Reactions to Michelle Goldberg’s piece in The Nation diuscussing Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars seem to fall into two camps. The majority are criticising Goldberg for telling feminists who aren’t White and middle-class to keep quiet, because the White, middle-class feminists (hereafter “WMCF”) don’t like being called out for their privilege and it’s creating a “toxic” atmosphere. This piece at Role/Reboot links to a piece by Suey Park describing it as gentrification of twitter.
Some, like Girl on the net, respond by saying that disagreement does not equal death.
Both of these approaches are right. I believe firmly that there are plenty of White, middle-class women who object to women of colour, trans* women, poor women, etc pointing out how their feminism isn’t helping everyone. I can also see the point (which the Role/reboot article also suggests) that disagreeing on the small things can pretty much be taken in one’s stride.
Allegorical Animal Farm
But when I read Goldberg’s piece, I noticed something. On the first page, some of the people raising the issue of “feminism’s toxic twitter wars” were “the Barnard group”, described as, “twenty-one feminist bloggers and online activists .. nine of whom were women of color”, including Samhita Mukhopadhyay (on page 2, another WoC from the group is quoted, Brittney Cooper); and “Katherine Cross, a Puerto Rican trans woman”. (The Role/Reboot piec, by juxtaposing the author’s identity of White, cis, middle-class with Katherine Cross’s quote from Goldberg’s piece, unfortunately gives the impression that Cross is also White, cis etc.) “After all, it’s not just privileged white women who find themselves on the wrong side of an online trashing. The prospect can be particularly devastating for marginalized people who depend on the Internet for community.” Page 3 of the article describes how Jamia Wilson (“one of the black women involved in the Barnard meeting”) was treated:
One self-described white feminist tweeted at her to explain that no women of color had been at the Barnard meeting “and that I needed to be educated about that,” Wilson recalls. Somehow, activists who prided themselves on their racial enlightenment “were whitesplaining me about racism,” she adds, laughing.
Goldberg used a key phrase: “There was fury expressed on behalf of everyone—indigenous women, feminist mothers, veterans—whose concerns were not explicitly addressed.” That’s what I felt this was about. Not “Fury expressed by“, but “on behalf of“.
As this language, and the discussion of an incident in 2nd-Wave feminism (page 2 of the article), imply, the real perpetrators of the toxic feedback are very often WMCFs themselves. I’m not on Twitter, but in my early days reading feminist blogs I witnessed this from time to time. The “call-out” was generally not used as a means of bringing attention to a shortcoming, but rather as a means of “one-upwomanship” (if you will) as one group of WMCFs sought to score points by accusing other WMCFs of not being “good” enough because they missed out this or that group in their discussions. When I read Goldberg’s article, I saw it as an attack on WMCFs, not on the marginalised groups calling them out. From page 3:
There are also rules, elaborated by white feminists, on how other white feminists should talk to women of color.
Preening displays of white feminist abjection, however, are not the same as respect.
And when WMCFs start making rules about stuff, pretty soon they start telling WoC how to feel about that stuff – even if it’s about racism. That’s when you start getting incidents like the one described by Jamia Wilson.
To someone who reads about the history of far-left politics, and radical movements such as feminism, it all looks sadly familiar. That’s where Girlonthenet’s criticisms come in, and where the reason why it is genuinely toxic becomes apparent.
Agree, or Die!
To Girlonthenet, it’s all pretty theoretical:
There’s nothing wrong with disagreement. If someone else’s feminism does not equal mine it does not make theirs invalid. Likewise it does not make mine invalid. What it might make is some fascinating discussion, and an opportunity for us both to think a bit harder about what our instincts might have knee-jerked us towards in the first place.
I don’t want to be told that I’m not a real feminist if I like watching porn, or if I support the rights of sex workers. What I do want to be told is why you think those things might be unethical, and I’d love to be able to listen to what you’re saying, discuss the points you raise, and either change your mind, change my mind, or agree to disagree.
The trouble is, for some people it’s not possible to “agree to disagree”. If your revolutionary vision requires my impoverishment, imprisonment or eradication (which is to say, if people like me don’t exist in your ideal world) then I cannot simply accept that as a point of disagreement. This is not a “fascinating discussion”, and contrary to Girlonthenet’s thesis, disagreement could well mean death. If you happen to be a sex worker (to use the example in Girlonthenet’s post), then you don’t want to hear about how having rights is unethical. You want to survive, and you want the same protections that everyone else has, and that position is non-negotiable. If you’re a trans* person and TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) are telling you you are a traitor or fifth columnist in the gender wars, and should not be allowed to exist in the same space (or world) as “real” women (i.e. cisgendered White middle-class women), then there is no room to “agree to disagree”. There is no room for compromise.
When the other person says they want to destroy you, all you want is to stop them. When the other person is unintentionally doing something that you fear will destroy you, you want them to stop, too.
And if you don’t like to see such destruction, then you can have those debates but ultimately you still care enough about those lives that the outcome matters. You know that it isn’t purely theoretical or academic: someone’s wellbeing depends on the outcome.
Which leads back to the toxic twitter wars. Goldberg quotes (page 3 of the article) from Brittney Cooper:
Partly, says Cooper, this comes from academic feminism, steeped as it is in a postmodern culture of critique that emphasizes the power relations embedded in language. “We actually have come to believe that how we talk about things is the best indicator of our politics,” she notes.
It is not hard to see how a marginalised culture would be sensitive to the ways in which destructive language is used, and how certain words carry certain signals of negative intent. It isn’t too much of a step from there to the point Cooper makes, and realising that, for example, if certain language is typical of a trans-exclusionary political stance, then a trans* person hearing those terms might feel threatened by it and want to respond to the implied threat.
There is room for debate. I have occasionally responded hotly to a perceived attack on a group I care about, only to discover that I have misunderstood the original article and, through discussion with the writer, clarified both their understanding and my own. When Girlonthenet talks about stepping back and, “an opportunity for us both to think a bit harder about what our instincts might have knee-jerked us towards in the first place,” she has a point. Some disagreements are either not really disagreements, or they are non-exclusionary (which is to say, your position doesn’t require my destruction, and vice versa).
Belonging and engagement
Reading Girlonthenet’s piece, a thought came to me about why the “twitter wars” might feel “toxic”, even though I can kind of see what’s going on, and accept that sometimes vehement disagreement may also need definite resolution (the reasons I agree and disagree with Girlonthenet).
People have different reasons for wanting to be involved in a radical, progressive or feminist movement. Some people, as discussed, are fighting desperately for their survival and essential rights and protections (see, sex workers’ rights activists, gay rights activists, trans* rights activists, etc). Some are fighting for protections against perceived or infrequently experienced threats, or against less tangible injustices (unequal pay is pretty tangible, but it isn’t as direct a threat as those faced by some groups, for example). Some, like Girlonthenet in her piece, are interested in the principles of the thing and want to debate and learn. But at this stage of the game, nearly 50 years on from the dawn of second-wave feminism, I suspect a lot of people have as their primary attachment a sense of community and belonging. This brings into play the Geek Social Fallacies, especially GSF #1 and #2.
More from page 3 of Goldberg’s article:
Similarly, there’s a norm that intention doesn’t matter—indeed, if you offend someone and then try to explain that you were misunderstood, this is seen as compounding the original injury. Again, there’s a significant insight here: people often behave in bigoted ways without meaning to, and their benign intention doesn’t make the prejudice less painful for those subjected to it. However, “that became a rule where you say intentions never matter; there is no added value to understanding the intentions of the speaker,” Cross says.
As Goldberg says, there’s a valid point. If someone swings their arm and whacks my nose, then my nose is broken whether they intended to whack me or they were just making a wild gesture and not looking out for who was nearby. Similarly with exclusionary or harmful behaviour or language.
Jay Smooth’s video, “How To Tell Someone They Sound Racist” is a classic, in which he discusses the “what they did” versus the “what they are” conversation:
Smooth suggests that in terms of calling out, intention is a red herring because it’s impossible to prove. But equally, if you state upfront that it’s unimportant then you actually sound like the “what you are” conversation (because action and intention seem to be regarded as equivalent).
The real problem is to look at why someone comes back with an argument about intention when they’re challenged. In feminism, what I see happen is something like this:
Person finds a group where they feel like they belong (thus developing variants of GSF #1 and #2 at least). They are then criticised for some language they used that is deemed exclusionary. This triggers some emotional reactions, based on those variant GSF strains:
- OMG they think I hate them
- OMG they must hate me/think I’m evil
- OMG I’m going to be kicked out
If their primary motivation is to feel community, belonging and fellowship, these are the biggest concerns, and they are huge and painful issues. They are also likely to interpret other people’s behaviour based on similar motivations to their own. Their primary response is therefore going to be in the form of, “I don’t hate you, please don’t hate me (I’m not evil), please don’t kick me out”. What does that look like? Well, that’s going to be a statement about intention. If intention doesn’t matter, then this person feels unresolved anguish and feels disconnected from the community (which, incidentally, is probably a bad thing if you want people to develop less exclusionary thought processes, am I wrong?)
It would be great if people could own those emotional reactions and recognise them for the fallacies they (usually) are. That’s a huge amount of self-work and not immediately available. (It’s still worth doing, but it takes time.) It makes more sense to allow for each other’s vulnerabilities, and fear of losing a safe space (a fear that motivates those Geek Social Fallacies, and which is also implied in Goldberg’s piece) is a definite vulnerability. Equally, though, marginalised people have greater vulnerability and the language hurts on that level.
Can these emotional issues (that I think of as the “broken-belonging” emotions) be addressed without allowing the initial problem to slide? (I wish I saved the link or could remember who it’s by, a few years ago I saw a cartoon in which a WoC explains to her White friend that it wasn’t okay for White friend to ask WoC to reassure her that WoC doesn’t think she’s racist after someone else said White friend did/said something racist; it concludes with White friend asking, “But, you don’t think I’m racist, do you?” – demonstrating that she’d missed the point.)
I hope that it can be done by simply acknowledging the angst and fear, without relating it to any position: “I understand that you didn’t mean to hurt anyone, but here’s how what you did looked bad. I am not happy with you, but I believe you want to do better.” I don’t think you can lead with this. It follows the “intention” argument. The conversation goes “That thing you said sounded [exclusionary]” “But I didn’t mean it like that” “I hear you didn’t mean to hurt me/this group, but it felt bad when you said it, I’m not happy, but I believe you want to do better.”
I’ve been involved in various online communities for over 15 years, and watched flamewars develop and fade away in various media: usenet, blogs, twitter, it all looks pretty similar. (They even existed pre-internet, with letter-writers in the newspapers.) The ones that weren’t about implacable differences of viewpoint (see “Agree, or Die!” above) were most often caused by failing to resolve the broken-belonging sense on either side.
After having to offer too many heartfelt apologies in my younger days for my role in such flamewars, I learned some basic rules: “if there’s a way to understand what they said that isn’t evil/exclusionary/hateful, assume that’s what they meant – if they are evil/hateful/exclusionary, the pattern will emerge soon enough”, “if there’s a way that what you say might be interpreted as hurtful/exclusionary/evil, then someone will interpret it that way (so do your best not to leave that scope)”, and “people can’t hear your tone of voice on the internet” (more commonly known as “sarcasm doesn’t work on the internet”).
I think it is too much to hope that everyone everywhere will suddenly learn non-violent communication and resolve their differences peacefully, understanding how each other feels and the nature of the emotional or social threats that each other fears from the engagement. I think it is useful to try to bear in mind the issues and accept others may not have the spoons to do so.
These wars happen because people care. Very often, because they care about others. And they hurt for those reasons, too.
And so, dear Reader, I leave you with some words of comfort and fellowship: