Feminism is messy and difficult, and it should be. We’re talking about changing incredibly powerful institutions and also, incredibly intimate parts of our lives. That work won’t ever be easy. And the introspection involved particularly for doing feminist work on oneself is exhausting and often quite disorientating. You add to that mix the fact that this work is now being done on the Internet and so it is done publicly, socially and with permanent records of your views as they evolve and you suddenly have a very volatile atmosphere for something requiring such vulnerability. (For more on the dynamics of Internet feminism and its rules of engagment, see this fine piece by Quinnae Moongazer).
There’s an article in The Nation at the moment attempting to examine what might be going wrong with Internet feminism and why so many are feeling hurt by their participation in it, but in the process is managing to contribute more hurt to people… so, we’re a long way from resolving this and we’re looping around what seems to be an eternal pattern for discussions on the Internet. From Michelle Goldberg in The Nation with “Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars”:
Yet 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.
This is a big conversation. The answers won’t be found easily because the problems aren’t even going to be identified all that easily. As with other big tasks I suspect we just need to take this one mouthful by mouthful and chew carefully.
In my own humble opinion this is the best response I have come across so far to Goldberg’s article. I love these thoughts from Latoya Peterson of Racialicious. In it, Peterson talks about perspective, individualism versus collectivism, an over-reliance on feelings for determining direction, the need to not just critique but to create, and the idea that, in general, we need more practice (and comfort with the uncertainty involved in that) and less aiming for impossible notions of perfection in our movement. She also has particular thoughts for women of colour, like herself, and how they can avoid a situation where even their anger over being exploited and misunderstood by white feminists becomes a dehumanising workshop learning opportunity for white women. (That’s pretty nutritious stuff! And she wrote it all while on the run because she’s a feminist mother with a new baby. Love).
By the way, in her series of tweets Peterson also refers to another recent upset on the Internet – the one involving the white writer at XOJane feeling disturbed by the presence of a black woman in her yoga class. If you are not up to date on that then you may regret getting up to date but anyway, you should pretty much get there through this and this. (But please let’s not let that particular topic take over the comment thread too much for this post).
I think a lot of the problems we’re experiencing with Internet feminism stem from problems we’re having with individualism and self-therapy and the way that thinking is dominating all approaches to social change in Western society at the moment. And on that note, I notice that this post at Prison Culture talks specifically about Goldberg’s article while also talking about the need in feminism for “less focus on individuals and more on the collective struggle to uproot oppression”.
To untangle from this furious frenzy we need to see feminist work less as being about individual perfection and more as a practice, one that incorporates uncertainty, mess, the vulnerability of genuine engagement, evolution and community.