On Forgiveness, Bad Behavior, and Block Policies

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If the post-GamerGate years didn’t change the way I interact with people in SF/F and online, the past year certainly has. From the election of a serial asshole to the endless parade of turdmuffins on Twitter, the last year has made it clear that “business as usual” just won’t work for my sanity. In fact, more and more, I’m learning that a lot of folks I know have even less tolerance for all sorts of behavior we all might have put up with a few years ago. Ann Leckie, for example, has for a while used this basic policy for handling responses to her Tweets:

This isn’t a unique perspective. During GamerGate, some people created entire lists of accounts associated with one group or another with the purpose of providing an automatic way to block out a whole lot of people. Many women and people of color used lists like that (or other forms of curated lists, formal or otherwise) and established personal policies for dealing with “undesirables.” Lately, I’m starting to wonder if I’m wrong to think the kind of blanket blocking or “knee-jerk” blocking is the “wrong path.” Maybe they were right. Maybe the only way to make our online spaces enjoyable again is to weed out the bad actors and remove them from our streams with impunity. But that feeling rides up against the values I hold about other people while also being bolstered by my increasing dislike of people.

As a general rule, I like to believe that most people are capable of making mistakes and deserve a chance to learn from them. After all, I’m not a perfect human being. I’ve made some pretty awful mistakes in the recent past, and if you go back through my history, I’m sure you’ll find all sorts of errors of judgment that today would be considered borderline super jackassery. I’ve written before about using gay slurs in my teens, and it’s certainly true that until relatively recently (within the last 10 years), I would have fallen in the “transphobic” grouping. I don’t believe that most of us get the right of it from the start; I believe we’re mostly wrong about most things we think we’re right about. It takes time to get those things right, and even when we think we’ve got it right, things change. It’s an evolving process.

But attitude matters. How we respond to criticism or differences of opinion, broadly speaking, matters. The more I interact online, the more I realize that a lot of people don’t care about redemption OR how their words might impact the people around them. Part of that is the “new normal” of the Internet. Studies suggest that the what/when/where/how of online interaction impacts our likelihood of troll behavior. All of this is a simplified way of explaining just what has happened to online conversation. Far too often, our culture seems to accept behavior we would never put up with in “real life.” Some of that must reflect the detached nature of the Internet, since it is often difficult to assess tone or intent from tweets or other forms of online interaction. The result of that is an environment that is often actively hostile — particularly for women and people of color.

There’s another side of this:  some people may not realize they’re trolling others OR don’t realize the harm they are doing OR won’t admit to the harm they cause when it is pointed out to them. As I suggested above, so many in the sf/f community seemed willing to put up with a lot from people who may or may not have meant well. For a while. Now, we’re far less tolerant of behavior many of us view as disruptive, cruel, and/or violent. Tor.com moderates its comments pretty aggressively. Ann Leckie blocks people fairly quickly. I have a standing “mute” policy, which amounts to “if I think you’re arguing in bad faith, I’ll mute you and let you scream at the clouds.”

All of this has me thinking again about my policy for online interaction. I’ve received my fair share of death threats and harassment in the past. Most recently, I’ve been a minor target of a serial harasser within the community. None of what I experience is particularly serious by comparison to a lot of others in the community. That same serial harasser has been far more aggressive with other people I know (creepy levels of aggressive). But it’s enough to make me question whether having a more aggressive block policy isn’t a bad strategy. After all, there are people in this community who delight in causing annoyance or harm to others. I’m not talking criticism of one’s positions, but straight troll behavior designed to infuriate or make you feel ill about yourself. For me, sf/f is meant to be a fandom, not a den of gaslighters and bees. When the community doesn’t feel like a room full of crayons and LEGOs, it sucks a lot of the joy out of things.

2017 is already a painfully joyless year for a lot of us. Why should I subject myself to unnecessary stress and discomfort by putting up with people who don’t care if what they say and do causes even the most basic of emotional harm? Unfortunately, sf/f cannot easily clean its own house, leaving me (and a lot of other people) with very few choices on what to do about bad actors. Blocking and muting are good strategies, but they’re also half measures. Convention policies that explicitly ban harassment are a good start to cleaning things up, but they’re imperfect.

For the moment, I’m still married to the idea that maybe redemption is more important, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the divorce sneaks up in the night and runs away with the house. Because I’m an sf/f fan for the love, not the endless parade of jerkery. Even if blocking and muting are half measures, they’re immediate steps any of us can take to cleaning what we see to prioritize what matters to us. The last 5 years have shown that conversation doesn’t necessarily work. Some people are just this:


About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

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