Derailing for Dummies

So you are helping members of some marginalized group understand their experience better.  You start to get the sense that they feel your objective perspective is not as good as theirs is.  Remember what you learned from Derailing for Dummies

Don’t worry though! There IS something you can do to nip this potentially awkward and embarrassing situation in the bud. By simply derailing the conversation, dismissing their opinion as false and ridiculing their experience you can be sure that they continue to be marginalised and unheard and you can continue to look like the expert you know you really are, deep down inside!


Just follow this step-by-step guide to Conversing with Marginalised People™ and in no time at all you will have a fool-proof method of derailing every challenging conversation you may get into, thus reaping the full benefits of every privilege that you have.

The class of derailing might well be larger that the book seems to acknowledge.  For example, all sorts of conversations can be derailed by “Did you turn off the stove?”  And it is easy to think of similar tactics for political discussions for the web.  Still, this is a grand collection! 

There’s some controversy over the discussion of false consciousness, and the term seems to me to be being used in too literal a sense..  I love the label, though, and think that “but you see race [or sexism etc.]  everywhere” is well understood as a denial of the legitimacy of the perspective of marginalized persons.

22 thoughts on “Derailing for Dummies

  1. Profbigk, odear. I couldn’t believe we hadn’t done anything, and that was right’. I trusted my memory too much. I think it’s worth a second run…

  2. PS I say that in part because of recent discussions of derailing, and because I think we’re still left with the task of characterizing a number of kinds of derailing.

  3. I can appreciate the impulse to put the derailing site together and blow off some steam if you find yourself engaged in a lot of unilaterally stupid arguments with people who don’t really care about what they are saying (or, in Frankfurtian terms, are just bullshitting.) But doesn’t this catalog veer dangerously close to the conclusion that the view of the Marginalized Person (TM) is just entitled to prevail in any discussion, because the Marginalized Person is invulnerable to any argument by definition?

    For instance, let me take the fresh example of annejjacobson’s post on that Hilton ad. Every other commenter was of the opinion that Anne’s interpretation of the ad was baffling. And yet, despite the impeccable respect and sincerity demonstrated by the dissenting majority in that thread, every one of those comments is “guilty” of at least one form of “derailing”, and usually several. What conclusions should we draw from that?

  4. Uh, I believe Anne called out one commenter, Brego, who was excessively rude. Her next comment went on to admit that her experiment was a FAIL! Like a good scientist, Anne knows when it’s time to develop a new hypothesis.

    I’ll point out here, as I did on the other thread, that it may be worth asking people with a wider range of visual processing styles. I totally get what she was saying.

  5. I guess we have been cautioned before about getting ‘excessively meta’, but I wouldn’t call it excessively rude to point out that it becomes difficult to draw attention to examples of rape culture when even an overwhelming majority of a feminist blog’s readership finds your previous examples to be not only wide of the mark, but puzzlingly so. The “FAIL” remark was a reference to her decision to tag a photo of Michael Phelps jumping into a fluffy bed with the “domestic violence” tag. That’s not a decision I would have made, but hey, it’s not my blog.

    My point is that practically every other comment employs one or many allegedly “derailing” tropes as well. (cf. overthinking, oversensitive,experience not representative, interrogating from the wrong perspective, taking things too personally). It’s just impossible to maintain that the Phelps ad is not actually problematic, full stop, without somehow contradicting someone’s Lived Experience (TM). If trained feminist philosophers can’t respectfully disagree with another without breaking these “rules”, what does this tell us about the rules?

  6. SandS– I struggle also with the distinction between derailing and being a philosopher. It’s far from straightforward, and well worth discussing. But let’s drop the Hilton-Phelps example, OK? Anne had a reaction that it turned out many others didn’t share. This happens. If we keep discussing it, we’re making waaaay too much of it, and we’ll end up missing the point of the post about derailing. I’d love to have people try to figure out a good way of distinguishing derailing from being a philosopher. Let’s try that!

  7. My apologies, I don’t mean to perseverate about it. It just struck me as an apt example of a discussion which is practically the the most civil you could hope for, considering the issue, and yet runs afoul of all sorts of “derailing” no-nos. This suggests to me that many of the techniques don’t actually make much sense as descriptions inherently abusive debate. Sometimes people’s Lived Experiences (TM) really ought to be questioned. Sometimes research and statistical analysis really are preferable to personal impressions, especially when normative implications are to be drawn from them. Rather a lot of the time, really. And the view that it’s rude to reason with statistics, research and empirical evidence makes me wonder whether this site is really not a deep cover conservative operation. Perhaps it’s just Poe’s Law.

    The author(s) makes a number of worrying claims in that “facts are better than opinions” trope. It’s difficult to tell exactly what they mean here because they’re trying to be satirical, I guess, but the first sentence seems to accomplish a lot more than it intends to: “If you really want to excel as a Privileged Person® you need to learn to value statistics, research studies and empirical evidence above all things, but especially above Lived Experience©.”

    As folks are very fond of pointing out, sometimes people just have the wrong Lived Experiences, or take the wrong conclusions from them. To take a well worn example, plenty of people have the subjective impression that male violinists outperform female violinists. It actually takes a very carefully controlled study and some acquaintance with statistics to demonstrate that this impression is not due to the actual performances, and that this empirical finding is itself distinguishable from chance. Is empirical evidence and statistical reasoning improper here, or only when the results go the other way, one wonders?

    The author might have made a point about racism in the culture of academia and even as a subconscious influence in research, but neglects it in favor of remarks like these: “The process of valuing ‘fact’ over ‘opinion’ is one very much rooted in preserving privilege.” How do you respond to something like that? Should I run down the hall and tell my colleague that there’s no point to her research in protein evolution, because her prior opinions are just as good as her findings? Whatever the author intended there, I don’t think that was a very clear way of putting it. Perhaps the author meant naked prejudices asserted as facts. Perhaps they were somehow obliquely referring to the value-laden nature of inquiry. Perhaps… and so on. But none of these would be the actual claim. I would be interested to hear a defense of the claim that “the process of valuing ‘fact’ over ‘opinion’ is one very much rooted in preserving privilege” that actually defends the facial interpretation: that the process of valuing ‘fact’ over ‘opinion’ is one very much rooted in preserving privilege. I think we could all quit our jobs in good conscience if that were true.

  8. Not sure if I should wade in here, but the bits on the D4D site are clearly geared towards those cases of derailing involving bad motives. The communion case here didn’t seem to be one of these, though at least one person suggested that it was. In addition to the categories of “philosopher” and “derailing”, perhaps, we should have a category of “philosopher-derailing” – wherein a well-meaning individual focuses on an interesting-in-its-own-right, but only tangentially related aspect of a problem, sending the discussion down a different path. I certainly believe it is a mistake to conclude the all derailing has deeper political motivations.

    One of the difficulties in distinguishing being a philosopher (in practice) and derailing is that challenging claims of epistemic privilege is a very common and seemingly justifiable philosophical practice. It seems even central in discussions of racism, feminism, etc. As has been discussed elsewhere, on blogs with certain ideological bents, it’s not unreasonable to make the challenging of certain epistemic positions off limits – or at least to have those challenges in their own thread, lest every thread devolve into one of these. One may be tempted by the assumption that all posters on a blog know such limits, but perhaps clear articulation of those by the board’s overlords is in order.

    Syn, I think one of the worries is that bringing a third-person analysis into an individual’s discussion of their lived experience devalues that experience. Someone reflecting on what they take to be a racist or sexist attack isn’t helped by being pointed to facts about how rare such things are, or that others in similar situations feel differently, or whatever. However, I think I’d agree that when someone moves beyond the reporting of their experience to blame-placing or social commentary, viewing critique as the preserving of privilege often just seeks to immunize their view from challenge.

  9. S&S, you use a little too much libertarian and MRA jargon in your criticisms. With a vocabulary like that, one *might* suspect you of trolling.
    Your reading of the statement “arguing ‘fact’ over ‘opinion'” is off as well. The author placed those words in ‘scare quotes’, denoting sarcasm. The point is to recognize when data could be skewed bc the researcher’s sample was not representative, and repeat the study with the ommitted group included, rather than jumping on some bandwagon and calling a skewed statistic a ‘fact’.

  10. I think there are a lot of complicated issues here. I was writing a list of comments that was trying to sort through some points, and somehow the whole thing got lost. So this time I’m going to try short, cut to the chase points.

    Changing the topic often derails a conversation, and it might be intentional and even against the intentions of those in the conversation. So someone might try to break up a brewing political fight at a dinner table by starting to asked who would like some pie and coffee. “How would you like your coffee?” And so on.

    There’s the trickier challenging of presuppositions, which might be intentional or not. DailyKos is a progressive site, and anyone who comes on citing a conservative politician as a source of the truth will – except perhaps in unusual circumstances – be treated pretty badly. Bijan and I in the communion discussion agreed, to put it roughly, that respecting women epistemically is a presupposition of many feminist discussions. E.g., we are not inclined to think that an accusation of rape is epistemically disminished by a man’s denial. I think that’s right as an account of a common presupposition, but it might bear some discussion.

    If you looked at some linked to material in comments in the communion case, the “good father” denied the lesbian’s account, and for some people that was enough to license a discussion about why the lesbian was using her mother’s funeral to try to bring disgrace upon the church. Actually, the good father also said he had a witness who was to remain unnamed. I am myself skeptical about providing a place on this blog for much of this at all. At least, I’m unhappy about the judgment that one should be skeptical about her claims if he denies them.

    In these sort of cases, we need to distinguish (1) whether the site is going to provide space for explaining why the mere fact that a man denies the harm a woman says he did shouldn’t make one skeptical from (2) why someone brings in the skeptical reaction and defends it.

    I think this brings up a topic both AK and S&S were raising. SW also links to a piece that claims that of course a LIVED Experience can be just wrong or wrongly interpreted. This is very complicated, I think. One issue concerns respecting the aims of the others in the conversation, the aims of a site, the aims of the initiator, and so on. To switch to a maybe more trivial topic, lots of people bring up a topic because they want to have a good moan. Others look at a problem and start to think about how to solve it. This difference is sometimes said to be gendered, but I’m a problem solver type and suspect the gender correlation may be accidental. Still, if one is sitting around having a good moan, it might be best to let the moaning go on. Trying to fix the problem may be close to changing the topic and at the same time ignoring what seems to be an emotional need. Pointing out how one should have gotten one’s self in that position in the first place is probably really going to derail the conversation even more than the fix-it response if it is tolerated. If a so-called friend has once again betrayed a trust and caused one huge embarassment, it may be very disrespectful to switch to talking about how one shouldn’t be telling one’s friends these things or that one should have learned by now that she can’t be trusted.

    The latter – you shouldn’t have gotten into this – can become blaming the victim. Maybe some men do read short skirts as an invitation to have sex. Should women have to dress in a way that staves off men’s delusions?

    So a failure to respect the aims of a discussion can lead to blaming the victim in a quite simple way.

    Well, I don’t know that any of this is helpful. I am slightly inclined to delete it, but maybe someone can make some use of it. I do think getting straight about various kinds of derailing may require a lot of attention to details and possible paths in a conversation.

  11. I don’t even understand what I’m being accused of here. I’m kind of curious to know what you consider libertarian and MRA jargon? And isn’t criticizing someone’s vocabulary–especially without any sort of explanation–a bit, well, trollish? I suspect that in the practical political realm we ultimately agree on a great deal. I do, though, find it dispiriting that I have to say that, as if political difference were de facto evidence of trolling. As the poet asks, “what matter who’s speaking?”

    There are plenty of ways to say that researchers’ biases, conscious or unconscious, can influence data collection and interpretation. But it’s quite another to write what was actually written. If the author really just means to criticize slipshod statistics masquerading as facts, how do we sort the wheat from the chaff? Only with more scientific and statistical training, which was supposedly the deficient epistemic outlook that led us to ignore the voices of the marginalized in the first place, no? Don’t the very concepts of ‘representative samples’ and ‘skewed statistics’ presume that there are such things as sound statistical practices that are reliable methods of inference? And doesn’t this bring us back to the problem of ‘privileging’ statistical reasoning? This point seems much along the lines of point 4 of the article swallerstein linked.

  12. SandS, I have to leave for several hours. But let me point out that in my long comment I tried to say that context can make a lot of difference about what is appropriate to say when.

    Another quite telling fact is that with marginalized people, the facts and statistics may not be there, or the research may be biased by leaving out entirely what the marginalized people saw. Or the facts and statistics may reflect inadequate models. Before Virginia Valian wrote “Why so slow?” a lot of us involved with faculty equity issues had little defense for our conviction that the women academics were not the inferior creatures that very intelligent, moral upright, seemingly liberal male academics judged them to be. I mean, all the leading journals rejected the woman’s work. Doesn’t that show it is inferior?

    So now I have a much better idea of why it might show no such thing, but for a long time the facts and figures were not on our side. Ditto IQ tests, SAT scores, etc..

  13. A last addition: the role of lived exxperience is much more than evidential. It may be integral to understanding the damage done, and how the community can be repaired.

  14. I haven’t been following most of the derailing discussion very closely, I think Anne’s comment #16 gets into important territory, and, I think, is the beginning for an answer to the worry raised above about wrongness of lived experience, since (1) even on the assumption that lived experience can be straightforwardly ‘wrong’, it seems clear that in many fields one of the salient issues is in fact how people really are experiencing something — in just about anything to do with ethics or politics, for instance, this is a real issue; (2) the question of whether and how lived experience can be wrong can only be downstream from taking it seriously and nondismissively in the first place*; and (3) it seems in at least many places reasonable to expect that any such arguments be built wholly within that lived experience and according to standards reasonably suggested by it (when, for instance, there is real ethical harm going on, real ways forward often have to grow out of the lived experience of the harmed). And (3) seems to tie directly into the derailing question: at least some kinds of derailing imply shifts in rational standards — people accidentally or deliberately shift the conversation out of one domain of discussion (I’m sure there’s some better way of describing it) into another; and while in some fields this might be pretty harmless, in other fields this could be a massive reframing of the very terms of the discussion, and (as the friend example in Anne’s #13 shows) such reframing can be quite troubling in ethical matters.

    * The Scottish common sense theorists often argued, against general skepticism about testimony, for a principle of credulity, in which we accept testimony and only then winnow out mistaken testimony (the idea being that practical requirements meant we crucially need an information-rich source like testimony, and thus an initial generosity with testimony was crucial for healthy inquiry — any mistakes in such a source can be filtered out as you go, but the person who starts with almost nothing will likely get almost nothing). I haven’t thought it through much, but I suspect one could make a good argument that certain considerations — questions of justice, for instance — make reasonable something like a domain-specific heightened principle of credulity: that certain reasons (like compensating for testimonial injustice, or crucially high ethical stakes) require especially taking certain kinds of testimony at face-value as at least the starting impulse of any inquiry into the subject. In that sense, shifting to other testimonial priorities would derail the inquiry with a completely different starting impulse.

  15. :-) S&S, I’m a very direct person. If I were accusing you of anything, I would not have used the words “one *might*”. I would have said something more like “Don’t piss me off, little man.”

    I just thought I’d give you a taste of the tactics so frequently used on marginalized groups. Substitute the words “libertarian&MRA jargon” for “feminazi”–and “trolling” for “communist/anarchist” or “hysterical”. There are many, many groups who consider the mere use of the adjective Feminist to be an insult. They use the word in a vaguely insulting way, without telling us what we did that was so wrong. Then they use other misapplied labels pertaining to our political affiliations to get a second jab in.

    The rest of my comment was stated seriously. Dr. Jacobson and BW have fleshed out my point far better than I could have done. Thank you.

    Does this help, S&S?

  16. One might suspect that Xena is implementing the final strategy on the linked website (“Surprise! I Was Playing “Devil’s Advocate” All Along!”).

  17. :-) That suspicion *might* be warranted if my statement suggested I were referring to people of a marginalized group in a vague way, and then flipping my statement around to say that I support their cause.

    However, men and libertarians are the dominant voices in America right now. They don’t need me to advocate for them.

  18. I tend to think there are two distinguishable issues: 1) How to manage a wide range of discourse and 2) thinking about potentially radical discourse spaces. I suspect that lots of disconnect comes from not being clear on the differences between these two and, relatedly, not paying sufficient attention to the many (often entangled) legitimate goals of a discourse (or discourse space).

    Toward 1, it might be enough to notice that any behavior can be derailing if it’s used right (or rather wrong) and many “typically” derailing behaviors might be just fine in many instances as well.

    My general operational definition of a “derailing” is “a moment in a discourse stream where predicable progress toward the goals of the discourse is prevented”. (Leaning heavily on the metaphor!) I stress “predictable” to preclude situations where progress is just hard: Whether one is trying to generate a proof for a putative theorem or comfort a friend who’s just lost a parent, it’s not always possible to make progress or to have a good idea whether one will. Thus, merely going “off topic” need not be derailing if discussing the topic wasn’t a highly ranked goal. (E.g., the main goal might be “getting to know each other”, in which case, digression might be terrific.)

    (So, I’ve derailed meetings (unintentionally) by asking what I thought was a small question up front and next thing you know we’ve spun off three task forces.

    I’ve also been in places where the single most frustrating thing was agreement. Go figure!)

    Toward 2, I’ll just point to Joyce Trebilcot’s “Dyke Methods” and “More Dyke Methods” (and yay JStor, since I couldn’t find my copy, but also boo JStor for not making it freely available). The idea of non-persuasion as an ideal for discourse, for example, I found to be striking and initially almost incomprehensible. I certainly don’t enact it very often. And perhaps I don’t want to. But it it has helped me to try pure listening more often and to speak for other reasons than persuade. (It’s actually really really really hard to do! It’s esp. hard to get uptake (in Frye’s sense) for non-persuasion.

    Variants of speaking for oneself I find a bit easier, but no less valuable.

    Damaging non-epistemic goals of discourse (building community, sharing, expressing, validating, amusing, comforting) can be the “real” source of a derailment. I think there’s a tendency to regard disrespecting these other goals if truth is “on the line” as a good thing. I’m not so sure. I mean, I do that, but perhaps less often than I used to.

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