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Valar Qringaomis

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Monday, April 28, 2014

Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars

Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars

"Though Mukhopadhyay continues to believe in the empowering potential of online feminism, she sees that much of it is becoming dysfunctional, even unhealthy. “Everyone is so scared to speak right now,” she says.

Just a few years ago, the feminist blogosphere seemed an insouciant, freewheeling place, revivifying women’s liberation for a new generation. “It felt like there was fun and possibility…a momentum or excitement that was building,” says Anna Holmes, who founded Jezebel, Gawker Media’s influential women’s website, in 2007...

Even as online feminism has proved itself a real force for change, many of the most avid digital feminists will tell you that it’s become toxic. Indeed, there’s a nascent genre of essays by people who feel emotionally savaged by their involvement in it—not because of sexist trolls, but because of the slashing righteousness of other feminists...

In some ways, the fact that people are being mean to each other on Twitter is hardly worthy of comment. Still, as the #Femfuture report attempted to point out, the Internet is where a lot of contemporary feminist activism is happening...

As the radical second-waver Ti-Grace Atkinson famously put it: “Sisterhood is powerful. It kills. Mostly sisters.”

In “Trashing: The Dark Side of Sisterhood,” a 1976 Ms. magazine article, Jo Freeman described how feminists of her generation destroyed one another...

For feminists today, knowing that others have been through similar things is not necessarily comforting. “Some of it is the product of new technologies that create more shallow relationships, and some of it feels like this age-old conundrum within feminism,” Martin says. “How do we disentangle what part is about social media and what part is about the way women interact with one another? If there’s something inherent about the way women work within movements that makes us assholes to each other, that is incredibly sad”...

Being targeted by other activists, she says, “leaves you feeling threatened in the sense that you’re getting turned out of your own home…. The one place that you are able to look to for safety, where you were valued, where there is a lot less of the structural prejudice that makes you feel so outcast in the rest of the world—that’s now been closed to you. That you now have this terrible reputation… I know a lot of friends that live in fear of that.”

If your professional life is tied up with activism, the threat is redoubled. “To suddenly be tarred by the very people that I’m supposed to be able to work with, my allies, as being a sellout or being infatuated with power or being an apologist for this, that and the other privilege—if that kind of reputation gets around, its extremely damaging,” says Cross.

The dogma that’s being enforced in online feminist spaces is often called “intersectionality,” but in practice it’s quite different from the theory elaborated by Kimberlé Crenshaw, the UCLA law professor who coined the word. In a 1989 article in The University of Chicago Legal Forum, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Anti-Discrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics,” Crenshaw described how the failure to consider the intersection of racism and sexism in the lives of women of color left a lacuna in civil rights law. She cited a failed lawsuit by a group of black women against General Motors; the court ruled that while race discrimination and sex discrimination are both causes of action, “a combination of both” is not. Another of Crenshaw’s articles described a women’s shelter balking at accepting a Latina victim of domestic violence because she wasn’t proficient in English and thus couldn’t participate in mandated group therapy sessions. Her work can be theoretical, but it’s focused on legal and material conditions far more than patterns of discourse.

“My own efforts to create a voice and a perspective on these failures haven’t really been about chastisement, or a certain set of assumptions about what the articulation that I’m critiquing should have been, or what the failure of it represents in the person,” Crenshaw says, “but rather a collective effort to build a feminism that does more of the work that it claims to do.”

Online, however, intersectionality is overwhelmingly about chastisement and rooting out individual sin. 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. An elaborate series of norms and rules has evolved out of that belief, generally unknown to the uninitiated, who are nevertheless hammered if they unwittingly violate them. Often, these rules began as useful insights into the way rhetorical power works but, says Cross, “have metamorphosed into something much more rigid and inflexible.” One such rule is a prohibition on what’s called “tone policing.” An insight into the way marginalized people are punished for their anger has turned into an imperative “that you can never question the efficacy of anger, especially when voiced by a person from a marginalized background.”

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.

There are also rules, elaborated by white feminists, on how other white feminists should talk to women of color. For example, after Kendall’s #solidarityisforwhitewomen hashtag erupted last fall, Sarah Milstein, co-author of a guide to Twitter, published a piece on the Huffington Post titled “5 Ways White Feminists Can Address Our Own Racism.” At one point, Milstein argued that if a person of color says something that makes you uncomfortable, “assume your discomfort is telling you something about you, not about the other person.” After Rule No. 3, “Look for ways that you are racist, rather than ways to prove you’re not,” she confesses to her own racial crimes, including being “awkwardly too friendly” toward black people at parties...

The expectation that feminists should always be ready to berate themselves for even the most minor transgressions—like being too friendly at a party—creates an environment of perpetual psychodrama, particularly when coupled with the refusal to ever question the expression of an oppressed person’s anger.

“I actually think there’s a subset of black women who really do get off on white women being prostrate,” Cooper says. “It’s about feeling disempowered and always feeling at the mercy of white authority, and wanting to feel like for once the things you’re saying are being given credibility and authority. And to have white folks do that is powerful, particularly in a world where white women often deploy power against black women in ways that are really problematic.”

Preening displays of white feminist abjection, however, are not the same as respect. “What’s disgusting and disturbing to me is that I see some of the more intellectually dishonest arguments put forth by women of color being legitimized and performed by white feminists, who seem to be in some sort of competition to exhibit how intersectional they are,” says Jezebel founder Holmes, who is black. “There are these Olympian attempts on the part of white feminists to underscore and display their ally-ship in a way that feels gross and dishonest and, yes, patronizing”...

Jamia Wilson was one of the black women involved in the Barnard meeting, and she has since become part of the four-woman leadership team for the #Femfuture project... insensitivity. 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...

In a revolution-eats-its-own irony, some online feminists have even deemed the word “vagina” problematic. In January, the actress and activist Martha Plimpton tweeted about a benefit for Texas abortion funds called “A Night of a Thousand Vaginas,” sponsored by A Is For, a reproductive rights organization she’s involved with. Plimpton was surprised when some offended Internet feminists urged people to stay away, arguing that emphasizing “vaginas” hurts trans men who don’t want their reproductive organs coded as female. “Given the constant genital policing, you can’t expect trans folks to feel included by an event title focused on a policed, binary genital,” tweeted @DrJaneChi, an abortion and transgender health provider. (She mentioned “internal genitals” as an alternative.) When Plimpton insisted that she would continue to say “vagina,” her feed filled up with indignation. “So you’re really committed to doubling down on using a term that you’ve been told many times is exclusionary & harmful?” asked one self-described intersectional feminist blogger...

Mikki Kendall is unmoved by complaints about the repressive climate online... She seems warm and engaging, but also obsessed—she talks at length about slights made in the comment threads of blogs more than five years ago...

Few people are doing that, but they are disengaging from online feminism. Holmes, who left Jezebel in 2010 and is now a columnist for The New York Times Book Review, says she would never start a women’s website today. “Hell, no,” she says. The women’s blogosphere “feels like a much more insular, protective, brittle environment than it did before. It’s really depressing,” she adds. “It makes me think I got out at the right time.”"


Comments:

"It's not just feminism that has this infighting going on, at this point this seems to be a problem with all activism in social media - there's the tendency to react first and ask questions later, the tendency to assume the worst intentions of everyone, never forgive, pile on mercilessly, leave no room to respectfully disagree.
On twitter it's just generally cruel because 140 characters is great for writing the perfect cutting retort, but not at all for explaining context or your intentions...
Only through activism and religion are good people so capable of being such dicks in the name of being a better person. Until there's room to forgive and disagree and move on with the knowledge there will be a different fight another day you can unite and work together on, the left is going to be plagued with infighting."

"It's as if the belief is that oppression will be eliminated if only everyone can be beaten down with insults and yelling, until they no longer dare to speak lest they use the wrong terminology."

"Judean People's Front.... We're the People's Front of Judea!!"

"I really am very bothered by the idea that nastiness can be justified because it already happened in the other direction. I don't personally like it when someone's response to being victimised is to victimise someone else. I believe the only way to change minds is to prove you're better, whereas too much of the online discourse surrounding feminism is about slinging mud at people with differing beliefs"
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