On the ethics of ignoring your power: The Feministe controversy

This is a brilliantly thoughtful piece by La Lubu on a way forward for Feministe (related to this). There are some tough questions here, but also, some solid suggestions on what can be done to improve big feminist sites like Feministe for the people outside of mainstream power bases.

Can you ethically ignore power bestowed upon or generated by you when it would give you the opportunity as a feminist intellectual to change things on a significant scale for others? Also, what right do people have to expect this of individuals – Jill Filopovic is tired and apparently unwell, she is also beaten down with disgust at ‘mob mentality’ Internet behaviour? (But then La Lubu‘s questioning of what one defines as inappropriate Internet behaviour and what that says about you and your privilege has given me pause for thought. I am highly sympathetic to Filopovic with regards to her reaction to ‘mob mentality’, I find myself easily horrified by pile-ons and gotchas, too, but has this allowed us to ignore more important injustices – I don’t know?).

From La Lubu:

I want to speak to you on some of the overall dynamics I’m witnessing on these recent posts and comment threads. From my perspective, there is an almost corporate-style mode of abdication of responsibility. The fact that Feministe has multiple staff bloggers will necessarily result in this default in the absence of a formal structure of consensus among the bloggers and in the absence of a mission statement. It seems to me that Feministe vacillates between being a pop-culture entertainment blog; an informative source for international news relating to women and feminism; a galvanizing instrument for political action; and a “LiveJournal”-style space for venting. Although there is a comments policy, there isn’t a declared mission statement of….goals, dreams, boundaries of any sort on what Feministe is or wants to be; nor is there a transparent description or process of how conflict within the community will be resolved. For that matter, there isn’t a definition of the community—does it refer solely to the staff bloggers, or to the commentariat as well?

This is very alienating to me as a labor unionist, as I come from a tradition that has very clear statements on who and what we are, and clear boundaries on process, policy, and conflict resolution. The stock answer in the blogosphere at large is a mercantile one—”if you don’t like what we’re selling, take your business elsewhere.” I don’t necessarily perceive this to be the attitude of Feministe, but strongly feel that the absence of a mission statement and attendant processes contributes to the hostile dynamics in the comment section.

But back to the “corporate style” as I call it, which I see very frequently in the comment section and is clearly evident in the recent threads: an ahistoricity, a blurring of boundaries during controversy or conflict, an assertion of “objectivity”, “rationality” and dismissal of emotion (particularly anger)….these are all concepts essential to the construction of whiteness as a political identity (which is to say, a means of teaching the people who are taught they are white, how to be “white”. I say this because I’ve been getting a whole lot of folks dropping by this blog lately since I was linked on Maya’s post at Alas, and I want to be crystal-clear to people unfamiliar with the term “white” as referring to anything other than light skin. I’m talking about the “whitewashing” of people of European descent; the assimilation into a “whiteness” that exists solely in opposition to people of color and other colonized persons). Even if the overt hostility of the comment section were abated, the affirmation of the ways and means of middle-class white communication are very uninviting (to say the least).

Because, this below from La Lubu also, is pretty spot on…

“The feminist blogosphere is: young, but not too young (25-35); mostly white (and of northern european extraction); middle to upper-middle class; highly educated (always degreed, usually grad school or law degree); able-bodied and healthy; non-religious (but typically with a Protestant or Jewish background); childfree by choice (also not a caretaker of an elderly or disabled adult); body size from thin to very thin; cisgender; heterosexual; conventionally feminine/pretty; fashionable; not employed in a nontraditional (>25% female participation) workforce; native English speaking (family of origin usually native English speaking also); non-indigenous and several generations removed from immigrant ancestors; raised in a nuclear family (either intact or divorced—but not “unwed” or extended family); lives in a large metropolis; favors capitalism; unmarried/unpartnered (meaning: no formal or legal ties of responsibility to a partner); never incarcerated (no family incarcerated either); and has plenty of personal contact with people in positions of actual power (gets invited to policymaking meetings/summits).”

Cross-posted at blue milk.

UPDATE: Just a quick note to acknowledge that tigtog is a non-editorial member of the Feministe team (as she says below) and some of our writers here are also past and current members of that writing team. I forgot all this, somehow, when I hit publish on this cross-post.  Having remembered the connection – thanks to tig tog’s comment – I thought I better make it clear, dear readers, that it was a poor oversight on my part not to state HAT’s connections to the Feministe blog right up front and to not also make it clear that my post is not intended as a group-comment from HAT (who weren’t consulted in the drafting of my post). I am interested in La Lubu‘s post, not precisely because it is aimed at Feministe but because it is asking big questions about rights and responsibilities in terms of blogging.

Categories: ethics & philosophy, gender & feminism, Meta, relationships

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17 replies

  1. It is a thought-provoking post. I absolutely agree with La Lubu that if it were my blog, I’d tighten up the moderation there to cut down on the stoush spirals.
    I also suspect that if there were a clear mission statement, then some of the complaints about Feministe going off-piste (according to reader perceptions of what they ‘ought’ to be posting) might be less vociferous as well. ETA: Especially since the blog started out as very pop culture eclectic alongside the political/personal feminist commentary (Lauren began the Friday Random Ten music shuffle tradition, for example) in the first place.
    For the record: I do the technical support for Feministe to keep the blog running, but I’m not part of the editorial team there.

  2. I have to admit, as a frequent caller-out of privileged crap who doesn’t have the same level of power or influence as some of the big group blogs? I get eye-rolly every time someone at Feministe or Feministing or Jezebel complains about “mob mentality” or “call-out culture”.
    Feminist bloggers call shit out all the time. We’re strident and unapologetic about consistently and constantly pointing out sexist advertising, the way the media promotes rape culture, the incrementalist approach of antichoicers. But suddenly, pointing out inconsistencies and abuses of privilege is a bad thing when we shine the light on ourselves?
    It’s also never been surprising to me that nine times out of ten, a post about meanie nasty call-out culture and why are we so ~destructive~ and ~angry~ will appear when a blog written by and largely for cis white women is coming under fire from women of colour, or trans women, etc.
    Last time I delved into the comments at Feministe, women who breastfeed were literally being called pedophiles, with nary a peep from the moderators or even the original post’s author – yet that somehow doesn’t get described as piling on or criticising “for the sport of it”.
    TLDR: I’m really cynical about what gets called-out as “call-out culture”, and characterising call-outs basically as “those mean bitches who just hate me for no reason and just criticise me to get their rocks off”. Which usually just happens to feed into oppressive stereotypes about certain groups of women being angry, aggressive, jealous, &c.

  3. I have often found myself thinking along similar lines to Filopovic in terms of her frustration with being held to account for everything that happens on or around Feministe, and particularly with the idea that you become corporatised somehow on the Internet even while just being basically an individual sitting at her computer at home typing out some blog posts in her spare time. When under fire, myself, at my blog I have often wanted to explain this – that I am just some arsehole out in the suburbs, you know, and the reason I didn’t respond to that comment straight away is that I was busy wiping a toddler’s bottom – not because I was out “making buckets of money and deliberately ignoring my customers’ concerns”.
    I guess, in identifying so much with Filopovic’s position I found La Lubu’s criticisms of that position quite fascinating to consider further.

  4. I’m really cynical about what gets called-out as “call-out culture”
    Y’know that sentence made me think of the phrase “race card” and the fact that any accusation of “playing the race card” is doing exactly what it purports to accuse.
    (Reviewing that, it seems like it might not be apparent whether I’m agreeing or disagreeing with you; it’s the former).

  5. I think it is an expression of extreme privilege to ignore the pain and damage someone like Hugo Schwyzer can impose and inflict on the most vulnerable in feminist spaces. It is not a matter of pressing Jill to sacrifice her health for this. I don’t think people are asking her to respond to every comment, or to throw herself into bringing Schwyzer down. They *are* asking her to think about her position and how she and the blog at large can make a positive action against a proven manipulator and make the space safer for those vulnerable to oppressions.
    WOC don’t have the luxury to ignore Schwyzer. Assault survivors don’t either. Neither do members of the lowest working classes. I feel terribly for Jill that she’s ill, and as someone that is ill most of the time, I do not say that lightly.
    But taking a hard line against Schwyzer, and making sure he doesn’t make himself comfortable in dominant online feminist discourse isn’t taking part in a “take-down culture”. It’s making it safe for the people who need feminism/womanism the most. I wish Jill would have done that, instead of accusing those of us that are angry of being unreasonable.

  6. La Lubu, blue milk, and the commentors on this post nail exactly why I have left Feministe and mainstream, high-traffic “feminists” blogs in general. I was getting sick of being spoken down to by cis ‘splainers, temporarily abled ‘splainers, and mansplainers, with less and less moderation of said ‘splainers. I was also getting sick of atheists telling me that I’m deluded or a danger to society because I’m a person of faith. (I’ve no objections to people critiquing problematic aspects of my chosen faith and especially the institutional religion that has built up around said faith. It’s when they tell me, often in very ableist language, that I’m “crazy” or “deluded” simply because I believe in a deity, that I’m talking about.) And now Feministe commenters are accusing women who breastfeed of being “pedophiles”? And that crap goes unchallenged by their bloggers? And Hugo Schwyzer is being given a free pass to crap all over their pages?
    At so many of the big mainstream blogs, it just isn’t safe to be trans, disabled, working-class, rural / small-town and/or of color. Between brilliant writers such as Chally being driven off the site, and my having been personally bullied over trans issues, I’m done with Feministe, done with a whole long list of big-name blogs.
    I’m totally with QoT about so-called “callout culture”. It’s funny (as in laughing to avoid crying) how marginalized folks calling out *isms are “piling on”, but privileged people getting their high dudgeon on are totally justified in bullying marginalized people into silence. It’s exhausting and I’m totally done with it.
    As far as Jill F. being tired, stressed-out, and unwell, there are those of us (raises hand) who can’t afford gym memberships to go boxing, can’t afford yoga classes, can’t afford bi-weekly muscle relaxant injections (which oh boy can I use, what with having scoliosis and all that), and don’t have a bright future of six-figure incomes to look forward to. I feel bad for her that she’s apparently exhausted and in pain, but she’s got financial resources and cis het privilege that I will never have.

  7. Context note: I got my start commenting on the internet on usenet, so I tend to see a “commentariat”-style blog as being a group enterprise in more than one direction.
    I’m not formally associated with any of the big-name blogs. I don’t actually read much of Feministe, Feministing or Jezebel. But I count myself as part of the commentariat here on HaT, on Shakesville, and on Making Light. As such, I tend to regard myself as a part of a community, which means I have a responsibility toward that community.
    Part of the responsibility of the commenter toward the blog writer/commenter/reader/lurker community (as I see it) is to extend a welcome to other members of the community. By this I mean simple little things like being polite, following the rules of the community (such as following a commenting policy if the site has one, complying with group norms regarding standards of discussion, lurking before I post, etc).
    Another part of my responsibility is to aid in passing on education to new arrivals about what’s expected of them as part of the community. Now, this could be as overt as basically pointing someone to a commenting policy (or saying “RTFFAQs”), or it could be something like pointing out that such-and-so is actually a site moderator (who should therefore be listened to when they point newcomers to the FAQs). It can be explaining in detail that X behaviour is regarded as hurtful in this community (and why this is the case). It can be things like pointing out “dude, not cool” moments.
    Now, as a member of a community, I’ll generally be on the same side of an argument as the blog “management” (so to speak) because if I have fundamental disagreements with same, I’ll generally work this out via my lurkerdom stage. So I’ll support the management in their endeavours to keep the community ticking along, and keep the community going as something I want to contribute to. Also, if a blog (even a large, influential blog) appears to be fundamentally uninterested in creating a community among its commenters, I’ll generally walk away from it. (Which is, incidentally, why I don’t generally read stuff at Feministe, Feministing, or Jezebel – because they didn’t strike me as blogs which were making an effort to create a community among their commenters).
    But expecting a community to be on your side when you haven’t made an effort to create or foster it is rather optimistic, to put things mildly.
    (Oh, one more side note: LaLubu missed one other important qualification, or form of privilege, for the majority of the feminist blogosphere. They’re mostly USA based, or at best, North American. So the topics they discuss will be topics of interest to feminist women in the USA, rather than, for example, feminist women in Europe, or South America, or Africa, or even Asia. Indeed, topics which are of interest to feminist women outside the USA, but which aren’t of interest to feminist women in the USA will tend not to be raised.)

  8. I guess, in identifying so much with Filopovic’s position I found La Lubu’s criticisms of that position quite fascinating to consider further.

    Ditto. I’ve been reading Feministe since 2006, so I’m fairly invested at this point. I would hate to see the whole thing blow up on account of Hugo Schwyzer. (For real? That’s the hill you want to die on?)
    I think La Lubu’s suggestions are very good and long overdue. That said, I’ve stopped reading blogs before because of the way the commentariat functioned, so I am totally sympathetic to those who feel they can’t keep reading.

  9. I find some aspects of call-out culture difficult. “Your privilege is showing” chanted in the manner of school ground bullies, or accompanied by insults or dismissive remarks, is helpful to no one, except the person uttering them who gains points in some pissing competition.
    That’s not to say that people shouldn’t be responsible for what they say and do and write. Just that facile denunciations neither further conversations nor facilitate change and growth. La Lubu’s post is the antithesis of this.

  10. You’ll have to excuse me for talking mostly about the more peripheral topics as I think it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the central points in this thread.
    I wanted to note that Jill’s surname is Filipovic. (Not your fault, blue milk, I see La Lubu mistyped in the title of her post.)
    Call out culture is misapplied here, I think. It’s a useful term, I’ve found, for talking about when the rhetoric of social justice is misapplied to chase out whoever a bully is targeting at the moment. It is not about making valid critiques of oppression, it is often about outright lying about what a person represents, and directing readers at taking them down. Readers feel they have to condemn a person in order to stay out of the spotlight, otherwise they might be next, because there is no way to put a stop to the dynamic without falling into accusations of injustice. I say this as a person marginalised among many axes who has faced this from and seen it happen to people marginalised among many axes: the term might have become twisted and misapplied, like so much, primarily in white, cis, etc, women’s favour, but what it is supposed to describe is what happens when abusive or bullying people grab hold of the language of Internet social justice to build a little powerbase around themselves. One sees this a lot on tumblr in particular.
    Okay, so now I have to make a personal note, with reference to your comment, GallingGalla, but talking about a wider trend. I know it was positively meant on your part, and it’s very flattering to be called brilliant by such a clever thinker as yourself. I’ll address it primarily with my WOC identity at the forefront, because race, as La Lubu notes, is a good bit of the point here. I’m really resenting something that’s been happening since I left Feministe, the positioning of me – by white and non-white people both – as some kind of marginalised martyr. I keep hearing that I got burned out or demoralised or driven away or whatever. This is generally alongside some statement about how I was One of the Few There Who Got It Right or was The Sole Voice of the Marginalised at Feministe, which is bullshit. (Both because there have been loads of writers who’ve written great stuff, and because I made mistakes at times, like a human.)
    More to my point, it is very disrespectful of me personally, because it utterly dismisses my stated reasons for leaving Feministe, which I have stated repeatedly, including on the blog itself, and particularly in my final post: I had my time there, and, to a lesser extent, I didn’t want to invest any more of myself anymore in the oppressive dynamics in the commentariat. My decision, powerfully made for myself, and I resent being upheld as an example of What Happens to WOC at Feministe as though WOC are a monolith with a singular experience, as though I am the archetype of a sacrificial blogger rather than a real live human being. Yes, I found the experience damaging in a lot of ways, but I didn’t die and go to feminist heaven. I’m still here, working.
    My broader point is, that if dismissing WOC is such a problem in the Feministe community – and, believe me, it is – and in the feminist blogosphere more generally – oh yes, it is – then it is necessary to pay attention to all of our stories rather than riding roughshod over them. WOC are not here in order to make points towards a singular narrative of being driven away, or about how we’re all mean to white women or angry or hysterical, or what have you. Varied people have varied experiences of a harmful dynamic. Even if, as here, people are doing it in a kindly fashion, but especially when people are not. I as a WOC, as a disabled woman, etc, want your attention in order to change your mind and get your support, I do not want to be assumed to exist in a particular way, even in a sympathetic light. I do not want people sticking up for me if they do so by silencing me, especially in ways that make invisible all the work I do and have done outside of that space, and particularly in ways that label me irrevocably damaged, or my story over, or that erase the specifics of my experience. I do not want that for all WOC. Excuse me, I keep jumping between generalities and specifics, which I suppose is necessary for my point to be made, but, personally speaking, this is a matter of my supposed supporters trying to give the big bad wolf all my strength and power without my permission.
    In the end, it’s just a continuation of the same dynamic: WOC contributes, WOC faces onslaught of awfulness, WOC used for rhetoric outside her control and without respect for her words. This problem, at Feministe and all over the feminist Internet, will never get fixed if we plaster over people’s words. We need to stop and actually listen to each other, not assume or worse.

  11. Thank you Chally for once again showing me how to be a better feminist and ally.

  12. I’m not sure if I understood everything LaLubu was saying, but I’ve been following and participating a bit in the dust-ups over at Feministe and some of their metastases on other blogs. A couple of things do make sense to me, though.
    The biggest one is that Feministe needs a clear idea on the part of the bloggers of what the blog is about. In the past few months, I’ve seen a couple of articles that left me feeling very puzzled as to what was going on — why were they posted, what they expected of the readers and commenters, etc. In my view, at least, part of the reason readers responded so vehemently to Clarissa’s articles was that Feministe has had this reputation for being fairly radical feminist, and suddenly there’s this article praising someone who is, to put it delicately, “problematic” from a feminist point of view. It seemed utterly out of character. Had the same articles appeared at, say, Jezebel, no one would have thought it worth mentioning. (Cf. HS’s latest article on Jezebel.)
    Second, when there are disagreements among the commenters, they basically never end. There are plenty of threads with hundreds of comments, and some with over a thousand, with the result that anyone who isn’t reposting the same point of view in different words several times a day just gets drowned out. I was disappointed that a lot of interesting points in the latest dust-up got ignored because so many people were more interesting in posting about how the Other Side is Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! In particular, I would have liked to read more about the ways that the point of view of WOC gets ignored (especially in concrete terms that even I can understand.) Some blogs seem to get this on a regular basis (maybe even invite it), others, with similar subject areas, don’t.

    • To me, part of the problems with the commentariat is that there has historically been reluctance from the bloggers to limit “free expression” on the blog. Feministe is hardly unique in this as blogs go, although it’s much rarer these days on most feminist blogs, at least in part I believe to my (and a few others’) constant banging on the “No, you don’t have to publish every comment submitted” drum over the years.
      Typically, if something gets going and a moderator isn’t around to notice until it’s dozens of comments into the stoush-zone, there has not been a willingness to just delete the derail (the original derail and *all* those comments responding to it) and redirect the thread back to where it was. That would be my major recommendation.

  13. I am pretty conflicted about Feministe. As one of the women accused of being a pedophile in that abovementioned thread I was pretty appalled and after 150 comments or so pulled out. I was astonished to see later that the thread continued for hundreds of comments after I withdrew. (BTW I haven’t seen one particularly offensive commenter’s name since then, so perhaps they were indeed banned? Since I withdrew I don’t know!)
    On the other hand, lots of the posts are interesting and I don’t want to miss out on that stuff. and many of the commenters are intelligent and thoughtful, and I don’t want to miss out on what they offer.
    Of course, being white (jewish, but in the world of feministe that’s pretty mainstream), cis, able, atheist etc it’s easy for me get past a lot of the objectionable stuff. Nonetheless, I agree that a log of changes are overdue.

  14. Last time I delved into the comments at Feministe, women who breastfeed were literally being called pedophiles

    As one of the women accused of being a pedophile in that abovementioned thread

    I still haven’t quite got to the point of not assuming I’m misreading you. I don’t mean I doubt you, it’s just so flummoxingly awful that I keep double checking what I read.

  15. @SunlessNick – I know, it’s quite surreal. The gist of it was that anyone who experiences feelings of sexual pleasure while breastfeeding is a pedophile. If this happens one must immediately wean one’s baby. It kind of went downhill further from there in terms of dialogue.

  16. SunlessNick- in my very first comment here at HaT (can’t remember where I put it though!) I bemusedly contemplated that same thread. What happened was roughly as follows:
    [obvious female commenter] – there are tons of nerve endings there, of course it’ll feel nice sometimes.
    { commentariat} – OMG YOU EVIL ABUSER
    [different woman commenter] – think about it, nature often provides sensory reward for tasks that are necessary but otherwise uncomfortable or mundane
    {commentariat} – that is disgusting, sick freaky paedo!
    [gender neutral name] – my friend gets turned on by breastfeeding
    {commentariat} – *crickets*
    [gender neutral commenter again] – but as a woman myself, one who has chosen not to have kids..
    {commentariat} – FUCKING ABUSIVE PAEDO SCUM!
    &c for 400 comments,
    Also featured were the bizarre arguments that “breastfeeding is anti-woman”, “six months? That’s disgusting”, and a lot of bizarre evopsych stuff about “the poor menz”.

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