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Derailing

June 1st, 2009
ism, derailing, poltics  [html]

I've been thinking a good bit about discrimination, privilege, race, and the discussion there of after reading through a lot of SF/Fantasy discussion on the subject. (First "Cultural Appropriation Debate of Doom", then "RaceFail", now "MammothFail". One entry point: here) This is not at all a central issue, but it worries me the way people use the word "derail" in these discussions. For example, someone may say "it's not really about race, it's about class". This restatement could be issued by:
  • a person arguing in good faith who really believes that the problem under discussion is actually caused by class
  • someone emotionally unwilling to accept critisim (of themself, a friend, an author they like) and reaching chaotically for any line of argument to use in defense
  • a person who not only does not want to discuss race but wants to prevent substantive discussion on the topic from taking place

The standard response to something that looks like this is to denounce it as 'derailing' or 'silencing'. The problem is, while a dismissal like that is a good response to the third motivation and an ok response to the second, it removes the first without consideration. Making a position off limits like this limits the discussion unnecessarily.

[ There are other things that also get called "derailing", such as a response of "but I have friends who are X" to "your comment indicates prejudice against X people", and I'm not trying to talk about these here. That sort of "derailing" is dealt with in detail in Derailing For Dummies. Most of these are clearly not useful things to be doing. ]

For an example of how the use of this term can be problematic, look at the discussion of derailing for dummies over at the f-word. The original article calls it "derailing" when women who choose to act in a traditionally female manner are told they're not making a true choice because of internalized sexism. Then a commenter calls it "derailing" when feminists are described as objecting to women acting in a traditionally female manner. By applying the term to argument instead of manner it becomes just an insult.

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