On Thursday, I posted be ye kind one to another: civility, blogging, and social media, and a lot of people interacted with the post online. So, I decided it would be best to Storify the conversation.
Travis Greene is a stay at home dad and occasional chaplain in Tampa, Florida. His convictions are in the Ana/Baptist and emerging church traditions and he is passionate about the collision of the Christian faith with the American prison system and solidarity with those inside it. Follow him at @travisegreene.
First, a social location disclaimer, since I’m a guest here. I am a healthy cisgender straight white guy. I literally have all the privilege, and much of what I have to say is directed toward other privileged people.
If you follow progressive social justice-y Christian type people on Twitter, you may be aware there is often debate about “appropriate” ways to engage around questions of justice with respect to race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. Usually some well-meaning white person will say something , be critiqued for it, and then push back not against the substance of the critique but the tone or manner. Alternately, a person of color may say something, then get critiqued by a more privileged person (again not so much for content but tone or timing or something).
This Sarah Bessey piece (which I like very much, even though there’s a But coming) is a rather vague reaction to all this, I think.
Or, for a not exclusively religious example (though I think there’s lots of overlap), this piece by Freddie diBoer (http://dish.andrewsullivan.com/2014/08/21/where-online-social-liberalism-lost-the-script/). He writes,
“It seems to me now that the public face of social liberalism has ceased to seem positive, joyful, human, and freeing. I now mostly associate that public face with danger, with an endless list of things that you can’t do or say or think, and with the constant threat of being called an existentially bad person if you say the wrong thing, or if someone decides to misrepresent what you said as saying the wrong thing. There are so many ways to step on a landmine now, so many terms that have become forbidden, so many attitudes that will get you cast out if you even appear to hold them.”
I think this is a common reaction by people who think of themselves as allies but are concerned about maintaining kindness, civility, etc.
Later, he writes, “On matters of substance, I agree with almost everything that the social liberals on Tumblr and Twitter and blogs and websites believe. I believe that racism is embedded in many of our institutions. I believe that sexual violence is common and that we have a culture of misogyny. I believe that privilege is real. I believe all of that. And I understand and respect the need to express rage, which is a legitimate political emotion. But I also believe that there’s no possible way to fix these problems without bringing more people into the coalition. I would like for people who are committed to arguing about social justice online to work on building a culture that is unrelenting in its criticisms of injustice, but that leaves more room for education.”
Now that in general has been my basic attitude toward this whole question. The “You’re not wrong, but you should be nicer.” And I still think, at least on a purely pragmatic level, there’s merit to that. (Here’s the But…)
Two recent blog posts have helped me think through this all a little better, I hope. The first is Sarah Moon’s post called “No, We Not All On The Same Side”, where she draws on bell hooks to point out how “forced teaming” has the effect of sidelining the concerns of traditionally marginalized groups. I encourage you to read the whole thing, but here was the crux for me:
“…even among folks who all ultimately long for a more liberating world, there are “barriers to solidarity” (hooks’ phrasing–pg. 50) that keep us from truly “being on the same side.” Ignoring our differences–our different standpoints, goals, experiences, and needs–in favor of cheap peace, forced teaming, and shallow “allyship” does not challenge those barriers. It only reinforces them.”
It is vital not to smother potentially productive conflict with false niceness. Moon attributes a lot of this on the part of more privileged allies to conflict avoidance, which is no doubt true, but I suspect there’s more going on in the particular reaction of the privileged progressive to being critiqued by the less privileged. Underneath our reaction to this (and along with many genuinely good motives) is a rather childish desire to be affirmed as one of the good guys, to be acknowledged as Not Like Those People: your racist relatives, Sarah Palin, whoever.
I got a further insight from Rod’s post, particularly this bit:
“We hear from one side, well, yes, I know I needed to be called out, but you could have been a little bit nicer, and then the same civilized party admits later, I needed to be called out to persons who give them similar feedback, but its nicer because their interlocutor may look like them.”
I don’t doubt that this happens, a lot. Race and gender construction affects everything, evening the seemingly disembodied world of online interaction. But I suspect some of the time something else is happening (let’s take race as our example). Perhaps the white person is more responsive/less likely to tone-police the criticism of another white person because they’ve been socialized to take them more seriously (systemic racism). Or they might be more responsive because the white critic, since they are interacting with a past version of themselves, is uniquely able to help the person being criticized. That cannot replace the crucially important movement toward solidarity with marginalized people by listening directly to them, but it may be able to help that process along.
So my proposal is this: maybe those of us (white folks) who do want a more “civil” space, with, as diBoer says, “more room for education,” need to take that on as our particular responsibility – not tone-policing women or gay folks or people of color – not trying to control how they speak and act and engage – but perhaps by being the “good cop” who takes the time to educate people encountering all this for the first time (or perhaps not for the first time, but who are still resistant).
There is danger here. My idea would not be to interpret or speak for (“What John is trying to say is…”). And the point of all this is not to (yet again) center the experiences of white folks, nor to dismiss them, but to relativize them. When I respond to something on Twitter I am not doing so as a generic “reasonable person” who gets to decide what civility or kindness mean, and how all confrontation should happen and when.
Maybe we need to be the ones who engage the trolls. God knows it’s our turn.
The Internet can be a cruel place. Now that we have means to be interconnected more than ever, the formation of communities is made uh, easier?, but also has the means for divisiveness and harm become easier as well. We see this for example in the sexual harassment that women celebrities are now facing, having photos stolen from their phones (for an excellent discussion on this issue, I would recommend fellow MennoNerd Ryan Robinson’s piece: Rape Culture In Celebrity Photo Theft). I observe the harassment that Women of Color educators/activists face everyday; trolls creating multiple accounts to make racist diatribes and violent threats against persons like Mikki Kendall, Sydette, Trudy, Suey Park, and others. I don’t think I can claim to have encountered a microcosm of what these brave women deal with every day, but when trolls get into my timeline, they usually leave with their feelings hurt because I do them the kindness of confrontation through sarcasm.
Of course there’s a time and place for everything, as the author of Ecclesiastes contends. My good friend Tyler Tully has a good reflection on expanding public theology to cover online behavior. As a Liberation theologian, I understand that all theological statements that are made have political ramifications. The practical is always the theoretical, the abstract really isn’t that far from the concrete. The thing is about a lot of people’s notions of civility or what it means to be “grace-filled” online in the Christian blogosphere is that, as Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig suggests, it is “squishy”: Bruenig: “Anyway, one of the chief defects of demands for civility is that they rarely elaborate as to what they mean by civility.” Not only this, but the rules for civility keep changing, and one right after another, they just keep getting added. We hear from one side, well, yes, I know I needed to be called out, but you could have been a little bit nicer, and then the same civilized party admits later, I needed to be called out to persons who give them similar feedback, but its nicer because their interlocutor may look like them. The civilized party postures as if they believe that all ideas are equal, but in reality their practice reveals something quite different.
What is the norming norm for defining what kindness is? As a Liberationist, I find the Exodus story as the primary paradigm by which Scripture is interpreted. I also like the idea of God’s kindness demonstrated in the narrative. YHWH’s kindness is sort of unruly, and is mentioned a lot throughout the Hebrew Bible. Why NeoMarcionites would want to discard of the First Testament is beyond me! 😉 What is clear however starting with the first chapter of Exodus, YHWH’s kindness is defined first and foremost by observing the cruel treatment of the oppressed Israelites, and then responding to their cries. YHWH the God of Liberation hears the oppressed’s concerns; as a relational God, YHWH first spoke the Word/Wisdom at creation, and now God listens. God’s kindness and compassion are not restricted to ever-fluctuating rules of civility that give those with privilege the advantage. Rather God’s lovingkindness for all persons shines through in God demonstrating God’s preferential option for the poor. It is in the bodies and experiences of the oppressed that have the greatest knowledge of what human wickedness looks and feels like. Conversely, YHWH’s power and glory are made known greatest through those who are labelled as weak in society to shame “the strong,” the powerful, those who falsely view themselves as having the future in their hands, operating in God’s place.
Kindness, in the biblical metanarratives of liberation and reconciliation, is inextricably linked to communal justice, freedom for the prisoner and the enslaved, dignity for the impoverished. According to the story, Pharaoh ordered the Hebrew midwives to kill baby boys once they were born. The midwives who feared YHWH showed the infant boys kindness and spared their lives. When Pharaoh asked why infant boys were living, the midwives satirize the essentialist logic of the Egyptians, “declaring” Hebrew women to be stronger (therefore, more capable of reproducing more children, thus the population growth). The Hebrew midwives played with the fears of the oppressor. And in turn for their acts of mercy, Exodus 1:20 says that YHWH was kind to the heroic midwives.
The midwives provide a glimpse of YHWH’s own compassion. YHWH sees, observes, hears the misery of Abraham’s children, and makes it God’s mission to “rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians” (Exodus 3:7). If kindness involves listening to the voices of the silenced first in the Exodus, the same principle should be applied to our public ethics of civility online. It is also important to note that the Hebrew midwives, Pharaoh’s daughter in Exodus 2, and YHWH– all three recognize their positions of power. Their truthful analysis in each case meant a recognition of difference in power, between the lowly and their earthly superiors. The Exodus brand of Kindness requires, #1, listening, and then #2, a joining in the solidarity with those in bondage with a viewpoint that starts from the bottom-up, and neither the top or “the middle way.”
For Christians, Jesus is the Exodus God Incarnate, and embodied an untamed kindness and solidarity with the least of these. The civility party I mentioned previously wants to bracket Jesus as a feminist or civilizing European socialite above his Jewish community. If a public theologian online seeks to be one who wishes to practice lovingkindness and follow the Golden Rule, then the more faithful view point is the kindness we learn of in Exodus. The marginated do not need other persons, even allies who seek to throw stones; rather, they need accomplices who will join them in the valleys to speak to the mountains, and make them move.