I’ve used it before, but this image is just too perfect.
I had a commenter recently who latched onto my use of the term “derailing” and started throwing it all over the place with little regard to its meaning. I figured that meant it would be a good time to tackle derailing as a subject, and cover my “favorite” (read: least so) derailing tactic.
So, what is derailing? It’s a form of trolling that involves distraction from the original topic. It can take different forms, and can vary a bit from topic to topic. Obvious derailing is obvious: If the subject is misogyny and you launch into a diatribe about how the thing we should all really be worrying about is racism against white people, you’re a derailer (also a racist).
If we’re talking about rates of domestic violence, it’s derailing to start talking about the crimes of female dictators. It doesn’t matter that it’s an attempt to prove “misandry” and therefore disprove theories of patriarchal influence on domestic violence. It’s wildly outside of the subject at hand. Being able to loosely tie something to the general topic of misogyny does not make it on-topic for each individual discussion of elements of the patriarchy.
Derailing can also be a trickier line to follow, where a derailer might think they’re being on-topic, but they are in fact bringing up something completely irrelevant to the conversation. This mainly presents through the basic logical fallacies. If someone is talking specifically about the misogyny that prevents women from pursuing careers in computer science, it would be derailing to start making blanket statements like, “Schools don’t forbid women from taking those classes!” Of course they don’t. No one said they did. What’s being discussed are the social burdens that discourage women from pursuing those goals, the subtleties that keep women out of the profession. It has nothing to do with official edicts, we’re talking about social pressures. Argue that those social pressures don’t exist all you want, at least you’ll be on-topic (though still wrong). It’s a strawman, you’re fabricating an argument to distract from the real topic, and that’s derailing.
So what isn’t derailing? Disagreeing. Asking (or demanding) to bring things back to the topic at hand. Rebutting. Rudeness. Becoming angry, hostile, emotional. And this last one deserves its own little spotlight.
The tone argument is one that comes up a lot in call-outs. It declares that unless the minority is being nice enough, polite enough, gentle enough, an oppressor doesn’t have to listen to them. But validity does not rely on kindness, and it’s disingenuous to expect people to be calm and kind when you’re oppressing them.
This derailing tactic can be particularly insidious, as it may be factually correct, and can therefore pretend relevancy. The minority in question may very well be extremely angry or otherwise emotional, but that’s not pertinent to the discussion at hand. How things are being argued is not the point; what is being argued is. The tone argument places the onus once again on the oppressed person, and blames them for not winning flies with honey. But the fact is, a person who doesn’t want to listen is just not going to listen, regardless of how kind you are. You can be sweet as honeysuckle and people will still say you’re bitter, hostile, and unreasonable. It’s the content of your argument that’s ruffling their feathers, they’re just blaming it on your tone to shirk responsibility.
Everyone takes a different approach to their own oppression. Some people prefer to calmly educate those who offend, and more power to them. Sometimes it even works, sometimes people legitimately listen and adjust their behavior. But the fact is, minorities owe that education to no one. Google exists for a reason, there are literally millions of resources available to people who want to learn why something they said might be bigoted. By demanding an education, and a kind one, they’re saying that their time is more valuable than that of the minority in question. It’s insulting and lazy.
It’s important to realize that bigotry, however unintentional, is an act of violence. That’s why we become volatile in the first place. When you say something misogynistic/racist/ableist/etc., you are attacking minorities. These attacks are something we live with constantly, a never-ending slew of assaults on our very selves. And sometimes, your words will be the straw that breaks our backs. After a lifetime of grinning and bearing it, we’ve finally said “enough.” And maybe that’s uncomfortable for you, because you’re used to us silently tolerating those innumerable offenses with good humor. But your discomfort does not compare to our oppression. You owe us the basic respect of introspection. So when we tell you to stop derailing, what we’re also saying is, “Start examining yourself.”
Often, derailments get defended with the “free speech” fallacy. It’s where people declare that their right to free speech allows them to say whatever they want to say, wherever and whenever they want to say it. This is objectionable on a base level:
If the best defense of your argument is “It’s not illegal for me to say this!” then you’re standing on some pretty shaky ground. No one is infringing upon your rights by telling you that you’re derailing or that your contributions are unwelcome. Believe it or not, you don’t have the right to comment on this entry telling me how wrong I am. You can because I allow you to, but I have the right to not publish your comments. Because this is my private space, and I can control it however I see fit.
Ultimately, derailing is just about believing that your own words always take precedence, regardless of whether or not they’re applicable to the subject at hand. It’s privilege at its finest.