Supporting the Lurkers in the Emails: the Onstage Version
If I'm a conscious ally of anyone on the internet, it's people who grew up in dysfunctional or abusive families. I'm in private correspondence with a fair number of people in that situation in the fannish community, loosely construed.
Of course, different people deal with such upbringings differently, but a non-trivial number of the people I correspond with have PTSD from various childhood situations. Most of them have triggers around verbal or physical violence, or both.
A good number of the people who learned as children* that verbal violence leads inescapably to physical violence find $THINGFails to be trigger-rich environments. When the $THINGFail discussion sweeps by them on the way to some other target, they tend to be shaken, sometimes for days on end. When they are even arguably the target of the $THINGFail, the reactions are much worse. People freeze up, or lash out, or do both in alternation. People break, and don't heal afterwards.
Now, I am aware of the term "tone argument", and I think it's an extremely valuable conversational tool. It's a good description of one way that people's experiences and perspectives can be devalued because they cannot maintain some idealized emotional detachment about matters that affect their lives. It's a diagnosis of a conversational ill that damages both the discourse and the people participating in it (for clarity: the ill does the damage, not the diagnosis).
Unfortunately, as implicit permission to be as angry as you like in the debate, it's also the doorway to triggering a different kind of damage. Not everyone can put their "big girl pants" on and suck up whatever tone gets used in these discussions; some people find themselves dropped into the middle of PTSD episodes because of them. Nor can everyone apologize when challenged by a large crowd†; some people are too busy reliving earlier abuse.
These people don't tend to put their hands up and say, "Wait, stop! I'm triggering here!" either. One doesn't admit weakness, frailty, vulnerability in the midst of these things. That's another lesson from being abused: showing weakness is just an invitation for the hurt to become more targeted, more effective, more damaging.
And it doesn't go away when the storm passes, because this is the internet. The hurtful words are still there, and if one triggered when they were written, one triggers again when rereading them, or even considering rereading them. For some of my friends, there is no way out of the maze except to leave the community altogether. Some have. Others have considered it.
Basically, there is a difficult balance to be struck between those who would pay a cost for suppressing their anger and those who would pay a cost for encountering it unbridled. My concern is that, in the standards of discourse that currently operate, that latter cost is completely off the books. People don't pretend that anger is easy to deal with, but they do assume that it's possible for everyone because it's hard but possible for them. And that is simply not true.
If the essence of privilege is not understanding that the world looks different to people different than you, then the fact that the tone argument (loosely construed, in other words, any mention of anger) is an automatic derail is a privileged protocol. But there's not even a name for the privilege of not having PTSD.
I don't have a solution to this. On bad days, I wonder if that cost to our larger community, our occasionally dysfunctional family of fandom, really matters to everyone. Maybe people think it's OK that voices are lost to the choir, not because of what they say but because they can't take the protocols of discourse. There's certainly a whole lot of "don't care" out there right now. On good days, I hope that the commonality of our goals—equality, free discussion, truth, hope and love—will somehow prevail.
Until then, I'm still supporting the lurkers in the e-mails.
Nota Bene: You may think you know who this is about. You're probably wrong; not all of my correspondents are otherwise-known associates of mine, and few of my closer friends have discussed this matter with me in these terms. This could describe anyone who has melted down, freaked out, or frozen up in these sorts of discussions.
* Or, indeed, later; some people encounter enough abuse after childhood to end up with PTSD.
† Even a friendly, kindly crowd bent on explaining rather than accusing can be overwhelming and upsetting; it's like standing in front of a fire hose. And the outliers, the already angry, and the plain old griefers who gather like vultures to these conflicts can seem representative when one is under the dogpile.