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When your misdeeds are archived

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question for our readers. It’s the last for this round.

This one is actually from me, it’s related to some questions I’ve been asked by various people who will remain anonymous (and who didn’t formally write to Ask a Geek Feminist). I have my own thoughts on this, and I also think it can vary (helpful!)

What do you think people and groups should do about sexism in their “archives”? By this, I mean for example, older stuff on their blog, or Facebook postings from years ago, or similar? A lot of people have sexism in their past, varying from “I used to be a pretty committed sexist actually” to “um, I didn’t really think about it, and I wanted to fit in, and I went through a ‘Your Mom’ phase for a while there”. Things you do on the Internet are pretty long-lived now, and your sexism sticks to your name while it remains visible.

Assuming someone or someones have control of their content, and they have sexism they don’t like in there, and they have reason to think it’s going to hurt someone. Should they remove the content? Should they edit it with warnings and apologies?

Have you seen this in a real situation? What did they do? How did it work for them and for women near them/involved in their community?

At least for systemic stuff, I tend to be on the ‘edit’ side of the fence. There are a few reasons for this:

  1. even if you’ve totally changed and are ashamed and sorry, being a reformed sexist is something that may make people, women in particular, cautious about you. Living with that is part of the deal. You don’t get to get access to Has Always Been The Best Person Ever cred because you weren’t.
  2. it also serves as a guide to How To Do It, for other reforming sexists (or How Not To Do It, if you apologise but don’t actually change)

And while writing an apology that is short and not self-serving is a challenge, but that doesn’t mean one shouldn’t try.

On the other hand, I, in general, do wish that much informal discussion on the Internet yellowed and started to curl at the edges and be difficult to read as time passed, sometimes. I realise that the invention of writing was some considerable time ago now, but even so, having to stand by your casual thoughts for years is a big ask. I can’t see that one should make a special effort to preserve evidence of one’s sexism if that same set of archives is going to disappear in its entirety.

9 thoughts on “When your misdeeds are archived

  1. Elizabeth

    I also fall on the “edit with a note that the content following is old, contains sexist bullshit which one now understands is sexist bullshit, a brief apology, and a link to updated content that does not contain sexist bullshit” side of the fence. It shows respect for your audience, an understanding that you have to own your past mistakes, a willingness to put the effort into learning…

  2. Crissa

    I disagree with the edit. You can’t edit the past. That just covers up your misdeeds – it doesn’t admit, prevent, or apologize for them.

    Apologize. If a post comes up often, try to add an addendum to link to the apology. Make sure the apology is appropriate.

    And most of all: Try not to do it in the future, and be clear about your past mistakes. Transparency is the best.

    Anyone who edits their past doesn’t have a clear history. I don’t fall for the empty record – I know some people do – but I’d rather know they’re honest.

    Because honesty is the best disinfectant.

  3. Sally

    I tend towards editing to add a note at the head of the offensive material, saying that I was young and dumb when I wrote it and that while I’m not much better these days, I’m certainly trying to be better and I’m sorry for the offense.

    That way you’re owning that you fucked up without disappearing things to make yourself look like a better person. It’s shaming to still have offensive stuff out there with your name on it, but it serves as a reminder that you can’t just magic away hurt in the real world.

  4. GemmaM

    Don’t edit to obscure what you said. That is, don’t delete anything with your edits. But if you want to put a note up the top that says something like “Warning: This post contains some sexist insults that I wish I hadn’t used” then I think that’s a pretty good way to go.

    1. Mary Post author

      The “warning note” model was pretty much want I meant by “edit”: sorry to everyone to have been so unclear in the original post!

  5. Miss Andrist

    I agree with editing. You can’t change the past, meaning you can’t unhurt those you harmed, but this is now and there’s no time like the present to make things right. Editing, at least, prevents perpetuation.

  6. Angel H.

    So much history has been edited to make the “heroes” look much better than they really are. I know that editing Facebook updates and blog posts aren’t on the same level as the systemic erasure of the significance that the oppression of marginalized people plays in our history (“George Washington never had slaves.” “Japanese internment camps were for their own protection.”), but isn’t it coming from the same place? Own up to your mistakes, apologize, accept that you may not be forgiven, and move on.

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