[personal profile] locore
I recently used the term "thin-skinned" to describe the type of person who objects to any expression of disagreement as a "personal attack," or perhaps just plain objects to it. Moreover, I did this on an Adacamp mailing list, which has rules about appropriate language

I wasn't being very careful in my language, and the result was an email with links to several articles on the abuse of the term "thin-skinned" from a feminist perspective and similar issues. Here's the link collection, for context.


This is all good stuff, and in the context where it was pointed out to me, it was spot on. I had sent an email inviting people to this blog, and I was so afraid of being flamed/dissed/excluded/regarded as incorrigible/not liked/etc. that my subconscious served up belittling language to attack/marginalize the (so far imaginary) people I was afraid of - and I, who claim to be a competent writer, didn't catch it at the proof-reading stage, since it was "only an email" - to a feminist list, no less. Can I have some ketchup with my crow, please?

But something about this incident bugs me.

First of all, we all know there are people who object to any expression of disagreement with them, using whatever language seems likely to be effective. They may claim "personal attack" or "political correctness" or "racism" or accuse their opponent of anything from "communism" to "nazism." The goal is generally to silence one's opponents, sometimes to establish dominance, and/or to enjoy belittling/humiliating/marginalizing them.

We also know that accusations of this behaviour are even more plentiful than the behaviour itself. In fact, one of the techniques used by people to shut down their opponents is to claim that the opponents are inclined to use such techniques to shut other people down.

And these accusations can be very effective, particularly when others jump on the bandwagon - either honestly objecting to the behaviour, or trying to curry favour with the original objector, who is sometimes a leader attempting to maintain dominance, or simply some kind of bully. When there's any element of group think or clique involved, it can completely shut down any real discussion, beyond variants on the metaphorical choir agreeing with the preacher.

But no matter what term anyone comes up for this behaviour, it's going to be used as an attack technique by folks engaged in the behaviour, with the result that some people will have hot buttons about the term itself. If well-meaning people avoid all these hot buttons, the result is inability to discuss the behaviour - but the behaviour is clearly a problem, destructive of community and especially of diversity in communities. And what cannot be named doesn't exist, in a social sense, can't be addressed, and certainly can't be recognized as a problem. I.e. victory for the folks engaged in the behaviour.

One alternative is overly general language. Perhaps the behaviour might be called "bullying." But there are many other kinds of bullying, some involving physical violence. So the less intense/characteristic form disappears in the general term. Not so effective.

Another alternative is to describe the behaviour in careful detail, at some length. That will work when speaking to folks on the autism spectrum - and almost nobody else. The usual response, except possibly among folks who identify as "xxxx theorists", is "TLDR." And I imagine that as the culture gets more and more sound-bite oriented, this gets worse and worse.

Which gets us back to the need for sound bites, short-hand etc. even though they will necessarily have bad associations for some people.

No answers here. I'm just pretty sure that while a welcoming and open environment is valuable, it cannot come at the expense of never saying anything of substance - and there's sure to be someone, somewhere, objecting to anything one could possibly say. (As an example, I offer the use of "individual with poor social skills" at AdaCamp as the only pejorative available to describe someone who'd been behaving quite nastily indeed. Unfortunately, that's also a term that gets used quite frequently to marginalize folks with Asperger's syndrome - I didn't bother obejcting at the time because (a) I didn't want to derail the discussion (b) I couldn't imagine what other term they could use, given the rules on appropriate discourse and (c) I didn't feel like outing myself as an Aspie - I was feeling marginalized enough already, as the only person who seemed to like "east coast geek culture", Stack Overflow, etc.)

In small groups, one gets to know what phrases push other people's buttons, and good manners generally leads one to avoid them. (Unless of course one is trying to irritate them, or playing some kind of dominance/shut down/etc. game. Or one hasn't been taught this particular technique for creating a comfortable and welcoming environment.)

But is there really any way to avoid all such possibilities in an environment where anyone could be receiving one's communications, and one cannot even perceive them? Frankly, I don't think so. And given that, the best one can do is safe spaces for specific issues. And perhaps to mix up one's terminology, collectively at least, so no one set of buttons is being constantly pushed.
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