What Is Derailing? 8 Tactics To Look Out For

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Have you ever spoken out about an injustice only to soon find yourself in a completely different conversation about an unrelated topic? Chances are, then, you've been derailed. What is derailing, you ask? It takes many different forms, but what they have in common is that they redirect a conversation about a social justice issue toward another issue that is for a different place and time at best or is a total non-issue at worst.

Dictionary.com defines "derail" as "to cause to fail or become deflected from a purpose; reduce or delay the chances for success or development of." In the context of social justice conversations, the thing deflected from its purpose is usually a discussion about oppression.

Someone may bring up an injustice that they or others of a specific group experience, and then someone else will talk about how this oppression may not be a problem in a hypothetical world, how other groups of people have problems, too, or whether this all even matters when we're all just atoms bouncing off one another anyway. This second person is usually a member of a privileged group, because the emotional distance required to view a social injustice as a jumping-off point for a separate conversation is a privilege in of itself.

Here are some common derailing tactics to look out for. If you spot them, don't be afraid to bring the conversation back to the actual point.

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1Bringing In Hypotheticals

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Often, people (particularly privileged people) try to take issues out of their contemporary context and place them in a hypothetical world by asking, for instance, whether trans people would exist in a world with no gender or whether racial slurs would be hurtful if they'd never been used in hurtful ways. These questions are besides the point because they don't tell us anything about the world we live in or how to make it better.

2Talking About How There Are Good People

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We know that not all men are rapists and not all white people are racists, but that doesn't take away from the sexual violence and racism many people experience. Talking about how there are good people serves to simply defend privileged people rather than help marginalized ones.

3Talking About Problems Privileged People Face

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There's room for discussing the stereotypes men face and the ways racism can hurt white people, but these discussions should be separate from ones about issues faced by women and people of color because they're drastically different. Saying "all lives matter" isn't necessary because it's already assumed that white people's lives matter. (This comic still explains the problem with saying "all lives matter" in one of the most clearest ways possible.) Saying "not all men" isn't necessary because sexism toward men is not a thing. You get where I'm going with all this.

4Discussing "Worse" Problems

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The fact that some people don't have access to food does not make eating disorders less serious. The fact that some people get raped is not a reason to stop speaking out about verbal harassment. We can care about more than one issue simultaneously, and these issues are all interconnected anyway.

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5Trying To Cheer You Up

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Occasionally, if I talk about sexism, someone will try to make me feel better by talking about how women have more than they used to or many men support gender equality. But we don't need to be cheered up about oppression. It's totally reasonable to be upset about these things. Being angry about injustice doesn't damage our mental health; it's a whole lot healthier than pretending these problems don't exist or acting like they don't matter.

6Debating Intentions

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Telling someone that a harmful thing was said with the best of intentions simply serves to defend the person who made it without actually addressing the statement or why it was offensive. Who cares what someone was trying to do? What matters is what they did.

7Tone-Policing

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Tone policing is essentially when you take the focus away from what someone's saying and put it on how they're saying it. Donald Trump is a master at this; he derailed a conversation about him not paying his taxes by calling Hillary Clinton "nasty" for bringing it up. This tactic flips arguments around by putting the person who was originally on the offense on the defense.

8Getting Super Abstract

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When we're discussing the prevalence of sexual violence, it is not appropriate to talk about how maybe all the adversity we face is actually a gift to make us stronger. A conversation about how some populations are dying earlier than others is not a good time to talk about what happens after we die. (Yes, I've actually witnessed people do this.) Sure, we can talk about destiny or the afterlife, but bringing them up in the middle of a discussion about a serious problem makes it out to be fun fodder for intellectual stimulation rather than, you know, a problem.