To The FemmeMobile! Away!

{May 14, 2010}   Argumentative shut-downs

So. I’ve been reading blogs and comments pages and things, and something I’ve noticed is how, somehow, argumentative shut-downs seem to work. Now, that’s the point of an argumentative shut-down: to shut down the conversation. To shut the other person up. They’re used when a topic is uncomfortable to the person in societal privilege. So, for instance, it’s used by men toward women.  By white people toward people of color. By straight people to gay people. By gay people to trans* people. By gender normative people to gender queer people. By able-bodied people to disabled people, by young people to old people, by pretty people to ugly people, by skinny people to heavy people, and so on FOREVER.

Recently, I learned a lot about argument shut-downs because I had a friend involved in Race!Fail, and she, lovely person that she is, taught us about racist arguments and attitudes and things, and BOY DID I LEARN A LOT. Including things about privilege and how to spot when someone is using a shut-down. Which I have seen frequently in the butch-femme blogs of late.

I was going to post a handy-dandy list of how to spot a shut-down, but instead I’m going to provide you with an awesome link:


Everyone should go read it! Not only does it get the point across, it’s also hilarious. That said, I’m still going to talk about the shut-downs I’ve seen most often. (I’m not nearly as funny as the Derailing for Dummies guy, though.)

1. The Tone Argument.

We all know it. It goes something like this: “I am not responding to the rest of your patronizing comment. You clearly do not engage with respect.” Is this true? Absolutely, could be. But mostly, it’s a way to stop arguing, used by people in power. See, here’s the thing: if the person who holds the privileged viewpoint cannot be proven wrong, they are then right. Theirs is the privileged viewpoint. If they refuse to argue, they cannot be proven wrong — and so they win the argument. This is the tone argument, because they’re not refuting anything that the other person has said: they’re saying, “I don’t like that tone of voice, young lady. I’m not speaking to you anymore.” It’s condescending, belittling, and gets someone out of an argument they don’t like without having to actually think about whatever it is they’re uncomfortable with. Another example is one I actually wrote: “[…] when people aren’t used to reading things in capitals it doesn’t come across as emphasis but rather as screaming, attacking, and/or condescension.” While I wasn’t stopping the argument there (and therefore it’s not really the tone argument), I was suggesting the tone might be modified. I’m pointing this out so you can practice noticing! If you see something like this when someone IS stopping the argument, it’s the tone argument.

2. Why Should We Talk About Your Pain? I’m Privileged: Let’s Talk About Mine!

The most easily identifiable form of this argument is actually a sexist one. Imagine, for a moment, you’re a woman standing in a group talking about the problems with women being raped. Someone walks up and says, “But men get raped, too!” This has COMPLETELY derailed the conversation. Is it true? Yes! But it’s not the topic. What it’s done is shift the topic from something that makes the privileged class — men — uncomfortable, and back onto discussing the privileged class — men. Another example is if a butch were discussing whether or not other butches considered a dildo a sex toy. If someone were to come in at this point and discuss whether or not he was comfortable with anyone but a biomale using the term cock, and how it upset him, this is a derailment. It’s taking a conversation by those who do not have privilege, and turning it back to focus once more on the privileged gender. It says, in short, “I know this is your safe space, but I dislike that the focus is not on privilege, that it threatens privilege by not deferring to it right now, and so I am going to insist that your safe space still acknowledge that my privilege is more important.” Is it totally understandable for someone to dislike that cock is no longer a male-only term? Absolutely. This is just not the time or place to be talking about that. In fact, since most conversations center around how gender normal people feel, interrupting a conversation among gender queer people to talk again about gender normal people is never okay, unless it’s invited.

Let’s have another one, shall we?

3. The I’m Not Talking About You Personally Argument.

Imagine, for a moment, I went to my friend Maelie‘s blog. She’s an AWESOME webcomic artist (free pimping! Check out for her comics! SciFi, Fantasy, and one about a girl who runs away from the circus, ohyes). Now imagine I hung around there, reading about how much she likes webcomics, commenting on this, that, and the other thing. Then one day I get in a discussion with someone else in her comments, and in this discussion I say, “In fact, I think it’s Wrong to draw webcomics. I think that’s a sign of deep disrespect for yourself.” If Maelie were upset about this, would she have every right to be? HELL YES. I’ve just gone into her home and insulted her way of living. However, people who use this argument follow it up with something along the lines of, “I didn’t mean you personally, Maelie. I wasn’t trying to disrespect you.” Whether or not I was trying to disrespect her, it is extremely rude. In fact, it is a violation of her safe space, the same way it would be a violation to walk into her house and attack her emotionally in some way. “But I didn’t mean you personally!” This does not make it any better. If I say, “I hate black people,” to my black friend, and then say, “But I don’t mean you,” that does not make it okay. Furthermore, it takes a safe space — a space where people feel free to talk about webcomics — and makes it unsafe.

This brings us to two more arguments!

3. Intention Argument.

“My intention wasn’t to hurt you!” “My intention wasn’t to disrespect you!” Since no one can tell what someone’s intention is, since none of us are mind readers, intention really doesn’t matter. “I didn’t mean to upset you.” This doesn’t really matter. Between friends, sure, it can make a difference. But it is NOT an excuse. Plus, if someone has just pulled a, “I hate webcomics” in a webcomics space, half a second’s worth of thought would have told them that it would hurt people, no matter what their intention was. If they say, “I don’t think butches should use ‘he’, I think it is bad and disrespectful” in a femme-butch community, it doesn’t matter if the intention is to hurt butches: it’s obvious that statement is going to hurt someone, and therefore disrespectful in the extreme to say it.

4. But This Is A Public Space!

The argument has been made that if you put something on your personal blog, it is then in public space. Like a lot of these kinds of arguments, while it is true in technicality, it isn’t true in the unspoken social codes. If someone says this, they are generally arguing to be allowed to beat you up. After all, you put it in a public space. This is bullshit. This is, in fact, a blaming-the-victim argument. I do not ask to be raped by wearing a short skirt, nor do I ask to be verbally brutalized by putting things online. In fact, a personal blog is more than anything a safe space, and should be treated accordingly. Any time you go into anyone’s community, you should act accordingly — and if you should act accordingly, then if someone comes into your community, they should act accordingly!

5. Insults

These are most effective when they are not completely insulting, when they can tread the line so the author can say, “Oh, I was just kidding!” Example: “you’re being a hall monitor. Again.” This shuts down the conversation, and if it doesn’t work right off the bat, they can continue by saying something like, “I don’t like your tone. I was only kidding, but now you’re yelling at me!” when the person gets offended! In fact, this particular quote is extra insulting. The ‘again’ implies ‘you’ are always a hall monitor, as well as adding a great level of condescension; the implication being that the speaker has had to tell you before, because the speaker is obviously in charge of who gets to be the hall monitor, and furthermore that the speaker doesn’t appreciate having to remind you of your manners — like an adult to a child.

6. Shutting Someone Out.

This is most simply done when you tell someone they must be silent for the conversation. There’s a brilliant quote, in fact: “I wasn’t talking to you personally or asking you personally to explain yourself. It was a general question.” So, in effect — anyone can answer it, except you.

I couldn’t make this shit up.

7. You Are Only Saying That Because Society Has Taught You That And You Don’t Know It!

As a femme, I get this sadly frequently (usually spoken so I can’t quote anything, dammit. It’s so much more fulfilling when I can quote something. ;-D). For instance, “You only like butch women because society has taught you to like masculinity.” And when I counter with, “No, actually, I like butch women because I like butch women,” the response is, “You just don’t know you’re repressed by the patriarchy.” (This is also something I get for liking girly clothes, painted nails, and something my sister gets for enjoying cooking and domesticity.) It’s impossible to argue with someone who insists that your every motive is due to being repressed, only you can’t tell. This also takes away any ability of someone to claim they know themselves, it says the privileged person knows them better and knows what’s better for them, and infantilises them. (It drives me CRAZY.)

There’s a really simple rule of thumb I learned when I was embroiled in the Prop 8 arguments: re-phrase it to something ridiculous (webcomics) or something hot-button (racism). Is it patently ludicrous/offensive? Then you’re in the right to haul someone up by their short and curlies and tell them to knock it off. Now, some people enjoy the debate and hearing other viewpoints even when it includes this sort of thing, and I try my very best not to step into those blogs if the blogger hasn’t expressed displeasure. (It’s also sometimes hard to see in your own blog, as in a discussion that went bad here and I let go on too long.) I’m just… not one of them. 😉



[…] In the spirit of brilliant timing, JB just threw up a guide to the art of argumentative shut-downs. How’s that for a hive […]

Nezu says:

this is a really great analysis, JB. Thanks for posting it!

JB says:

You’re welcome! Hopefully it’ll help anyone who wants it. 😉


Marste says:

I’m just catching up on this blog, but re: the last one about “you just like [x] because you’re so REPRESSED,” my favorite comeback has become the following (said in a really thoughtful manner): “Hmm. Maybe so. *insert lots of sage nodding* You seem pretty strongly against [whatever I’m feeling.] It seems to me that a really strong reaction AGAINST something is a manifestation of control by that object just as much as conforming to it. When you rebel against something, it’s still controlling your actions – just in the opposite way. Just something to think about.”

It is, without a doubt, its own form of a derail. And there are actually some good arguments against this comeback. But conveniently, the people who are being jerks are generally so surprised by this particular tack, that they, you know, forget about the good, legitimate arguments, and just SHUT THE HELL UP. It’s a beautiful thing. 😉

JB says:

…I’m so going to have to remember that. *GRINS*


Marste says:

Also, comma fail. Yeesh. That’s what I get for not proofreading at 4 in the morning. (Don’t ask.)

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