Sex, race, and authority: Shirley not!

Writing about L’Affaire Shirley Sherrod and the $h!tstorms over ideological purity in the American Left and how it’s infected the Right, Tenured Radical then brings it all back to the world we know and love:

I would also observe that this is not just a political problem, it’s a cultural problem. It is the kind of $hit that occurs daily on blogs: blogger writes a six or seven paragraph essay, and some a$$hat latches onto a sentence out of context, gives it a hateful spin, and writes a “comment” that is actually just a personal attack intended to discredit the blogger wholesale. The idea? Who cares about ideas? You would have to read the whole post to grasp the ideas!!!! How much easier just to move on to the next blog, knowing that the writer is exactly the putrid idiot you knew s/he was before you started reading.

Ah, yes:  memoriesClick on over there for the Airplane joke, if not for the intellectual stimulation.

Another connection in all of this, as Knitting Clio pointed out in the comments over at Tenured Radical,  is how easy it is to demonize women, especially women of color (like those who speak just once hypothetically about wise Latinas, f’rinstance), and discredit them as authority figures, whether they’re merely self-published writers or members of the current Presidential administration.  Somehow it’s all too easy to believe that a woman needs to be disciplined or even humiliated for shooting her mouth off again, and it’s all too difficult to believe that she’s deserving of due process, a fair hearing, or even of a complete reading of her professional opinions and accomplishments.  Van Jones was canned last summer without delay, and he was a dude.  But, Tenured Radical reminded us today about how easy it was during Bill Clinton’s presidency for the Administration to throw an African American woman appointee or would-be appointee under the bus (Lani Guinier and Dr. Jocelyn Elders, for example), especially if and when they dare to write or speak frankly about race or sexuality.

Just imagine if one of them–one of US–went all Dick (“Go f^&k yourself!) Cheney on someone!  On YouTube!!!

I’ve been thinking about the limits of blog discourse a lot lately, and the particular scrutiny of women’s words online.  I’ll offer some thoughts on this in the December issue of the Journal of Women’s History in a forum on blogging and women’s history edited by Tenured Radical.  In addition to my article, it includes a contribution from Marilee Lindemann of Roxie’s World, as well as Jennifer Ho of Mixed Race America; May Friedman, the author of Mothering and Blogging:  The Radical Art of Mommyblogging (2009); and Rachel Leow of A Historian’s Craft.  I bet you just can’t wait, can you!  Me neither.

What in your estimation are the limits of blog conversations?  What are the endemic problems, and what (if anything) can we do about them?

0 thoughts on “Sex, race, and authority: Shirley not!

  1. First off: OMG, everyone should run right out and get the December issue of JWH! That is going to be one HOT number, don’t you think?!?

    Secondly: I think the limits of blog conversations are many and profound, but I do want to be careful not to blame blogs or the blogosphere for a problem that is more broadly cultural. The tendency that TR points out to take things out of context, shoot first, ask questions later (or, more to the point, fire women and ask questions later) is obviously not unique to blogs. Comment sections on any major news site and even at places like CHE and IHE are full of vitriol, much of it aimed at women, queers, and people of color. And then of course there is Fox News. Alas.

    I think the challenge for all of us who are committed to thinking progressively and complexly is to try to create spaces that are more conducive to reflection and a real exchange of ideas rather than just pot-shots or knee-jerk reactions to whatever is happening in the moment. It’s tricky, because the blogosphere really does value speed and timeliness rather than reflection, but academic bloggers tend to be a little slower, which I think is a good thing. Ruth Marcus had something in WaPo today ( on “slow blogging,” a concept that has actually been around for awhile. It’s what we tend to do over at my place, perhaps because we’re lazy and some of us are, you know, dead, but also because it’s just the way we roll. I’m grateful that we don’t attract trolls and idiots, and yet I can’t honestly say that my comments section is hatching ideas that are going to save the world. Love you, readers, seriously, but still.

    Your commenters here are for the most part brilliant and supportive and wonderful, Historiann, and I always learn something from them. Perhaps the question, really, is how to make the blogospheric world at large more like le monde d’Historiann?


  2. Roxie–thanks for your thoughts on this, and your extravagant compliments. I agree that blogs shouldn’t be blamed as the #1 cause of the shoot-first-ask-questions-later attitude. (After all, Elders and Guinier were demonized by good, ol’fashioned media like radio, TV, and print newspapers and magazines, which presumably had the time and the resources to contextualize their remarks had they chosen to do that. But, it was easier–and more fun!–to take down someone who wasn’t well-supported by the Washington Establishment.

    Thanks for that link to Marcus’s post this morning, too. I’ve slapped her around here on occasion, but that doesn’t mean she’s always wrong.


  3. The internet is the great equalizer, and I don’t mean that in a good way. Expertise and accomplishment are flattened so that everybody can play in the same sandbox on the same level. But, of course, social imperatives of misogyny etc. remain.

    Part of what makes this blog work is that authority is not relinquished.


  4. Thanks, Emma. Moderation–or the lack thereof on mainstream newspaper sites and big blogs–is key. I know I haven’t always made the right call (tolerating some annoying or abusive commenters for too long, and/or perhaps banning people too precipitously), but I think it’s better (as Emma says) NOT to relinquish authority.


  5. The Sherrod thing had to be mal-edited even to make it a case of “shooting her mouth off,” much less a bad thing. The tone of the talk she gave in its entirety, as I understand it, was reflective and in some positive measure self-critical. All I could think of when I first heard about it was, god, I wonder if I can remember what I was doing in 1986, or whenever I was a very junior level federal employee, with few public contact opportunities or direct taxpayer service decisions to make or withhold. (And as a historian, I at least keep an archive and could try to find out). If I now tried to be wry, rueful, ironic, hortatory, or whatever about that, who in addition to me could I possibly get fired?

    On the tone of electronic commentary–and on essentially meaningless subject matters at that–look at the mainstream sports journalism media’s electronic pages, and the wacko stuff that seems to dominate there. It’s almost beyond comprehension what “BobinBaltimore227” feels compelled to emote on a nightly basis, and he wouldn’t even have the grace to say A$$hole!


  6. Pingback: Shirley we’re (not) beyond race and gender « Knitting Clio

  7. Actually, by authority I more meant your expertise in your field and expertise in rhetoric and argument. I like that you, and your commenters, don’t go with the internet presumption of “everything everybody says is valid”. Because if everything is valid, the only way to address a comment you disagree with is to shout down the commenter. Expertise and knowledge being so passe and all.

    But, yeah, the moderation helps, too.


  8. For me, the best thing about blogging is that it provides a way to interact substantially with a much wider circle of people than would otherwise be possible. Also, it allows me to learn shit about shit that I would otherwise never come into contact with, like history and literary shit.

    As far as limits, I think the main limitations on blog conversations are self-imposed by bloggers and commenters who go totally fucken shitnuts when their assumptions and authority are challenged.


  9. CPP–well, I’m sure there are instances I could point to in which my authority as moderator could be interpreted as going “totally f’n $h!tnuts” because my assumptions and authority were challenged.

    I find that people who actually want to have a conversation and get me to listen to them read the comments policy, try to folow the discussion threads, and refrain from name-calling. People who just want to call me an idiot and tell me I don’t have any authority don’t really want to have serious conversations.

    Example: A few months ago, “Walt” came over here to inform me that I wrote a “dumbass” post (this one here) because he imagined that it insulted Paul Krugman. That was the entirety of his “critique” of my work. The post wasn’t even really about Krugman, but rather about disciplinary differences between history and economics, and the different assumptions and habits of mind we all have. It wasn’t all sunshine for the historians in that post, either, although I admit to telling a few economist jokes.

    Now, Walt’s entitled to his opinion–but he needs to step it up if he wants to play here, so I banned him and I deleted the comment. I followed him back to another blog that had linked to that post, and he wrote, “Huh, I just got banned from Historiann’s blog for defending my man Krugman. Other comments she’s made here seemed okay, but her post about Krugman is pretty wrong on the merits, and she seems uninterested in being corrected.” (Another commenter over there pointed out that his approach to his correction was pretty dumba$$, but I didn’t see a reply from him on that.)

    Walt would probably put me in the category of fascistic blogmeisters who just want to be agreed with (or as he said, “uninterested in being corrected,” as if I know who the hell he is or that he has any authority to speak of. But I find that there are few netizens who are capable of expressing disagreement with an idea without getting into ad hominem insults. So this is what I’m struggling with: how do you encourage debate or disagreement or challenges to ideas without encouraging this kind of “dumba$$” exchange of insults? (CPP–I’m thinking of the trolls over at Zuska’s place and at Isis’s place who can’t refrain from mansplanations, attacks on feminism or feminists, or outright misogyny. They’re everywhere over there.)


  10. So this is what I’m struggling with: how do you encourage debate or disagreement or challenges to ideas without encouraging this kind of “dumba$$” exchange of insults?

    I’m probably the wrong person to ask, because my own blog comments section contains a garden of fuckwitted dumbasses that I have carefully cultivated over time. But yeah, that Walt dude was a hilarious fucken clueless dumbass.

    I think when you ban dumbasses, you get them all riled up and shooting for bear. If you mock, revile, and then ignore them, you defuse their dumbassery and also instructively make it clear what fucken dumbasses they are. When the fucken dumbasses on my blog act up, plenty of smart people hilariously smack them down.

    The pseudonymity of my blog certainly contributes to this being a workable approach.


  11. Yeah–pseudonymity is no longer an option for me! So I have to play it more on the square.

    I did think it was pretty funny that Walt really didn’t get why he had been banned. (And now I wish I had left up his original comment calling my post “dumba$$,” just so you could all see how shallow and content-free it was.)

    I chalk it up to Walt being socialized in another kind of online forum, and not knowing that he needs to put on a shirt and shoes and use a fork at my place.


  12. Definitely there are different expectations in terms of deep-reading, courtesy and discourse when you move from one community to another online. Those who can see these differences easily and adapt do very well whereas those who think the first way they really learned (or the customs they prefer) ought to be universal? Really mess the internet up for the rest of us.

    What I get from that Breitbart dude and the others of his ilk is that they really don’t have an ounce of empathy or even a sense that those who disagree with them qualify as human. Therefore, anything they object to in the others’ speeches, posts and comments is sufficient evidence because, they know deep down inside, that the other guys are just plain bad and wrong. To them, it isn’t cherry-picking and twisting whereas to those of us who try to see context, it very much is.

    Can’t wait for that issue of JWH!


  13. “Uninterested in being corrected…” !?!? That one has to go into a hall of fame somewhere, at least worth a t-shirt. Dumb. Founded. What can you say? Must walk home… You’d have to worry about what they would *do* with a fork.


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