Monday, August 26, 2013

Privilege Protects: On Facing Little Nastiness in 15 Years of Lefty Media Production

Over the years, I have cast much written and audio material out into the world. Over that time, I have always been thankful, and even a little surprised, at how little hostility, nastiness, and abuse have been sent my way in response.

Of course, I am a white guy, and as many have observed before me, even in this virtual realm, that comes attached to far greater space and safety to be opinionated than is granted to women and trans people of all racial backgrounds and to racialized men.

There are other reasons that play a role in the relatively low level of nastiness I've received, of course. A big one is that, sad to say, grassroots media, and particularly grassroots media by non-superstars, doesn't have a lot of reach. I'm under no illusions about how many people are likely to read, see, or hear any single piece I put out into the world, via whatever medium. And the odds of getting nasty responses undoubtedly goes up with the total number of readers/listeners. As well, though I fully admit that it might be more politically useful to do otherwise, much of what I write or produce is geared to what would interest me, and that combined with the venues where my stuff is likely to appear is probably a bit self-marginalizing, such that whatever audience most of it does end up getting is disproportionately skewed towards the friendly. I also spend basically no time at all participating in online discussion forums, debating strangers on Twitter, or commenting extensively on other people's sites. And at least some of what I do -- in particular, much of what I publish on this blog -- is written in a way that is probably more work to read than most random trolls are interested in expending.

And yet dumb persistence pays off. Material gets out there, gets around. No single piece can be counted on to move far, but some move at least a bit, and over fifteen years that have included (at various points, and all in grassroots ways) books, print journalism, online journalism, op/ed pieces in mainstream newspapers, blogging, book reviews, polemics, analysis, radio, podcasts, extra-institutional intellectual work of diverse sorts, and sharing my own work, the work of others, and random opinions on various social media platforms, the opportunities for people to conclude that I am a hack, a fool, a danger, or just plain wrong do tend to accumulate. And the fact is, trolls do visit left-wing sites, do hear community radio broadcasts, do target ordinary no-name folks like me, do perhaps even read (or at least respond nastily to) blog posts that are too long and wordy to really suit the medium. And, sadly, folks under the broad "progressive" umbrella don't agree on everything (or, often, much of anything) and can be really frikkin' mean and oppressive.

Yet, over the years, I have been fortunate. Not no nastiness, but very little. And, yes, some critical responses that were pointed but well within bounds (not all of which, I'm ashamed to say, I handled as well as I should have). But little out-and-out nastiness.

I do not believe for one instant that this is unconnected to the fact that I'm a man and white, even given those other factors. From what I've heard about other people's experiences in my years of perusing feminist, anti-racist, and other critical sites, there is no way, even accounting for the limited reach of much of it, that a woman or a person of colour could churn out as much content as I have, including a great deal that lots of people are likely to take exception to, and emerge as unscathed as I have. No way.

As one of my favourite political journalists -- a feminist Brit named Laurie Penny, whom I'm pleased to say I've been reading since before her career hit the big time -- wrote recently for The New Statesman, "Right now it’s pretty scary to be a woman who makes a public spectacle of herself in Britain. By 'making a spectacle', I mean 'daring to have an opinion in public'". That, incidentally, is from a piece in which she talks about the aftermath of her being the latest in a string of women journalists in Britain to be the target of a bomb threat. And her point is that it is not just people who make regular appearances on TV commentary programs like her who are the targets of venom and misogynist abuse, but lots of ordinary women who have small-readership blogs where they talk about feminist things and everyday life.

Now, I recognize that there is nothing particularly novel about noting this phenomenon. I decided to go ahead and write about it anyway in the spirit of adding yet another morsel of corroboration through describing my own experience. That mission, at any rate, has been accomplished. But I often like to end posts with a bit of reflection on what can actually be done about whatever it is I'm writing about. And after much thought, I just don't have the kind of zingy, satisfying, three-easy-steps answer that plays well in some corners of the blogosphere.

So how exactly should someone in my position respond to this reality? In a way, I suppose the initial level of answer to that is pretty obvious: Don't be an oppressive jerk online and make good political use of that extra bit of safety that comes with privilege. Support others who have been targeted by oppressive jerks online. If you see oppressive jerkiness going down online, figure out a way to engage in an online version of bystander intervention. If you are an organizer or moderator of any kind of online community, take this stuff seriously and figure out what you can do (in collaboration with people in the community who have these experiences) to keep the environment safe. Pretty basic stuff -- not necessarily easy, but elementary.

I think there's more, too, though -- stuff related to taking risks and challenging yourself when it comes to your own work. Pay attention to who you listen to/watch/read, and what your political interests are. And challenge that. Expand who you listen to/watch/read, and the topics you pay attention to. Learn about gender struggles and anti-racist struggles, particularly through material produced by people who experience those oppressions and participate first-hand in everyday and/or collective struggles against them. Spend time thinking about how they relate to you. Share them, recommend them, tweet them. And, in ways appropriate to the situation, don't forget them as you write/record/produce your own stuff. Don't indulge the drive to take over that often comes with privilege, but don't let not wanting to do that keep you from taking up and treating seriously those subjects that most often elicit retaliatory venom. And constantly reflect critically on the political effectiveness and reach resulting from your own choices and practices around the form, content, and venue of what you produce -- that is, maybe you (by which I really mean I) could be doing more to engage those likely to disagree.

All of which is very unsatisfying because it is all very individualistic, and as such is completely inadequate to the problem. Politically decent individual behaviour by media producers with privilege isn't a bad thing, of course, but it is only collective struggle -- offline as well as on -- focused not just on oppressive trolling but on the social relations that produce the context that allows and produces the trolling that has any chance of turning the kind of relative freedom from online abuse that I've experienced from a privilege enjoyed by a few to a basic expectation for everyone. So (in ways that are politically appropriate, that follow and respect the leadership of those who experience the oppressions in question, and that take responsibility for privilege) participate in and support those struggles that such trolling is meant to silence.

Which is kind of an unsatisfying answer as well: "Get involved!" is hardly original advice. But I think it's about the only way to respond to what is really one symptom of a much larger cluster of issues.

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