Activism 101: the nitpickers

A funny thing happens when you start an activist blog that’s also a safe space: you learn to profile commenters. Over time, you notice that commenters who eventually ended up needing moderation or banning started out leaving comments of a certain type. Those early comments may seem absolutely harmless, but you learn to recognize certain behaviors as red flags. One of those red flag behaviors is nitpicking.

Let’s say a blogger you love has just made a typo, or misused a word, or committed a grammatical sin. What do you do? You post a comment with absolutely no content relative to the above post, stating, “That’s not what Word X means” or “It’s ‘its’, not ‘it’s’ – God, that irritates me when people do that!”

If that doesn’t sound rude to you, imagine going to a seminar and standing up during the Q&A session. When the microphone comes to you, you have nothing to say about the topic of the seminar. You just want to point out that the speaker misused a word. The entire rest of the audience now gives you the what an asshole glare.

Small blogs like Hathor are viewed by 25k people a month, minimum. Would you correct someone’s grammar in front of an audience that big if that audience was visible to you? Maybe not… but on the other hand, I’m pretty sure some of the commenters we refer to as “nitpickers” would – because I’m pretty sure nitpicking was just the beginning of their actual agenda. When we created the rule a year or so ago against leaving such comments (advising readers to instead put it in an email), that fixed the problem superficially. But the nitpickers just found other methods of making their feelings known. They would:

  • Only comment to tell us how wrong we are. Now, if they were MRAs, this would be expected. But these were our alleged feminist allies, and they apparently never saw a need to let us know when they liked what we were saying. As far as we know, they never did.
  • Create strawman arguments or derail to a topic upon which they consider themselves an expert, so they can show off how educated and/or experienced they are.
  • Often times, they are far less expert on their chosen topics than most of the other commenters and staffers here, ironically, and this is rather narcissistic. When you tell someone they’re wrong, and then back up your assertion with “facts” that can be disproven by a ten second trip to Wikipedia, you are overestimating yourself way beyond the pale. If you continue to insist in the face of all contrary proof that you’re right, you may be suffering from genuine “delusions of grandeur.”
  • Start arguments and refuse to back down no matter what. No matter how many people tell them they’re being offensive, hurtful or inaccurate, they just figure we’re all out to get them, and no way are they gonna let us bastards grind them down.
  • Dogpile on any new writer, twisting their words until they have something to take offense at, and yelling things like “Tone argument!” if anyone points out their tactics are those of oppressors, not allies. As I mentioned in a previous article, this is why we haven’t taken any new writers on board (other than people known to us – sorry) in a while. Writing this post is actually part of the process of getting back to that. We’ve banned all known “dog pilers”, but cannot guarantee that some of our currently approved commenters won’t suddenly show us a whole new side once you post.

These behaviors are so not what we’re looking for in a safe space activist blog. There’s a reason nitpicking isn’t considered nice, and it’s because nitpicking is a way of:

  • Making someone feel insecure about speaking or writing publicly.
  • Making someone feel like all their hard work is worthless because of a typo or similarly petty mistake.
  • Distracting others from the valid points someone has made.
  • Calling attention to yourself and how smart you (think you) are. It’s interesting that most people who engage in the “You’re wrong – I’m so smart, let me correct you!” behavior are actually not all that well-informed or bright. This is probably because genuinely smart kids learn early that everyone else would like to beat the snot out of them for revealing their intelligence in any way at all.

And who would be great to use these tactics on? People you want to oppress. Don’t want to hear someone’s uncomfortable points about your privilege? Find a typo and point it out publicly in front of thousands! Twist their words into something that sounds offensive or inaccurate! Correct them with facts you pulled out of your ass, or out of the least reputable source on the topic. And for heaven’s sake, please use and abuse their blog to publicize yourself and make it all about you!

We do realize that not all “grammar cops” have ugly intentions – in fact, some of our staffers can’t help being deeply annoyed when they read its/it’s and then/than mistakes (and it makes them awesome editors!). But they address these mistakes via email because they don’t have any urge or motive to divert attention from what the post is about to how it’s constructed. We do appreciate corrections and even mini-lessons on fine and obscure points of English, when they’re delivered privately with no apparent ulterior motive.

But we consider public nitpicking not just rude and demoralizing, but actually an oppression tactic. Like the way this society nitpicks women’s appearances, it’s a way to keep a group focused on its own insecurities (and feeling unnecessarily insecure in the first place) instead of focusing on the ass it should be kicking.

Comments

  1. Maria says

    As one of the comment-mods, let me say that we get a LOT of these sort of comments whenever we have someone post about bigger fandoms — like Game of Thrones, Star Trek, comics, Disney/Pixar, and True Blood. That’s one of the reason it’s really hard for us to keep up our enthusiasm about blogging about newer popular culture. When someone can’t actually disagree with the content of your post, but can get other fans really wrapped up in the minutiae of canon, you can’t have an extended conversation about racism in genre fiction, rape culture, or domestic violence as a trope in children’s media.

  2. Nuri says

    Very good points! Not to mention that “grammar cops” who actually are grammar fans as opposed to trolls are quite capable of distinguishing a typo or an honest mistake from a semi-illiterate’s rambling.

  3. sbg says

    I feel you should know that you egregiously abused exclamation points in this article.

    *runs away cackling*

    Maria’s right – the nitpicks I think are second only to the “get back in the kitchen, your* all probably fat anyway!”s in the mod queue.

    *intentional

  4. says

    Maria, seconded. Interestingly, it got much easier (emotionally) to write on this site after I turned over comment modding to some of you guys. Just reading those comments before you delete them is so demoralizing.

    Nuri, LOL, I just got an email from someone very graciously complimenting the article and pointing out a typo I’d made that, you know, didn’t ruin the meaning of the article, but was fairly jarring. This, I totally appreciate, because I am NOT good at proofing my own writing. I tend to “see” what I meant, not what I typed.

    sbg, I’ll show you exclamation point abuse!!!!!~11!!!

  5. Casey says

    I AM THE QUEEN OF EXCLAMATION POINT ABUSE~!!!1one

    It’s…it’s…uh…IT’S POETIC LICENSE, DAMMIT~!11!1one!1!!eleventy

    ;) :P

  6. says

    I’ve noticed similar behaviour in comments on my own blog, though interestingly enough the put-the-girl-down behaviour extends to email for me, as well. I always figured it was because I write about construction and home renovation, which girls are not supposed to do. (Even though about 90 percent of my posts are actually about my husband doing stuff for me, which is kind of ironic.) Good thing I don’t talk much about the inherent sexism and racism in the construction industry.

    I admit, it’s gotten to the point where I moderate every single comment, and when it turns into “You are wrong little girl” I just never approve those comments because I don’t want to go there. I do wonder about the motivations of the people who email me, though.

  7. SunlessNick says

    No exclamation point is safe from Casey, that fiend!

    But seriously, there are a couple of these I’m terrible for. This is a great post.

  8. Megan says

    Amen! I’ve considered once or twice submitting something to Hathor, but I’m always stopped by the fear of that kind of commenter. Confrontation, I do not like it.

    I really appreciate the way you guys work so hard to keep Hathor a safe space.

  9. Rebecca says

    I admit that this post is making me feel guilty for not making positive comments on the blogs I read more often. It often feels silly to just post and say I agree – but of course the author can’t mind read the agreement and I can imagine how frustrating it would get to always get negative feedback. Are there ways people give you positive feedback you really value even from people who don’t necessarily feel they have something “new” to add to the discussion?

  10. sbg says

    Rebecca,

    Don’t feel guilty. Not commenting is fine – sure, it would be lovely if a comments section inspired you to add your own thoughts (as for new, eh – not everything has to be new to add to the conversation…), but we’re not going to force anyone to contribute if they’re not to that comfort level about the material.

    Just don’t pipe up only to point out we got an inconsequential factoid wrong when dissecting a book/movie/TV show or (gasp) confused gone and went.

  11. Ebb says

    Here’s a bit of irony. Those nitpickers are so busy picking out mistakes and ‘boasting’ their knowledge, they usually forget two things: 1) Their own grammar and 2) The guidelines right above the comment box. I mean, if you’re going to be that much of a stickler for grammar rules, can’t you at least respect the rules of the blog your(lol) posting at?

  12. says

    Ayse, I’ve worked in the construction industry, and I shudder in agreement with you. It’s about as bad as film. I know it’s disheartening to get the emails, but fwiw, we salute your response to them. ;)

    SunlessNick: But seriously, there are a couple of these I’m terrible for.

    Wait, what? You’re not saying you’ve ever done nitpicking? Not here, anyway. You’ve always been really supportive and contributed a lot to discussions.

    Megan, we have a couple of ways we may be able to protect new writers now – like, setting it so all comments on a particular post have to be modded by us. That would slow down discussion, which can be a little frustrating, but ensure nobody has to deal with nitpickers. So… once we’ve hammered out a system, and that could be days or weeks away, really not sure… we’ll post an announcement that we’re taking submissions.

    Rebecca, what sbg said. If you really do want to just voice some support without delurking enough to get into a discussion situation that’s outside your comfort zone, you can email us with your thoughts (we do get some really supportive emails, and I share them privately with the other writers so we can all feel the glow), and you’re also welcome to leave comments that are simply “This” or “Word!” or “I totally agree with this.” I know some sites mod comments like that for not adding to the discussion, but numbers help us show that our ideas are not so far outside the mainstream that they can be safely ignored. Also, as you’ve probably noticed, sometimes our “safe space” atmosphere leads to commenters sharing heartbreaking personal stories, and in those discussions, you’re always welcome to offer a simple condolence without “adding to the discussion.”

  13. Sunatic says

    I don’t usually comment unless I actually have something to say about the topic, but I know how important it is for blogger to know that there are readers who like the blog and agree with it. So here’s my “I’m here and I’m reading and I agree” post. I must admit, one of the reasons I’m so shy about saying anything online is that I almost always run into the nitpickers and derailers – even on moderated blogs and forums. I especially have bad luck with tone argumenters.

  14. says

    I tend to judge whether or not to add a contentless comment by how many comments there already are on the post. If the comment count is reasonable for the blog, then I might leave it out this time, whereas if the commenting is sparse, I’ll often jump in to say what a good post I thought it was, and pick something to praise.

    I also include the marginalities of the blogger in that calculus: the more marginalized, the more likely I am to respond with something positive, as I like to consciously reinforce the value of hearing non-mainstream voices as much as possible.

    I do this too because, of course, I blog myself, and I know the sadness when you write something and you get virtual crickets chirping.

  15. says

    Dom Camus,

    I’ve been thinking about what would enable us to cover popular current stuff without getting burnout from the fans being anti-critical and nitpicking about minutiae, and it’s a very tough question. As I see it:

    –It’s perfectly natural that these posts attract fans
    –Considering critical thinkers are a minority, it’s unsurprising that the fans/haters who want to squee and complain uncritically by far outnumber fans who are willing to engage critically
    –Non-fans are unlikely to read the posts, let alone get into the discussions. I sometimes push myself to do so, because my voice as site admin lends a lot of support to the author, but I usually feel like I wouldn’t have a clue what to say if I don’t watch the show.
    –So the uncritical fans overwhelm the discussion, creating an atmosphere that’s at best dismal for a critical author and at worst actually damages the safe space feeling we maintain here (like, when fans engage in rape culture tactics in their squees/complaints).

    I’m not sure how to fix this. If we had more critical commenters who feel entitled to comment on each and every post, that might help… but OTOH it’s rare to find someone who can do this in a non-obnoxious way.

    Maybe *I* should be posting more supportively in those threads. I try to, whenever I realize something’s amiss and think I can weigh in without having seen the show or really knowing what I’m talking about, but it’s difficult.

    I’m open to suggestions, though!

    Sunatic,

    Thanks for chiming in! We’re always striving to create an atmosphere where people like you, who run into derailers and nitpickers, will feel safe speaking up, but we realize it’s going to take a lot of time (and we’re only one site).

    I should also mention, just for the benefit of anyone new to tone argument stuff, that there certainly are times when it’s correct to point out that someone’s using a tone argument – generally when a minority is being told by a member of a majority that THEY (the minority) are the bigoted one, or they aren’t being nice enough to some ignorant white guy, etc. The bogus tone arguments I mention in the article tend to come from white privileged people who ALSO engage in other nitpicker tactics, and therefore seem more concerned about oppressing certain bloggers than actually kicking some oppressor ass.

  16. SunlessNick says

    Jennifer Kesler,

    That’s nice of you to say, but yeah I do have a tendency for some of those (I’m a terrible pedant when I get going). Regardless: great post.

    How related would you say this is to the “important battles” tactic – you know, the one where you castigate a writer for not covering something more important (hell, I can barely imagine how many of those a site like Hathor that covers a lot of pop culture gets). Different, same, or related phenomenon do you think?

  17. says

    CaitieCat: if the commenting is sparse, I’ll often jump in to say what a good post I thought it was, and pick something to praise.

    And let me say that this is much appreciated. :)

    “I like this” might sound inane or frivolous to a self-conscious commenter (I know it does when I comment) but when you don’t have any feedback even a simple thumbs up or thumbs down can help you get a feel for where you are.

  18. Cinnabar says

    Is there any way for you to put a “Like” button on each post? Not a Facebook one necessarily (since privacy might be an issue), just a button to click for people who don’t feel like they have something substantial to say but want to show they appreciate it.

  19. says

    Cinnabar,

    I can’t find anything. I found plugins for the FB like button (which we already have on every post), and I found some “rate a post” plugins with 5 stars, but they would be very resource heavy on the server, which means if ever we get a link sending lots of people to visit (happens sometimes), the site would probably go down. Sorry.

  20. Shaun says

    Maria,

    This is not actually on-topic but I hope that you (plural) do a review of the second Game of Thrones season when it comes out. It was 6 years ago when I’d last read the books and I wasn’t even a feminist yet. Your reviews helped me remember and re-examine the books from a social justice perspective, which has definitely impacted how I’ve been reading Book 5.

  21. Shaun says

    I hadn’t thought about this before but it makes a lot of sense–if you make an interesting, thoughtful post and someone attacks it on the basis of grammar or spelling it’s probably because they find the post objectionable but can’t as easily object on subjective grounds.

    What about social justice nitpicks, though? This is a problem I see a lot more often, and unlike grammar nitpicking, I do feel like there are times when it needs to be addressed. Hathor forbids *ist language but not all sites do, or at least not all kinds of *isms. Hathor also can’t always anticipate dehumanizing lines of rhetoric that may not be as apparent as a slur. In the context of activism, when is it okay to derail from a speaker’s point to let them know something they said was hurtful or unacceptable? When it is okay, for how long? Generally I think if they argue it’s a hostile environment for that kind of marginalized person anyway, but it can be easy to respond to questions or strawmen and get really caught up in it.

    There has to be a balance though between pointing out when an environment is toxic to some of the people it’s supposed to serve and not making posts into an Oppression 101. What works for Hathor and what do you think works for online and RL communities? Another example, recently someone was defending me from an ableist speaker, which was charming until he described her as a “c***.” If it had been online I would have thanked him but asked him not to use misogynist language when opposing ableism, but I’m not very eloquent when I don’t have time to think about my responses so I just stopped talking. That seems like an obvious rehearsed answer, but again, what about when it’s not slurs we’re talking about?

  22. says

    Shaun, first of all, I don’t consider enlightening us about slurs we may not have realized were problematic to be a “nitpick.” It can be worth a derail. Check this comment, and several of the ones below it:

    http://thehathorlegacy.com/sizes-are-shrinking-again-brace-your-self-esteem/#comment-89360

    That’s Anna doing a very nice job of pointing out that my calling “fatism the last acceptable -ism” was problematic. In that situation, I feel the burden of keeping the thread on the rails shifts from commenter compliance to the Hathor staff: if we or another commenter are called on saying something we shouldn’t have, we need to either apologize and do some editing, or in very rare cases, explain why we disagree with the commenter. In that case, the issue of “Fatism” was relevant to the article, so it wasn’t much of a derail.

    Conversely, on a very old post, one of our writers referred to a TV show as “lame.” This was not relevant at all to the content of the post, and this particular commenter had nothing else to say about the article. At the time, I felt the derail was important enough to let it happen, so I asked her for more details about why lame was ableist (ableism was VERY new to me) since I was unaware of anyone referring to people with walking difficulties as “lame” anymore. It led to a great discussion, and now “lame” is on our list of words to avoid in the comment guidelines. So, a derail, but one I judged worth it.

    Nowadays, being more informed about ableism and a lot of other -isms than I was at that time, I’d probably just do my own research and realize why the commenter was right, thank the commenter in comments, inform everyone else in comments that the word is now off-limits, and maybe dig up a few links for anyone wondering why the hell lame would be ableist, and finally ask everyone to move on and talk about the post itself. I think that would satisfy anyone hoping to educate and enlighten?

    The actual nitpicking comes when someone is disguising a strawman argument as a social justice argument. For example, recently Maria did a Spotlight On a charity, and a commenter politely informed us that all the staff seemed to be white, and the whole thing looked like “heroic white folks gonna storm in and tell poor brown people what they need.” Maria was very offended because the commenter was obviously assuming we Hathor staffers were all white (and insensitive to issues like that), which is not the case. It was the “white=default” problem – both regarding us AND the charity (which it turns out is not at all all-white). It also offended the charity founder, who wrote us about it. That derail caused the article not to get the discussion it deserved. (The comment got through and stayed up for a while because it was from a previously approved commenter who’d never left a problematic comment before.)

    Hope all that answers your question?

  23. Shaun says

    Jennifer Kesler, I wasn’t specifically referring to Hathor. Like I said, Hathor is really good about that, but I meant in the wider activism context the post seems to be addressing.

    I guess this is less on-topic than I thought if referring to a slur or piece or rhetoric isn’t a nitpick–so you think it’s always acceptable to point this out, as long as it’s not looking for an ism to rack up social justice points (I don’t know the circumstances in that post, but I’ve seen white people do similar things when the people involved were poc).

  24. Casey says

    Jennifer Kesler,

    I’m glad you cleared that up, I was afraid of commenting on this post since more often than not when it comes to “nitpicking” I usually do the whole “not for nothing, but isn’t [insert problematic thing somebody said] kinda [racist/homophobic/misogynist/ableist] as shit?” and I always felt like I was being annoying…

  25. Maria says

    Jennifer Kesler,

    The other thing I was offended at is that they were assuming that it’s “obvious” who’s working as a nonprofit person and who’s not. For example, when I volunteer at a DV shelter, many of the women are WOC who are my age — if you took a pic, I doubt you’d be able to just KNOW who’s a volunteer and who’s a client. Making the assumption that POC and white people in a pic —> white people are NOT clients and POC are NOT volunteers is just… incredibly racist and classist. This would be a moment where a nitpick reveals some really fucked up things about the commenter.

    Re GoT —

    I might — TBH it’s a hard series for me to get into because the characters I’d love to see central (Sansa, Catelyn, Arya, Daenarys, BRienne) are POV character but not central ones in the same way Tyrion and Jon Snow are. I find Snow kinda boring. I think in a few weeks I’m gonna do a post that’s basically an internal soundtrack for Game of Thrones, though…. mostly because I think soundtrack-wise you got indicated who was interesting because they had their own themes built into the music. So, uh, really this would be a chance for me to argue that Catelyn’s theme would be Rihanna’s “Run This Town.”

  26. says

    Shaun,

    Yes, I do. I would just remind people to consider resolving it via email first, because publicly calling out a blogger you don’t know well AND derailing their thread may get the discussion off to an extra-defensive start. But if the blogger doesn’t respond in a timely fashion to the email OR the discussion is spiraling out of hand with expansions of the problematic terms, then sure, I would look for a way to interject into the comment thread your thoughts on why the terms are problematic. It also wouldn’t hurt to add in something about the overall content of the post, just to give your comment added relevancy. While it’s the blogger’s responsibility to learn, no matter how she dislikes the way she was informed about a mistake she made, doing it this way can make you more effective.

    Of course, if you have reason to believe someone is KNOWINGLY being a bigot, then shoot back publicly at will. The above instructions are about enlightening people you believe to be well-intentioned but not fully aware of their privilege.

    Casey, no, you’re not being obnoxious with those comments. In fact, I encourage it – when people see not just staffers but other commenters taking something as problematic, that can add to the safe space feeling.

    Maria: Making the assumption that POC and white people in a pic —> white people are NOT clients and POC are NOT volunteers is just… incredibly racist and classist.

    Indeed. :( I remember going over to the charity site to see what the commenter meant, and fully expecting to see at least some kind of indications of this stuff and… there was nothing. The only two staffers pictured looked white (though several minorities can look white, it should be noted), but that was it! That indicates nothing.

  27. Robin says

    Jennifer Kesler,
    –It’s perfectly natural that these posts attract fans
    –Considering critical thinkers are a minority, it’s unsurprising that the fans/haters who want to squee and complain uncritically by far outnumber fans who are willing to engage critically
    –Non-fans are unlikely to read the posts, let alone get into the discussions. I sometimes push myself to do so, because my voice as site admin lends a lot of support to the author, but I usually feel like I wouldn’t have a clue what to say if I don’t watch the show.

    Maybe I’m unusual, but I do tend to read some of the pop culture posts about shows I haven’t seen. I don’t always have anything to add to discussions of, say, Supernatural, but those articles and the comments they elicit do influence whether or not I might give that show a try in the future.

    When I do have nitpicks about story continuity in shows I watch, though, I always try to make more thoughtful comments about the topic at hand first. Would it be better to leave those quibbles to email entirely? It’s never been my intention to derail a conversation with such things, but if I have, I’ll gladly adjust my default commenting behavior accordingly.

  28. Maria says

    Robin: When I do have nitpicks about story continuity in shows I watch, though, I always try to make more thoughtful comments about the topic at hand first. Would it be better to leave those quibbles to email entirely? It’s never been my intention to derail a conversation with such things, but if I have, I’ll gladly adjust my default commenting behavior accordingly.

    Only if the nitpick somehow deals substantially with the content of the article. For example, in the posts on Game of Thrones, in the comments on Sansa you’ll see a lot of back and forth on whether or not the Stark!parents treated her as a pawn. I thought that was a pretty rad conversation.

    In one of the later posts on GoT, Gena refers to someone as a Scepta (based on the phonetics of what Joffrey’s saying) to talk about how the head-on-a-stick thing Joffrey was doing was not just horrifying but also a really terrible pun. She then asked if that was a title. Several people went to answer, which was appropriate, particularly because their response (that a Septa is a religious figure, that she was Sansa’s personal Septa, she was a Septa from the North that Catelyn had brought when she first married Ned, so was SEPARATELY loyal to the Starks, like Ned’s own armsmen, etc) all helped contextualize the scene, and deepened the analysis. She wasn’t just Sansa’s nurse — she was her SEPTA, and that’s a perticular, important, specific thing.

    What WASN’T appropriate was several people then immediately began pointing out that Gena had spelled a bunch of names wrong for a show where a lot of the given names are homonyms for real-world names (like Caitlin for Catelyn, Eddard for Edward, Circe for Ceirse, Jamie for Jaime). That’s clutter and derailing.

    The thing about that kind of continuity stuff is that it often falls into simple, Here, let me edit the post like it’s a spelling mistake OR into serious fanwank, where people are arguing about what continuity they follow (this comes up a lot in comics or manga, for example, where there might be a movie-verse, comics-verse, NEW comics-verse, and prose/book-verse)

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