locore (locore) wrote,
locore
locore

More on "Thin Skinned"

I chewed on this some more overnight, and now I find I'm not sure I hit the nail on the head in my previous post. There's a kind of scale in reactions to a statement, between interest in its form, and interest in its content. And people who respond to form can be very irritating to those looking for feedback on the topic. Of course people whose form is sufficiently "off" can hinder communciations on a topic in their own way - who hasn't had the experience of reading a forum post they honestly cannot comprehend, or one so full of invective/rudeness/triggers as to be too distracting/annoying to seem worth the bother of reading?

AdaCamp has explicit rules about the form of communications. They aren't the only group having such rules; on-line venues pretty much always have such rules, as do most formal meetings, and many other groups. (Informal rules are even more common, and can be found wherever there is culture, i.e. wherever there are human beings.)

The AdaCamp rules include a large amount about not casually denegrating random groups of people, e.g. by use of common figures of speech. It went far beyond not casually denegrating women, and not making explicitly offensive statements. Because it was explicit, I found it surprisingly easy to accomodate, though I did need to put some thought into selecting generic pejorative terms - I settled on "asswipe" for someone whose behaviour was beyond-the-pale offensive without being quite bad enough for "perpetrator", rather than e.g. "moron" or (ironic) "gentleman". (Yes, such a term is very useful, effectively taking the place of a pronoun in long anecdotes, where a pronoun might be confusing.)

Not a problem, and I was surprised to encounter no in-person policing of those language boundaries. What may be a problem is two-fold:
- the same rule being required almost everywhere one discusses certain topics
- people who bring this rule with them wherever they go

It's worse when the rules are implicit, or covered in bland generalizations that only make sense to insiders.

Consider a random clueless person, interested in a topic, who posts something. Predictably, they violate one or more rules of form. At AdaCamp, this was recognized as objectionable on Stack Overflow, when the problem was formatting of the poster's comments, such as not using mono-space font for computer commands. As far as I could tell, this was the main reason (some) people there disliked Stack Overflow, and found it off-putting, particularly to women. (Amusingly, the woman from Ubuntu I met there didn't want to hear about the reason I refuse to contribute to Ubuntu, ever - use of form-related critique as a reason/method to delete my "first impressions" post, which was critical - but everyone agreed that Stack Overflow (and LKML) are notoriously bad environments.)

But would the folks there see it as a problem if some newbie used a content-implying-pejorative that's also a trigger word for some people, and was called on that? An awful lot of people, many of them male, or geeks, or both, don't talk to "liberals", because they expect to be shut down by the "political correctness" police. At 55, I've learned the currently-acceptable-term to refer to several marginal groups repeatedly, since it changes every decade or two. The truth is, as long as the group is commonly oppressed, whatever they are called will become a more generic pejorative within the decade. I'm pleased with some changes in terminology - it's nice to see "human" replace "man" and "they" replace "he", when the gender is in fact either unspecified or obviously intended to include everyone. But I nonetheless recognize that changes to language do nothing useful without changes to the underlying prejudice.

Likewise, would the folks at AdaCamp see it as a problem if the newbie got more responses about incorrect use of terminology (jargon) than about their topic? I go to great lengths to avoid using terms like "sex," "gender," "transsexual," "trans," "queer" etc. because it seems like whatever I say, someone pops up to tell me I'm using the word inappropriately. Why not just learn the terminology? Frankly, because it won't stay stable long enough for me to learn it - I suspect many of these terms are contested, and don't have a single meaning. Does "queer" include e.g. "genderqueer", if the genderqueer can't also claim the LG letters of LGBT? Not according to some members of the language police. Which word currently applies to gender dysphorics who aren't transitioning, as compared to those who have transitioned? How much of a transition is enough to change one's label? Once again, I get the decided impression that the only thing the language police have in common on this issue is that they are all, every one of them, 100% certain that their usage is the only acceptable one.

Then there are the people who make it their business to police on-line communities for trolling. In many cases, simply using a term commonly used by "antis" gets one treated as a "troll." Nothing like being told e.g. that since one asked about the Medieval Warm period on a climate change forum, one has no intention of reading any answers, links etc. (It turned out, when I persisted, that some professional climate change denial trolls, either innumerate or wishing to appear so, use the Medieval Warm period [a much smaller, more local increase than the one projected] as "evidence" that global warming is beneficial.)

All of these things drive people away from communities, articles, blogs, etc. They are also irritating, and leave a general negative not just for the community in question, but for everyone claiming a shared label. If you want to be welcoming and inclusive, you need venues where it's possible for people to assimilate the terminology, and talk about the ideas/issues/events that brought them to the venue.

Now there are two ways to get one's views accepted and acted on. One is to convince people. The other is to use power to force them. All successful movements ultimately do both. (My favourite example is the anti-smoking movement, which ultimately banned smoking in an ever increasing number of locations.) Those who emphasize language policing seem to me to be primarily focussed on the second method - they don't intend to convince anyone, just shut up their opponents and hopefully make their own views hegemonic that way.

This annoys people, and turns the unconvinced into opponents. Sometimes they just decide I'll never contribute to Ubuntu or similar. And sometimes they (metaphorically, I hope) join the Tea Party.

On the good side, it can raise awareness of the issues, and help allies refrain from accidentally supporting oppression.

But it seems to me it needs to be judged carefully, not used as a blanket response.

This entry was originally posted at http://locore.dreamwidth.org/1859.html.
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