On comments, safe spaces, and free expression

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.


9 Comments on “On comments, safe spaces, and free expression”

  1. My policy on my blog is: I’ll allow through only what I want.

    It’s not exactly considered good blog modding etiquette, but it works for me.

    • Grace says:

      I think that works :p

      I mean honestly, the more I think about it the more what is considered good modding etiquette is a bunch of BS when what you’re writing about is at all sensitive or triggering. If you’re writing about puppies or bicycles, sure, free opinions! But about abuse? Why should people feel entitled to roll up into a space with whatever they think about that?

  2. Ahab says:

    I’ve moderated comments from the beginning at my blog to make sure that offensive or rude comments do not get through. I think your decision to moderate is a good idea.

    “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.”

    I’ve never understood how people can take comfort from an omnipotent god who allows such unspeakable evil, as you’ve observed. To tell an abuse victim that their personal horror is part of some cosmic plan is nothing short of spiritual abuse, in my opinion.

    • shelly says:

      Except there are several verses that do outright state that “all is of God”. And if “all” is of God, that means both the good and the bad are of him. (Also recall that Satan couldn’t do all he did to Job without God’s permission.)

      I think this study elaborates on this idea better than I can…

      That said, yeah, I wouldn’t say “God is in control” to someone who just went through something horrible. One, it’s not my place to do that, IMO; two, as Grace pointed out, it may not necessarily be comforting to the person.

      • Grace says:

        I think the Bible is really mixed at best on the question of how much control God really has over things. Especially if you take the Old Testament’s multiple perspectives on the God of Israel into account – if you read the OT without the assumption of monotheism, it’s very clear in parts that the God of Israel was for much of Israelite history seen as one of many gods who also had power.

    • Grace says:

      I have definitely deleted comments I found disrespectful or offensive before. But I do let most comments stand – luckily I don’t get many nasty comments, at least so far. Annoying and trite Christian buzzwordy comments yes – like the one just left on one of my posts about sovereign grace complaining about how I was slandering people and not being Christ-like – but those don’t seem to rise quite to the level of deletable.

      I also wonder how much my agonizing over what to delete or not is a manifestation of my tendency to feel obligated to other people and to feel like I can’t say no to them.

  3. graceone says:

    I don’t really have a blog of my own. But, as a libertarian, I’m a big proponent of allowing a free exchange of ideas and thoughts

    . I think people are more changed and impacted if comments such as these are freely and openly discussed. Perhaps this person has really no idea that this remark would even be seen as painful and triggering for some people, and could be helped to be more sensitive and understanding in this. Sometimes it truly is difficult to judge over the internet where people are at. I myself have made statements on blogs wanting to explore people’s thinking and experience that were judged as deeply offensive when that was not my intention at all.

    I definitely would ban a comment if I sensed it was made to deliberately be disrespectful, mocking and cause pain, or if it was profane. Even then, I would attempt to give the person a warning.

    But, I know that everyone does have differing perspectives in this. I can see where you are coming from also, Grace.

    • Grace says:

      There’s free exchange and there’s free exchange. I believe in everyone’s right to their own opinion, but there are some issues where free exchange isn’t necessarily the best. For example, victim blaming is really widespread response to abuse. Lots of people have victim-blaming opinions and often not out of any malice or deliberate meanness – that’s how rape culture works, the status quo is such that it’s easy to intend to be fair and good but end up doing things that cause or excuse serious harm. Free exchange of those sorts of ideas (and ideas that are less obviously problematic) is the opposite of what this blog is about…e.g., in a blog that’s about how complementarianism is an abusive theology, yea, there’s going to be at the very least some pushback against comments that excuse or promote that theology.

      For me it’s less about judging the intent behind people’s comments, which you often can’t know anyway, than weighing the effects and implications of what they say. If those are problematic I think they should be pushed back against at least, if not necessarily deleted.

      Probably what I need to do is write up a comments policy.

  4. Kristen says:

    Yes, yes, yes, thank you. I have no advice for how to deal with that comment — posting and responding would be good, but I also really like the idea of privileging marginalized voices, so *shrug* your call! — but your and somatic’s comments on the trigger-y-ness of the “God is in control” Christian trump card are spot on.

    For me, the logic went a little differently (trigger warning!) — it went, “God is in control… so he’s in control OF ME. I can’t get away from God no matter what I do. He will always be in control of me and I cannot escape.” Add to that the oft-cited Jer. 29:11 “I know the plans I have for you” verse, and it gets worse — not only can I not escape from God, but he’s planned my whole life. There will never be an escape. And since God is a man, in most evangelical church environments around here, he probably just wants to “use me for his divine purposes” in the most awful sense and then discard me.

    But, yeah. Christian language can be terrifying. Thanks for addressing the issue of safe space — good luck coming up with a workable comments policy.

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