Monday, February 8th, 2010 10:18 am
EDIT: People keep linking to this, as far as I can tell with the assumption that my meandering and ridiculously complex attempt to translate social justice concepts into something my mathematician's brain can understand is a set of rules I expect other people to follow, unless they want me and my fellow scary social justice types to come dogpile them or something. I am deliberately poking at ambiguous situations in order to understand them, not giving examples of blatant Fail! Overall I rather regret this post, it's so full of edits and addendums my original point is mostly lost :/

So, I've been thinking about the mechanics of derailing. I've developed a mental model and am curious to know what other people think. Note: My opinions are definitely not representative of anyone else's, and may well change after people comment and point out I'm wrong!

EDIT: Something that really doesn't seem to be clear: I am not trying to criticise other people's posts so much as figure out a set of mental rules to avoid derailing stuff myself. And while I think derailing as an overall effect is bad, some posts which contribute to a derail are valid despite this negative effect. In general this post has been edited here and there quite a bit.

The context: The ethics of off-topic posting on your own journal during a large scale discussion in your internet community about a social justice issue. The community under discussion is lj-centered metafandom-reading fanworks fandom.

Assumed context for this post (chosen for brevity not completeness, more at the end):
My thoughts from last June: The difference or lack thereof between a change of direction and a derail
Comment repost: How is posting to my own journal derailing

The way I see it there are two parts to a derail:
1)Avoidance: the motivation to shift the conversation away from oppression one is complicit in to a less confronting topic.
2)Direction change:the effect of the off topic post to shift the conversation away from the voices of the particular marginalised group currently under discussion.

Afaict a "derail" is defined to be any post/comment etc with both of these. But the way I see it we should avoid both, whether or not they happen simultaneously.

Imagine the following vastly simplified discussion:

Poster1: I just read this Bones fic "Someone loses an eye" and it's really ableist.
Poster2: I just read this great post by Poster1, it got me thinking about the portrayal of disability in Bones fic, and fic in general.
Poster3: I agree that disability is portrayed really badly in fic, but I think you can't judge "Someone loses an eye" without reading the prequel "Fun and Games".
Poster4a: (locked) These posts about disability got me thinking about how being overweight is portrayed in fic. I don't want to derail from the existing conversation, but also wanted to get my thoughts down.
Poster4b: (unlocked) These posts about disability got me thinking about how being overweight is portrayed in fic. I don't want to derail from the existing conversation, but also wanted to get my thoughts down.
Poster4c: (unlocked) I'd like to talk about the portrayal of overweight people in fic.
Poster5(has read previous posts and doesn't want to think about it): Who do people prefer, Bones/Booth or Bones/Angela?
Poster6: All these posts about disability are making me feel silenced. Don't they realise how that hurts my feelings as a woman? Our voices NEVER get to be heard, and now these oversensitive disabled people are telling ME what I can and cannot write! Helen Keller would be ashamed.
Poster7: So, apparently, it's impossible to be both disabled and a woman! You learn something new every day.
Poster8: (has been reading all the previous posts) I think it's really important that we focus on the way women's voices are silenced.
Poster9: (Has only read poster8) There's been some recent discussion of the way women's voices are silenced...

The way I see it:

Posters 1,2,3 and 7 are trying to have a conversation about disability in fanfic. You could argue that Poster3 is being ableist (depending on the nature of these hypothetical fics :)) but they're not derailing.

Posters 4,5,6 and 8 are knowingly not engaging with the topic. EDIT: It's plausible that they may be doing this to talk about something which places them at the centre and doesn't confront them, but they may have other motives.

Posters 6,8 and 9 are shifting the topic away from disability and onto gender.

The derailing is Posters 6 and 8.

So we should definitely try not to be Poster 6. Yes? Anyone disagree with that?

I think Posters 4a and 5 might want to question why they felt the need to talk about something else, but they're not actually doing any harm and maybe they really don't have anything to add to the conversation or whatever. EDIT: I am not saying these posts are inherently bad! They are examples of non derailing posts which are still tangential to the discussion they were inspired by.

I think Poster9 can't be held responsible for contributing to the derail, but that doesn't mean they didn't help inadvertently.

Where I think there's some ambiguity and disagreement is Posters 8, 4b and 4c.

Personally I think Poster 8 is knowingly contributing to the silencing of disabled fans, and unless they have a strong reason for commenting beyond supporting Poster 6 should not have made their post. EDIT: Even though it's an entirely valid topic! And if someone actually was trying to silence women in this conversation it would be on topic. But in this particular example, noone is. Where I think Poster 8 gets less ambiguous is when they say passive aggressive stuff that makes it clear they're talking about Poster 1 vs Poster 6 to anyone who's been paying attention.

I'm really ambivalent about 4b or 4c, and which of them is preferable, but I can see arguments for both sides.

I disagree with the idea that avoiding derailing is always easy or unambiguous. However that doesn't remove the harm done, or the responsibility to avoid that harm where possible, and it doesn't make the people pointing that harm out wrong or overly demanding. Doing the right thing usually is difficult and ambiguous.

Appendix 1: Valid digressions and intersectionality

Poster10: *discusses disability in fanfic in a way which DOES try to silence women's voices*
Poster11: I am in total agreement with the people criticising the portrayal of disability in fic. But I would like to take a moment to criticise the minority who are doing so in a sexist way.
Poster12: From what I've seen, Bones fans may write ableist fic but Castle fans never do, because we are just that awesome and they suck. So if you care about disabled people, watch Castle!
Poster13: Castle fans are not any better than Bones fans!

So, in my opinion:

P10 is being sexist, but not derailing.
P11 is making a valid and necessary criticism. This may end up helping the ongoing shift from disability to gender, but that's P10's fault for being sexist.
P12 is being derailing
P13...I really don't know.

And once people are talking about (say) gender rather than disability, is it wrong to engage in that topic and not try to shift things back if you know the history? I also really don't know, I think it depends a lot on the situation. I think it's worth considering at least.

Appendix 2: The boundaries of "the conversation"

The point of this post is for me (and those in a similar boat to me) to figure out how I can avoid derailing. There is no ambiguity about me being in lj/metafandom/fanwork fandom since I read metafandom and linkspam and am on the flist/dwircles of mods for both. Thus I have not addressed the ambiguity of whether or not someone is "in the conversation"

But it is a valid question, and I think people who are not as unambiguously jacked into the matrix as me might legitimately protest at their posts being labelled as derailing when they had no idea there was a rail in the first place.

Further discussion:
Reaction against an early version of these ideas: comment thread, and post "Meta: Derailing, Linking, Labelling, and the Internet"

(nb I used disability and gender as the examples because I am a disabled woman. I don't feel comfortable making up examples using oppressions I don't suffer from!)

Also note! I will consider anyone who focusses on the ambiguities without acknowledging the less ambiguous issues with Poster 6 to be derailing :P

Oh! And please don't link this on metafandom. I am spoon deficient and couldn't cope with the comments.
Monday, February 8th, 2010 02:40 am (UTC)
You are writing as though the Internet is big enough only for one discussion at a time, and as if there's some sort of social-justice reservation system in which the first topic to be raised must be given everyone's exclusive attention until it is agreed to have come to a conclusion.

Conversations don't work that way. There are thousands of people out there all talking at once, and conversations are constantly spiralling off in different directions. There is no one mandatory conversation. It is the nature of the way people talk that they wander off on side paths.

There is an enormous difference between interjecting yourself into an existing conversation and trying to turn it to your own interests -- answering on a journal or a blog or a community, making your own posting as an entry into the conversation -- and choosing to have your own conversation that runs in parallel. The first is derailing an established conversation; the second is choosing to travel on an entirely different rail.

Secondly, you are handwaving away intersectionality. When (to take my own issues) gay men object to (straight, queer, and many other) women's expression of sexuality, there are *both* issues of straight-gay privilege *and* issues of male-female privilege at stake, and neither of them represents a derail from the other. And, as many LBTQQA women pointed out, there was also erasure of many participants in the debate, and calling that out wasn't a derail either.
Monday, February 8th, 2010 03:47 am (UTC)
I don't know. I think a clue lies in this line:

Posters 4,5,6 and 8 are not engaging with the topic and are instead talking about something which places them at the centre and doesn't confront them.

You said it. Apart from Poster 6, they are not engaging with the topic, not being part of the conversation. Merely having their posts up at the same time as another discussion is going on is not enough to link them into the same conversation, one in which they are being actively unhelpful, so where does the linking happen?

Elsewhere. There exists another external post, or a link round-up, which interprets all these as being part of the same conversation even though they are not.* Why has the external post put them together - is it because they're happening at the same time in the (roughly) same medium, for example LJ/DW/etc., or something else?

(* I agree with what Zvi said about opening one's post with an invocation of topic X and then carrying on with topic Y: if there is no solid reason to mention X and thus link the post with the greater discussion that is actually about X, why bring it up?

But among the people you describe only Poster 6 did this; Poster 4 locked their entry, whereas 5 and 8 did nothing objectionable. If I read a bunch of posts about women and slash, and then post about the current troublesome political situation in California or something - without bringing up women or slash at all - am I derailing? No, I'm in a completely different place.

But the internet being what it is, it is quite possible for a Poster 10 to notice that there is a discussion on slash going on and conclude that I'm being disloyal by not writing about it, that I am actively, deliberately ruining it by writing about other things although, since Poster 10 assumes (correctly, but irrelevantly) that I am aware of the slash debate.)

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Monday, February 8th, 2010 10:01 am (UTC)
I agree with what Zvi said about opening one's post with an invocation of topic X and then carrying on with topic Y: if there is no solid reason to mention X and thus link the post with the greater discussion that is actually about X, why bring it up?

What if the solid reason is "this is what made me start thinking about the topic." My brain works in a "reference everything" mode - part of going from being a lawyer to a librarian, I suspect. (I note that [personal profile] wistfuljane is now putting "breadcrumb" links at the bottom of her posts, although notably only those posts on the topic where the OP agrees with her.)

The example that is foremost in my mind as part of this conversation - post-RaceFail round #1 last year (which did my head in in numerous ways), I started thinking about just *why* that discussion had upset me so much. I came to certain conclusions, some of which question the orthodoxy of the Tone Argument as applied throughout that conversation. I have not yet been game to write and post said post, because I suspected at the time that it would be derailing, and I have suspected ever since that it would not be appreciated by certain vocal members of the broader LJ community. (Indeed, I was dissuaded by making a "this is my context" post by a (very sensible) friend of mine because she thought it would be seen as provocative. So as a result, some thought processes that might have actually gotten me around to Jane and perhaps even Zvi's way of thinking eventually, have been cut off by a sense that I'm not "allowed" to work through these things constructively.

I have to admit I rather doubt that I'm making any sort of helpful sense at the moment.

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Monday, February 8th, 2010 03:52 am (UTC)
Curse free accounts... the last sentence is supposed to go:

But the internet being what it is, it is quite possible for a Poster 10 to notice that there is a discussion on slash going on and conclude that I'm being disloyal by not writing about it, that I am actively, deliberately ruining it by writing about other things even though - as Poster 10 assumes (correctly, but irrelevantly) - I am aware of the slash debate.
elf: Rainbow sparkly fairy (Default)
[personal profile] elf
Monday, February 8th, 2010 05:36 am (UTC)
(This is entirely unrelated to the actual substance of your post, which I am thinking about. Hoping this is not a derail/distraction, but a detail that was jarring enough to throw me out of the meta.)

Who do people prefer, Bones/Brennan or Bones/Angela?

Bones/Brennan would be clone!fic. Or potentially incestfic, if her brother's name is still Brennan. (Bones/Cam is the question I'd expect there. Or Bones/Booth.)

If you want to screen or delete this to avoid distractions from real discussion, that'd be fine.
Monday, February 8th, 2010 07:09 am (UTC)
For me, the moment when your original comment over at [Unknown site tag] jumped the shark was when you suggested that a poster writing to 10 people on a locked post could still be derailing. I was about to post a riposte to that there, and then noted that you said you had explained yourself badly and had posted something longer here, so I came here and read your further thoughts. However, I note with regard to Poster 4 ("Poster4: (locked) These posts about disability got me thinking about how being overweight is portrayed in fic. I don't want to derail from the existing conversation, but also wanted to get my thoughts down. ") we have got someone thinking about an issue sparked by another issue, being sensitive to derailing, and then taking steps (locking her post) to avoid doing so inadvertently. All the things [personal profile] wistfuljane and [personal profile] zvisuggested made one a good little internet citizen, in fact.

But, for you, these appear not to be enough. You state, "think Posters 4 and 5 might want to question why they felt the need to talk about something else.."

Why the hell should they? Or, more to the point, why the hell should they share their thoughts on why their post deserves to be made with you? Or "self-criticise" as to whether their motives are worthy enough to give themselves internal permission to post on a topic of relevance to them in their own journal?

Perhaps they're wrung out with disability issues because their mother is in an increasingly severe state of dementia and they need distraction on the internet but feel fluff will be somehow inappropriate, so they're using concerns about weight issues as displacement activity. Perhaps someone in the disability debate has given them a really useful insight into how an issue in the fat-positive community can be handled better. Perhaps they simply feel they have nothing to contribute tot he disability debate but have a burning desire to do something useful and see it as a way in.

In any case, once they're doing it locked it seems to me that they are doing everything that can reasonably be expected of them (more, I would submit) to stop derailing the other conversation and trying to guilt them into shutting up because it isn't a topic you happen to be particularly interested in strikes me as getting into the realm of thought policing.
Monday, February 8th, 2010 01:20 pm (UTC)
So is it derailing like taking out a railing so people fall off of the conversation balcony, or like forcing the conversation train off of its rails?

No seriously, I have been wondering this for weeks.

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Monday, February 8th, 2010 04:12 pm (UTC)
Disclaimer: Still short on spoons.

I'm not so sure how you can avoid derailing personally, but speaking as a serial #5/#9er, you can help other people not derail by always giving as much context as possible for your posts. These days I avoid metafandom like the plague, but not everyone on my flist does, so if I riff off a post of theirs there is a good chance I will pick a stick from the pile that may not have been the original stick.

I reckon it also helps the more people take care not to cause bilateral damage. Your #10 is an example of that - if the sexist person had bothered to avoid being sexist the derail needn't have happened. JennyO's Welsh-Fail is another classic example (even mentioning that is raising my blood pressure).

So we should definitely try not to be Poster 6. Yes? Anyone disagree with that?
How about if you genuinely think the original topic is less worthy than the new one you are proposing? Because that is presumably why most derails occur. To use the classic example, if the conversation is about how blondes get picked on and you want to change it to be about abelism. Why do the blondes get priority just because they spoke first? I'm willing to bet that every single example of #6 genuinely felt that the topic of women being silenced was more important than abelism. So maybe that is the first step to stopping yourself from derailing - learning to raincheck on what is and is not important to say. But sometimes you will be right, sometimes your topic is more important even if it happens to distract from the original one. But that doesn't matter, because it is possible to have more than one conversation at once.

I think that last sentence gets to my real opinion on the matter - the presumed harm of derailing strikes me as very overstressed.

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Monday, February 8th, 2010 08:17 pm (UTC)
I have no idea what my opinion is about these matters. I do care very deeply that we respect all of our needs to read and write, think and express, school and challenge each other.

Thanks for being willing to think publicly about this stuff, and may you have a soft, cozy, dream-filled spoon recharge.
Tuesday, February 9th, 2010 01:11 am (UTC)
Erm. You were linked on Metafandom. You may want to drop a note to the mods.
Tuesday, February 9th, 2010 01:17 am (UTC)
Here via [community profile] metafandom.

It seems a lot easier to define derailing when it's happening in an in-person conversation, or even in comments to the same journal entry. I don't think I would have such an easy time figuring out whether I was derailing a conversation occurring elsewhere in fandom (or on the web in general.) But I get to witness in-person derailing all the time--much easier to spot, even before I had a name for it.

I guess for me, the litmus test is always whether someone is turning a discussion of a systemic problem, like discrimination, into a discussion of something personal and individual. That negates the analysis that what a person is experiencing is part of something larger and social. I'm not sure whether Poster #4 in your example is doing that--I guess I would have to read the post.

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Tuesday, February 9th, 2010 11:39 am (UTC)
OK, ignore the previous reply because I've now had time to think about it.

You ask how you can avoid derailing. There is only one answer - say nothing at all. That is the only sure-fire way. In all other instances it will be a matter of judgement: Is what I am about to say relevant to the discussion, does it say something new, is it liable to distract from the argument, is the discussion otherwise over, is the discussion as it stands less important than what I am about to say? Only you can make that judgement and only you can judge if you got it right.

This issue does though go to the heart of the fundamental issue where you and I disagree. The whole concept of 'derailing' depends on the belief that the powerful have nothing to contribute to the discussion other than entirely on the non-powerful's terms. You believe that, I don't. (Unless I have grossly misunderstood you for a while now.) So for you, any input from someone in a position of power is suspect unless it is essentially echoing what the non-powerful have already said, otherwise it may will be derailing. For me, it is virtually impossible to derail a discussion because any input is valuable and that of the powerful especially so since they are most likely to know what will have an actual impact. So if a powerful person says something then it has value providing it gets the job done, even if it seems irrelevant or even dismissive to the non-powerful. (Somewhere in the links you gave is an example centring around a power station and snakes. That illustrates what I am saying nicely.)

So for me the only test I require of myself is 'is this helpful' helpful being as defined by me, since I believe my perspectives are of value regardless of whether I have the power or not. For you, the test is 'does this echo what the non-powerful are saying', since you believe only the perspective of the non-powerful is relevant.

I'm sure you, and most of the others reading this, disagree thoroughly with my beliefs - lets take that as said and not waste time going over our underlying beliefs again - but maybe by laying out my reasoning and showing how I believe yours varies from it, it will help clarify your ideas about how you can avoid derailing in your own terms. I am happy to serve as the man who is always wrong in your eyes :)

And carried over from my earlier thoughts, you can also help avoid derailing in others by always giving a clear context, and by not setting up targets on sore subjects that people are bound to get distracted by (the #10 poster in your examples, JennyO's Welsh!Fail as a real example).

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Friday, February 12th, 2010 01:03 am (UTC)
I'm a bit late to this, but I wanted to drop a note and thank you for posting this. I'm not sure I agree with all of it (I'm not sure I don't, either), but I am sure that I appreciate reading the thoughts of someone who is legitimately concerned about the issue, is debating ideas in good faith, and doesn't think that s/he has it all figured out from the start.

I think this issue is WAY too complicated for anyone to have the absolute answer to it, and it's nice to see someone admitting that and looking for a genuine discussion. I think that approach has been lamentably absent from a lot of recent posts on the matter.
Monday, March 15th, 2010 09:36 pm (UTC)
Your post has been added to a linkspam round-up.
Monday, March 15th, 2010 10:10 pm (UTC)
You've been linkspammed, though they appear not to have let you know yet.