Frequently Needed Explanations

Note: The following Frequently Needed Explanations were written for the Typepad site of The Slacktiverse and were posted by the Typepad Board Administration Team here.

Question: What's a trigger warning?

It's not unusual for people who've suffered a very traumatic experience to end up with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). This is a common psychological injury, which means that when someone unexpectedly encounters a reminder of the trauma, they undergo a 'flashback'. This can mean re-experiencing the same distress they felt at the time, nausea, racing heart, headaches, fits of crying and other very unpleasant symptoms, all of which can really ruin your day, or even your week.

A 'trigger' is something liable to induce a flashback. In the interests of free and fun conversation for all, we ask that people put trigger warnings on subjects likely to induce flashbacks - sexual assault and child abuse are the major ones, and individual posters may sometimes request that people post warnings for subjects that are triggers for them. We also ask that people refrain from wishing physical violence or sexual violation on people (as in 'I wish such-and-such would happen to that terrible politician'), and that they post trigger warnings if they feel the need to cuss someone out. Some posters choose to put detailed discussion of triggery subjects in ROT13.

The main function of trigger warnings is that they allow people who want to discuss traumatic subjects to do so, and people who want to avoid them to do so likewise.

Question: What's this talk of privilege?

Unfortunately we live in a world where not everybody gets treated equally: men are treated as superior to women, white people as superior to people of color, straight people as superior to queer people, cisgendered people as superior to trans people, wealthy people as superior to poor people, and so on. Being a member of the better-treated group means that you tend to be protected from the kind of problems that people in discriminated-against groups suffer from, and hence may not be acutely aware of them. That being the case, most people from a better-treated group often assume that everyone is treated as respectfully as they are.

It's that assumption that's being referenced when people talk about 'privilege': the effect of being treated as a full citizen so thoroughly that you aren't even aware that it isn't like that for everyone.

Hence, someone being told to 'check their privilege' is usually someone who is assuming that people in a disadvantaged position should find something as easy as they would - usually something that is actually a lot more difficult to do if you're treated with prejudice or lack for opportunities.

Being called privileged can often feel like a slap in the face, a way of dismissing your right to your own opinion. That isn't the purpose of the phrase. It's a call to empathise with people whose experience is so different from your own that you probably won't understand what it's like unless you listen to them closely. 'Privileged' is not an insult (although people can start to use it irritably if someone keeps refusing to listen to others). Most people - certainly most people who have the freedom and ability to use the Internet - have privilege of some kind. The problem isn't the privileged individual, it's the society that gives some people more privileges than others, and if a privileged individual is willing to listen respectfully to the experience of less-privileged people, nobody will blame them. We don't choose to be white, male, hetereosexual or whatever, and they aren't bad things: the only bad thing is assuming that your own experience is universal.

A complaint or worry often expressed by people who get called on privilege is the idea that being privileged automatically discounts your opinions if you disagree with someone less privileged. As is often said around here, it's more complicated than that. If people are discussing sexism, for example, and a woman tells a man that it's not all that easy for a woman to succeed in a heavily-male work environment, it's reasonable to assume that she knows more about being a woman in a male environment than he does, and consequently she's more likely to be right than he is. On the other hand, if the same two people are disagreeing about French culture, he's French and she's Australian, he's more likely to be right than she is. When it comes to disagreements, lack of privilege is not a sign of higher status; it's simply a sign that you have more personal knowledge about what it's like to be not-privileged, because everybody knows more about things they've experience than things they haven't.

Question: What's 'splaining?

The word originated on feminist forums, where it was originally 'mansplaining'. The article most frequently linked to is Rebecca Solnit's 'Men Who Explain Things'.

Put simply, a mansplainer is a man who 'explains' to a woman in a condescending tone issues that she understands better than he does - and which he'd realise she understood if he paid proper attention to what she was saying. The message mansplaining sends is that being a man is such a superior state that any man's opinion trumps any woman's on any subject. It can take the form of ignorantly lecturing a woman on a subject she's an expert on (Rebecca Solnit describes a man instructing her about a book he'd read a review of, and needing to be told three or four time that she had written it), pointing out to her things that are extremely obvious as if she's too foolish to know them already, explaining back to her something she's just told him with the air of teaching her something new, or most notoriously explaining to her about feminism, women's issues and how she should perceive life from a woman's perspective. Mansplaining is just about the fastest way to drive a woman to head-banging frustration ever discovered.

The term 'splaining is a variant of this, and refers to a white person 'explaining' racial issues to a person of color, a straight person 'explaining' gay rights to a gay person, or anybody from a more powerful group talking down to someone from a less powerful group when, if they were treating that person with proper respect, they really should know better.

(A common follow-up question to 'What's mansplaining?' is 'Can men mansplain to other men?' The answer is no, because the concept depends on gender inequalities. A man can talk down to another man. Some mansplainers treat men with respect and women with disrespect; some are pompous blowhards who talk down to everybody. In the latter case it's still mansplaining when he does it to a woman, because the gender inequalities still exist and he is still benefitting from them - besides which, many women find that blowhards have a different style of condescension when they talk to men and women. It's a question that many women find provocative, because it can feel like an attempt to whitewash the gender inequalities that mansplaining plays on, and to move the subject off women's rights and back onto men. The same applies to other forms of 'splaining.)

Question: Shouldn't we all be gender/color/whatever blind?

This is an issue that often comes up when a woman accuses a man of mansplaining to her, a queer person accuses a straight person of straightsplaining, and so on. The person who has given offense replies to the effect that they didn't know the other person was female, queer or whatever, and that anyway they think it's best to treat everybody the same so they should be blind to differences.

The simple answer is this: treating everybody the same means bearing in mind that the person you're talking to might be female, gay, of color or whatever, and hence not saying something that would be offensive if it turned out that they were. The odds of someone being a straight white man are actually lower than the odds of their being something else, because straight white men are, like every other group, a statistical minority. Hence, claiming that you're gender/color/whatever blind in this context can work out, in practice, as saying that you assume everybody is a straight white male until proven otherwise - which is not treating everybody equally at all.

If you feel someone is unfair to call you prejudiced because you didn't know they were from an oppressed group, it's probably best to ask yourself why the possibility that they might be - with all the attendant discrimination and frustrations that brings - didn't cross your mind when you were choosing your words.

In addition, many women, people of color, gay people and other members of oppressed groups feel that their gender, race, orientation and so on are important parts of their humanity. Prejudice will mean that they've experienced different treatment, and they will also have positive experiences of connections to other people in their group that are a major and enriching part of their life. Ignoring these things means ignoring strong elements of somebody's identity, which is a dehumanising thing to be on the receiving end of. Seeing and respecting is better than trying not to see.

Question: If you're a tolerant person, shouldn't you tolerate my intolerance?

This has long been a concern debated and discussed among political philosophers. Indeed, within that community this problem has a name, The Paradox of Tolerance. On the basis of comments made on the board and in emails TBAT considers the following statement to be a summation of the feelings of our community.

The Slacktiverse's administrators do not make a habit of using 'force' - that is, of deleting, disemvowelling or editing intolerant posts. The community polices itself and will generally identify and condemn intolerant speech, often forcefully, as per our moderation policy (see FAQs).

Question: What's the meaning of QUILTBAG?

An acronym for Queer/Questioning, Undecided, Intersex, Lesbian, Transgender, Bisexual, Asexual, Gay. Basically, anybody who doesn't fit the standard sexual template of a heteronormative society.

Note: it's considered polite to say 'QUILTBAG people' rather than 'QUILTBAGs,' in the same way it's polite to say 'gay people' rather than 'gays.'

Question: What's the meaning of zie / hir?

These are gender-neutral pronouns used as an alternative to the singular 'they'. 'Zie' stands in for 'he or she', 'hir' for 'his or her'. Other alternatives you might see used are "ze (or "sie") / zir", "xe / xir" , and similar variations. An exhaustive listing and discussion can be found here.

You don't have to use them, but using 'he' as the default pronoun will probably irritate people.

Question: What is the meaning of the in-jokes?

You may prefer to ask the community and get an explanation, but if you'd rather read one here...

'Don't kill us with sheep,' a common greeting to new members, comes from a misunderstanding. Someone made a joke about being killed in their sleep, and someone else commented that they'd misread that as 'killed with sheep.' It tickled people's fancy and caught on.

The jokes about blue-footed boobies come from a complaint about 'firsties'. Some people like to post 'First!' at the beginning of comment threads; some people find this annoying, some find it amusing, and some don't really care either way, so there's no particular community policy about it. On one occasion, a person who found it annoying argued that more should be done about it, mentioning that another website automatically moved any post of that kind to the end of a thread, with the word 'first' replaced with the word 'boobies.' Another poster, not taking the complaint very seriously, linked to a picture of the blue-footed booby. Finding the pictures cute, other people started doing likewise.

Question: What does it mean when people say that they are "running low on spoons"?

This is a reference to "spoon theory", a concept developed by Christine Miserandino to illustrate the experience of living with lupus. It has since been expanded in analogy to refer to the experience of being a person with various disabilities, of belonging to various non-privileged groups, or of the temporary situation of dealing with certain overwhelming stressors. To greatly simplify, it elucidates how in such situations a person must be very careful to choose the issues that they are going to spend their limited physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual resources to address, and how the very act of prioritizing is in itself a drain on these resources. Thus a response like "I haven't enough spoons to answer your question" should not be considered an attack or condemnation, nor yet a plea for pity. Rather, it should be seen as a respectful acknowledgment of the issues raised, but and indication that addressing those issues is beyond the respondent's (current) capacities, for reasons beyond zir control.