On comments, safe spaces, and free expressionPosted: November 13, 2011
Trigger warning: child sexual abuse, doctrine of divine sovereignty as it applies to child sexual abuse.
I got a comment on my post about Penn State that I’ve left in moderation for several days now, and that I think I will ultimately delete. I haven’t quite been able to get myself to click the button yet.
Let me explain. When I started this blog, one of the goals I had in mind was to foster a conversation that would be a fairly open and free exchange of ideas and experiences. My thinking at the time was that a mostly hands-off approach to comment moderation was an important part of achieving that goal, specifically only deleting comments that were outright hostile, personal attacks, or trolling. I wanted people to feel free to say what they believed as long as they were respectful of other people’s beliefs.
The comment sitting in moderation doesn’t fall under any of my original criteria for deletion. But I’m realizing that my original criteria were pretty crappy.
One big reason for this: the idea that “open and free exchange” of ideas exists doesn’t really reflect reality, any more than the notion of the “free hand of the market” leading us towards an progressively more meritocratic society reflects reality.
I mean, one of the big reasons why this blog and others like it exist is that certain perspectives are hugely privileged while others are completely erased and silenced – in the church and in society in general. It’s not as though the internet is an exception. Look at which voices online are most represented, have the most chance of being amplified and supported, have the most influence…they’re the same voices that are most represented in the offline world (and usually despite being a numerical minority – hello, white straight cis males).
Leaving a comments section largely unmoderated would really be allowing the status quo to prevail – allowing privileged voices to be dominant and underrepresented voices to continue to be drowned out. What’s actually called for is a moderation philosophy that counterbalances these tendencies and creates a space where people who are ordinarily not heard can speak as freely and safely as possible – a space where marginalized voices are not only represented, but actively supported, centered, and amplified.
The comment in question expresses a hope that the boys abused by Jerry Sandusky will come to understand that God is in control and knows our pain. I’m sure the person who left this comment (presumably a Christian) believes very sincerely in divine sovereignty and honestly thinks that such a belief would be a comfort or help to abuse survivors. Probably that belief has been something of a comfort to this person. And perhaps for some survivors it can be, too.
But for a lot of survivors, especially those coming out of environments where the doctrine of divine sovereignty was used a tool to manipulate people into not speaking out about mistreatment or abuse, “God is in control” is the opposite of comforting. It’s frightening enough to contemplate the idea of an all knowing God, who knows children are being raped and either can’t or won’t do anything to stop it. But the idea of a God who is in control even when children are being raped, who can somehow make child rape part of “his” larger plan? Is absolutely monstrous.
As somatic strength has written about related beliefs that God can reveal to Christians things that have happened in secret, these doctrines can do a lot of harm to survivors of abuse in Christian contexts – by giving false hope that their abuse will somehow magically be brought to light, that a rescue or a way out will suddenly present itself:
When I was sixteen, I begged God to tell someone at our church what I was going through. They didn’t have to specifically know about the abuse – I’m confused about what I wanted about that now. I think I wanted them to know, but not know, because I had determined to take it to the grave. In my head, talking about it was my death, talking about it ensured that something absolutely and horrifically terrible would happen, though I didn’t know what. I just knew that it would. There was no way I could tell, so I wanted someone else to know the effects of what I was going through.
I never missed a Sunday at church. I waited for the person who would come up to me and tell me, “God put you on my heart and I just wanted you to know that He says it’ll be okay. You’ll get through this.” Something like that. Something that would let me know that God was thinking about me, that he hadn’t abandoned me through all this. I wasn’t sleeping anymore. I couldn’t talk anymore. I was consumed by the most horrible feeling of dread that there was no future for me, that the only way out was to die….
In a church that contained a number of people who believed they had a “discerning power” and a girl who couldn’t talk for a few months begging God to let others know and give her hope, he did Absolutely Nothing. And to believe that he is capable of doing that, to believe that he does that for some and not for others is to say that while he is willing to help others, he looked down at me and, probably in his sweetest, most emotionally manipulative, passive aggressive way, told me the equivalent of “you’re not worth it.” (somatic strength: No one saw anything)
So this idea that God has a handle on everything that happens, no matter how horrible, can be incredibly triggering for some survivors. It’s certainly not reliable as a comfort – again, not to say that there are no survivors who find this idea comforting, because some certainly do. I can say for myself as a survivor of emotional abuse that continues to affect my life on a literally daily basis, the idea that God is in control of my being chronically depressed, living with extreme anxiety, and struggling to cope with basic responsibilities is the opposite of reassuring.
It’s comforting; to think that these things will be brought to the light. To think that something like this could never be gotten away with, because even if they commit the perfect crime, God will tell someone. (somatic strength)
Like somatic, I think when these beliefs are expressed about God’s ability to control or magically reveal abuse, it’s often more about what’s comforting for someone to cling to in the face of a horrifying crime, than what’s of actual help to abuse survivors. And while I understand that the person who left this comment probably had nothing but good intentions in mind, the intent behind a statement doesn’t determine what it’s actual effects are. For me, the comment felt like a downplaying of abuse – like it would somehow be ok because God is in control. And I suspect many of the readers here who are also survivors of various forms of abuse might feel similarly.
And really, that’s who this blog is for. People who believe God is in control in every situation have plenty of spaces where they can freely express that belief and find loads of people who will agree with them. People who are potentially triggered by that idea don’t have the luxury of many spaces where their feelings and experiences will be validated. There isn’t a proliferation of spaces where you can speak out about abuse and be believed and supported.
So in rethinking my original policy on comments, I’m realizing that I need to approach moderating with an eye to maintain a space for free expression by people who are ordinarily silenced, dismissed, and pushed out of conversation in various ways – including by comment spaces where triggering statements are allowed to stand unchallenged. That means limiting to some degree the expression of ideas and perspectives that haven’t been marginalized in the same way.
All that said, I’m not completely decided on how to deal with this comment. I could of course just delete it, and probably will. It seems particularly ill-conceived as a response to a post about how racism and classism make children of color even more vulnerable than children in general to rape. Or I could publish it, and respond to it (or just link to this post I suppose). I’d welcome thoughts on how to manage it.