Building a Feminist Comments Policy

by | November 12, 2012
filed under Feminism, LGBT

by Jarrah Hodge

As Gender Focus’ readership has grown over the past few years, we’ve encountered more situations where a few trolls visit the site and spend what seems a inordinate amount of time refusing to listen and/or trying to bait me or a contributor into one fallacious argument or another.

So, what do we do when we get a flood of comments like that?

Well, Gender Focus does have a comments policy, modelled after the excellent policy at Bitch Magazine blogs. My experience as a contributor there was that it always felt safe to post and comment. I could be reasonably assured that people disagreeing with me were at least hearing me out and considering their responses.

I wanted that for Gender Focus. I wanted to strike a balance between allowing for debate and ensuring contributors and commenters feel safe expressing their opinions and not being subject to silencing tactics.

To that end, here are a couple of the key items in the policy:

Carefully consider what you post. While it’s often ok to mention offensive materials sensitively in order to discuss them; sexist, racist, ableist, transphobic, or homophobic content posted for the purpose of promoting them rather than critiquing or discussing will be removed. The editor may also remove homophobic, sexist, racist comments or otherwise offensive comments, especially if they involve a personal attack or clearly show the poster has not read the thread.

Respectfully disagree. To borrow from the Bitch Magazine blogs comments policy: “If you’re critiquing someone’s tone (“Why are you so upset?”), the emotions behind their argument (“You obviously have issues.”), or resorting to adjectives like “delusional,” “ridiculous,” and “paranoid,” you probably need to rethink your comment.”

Consider your perspective. It’s easy to react defensively when you read a post that might be critiquing something you or someone you know does in your life. First, remember it’s not personal. It’s extremely rare that we post a story that is attacking a person rather than a social structure. We’re critiquing media and people’s actions, not individual identities. Pay special attention if you come from a place of privilege – if a post addresses an oppression you have not yourself experienced, listen to others’ voices and try to see where they’re coming from before responding angrily. Recognize that the impact of their lived experience is probably more significant for them than your being uncomfortable with the subject.

The comments policy is a set of suggestions for better discussion, and it’s also a tool to help me enforce a safer space. Sometimes it works just like it should.

For example, I recently had some aggressive anti-trans comments posted on one of the weekly round-ups where there was a mere mention of trans beauty queen Jenna Talackova.

I’m going to share those comments here so you can see how I applied the criteria from the comments policy.

The first commented:

Jenna Talakova is not female. He is male, and is appropriating female. If a person wears blackface do we think they are Black? Decides tomorrow they must have been born black, so they demand membership in Black Panthers, other Black rights orgs? Transgender is a fetish, not a sexuality. Biologically males cannot become females or vice versa. Gender is not Sex. I resent men who can afford thousands and thousand in surgery appropriating female. They are men in drag, cross dressers. They are misogynist, homophobic (trying to look heterosexual and hide their homosexuality and fetishistic.

Commenter 2 stepped the transphobia up a notch:

You are misogynistic and sexist, a BIGOT, for not allowing comments from a feminist who made your vocation and career possible. When we marched and held sit-downs and picketed university VP offices to get YOU and your peers into university schools that virtually banned women, or set quotas on number, we didn’t have in mind you supporting women-hate.

That’s what you are doing. Hater. Bigot. One of those whose politics caused Amanda’s death.

Wear it.

And

VIOLENTACREZ is trans.

Are you going to avoid that, in your rush to support males under any cost to women?

Editorial bias. Manipulation. Bigotry, and Women hating.

Commenter 2 argued that “pointing out Sex cannot be changed is not transphobic. It’s biology”, to which I replied that assuming all trans people are sexual predators and denying their chosen identity out of fear is the definition of transphobia.

I was glad I had developed a policy that I could cite when I swiftly removed those comments. While it’s possible to have a nuanced and respectful debate about Talackova (say, around the idea of beauty pageant success as a feminine achievement), these commenters were clearly virulently anti-trans and the 2nd commenter in particular seemed to have no issue creating and disseminating complete lies (such as the assertion about Violentacrez) in order to spread fear and hate of trans people. I didn’t want there to be a chance that someone would come across the comments and somehow think they were credible.

But every now and then there’s a situation where the commenters aren’t following the policy but the comments are still worth leaving up, either because it lets you respond to what might be a common misconception, or because you don’t want to be seen as shutting down discussion.

For example, a post by Jasmine Peterson really trying to understand Men’s Rights Activists is a classic example. After an MRA activist made a YouTube video reading the entire post in an insulting voice over a picture of a woman in a gorilla mask with the caption “Feminist Sans Makeup”, comments started to come in – many of them trying to hawk Voice for Men propaganda – like:

this is probably the dumbest feminist i’ve ever seen. you truly think men aren’t treated badly today? shows how anti-man you are. men have to pay more for car insurance. they aren’t allowed to have male only organizations while women have hundreds. they are discriminated against by things like affirmitive action. and there is clear misandry in today’s society. not like a feminist idiot cares about that though.

Hun your ideology is wrong, Don’t allow other pathological lying feminist to corrupt your mind, which is unfortunately already happening to you.Don’t believe them get all your statistics from the federal bureau of investigations, The department of justice i could continue but i’m sure you get the point.Feminist sites never use true statistics they always twist and distort them as well as facts to accelerate their agenda.

Rape culture wow you really must be a graduate of jen-duh studies,
The only rape culture out there, is the culture of routinely not holding women accountable for their false rape accusations.
There is no rape culture. It doesn’t exist stop lying.
Would it be too much to ask of feminism to just stop lying to society?
And in regards to working with you, please until you are willing to face the facts then you are a waste of breath and time.

The problem with taking down comments on this post was that the very premise of the article was a desire to engage with MRAs (which Jasmine bent over backwards to do with these commenters). In a case like this where the comments policy maybe isn’t nuanced enough, I try to rely on the answers to a couple of key questions to make a decision around a comment:

1. Will the comment stand unchallenged? (in this case, Jasmine was responding to comments politely and rationally so I could trust the average GF reader to evaluate the situation and see that not everyone was commenting fairly)

2. Who is being attacked/at risk of being silenced? (I emailed Jasmine and asked if she wanted any of the comments taken down, seeing as they violated the policy. She said no. If she would have said yes, I would have removed them. Likewise, if the person/group who is the focus of the comments can’t or shouldn’t be expected to respond (as in the anti-trans comments), I feel an obligation to remove those comments.

So that’s basically where I’m at in regards to the comments on Gender Focus today. If you’ve ever commented or thought of commenting here, I’d like to know what you think and if you have any suggestions.

I’d also like to do a follow-up post to this talking about my entirely different and evolving approach to comments on my Feminism F.A.Q.s YouTube videos, so keep an eye out for that.


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  • http://www.theclosetfeminist.ca Emily

    Thanks so much for posting this, Jarrah! As a new feminist website, our editorial team has been discussing commenting policies and what could work,and this post has really helped us out a lot!