Article Lead Image

9 things you need to know about Internet social justice activists

"Just Google it" and "go educate yourself" don't work.


Miri Mogilevsky


Posted on Jan 6, 2015   Updated on May 29, 2021, 8:21 pm CDT

A common dynamic plays out repeatedly online as people new to social justice encounter people who have been engaging with such issues for years. An inexperienced person approaches a more authoritative individual, asks a question, and is rebuffed with responses like: “I’m not here to educate you!” “Go Google it!” “[link to Let me Google that for you results].” The newbie feels embarrassed and hurt and concludes that the person she approached doesn’t really care whether he or she understands social justice or not. The result is that newbies may develop a very negative opinion about those involved with social justice and its attendant issues, because that’s how cognitive bias works.

Yet another dynamic arises as people interested in social justice maintain blogs and Twitter accounts they use to discuss social issues with like-minded folks. When they post content or have conversations with friends and colleagues, they sometimes encounter resistance from people in positions of privilege who feel annoyed by their discussion. They find these conversations to be whiny and irritating and they don’t understand why people keep making such a big deal over such little things.

People who find such discussions offputting may ask basic-level questions, perhaps worded in a way that reveals their irritation: “Yeah well, how are men supposed to meet women if we can’t even compliment a cute girl on the train?” “Okay so are you suggesting that white people just stop accepting job offers because a black person should get them instead?” 

People who are trying to have conversations get annoyed and frustrated, as they have answered these exact questions on their blogs or Twitter accounts dozens of times, as have many other writers. Maybe right now they don’t want to discuss basics like why street harassment is street harassment, or what affirmative action actually is. They are irritated at the interlocutor’s entitled-sounding tone and the fact that she doesn’t seem to have done even the bare minimum to teach herself about these issues. Enter the angry response: “I’m not here to educate you!” “Go Google it!” “[link to Let me Google that for you results].” Confirmation bias leads her to view this as yet another example of social justice people being awful rather than viewing this slightly rude response in the context in which it happened.

These dynamics can feel almost indistinguishable in practice.

I’ve been mulling this issue over in my mind for a while, trying to keep my own privilege in mind but also trying to understand the perspectives of everyone in this situation—the person who innocently asks a 101-level question hoping to learn more, the person who asks a 101-level question hoping to derail the conversation, the person tired of being expected to serve as a free tutor for anyone who asks, others who feel that we have a responsibility to be kind to newbies, the people who are observing this dynamic from the outside and, more often than not, handing down edicts that they want people to follow without necessarily understanding our perspectives and situations.

Thinking about all this has led me to make a number of observations, some of which contradict each other, and none of which are going to please everyone. As in other places, like Wikipedia, newbies struggle to find their ground, and don’t always receive compassion.

1) Not everyone who talks about social justice online is doing it for the purpose of educating others

A common assumption made by those who ask these basic-level questions if that if someone is blogging or tweeting about social justice, they are there to educate. Here’s the thing, though—for some of us, it’s just our daily lives, and we share them with each other because it brings us comfort and connection. If I post a tweet about how I’m really shaken up after a guy followed me down the block screaming sexual obscenities, some men may see this as an invitation to ask me why this is harassment or what the guy should’ve done instead or how exactly I suggest we fix this problem, just throw all the men in jail or what? 

But I wasn’t posting to educate. I was posting because I’d just gone through a traumatic experience and wanted people to know what I was dealing with and support me.

2) Not all online public spaces actually function as public spaces

Recently there’s been a lot of conversation about this. For example, one thread of the conversation concerns the use of people’s tweets in news stories without their permission. After a controversial BuzzFeed story collected sexual assault survivors’ tweets without asking the person who had started and was leading the conversation (though the journalist did ask the authors of the individual tweets), media types all over the Internet insisted that “Yeah, well, Twitter is public.” Technically, yes, but what does this mean in practice?

In practice, many people use Twitter to connect with others they might not know in person. That’s the power of Twitter. Making our accounts private wouldn’t do the trick. In a recent Pacific Standard interview, Mikki Kendall discusses the “fetishization” of Black Twitter, which is exactly what it sounds like—black people on Twitter connecting with each other and discussing things that are relevant to them, whether it’s the Eric Garner verdict or the latest episode of Scandal. Sometimes, clueless white people stumble onto Black Twitter discussions and expect the participants of those discussions to educate them about racism. They don’t understand that those people are there mainly to interact with each other, not to teach white people.

Twitter and Tumblr are public, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is invited to the table—just like if you see a group of friends talking at a restaurant, that is not an invitation to barge in and ask them questions, even though you are able to see them and hear their conversation.

3) Even discussions meant to be educational happen on different levels

If I’m trying to explain to someone how the fight for same-sex marriage is actually marginalizing more urgent queer causes and essentially demanding that queer folks assimilate and act as straight as possible in order to receive their rights, that may not be the time to show up and ask how I presume same-sex couples could possibly instill good morals in their children. If someone is discussing how laws and police officers and incarceration are not a good solution for street harassment because they don’t get at the underlying problem and will only serve to further oppress men of color, that may not be the time to demand to know what’s wrong with telling a hot girl that she’s hot.

To do so would be the equivalent of bursting into a Physics 301 classroom and demanding to be taught basic mechanics. But people don’t realize this because they don’t see social justice as a discipline, a method, a field of inquiry that has many levels and layers of knowledge.

This is why some people refer to basic question-asking as a form of derailment. People told that they’re derailing often find this difficult to understand—how can just asking questions possibly be derailing? It’s derailing in the sense that you’re trying to get the person to stop talking about what they want to talk about and instead talk about what you want to talk about.

4) The reason many marginalized people don’t want to answer basic questions is because those situations often turn confrontational and nasty

Yes, it always starts the same—someone asking a basic question. Sometimes I answer and they say, “You’re right.” Sometimes I answer and they say, “I don’t agree, but thanks for taking the time to explain your view.” Sometimes they say, “Huh, I’ll think about that, thanks.” But a disturbingly large percentage of the time, I get drawn into a horrid gaslighting argument that may or may not include the use of personal insults and slurs, or even threats of violence.

I explain this the same way I explain street harassment. If you’re a nice guy who just wants to tell me I’m pretty, you don’t understand—because you have the privilege of not dealing with this on the regular—that so many of the guys who came before you followed that up with a string of misogynistic insults. If you’re a nice person who just wants to get some answers about some stuff you don’t understand, you may not realize that a bunch of the people who asked me those questions before have turned out truly nasty. And I can’t tell from reading a single typed sentence from you which of those you are.

5) However, people who don’t know much about social justice are unlikely to know/understand much of what I just wrote

In that way, social justice is very, very unlike physics. If you don’t know much about social justice, you won’t know how ostensibly public platforms are functioning for marginalized people. If you don’t know much about social justice, you won’t know why I need support from people to process an incident of street harassment, or why a person of color might be looking for support to process a recent police shooting. If you don’t know much about social justice, you might not think those things are even a “big deal” in the first place. If you don’t know much about social justice, you might not know about the harassment and abuse that less-privileged people have to deal with online from people who initially come across just like you.

So when we get angry at people who ask basic questions because we think it’s obvious that the questions are not appropriate for the situation, we might be overestimating how much they really understand about what’s going on. Just like I might get angry at an American who shows me the middle finger, but maybe not at a foreigner who does the same. The foreigner might not realize that it’s a very rude gesture. Social justice spaces bring their own culture shock.

6) Meanness to newbies isn’t a social justice problem, but a human problem

Every bad thing you find in any group of people—sloppy thinking, meanness, tribalism, abuse, self-centeredness, sexism, racism, any other -ism—also exists among social justice communities. Maybe slightly less for some of those, maybe slightly more for others—but it’s our virtually-universal human flaws that contribute to all of these issues.

Have you ever tried to post a basic question on a tech or gaming forum? Ever got told to “go read the fucking manual, idiot?” I have! That’s why I don’t post on tech forums when I need help with Python or HTML. Ever asked a professor a basic question and gotten snarked at? I have! I asked a psychology professor in college—a respected expert in her field—a question about APA citations and got in response, “Are you even a psych major?” Ever posted a question on Facebook or Twitter and had your own friends condescendingly tell you to Google it? I have! And so it goes.

Are you also upset about tech forum admins telling newbies to “go read the fucking manual?” If so, great. If not, you are being hypocritical. And keep in mind that tech forums, unlike someone’s random Tumblr, often are explicitly meant for teaching and learning.

Being mean to newbies isn’t a tech problem or a gaming problem or a psychology problem or a college problem or a Miri’s friends problem. It’s just a problem. The irritation we feel when someone wants basic answers is understandable, but we should try to think rationally about whether or not it’ll help anyone—ourselves included—to express it.

That said, I’m extraordinarily unsympathetic to people who seem to have made it their mission to root out every example of human problems in social justice circles as though we are somehow exceptional in this regard. (The phrase “get your own house in order,” while admittedly unkind, comes to mind.) And while some might argue that we have some sort of “responsibility” to be better than others—well, I think we try. I think we often fail, because being a human is hard.

7) Googling is unlikely to yield a good social justice education

That, I think, is the central problem of telling people to “go Google it.” The social justice information that is easily found through Googling is likely to be written by and for straight white able-bodied American middle-class people. Hypothetical newbies might not necessarily know how to sift through sources to find materials that are useful and that come from diverse perspectives. I’d advise against telling people to Google their questions, because they don’t know what to Google for in the first place. (Remember, too, that Googling certain issues is also likely to land them on MRA sites. Nobody wants that.)

If you don’t know what you’re missing anything, you won’t know to look for what you’re missing.

8) Unfortunately, the response to being angrily told to educate yourself will rarely be to educate yourself

A lot of what gets interpreted as “anger” when coming from women or people of color or women of color in particular is not actually anger or wouldn’t be interpreted as anger when coming from white men. It would be considered being direct. But sometimes it really is.

Anger can be absolutely 100 percent justified and still cause people to shrink and shut down and go away. That is, in fact, one of its purposes. For most people, getting yelled at does not cultivate the sort of mood—hopeful, curious, alert—that is conducive to learning. Many of us have had awful grade school teachers who yelled at us; some of us might still remember what that was like. I do. I didn’t learn squat-diddly-doo in that class because I was so focused on making myself small and unnoticeable and calming myself down.

That class, by the way, was seventh grade English. That was the year I started getting really, really into writing. I am thankful every day that out of all the ways that teacher wrecked me, destroying my love of writing wasn’t one of them.

There’s sometimes a difference between behaving in ways that are absolutely understandable and justifiable and behaving in ways that are likeliest to get us the results we want to see. When I think about how to respond to someone online, I think about what I want to happen here, and how I can best make that happen. It sucks that we can’t always express ourselves fully if we are to achieve certain goals, but that’s part of being realistic and goal-oriented.

9) So how do we fix it?

Where do we go from here? How do we resolve these tensions? If educating others is important to us, how do we do it without burning out, giving in to entitled expectations from others, or demanding that those involved in the social justice community be stronger and smarter and better and kinder than everyone else at all times?

My only two suggestions are that if you ever feel like yelling at someone for asking you a question, first consider one of these alternatives: 1) ignoring the message or 2) linking them to a good resource that might answer it for them.

To that end, it might help to start amassing a database of links for common questions. One incredible example is Aida Manduley’s Ferguson masterpost. Shakesville’s Feminism 101 is also great, though perhaps not entirely 101. Another much more general one is my own. If you know of others, please link to them.

I try to encourage people to have compassion for each other. This means that I know it feels impossible, but we need to try to remember that not everyone who cannot be discerned from an asshole is an asshole. Not being willing to take the risk is perfectly okay, but I think it’s better to not take that risk in a way that minimizes hurt to people who did nothing wrong. Tools like ignoring and blocking are your friends. Also, for those asking the questions, try to remember that when we’re hurting and angry, it’s because of lifetimes of death by a thousand cuts that you can’t see because you haven’t learned to see them yet. I hope you find a way to learn, but in the meantime, try to cut us some slack for being upset.

This post originally appeared on Brute Reason and has been reprinted with permission.

Photo via yaokcool/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Share this article
*First Published: Jan 6, 2015, 11:00 am CST