t be any more effective. We can’t say “Ok, 100 people on Twitter just told you why you’re wrong. Change right now!” We have to give the person time to take it all in, do more research, and learn through their own learning style.)

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    • Krysta says:

      Very true. People seldom change their minds on the spot. Usually when you start a conversation you can just hope that you’ve planted the seed of an idea or at least let the other person know that they might have to consider looking into the problem more and checking out other perspectives.

      Like

  5. looloolooweez says:

    Oh yeah, I feel like Tumblr especially can foster both aggressive and passive-aggressive pile-ons / PC corrections … which is really unfortunate because a lot of their users (both the “wrong” ones and the folks who point out how wrong they are) are pretty young and still figuring out the world. I’m so glad I was a teen when the Internet was still pretty new and my uninformed, embarrassing-to-current-me opinions are safely buried under some forgotten username in some abandoned BBS.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, the Internet has really changed things. You used to be able to be young and potentially uninformed in private, but now everyone sees it and no one seems willing to acknowledge 1) that they used to be young and said some things they wouldn’t own up to now and 2) that people should be allowed to figured things out without being bullied for their mistakes.

      Like

    • Briana says:

      I think it also used to be more common to use a pen name online. Now teens have their full names and photos on their profiles, and mistakes can follow them forever.

      Like

  6. Reg @ She Latitude says:

    This is such an important post. I’m not a huge social media user but I feel like I’ve been seeing a rise of really heated arguments lately, especially on Twitter. I agree so much that moments like those could be used as teaching moments, and that not everyone comes from a background where using appropriate language is natural to them.

    I think it’s important for people to start reacting in ways that are more engaging than attacking – aim to understand before “fixing”, if that makes sense. An open dialogue will help people to feel understood and thus less defensive, which likely means that they’re more willing to listen.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Yes, I can imagine that some individuals who hear “You have to be inclusive!” from people who are attacking them might decide that they don’t have anything to learn from a mob that seems hypocritical in its own unwillingness to listen and be respectful. There has to be a way that we can engage people without making them feel attacked or defensive.

      I actually am glad I’m not on Twitter because I’ve heard a lot of horror stories.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Geraldine @ Corralling Books says:

    Thoughtful post, Krysta. We need to consider this now more than ever. I know I’ve done and said some ignorant stuff before, but so long as people cautioned me on why it was ignorant, and I thought about it for a bit – I didn’t mind being wrong.

    Like

  8. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    Interesting post- I have a different perspective on this. I think there is an assumption in this piece (and forgive me if I’m wrong) that all the people who might say something online that is “offensive” have written like this because they are either young and uneducated OR they are bigots who have reached the wrong conclusions. Now, I get what you mean- if someone reaches a conclusion like, say, “all people of such and such race are inferior” then it’s quite a cut and dry case and I’d say call them out on it for sure. But, some of the examples you gave are things that there is in no way a consensus on. People don’t all agree that language or books should be policed at all- let alone there being a consensus on which books are “problematic. A good example of this is “Heart of Darkness”- it is pretty divisive topic in the literature world determining whether it is or is not offensive. Or, I was angered by Captain Corelli’s Mandolin- does that mean no one is allowed to gush about it? I don’t think we can determine quite so easily what is and is not offensive. To be even more blunt- we don’t all come out of University toting The Handmaid’s Tale as the most important book of the 20th century! An individual celebrating a book that others find problematic might have an argument as to why they don’t have an issue with it- it may not be blind ignorance or racism- so why not consider hearing them out rather than attacking them? Sure, you could argue with them in the comments and attempt to educate them- but they might end up disagreeing with you anyway- perhaps the education might go in the other direction.
    I read in one of the comments that you said this attitude toward “correctness” is the view of an in group- I would agree- but even more wholeheartedly say that again the assumption is being made that people haven’t gone to university and reached different conclusions. It is a very patronising view to think that other people who disagree just need to be “educated”. I read a brilliant quote today that said “If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking”. What worries me is this trend to force people into accepting an opinion (by brute in the case of calling people out online) without actually thinking to engage with the debate. Personally, I never engage in a debate without being open to the fact that I might be proved wrong and have my opinion changed!
    I respect the fact that you are against lynching people online and that you want to encourage a more respectful dialogue- and I hope you are not offended by my commentary. Thought provoking piece- definitely a discussion that needs to be had!

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I think you bring up a good point. I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that if people would just go to college they would all come out thinking the same way! That’s not even what university is about (or, we hope that’s what it’s not about. I have met instructors who might disagree. Apparently you’re only not supposed to impose politics upon your students unless they are the correct politics–a.k.a. the politics of the instructor in question).

      I was more trying to suggest that there are individuals who, by not being part of an “in” group, whatever that means–having taken a few humanities courses, hanging out with people who are concerned with political discourse, etc.–are actually not even aware that these types of debates are happening. That is, for example, they haven’t necessarily made a conscious intellectual decision to defend a book others have seen as problematic–it’s just literally never occurred to them that the book could even be considered problematic in the first place. So when we immediately accuse them of being “racist” or “sexist” or whatever, they sometimes have no clue what we’re even talking about. What is wrong with Heart of Darkness? It’s just a book about some dude’s trip, right?

      Also I’ve seen a lot of students who mistakenly written things they didn’t necessarily mean because they’re still learning how to express themselves. So my response is always to say something like, “Some of your readers might view this statement as anti-Semitics for these reasons….” Then we discuss what types of reader reactions we’re aiming for and whether it’s counterproductive for the piece to offend some readers and potentially lose them (especially if the awkward language is a minor point and barely related to the main argument of the paper). Then it’s up to them to decide how or if to revise the wording. More often than not the individuals in question are deeply apologetic about having accidentally implied something they didn’t mean.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Briana says:

      I actually think this is one of the most important reasons we should try to give credit to people who are probably sincerely trying to do their best and are not trying to be offensive or insensitive to anyone. Even if people generally agree on things like “We shouldn’t say racist things,” there are actually many different perspectives on what is racist and what is not, what terminology is “correct” and what is not. For instance, I watched an entire conversation on Twitter unfold on the question of “What should we call the people who were in North America before Columbus showed up?” There was no consensus. Some people though “Native Americans” was fine. Some liked “American Indians.” Some wanted “indigenous Americans.” Some went with “Call each group by their specific name and avoid any umbrella terms at all.” So, there’s no fully correct answer. A term one person likes will be offensive to someone else. In cases like these, I think it’s really worth thinking about whether someone was trying to be offensive by picking the term “Native American,” or if they were honestly trying to be polite and thought it was the most widely accepted term. And I can think of many other examples. It’s important to recognize people’s intentions before trying to run them off the Internet for their “horrible opinions and terminology.”

      Liked by 1 person

      • theorangutanlibrarian says:

        Yes I completely agree with this- I think that’s a very important point to make- I think often people are too v eager to jump on someone for a mistake (or perceived mistake) and not willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes a term that is offensive in one context is not offensive in others (eg spastic/spaz is offensive in the UK but not the us) I’ve even heard people that are English see racial slurs in books as inoffensive simply because they have never heard them before

        Liked by 1 person

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