On tolerating personal abuse

While I don't consider myself part of the science fiction community directly (my con-going days are probably over), I do follow it across a wide variety of blogs. There are a lot of hard conversations and considerable soul-searching going on right now concerning an on-line commentator in that community who had been nasty and vicious to people, but originally for reasons that many people thought were good causes. (I had been one of those people. It's always very, very tempting to appreciate a good vitriolic rant from someone who shares your world view. And very easy to lose track of the people those rants are aimed at, or the excesses to which those rants go.)

I'm not going to go into the details of the SF community issues here, since I have no context other than what I've read, and it's something to work out within that community. But I've been taking it as a useful reminder that abusive behavior is not acceptable, even if it comes from people who are arguably on your side.

Anger is important. Anger is often how the world changes. But anger and abuse are not the same thing.

I wrote something a little bit ago in a different context. Given that reminder, and given some of the arguments that are going on in the free software community as well, it seemed like a good idea to post a somewhat edited version of it in a more public place:

None of us should be willing to continue to participate in a project in which we're expected to tolerate being abused and attacked, and all consequences of that abuse are our problem to deal with. It is simply not fun, and not motivating, and not interesting, and does not lead to us doing good work.

I say this from lots of hard-won personal experience. I was deeply involved in Usenet governance for many years. I have made all the same arguments that I see today in favor of "blunt" speech, vitriol, and attacks. I have been a passionate advocate for the "free speech" approach. I have told other people to just filter and use killfiles. I have said that words aren't worth getting worked up about, and it's easy to ignore people.

I was wrong.

It took a long time for me to figure out that I was wrong, not just for other people, but for myself as well. It took me much longer to walk away from Usenet governance for good because the environment was too toxic. It remains one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life. It was the best bit of self-care that I ever did.

I learned from that experience, and earlier this year, I walked away from a job for related reasons. I enjoyed the work, the job was much easier than the job that I have now, and I had a lot of time to work on free software and on Debian, but the emotional environment was toxic. (It was not as openly abusive, but it was an environment of disrespect, hierarchical dominance games, fear, blame, and emotional blackmail.) As a result, I've had to shift priorities considerably, but I'm a much happier person. It's worth having less time for things that I was previously enjoying to not to have to deal with an emotionally negative and confrontational environment. Life is too short, and I have the luxury of having choices.

Both of those incidents taught me that it's very easy for me to leave that sort of situation to fester for too long, and that I underestimate how much of an improvement it is for my quality of life to walk away from abusive and negative emotional situations. I am belatedly learning how to be more ready and willing to do this.

I very much understand the people who are concerned with ensuring there is space for strongly-worded opinions and heartfelt anger.

But we have to draw a line, and that line needs to rule out emotional abuse of people in our community even in the name of passionate polemics about something that's important. We have to enforce that line, and if that means ejecting people from our community, that's what we have to do. Because, if we don't, we're also ejecting people from our community: the quiet people, the people who are just trying to get work done, or the people who have had past experience with abusive environments and understand the need to bail when an environment starts going in that direction.

I'm not going to put up with the sort of environment I put up with when doing Big Eight newsgroup creation. I'm not saying this as some sort of threat -- I'm saying this to try to be very clear that not standing up for the members of our community and not supporting each other against abuse and emotional attacks also has consequences, and will destroy that community for a lot of us. I'm saying that I am not interested in living in an environment of fear and blame. And one should never underestimate the human power of giving people space and community in which they can be comfortable, relaxed, and truly happy.

Walking the line between this stance and the "tone argument," in which people who are being abused or disenfranchised are attacked for being angry, is very difficult. There are some helpful rules of thumb, such as distinguishing between punching up and punching down, but those rules of thumb can fail or be distorted, as the SF community is learning. It's important that people be able to express anger. It's also important that people be able to name names and identify specific behaviors that they believe are worthy of that anger. But when that anger escalates into attacks, there is a real danger that passionate righteousness turns into passionate abusiveness, a danger of losing the sense of community in our own sense of righteousness. And that's not something we can or should accept.

It's going to take a lot of hard work, a lot of open conversation, and a lot of empathy and care to find that line. There are many things in the world right now that should provoke anger, and with that anger comes power for good. But with that anger can also come a destructive blindness. The anger I want is the anger that drives us to change the world together, the anger that leads to confronting others with a reflection of their own better natures and challenging them to become better, more compassionate people. The anger that leads a man to feed the homeless in the true meaning of civil disobedience. Not the anger that crushes our enemies.

Posted: 2014-11-06 21:04 — Why no comments?

Last modified and spun 2017-06-06