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?