“No personal attacks” is not neutral

Have you ever been in a heated argument on the internet, only to have a friendly mod swoop in and chirp something along the lines of “Just a reminder to refrain from personal attacks!”?* I’ve seen commenting policies that consisted of virtually nothing else. And I think this is a problem. As my name implies, I pride myself on my ability to deliver a nasty sting when the situation calls for it, but it’s not just malice or perversity that impels me to complain about the ubiquity of this particular rule.

Now some people, in moderating their own personal blogs, social media, and otherwise, require a ban on overt personal attacks and insults in order to make their spaces safe and pleasant for them. That’s not something I’m interested in arguing against – that’s a personal boundary and they have every right to build their own space as is necessary for them. What I do want is for everyone, especially people who want to create anti-oppressive spaces, to begin looking at this rule with a mindful and critical eye, as a meaningful and active discursive tool with real ramifications for the politics of those spaces, rather than as a passive, neutral backdrop for civil discussion.

Note: For the purposes of this post, I’m going to use “personal attacks” in quotation marks to refer to the colloquial definition of personal attacks: direct, overt insults to a person involved in the conversation. It is my experience that that is usually what is meant by the phrase when it is included in commenting guidelines. Also, I will mostly be talking about privilege and marginalization in a simplified, abstract form for brevity’s sake; in the real situations where the described dynamics would play out, of course, this will be more complicated, because the forms of privilege and marginalization which are relevant will vary depending on the context and subject under discussion.

The point where attacking an argument shades into a “personal attack” is often something of a blurry one that tends to shift based on the perspective of the viewer, meaning that it takes great care and resolute resistance to bias to apply the “no personal attacks” rule consistently in the first place. But even when the policy is adhered to carefully and with consistency, in any given conversation where inequality comes into play, the privileged are still able to attack personally, to cut to the bone without even trying, but privilege combined with the “no personal attacks” policy shields them from retribution in kind. In running a space where such a rule is in effect, then, vigilance and possible additional measures may be necessary to keep the rule from contributing to reproduction of oppressive societal structures. Here’s why:

A basic fact about privilege is that it is invisible because it considers itself the default state, from which any marginalized status is a deviation. As a result, members of marginalized groups are defined first by their membership in those groups, whereas, for instance, a straight white cis able male is permitted to be “just a person.” Society treats the privileged as individuals, whereas the marginalized are constantly reminded that they are part of a class, and that their every action will be viewed as either a representation of the characteristics of that class or, if they contradict the stereotypical expectations of that class, an exception to a rule.

As a result of the same phenomenon, unjust or bigoted actions taken against individual members of the class can function as examples, as viscerally felt threats to other members of the same group, because it is all too apparent that common marginalization means shared vulnerability. And even “not being like those OTHER [marginalized people]” is cold comfort indeed, because the power of deciding whether one is like them enough to suffer the same injustices is in the hands of the privileged and unjust. Because of this, defending injustice or bigotry against a third party uninvolved in the conversation, or directly being unjust or bigoted toward them, would also constitute a direct attack on the persons of those who share the marginalizations in question, but would not likely be seen as a “personal attack”.

A much more substantial problem, far more difficult to avoid, is that of euphemization and/or abstraction. The least covert examples of these phenomena are when bigoted dogwhistles come into play: for instance, you’ll hear discussions of abortion framed as issues of “convenience” vs. “personal responsibility,” or the word “urban” thrown around in a way that doesn’t seem to have much to do with cities per se. But in fact, this problem is more pervasive than that, an inherent function of privilege itself. To live in a society that oppresses others without massive cognitive dissonance, we shield ourselves from seeing the costs of that oppression by cloaking it in sanitized, abstracted language. Middle-class white people can refer to “the War on Drugs” without ever thinking of the disproportionately black and brown people assaulted, restrained, incarcerated, the lives and families torn apart for the sake of that war. We USians who have never lived anywhere else can talk about “globalization” and “trade” and “markets” and not once think about the desperation, deprivation, and violence our economic system wreaks on people in developing countries.

But people who are not insulated by privilege do understand what the privileged are talking about when they use these euphemisms, and can feel the argument as one about their person, about themselves, because, in fact, it is. Able-bodied people whose health care is not at risk can argue about “health care reform,” but I don’t get to take part in that discussion without the knowledge that among other things, they are arguing about how many days in a month I ought to spend in crushing agony and cognitively impaired because the medicine that will help me is beyond my budget without insurance. When ours are the bodies at risk, and our views are expressions of self-defense, there is no distinction between attacking those views and attacking us personally.

In other words, a space that permits the expression of views that oppress and harm people but which does not permit “personal attacks” is a fundamentally unbalanced one. The privileged are given the ability to attack and attack the persons of the marginalized, but due to the sense of exemption and exception and individuality arising from privilege, the only way to strike back proportionately and in kind is to attack directly, and that is a weapon the rules have taken off the table.

While the use of such rules may still be necessary and advisable in some spaces, it is important in creating a progressive space to take into account the disproportionate power to harm and protection from retribution that is afforded by privilege in such an environment, and to counteract it as much as possible.

About the Wasp: Though often misunderstood due to her fearsome exterior, the Wasp may be a friendly and beneficial insect, as well as an excellent neighbor.


All the same, it’s probably best to avoid any sudden movements.


One Thought on ““No personal attacks” is not neutral

  1. Well put! This false equivalency argument is seen in US politics as well, and derails our ability to work through the issues, particularly when they deal with racism. Those policing the discussions negatively sanction POC the minute they rightfully call out any BS. This, in essence, ends the discussion, handing victory to the offender and further silencing the offended. I also find that those on the religious “right” have a way of justifying their attacks by claiming righteous indignation … Bothersome, as it’s not the same thing.

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