Skip to content

Why do People Derail?

January 13, 2013

The creation of inhuman monsters is a necessary part of the process of moral refinement. Whenever a culture generates a set of ethical principles, it also creates a monstrous representation of everything these principles condemn. The creation of this monster allows people to both visualise the things they wish to condemn and distance themselves from their own moral failings:

This is why America fights against international Soviet and Terrorist conspiracies using a lavishly funded intelligence service that plots and conspires against people in other countries.

This is why right-wing newspapers rage against paedophiles on one page and leer at the bodies of teenage starlets on the next.

This is why newspaper columnists view negative responses to their columns as a form of bullying and respond to this criticism by demonising, degrading and humiliating their critics.

Knowing how to cope with psychological and moral nuance is a difficult skill to acquire and most people react to their own internal inconsistencies by distancing themselves from their own moral failings and exaggerating their moral outrage in the hope that turning up one side of an internal conflict will make the other side disappear.

This is why people accused of using their privileged positions to control the discourse and marginalise certain groups react by over-emphasising their commitment to free speech. The accusation of privilege and marginalisation revealed a tension between their belief in free speech and their belief that their type of voice should be heard more loudly than others. Trapped in a moment of hypocrisy, the accused proceeds to play the role of a martyr to free speech. Proclaim your liberal values loud enough and maybe you’ll live down the shame of your own illiberal tendencies.

This is why people accused of racism, ablism, homophobia or transphobia frequently react by retreating into fantasies of persecution in which straight white people are silenced merely for the crime of having been born a particular type of person. Here the belief that everyone should be treated equally is emphasised in the hope that it will mask the fact that the accused’s words and actions have served to perpetuate historical inequalities.

Every morning brings fresh outrage as the hypocrisy of privilege reveals itself again and again. Each new skewering brings wails of outrage and torrents of denial as people who believe themselves to be just are revealed to be anything but. As with most attempts at moral renewal, this attempt to confront privilege and prejudice has resulted in the creation of its own monster; a privileged white person who sees every attempt to hold them to account as an act of intolerable persecution. This monster takes many forms but is most commonly known as the Derailer:

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! – Congratulations, you have privilege!

Drawing on hundreds of online discussions, the (currently offline but mirrored here) Derailing for Dummies website catalogues and explains the numerous rhetorical devices used by the privileged to deny their own moral failings. How am I supposed to know? Don’t take that tone with me! Where is the academic research backing up your opinion? You’re worse than I am! Rather than arguing with me, why don’t you address the real problems facing our society? The list goes on and on.

Discussions of derailing typically focus upon the use of rhetoric as a means of allowing the accused to publically save face. When confronted with an accusation of bigotry, the accused will attempt to protect themselves either by reframing the debate in terms less damaging to themselves (‘aren’t you treating each other worse anyway?’) or by taking the criticisms and turning them back on the accusers in the hope that it will make them look like mean-spirited bullies rather than legitimate critics (‘aren’t you just being oversensitive?’). Though undeniably insightful and correct, this focus upon how the accused protect themselves from external criticism overlooks the extent to which the accused may be attempting to protect themselves from their own internal conflicts and the feelings of self-loathing that accompany these inner tensions.


I believe that derailing is as much about protecting our own self-image as it is about controlling how other people see us. Nobody self-identifies as a Derailer and yet most people who engage with these types of issues will be aware of the caricature.  While I understand the need to create such a caricature, I would like to delve into some of the feelings that might motivate people to derail in the first place. By recognising the monster as human, we make it easier to recognise and confront the monster that exists within all of us.

This process of aggressive denial and self-distancing is elegantly explained by Freud’s early paper “The Neuro-Psychoses of Defence”.  In this paper, Freud describes how people can enjoy perfect mental health until the traumatic moment when a feeling or event completely undermines how they see themselves. Unable to reconcile the new information with its own self-image, the ego protects itself by pretending that the destabilising idea does not exist, by:

Turning this powerful idea into a weak one, in robbing it of the affect – the sum of excitation – with which it is loaded. The weak idea will then have virtually no demands to make on the work of association. But the sum of excitation which has been detached from it must be put to another use.

Confronted by the unpleasant truth of their own bigotry, the accused attempts to defuse the unpleasant emotional energy by redirecting it towards targets that are less personally damaging. It is much psychologically easier to talk about freedom of speech, the Highland clearances and what it means to be a celebrity or an adult male watching a cartoon aimed at pre-pubescent females than it is to talk about the fact that you are not the person you believe yourself to be.

Ill-equipped to deal with moral nuance and raised by a society that teaches authenticity and self-expression as supreme secular values, people are naturally hostile to the idea that their thoughts and feelings might be the products of a culture that systematically dehumanises everyone who is not a wealthy straight white neurotypical cisgendered male who happens to currently be mentally well. People do not like to be told that, despite their liberal ideals, their thought processes have been shaped by a socio-economic system that is anything but liberal and I am no exception to this rule.

As a massively privileged white guy, it has taken me a depressingly long time to come to terms with the conflicted nature of my own beliefs. On one level, I was a broadly liberal person with many leftist sympathies but, on another level, I was also a person who found it acceptable to make jokes about beating up sex workers and talk about the social construction of depression despite never having been anywhere near a counselling session let alone a psychiatrist’s office. Gentle attempts to rectify my thinking and educate me were met with grunts of disdain and much gnashing of teeth, as I was certain I was neither a misogynist nor one of those people who thinks that clinically depressed people should just ‘pull themselves together’. It was only when I sat down and discussed these matters face to face with someone that I realised that my irritation with the ‘touchiness’ of my Twitter stream was really nothing other than anger deflected away from myself in an effort to maintain the belief that I was an enlightened and socially progressive human being.  As someone who has derailed in the past, I feel a good deal of sympathy for Suzanne Moore, who recently endured a severe Twitter-kicking as a result of her suggestion that:

We [Women] are angry with ourselves for not being happier, not being loved properly and not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual.

As is so often the case in these situations, Moore’s original comment was distasteful but hardly vitriolic. However, when people began reacting to the fact that she used Brazilian transsexuals as the punch line to a riff about women objectifying themselves, Moore responded with a series of tweets that were crude, hate-filled and grotesquely transphobic:

People can just fuck off really. Cut their dicks off and be more feminist than me. Good for them.

As is so often the case when an influential person with influential friends receives an online kicking, Moore turned her experiences into a hand-wringing Guardian column that drew increasingly demented support from fellow Guardian columnists Julie Bindel:

Can those of us who hate bullying PLEASE do something about the trans cabal running a witch hunt everytime they get offended?

And Julie Burchill:

Shims, shemales, whatever you’re calling yourselves these days – don’t threaten or bully us lowly natural-born women, I warn you. We may not have as many lovely big swinging Phds as you, but we’ve experienced a lifetime of PMT and sexual harassment and many of us are now staring HRT and the menopause straight in the face – and still not flinching. Trust me, you ain’t seen nothing yet. You really won’t like us when we’re angry.

(I won’t link to these various people as they have traffic enough but they are all Google-able and Pink News has a pretty good summary of the opening stages of the debacle)

If we consider this chain of events in terms of Freud’s remarks on defensiveness we see that the shame experienced by Moore was channelled not into self-examination but into denial: the more angry Moore’s denial, the more vociferous the demands that she apologise, the more vociferous the demands that Moore apologise, the more vehement and outraged Moore and her defenders became. For want of a nail, the kingdom was lost. For want of an apology, one of Britain’s most widely read and respected left-leaning newspapers suggested that transgendered people had better learn their place lest they be permanently silenced. All for want of an apology and some sign of self-examination both Suzanne Moore and the Guardian Media Group have become associated with a set of views so horrific and perverse that one can only hope that they were published solely in order to generate page views for the newspaper and attention for the writer.

This horrific upward spiral of vitriol and malevolence demonstrates that, when accused of bigotry or insensitivity, the correct response is not to evade the accusations but to allow for the possibility that they might actually be correct. I sympathise with Moore’s reticence to ‘check her cisgendered privilege’ as the moments in which we are forced to confront proof of our own bigotry are the moments in which the machinery of self is thrown out of alignment.

We believe ourselves to be in complete control of our opinions and yet the emotions that form the bases for our reactions are entirely out of our control. Given that we do not get to choose what values filter down to us or what experiences leave an emotional mark, it is hardly surprising that we occasionally find ourselves having conflicted feelings about our environment: on the one hand, we are filled with disgust at the thought of racist and homophobic prejudice. On the other hand, the second we are confronted with images of people that are not like us, our brain summons forth feelings of disgust born of the deeply bigoted culture in which we were raised. Once summoned, these feelings of disgust cannot simply go away and so privileged people attempt to formulate arguments that allow two mutually contradictory emotional responses to inhabit the same cognitive space: the more eloquent and intelligent the accused, the more substantial the derailing, the more influential the accused, the more likely it is that the process of derailing will turn into an act of grotesque political vilification such as the one published in today’s Observer.

The point of this piece is not to excuse attempts at derailing but rather to understand and unpack the urge to derail in the hope that privileged people might somehow learn to resist it. It is hard to admit that you might be a good deal less enlightened than you think and it is even harder to admit that your emotional landscape might be littered with feelings as irrational and disgusting as they are well hidden.  The only way to avoid situations such as the one currently unfolding around Suzanne Moore is for people to respond to being challenged by taking the time to listen, research and look inwards. How do you actually feel about this issue? Are you really angry about the actions of a transgendered cabal or as you angry that your thoughts and feelings have betrayed and undermined the person you thought yourself to be?

  1. Roachboy permalink
    January 14, 2013 7:06 pm

    These are profound insights, unfortunately they are concerned with the problems of luxury…..these are luxury problems.

    Demography alone, constitutes this issue as a class issue. The hypocrisy of the bourgeois is nothing new, merely its context.

    Modern man confuses noise with communication, there is no ‘news’ merely structure.

    Read 200 pages per day hard copy, drop the papers and tv, filter the internet. Engage with a thinker or policy paper that you may have a vague interest in, and I assure you, equilibrium will be restored.

    you are a talented writer, why are you concerned with white guilt?


  2. January 15, 2013 8:40 am

    I have no problem with listening and I have no problem with taking the time to think about whether something I said was grounded in reason or grounded in prejudice and ignorance. It costs nothing and it might even result in my becoming a better person. White guilt doesn’t enter into it.


  3. Geoff B permalink
    January 16, 2013 8:11 am

    As a privileged, straight, white, moderately mentally unstable guy who’s sick of all of this arguing about identity, I invite everyone, young or old, male or female, LGBTXYZ or what have you, to join me in building the robots. Exelsior!


  4. Geoff B permalink
    January 16, 2013 8:12 am



  5. friendlygun permalink
    January 16, 2013 2:42 pm

    A patient and considered response to the furore.

    There are a lot of calls to check privilege these days, but it’s questionable how many of us remember to pay more than lip service to checking our own.

    When looking back over the archives on NFI at the end of last year, as well as various old short stories, I found myself embarrassed by some of what I considered appropriate to write. Tokenism, cultural appropriation, cruel jokes… it was all rather eye-opening.

    But looking back is only the first step: it’s our reactions to initial criticism or questioning (or, yes, even vitriolic assaults) that demand pause and greater consideration. And as you point out, that is difficult to do.

    I am a bit confused about roachboy’s comment as he appears to be suggesting that reading academic or political texts will magic away your desire to self-examine. It’s not exactly in the spirit of the article, but might I suggest another way to achieve that is to get really, really high.


  6. January 16, 2013 4:01 pm

    I wonder if the cycle of derailing and outrage serves a function, horrible though it may be. I mean, suppose that Suzanne Moore had responded to the original complaints with, “Oh yes, that was a bit offensive, wasn’t it? Sorry! I’ll ask the editor to put in a correction.” The whole thing might have blown over in a couple of days and no-one would have had to look very hard at the problem of transphobia in the broadsheet press. Whereas surely now no writer on the Observer will be able to credibly pretend ignorance of the problem. As with RaceFail, ReaderCon, etc., the entrenched defensiveness inflates the issue until it becomes crystal clear to even the dumbest of outsiders.


  7. January 17, 2013 9:25 am

    Hi Gareth :-)

    On the one hand, I think that people *do* use Internet shitstorms as a way of venting excess negative emotions. To my mind, the key reason why you don’t ‘read the comments’ is because people are unhappy and directing that unhappiness at something online is seen as a ‘safe’ way of letting out that stress and unhappiness. I know this, because when I was going through some unpleasant times, my tendency to be a dick online massively increased.

    On the other hand, I think you’re correct that these types of debates do serve a wider structural purpose and that purpose is often positive. I suspect that Trans* charities received a real boost from this debacle and I know that a number of very talented Trans* writers saw their profiles increased immeasurably. The same was true of RaceFail and ReaderCon.

    I’ve been nurturing a theory about all of this for a while: essentially, we live in a time when people have incommensurate worldviews and value systems. There’s no real way for these people to debate or really have a discussion and so discussions naturally tend to ramp up until we reach a point where everyone becomes themselves. For example, in this particular debacle, established Second Wave feminists revealed themselves to be selfish and bigoted. Similarly, RaceFail showed that established SF was systemically prejudiced against people who didn’t look like the majority of people in SF. ReaderCon showed established fandom up as an institution that was happy to tolerate anything as long as the transgressor was ‘one of them’ and even Occupy Wallstreet showed that the police and governments were willing to go to any length to stifle dissenting opinion.

    People moan about online ‘hating’ and ‘bullying’ but I think these shitstorms serve to strip away conceit and politeness and show people and institutions for what they really are.


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: