How to survive being wrong on the internet.

Here’s the thing. You can say what you want. Other people can be offended about what you said. And ultimately it is up to you to form a judgement as to whether you consider what they said to be valid.

You can consider their point valid, but their delivery problematic. Some people will say you are “tone policing”, but there’s a difference between someone being shouty because they’re het up on a topic (which is understandable: it is valid to be emotional about an issue because everyone gets emotional), and someone offering to cut you. Objecting to someone crossing that line isn’t “tone policing”. It’s normal policing: you know, the sort where something is illegal.

You can consider their point valid, but not want to engage with someone who has just stamped all over you in public. That’s perfectly reasonable.

You can consider their point invalid – although, a word of advice here: try to make that your last resort. If someone tells you that they find something you said offensive, the polite thing to do is to apologise for having inadvertently offended them and either talk to them, or – if they don’t want to talk (which is fine, they were not put on this earth to educate you and google exists for a reason) – go away and try to figure out whether you understand how it was a problem.

Contrary to popular opinion, trying to be better at intersectionality doesn’t spell the end of language. It just doesn’t.

I heard this argument used in the 70s when it slowly became uncool to call black people “Chalky” and Indian people “paki” and gay people “poofter”. People reacted violently to the idea that not only was it uncool to say these things, it was also uncool to think like that. Nowadays I’m seeing the same anger from people who object to being labelled “cis”. I’m seeing it from groups of men who can’t bring themselves to think of women as human beings, and from people who can’t get their head around the fact that trans men and women are .. you know, men and women. Ignorant language is still everywhere – it’s just different ignorant language. Yet somehow a lot of us manage to have perfectly reasonable conversations without using misogynist, homophobic or racist terms etc (because we do not assume that misogyny, homophobia or racism are normal). If we can do that, we can broaden that ability further. We can educate ourselves out of the gaffes and assumptions we make about other people. And what’s more, we SHOULD.

All that’s happening is the internet is making groups that have traditionally been smaller and therefore easier to ignore, visible and impossible to ignore. Partly this is because the groups are getting bigger and more coherent: when there’s already a group of people like you, you’re a bit more likely to join in with it. People who were previously silent, separate little pockets of oppression are now joining up and gaining a voice: and good. Good.

What I’m seeing a lot of – online and in real life – is people effectively shouting “It’s PC gone mad!” or “this is language policing!” about a term that is new to them, while being perfectly OK with the elements of intersectionality they were brought up with, and which they factor in without even having to think about. Most of the people I’ve seen get bogged down on this recently are people who are pretty cool, definitely not bigots. They’re the good people, the ones you want to be up and championing this stuff. Very often they’re people who are already celebrated for championing an oppressed group. It seems to me that people are having a problem not with intersectionality, but with having to internalise being wrong about something.

A week ago I was told – quite angrily – to go out and buy the Guardian rather than reading it free online by two Guardian writers. It’s colossally insensitive, because I’m actually housebound about 99% of the time. When I pointed this out I was told that I ought to have my disability in my bio if I expect anyone to actually consider that disabled people may exist when speaking to a stranger.


No. Disabled people shouldn’t have to wear a badge so you know when to guard your language. Any more than gay people should, or trans people, or people of non-European heritage. You shouldn’t have to guard your language, unless you actually think that disabled people, gay people, trans people and people with a different ethnic or cultural heritage from you are somehow abnormal. Well, we’re not. We’re just people. It’s no more difficult to factor in “some people can’t walk” to your thinking than it is to factor in “some people are gay”. IT IS NO MORE DIFFICULT.

And the thing is: you’ll get it wrong. I’m probably getting a load of things wrong right now. Our biases and blind spots are trodden into us like fag ash into a pub carpet. We’re not aware of them: they’re part of us. Everyone – everyone – is a bigot, because each of us faces the world armed only with our own experience of it. But what we can do is try to be aware that blind spots are there, and when that learning curve smacks us in the face, try to separate carpet from stain. Try to broaden that internal definition of “normal”. While doing that, it is important to realise that the learning curve doesn’t have an end. There will always be some group you haven’t factored in because you’ve never encountered them before. There will always be someone who has a very personal objection to something that nobody else you’ve met has a problem with.

And that’s ok. It’s ok to get it wrong. It’s also ok to sometimes decide you disagree.

What isn’t ok is to stop trying, or to decide that because you already consider n groups when you speak, there’s some cutoff point where you are allowed to stop adding more.

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15 Responses to How to survive being wrong on the internet.

  1. isabelrogers says:

    Very yes. (I think that’s all I dare say, but that is the thrust of it. If I’m allowed to say ‘thrust’.)

  2. Yes, indeed. Must admit I haven’t come in for much, if any, of this but perhaps with ‘bipolar’ in my profile those people can avoid “nutters” like me! It’s there (not as the chief fact about me but) so others, or those newly diagnosed with BD, can find and share support, understanding, info and other bonuses in some small way! Like architects clubbing together or something. But we all have our own rights to choose what the hell we like for our profile information, and in very few characters.

    I don’t consider any groups when I speak – only people/human, I agree with you – and humans are unique so there’s an infinite variety. I can’t know everything about everyone or I’d be superhuman. Some, though, are in the prize pillock group. I have a very handy thought that always works with those who decide piss on my parade and that is “fuck ’em!”. They don’t even have to hear it. It tends to work every time. Instant de-stress. Can’t afford to have those people stress my head for one second.

    On Twitter, ‘block’ can be agreeable option. I’ve only ever blocked SEO gurus, ‘spiritual’ quoters, people who exclusively tweet ‘buy my book/idea/product’ 24/7 and fuckwits, though someone may have been rude to me in 2009. In RL, a quiet, direct “Oh, go away” is amazingly effective. For the insistent minority, “Oh, grow up”. Old school maybe but works for me. Fortunately, I’ve only had to say those things very rarely in real life.

    I don’t remember the last time I was right about anything. Go, you…

    • chiller says:

      I block with wild abandon, if I’ve established that someone is an ass or a wind-up merchant. Other than that, I do try to speak to people where possible. Some days I’m honestly not well enough for it and block someone because they think arguing is FUN whereas I find it exhausting, and I find people who argue because they think it’s fun unbelievably childish, self-centred and tedious – they’re always the people who don’t realise that their fun argument is someone else’s actual life. Some days I can’t be arsed to explain that.

      I do tweet about ME/CFS (and blog about it here), so it’s not that I keep my unwellness under wraps, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to define myself by it, or provide an early warning for people who think ablism is ok, as long as none of the pesky disabled can hear you! Solidarity! 🙂

  3. Yes, I’ve seen your great posts re ME/CFS and passed them on to a friend. Please don’t assume people are ‘defined’ by their conditions though, for putting it in their profile. I’m Heather, that’s all. *high fives* 🙂

    • chiller says:

      Oh, I didn’t mean to imply that – I do apologise! What I meant was: it’s not a secret, but it also isn’t the *first* thing I want people knowing about me, as I hate that able bodied people so often assume they’re entitled to the full medical history of disabled people / stigmatise disabled people for being disabled.

      I hope your friend enjoys the posts. I’m Rachel, nice to meet you. *high fives back*

      • Aww, thanks. And sorry if I came over like yet another pedantic troll-aholic arguing points! And I do know what you mean, the ablist thing. Gah. I’m in an episode now (after 3 years ‘clear’) so can jump into all kinds of risk, even online debate – which is rare for me. Ha. Aside from meds, rest and sleep, part of treatment is massive reduction in mental and social stimulation, incl. online: Twitter, internet, research, etc. So I’m following the medical measures for now, Twitter holiday for a bit and only 1/2 hrs a day online – hopefully this will limit the risk of rising higher into full blown, very scary, mania. :-/ But one thing I’ll miss is your smorgasbord of tweets in my TL! Thanks! 🙂
        *hugs* x

  4. Lisa says:

    “A week ago I was told – quite angrily – to go out and buy the Guardian rather than reading it free online by two Guardian writers. It’s colossally insensitive…”
    Well…I can understand why you found it to be, but can you honestly fault newspaper writers for wanting people to buy the newspaper? The fact that the Guardian puts it online for free in the first place is another subject, but given the state of newspapers, they probably fear for their livelihoods at some point. That may have been the only point they ever had in mind, and I think they have a right to make it without being accused of insensitivity to a situation they didn’t even know about. I suspect the overwhelming majority of people who don’t buy the newspaper have no reason other than getting something for free.

    You do have a reason, and I think your larger point here is spot on, but this example is frankly absurd. People can’t possibly consider every contingency before saying anything. Right?

    • chiller says:

      I disagree. For a start, it isn’t my decision to put the paper online, free, and shouting at your readers about a decision someone else took because you have beef with that decision is just plain dim.

      Secondly, when having conversations with strangers, we don’t routinely slip in homophobic or racist comments unless we KNOW that person is gay or a member of an ethnic minority. We don’t make those comments because we are not bigoted about those groups. If we can avoid being bigoted about those issues, it is actually very easy to add disability, if you can be arsed to.

      Additionally, if you shout at someone based on their having an ability to do something, and then find out they have no ability to do it, the polite thing to do is to APOLOGISE. Not shout at them more for being disabled. That is a straightforward dick move.

  5. Lisa says:

    I completely agree that if a business is going to give away its product for free, we all have the right to shrug and take advantage of it. And no one wants to be on the receiving end of an angry blow-up for a situation that has little to do with them.

    But I also (still) think it’s perfectly reasonable for employees potentially harmed by their employers’ decisions to make their case.

    Based on what you wrote, they were NOT making a bigoted comment, they were making an ECONOMIC POINT. Is it bigoted for musicians to rail against filesharing? I don’t think so. (I get that that’s an imperfect analogy in several ways, but bigoted, it is not.)

    There is a big difference here. Saying the n-word, or using a homophobic slur, or making fun of disabled people for their disability, is always nasty no matter what the audience. “Buy the newspaper so it won’t fold,” even if said angrily, IS NOT A SLUR. It just isn’t.

    I do completely agree that once they knew your situation, an apology was the appropriate response. That’s just basic civility. It’s not bigotry.

  6. Lisa says:

    I see this is still being discussed.

    Let me try again? I guess what I’m mostly getting at is, how would you like this to work, in real life?

    When you say things like…

    “What isn’t ok is to stop trying, or to decide that because you already consider n groups when you speak, there’s some cutoff point where you are allowed to stop adding more, ”


    “There will always be someone who has a very personal objection to something that nobody else you’ve met has a problem with,”


    “If we can avoid being bigoted about those issues, it is actually very easy to add disability, if you can be arsed to,”

    …and then cite, as your illustration, the comment made by the newspaper guys, I don’t know what to do with that.

    I’m happy to stipulate that they were rude, and they should have apologized. But those weren’t your main points. As I read it, your main point was that they were bigoted or “colossally insensitive.” But while I see incivility in their yelling at you, I just don’t see bigotry. I really don’t.

    So, again, my question is – and it is a serious one – how would you like this to work in real life? If what you mostly want is the apology afterwards, that’s one thing. But if you’d rather things weren’t said in the first place – how do we do that?

    Most analogies are imperfect. Here’s one anyway: I’m in the park, and end up walking a bit with a stranger, and I say, “Look at that beautiful tree,” and the person says, “Trees, meh, I’m colorblind.” (I do realize that colorblindness is much less of a problem than a lot of other things, but I’m glad I don’t have it, and there are probably some occupations for which it would be disabling.) At that point I might say something like, “That’s a shame; I’m sorry you have that.”

    But that’s after the fact. Is there some way such awkward messes could be avoided in the first place? Because – like most people, I hope – I really don’t *want* to cause someone distress or unhappiness.

    • chiller says:

      It’s really simple. What’s needed is some awareness in the first place that people who are disabled are pretty common and you are quite likely to be speaking to one right now.

      And after that, if you DO say something crass, just say “sorry”. No psychic powers or complexity required.

  7. Lisa says:

    Thank you for responding.

    And I really like what you and others are trying to do about the abhorrent stuff that’s on Facebook. I’m not on Facebook and had no idea such pages even existed.

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