Derailment: A Field Guide

Why Does Derailment Matter?

Derailment is important because it’s a weapon against social change.

People who support social change need to know how to identify it and how to combat it.

What Is Derailment?

Derailment “diverts a discussion about one issue into a discussion of another issue”*.  It is a tactic of misdirection that deflects attention away from complaints about the abuse and wrongdoing of those in power and towards a different topic that does not challenge those interests.

Why Do People Derail?

People derail for the following 4 reasons:

1) Feel Accused

Description: These derailers believe that the topic of discussion is a personal indictment of their own wrongdoing.  This sense of being accused may be real or imagined.

Example: A man might derail a discussion about sexual harassment if he believes he himself is being accused of sexual harassment.

2) Material Interests

Description: In this case, the change implicit in the critique would reduce the power or wealth of the derailer.  Even if an individual or group is never explicitly accused of wrongdoing, they might suffer from reduced position or resources if change to the abusive or unjust situation occurs.

Example: A firm that builds drilling equipment for the oil industry might seek to derail legislation about climate change.  Even though these manufacturers are rarely accused of wrongdoing in the climate change debate, their livelihoods would be harmed if limitations on drilling occurred.

3) Worldview Challenged

Description: In this case, the topic is forcing the derailer to make an uncomfortable reevaluation of their worldview.   Rather than make this reevaluation, the person defends their worldview by derailing the conversation.

Example: A white person might derail a discussion of police violence against people of color because they wish to continue believing that police are a force for law, order, and moral uprightness.

4) Agents of the Above

Description: The derailer in this case is acting on behalf of groups or individuals who fall into the above three categories.

Example: We don’t know Megyn Kelly’s personal feelings about Black Lives Matter, but when she brought up black-on-black violence in her interview with Cornel West last week (image above), she was furthering the conservative agenda of her employer, Fox News, by derailing critique of racist policing.

What Are the Types of Derailment?

Graphically, all derailed topics look sometime like this before they are derailed:

  1. There are two parties: A and B
  2. A has more power than B
  3. A has committed some abuse or wrongdoing against B

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There are seven ways to derail this type of topic, each of which seeks to undermine or modify some element of this model.  They are:

  1. Rationalist Derailments
  2. Minimization Derailments
  3. Victim-Blaming Derailments
  4. Table-Turning Derailments
  5. Ad Hominem Derailments
  6. Narcissistic Derailments
  7. See No Evil Derailments

Learn them so you can identify them when you see and hear them.  Then call them out for what they are: efforts to silence criticism of the status quo, protect those in power, and divert attention away from change.  (See an alternative list here.)

 

1) Rationalist Derailments

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Description: These derailments seek to identify a flaw in the logic or evidentiary basis of the challenging topic.  These types of arguments are particularly popular with men and conventionally-educated people, since they are taught they are more logical than other groups.  It is also common among people who do not think they are not prejudiced, because they are attacking the argument rather than the speaker or group making the complaint.

Example: “All murders/homicides are terrible. But if we run the numbers….”*

2) Minimization Derailments

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Description: This form or derailment also seeks to blunt or undermine the argument itself.  Unlike the rationalist derailer, however, the minimizing derailer attacks the argument by minimizing its importance.

There are a number of tactics minimizers use.  They may claim that the wrongdoing or abuse was “just a joke” and not a serious threat.

Another common tactic is to play Oppression Olympics and minimize the suffering of (B) compared to a group that is even worse off.  This is the tactic my own father used when I tried to talk to him about the rights of sweatshop workers overseas.  “Would you prefer they were starving subsistence farmers?” he asked.  “At least they have jobs.”  Counter to his line of argument, the existence of a graver wrongdoing does not negate the presence of a lesser one.

Examples: “It’s just a joke.”  “Why are you making such a big deal of it?”  “These people are actually lucky. [X Group] has it much worse.”

 

3) Victim-Blaming Derailments

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Description: This derailment is ingenious and extremely popular, even though it makes very little sense.  In this common derailment, the derailer suggests that the victim of oppression, rather than the oppressor, is responsible for the victim’s suffering.

When this derailment is used, it often means that the derailer cannot deny that some suffering occurred (poverty, murder, unwanted sexual intercourse).  Since they cannot deny the suffering, instead claim that the injured party (B) injured themselves or incited the more powerful party (A) to injure them.  This argument of this derailment is “stop hitting yourself,” and is just as ridiculous.

Examples: Blaming the poor for their poverty, blaming black people for being the victims of violence (black-on-black crime derailment), blaming rape survivors for being raped.

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A special sub-type of the victim-blaming derailment is the Victim-Perpetuating Derailment

Description: Here the derailer acknowledges that party (A) did at some time abuse or engage in wrongdoing toward (B).  However, at this point (B) is guilty of perpetuating or even augmenting that wrongdoing.  The derailer is arguing that the speaker is creating the injustice by pointing out its existence.

In fact, the exact opposite is true.  Ignoring injustice perpetuates it.  Speaking about it is the first step towards remedy.  This is  precisely why the discussion is being derailed.  Derailment aims explicitly to silence those who speak about injustice in order to prevent remedies that will change the status quo.

Example: “Stop talking about racism!  That just perpetuates racism.”

 

4) Table-Turning Derailments

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Description:  If you thought the Victim-Blaming Derailment was crazy, this one’s even nuttier.  In the table-turning derailment, the person being accused of oppressive behavior claims that, actually, they are the victims.

This derailment diverts the original discussion by completely flipping the dynamics.  The abuser has become the abused.  Their narrative becomes privileged.  The victim becomes the abuser.  Their narrative is sidelined and undermined.  It’s so crazy it might just work (and it does).

Examples: The reverse racism argument that white people are the true victims of racism, meninist claims that women are actually oppressing men.

 

5) Ad Hominem Derailments

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Description: Ad hominem means “to the man.”  It refers to personal attacks.  This derailment is popular because it is the laziest and easiest derailment.  The derailer doesn’t need to make any critique of the argument or the context.  They just need to find some defect in the person making the argument and point it out.  The laziest of these derailments is to make a criticism of the person’s appearance, which doesn’t require that the derailer even think about the person, but only look at them.

The slightly more sophisticated derailer will criticize the speaker’s character.   This derailment works because people will often not believe a claim made by someone who has been identified as flawed.  For example, the speaker may be called overly-sensitive or angry.  The implication is that the content of the critique is driven by emotion rather than fact.

Counter to this logic, anger is actually not connected to the validity of an argument.  In fact, if I am arguing about a serious injustice that is being minimized or ignored, that’s a completely valid reason to be angry.

Example: “Danny–You’re a total loser,” “he is just so pathetic and easy (stupid),” “I’d look her right in that fat, ugly face” (Donald Trump tweets and comments.)

 

6) Narcissistic Derailments

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Description: These derailments are in a way the most innocent kind.  The derailer may not even realize they are derailing.  The derailer simply shifts the conversation to themselves.  I’ve called them Narcissistic Derailments and their spirit is well-expressed in this awesome tweet:

This is a very common type of derailment for an ally to engage in unconsciously.   Allies (C) are generally people whose power is between the person or group accused of wrongdoing (A) and the group doing the accusing (B).  If allies keep the focus on the group with less power, their allyship is helpful.  If they turn the attention on themselves, they divert attention away from the group making the claim and do them harm.

We are all naturally interested in ourselves and will see any issue from the perspective of our own experience.  However, as allies we need to police these reactions and keep the focus on the groups were have allied ourselves with.  This time it is really not about us.

Example: “I hear what you’re saying about the problems of [marginalized group].  As a member of [less marginalized group], I have similar problems. Let me tell you about them.”

 

7) See No Evil Derailment

Screen Shot 2015-08-27 at 7.22.06 PMDescription: This is the most dangerous type of derailment, since by appearance it is the most benign.   Even sophisticated public figures like Democratic presidential candidates Martin O’Malley and Hillary Clinton have made the mistake of committing this type of derailment.

So why are these comments, which seem to embrace the values of equality and fair treatment, really so horribly damaging?  It is because this derailment erases the abuse and wrongdoing, pretends it does not exist.  If an injustice is not acknowledged it can never be righted.

Example: #AllLivesMatter, “I don’t even see race, I’m colorblind”

How to Fight Derailment?

Of course, derailments are rarely used individually out in the wild.  For example, what about this combo move?

Black Person: “I get stressed every time I see a police car in my rearview.  Driving is just too much.”

White Person: “Why are you so upset, Bro?  The cops pull me over sometimes and nothing bad ever happens. ”     

This is indeed a powerful derailer.  Let us unpack the many derailments he has deployed in so few words:

  • “Why are you getting so emotional?”: Ad Hominem attack (focusing on the individual’s emotional state, not the content of what they are saying), which also sets up a Rationalism attack by implying that the person is speaking from their heart, not their head.
  • “The cops pull me over sometimes…”: A classic usage of Narcissistic derailment.  Dude, we are not talking about your interactions with police.  We are talking about this black person’s experience with the police.
  • “…and nothing bad ever happens”: And here the Rationalist derailment appears.  The derailer is using the evidence that they have never had trouble with the police as evidence that the back person hasn’t either.  At this point, the conversation has been derailed to the extent that evidence of a white person’s experience is seen as valid evidence for disproving a black person’s experience.  It’s ridiculous and infuriating.

Here’s how the black person could respond.  With a Rationalist derailment, using statistics, facts, figures can be an effective rebuttal.

Black Person: “Well, Dude, if I appear emotional it’s because this is a frigging terrifying situation.  Also, we’re not talking about your experience.  We’re talking about my experience. Black people are being killed by police at more than twice the rate of white and Hispanic or Latino people in the US.  If you don’t believe me, check out this article in The Guardian.  Also, never ever question my experience of my own life again.”

And then the moment of truth comes.

If this Dude is merely ignorant, then he should apologize immediately.  If he doesn’t apologize, or even gets defensive, you know you are not dealing with a friend, but rather a narcissistic and irrational racist who would rather attack a friend than question even the smallest part of his worldview or try to empathize with an experience not his own.  Kick him to the curb.  At least you provided a teaching moment, even if Dude was unable to appreciate it.

What are your strategies for combatting derailment?  Tell me in the comments.

original image: blackamericaweb.com

White Nonsense First Responders: Open Thread

Use the comments section below to share your experiences confronting racist nonsense.  You can suggest ways to respond, ask for advice on how to respond, or just seek emotional support.

White people made white supremacy and it’s our responsibility to fix it.  Let’s help each other do that work.

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#WhiteNonsense: Is Black Lives Matter Racist?

Note: With 38K views and 10K shares and growing, “Sensible Responses to White Nonsense” hit a nerve. There is clearly a need by white people to challenge their peers on racist opinions that are (quite frankly) ridiculous. “Sensible Responses” is a smorgasbord of nonsense and responses. Yet each individual piece of nonsense also deserves its own spotlight and clear talking points, beginning with this post.  My hope is to nourish a groundswell of white people fighting white nonsense. This is our fight. This is our power.

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White Nonsense:

 

Black Lives Matter is racist because they are “only concerning themselves with black victims of police violence”*

Your Response:

Short Answer:

 

  • No, they are not racist.
  • To support one group is not inherently oppositional to other groups.
  • When you show support for one group, it is because that group is suffering some particular injustice that requires attention and remedy.
  • It is not because you oppose people who are not in that group.

Long Answer:

1) Racism has a variety of definitions.

There are a variety of ways of defining the word racism.  Some argue that “racism equals power.” According to this interpretation, black and other people of color can be biased or prejudiced, but they can’t be racist.  This is because, according to this interpretation, Racism = Bias based on skin color + Control over institutions that can do harm as a result of those biases.  So a black person can be biased, but they cannot be racist because they lack control over institutions to do harm to white people as a result of that bias.

However… this is not the most common definition.  The prevailing definition focuses exclusively on bias or individual treatment as a result of bias.  The Merriam-Webster Dictionary, for example, defines racism as both “poor treatment of or violence against people because of their race,” which anyone could do, and “the belief that some races of people are better than others,” which could also apply to a person of any skin color.

2) Fortunately, you can respond without choosing one.

Fortunately for logical argument, it is not necessary to resolve this definitional question to respond to the above criticism of Black Lives Matter.

3) To show support for one group is not inherently oppositional to other groups.

As to the question of whether Black Lives Matter holds some form of racial bias because they care about black lives, I give a firm “no.”  When you show support for one group, it is because that group is suffering some particular injustice that requires attention and remedy.  It is not because you oppose people who are not in that group.

For example, if I am fighting for access to HIV treatment I am not inherently expressing bias towards people who are HIV-negative. If I am fighting for housing for homeless youth I am not inherently biased against adults with homes.  If I am fighting for animal welfare I am not inherently anti-human.  I am just expressing that these groups are experiencing a particular injustice that requires attention and remedy.  I am lifting them up because I support them, not because I oppose others.

4) This is true even if some black activists have (understandable) anti-white bias.

Even if some black activists do hold bias against white people (which, to be honest, I find quite understandable), fighting for the rights and welfare of black people is not in and of itself racist.  They are uplifting the cause of black people because black people are subject to a range of injustices within our society.

5) Being passionate about one particular cause isn’t bias, it’s what drives activism.

The causes we care about are tied to our experiences, our identities, and who we love.  Each of us must fight for the causes that move our hearts.  This isn’t bias.  This is the engine of activism, human rights, and human progress.

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* Denotes direct quote from a white person

original image: michaelhyatt.com

8 Anti-Racist Commitments

For many white people, racism is the elephant in the room.  It’s there even if we ignore it.

Today in downtown Seattle I came across an action by participants in an activism camp called Localize This!.  They had a great flyer of commitments for white allies. I’ve remixed and reproduced it below.  Their original list is here.

  1. I commit to reflect on topics that may be uncomfortable.
  2. I commit to promote cooperation over self-interest.
  3. I commit to recognize the concerns of people different from me.
  4. I commit to educate myself on issues that contribute to oppression.
  5. Even though I may unintentionally say or do something racist, I commit to view mistakes as opportunities for learning.
  6. When challenged on racism, I commit to working on my own defensiveness by calmly listening even if that is not my first reaction.
  7. I commit to including the interests of oppressed groups while making decisions that affect them.
  8. I commit to disrupt the status quo in order to share power and privilege with all people.

Sensible Responses to White Nonsense

Trigger Warning:  This post and the comments below it contain various expressions of racism paired with arguments against the logic contained within them.  These expressions (labeled “white nonsense” in the post) are nevertheless hurtful and offensive and readers should proceed with care.

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I recently decided to start responding to white critics of Black Lives Matter.

Black activists are busy.  They have a revolution to run and do not have time to be dealing with white nonsense.  But I do.  Below are some common critiques of Black Lives Matter, along with appropriate responses.

Remember, white allies, it’s better to call in than call out.   Calling in makes instances of white ignorance and insensitivity teaching moments, instead of fuck-you moments.  While fuck-you may feel good, calling white people in to being decent and empathic human beings is to everyone’s advantage.

BLM activists, if I get anything wrong, please let me know.

Critique 1: But the Violence!  (ie, misplaced outrage)

White Nonsense: Is violence ever acceptable? Looting innocent business owners, firing shots at police, etc. in Ferguson. Carving the name of the cop who shot Brown on the skin of a pig, roasting it and then eating it’s head in front of the Ferguson Police Dept? Angry and rude is far from this level of violence that is being carried out.*

Reasoned Response: Which violence are we choosing to talk about? The cause for these protests is the shooting of unarmed black people, yet that is not the violence that seems to be most upsetting to you. Why do you think that is, [Meredith]?

White Nonsense: I am in no way in defense of the abuse of police power or the mistreatment of innocent blacks. But to fight violence with violence is not the answer. Innocent people are suffering from these protests. This is inexcusable and to make excuses for it is dangerous.*

Reasoned Response: [Brad] I know that the anger of oppressed people can be disconcerting and upsetting, whether it’s symbolic acts, words, or destruction of property. They are angry at the institutions that protect us and do not protect them and they are angry at us for supporting these institutions. The question is, which violence offends us more: the smashing of a police car or the murder of a black child? If the answer is the former, which it is for a lot of white people, then that needs to change. We need to shift our empathy and identification from the institutions of oppression to those who are oppressed.

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Want to talk to other white people fighting the good fight against racist nonsense?

Join the discussion

in the White Nonsense First Responders’ Open Thread

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Critique 2: Annoyance at Hearing About Oppression

White Nonsense: I think [race is] a bit of a potential third rail in American politics. Unfortunately, I think a lot of white voters get tired of hearing about it.*

Reasoned Response: [Tom], white voters get tired of hearing about racism? That is no doubt true, just as men get tired of hearing about sexism or the rich get tired of hearing about the struggles of the poor or non-veterans gets tired of hearing about PTSD. I certainly hope that’s not true of you. That’s also not the country I want to live in. Hearing about the pain of others is a cause for compassion, not annoyance.

Critique 3: You’re Hurting Your Cause! (ie, concern trolling)

White Nonsense: Those interruptions do nothing to stop people dying in the streets, they only give the movement a bad name.*

White Nonsense: Disruptions like this do a big disservice to a great cause.  Anything you’ll say in these minutes will be overshadowed by the fact that your hijacked the microphone.*

Reasoned Response: Well, let’s look at the evidence, [Kelsey].  If we’re talking about [the interruption of Bernie Sanders’ speech] then we can see that in the week following that action:

So I’d say that disruptive tactic did help their cause.  Remember that black lives > white feelings.  If you are arguing the reverse, ask yourself why.

Critique 4: But Black on Black Violence!

White Nonsense: But what about all the other young black murder victims? Nationally, nearly half of all murder victims are black. And the overwhelming majority of those black people are killed by other black people. Where is the march for them? (source)

Reasoned Response: Regardless of harm members of a group do to each other, harms being done to that group by others still need to be addressed.  In the wise words of Cornel West (whom I once saw walking through an airport!), “we have to distinguish between state-sponsored violence and violence against black people owing to actions black people do to each other. Both are important, but they’re not the same thing.”

Diverting attention away from police using this argument is a classic derailment and lets abusive police officers off the hook.  Police officers with hair-trigger tempers who have no respect for the law are a danger to everyone, so diverting attention away from their bad acts harms all citizens.

Critique 5: #BlackLivesMatter is Itself Racist

White Nonsense: What about the argument that the Black Lives Matter movement is Racist in itself by only concerning themselves with black victims of police violence?*

Reasoned Response: There are a variety of ways of defining the word racism.  Some argue that “racism equals power.” According to this interpretation, black and other people of color can be biased or prejudiced, but they can’t be racist.  This is because, according to this interpretation, racism = bias based on skin color + control over institutions that can do harm as a result of those biases.  So a black person can be biased, but they cannot be racist because they lack control over institutions to do harm to white people as a result of that bias.

However… this is not the most common definition.  The prevailing definition focuses exclusively on bias or individual treatment as a result of bias.  The Merriam-Webster Dictionary, for example, defines Racism as both “poor treatment of or violence against people because of their race,” which anyone could do, and “the belief that some races of people are better than others,” which could also apply to a person of any skin color.

Fortunately for logical argument, it is not necessary to resolve this definitional question to respond to the above criticism of Black Lives Matter.  As to the question of whether Black Lives Matter holds some form of racial bias because they care about black lives, I give a firm “no.”  Even if some black activists do hold bias against white people (which, to be honest, I find quite understandable), fighting for the rights and welfare of black people is not in and of itself racist.

To show specific support for one group is not inherently oppositional to other groups.   For example, if I am fighting for access to HIV treatment I am not inherently expressing bias towards people who are HIV-negative. If I am fighting for housing for homeless youth I am not inherently biased against adults with homes.  If I am fighting for animal welfare I am not inherently anti-human.

The causes we care about are tied to our experiences, our identities, and who we love.  Each of us must fight for the causes that move our hearts.  This isn’t bias.  This is the engine of human rights and human progress.

Critique 6: Racism Doesn’t Exist Because White People Suffer Too

White Nonsense: Being white doesn’t protect you from this class system, making it a blame game is absolutely racist. Being white doesn’t make you automatically rich, doesn’t protect your home, won’t promise you a job or a life.  It certainly won’t protect you from homelessness or poverty.

Reasoned Response: Identity is intersectional. This means that while some elements of our identity privilege us, others disadvantage us. For example, I am privileged by my whiteness, my middle class background, and being cisgendered, but I am also disadvantaged by being queer and being female.

To take your example, a person who is able-bodied has greater privilege than one who is not.  To accurately articulate that whiteness is being used to divide and disadvantage people who do not have this trait is not racist.  Ignoring this abuse is.

Black people are disadvantaged in our society, so are mentally ill people, so are poor people, so are transgender people…. We live in a very unequal society.

Critique 7: Not All Cops…

White Nonsense First Responder: Any advice on the “not all cops are bad” bullshit?

Reasoned Response: Like “not all white people” and “not all men,”  this line of criticism really doesn’t stand up to logic.  Can you imagine if the Catholic Church had given this response to the pedophile priest scandal?  What if the Vatican spokesperson had said, “Yes, some of our priests are pedophiles, but not all of them are.  In fact, most of our priest are not pedophiles.  For that reason, we see no need to act.  In fact, we don’t even understand what you are all so worried about.”  People would have been legitimately outraged.

If there is an abusive element in any institution of public trust or power, it needs to be dealt with.  Saying there are only a few abusers (whether this is true or not) does not change this fact.

to be continued….

* denotes direct quote from a white person

Critique 4: Added August 20th, thanks to Ryan Carson for suggesting.  Edits made thanks to suggestion from David.

Critique 5: Added August 20th in response to Toby, definition of racism expanded on August 21st based on feedback from Sam and Mike Crossley.

Critique 6: Added August 20th in response to Toby.

Critique 7: Added August 24th on the suggestion of Gypsy B.

[fake name]

image:michaelhyatt.com

Open Letter From Seattle Progressives

I’ve been thinking about the Black Lives Matter action last weekend and the horrifying response by many progressives in attendance.   It was angry, intolerant, ugly, and – yes – racist.

Bernie Sanders responded with irritation.  But the largely white crowd was far uglier in their hostility to the black activists who took the stage.

We (white) Seattle progressive need a “do over” to assert the true progressive values of our city.

Sign the open letter here: bit.ly/SEA4BLM

 

These values are:

  1. Black lives matter.
  2. There is no place for racism in the progressive movement.
  3. Progressive candidates must earn that title by putting forward concrete proposals on how they will support the liberation of black and brown people if elected.
  4. Black and brown people have the right to demand this of candidates.

To this end I have started an open letter from Seattle progressives to our fellow citizens, affirming the above.  Please sign and then share.  You can find the letter here:

Sign the open letter here: bit.ly/SEA4BLM

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image: screenshot of event video from Soaring Moments

 

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