[Blogathon] Safe Spaces for Racists

I said in my post criticizing the Politically Incorrect UChicago Confessions page that I agreed with various people that it would be a good idea to have spaces where people could ask “politically incorrect” questions or say “politically incorrect” things that would then be discussed calmly and charitably, with no backlash or criticism. The question, though, is what that kind of space would look like and how it would work.

Here’s what I envision (there are other ways this could work, of course, this is just one idea):

A subreddit, much like AskScience or AskHistorians, called something like AskSocialJustice or PoliticallyIncorrectEducate (like Transeducate, a great subreddit)

  • You have a verification system that gives flair (tags next to your username, essentially) that indicates what your field of knowledge is. Things like “sexism” or “racism”, or perhaps framing it the other way “feminism” or “anti-racism.” Just as in AskScience or AskHistorians, it might be optimal to have only academics in the subject be given flair, but I’d be happy to have Jessica Valenti or Ta-Nehisi Coates in there, obviously. People who know a lot about the subject and are accustomed to writing about it.
  • The rules in the sidebar are:
    • No slurs unless you’re asking about them
    • Disrespectful/cruel/obnoxious questions and comments get deleted
    • Questions that are good questions but not phrased as well as they could be get rewritten, with the original in strikeout (I don’t even know if this is possible). This lets questions from people who don’t know as much through, but keeps things more respectful and demonstrates how discourse should work.
    • Unhelpful/uncharitable/not-intended-to-educate responses get deleted, even if they’re completely correct
  • The mods enforce these rules and also mention to people that they’re being less respectful or helpful than they could be, and give concrete advice and even rewritings of the comment or question to model what the discourse should look like.
  • Mods also allow any good responses, but emphasize the flaired/tagged experts on the topic

So in the end what I envision is questions like:

  • Why can’t I use the word X, but other people can?
  • What’s wrong with calling someone a Y, doesn’t it just mean blah blah blah?
  • Why do Z people always do A? (Actually, this one would probably get rewritten as “I notice that Z people are more likely to do A than Y people. Why?” so that we encourage people to write what they observe instead of what they infer.
  • I know it’s a stereotype, but actually, B’s totally always do C.
  • Is G X-ist?

And I envision the responses being of the form:

  • Well, here’s the history of that word and what it means to people and what harm it causes when non-Z people use it.
  • So, in some sense, Y does mean that, but its meaning has changed because of these historical events, and now this is the effect it has on people.
  • You may notice that because you’re influenced by the stereotype of Z doing A, and so you don’t notice that Y does A a lot as well. It may also be that they’re more likely to as a result of alpha, beta and gamma cultural influences, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Why does A bother you?
  • Well, B actually isn’t true. The statistics indicate that C is a lot more common, even though popular media and even news outlets emphasize B far more.
  • G certainly comes out of an X-ist culture, and it might perpetuate it, but the benefits of G could outweigh those in the cases of R, S and T.

Responses would follow the guidelines of charity and civility laid by myself, Dan Fincke and others. They would be academically rigorous but as free of jargon as was humanly possible, and accessible to readers of a variety of educational levels. Responses would also contain concrete advice for how to act or what to say, giving useful potential scripts where helpful. Questions asked frequently would probably end up constituting their own page that people would get linked to if they asked the same ones.

That way, people of all beliefs, from the merely curious to the rabidly racist, get their questions answered, and they stay anonymous. They get thoughtful, charitable answers filled with resources, should they want to investigate further. The answers are logically and academically rigorous, and delivered without moral judgement or abuse, even if moral judgement would in general be thoroughly warranted. (I think there would also be a way to say, “Yes, that’s X-ist and it’s an awful thing to say to someone. Here’s why..) within these guidelines, since that doesn’t have the same effect as simply calling them an awful person. There would be plenty of empirical data provided whenever possible. Responses would emphasize the real, tangible ways that bigotry and prejudice affect people and their lives, so as to cultivate empathy, but also place responses in historical, economic, political and sociological context.

What do you all think? Would this work? Would these spaces be good? Productive? Would they still “make bigotry fester”? (Which I’m not really sure is a thing) . Would they still hurt people and spread bigotry? What would you add or take away from the rules or approach? I’d love to hear people’s thoughts.

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14 thoughts on “[Blogathon] Safe Spaces for Racists

  1. Alex says:

    I love the idea (although I’m less than optimistic about its success). I know that AskFeminists has a problem with its mods, and it’s not as general as the space your proposing.

    I’d join and try to contribute. As long as the civility pledge (or something comparable) was followed and enforced, the mods were able to stay fair, and topics didn’t get repeated ad nauseum, I think it would be a good place, both for people new to social justice and for people who disagree with certain premises.

  2. Miri says:

    I’d love to help!

  3. Notung says:

    I like the general idea, but have a few reservations about your precise description of it.

    First: I’m slightly put off by the idea that you think of this as a ‘safe space for racists’. I also saw Dan Fincke describing this on Twitter as a place for ‘bigots to ask their honest questions’. In my experience, people don’t generally like to be thought of as racists or bigots, and so branding them as such before they’ve even asked a question might in some way run counter to the idea of civility that you and Dan promote so persuasively. It’s always *other* people who are racists and bigots – it’s very rare to find someone who happily thinks of themselves as a bigot.

    Second: It feels a bit too pedagogical, as if you have two tiers: the lowly questioners and the all-knowledgeable educators, who impart wisdom unto the racists. Take the second question and answer from your examples, for instance. The questioner asks if a word W means P. The teacher replies that actually W means Q. Who is right? Well that will presumably depend on philosophical and linguistic arguments and assumptions, as well as certain relevant historical facts. It isn’t merely a case of answering in a wholly matter-of-fact way. The ‘teachers’ should realise that they might be wrong themselves – I worry that there’s a level of certainty here that’s going unchallenged. When I see these discussions online I often see that the self-appointed educators have a quasi-religious level of certainty about the truth of their ideas and see themselves as authorities – not just hobbyists (which is usually closer to the truth).

    I like the idea of a space (not necessarily a ‘safe’ one, whatever that means) where people can discuss these politically and emotionally charged issues civilly, rationally and calmly without dogmatically attacking those who ask questions, and trying to get them ostracised from humanity or whatever. To do that, we all need to take note of our own fallibility, and listen to other ideas without presuming them to be wrong in advance.

    • Chana says:

      To your first point: I tried to make clear in the content of the post that I by no means think everyone posting in the group would be a bigot or racist. The titles of the space I suggested, for instance, don’t mention such a thing at all. I’m sorry it was unclear; the title was meant to be thought-provoking, not necessarily descriptive. The space would be for anyone to ask a question or make a comment.

      To your second point: I do think these questions actually have answers. I don’t want to pretend that it’s a free for all, where any opinion is valid. It is meant to be an education space, and as such, I want people who are well-informed on the topics to be the primary answer-ers, since I think they’d do the best job of presenting the relevant information. Of course, they might disagree with each other, and others might disagree with them, and those asking the questions might disagree with the answers, and they’re all welcome to discuss that in an appropriate and respectful way.

      There is a whole spectrum of ways to do this, from a free for all, everybody gets to dive in, to a rigid actual safe space where we don’t discuss certain things. The Politically Incorrect Facebook Page, in my opinion, was way too far to the former. This will lean to the latter, and I’m comfortable erring on that side of things, since I think bigotry is bad and should be criticized. This is my salvo to people with offensive opinions, but I don’t want to go so far that anything seems acceptable.

      • Notung says:

        Well, on the first point I guess that’ll depend how the website is presented, so we’ll have to wait and see.

        On the second point – no not all opinions are valid or acceptable, of course. My point isn’t that. I’m saying that the ‘teachers’ aren’t authorities – they need to back their own opinions up with arguments and be open to counter-arguments to their positions. Lots of those questions sound philosophical – perhaps requiring moral philosophy or philosophy of language. One thing philosophers shouldn’t do is tell you what to think or what is the ‘correct’ answer. They can only present the best arguments they have – which should always be open to objections.

        This would be different, perhaps, if we were ‘educating’ people about evolution, say, since scientific statements are built on hard facts. I don’t think the same is true with semantics or ethics.

      • slatestarcodex says:

        “To your second point: I do think these questions actually have answers. I don’t want to pretend that it’s a free for all, where any opinion is valid. It is meant to be an education space, and as such, I want people who are well-informed on the topics to be the primary answer-ers, since I think they’d do the best job of presenting the relevant information.”

        Right, but if you’re going to attract people by claiming a “safe space”
        , adding “…where we tell you that you are objectively wrong and how you should be better, and you may not debate us because we are right” is the exact opposite of what might actually attract people.

        Imagine an “EducateLiberals” subreddit, where you can post your liberal politically correct beliefs, and well-known racists with PhDs can condescendingly tell you why you’re wrong and bring up some reasons you may never have considered why minorities really *are* inferior. And anyone who complains or argues with what they say is banned for being offensive or unwilling to be “educated”.

        Would you use that site? Would anyone use it except other pro-racists who want to talk in an oblique way about how great the pro-racist cause is? Or maybe some anti-racists who want to bring up a “Bet you haven’t thought of THIS argument, eh?” and then quickly get banned?

        So given that what you’re proposing is exactly symmetric, why do you think any genuinely racist people would want to use yours? It seems to require this uncharitable model of racists where they secretly know they’re wrong and are just looking for someone to tell them so.

        I’m not predicting your site won’t get people using it. But I am sort of predicting it will only get a lot of vaguely social justice-y people asking questions about facets of social justice other than their own so they know what the standard position on them is, plus a couple of genuine racists who post sort of as a challenge, are not satisfied with the answers, and ask further questions which are then deleted for argumentativeness / unwillingness to be educated.

        • Chana says:

          Hi yvain!

          Thanks for your take. I don’t quite agree though. For a minor point, this isn’t of course actually meant to be a safe space. Perhaps I should change the title of this post, since it seems to be miscommunicating what I intended. It was meant mostly to be catchy and attention-grabbing, and I think the content of the post is much more indicative of my vision.

          That said, I don’t think the symmetry holds. You don’t get scores of liberals complaining that racists never listen to them. You don’t get tons of liberals annoyed that they ask simple questions of sexists and get yelled at. You don’t have far too many liberals, sincerely interested in learning more about racists, feeling alienated and hurt by being excluded from the community.

          We have that for social justice, and that’s the problem I’m looking to fix. I want there to be a space to ask questions, and I want there to be a place to “be educated” in a social justice sense. But in no sense would it not be allowed to argue back. My concern is with the form, approach and type of arguments made, not so much with the content. Good, thoughtful arguments are always allowed.

          I’m already (anecdotally) getting a lot of support from people who are either very much within the social justice community but are concerned that the outreach is extraordinarily poor, or those who are marginally attached to the ideas but find so much of the approach and insistence on everyone “educating themselves” to be offputting. I also think there are a lot of people who genuinely want to ask things like , “What’s up with Jews being overrepresented in academia?” (as seen from Uchicago’s politically incorrect site) and get real answers, and I see a lot of sort of SJ-minded people wishing there was a real discussion instead of a metaphorical public flogging.

          So I think there’s a demand for this that there isn’t on the flipside, and I don’t think you’re right to assume condescension and arrogance on the part of the community who will be responding and discussing.

          • slatestarcodex says:

            “That said, I don’t think the symmetry holds. You don’t get scores of liberals complaining that racists never listen to them. You don’t get tons of liberals annoyed that they ask simple questions of sexists and get yelled at. You don’t have far too many liberals, sincerely interested in learning more about racists, feeling alienated and hurt by being excluded from the community.”

            I agree with what you’re saying but interpret it somewhat differently than you do.

            The racists aren’t complaining that liberals “never listen to them” in the sense of “there is no place where you can go say something racist, and a liberal will respond to it.”

            They’re using the phrase in the same sense as “Republicans never listen to the concerns of minorities”. For a Republican to set up a site called EducateMinorities where minorities could post stuff and Republicans would “educate” them about why their concerns were illegitimate and they should stop having them wouldn’t solve the problem of “Republicans never listen to the concerns of minorities”. It would be Exhibit A, B, and C that the problem was real.

            This would have nothing to do with whether the Republicans on the site gave answers that were condescending in tone or not. The Republicans could give extremely friendly replies in which they don’t use judgmental language at all. The entire outlook of the site itself would be condescending.

            “Racists complain that liberals never listen to them” means, effectively, that the racists are complaining that liberals don’t listen to them as equal debating partners with opinions to discuss and analyze, but rather as ignorant people to be educated out of their ignorance. They get “listened to” in the same sense that psychiatrists listen to their patient talk about being Napoleon so they can figure out what the best medication to cure their insanity is. No matter how nicely phrased each individual answer is, they would find the entire idea arrogant, and in their shoes I would agree.

            You say that you’re getting lots of support from the social justice community and from people already marginally attached to it. That is great but it’s exactly the people I predicted in my post above would support this, and not at all your target demographic. If you want to survey your target demographic, I suggest talking to racists. You probably know the most vocal ones on LW and can private message them; if not I do and could put you in contact. Ask them what their thoughts are and whether they would be likely to use this site and engage with you. I predict they will say about the same thing I said, but I would be happy to be proven wrong.

            • Chana says:

              Fair enough! I think your interpretation makes sense, though I’m not sure it’s right. It’s definitely a good question. As I’ve been thinking through this project, I’ve been coming to the realization that it’s not so much outright racists and such that I’m looking to bring into this space; it’s reasonable people who in their everyday lives don’t say much that’s offensive, but have a few issues with social justice canon and want to ask or challenge and have real answers instead of being dismissed. But we certainly will have to see.

  4. pslaplace says:

    Are you thinking about actually starting such a space? Because if not, and if you were willing for me to do so, I would be interested in admining such a subreddit

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