Feminism needs more practice, less perfect

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.


Categories: gender & feminism, media, relationships, social justice

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53 replies

  1. Sorry if I ramble a bit, I find this whole thing hard and strange and painful…
    Your last paragraph really encapsulates what needs to be done, in my opinion, blue milk. And I’m so there with Latoya’s focus on creation; it’s the only thing I’m finding that really works for me in my feminist practice anymore, and it’s what I’m finding the most engaging in the work of other feminists.
    I think a major part of the problem – and where that Nation article stumbles – is a failure to account for how collective engagement, and a focus on community, needs to account for a differential in power dynamics. How we read who is a bully, and who’s being mean, and whose bullying and meanness gets discounted, is wrapped up in ideas (and here what’s springing to mind are particularly racialised ideas, but there are others) of which groups are worth listening to or are perceived as more hostile or alienating than others with members who are displaying similar behaviours. That will get better when we focus on undoing those broad oppressive structures, not when we centre any particular person or small group of Internet feminists. It’s not just, to use my racial example, about a divide between white women who are shocked and hurt at a supposedly unfairly hostile response and non-white women who are being ignored or dismissed as big meanies, and which side is the wronged one. A collective response is about looking what produces this dynamic this consistently in the first place, because it’s really suspicious that anyone can think this comes down to purely individual behaviour. I mean that I’m suspicious about what is being pushed aside there by assigning this to pettiness or some such, and what is being pushed aside is exactly the kind of thing we should be talking about: the bigger picture.
    I think we keep going around in circles where we take an individualist approach to this problem, because then everyone ends up in static positions of monstrosity or sainthood in ways that don’t really account for their social positioning or what has actually happened or whether people might do a variety of productive and non-productive and counterproductive things. (I’ve spoken previously, on this blog and elsewhere, about how bizarre I’ve found it when I have been held up as a suffering, martyred WOC blogger in ways that don’t account for my own stated experience, and about how bizarre it is when the push for individual perfection gets even more twisted when truly bullying people use it to smear a person’s reputation with fabricated versions of events.) We can do feminism better where we talk about the collective, and where we’re less scared to do so because of a focus on the individual – and also where a focus on wider dynamics means that certain more marginalised people aren’t routinely assigned as the source of that fear in ways that replicate discriminatory dynamics.

  2. I feel like redlightpolitic’s piece on this, and on the way in which accusations of ‘toxicity’ are used in attempts to shut down dissent, is really important: http://www.redlightpolitics.info/post/74943518671/misogofeminists-and-the-white-men-who-profit-from

  3. I appreciate the thoughtfulness of this piece, but the issue at hand is far simpler. Simply, any comment (on many feminist websites) that even so much as brings up an alternative point, not matter how minor or how inherently inoffensive, is met with cruel taunts and downright viciousness. Any perspective that does not strictly match the accepted dogma (and I am not referring to plainly insensitive and uniformed commentary) is ripped apart. This has got to stop. There has to be room for honest discussion.

    And much more effort needs to be put toward constructive framing of issues, rather than an insistence on the nuances of terminology. What battle is that even meant to win? Would oppression be eliminated if everyone precisely understood the finest points of language and the finely tuned perspectives that have been sanctioned as the only acceptable ones?

  4. Thanks for writing this, blue milk. The conflict between individualist framings of feminism vs collective activism strikes me as the key, and it’s one that tends to be insufficiently acknowledged by the individualists, who are nearly always those with a multi-generational background of educational privilege that opens up opportunities for career advancement which reinforce their individualist biases.
    I have other thoughts but I have overdue invoicing to get done. Will be back.

  5. White feminists, me included, need to take a big dose of ‘if it’s not about me it’s not about me’. Sure it sucks when someone says ‘ugh white people (something bad)’ and sometimes there are white lady tears. But feeling shitty for a while versus having my whole life affected by people’s perceptions of my skin (hint doesn’t happen if you are white) is quite different.
    I do sometimes wonder if it gets called bullying because we have no real understanding of the shit WOC bloggers put up with daily?

    • This absolutely. I’ve been doing a lot of careful listening/reading lately, because it isn’t about me and my experiences. Sure, I’ve felt awfully sorry for myself on several occasions where I’ve blogularly fucked up over the years and been called on it, but I came to realise that my sads were nothing compared to the magnitude of harm inflicted by several of those fuckups. Have I become more cautious about opining on certain topics that are outside my lived experience as a result? Yep, and not one useful contribution has been lost by me not writing about things I don’t fully grok, and no I don’t feel that I’ve been bullied by being told (and coming to fully agree) that a lot of the time there are more interesting/relevant/powerful voices than mine who are saying things that need to be said.

  6. Thanks TT. Although I have comeback to qualify that I mean cis able bodied white feminists because I know that trans, disabled,and even fat feminists cop a lot of flack which I think often does equal bullying. But it seems if you add skin colour other than white on top of that the crap escalates markedly.

    • Oh yes, and I want to clarify that my blogular fuck-ups have certainly been along multiple axes.
      I guess what bothers me about some aspects of the “toxic social media feminism” claims is that a lot of the scrutiny seems to be arse about. It’s not the marginalised people pushing back against inadequte intersectionality who are being toxic, but some of the complaints are framing it that way. To my eyes, it’s the people hogging the stage and the PA and complaining about their activism glow being harshed and accusatorily declaiming that telling me I’ve overlooked vast swathes of different experiences is bullying me who are being toxic.

  7. I didn’t get my cookie and you are being mean to me when all I have is this vast media platform/white privilege/ cheersquad and you go and have conversations that don’t centre/include me and don’t listen to me crapping on about something I haven’t experienced. How could you? It’s all so toxic! #sailsawayonriverofwhitewomanstears
    Like that? Oh I forgot: All I did was ask you something I could have googled in like 5 seconds and you won’t take the time to answer me or be told how that’s totally lik the time in 7 the grade where…
    I have probably done all of these at one time or another too.

  8. But sooner or later we’re going to have to address certain paradoxes that arise, directly generated by trying to do intersectionality better. The broadest of which is the tension between “don’t write beyond your own experience” and “this is not about you, stop centring yourself!”.

    • I don’t see that exact tension/paradox, Orlando. Centring oneself [eta:to some extent] is unavoidable as a writer, but that doesn’t mean one has to universalise from oneself, which is where most of the intersectionality fails occur. “This is not about you” is more about questioning one’s defensiveness arising from another’s writing, surely?

  9. I’m not talking about universalising, I mean when writers are criticised for describing how they, personally, experienced something, because other, more marginalised women are involved in the topic. Like the reporter who wrote about PTSD symptoms after assignments in Africa. “This is not about you” is definitely not confined to discussing defensiveness, it crops up all the time when women who are not marginalised by race write about trying to figure out how to engage with conversations about race. We are told we need to talk about race, but also that it is not our place. I’ve seen writing from women who appear to be tying themselves in knots to avoid speaking for others who are then mocked for making it all about themselves. Also writers who try the path of saying “women who are marginalised in these other ways experience this differently” who are then criticised for speaking about what they don’t understand (Laurie Penny just this past week). It starts to look very damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
    There is also the person who (while shutting up and listening) is getting conflicting messages about how to use language, or respond to a situation, from different people within a marginalised group, but to say “but I also heard…” gets treated as “but I my black/trans/gay friend says…”.
    Yes, the rule is always that you can’t please everyone all of the time. But if your goal is not to hurt people, and your best efforts always appear to hurt someone, it’s naive to say “try, fail, learn, fail better next time”.

    • This post at vivalafeminista says a lot of what I’m thinking better than I possibly could; the whole piece is worth reading but I’ll just quote part of the concluding section:

      In the end this larger conversation is about power.
      As I said earlier, I do agree that some critiques fall under the category of attacks. I don’t support those. I think there is plenty to critique without using personal attacks. But the land of punditry has changed with social media. While you can avoid reading the comments section of your op-ed, you can rarely avoid the @ section of your twitter feed. This means that the indie feminist blogger has equal access to “the conversation” as the feminist who is paid $10,000 to speak at a college campus, has multiple books and a contract with a TV station. It can be scary to face the critique head on.

      Some of the people who’ve had the spotlight and the megaphone on them for a while are finding it difficult to navigate the freewheeling nature of the multilogue on twitter, and frankly some of them ought to learn more about it as pseudonymous users without the baggage of their celebrity status/history, before they overreact to people having a bantering conversation sparked by one of their articles (without even @ing them, so it’s not like it was asking for a response of any sort) into an allegation of bullying. Flavia writes more about the imbalance between the corporate media columnists and the independent bloggers who scrape a living freelancing here: “Misogofeminists” and the white men who profit from silencing critiques.
      I do feel some pity for some of these young women pundits (and isn’t it interesting that the media giants prefer them so young?) who are reinventing the wheel of previous solidarity/intersectionality fails all over again under the corporate pressure to produce clickbait columns, because I do see how they are being used by cynical publishers who don’t share or even trulyhalfway support their values, and that they have not been prepared for the inevitable blowback that the editorial clickbait requirements are intended to generate and don’t yet appreciate that the publishers really don’t care whether their content generators sink or swim in the resultant storms, because the publication profits either way. I understand that it’s easier to express hurt due to criticism from those perceived as sharing one’s own values than to acknowledge one’s complicity in the ongoing trivialisation of the marginalised that is the corporate media’s core business model, but understanding it doesn’t mean that I approve or support it.

  10. My comment, which is the third one submitted, is still awaiting moderation? Is it offensive in some way? Because if it is, the problem is far worse than even I imagined.
    [we prefer authors to moderate their own posts, and the author doesn’t seem to be logged in right now. Please have patience ~ eds.]

  11. sky – thanks for the specific example. That was very helpful.

    • I realised that I too linked to Flavia’s redlightpolitics piece without remembering that Sky had linked to it first: just emphasising how relevant and important I think it is to this whole discussion.

      • I also really like Crommunist’s post (two long quotes below)

        If we can agree that there is no such thing as an objective arbiter of “the real issue”, then we are at sea when it comes to deciding whether or not a given criticism is fair. After all, if you think that I am saying something misogynistic and I don’t see the misogyny, do we just “agree to disagree” (no – the answer to that question is always ‘no’)? In the absence of an empirical test, I have two options: I can either accept the possibility that the person making the accusation sees/understands something that I don’t, or I can brand the criticism as “unfair”. What I have to decide in that moment is as follows: who is more likely to have imperfect information? Is it more likely that I have said something that is at least partially occluded by my relevant privilege, or that the other person is making a false argument?
        While I recognize the possibility that it’s the latter, nearly every time I have been in a position to adjudicate a “toxic feminist” environment, it is the case that someone has made a flawed argument and then goes on to complain about being “misinterpreted”. My usual response, therefore, is to assume it’s the former – that I am in the wrong for reasons I don’t yet understand – and interrogate myself accordingly. This is, by the way, a far cry from the ‘sackcloth and ashes’ fear-mongering that is drummed up in Ms. Goldberg’s article and other places. Usually it is enough to apologize and to try and do better next time. It always has been for me. I’ve seen that approach been applied for bad actors elsewhere.

        Where the Nation piece particularly touched nerves is that it builds, perhaps subconsciously, on a longstanding tactic that is used to dismiss the legitimate grievances of members of minority groups: that they are “too angry”. That if they exercised more “restraint” then their arguments would become more persuasive and more valid. It is very directly a demand that those who are the victims of oppression be more accommodating and sensitive to the needs of the oppressor. The reason it might be particularly galling to WoC feminists is that this meme has been used to dismiss the claims of women (which should have set off a few alarms in Ms. Goldberg’s head) but PoCs, queer people, poor people, whatever the relevant minority group is. It’s the easiest of ad hominem approaches to argumentation.
        Now, I want to make something clear here: I do not personally believe that Michelle Goldberg was intentionally gaslighting feminists of colour, queer feminists, whoever. I don’t think she wrote this article with malicious intent. I do not doubt that, from her perspective, she was merely articulating a concern she has with a community that she believes is important and could be more productive on the “real issues” if it managed to stop the “infighting”. This benign intent, however, does not rescue her argument. The argument is still bad, and it is still gaslighting, whether she did it consciously or not.
        And this is where the problem ceases to be merely about “wrong” and becomes a discussion about “harmful”.

  12. Sorry but no – I apologise for taking so long to moderate comments for this thread. Can you be a little more specific about what you think the solution might be for the kind of problem you’re seeing?

  13. “Sorry but no”: if you’re not sure what’s causing delays in moderation, you might like to review our commenting guidelines first, and if you continue to be unsure, contact moderators privately using the contact form.

  14. blue milk — I’m not sure if you are referring to the first or second problem (that I perceive as problems, but others may not) that I brought up.
    The first would be simply to acknowledge — and bring an end to — the idea that beating people down with insults and yelling because they have failed to pass a highly nuanced litmus test for proper terminology or perspective is not useful and indeed counterproductive, and that it is likely to silence or turn away those who are not versed in academic feminism. (I’m not referring to WOC expressing anger toward white feminists, but to the much broader form of engagement employed by the particular set that has in recent years dominated and shaped online feminist discourse.)
    The second would be to frame the issue much more broadly. Instead of focusing on nuance and language, focus on the structural issues that underlie oppression, and that not only allow but encourage it to flourish. These are rooted in the unequal access to power in society, which is not only determined by categories such as race, gender, gender expression, and sexual orientation, but also more broadly by wealth and position, and even more broadly by the very structure of society.
    It’s a case of not just not seeing the forest for the trees, but of not seeing the forest for the individual leaves on the trees.
    Regarding moderation, I was perplexed because there were a number of comments posted after mine which were not in the moderation queue, and the comments policy only says that “malfeasants will be moderated,” not that first-time commenters will be moderated as well. I apologize if I seemed impatient.

  15. “Sorry but no”: I’ve emailed you about the comments policy. Again, please keep moderation discussions out of comments sections. Thanks.

  16. (I’m not referring to WOC expressing anger toward white feminists, but to the much broader form of engagement employed by the particular set that has in recent years dominated and shaped online feminist discourse.)

    I still don’t have enough information here to determine which “particular set” or “form of engagement” you mean, because I’m sure that there are many differing perceptions of just exactly who is dominating/shaping online feminist discourse, and you have been rather coy in providing sufficient specifics for me to tease out your meaning.

  17. Orlando, I see what you are talking about as connected to that broad problem with feminism I was speaking of above.
    What I am used to, from before when this conversation about less marginalised writers being criticised started, is seeing how more marginalised writers are criticised for describing how they experienced something because less marginalised women are involved in the topic. I’ve sat in a room full of feminists appalled when I questioned how the gathering had dealt with talk about disability, because that surely shouldn’t be raised when we were there to talk about the magnificent things feminists had done in the name of gender equality. When I started blogging at Feministe in 2009, there was constant hostility directed at non-white women by white feminists – including open wondering about the utility of talking about racialised perspectives at all, or whether people expressing those perspectives were trolling.
    So I was used to seeing “this is not about you, this is not your place to talk” well before this particular current debate cropped up: I’ve been used to being told, and seeing people being told, not to talk/write about my own experience (or their own experience as it were, my this sentence is grammatically silly) and also that it’s not about me/them, so stop centring that, precisely because they were talking about a more marginalised experience. We were being told that the only experience worth writing about was a non-intersectional one, and to therefore talk about what wasn’t my, or that given person’s, experience.
    So I don’t see that paradox you’re talking about as directly generated by trying to do intersectionality better, I see it as a continuation of an existing dynamic, the dynamic that so many of us have been taught as the way you engage with feminism. The thing where people are being told to engage with x topic, but that it’s also not their place or not about them, that’s long been standard in policing the “right” way to do feminism. It’s just that now, as far as I can see, it’s being pushed back on less marginalised women within online spaces, with the greater participation of less marginalised women in more spaces that is (partially!) enabled by online engagement. It’s being found to be particularly jarring, I expect, because there is so much effort to undo the marginalising practices of the kind detailed in my first paragraph. But I also think it’s so jarring, and this problem is finally acknowledged as a “toxic” problem, because of a continuation of those marginalising practices and patterns: because it’s affecting women with fewer kinds of marginalisation more than ever before.
    I see people being mocked and so forth, for talking about their stories and trying to helpfully engage with other people’s, for not accounting for the One True Feminist Way (which seems to shift a lot according to who is talking about it), as a huge problem in feminism, certainly. I think it’s one we have to solve with respect for a history in which the women who are being affected by it, and sympathised with for it, are by and large members of groups this dynamic has been set up to benefit. The people being called toxic for it or who are tearing apart feminism and such are the people who have always been accused of doing so, and there hasn’t been this kind of mainstream outrage when they have been at the brunt of this talk/don’t talk dynamic. Again, we need a community solution for a truly community-wide problem.
    None of this is to discount another problem in feminism, which is actual bullying, by people of all manner of social positions who take advantage of all this and twist it in order to gain a following or feed off the despair of others.

  18. My ideal approach (which I often fail at) is to say “it’s not always a good idea for me to talk”. Which is hard. And the more privilege someone has in a space, the harder that is. Which often also correlates with how good it would be if they didn’t talk.
    Relatedly, I also try to follow up people who are being ignored or talked over, then point out what has happened. At Larvatus Prodeo there were regular outbursts of “damn feminists” and I think it both annoyed and satisfied some of the women there that so often they (several they!) would make a point and it would be ignored or just contradicted, then a SWM would say it and suddenly it was an idea worth engaging with. It’s hard to wait long enough every time, but it seems to be helpful to do that.

  19. tigtog — I don’t think I’m being at all coy. Online feminism (and possibly offline as well, though I don’t have contact with it) has become fairly close to a monolith, whose rules and proscriptions are very consistent. (That’s what the article in The Nation says as well. Are you unsure about its meaning too?)
    Phrases like “Feminism 101″ allude to that specificity of focus. It presumes that what are considered fundamental perspectives are basic facts, and are not open to discussion.
    Conveniently, there’s a website called Geek Feminism Wiki that lays out all the rules and accepted perspectives. (As you know, it’s not specifically about geek feminism, but attempts to summarize, in encyclopedic form, the essential points of what it considers to be “feminism.”) The ideas expressed on that website are, in a nutshell, those of the set that I am referring to. Personally, I agree with most of those ideas, but not with the dogmatic way in which they are presented and, elsewhere, enforced.
    The form of engagement that I am referring to is everywhere, so I’m not sure how that can be unclear either. Goldberg’s article is essentially about that: “people who feel emotionally savaged by their involvement in it—not because of sexist trolls, but because of the slashing righteousness of other feminists.” It’s the yelling, insulting and beating down of people who won’t get with the program.

    • OK, I’ll withdraw “coy”, but I persist with characterising your argument as unclear because you areappear to be assuming that everyone else has the same perceptions that you have, and since when I look at online feminism I see a vibrant array of widely varied voices, then I’m telling you that at least one person simply does not perceive things as you do, and that you appear to be presuming a set of shared assumptions which in my case at least do not appear to be there.
      For instance, how many websites are you talking about when you refer to this “monolithic” online feminism that you perceive?

  20. I am actually assuming that just about everyone who identifies with online feminism has the exact opposite perception than I do. I share Goldberg’s perception (though not in its entirety), which is remarkable and has caused such a stir because of its newness and its subverting of commonly held views among self-identified feminists.
    You question of “how many” websites I am referring to is rather obtuse. Are you expecting me to go to every feminist website I am aware of and create a tally? It might make more sense for me to point to self-identified feminist websites that don’t subscribe to the proscriptions of currently acceptable feminist thought, but I’m not aware of any, except for ones that are reprehensible in taking anti-feminist positions (and those don’t count, since they are not actually feminist).
    Do you consider the Geek Feminism Wiki to be presenting a “vibrant array of widely varied voices”? I’m referring to that particular ideology, which is so clearly spelled out on that website. How am I being unclear?

    • You think Goldberg’s article has caused a stir “because of its newness”? I see it as utterly recycled handwringing of the sort that has been seen over and over again in many ideological communities long before feminism, although in fairness Goldberg herself may well not realise just how much she’s reproducing exactly the sort of critique that has been seen many times before.
      In comments to this post of mine from nearly a year ago, I reproduced a quote I’d seen in yet another discussion (this time in the secular community) over someone opinining on how much nicer everything could be if we were all just more civil to each other. The quote is from John Stuart Mill, written in 1859 as part of his defense of free speech in On Liberty, and I imagine he was synthesising critiques he’d seen in earlier philosophical writings when he composed it:

      With regard to what is commonly meant by intemperate discussion, namely, invective, sarcasm, personality, and the like, the denunciation of these weapons would deserve more sympathy if it were ever proposed to interdict them equally to both sides; but it is only desired to restrain the employment of them against the prevailing opinion: against the unprevailing they may not only be used without general disapproval, but will be likely to obtain for him who uses them the praise of honest zeal and righteous indignation. Yet whatever mischief arises from their use, is greatest when they are employed against the comparatively defenceless; and whatever unfair advantage can be derived by any opinion from this mode of asserting it, accrues almost exclusively to received opinions.

      There is not one single new thing about the skeleton of Goldberg’s piece – the only reason it looks new at all is that she’s hung it up on the framework of the new technologies surrounding social media.

      • p.s. how about you give me a link to the specific page(s) you are referring to on the Geek Feminism Wiki, seeing as like most Wikis it covers a rather wide range of things actually?

  21. Why did I guess instantly that this was yet another white feminist whose feelings got hurt because anti-racism isn’t just a merit badge you can acquire and then move on to the next thing white feminists like?
    And as Trudy pointed out at Gradient Lair, how did someone write an entire article about the toxicity in online feminism and not mention HS? Why are these women more scared of another woman (of colour) pointing out that what they wrote wasn’t inclusive, than someone with a self-confessed history of DV and attempted murder?
    So, ‘Sorry but no’, I agree with tigtog this is a boring rehash, nothing at all new.

  22. Goldberg’s piece is not about civility, it’s about ideological purity and (secondarily) the means that are employed to enforce it.
    I find discussions of civility and politeness tiresome, and usually dishonest, so I entirely agree with the quote you posted, though I think it’s off topic in this discussion.
    The Geek Feminism Wiki is a concise compendium that explicates current accepted feminist dogma. It functions as a whole, to lay out a platform, but I can point to particular pages if you like.
    For instance, take the “Concern Troll” page, which takes it upon itself to state with certainty what someone else is thinking. “Concern trolls” have “never met a feminist opinion they liked.” Really, never? Whenever someone doesn’t agree with a particular point, it has to mean that they have never agreed with any feminist viewpoint? Concern trolls are also not “convinced by answers to the questions they pose.” Gasp! How can anyone who is offered the wisdom of this particular feminist orthodoxy not be convinced? They must not be listening, or obstinate, or intentionally causing trouble. It’s almost humorous when it says, “In reality they are a critic.” A critic? How awful! How can anyone dare offer a critique!
    It’s not that the description of concern trolls is entirely incorrect. The problem is the rigidity with which the description is offered. That same rigidity is employed by individuals in many online feminist discussions to shout down (or worse) anyone who is not on board with the accepted perspective.
    I consider that to be a very serious problem, which I suppose could cast me as a concern troll.

    • It’s hard to take you seriously when you cite standard internet jargon such as Concern Troll as an example of “feminist dogma”. Are non-trolling dissenters sometimes incorrectly accused of being concern trolls? Sure. That doesn’t mean that concern trolling isn’t a thing that happens.
      [edited for improved clarity]

  23. I’ve been refraining from commenting here because I’ve been spending time catching up on everything, but now that I’ve been able to let it stew a bit, I think I can contribution something productive to this discussion. I actually feel that both Orlando and Sorry but no have both touched on something very important, which is the unease that a lot of feminists from a variety of different backgrounds have with how difficult it is to engage in online feminist discussions in the “right” way, because a lot of the language conventions that seem to have become synonymous with “safe(r) space” in the feminist blogosphere do require one to parse a lot of academic lingo, and because for many women, shifts in language aren’t necessarily central to their experience of what constitutes a safe space. And it is difficult to link to discussions about this because people don’t want to speak out about it in places that could be linked back to in an identifiable way — in my experience, these conversations tend to happen in private, in chats and locked forums and face to face conversations, but that they certainly involve a broad intersection of women who feel uncomfortable participating in the feminist blogosphere.
    I really like what blue milk says here about community and collectivism, but I think that we need to take a more pluralistic approach to what constitutes a safe space — that for some women a safe space will involve extensive trigger warnings and highly moderated language, but for other women, a more relaxed approach is going to result in a more productive discussion. We need communities where marginalised women have a microphone and it’s the job of women who don’t share that axis of marginalisation to listen. We need communities where we can ask lots of questions even though there aren’t easy answers. Some women may feel more comfortable in one space or another, some women may feel more comfortable having different types of conversations in different spaces. It’s very important, I think, that we don’t build thick walls around these different communities, to suggest that one group is doing feminism right and the other one doing it wrong — of course, every community must be open to critique and self-reflection, but I think not building those walls will aid in that for the most part.
    Of course, this is complicated by the power dynamics that Chally mentioned, insofar as they mean that some people are easier to marginalise than others, which is ultimately why we’re more likely to hear the story of a white woman who felt uncomfortable when a black woman was marginalised in her yoga class than we are to hear the stories of black women who face marginalisation. Which is why it’s so important to have multiple communities, to engage with communities that make you uncomfortable and which challenge your own ideas about how your behaviours might reinforce or subvert those power dynamics. And because these power dynamics are intersectional and there’s really no quantative way to approach them, we do end up with the types of messy and difficult problems that blue milk discusses in her first and last paragraphs here. But those messes and difficulties are something that we have to face head on in our feminist communities, and part of that is acknowledging that a lot of women feel very uncomfortable about participating in the feminist blogosphere these days for reasons that can’t be reduced to them not wanting to examine their own privilege.

  24. tigtog — I did not and do not object to the term “concern troll,” nor did I say that the term itself is an example of feminist dogma. I said that the description offered on the Geek Feminism Wiki page is not entirely incorrect, which implies that I do think that there is such a thing as concern trolling.
    What I actually said is that what I object to is the rigidity with which the term is described. That rigidity is what I perceive as the problem. The rigidity is what is dogmatic. The specific phrases I quoted are examples of rigid thinking, and intolerance for deviation — not the term “concern troll” itself.
    I’m not sure if you read what I wrote, because your comment does not refer to anything I actually said.

  25. I think that’s well put Beppie. Particularly the idea of a plurality of spaces. Different people have different skills, and different things to offer any project. As a woman who is minimally marginalised, the main thing I can bring to the broad project is looking outwards, translating to people who might be convincible, but have no real understanding of the experience of people beyond their immediate bubble. Doing so requires some loose translations sometimes. It requires meeting people in the middle. I don’t generally do it in feminist spaces. This is because I fuck it up often. I misrepresent the people I’m trying to help translate for.
    I know that it works better if those I’m translating for speak for themselves, but there’s a whole world of people who won’t listen to them. My objective is to get more people to listen directly. To stop listening to me and start listening to those whose voices need to be heard. I also know I’ve achieved that at times.
    I think there are people out there copping flak for doing that translation much more publicly and with a greater influence (also often badly), and I think the criticisms are generally valid, and I know the world would be a better place if marginalised people could all speak and be heard on their own terms. I’m not just not convinced the world would be a better place if the not-very-good feminists stopped talking to the not-at-all feminists. I think some of this argument is around these people (although not all).
    I do genuinely think that teaching all kids, at school, how to engage in an emotionally charged argument would be a Very Good Thing. Obviously how to express your position strongly without personal attacks is important, but even more important is how to win and lose an argument. Once you’ve made your point well, walk away. Give the person time to process it. Once someone’s made a point that makes you feel like crap, walk away, think about it, change your behaviour. Ideally publicly concede your error. Very few folks can do that, and we get precious little practice.
    I’m not saying all interactions need to proceed in such a manner, just that a critical mass of people having those skills would be most helpful.

  26. I believe the biggest chunk of this toxic twitter feminism debate is about some white feminists, mostly American, complaining about black feminists calling them to account for their dismissal of them. I have little time for that complaint. Feels horrible to stuff up your feminism in public and be called out, makes you feel terribly defensive, sure, but feels much worse to be erased or constantly reinvented as the aggressor by a completely racist framework. I think shifting the focus away from perfect feminism might be a way of challenging people who are stuffing up to consider the place of their ego in this. That they can be less defensive.
    However, I do think there are other bits to this toxic twitter feminism debate besides that big chunk. On twitter and facebook, I saw people who are well versed in feminism and who work hard on their conduct, who also relate to some elements of that article. I don’t think these women were pointing the finger at black women, to be honest, I think they’re pointing the finger at other white women and their conduct in feminist threads. They’re not here speaking for themselves, so maybe I’m wrong but given the issues they’ve stood for in the past I’d be very very surprised if it is black feminists they’re complaining about. I think, instead, there’s a certain minority in feminist communities who view feminist discussions as a blood sport and they really damage discussions.
    When you’re trying to perfect your own feminism you can feel compelled to police others, and I’ve seen some very simplistic applications of complex feminist concepts on discussion threads at times. A good deal of policing behaviour is good and sound and is excellent feminist work that builds a better, more inclusive community. But some of it is very much not. And thus we get a ridiculous situation where black women talk about being whitesplained about racism by some white feminists. Boggles the mind that white feminists can f*** that up so badly.
    And then there is also the tendency, by some, to try to ‘win’ a discussion that might really have had a different purpose, that could have been an exploration with multiple perspectives but which instead gets collapsed into a very two dimensional, right vs wrong picture. All sorts of destructive behaviours can happen in discussions because there’s such a drive for perfection in feminism, me included, rather than to practice it.
    And I think one of the problems with this is that it can become a risk-averse community at times, where the incentive is so much greater to critique things rather than create anything because no-one wants to screw up, ever. I don’t know what the answer is exactly, because when you ask people to be a little more considered, a little more patient in feminist work then you probably end up with a bunch of people telling black women, yet again, to swallow crap they shouldn’t have to swallow.
    And then other times you also get this dysfunctional situation, referred to by Peterson, where crappy behaviour doesn’t get addressed because to do so would be to provide ammunition to a whole bunch of nasty people on the other side of some bitter conflict.
    I haven’t been taking part in feminist discussion threads lately so I don’t know if it is better or worse at the moment, but I do love what Peterson said, it made a lot of sense to me and I like the idea of finding a way to re-focus in feminism. But I see also that even saying we need to re-focus can seem to invalidate the pain people are experiencing with the current focus. Like I said, I suspect we need to chew carefully through this one.

    • Thank you Beppie, Ariane and blue milk for the last three comments refocusing the discussion on blue milk’s original post. I apologise for allowing my frustration with how Sorry But No and I were talking past each other to sidetrack as much of the thread above as it did. I’ve decided to disengage from further dialogue with SBN because I don’t think we’re getting anywhere with understanding each other and it’s not adding substance to the thread.
      To get back to the meat of the thread, I’ve been active in other circles online which are not particularly feminism-focussed, and I don’t see anything unique to feminism in the tensions about representation and which issues are highlighted between those whose experiences are very mainstream/hegemonic and those whose experiences are more marginalised. It seems to generally be a tension present in most progressive/left-leaning communities online, and the reason that it happens online more than it happens in face-to-face spaces is largely because it can happen online. Away from digital spaces the progressive voices who are offered opportunities to opine on high-profile public platforms are still overwhelmingly middle-class and tertiary-educated, and because they are middle-class and tertiary-educated they are also mostly white, and because of other elitist biases propped up by myths of meritocracy they are also mostly men and mostly from a certain pool of schools and professions: despite all the progressive rhetoric about egalitarianism and equality of opportunity, the people who are put forward as the public faces of progressivism are still mostly members of a very familiar-looking elite. This cannot be other than a fundamental source of tension within progressive groups.
      A few more thoughts that I don’t have time to fully tease out:
      * This tension manifests itself mostly online because that is where the grassroots and the marginalised have any sort of megaphone at all. In more conservative forums their public faces are also continually facing criticism and accusations of being insufficiently whatever, but because conservatives are more willing to defer to hierachies in their organisations, those voices are more easily and officially sidelined and trivialised without many members expending time or energy discussing the rights and wrongs of doing so.
      * There’s a competing tension between the need to set personal boundaries and group/org rules of what is considered acceptable/unacceptable forms of engagement and the ethics of declining to engage with or deciding to rebut certain criticisms. Many people/groups understandably choose to prioritise self-protection and this makes others feel unheard/unvalidated/silenced.
      * There are also a bunch of genuine arseholes getting their jollies by sitting on the sidelines waiting for just the right moment to stir the pot and divert discussions away from productive exchanges. They are often very good at wearing plausible deniability masks for what they are doing. The need to protect oneself and one’s communities from these sort of arseholes can often lead to collateral damage for others who are non-arseholes but who happen to trigger pragmatic but not perfect arsehole pattern-recognition routines.

  27. I’m really liking this idea put forward by Chally and Bluemilk of feminism as a practice, like yoga, where there is always something to learn, someone to learn from.

    white feminists, mostly American, complaining about black feminists calling them to account for their dismissal of [black feminists]

    Twitter is full of this at the moment. Also with women wanting their cookies. I still struggle with this sometimes, actually that narky voice in my head comes in handy then ‘oh so you want someone to say thank you because you didn’t act like a dick? Well good for you.’

  28. I could easily be wrong, but it’s been my unfortunate experience that at least half the time when people like Sorry But No make non-specific references to the purportedly “dogmatic way” in which certain concepts are enforced by “the particular set that has in recent years dominated and shaped online feminist discourse,” what really bothers them is the so-called “dogma” that trans women are women.

    • Donna, although I too have seen the pattern you describe play out more than once, so I do understand why the thought came to you, I find this a highly uncharitable comment from you. SBN has not expressed any such view, yet now you have associated ou with it.
      As EG said over at Feministe, one of the reasons that people get emotional in these discussions is that we are talking about things that are important to us because they affect how we live our lives.

      This is in the nature of group conversations about important issues.
      I mean…if you speak publicly about issues that are near and dear to people’s hearts and affect their ability to live their lives, then indeed, responses will almost certainly be heated. That’s…what it means to speak publicly to people you haven’t met about things that matter to them. If the prospect of strangers attacking your positions intensely is too upsetting, then you’re probably better off not getting on the soapbox. But I don’t see how you get to have both, the public forum and the insulation from other people’s anger. I don’t even see that it would be a good idea.

  29. Avoiding the trap of trying to ‘win’ an argument is definitely part of my study in practicing feminism. I spend so much time arguing with people, it can be easy to forget that not all discussions are arguments!
    And blue milk, I utterly agree that white women complaining about black women calling them out is less than sympathy-worthy. It’s white women calling out other white women that I find more complex, and to me brings again the idea of spaces that Beppie mentioned. Twitter is perhaps the ultimate example of why specific spaces for specific functions are helpful, since it’s one big bucket. A person may be working in one space in their mind, and be read by someone in a quite different kind of space in theirs.
    I struggle also with the condemnation of people who make many mistakes as “terrible people”. There is a leap between “I’m not going to read that person anymore because too much of what they say is problematic” and “That person is a dreadful human being”. Seeing this kind of condemnation of anyone has to have the effect of silencing people.
    Seeing feminism as a practice might also provide a better framework to view people whose comments are occasionally, regularly or constantly problematic (in your view). Seeing them as in a different place on the journey, rather than letting the side down, would have to help avoid nastiness. It also gels rather nicely with my general world view, so personally I’m totally in favour of it. 🙂

  30. Tigtog, on the “insulation from other people’s anger” front, I think that’s a bit of a double-edged sword. I recognise that EG was talking about people with privilege along a particular axis crying foul every time they’re the subject of an angry response, but of course anger directed at people based on their marginalised identities can be a way of shutting people up — which is of course the whole idea of having spaces where it’s important for women (and men, and people who don’t identify as either) who don’t share a particular axis of marginalisation to simply listen.
    On a secondary level — and in keeping with Ariane’s most recent comment re: condemnation, and people being in different places on learning curves/feminist practice — it is also important to have spaces where expressing one’s misgivings/lack of understanding about a particular idea or practice is not going to result in accusations of being not feminist enough etc (and I don’t think this is simply about making space for white cis het able-bodied women to complain about everyone else being so mean — because in my experience, people from a variety of different axes of privilege and marginalisation have these questions at times). And I don’t necessarily think that relegating these questions to the realm of Feminism 101 is necessarily helpful either, because it implies that the more experienced feminists have this all sorted and are all in agreement in their answers to these questions, and it also implies that if you have these questions, you haven’t been engaging with feminist thought for very long (or that if you have, you’ve only been doing so superficially). In my experience, feminists who have been doing the rounds for a long time are just as likely to have questions about what is the best/most effective practice as shiny new feminists.

  31. I can’t help but find this discussion a little odd when entered into by commenters from Feministe. I’ll use it as the example, in fact, because I’ve been reading that blog off and on for years (perhaps 6 or 7?) and it’s had some truly vile instances of toxic “feminism” that go almost completed unchallenged. A dissenting opinion — hell, even agreement with the wrong wording — can get you called any manner of names, from “idiot” to “animated shitstain” (a personal favorite.) It’s gotten to the point that I resolved to not comment there again for a year, because it was so damaging to my mental health. That’s what toxic is; it was poisoning my mind, this walking on eggshells and obsessing about perfection.
    So why is it like that? Sure some of it’s the release of bottled up rage at the Man or whatever, getting some stuff off of our chests, and some of the vitriol is merited — when aimed at the words, not the speaker — but…
    But, well, some feminists are just assholes with nasty personalities, and they take the concept of using “powerful, productive anger” to mean that they can say whatever they like to whoever they like with no real-world consequences. This is across the board on race, ethnicity, disability, sexuality… I’ve seen a good half of the posters on Feministe pretend to “call out” someone for an -ism with genuinely hateful and insulting language. Or they’ll call them out for innocent ignorance, or a dumb question, or a plain old misreading of their comment. “At least someone got told” one comment said, in disgust that a new poster got hammered (again) by the commentariat for stepping a toe out of line.
    There needs to be a movement away from merely venting bile and towards proffering actual critique. This requires a hell of a lot less timidity from moderators, who should be shutting down personal attacks with a quickness, no matter who is being attacked. No more cheering at blood drawn in our stupid righteous holy war of feminism. And it certainly requires a hell of a lot more grace and humility from the bilious, no matter how oppressed they may be along other axes. Do people think that a violent environment full of twitchy trigger-fingers is going to produce anything of use, or help any women? It scares people, it silences them, and it’s indiscriminately used against anyone who is new or young or disliked. It makes us act like victims, scared to say a word lest we say it wrong and inexplicable verbal abuse rains down.
    It’s unreadable, it’s intolerable, and it’s made me a total fucking cynic about online “activism” that is nothing but looking for the latest public punching bag. It’s “mean girls” run by the uncool kids, who can now — online and finally able to do some of their own oppressing — revel in their little “safe spaces” and slap down anyone who doesn’t speak their language with the right slang and the right code words.
    And frankly, I could go on all night. But I’ve already stuck my head out way too much for comfort in this kind of “feminist” space; I anticipate that someone will be along to malign my intelligence or my commitment to social justice any minute now, just like the last few places I’ve dared to fail at flattery and cookie-seeking.

  32. I’ve relaxed the commenting policy on this post in that I have allowed comments through without a valid email address, and I’ve done so because I want to encourage a wide variety of views on this post, but… that means I can’t reply personally by email to those people when they are in moderation in order to clarify aspects of their comments and the commenting policy Also, that I am expecting people to comment with ABSOLUTE GOOD WILL here because I’m extending some trust to readers and I’ve asked my fellow-HAT writers to be patient with me screwing around with our comment policy (something that was set up to protect and foster community so I’m messing around with something very important and I don’t want to damage the HAT community in the process). Please, no turning on writers/moderators of this site in your comments. I will not tolerate it. As the author of this post I read the comments in moderation and I make moderating decisions, but I work full-time, plus am a single parent so I may need some time to get to moderating.. please be patient. Thanks for the discussion on this post, it is definitely focusing my thoughts.

  33. I think tig tog raises an excellent point about particular dynamics of communication NOT being exclusive to feminist discussions.. this is important to remember. It should guide any solutions we explore.

  34. @Bagelsan I’m sorry but HAT may disappoint you. I can’t comment on Feministe and its culture because it scared me away years ago. The few times I weighed in on Threads of Doom I found it to be a pointless waste of time with lots of people shouting and nobody listening. That was a long time ago.
    But around here I’ve been disagreed with, sometimes with significant vexation, but never been personally insulted, and certainly never been piled on. It’s not perfect, and I’m not claiming it’s all tea & biscuits, but abuse is vanishingly rare.
    And actually, thinking about that, I think that part of what happens here generally, brings together a lot of what has already been said. This is a very specifically designated space. I think a lot of people hang about to continue their understanding, so they are quite likely to listen to each other. I think that idea of practice does resonate with much of what happens here. People also have some idea of how long it takes to assimilate new ideas, so once a stalemate has been reached in an argument, people often let it go, go away and think about it. I dare say many even change their minds. Many of my own privilege recognising moments have come from HAT, some actively, some passively.
    This is probably a rose petal view, I’m probably thinking of HAT at its best, but the point of this thread is to explore how to do it better, and the times when HAT does it better seems a good place to start.
    And also, considering tig tog’s comments about other fields of discussion, what are the dynamics in other fields where it does work? I mean, what are the characteristic differences between a constructive political discussion and a Twitter interaction with the Men of Labor?

  35. Ariane, I would love to be disappointed. Thank you for instilling a little hope. 🙂

  36. This is a really good post on toxic feminism by a trans woman writer. via Emily

  37. I hang around here because I vacillate between the notions of feminism as a broad church and feminism as a dirty word.
    It’s too easy to associate feminism, especially online, with radfems, the far left, and socialism.
    It’s nice to be able to discuss feminism without the name-calling.

  38. I stopped reading online feminism about a year or so ago because I tired of the name calling and shaming. I came by today because I’m on a rampage about Woody Allen and I wanted to hear some feminist voices.
    Perhaps I’m not sufficiently saintly, but when someone yells at me, calls me names, makes fun of me, etc., I’m not interested in working with them. My guess is that many others feel the same way, and it reduces the chances for collective action.

  39. Yes my experience with feminist online discussions is a bit depressing. I’m not talking about debates between white feminists and women of colour, I think that is a complex area that has to be negotiated, and I wouldn’t generally comment on those unless I was actually involved in some way.
    But I’ve been called out by other feminists for questioning things, or saying things the wrong way, or whatever. I’ve been actively feminist for over forty years and have been through some really heavy things, like an anti-discrimination case that lasted for over two years. I think most people have little idea of how hard that stuff is – it’s just the unrelentingness of having lawyers attacking your credibility for years on end (in my case, as so commonly, the defendants had much more resources than I did). But anyway I’ve been variously attacked by other feminists in person and online for various things, not usually very serious things I think, but for saying something ‘wrong’ or sounding ‘wrong’ in some way – and sadly, it came across as a judgement on me, rather than a disagreement with what I’d said.
    I don’t think I’m being over-sensitive here, I think I was being judged and found wanting – ”policed’ as I’ve described it in one instance which I wrote about on my blog (not linking here but can do if anyone wants to discuss further).
    Being attacked by men is one thing – not pleasant, but you expect it – being attacked by women, especially feminists, is another. There are theories, already alluded to, about this – members of subordinate groups attack each other, internalised sexism, divide and conquer, etc. There’s also some research that I recall – I think it was that a woman negotiating on behalf of another woman is likely to get worse outcomes than man/woman, woman/man, man/man. So I guess internalised oppression may have something to do with this.
    I was a bit reluctant to comment here because I have had disputes with some people here before – I would like it if those could be understood and resolved but I am concerned that the response will just be: no Val, you’re wrong, there’s something wrong with you, you don’t know how to do feminism properly, etc.

  40. So what is it that people need to change in the way they interact that makes something come across as a disagreement with what you’ve said, rather than as a judgement on you, do you think?
    Obviously I’m asking this in a totally generic way, this thread is not about rehashing specific arguments, rather it’s about looking for patterns and approaches that allow useful conversation without resulting in people feeling attacked. Do some of the suggestions made here so far ring true to you, or do you feel there’s other ways to move forward?

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