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problematic pasts and growing up


The motivation for this post came from Lynn’s rules for combat engagement online. I find one of the more interesting rules that she lays out is that people basically have amnesty for something they wrote over five (or was it ten?) years ago. The exact time doesn’t matter. I’m more interested in this idea as a general rule.

I’m interested in how it intersects with the usual ‘issue’ many people describe with online activism/social justice/whatever the fuck you want to call it. This is the notion that there is very little room for people to grow and learn. The idea being that making a mistake as a n00b can essentially kill any chance you have from ever participating in the group.

Mainly, I want to explore some of the boundaries and nuances between these two ideas, because I think they both have something to contribute so long as they are appropriately balanced.

its hard to be a n00b

I’m purposefully invoking the tech community by using ‘n00b’ as a way to describe people just starting to explore issues of racism, sexism, and anti-oppression in general. I’m doing so because I’m pretty sure only the tech community is more hostile to n00bs than ‘social justice’. Of course, I’ve also written about the double standards for how ppl respond to a social justict space going ‘read the fucking manual’ vs tech forums. For the sake of this discussion, I really only bring up the double standard so that we can recognize that hostile reactions to n00bs isn’t just a activist community problem. And that the disparity in how this is discussed in SJ vs Tech clearly shows that power and privilege has coloured how we perceive this problem.

Which is interesting because one could argue that the stakes are higher for not reading the manual before trying to engage or participate in anti-oppression. The stakes are higher because if you make a mistake, rather than your code being buggy or whatever, you might say or do something heinously oppressive. And depending on what you do in your ignorance, it can be quite harmful.

But the high stakes in another regard. Being a n00b who hasn’t read the manual… if you happen to make a mistake (small or large) its quite possible that this stain will mark you forever (unless you completely change geographic locations and/or remake your entire online presence).

The Eternal Stain can be especially difficult to deal with online, since… well, we leave a lot of traces of our past behaviour. And, as frequently happens, anytime you try to do anything, someone will link to your mistake, post a screencap, etc. And, as noted by Lynn, there is no statue of limitations for this. You fucked up when you were 16 and now you’re 26 and people are still using that as evidence for how you’re problematic? Welp. That’s social justice on the internet.

this stunts growth

Obviously, this is a pretty sub-optimal state of affairs. And, I believe, one of the chief reasons why people complain that activist communities give people no space to grow. The thing about growing and learning is that, invariably, it means you make mistakes. But… the internet’s eternal memory makes this kind of learning difficult.

Especially since we really do remember bad things more than good. So maybe you made a mistake two years ago. You were called out. Maybe you also didn’t handle the callout very gracefully. But… six months after you realized that you were wrong and harmful. By this point, though, all the people you owe an apology to have blocked you. And you know that attempted to circumvent this clear boundary is Not the way to apologize. So you do nothing but start working to change your behaviour and not repeat that same mistake.

Then you have about a year and half’s worth of time/action demonstrating that you’ve learned from your mistake only to have someone bring up your Problematic Past in your current social situation…. and so, once again, everyone blocks you. Or maybe they ask for an explanation. And you give it, express sincere and profound regret, and everyone still ends up blocking you. Or some. Either way, this one moment two years ago overrides the year and half you spent integrating what you learned and doing better.

Rinse and repeat. And maybe you just give up and withdraw because it feels hopeless to you. And you’re exhausted from repeatingly trying to ‘prove’ that you’ve learned and that you’ve grown.

But this is an issue that effects more than just n00bs. A climate like this also discourages people from exploring new ideas. One of the easiest ways to not ‘fuck up’ and keep an appearance of being Ideologically Pure is to simply go with the flow. Use the lingo other ppl are using. Watch what the ‘leaders’ (formal or informal) do and copy to the best of your ability. Certainly never critize whatever the dominant Trend is and most especially do not ever critize anything one of the Leaders(tm) says. Not matter how queasy it makes your stomach feel.

See? These are community abuse tactics that reward compliance over intellectual curiousity. They ensure that if someone wants to join the group, that person must assimilate into the group, rather than the group embracing the fresh perspective and knowledge and skills this person has to offer. Its also how the Leaders(tm) of the group maintain their control (and avoid any and all accountability).

but what about accountability?

At some point along the way, we appear to have decided that ‘accountability’ means ‘public shaming’ and the expectation that people constantly self-flagellate in order to show remorse and pay penance. There is some… implicit expectation that we treat this like some kind of (fictionalized?) alcholic anonymous meeting:

“Hi, My name is b. and I’m anti-Black. Three years ago I jumped into a conversation about anti-Blackness and spoke over the Black people involved. It was rock bottom. I ended up delete my blog – to get rid of a platform that had been partially built with the help of Black people – and restarting as a way to make ammends”1.

Honestly? None of us really know what real accountability might look like. Yeah, we’ve established some protocols for how to apologize in the moment (so has not to make the entire situation snowball). But an apology – all on its own – isn’t enough to be accountable, at least not so far as I can tell. While I realize the idea has been hevily critiqued, many people appear to have forgotten the end goal of ‘community accountability’ as an alternative way of creating justice.

It is this end goal that I’m interested in (not in defending the notion of community accountability itself). In general, the end goal is that the victim gets the support and resources to heal and the perpetrator gets the support and resources need to reform their behaviour. To change and to learn and to grow. By and large, it appears that many of us have only gone so far as the ‘support the victim’ part of this. Which isn’t a problem given that it is still a constant struggle for victims to get the support and resources they need to heal.

This is sort of coming off something I recently read (but can’t remember where) discussing how few resources their are for abusers. And its certainly come up in a few other places. And it is a strange thing we have going here. We are basically treating ‘community justice’ like a zero sum game. Any attention, support, or resources that go to reforming abusers is directly subtracted from those available to victims. Except… this isn’t even slightly close to true. Some people are likely more inclined to support vitims while others might want to help reform abusers.

Ultimately, the issue becomes… We often like to say – to counter victim blaming – that abusers are the ones who need to stop abusing. But how is anyone supposed to do this with little or not support or space in which to do so? Again, this isn’t a zero sum game. We don’t only have to do one or another. And, currently, we already do some of this.

Instead, both of these things should be treated as parallel problems. We need systems and structures in place that will give victims everything they need to heal. We need systems and structures in place that will allow abusers to change their behaviour and stop abusing. These structures and places do not (and probably shouldn’t be) need to be the same place.

As noted. We do already do some of this. I know as a youth I was (forced by my mom) to take anger management classes. This is something that generally exists and that people are occassionally ordered to do. These classes aren’t really geared towards healing and supporting victims, but rather trying to teach individuals how to appropriately and safely manage and express our anger. Its a space for people who (usually if my class was anything to go by) express anger in ways that is frequently harmful to other people or themselves to learn different strategies to… stop doing that.

(Notice how nothing in this section mentions either ‘forgiveness’ or ‘forgetting’. I don’t think either is relevant to accountability. As I said, these are parallel problems and notions of ‘forgiveness’ put ridiculous (and coercive) burdens on victims.)

forgive me father for i have sinned


None of the above, though, really says much about what we’re supposed to do with our problematic pasts. Or discusses the nuances of this (since it treats all n00b mistakes as being equal and this is so not the case – there’s a huge difference than demanding intellectual labour from someone and, idk, using a racial slur).

Of course, I don’t think we can come up with any general rubric for ‘how problematic’ must a past for it to stop being treated as an eternal damnation of the person’s moral character. Instead, we need to look at each case. We also need to decide on some ethical system for assessing the ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ of the past action.

Since consequantialism is the most common ethical system in these communities, its pretty clear that the first relevant factor is the nature and degree of harm caused by the past action.

For my part… I tend to be super forgiving as far as microaggressions go (again, I’m speaking only for myself since it is the victim who decides how great the harm was). This means that I’ve actually followed many cis women for several years who have (and sometimes still do) made the ‘vagina = woman’ microaggression. It irritates me and I don’t like it. But I generally don’t even bother to mention it. My choice.

Similarly, I think someone asking a 101 question at an inappropriate time, like when people butt into convos I’m having with friends to ask 101-level questions. It isn’t the right time and its showing a level of entitlement to our time and labour that, depending on which of us it is, can be understood as anti-Black, transmisogynist, etc. Something like this is… oppressive and shitty, but not really something I’d hold against them (or even remember) years into the future.

But…. I remember at least within my circle, when it became imperative to remember the past sins of a certain tumblr user who loved to say something atrocious (usually anti-Black) that would then start a huge fucking discussion, who’d then delete. Only to remake under a different name and do the same thing again. And so… we’d all have to keep track of her URL because it removed her ability to cause strife and discord.

And, yeah, even though I haven’t seen her since the major incident in 2012, I still remember. And if she were to pop up again, almost four years later, I’d definitely hold it against her. Maybe not if I’d also learned that she actually has been on tumblr for the past four years and without doing what she used to do. Still wouldn’t ever be her friend, but I might not write a post linking her to her Problematic Past. Or I might, given that I’m also a petty petty princex.

On the other hand, one of my closest friends used to a radfem. Of the ‘i hate transwomen’ type. I’ve known this from the begining. We’ve been friends for several years now. And, I like to think, we’ve helped each other change, learn, and grow (from our respective problematic pasts).

Each situation is different. Everyone’s mileage is different.


But I’m also discussing this because I want to make it clear that there already is space and opportunity for people to learn, change, and grow and leave their Problematic Pasts behind. I think we tend to obscure how this happens and that, overall, there isn’t as much space as their could be (mostly likely because many people who aren’t interested in accountability tend to claim they want to learn…. just one the backs of the ppl they’ve harmed).

Which brings us to the notion of intent, something I’ve recently discussed.As noted in the previous paragraph, some people make noises about learning and accountability but their intent contradicts the hot air they blow, since it quickly becomes clear that they expect their space to grow to be on the backs of those they’ve harmed. And for those they harmed to also provide the bulk of the intellectual and emotional labour needed to ‘teach’ them.

But I also think that intent does matter when assessing n00b mistakes. Because while ignorance doesn’t excuse or erase the harm caused by someone, it does make for a different sort of offense than someone who is deliberately causing harm (as in the story of the person above).

It’s also the notion of intent, I think where most of our current discussion about n00bs falls apart. Because the charge of ‘god, you can’t even make a small mistake’ comes about because we disregard intent. Treating someone ignorantly using a slur as the same as someone maliciously using it2. Yes. Slurs are violence. Each time is violence. But someone stepping on your foot isn’t the same as someone kicking you in the shins. Both cause harm but….

In general, we are too quick to dismiss it when people say “I’m sorry, it wasn’t my intent to hurt you”. Yes, it isn’t the best apology since their intent is irrelevant to the harm caused, but it is actually a good thing to know. Because I know that I actively avoid people who intentionally cause me harm. I will distance myself, but not block or whatever, people who’ve accidentally hurt me. They might even get a second chance (as always YMMV).


This ended up being about a million times more epic than I intended (lol). But I did want to spend sometime really exploring one of the continuous problems of Activist(tm) communities.

And, as noted earlier, this is matter for more than just n00bs. How we react to n00bs who’re geniunely trying to learn sends a very clear message to those already in the in-group. It not only stifles the growth and learning of individuals, but it prevents new perspectives and new ideas from growing within the group as a whole. We are all harmed by creating an environment that actively discourages intellectual curiousity and exploration.

Just as we are all harmed by creating an environment that pushes for ideological purity (thus inducing everyone to be compliant with the unspoken rules written by the unacknowledged elite). At least in catholicism, if you’ve sinned, you can make a confession, do your penance, and be absolved of it. In activism(tm) sin is forever.