Criticism, Care, and Colleagues


“If you agree with me that we have an ethical responsibility to support our colleagues who are harassed for their public scholarship, and you also agree that it is extremely difficult for those colleagues to respond in an appropriate manner to reasoned critique, how do we protect our ability to critique each other?”

That’s Donna Zuckerberg, classics scholar, editor of Eidolon, and author of the forthcoming Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Agein a post at the blog of the Women’s Classical Committee. The post follows up on a talk she gave about online harassment and abuse.

She begins by noting just how difficult it can be for those targeted for aggressive online harassment for their work to handle even the reasonable and polite critiques that also come their way:

I believe that when you’re receiving a massive volume of trolling and harassment—much of which is specifically calibrated to make you doubt your sense of logic and reality, and much of which is designed to make you doubt your credentials and qualifications—and you’re also trying to cope with the near-certainty that some of the people you work with in a professional context either agree with the trolls or at least feel that you brought the trolling on yourself by engaging in public scholarship—it is almost impossible to respond to even the most respectful, collegial critique without feeling attacked, often to a degree that is entirely disproportionate to how the critique was intended.

She quotes Laurie Penny on this point:  “Unless you’re on the receiving end, it might seem strange, even offensive, to equate mainstream critique with the outright violence of anonymous far-right and anti-woman extremists. But for those of us who go through it every day, the context collapses into a flat field where people are firing at you from all sides and there’s no cover.”

Drawing on her own experiences, Zuckerberg writes:

I’ve also received many messages from people I don’t know that say, more or less, “I hate that you’re getting death threats, but I also think that you absolutely could not be more wrong.” On a surface level, there’s nothing wrong with that kind of message, and I believe that it is sent with good intentions. But I want to argue that it is unreasonable, even cruel, to expect or demand from someone to whom you send that kind of message that they respond by engaging dispassionately with your reasoned critique of their argument. And if we agree that we have some kind of ethical responsibility to protect, or at least support, our colleagues who experience trolling and harassment, we need to reconceptualize how we want to have professional disagreements with each other.

Imagine that while you’re being pelted with rocks someone tosses you a ball and says “let’s play catch,” and you’ll get the idea.

So what to do? We’re all about criticism and the exchange of ideas. How do we keep going with that while being caring and decent to our colleagues who are under attack?

Here are Zuckerberg’s suggestions:

If your colleague is being harassed, be kind. Be supportive. Tell them her you respect her, and resist the efforts made by trolls to minimize her accomplishments and frame her as a vapid attention-seeker. That kind of support can really make a difference to a colleague who’s experiencing gaslighting. Troll attacks are designed to make their victims doubt reality, and you can help her remember what reality looks like.

But maybe you feel that the reality is that your colleague was wrong, or could have made her argument with more thought or nuance. If you feel that way, and you’re tempted to engage her about it, think carefully first about what you’re trying to accomplish by it. Are you hoping to convince your colleague that she made a mistake? Because I guarantee, if she’s experiencing a troll storm, she already feels that way. She probably feels like it was a mistake to ever express any opinion in public. Or maybe your goal is to show that reasonable, civil discourse can still exist between colleagues?

If so, I would like to suggest: don’t address your critique directly to your colleague. Think carefully about who your intended audience really is. If the harassment is ongoing, then it is cruel to make your colleague the intended audience of your critique, and you may be contributing to her trauma. So don’t frame it as an attempt to engage, or an “open letter.”

By all means, make a bigger, more thoughtful argument about why what your colleague said was made from flawed premises. Stay far, far away from ad hominem attacks—engage with the ideas, but not with the individual. When the tidal wave of abuse has gone back out to sea, maybe she’ll be able to confront your argument in a substantive manner and really hear you and take it to heart. But let it be her choice whether to come to you and debate the issue, and maybe extended her a little more latitude than you normally would if her response to you seems a little disproportionately emotional or defensive. To you, it may just be another professional discussion, but to her it’s part of a much larger and nastier phenomenon.

But remember: if your intended audience for your critique is not your colleague, but rather a general public to whom you want to explain why her arguments were flawed, then your goal is, in fact, to engage in a form of public scholarship. Which means that you’ll be putting yourself out there too. You may be the next target. You won’t deserve to be, of course, but if you are, you’ll need support.

You can read the whole post here.

Your thoughts and suggestions are welcome.

(via Matt McAdam)

Emily Blincoe, “Beach Pebbles”

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apostdoc
apostdoc
3 years ago

This is an honest question, since I’ve never been on the receiving end of this (and don’t plan to be): is it not possible to plain ignore the trolls? And use that saved energy for reasoned exchange with one’s peers (or otherwise reasonable people)?

I understand that there are cases where one’s peers are part of the trolls, but it seems that in the prototypical case the chief causers-of-grief are certain rabid elements of the general public (“anonymous far-right and anti-woman extremists”). And in such prototypical cases, doesn’t deleting or making private one’s Twitter account solve 90% of the problem? Or, closing down the comments on your blog. If it’s not your blog, not reading it. Etc.Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
Reply to  apostdoc
3 years ago

No. Deleting your twitter account won’t stop people from sending you emails, emailing your department, your university, trying to hack your social media accounts, setting up fake accounts in your name, making threats, posting personal information about you online encouraging others to contact you too, etc.Report

Rick
Rick
Reply to  apostdoc
3 years ago

George Yancy talks about some of the appalling responses he received to his “Dear White America” op-ed in the NYT here: https://www.chronicle.com/article/The-Ugly-Truth-of-Being-a/243234 As Kathryn says above, no, deleting social media won’t protect you.Report

Jonathan
Jonathan
Reply to  Rick
3 years ago

The responses that Yancy received seem to be importantly different from those that Tuvel and similar others received. It seems that the former are expressions of hate, the latter of care. If so, then clearly the former should be avoided, whereas it’s not clear that the latter should. It’s a mistake to liken them in support of the point of the post, I’d say.Report

harry b
3 years ago

Well, that might help. But
Blogs thrive on comments. I write a blog because I want people to read it. And I want interaction with readers: and to learn from them. And, at our blog, that is generally what happens (at least to me). But the women who contribute get significantly worse treatment than the men. We co-moderate, which has helped a lot, and commenters know that the worst trolling won’t get through so that discourages them. But our blog is fairly cosy, academic, social-democratic, etc, and rarely draws the attention of extreme trolls. If we were suddenly in the spotlight someone would have to moderate.

More to the point: you’d need to get someone else to filter your email. Judging from my own very brief encounter with negative fame (Rush Limbaugh), we’re talking about numerous threatening emails a day, spread among one’s regular correspondence. You’d be amazed how many people have enough time on their hands to write vile emails threatening to shoot you, rape you, kidnap your children, etc if they don’t like what you said (or, in my and Swift’s case, the opposite of what we said!).

http://crookedtimber.org/2015/05/11/rush-limbaugh-and-bedtime-stories-definitely-not-the-worst-thing-that-happened-last-week/Report

Rick
Rick
3 years ago

This is also why you should probably never sign a letter of condemnation aimed at a member of the profession (you know, hypothetically, if that were ever to be a thing, which I’m sure could never happen in a nice rational responsible discipline like philosophy) or otherwise inform someone you don’t know personally that you think they’re wrong (except through the appropriate professional channels). The dogpile experience is, I’m told, pretty awful: dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of people all jumping on you and telling you that you screwed up. That sucks no matter what, and it sucks a lot more when you have as many intemperate and enraged people writing to you as thoughtful critics. And it sucks most when people are actively lying about what you actually said and did.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
3 years ago

We should definitely extend special sensitivity to those being heavily trolled. However, I think a point that applies more generally is that anyone we disagree with has likely been spoken to rudely and with hostility by someone who shares our own opinion. This is especially likely where politics is involved. This is another reason why civility and refraining from personal attack is so vital in professional philosophy.Report

Phil
Phil
3 years ago

First, let’s make a divide between rude online comments, and death threats, hacking of accounts etc. The later is certainly a matter of concern, the first is not.

Rude comments are an opportunity for liberation. You call me a name, and that becomes an opportunity for me to observe my internal reaction, understand my internal reaction, grow from that understanding, and take responsibility for the management of my own experience of what I voluntarily read.

Surely you’ve had the experience of someone saying something to you that you don’t like, and you shrug it off. That option exists in every inconvenient encounter, which reveals that getting upset is a choice we make inside of our own minds.

It’s our mind, so we have every right to CHOOSE to be upset if that is the experience we prefer, but it’s not a particularly rational choice.

Yes, I know, I know, this is an extremely unpopular way of looking at this. Nobody really wants their fantasy victim status interrupted. Ok, so if you wish, call me a name. Yell at me. Tell me what a horrible person I am, and what ever else you want to say.

Just another opportunity for liberation.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Phil
3 years ago

There is extremely consistent testimony, from right across the political spectrum, that (a) making controversial statements in public places gives rise to a torrent of vitriol which has a psychological effect totally out of line with everyday-interaction rudeness; (b) women and minorities get way more of it; (c) the boundary between abuse and threat is blurry. (Someone who describes your children in accurate and specific ways and then makes sexual suggestions about them is not simply “being rude”, even if they don’t cross the line towards actionable threats.)Report

Phil
Phil
Reply to  David Wallace
3 years ago

Hi David, thanks for your reply.

First, please allow me to explain that for the last 20 years I’ve been challenging the group consensus in every community I’ve visited on an almost daily basis. It’s completely normal for me to be debating an entire community by myself, and I’ve been banned from more sites than I could ever possibly count. Thus, I’m not unfamiliar with being yelled at etc.

I would respectfully counter that it is not the torrent of vitriol that has the psychological effect. To look at it this way is to hand control of one’s emotional experience over to every bully one encounters, and as you correctly point out, there are plenty of them out there. I don’t see handing control of our minds over to strangers who hate us to be particularly rational.

What fuels the psychological effect, for the better or the worse, is how we CHOOSE to process incoming speech from others. This is the rational way to look at the situation, because this is something we have control over. A key problem here is that we often don’t want to acknowledge the control that we have because that interferes with taking on the ever popular victim role.

I’m referring in my comments to the vast majority of online encounters, and grant that there are exceptional circumstances which would clearly merit calling the police and so on. I’m also willing to grant that the dividing line can be murky.Report

philosopher
philosopher
Reply to  Phil
3 years ago

I do not believe the psychological evidence suggests that most persons can “choose” to process vitriolic insults in a particular way.Report

Phil
Phil
Reply to  philosopher
3 years ago

Hi philosopher,

Someone has kidnapped your children. You can only get them back if you remain emotionally calm while the kidnappers enthusiastically insult you over the phone. Can you do it?Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Phil
3 years ago

I don’t know, and neither do you, I assume.Report

Matt McAdam
Matt McAdam
Reply to  Phil
3 years ago

This reminds me of my friend’s response after I described some basic tenets of Stoicism: “Stoicism: it’s all your fault.”Report

Ash
Ash
3 years ago

Phil–David Wallace was pointing out that the line between what you call “vitriol” and threats often become blurred online–maybe especially for women and minorities. I don’t *think* you’re denying that people ever use threatening speech online in response to people they disagree with (but maybe I’m wrong and you are denying that?). In which case it would seem that what you’re denying is that it can be rational to respond to threatening speech by feeling threatened. Is that what you are saying–that it’s irrational to respond to online threats by feeling threatened?Report

Phil
Phil
3 years ago

Hi Matt,

Fault, blame, guilt, these are all strategies we use to try manage our emotional experience by controlling the speech of others. Sometimes it works, but never for long, because there are a seemingly infinite number of people on the Internet eager to say things we don’t want to hear, and new ones are being born every day. It’s very human, but not that rational, to try to manage our emotional experience by a method which is doomed to eternal failure.

If we want to use the Internet to communicate with large numbers of strangers, there would seem to be two options.

1) Be unhappy much of the time.

2) Take responsibility for our own reading experience.

Here’s the kind of thing I’m referring to. You’re posting in some forum thread. Someone is outraged and very unhappy about what you’re writing. And so they come back to the thread day after day after day to read every one of your posts so that they can complain again and play the glorious victim role.

Is it your “fault” that they are unhappy?Report

beauvoir's baby
beauvoir's baby
3 years ago

Keep in mind, though, if you are certain of your own righteousness, and consequently your target’s moral depravity, you are actually doing everybody a service by inflicting as much psychological damage on your target as possible, thereby inhibiting their ability to continue spreading their harmful views.Report