…Did you just call me fat? Thoughts on intention and perspective.

By | July 23, 2009

[Note: The following post is intentionally vague, because I think this is advice that applies in lots of real-life situations. Do with it what you will.]

The mechanics of both offending someone, and being offended, are incredibly complex. This is especially true in online correspondence, in which things like tone and inflection (not to mention eye contact) are almost entirely lost. As a moderator for a large and extremely active online community, I probably run into conflicts involving one or both of the above scenarios more frequently than most folks, and I like to think my experiences have brought me to a certain philosophical understanding of internet drama, where it comes from, how it operates, and how to avoid it, such that useful conversations can take place in its absence.

1. Set aside your preconceptions. Given a moment of reflection, it is usually obvious when someone is intentionally trying to hurt or offend you, versus when they are simply speaking from their own experience or lack thereof, without considering unfamiliar perspectives.

To employ an obvious example, I can easily tell the difference between someone calling me fat in a hateful or disgusted context, versus someone doing it in a more value-neutral or even positive way. I just need to pause a moment and consider the circumstance. People who are truly being hateful don’t make a secret of it.

2. Automatically assume everyone’s best intentions, and let them prove you wrong. This is both a time- and sanity-saver. If you go into tricky situations with an optimistic attitude, it makes it easier to engage with people without falling into defensiveness and straight-up rage, either of which will subsequently destroy any productive conversation that might have otherwise taken place.

Extending the example cited above, as a fat/body-acceptance blogger and activist, I get called fat a whole lot, by many different people in many different situations, some positive, some negative, some mixed. It really is a worthwhile effort, for people of all sizes, to try to divorce the word “fat” from its culturally-imposed value-laden implications, as doing so removes its power as an insult. Twelve years ago, being called “fat” in ANY context would have stunned me into a morass of self-loathing and misery. Not so today. And I’ve subsequently helped innumerable other folks to understand that fatness, itself, does not have to be something that is reviled or feared, but can be a basic physical descriptor no different than saying someone has brown hair.

3. Don’t treat people like enemies; treat people like people. We are all multifaceted, three-dimensional creatures. It’s stunningly easy to write someone off, especially online, as an idiot or an asshole for one or two troubling comments, when the reality is that said person is more than those comments. In fact, said person is much more than the sum of all the comments they’ve ever made.

To continue the example, if you feel “outed” or identified as fat in a context that makes you uncomfortable, becoming defensive or indignant about it is unlikely to remedy the situation. If my Flickr images were to be featured on, say, a BBW-appreciation site without my permission, I’d probably not be real thrilled about that, since I didn’t post my photos for that purpose. Now, I post photos online with full knowledge that by doing so I am to some degree ceding control of who is looking at them, and through what lens they’re seeing them. Thus, sending a defensive screed to the site owner isn’t going to be productive for either of us; the site owner will likely feel badly, and I won’t feel any better. My approach – and I’ve actually done this in many different (non-BBW-site-related) situations over the years – is to send a missive to the person in question simply explaining my objections and asking my pictures be removed. And it’s always worked out with no bad feelings on anyone’s part and a total lack of drama.

4. The internet troll is a rare species. In this instance, by “troll” I am specifying a person who stirs the pot just to create havoc, or who speaks difficult, hateful, or just unpleasant things for the sole purpose of watching the ensuing chaos. Most people are not internet trolls; in the vast majority of cases, situations in which people call “troll” are simple matters of misunderstanding. There are, in fact, very few people who truly enjoy being horrible to strangers, and those that do are generally people with personal issues of insecurity or self-loathing going on which have nothing to do with you.

To recall the words of one of the great intellectual giants of the early 1990s: stop, collaborate, and listen. If someone calls you a word that is offensive to you, the most productive thing you can do to respond is calmly explain to them why you are offended, and listen to their explanation (or, depending on the scenario, their apology). This is how people learn – how people really learn to deal with differences of all sorts and how they subsequently learn to live successfully with people of diverse backgrounds and perspectives. Even beyond the microcosm of size acceptance/activism, this is probably the single most important action we can be taking, as activists and just Good People, to build a life and a world rooted in respect for difference and not perpetual conflict.

Are you required to educate everyone who offends you? No. Of course not. But I hope you try. I hope you try. Whether you consider yourself an activist or not, just speaking honestly, from your own perspective, is a powerful thing, both for you to do, and for others to hear. You might teach somebody something; and you might learn something yourself.

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