Michaeline: Thinking About Safe, Inclusive Spaces

Hands from various backgrounds putting together a jigsaw heart

Image via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been thinking about making safe, inclusive spaces for everyone. I’m still in the theoretical stage, and I’m not sure if it’s even possible (or desirable) to have a space that’s 100 percent comfortable. A good discussion group does need some friction and I believe a little awkwardness is a good thing. But it’s not good when some people feel awkward or unseen repeatedly, while other people feel very comfortable most of the time. There’s got to be a balance, and there’s got to be a moderate road where everyone feels safe and like there can be a friendly resolution to arguments and discussions. Like we could all get pizza* afterwards, despite our differences in outlook and opinion.

First, what is the problem? Racism has been a huge topic in Romancelandia over the past few weeks with the blow-up in the RWA stemming from systemic racism and (I think) money struggles. But it’s not just about race – as romance writers, we’re very aware of the prejudice against and for gender as well. There’s sexuality (LGBT, polyamory, asexual) inclusion or exclusion. There are body issues, such as able-ism and weight-ists. And then there’s a wide range of issues involving the way the brain works, such as depression, bi-polarism, autism and even simpler things such as extroversion and introversion.

One of the things I came to realize over the past few weeks is that most of us want to be known as nice, and “good” girls or boys or people. We want to swim along in society, helping out others, or at least not hurting people, and not getting hurt. “You’re X-ist!” can be a real slam to one’s self-image – maybe not equal to the first slam of “You’re Other!” that the accuser may have originally felt, but still hurtful.

But saying, “this book is a fucking racist mess” is NOT the same as saying “you are a fucking racist mess.”

I know, I know. Book babies feel like children, and casting shade on one’s books can be very hurtful. But, it’s important to both frame things as “this action is X-ist” and also take the criticism as a critique about an action or behavior, and not as a personal judgement on one’s humanity.

Now, of course, if a pattern starts to manifest of X-ist actions and behaviors, people will probably be thinking, “Oh, Mx. X is an X-ist.” And they might be right. So, maybe the first step is to feel the hurt without an immediate public response. Sit with that feeling for a few hours. Review and research – not with the aim of proving yourself right, but making the SITUATION right. It is said that a sincere apology (and of course, correction where possible and a cessation of X-ist behavior) goes a long way.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Now, I’m going to start to get into the swampy regions, where my thinking is not clear, and I welcome your comments and advice.

I’ve seen it written, time and again, “Don’t feed the trolls.” That means when someone says something X-ist or deliberately provocative (more the second than the first), don’t respond. Starve them of attention. Scroll past them whenever you see their name, if necessary.

I think this can work if there are only one or two trolls, and most people in the group have similar ideas about civility and manners (and the topic the troll is poking a stick into). But, when there’s known differences of opinion, silence can feel like agreement to others. Also, what happens when a significant minority of the community (5%? 10%?) are trolls? Then, yes, silence does sound a lot like agreement, and I think people ought to speak up.

Block and move on is also a common tactic. If a forum (especially an internet forum) is one person’s salon/living room, the person in charge is free to block as much as they like. If they block too much, they run the risk of offending their visitors, and the most interesting people go someplace else. But blocking some people who disturb the wa**, so to speak, can encourage more free discussion and make a place feel safer. Unfortunately, it can work both ways – it can make a place feel safer for a wide variety of people, or it can make a place more exclusive for a narrow variety of people. People have used this to great effect, though. I point to Scalzi’s Mallet of Loving Correction  as a way to moderate one’s own space. (Also see kitten setting, which is terribly problematic, but sure is funny.)

In a broader space, such as Twitter or Reddit, people often make free use of the block function. Jim Wright who goes by @Stonekettle on Twitter calls it airlocking, and he does not suffer fools – particularly when he has a migraine. This is something that can make one person in a broad group feel more comfortable (and again, it’s a double-edged sword), however, it is not an option for the moderators of the group, and it can also lead to that old Silence is Agreement problem for people who don’t block as freely. In this case, the Silence stems from not seeing a disagreeable post at all. But it can still feel like Agreement if no one protests the disagreeable posts.

Here at Eight Ladies, we don’t get a lot of comments, period, so we’ve never blocked anything except posts that are obvious spam (AFAIK). We all would like to make this a comfortable space for discussion, and for mutual aid, I think. I know we value different literary perspectives, and how they make us bigger human beings. I don’t know if that’s enough. I don’t know if as a bunch of white lady writers, we have a responsibility to recruit blog readers with different perspectives, and encourage them to comment, or if it’s enough to vaguely hope they find us, and they speak up whenever the feeling moves them.

We’re all busy with writing, and marketing, and professional development as well as for some of us, dayjobs and children and social lives in the real world. And I recognize that the same goes for Black ladies and Asian ladies, and men interested in romance, and people in wheelchairs, and lesbians and straights and people with two husbands . . . . It’s too much to ask others to actively seek us out and pass judgement. But . . . if they should happen to stumble upon us, I hope they feel welcome and find our thoughts useful.

I know that I have stepped into a lot of X-ist doo-doo during this discussion – stuff I’m vaguely aware of, and stuff I had no clue was a thing, I’m sure. I’ve tried. And trying doesn’t mean I deserve a cookie and a pat on the back. But that’s part of the hard work of coming to new standards. We’ve got to make a mess, and then work through it, and help tidy it up as best we can. Maybe there will be cookies for all of us after.

Radha and Krishna in the Boat of Love, image via Wikimedia Commons

*Pizza call: one of the online discussion groups I belong to have a “pizza call” which is defined as follows: a polite way of saying, “No thanks, but I’d like to remain friends. Why don’t we get some pizza?” when a friend proposes sexual intimacy. “Pizza?” was quickly adopted as a code word used to defuse a potentially heated discussion without fault on either side, as in “Let’s drop the subject and stay friends.” Three pizza calls on a topic, and the subject is supposed to be dropped. See: http://www.dendarii.com/bujold_lst.html#pizza The whole thing has some nice pointers for discussion management. It doesn’t solve everything. We do still have problems with people trying to stir up discussion (and getting hurt feelings when the discussion doesn’t confirm their world views). But it’s a start.

** Disturb the wa: I’m not sure if this needs to be explained, but “wa” is a Japanese word for a type of social cohesion. Let’s play nice and don’t rock the boat. Now, I mentioned that I was getting into a swampy area. Sometimes, participants need to take a stick and give the wa a really good and rousing round of turbulence. But sometimes, in order to keep progressing to some far-off goal, we ignore the muck and crap and keep gliding on. It’s a crapshoot – sometimes you glide over the muck and get to the pristine shore of happiness, sometimes you get stuck in the muck no matter how much you try to ignore it and try to paddle over it.

2 thoughts on “Michaeline: Thinking About Safe, Inclusive Spaces

  1. I have an opinion, but I must admit I’m a bit timid to Express it. I’m a heterosexual white woman with one husband so I’m not sure if I’m the right one to post. I feel like we all have a lot to learn about everything and everyone. We all need to be open to advancing society and maki g everyone feel safe and accepted
    I’m not looking for cookies or whatever, I’m just looking for all writers (and really everone) to just get along. It maybe my desire to be connected to everyone, but that’s my truth. Thank you for the post.

    • Are you American? I am, and I think Americans tend to shut down topics that are going to flare up. I just saw Trevor Noah in his Behind the Scenes segment, and someone asked him what he wishes that he could import from South Africa. And he said, the comfortableness with having racial conversations. He said that in the US, it was very common to start a discussion, and the white person in the conversation was often quick to say, “That wasn’t me! I didn’t do slavery!” Which tends to shut down the conversation.

      One of my co-workers is from Sweden, and he says he misses talking politics in the sauna.

      But I think for us Americans, don’t talk about religion or politics in polite society.

      And because we don’t have practice, it feels really hard to talk about these things when they become volatile.

      I think a lot of people let things slide because of the desire to just get along, but then it reaches a certain point, and BOOM. Rant out of left field. Or it seems like left field to other observers.

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