We are all stumbling, to various degrees. One of the interesting things about being human is that we keep discovering the same things again and again and being convinced that they are entirely new and that we are the first to have thought about them. Or, we are introduced to a new concept and we feel like we want to engage with it, to plunge in, and along the way, we do a fair amount of falling into large holes that we could have sworn weren’t there when we started out.
The Internet has definitely enabled our stumbling and explorations; I wouldn’t have gotten involved in size acceptance, at all, for example, without the benefit of websites to read. And I love that when I want to explore something that is new to me, like disability activism, I can find resources at the click of a button. But at the same time, the Internet has created a lot of debates about where the burden and responsibility of education fall. It all revolves around the 101, the basic concepts that everyone assumes that everyone else is familiar with, even though at some point in our lives we didn’t know the 101 either.
At least once a week on various websites I read, someone responds to a post with a comment which displays varying degrees of ignorance, but a genuine desire to learn more, to understand, and that poor soul is rapidly attacked by someone who berates the person for not bothering to Google and for derailing the conversation. No suggestions for additional resources are offered, no support for someone stumbling around with a new ideology, just a nasty dismissal to someone who is taking tentative baby steps in a brave new world.
I don’t think that this attitude is productive, at all. I think that when people ask innocent/stupid questions, no matter how many times they have been asked, that we should be referring them to resources they can use to answer those questions, even if we don’t necessarily answer them ourselves. Because we’ve all been there. If moderators are concerned about derailment of discussion on a blog post, they could edit such comments to turn them into a link, with a note that the commenter asked a 101 question and the link provides an answer, thereby preventing a pull away from the focus of the post. If someone displays a lack of understanding of basic racial issues, for example, it might help to leave a link to a good resource, rather than a dismissive comment telling the baby activist that the oppressed are tired of bearing the responsibility of education. I know that it’s unspeakably frustrating to see the same ignorant questions over and over, but when a question comes from genuine ignorance, rather than hatred or an attempt to derail or start shit, I think that the question deserves a genuine answer or a referral to a site which has the answer.
I’ve even fallen into the trap of snapping at commenters here who display a fundamental lack of ability to do research and who ask questions which are often answered on this very site, let alone elsewhere on the Internet. And every single time I do it, I feel like a dick who is perpetuating a really offensive and sometimes elitist attitude. Don’t even try to engage, that attitude says, because you are not as worthy as I. I was born whole and perfect, and have never made innocent mistakes. Whereas when I answer an innocent question with a respectful answer and more resources, I feel like I’ve had a chance to win someone else over or widen someone else’s mind.
At the same time, of course, I do think that people who are exploring new ideas should do some research and thinking. A lot of the derailing questions which get asked could be answered with a simple Google search, for example, and often at websites which deal with progressive issues there are specific links in the sidebar to posts covering basic/101 topics, or links to websites which do. People who are flailing around might not be aware that there are resources like Finally, A Feminism 101 Blog which they could use to get answers to a lot of their questions, and I do think that they need to take some personal responsibility, but for someone who is literally just getting started, and is maybe not familiar with the Internet, I think it helps to be treated with respect.
I think it’s important for people to be willing to answer questions, and to act as educators. People who are exploring unfamiliar ideas and material need to be supported, not quashed, because otherwise they might turn away from the ideas they are exploring altogether. People are delicate and sensitive, and if their only reception is hostility, they’re going to develop hostility in return. How is that productive? Even when you’re tired of ignorant and often offensive questions, if you respond with courtesy, the people asking those questions will be able to understand why the questions were not appropriate, and where they can find resources to help with those questions.
I think that a huge part of being a feminist, or anti racist, or size acceptance activist, or disability activist, or anything else, is to get other people interested in and engaged with your ideas and movement. A lot of these movements are about the promotion of acceptance and the frank discussion of serious issues, and yes, it’s annoying when discourse is interrupted by people who are behind the times, but that doesn’t mean that those people need to be marginalized and silenced. Every ignorant question is a teaching opportunity.
I dislike the attitude that people with privilege can expect people without privilege to be at their beck and call, as seen when cisgender people leave idiotic comments on transgender websites, or when white people say something incredibly thoughtless on a website run by a person of colour, or when an authority is summoned by someone demanding answers when those answers are found on the authority’s site. But conversely, I think that the belief that stupid questions give people the right to be rude in response is short sighted, and Miss Manners would not approve. After all, there are no stupid questions: only stupid answers.
I also think it’s important to create spaces which do assume a basic level of knowledge. And those sites should state this, explicitly, in their banners and sidebars so that users understand this. Those statements should include links to resources which people can use to answer questions which arise as they navigate the site, so that people can start to explore advanced topics, and the commenting policy should clearly indicate that 101 questions will not be tolerated, with suggestions on how people can get answers to those questions elsewhere.
We were all ignorant once.
Most of us still are.