GUEST BLOG: Reflections on Contemporary Feminist ‘Censuring’

By   /   October 9, 2013  /   22 Comments

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The thing is, I get scared of online feminists.

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So there’s this thing I’ve been wanting to talk about for a while, which I’m a bit scared to say for fear that I might be attacked. Which is also, as it happens, kind of thing that I want to write about.

The thing is, I get scared of online feminists.

I’m going to talk about what is purely my experience (and if you’ve had a different experience please share). I’m also limiting this to what happens in feminist circles online. Which is only because those are really the only online circles I spend any great deal of time in.

I’m writing this now because it comes as a reflection on some things said by Bryce Edwards yesterday. I’m going to leave the discussion about Lorde and race and class to one side and just focus on some of the things which he said about contemporary feminism and ‘liberal-leftism’.

“Yet these days feminism – and much of liberal-leftism in general – so often seems to be about censuring people for using the ‘wrong’ words and images. Unfortunately, this simply tends to enforce a politically-correct form of Newspeak.”

Now, I think language is really really important and I think being careful with language is really really important. And even though Word is telling me with red squiggly lines to remove those second ‘reallys’ I won’t because one ‘really’ doesn’t cut it.

The thing is though, understanding the power dynamics of language and how its misuse/lazy use can perpetuate hegemonic power structures and oppress certain groups and support negative stereotype etc is not knowledge anyone is born with. It takes years of learning, of observation, of occasionally being called out and swallowing your pride and choosing to try and do it better.

And that’s great and positive and something which the internet makes easy.

BUT

There are occasions when the WAY that this censuring is done is actually just unhelpful. For example, when someone uses a word which has been (generally totally justifiably) blacklisted or they express an opinion which is ill-informed but not malicious and get SLAMMED for it. I think the internet makes it easier for this to happen. If someone says something inappropriate in real life and someone corrects them on it, generally everyone else standing around won’t repeat the same thing with their two cents added. But that’s effectively what’s happening in some of those super-long angry discussion threads. EVERYONE has to add their opinion. And it might not seem like it’s a big deal when you’re typing up a reply, but in the real world if 10 people had previously said the same thing to someone, you’d probably think twice before joining in. You might even, if you had concern for the feelings of the person on the receiving end of it, cautiously say ‘Ok guys that’s probably enough, I think they might have got the point’. Because here’s the thing, saying something aggressively online doesn’t feel as serious as it does in the real world, but being on the receiving end of it hurts just as much.

And I’m not really as concerned about trolls and those really obnoxious people who hang out on feminist blogs because they think it’s their duty to tell women all the reasons why they’re wrong in thinking they should actually have a say in how they want to run their own lives. The people I’m concerned about are those on the periphery, who identify as feminists and want to learn more and partake in conversations and are TERRIFIED to do so because they have seen well intentioned people blindly step on taboo-landmines that they didn’t even know existed. I am one of these people. I’ve spent the last 18 months or so reading feminist blogs, liking feminist facebook pages, following feminists on twitter and have never had the courage to partake in these forums as anything more than an observer because I don’t feel like I have a full grasp of what I’m allowed to say. So I keep my mouth shut. The only way I feel comfortable writing this blog is to do so anonymously.

And I think it’s a real shame. Because we should be welcoming people into the discussion, not frightening them into keeping quiet, or worse still driving them to resent it if they’ve found themselves on the wrong side of an online civil war.

So I would like to request, if you are someone who partakes in feminist conversations online that you just pause when getting into a heated debate and consider:

1-Does what I want to say genuinely add a new/valuable perspective to what has already been said?
2-Would I communicate my point like this if I was speaking face to face with this person who I don’t know?
3-Can I say/do something which could better explain the issue to them rather than criticizing them in a really public forum, bearing in mind this is far more likely to make them feel resistant and hostile?

I guess what it really comes down to is just showing a bit of compassion and remembering the humanity at the other end of the twitter tag/commenter profile.

And yeah, I get that some of the agro comes from frustration at having to go over this stuff again and again and again. And yes, I think it’s important that we can vent those frustrations but ultimately we’re trying to achieve change. And for that we need to be welcoming and inclusive and if that means biting your tongue and taking the sark out of your tone and reaching out to try and reason and inform instead of criticise then I personally think it’s worth it.

LadyMac

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22 Comments

  1. Byron says:

    “Because here’s the thing, saying something aggressively online doesn’t feel as serious as it does in the real world, but being on the receiving end of it hurts just as much.”

    So relatable, about a month ago I posted a link to an article about how a clause in the Affordable Care Act (in the USA) that got there as a result of corporate lobbying by the chiropractic industry means alternative medicine providers may get public money for ineffective treatments,

    nek minnit: I’m told being critical of alternative medicine is sympomatic of my white male privilege, the first person who said it posted to her timeline “just called a male activist out on his privilege” and then a group of mutual friends, most of whom never speak to me on Facebook, came in an joined in on the comment thread.

    I’ve unfriended a couple of them, as far as I’m concerned thats not activism- its bullying, and its unhelpful

    (nonetheless I did add a couple of relevant books to my goodreads to-read list (‘For Her Own Good’ and ‘Medical Apartheid’) because I do think its important for me to understand why women and non-white people are more weary of science-based medicine and more susceptible to altmed)

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  2. Bored says:

    And I think it’s a real shame. Because we should be welcoming people into the discussion, not frightening them into keeping quiet, or worse still driving them to resent it if they’ve found themselves on the wrong side of an online civil war.

    Been there and done that, got roundly hammered for pointing out exactly what you mentioned in the first half of your article. I got roasted till I decided “fuck this, if they cant persuade me without doctrinaire bullying….” I responded by pointing out that it was the same as that delivered by commissars and gestapo…any dissenting debate will not be tolerated. Purgatory resulted.

    Interestingly I occasionally read the articles of one party to this dispute, more often than not I agree with her. Her behavior with dissenting parties lead me to believe however that small furry creatures would do well to avoid her.

    Would I have the dispute again? She lacks historic awareness. If she had this she would know that she comes from the long tradition of Dominicans. They who preach from on high and regard dissent as heresy, and demand adherence to the faith as delivered by them. Inquisitions result. I prefer the Franciscan approach of leading by example, demanding nothing with any expectation. So yes, tolerance is a virtue.

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  3. Mr Jones says:

    >> The people I’m concerned about are those… [who] want to learn more and partake in conversations and are TERRIFIED to do so because they have seen well intentioned people blindly step on taboo-landmines that they didn’t even know existed. <<

    This doesn't just happen online. I remember one meeting where a group of feminists and queer/ trans people expressed impassioned concerned about threatening bigots coming into a public space. In the heat of the moment, one guy stood up and said that if it came down to it, any straight, white, male at the meeting would willingly defend them. You could have cut the tension with a knife.

    See the feminists and queers weren't actually concerned for their safety, they were just concern trolling, using a hypothetical threat to their safety to exert control over the meeting. It worked. I've seen this kind of reverse privilege a lot, people's whiteness, or maleness, or straightness used to emotionally blackmail them, and marginalize them in activist social environments

    Like this author, I'm afraid of the consequences of putting my name to this comment. It's no wonder the average jane thinks activists are fucking crazy, because even though we're right about the social and environmental damage caused by governments and corporates, our social dynamics can be toxic beyond belief.

    BTW as for Byron and his concern trolling about corporate lobbying *for* chiropractors? That's hilarious. What about the decades of drug company funded propaganda campaigns against chiropractic and other non-drug healing practices?
    http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/American_Medical_Association#Eliminating_competitors_to_drug_based_paradigm

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    • Izzy says:

      Mr Jones, I was at the meeting you’re talking about and think it’s really uncool to dismiss as “concern trolling” people’s fears about the potential that a racist, homophobic hate group would going to come to a space they were in, or to claim that they didn’t really feel unsafe. It seems like you’re maybe ignoring the other kinds of safety beyond freedom from physical violence? They’re important, and shouldn’t be ignored.

      This is a great post, and I agree with it wholeheartedly. I must admit I get a bit carried away sometimes with online snark, but I’m working on it. My feminism is about everyone being treated with respect, and that should include frustrating online interactions!!

      Thanks for sharing these thoughts, anonymous poster!

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      • Mr Jones says:

        Izzy, you’re entitled to your interpretation of those people’s motives, but I don’t share it. There was no real risk to anyone, yet some people carried on as if the Kracken was advancing across the harbour.

        One of these ‘queer’ activists was a young, white, bearded, middle class, student activist type, who had adopted a habit of wearing skirts and earings, claiming he was “outgender” and getting snotty with anyone who couldn’t remember the correct invented pronouns to use instead of ‘him’ or ‘her’. I’ve since seen him kicking around looking like any other 18-25 skinny jeans guy. He was under no threat from anyone that didn’t equally apply to all the other young, white, bearded, middle class activist types on site. Yet, he was the most shrill of those demanding we burn any heretics who may decide to arrive on site.

        That was almost as annoying as the guy turned up claiming that being critical of bankers was anti-semitic, and demanding we discuss the problem, then when a consensus quickly passed against anti-semitism, told us that it was an inherent problem in our movement that we even had to bring it up! If that’s not concern trolling, I don’t know what is.

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        • Lani says:

          Threat doesn’t necessarily mean physical or verbal, it can be implied by micro-aggressions such as not seeing their sexuality as genuine and legitimate or even less than. Again just because no one threatened them with harm, the implications is that you’re not right or correct in an implied way. I think we should all respect the right’s of people who like to been gendered as female or male or whatever. However there needs to be some respect for those who are beginning to use the proper pronouns from transgender or out gender people. There needs to be more education on the matter. It seems like you were out of your depth.

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  4. Tom says:

    This quote demonstrates in a nutshell why I now tend to ignore a lot of feminist writing online:

    …understanding the power dynamics of language and how its misuse/lazy use can perpetuate hegemonic power structures and oppress certain groups and support negative stereotype etc is not knowledge anyone is born with. It takes years of learning…

    You would think that feminism would have gender equality front and centre. Instead, it more often seems like someone’s arcane academic theory takes precedence over combating real world sexism.

    Online feminists often remind me of Ayn Rand’s followers in that the greatest crime they can imagine is not injustice, but heresy.

    This would be bad enough on its own, but the stuff that passes for theory and philosophy in much of academic feminism is not particularly rigorous or philosophical. Imagine how racist our society would still be if people who hated racism were instructed that the only way they could hate it properly was through “Critical Race Theory” and that they should otherwise stay silent.

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  5. Lyndon Hood says:

    For mine: A lot of arguing on the internet is like this. There will always be someone. And I guess if the general goal is to Fix The World you can’t really moderate out all the bullish idealists.

    I try to remember a few things: What somebody says in forum is not what everyone thinks, even when nobody notes any disagreement. All the people taking one side in an argument are not in league and they don’t necessarily share beliefs about anything else. It’s easy to let your view of whole threads be turned by a couple of comments that aren’t even really saying what you thought on first reading. And tone is hard to manage in these places, so I guess you can generally try imagining people are trying to be nice and see how it goes. And ultimately, if you decide you may have done something wrong that does not make you a bad person.

    This isn’t so much about hardening up as remembering to keep perspective.

    Looking at the above it seems weirdly parallel to asking women to change their behaviour rather than the world – and sound a bit like telling you you don’t have a problem, which is wrong – but I’ve been meaning to write it down as general advice for a while so there it is.

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  6. Andrea says:

    It’s a power thing. An ‘insiders’ thing. It has nothing to do with ‘feminism’.

    If you’re contributing on a forum or bulletin board as a newbie, surely a few of those fems could have put together a FAQ service so newbies don’t end up stepping on the stupid little mines.

    Please also beware of the Professional Offended People. They lurch to their collective feet and air their lungs over Anything that will give them an audience. They are there for Them – not for women in general.

    And, if the forums in which you engage have no civility – go elsewhere. Any site that abides by the little message in the pink picture ATL is worth staying with and helping to develop. The others usually end up swamped in bile and petty rows before the spammers and trolls bring them down.

    I’m glad you’ve come and spoken out. I’m glad you’ve met with civility and a fair audience here. This truly is how it can be online.

    You could make it a point to look for it, support it, and be the intervening voice for courtesy – even for those with whom you might disagree. The more you do, the less scary it becomes. Promise.

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    • Mr Jones says:

      >> Please also beware of the Professional Offended People. <<

      Yes, that's who I'm talking about in my comments above, and your description is apt. Again, you find them in group meetings offline too.

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  7. the pigman says:

    Excellent post. It feels a little dangerous but I think you’ve neutered your language sufficiently to avoid the discouraging volume of derision you’re talking about.

    It’s a shame that first resort is often made to accusations of sexism against those who might disagree with prevailing feminist positions on issues such as abortion and.. ahem.. polyamory.

    Putting aside the feminist issue for a moment, blog commenter mobbings are a shameful thing to partake in, and although some of the right wing trolls seem to be inviting them, I’m pretty sure “they were asking for it” doesn’t really fly as a principled justification.

    So thanks for the post, important that we turn the hand mirrors on ourselves once in a while, right?

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  8. Worik says:

    Interesting. Unhelpful not talking about specifics. Such generalisations do serve to reinforce people’s prejudices, one way or the other. It would have been helpful to explore the example of Lorde in this context.

    Because I have not noticed this much in the circles I move, but that may be because I mostly move in Green political circles. But what I see on the Internet mostly goes the other way. A specific example would be when Marama Davidson (sp?) made a remark about Bob Jones and his neanderthal views on rape and sexuality “…rich old conservative white man…” she was dumped on by an incredibly persistent troll for being racist. Que raging storm from both sides (an aside: people! STOP feeding the trolls!). Well Bob is a rich old conservative man, I’m several of those things too. What a way to miss the point!

    When with other groups I do find myself calling point of order to get people to tone their language down. Mostly some bodies naive idea is not “the stupist thing” anybodies “ever heard”. We need to be nice to each other.

    I do recall copping some abuse for saying that the right for a trans gendered USA citizen’s to be considered the gender of their choice is less important that the right of Yeminie citizens to not be blown up in surprise attacks by robots…. I was “disregarding their bodily integrity” or some such. Fair call. I was. I do. FWP. But I do not feel threatened by that, and I do my best not to laugh in their faces as they probably seriously believe it. Sigh.

    My point? I think we all need to get over it. People shout and stamp their feet some times. The (acting) adults in the room need to remind people to be nice.

    Lastly it happens to all of us. I did just the other day cover myself in shame with a totally inappropriate response to an image I got *totally* out of context. I was naughty and had to confess.

    cheers
    Worik

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    • Tom says:

      I don’t think any reasonable person would object to what you have said.

      But the argument here seems to me to be that there is a requirement for an unnecessary and unreasonable amount of ideological orthodoxy in online feminist debates, and that this orthodoxy is policed in a high handed and authoritarian manner. It’s the socially enforced groupthink rather than simple rudeness or misunderstanding.

      “You don’t have to agree with someone’s premises to agree with their conclusions” should be written on the masthead of every political blog in existence.

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  9. Anne R says:

    Thanks for this post, anonymous person. I think within the comments there’s a bit of tone-policing going on, implying women or queer people are just making a fuss about nothing, which is quite gross. So I don’t have too much issue with feminist gender minorities dismissing or responding angrily to cis men who wander in to blithely tell them how they’re doing feminism wrong or that they’re being too angry. And the divisions within feminism–race, class, sexuality, ability, job etc–mean there are going to be fights where I don’t really mind if, for example, a Islamic feminist from Iran responds furiously to a Western secular feminist.

    But I think we definitely need to assess how we respond to each other when our oppression is common–we can’t pull the “fuck you, I’m not here to educate you” card with our own kind. I think there’s not much thought sometimes about what education means–a lot of people act as though it’s simply providing the information, rather than giving people the assistance and kindness needed to synthesise it into personal knowledge.

    I really despise the way certain ‘feminists’ I know wield their theoretical knowledge, social influence and political power over other women. It makes me think they view feminism as something to pontificate about on Tumblr, rather than something you live and breathe.

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  10. KA says:

    Everybody isn’t welcome everywhere & if people don’t know what they’re talking about they really don’t have to talk. I guess it depends who you want to make feel welcome in your “space” clueless, offensive white kids or people from marginalized groups.

    I’m sorry you felt sad when somebody disagreed with you on the Internet but marginalized people live with every day IRL. To just roll up somewhere & expect people to listen to what you have to say despite admitting you don’t know anything about it – this is what is calld “privilege”. If you don’t know about it you probably should read up before you expect your contribution on the subject to be valued.

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    • Ladywriter says:

      Hi KA- sorry, you misunderstand, I’ve not been ‘made to feel sad because someone disagreed’ with me. Maybe I should have been clearer, I don’t partake in conversation. Ever. And it’s not so much that I don’t know anything- I have actually spent a decent amount of my life studying gender (and other ways in which people are marginalised) academically, and as I have said, have dedicated a decent amount of time to reading up and educating myself online over the past couple of years. I’m actually not ignorant to the issues. Nor do I think that my voice is one that needs to be added to all/most/many conversations. My point is that I don’t feel comfortable adding it to ANY. Thanks for your 101 on ‘privilege’ but that is actually something I’m aware of, and the sarky tone of voice that you said that with is kind of what I’m getting at.

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  11. KA says:

    Also, leave race & class to the side – yuh ok. This is the problem right here.

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    • Ladywriter says:

      Sorry if this also needs clarification, I don’t mean ever. I mean for the purposes of this blog post. Because this isn’t one about the Lorde debate. It is about a completely separate issue.

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  12. Suz R says:

    People can be vicious from a distance, especially to people they don’t know. This isn’t a new thing – remember the classic 1950’s psychology research experiment in which people gave (fake) electric shocks to strangers they saw in some kind of (faked) test situation. Most people were prepared to go to extreme lengths to punish wrong answers.

    I think almost any group of true-believers, whether political, religious or philosophical, can be vicious to those they perceive as having “lost the way” or strayed from the accepted ideology. Often they are a lot more vicious to these people (who are basically on the same side) than to the people whose views really are the opposite to theirs.

    I am often horrified by the things people say to each other in discussion strands. I don’t think it’s got anything to do with feminism, in particular, though. Hey, plenty of us are nice folk!

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    • ladywriter says:

      No certainly not a problem exclusive to feminism- like I say, restricted the conversation to that as it’s where I spend my time… Not just picking on feminists! :)

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  13. Bella_T says:

    I think the rabid and hysterical rants at people online for using sexist words (apparently like the word “hysterical”) just make many people annoyed and mildly disgusted. By making these very subjective psuedo-psychological arguments about feminism and racism, we ignore really basic and unacceptable social, political and economic underpinnings of oppression and it only serves to make the “fight” eternal and unwinnable. Please don’t try and school me from your shiny new ipad, because you may win this one battle, but you are not even trying to win the war. Using the word “server” instead of “waitress” isn’t going to get me pay parody, and if you believe “neutral language” is more important than that, I should be able to call YOU not only sexist, but patronising and counterproductive.
    It is also irritating when overly offensive things are completely missed whilst people try and “de-code” Lorde lyrics like they are the unabridged Ullysses.
    PLEASE.
    Can we just get back to fighting for our rights?

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  14. Lani says:

    Sometimes I think many people forget what feminism actually means; the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes. I think we can all get a bit pedantic and find ourselves frighting a fight because our ego needs the boost. The aim is for women, men and transgender people to feel comfortable enough within themselves to bring about and allow equality for all. All must have good intentions all the way though. Forget about our frightened little selves and look at the big picture.

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