Michelle Goldberg quoting Katherine Cross at The Nation on “Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars“:
Being targeted by other activists, she says, “leaves you feeling threatened in the sense that you’re getting turned out of your own home…. The one place that you are able to look to for safety, where you were valued, where there is a lot less of the structural prejudice that makes you feel so outcast in the rest of the world—that’s now been closed to you. That you now have this terrible reputation… To suddenly be tarred by the very people that I’m supposed to be able to work with, my allies, as being a sellout or being infatuated with power or being an apologist for this, that and the other privilege—if that kind of reputation gets around, its extremely damaging,” says Cross.
There’s a lot here to critique, especially the positioning of Mikki Kendall and other prominent WOC and womanists on Twitter as finger-pointing bullies, and the implicit suggestion that the feminist blogosphere was all dandy until people of color raised their hands wanting access to the lunch counter. Because, look. This is well-trod ground.
If we’re arguing about whether racism exists and whether black women have the right to express anger over structural, personal, and professional inequalities – in public! — and whether or not we can honor the humanity of POC as individuals and as a movement by treating their feelings and experiences and opinions like real things, you’re in the wrong movement. Kendall’s is an argument about power, who has it, who doesn’t, and why not. The implication by the Nation article is that the real feminists doing the real work just happen to be mostly white ladies and Feministing and/or Gawker alumni who live in NYC, while the apparently-not-real online feminists, who happen to be POC, disabled, and/or poor, and/or who don’t live in New England and are not Feministing and/or Gawker alumni, just happen to not have access to prestigious professional resources and have sour grapes for the well-meaning, working (i.e. published, writing, prestigious, industry) feminists.
What’s weird is that it’s almost like the people who are systematically denied access to premium personal and professional resources just so happen to suffer the biggest consequences from being denied access to premium personal and professional resources! And it’s almost like we are discussing a movement dedicated to uncovering and alleviating this very issue — that happens to be ignoring this very issue when it comes to our upper-crust friends organizing professional events! Folks’re angry about it! We have a name for this very thing! Weird!
Okay then, not every conference and workshop and meeting can encompass all feminisms. Not every figurehead can encompass every view. Okay. But advising that less anger and accountability and more complicity is the solution to resolving the systemic oppression of creative, activist POC is rich.
WELL. RT @PlayVicious: It’s not an accident the most socially acceptable form of feminism mimics the posture of historic American racism.
— surly murdock (@dopegirlfresh) January 30, 2014
I’ve said for years that industry feminists, by which I mean the paid, careerist, publishing feminists, could fill in a lot of gaps by purposely reaching outside of their industry circles and lighting the way for people who didn’t go to Barnard, Vassar, Columbia, and NYU to get a leg up. Nobody wants to talk about how a lot of lady journalists were part of this community only long enough to get boosted into brick-and-mortar publishing careers, and don’t seem to understand why that’s offensive for those of us doing the same work and nevertheless getting shut out of their meeting rooms.
Whether all this critical heat is actually affecting the research and funding for other projects? I’m open to hearing it. But show us the numbers. What research was affected? How many projected dollars were lost? Otherwise all this conjecture looks like institutionally-ratified shade.
Feminism’s “sisterhood problem” is a big question that is decades old and a messy subject with a lot of complicated personalities involved. It is not a question that can be answered in one article or in a hundred blog rebuttals. None of this, alas, is new.
Taking the argument on its face, I do agree with one thing: The women’s political blogosphere can be an emotional minefield. It can be toxic for a lot of reasons, including regular grown people being assholes to other regular grown people. There is a lot of that, in fact. Some of that assholishness is bigotry. Some of it is vigorous debate. Some of the assholishness is Mean Girls bullying and cults of personality. Some of it is other things. Some of it is culture and geography. Some of it is the prevalence of earnest kids talking out loud to their own detriment and working out personal questions in public that are best kept private. Some of it is personal baggage that ekes into the activist sphere and that a lot of people participating in online feminism have an extreme emotional investment in this beast over other social experiences and outlets that are probably healthier for them. Compound this with a movement that pushes bad news at you all day long, all week long, all year long, and it’s like trying to drink from a fire hose. It’s impossible, and man, are you thirsty.
The hidden blessing in toxic online culture is that you can turn your computer off. The sad part, having been one of the bloggers who faded out because of the increasing pressure to monetize and the increasing pressure to perform a public fight with your adversaries (which usually includes identity policing and assigning the worst possible intentions to everything they say and do), is having to cut yourself off from the community that once sustained you. The only reason I was inspired to post anything about this, not that anyone knows about or reads this blog anymore, is that the pullquote above rang so true. I was one of those folks who was “tarred by the very people that I’m supposed to be able to work with, my allies, as being a sellout or being infatuated with power or being an apologist for this, that and the other privilege.” It was extremely damaging to my sense of self to have to walk away from this community and what I felt was my body of work. Choosing to extract myself from this toxicity from my friends and allies also shut a lot of personal and professional doors as well.
Latoya Peterson had some beautiful reflections on this awfulness this week. Yes, your feelings are yours and they are important, but no, your feelings are not a social movement. You have to work with people you disagree with sometimes if you want to reach common goals — in feminism, in social justice, in your boring old day job, in your family, and in your life. If you don’t share goals? If folks aren’t playing nice? Walk away. Take care of you. But scorched earth methods are toxic.
In hindsight, and I can only speak for myself, I think this dynamic of viscerally hurt feelings and deep personal resentment is just endemic to problem-focused communities. It will always be a part of the landscape. People who gather to talk about the persistence of oppression will naturally be on the lookout for oppression, and elevate these observations to the forefront of the community. On the flip-side, people with loose boundaries who are eager to appear non-oppressive and non-judgmental, a huge portion of the social justice community if you ask me, will bend over backwards to avoid creating conflict with genuine bad guys (re: the persistence of He Who Shall Not Be Named against all logic and reason) because they’re looking for cookies and developing super deep think pieces (I’m guilty!), and not, you know, using good judgment. The anxiety of constantly trying to fix things that are completely out of our control — and frequently out of the control of the person being criticized for embodying the offending privilege — can’t be part of a positive social movement or a happy person’s life. Not mine, anyway.
My focus today is on more immediate outcomes: my local area, my immediate influence on my family, my neighborhood and my city, the things that create passion in me and make me feel abundant and full of gratitude. Some of this happens online, most of it happens offline. But leaving the online feminist community, and the heaviness of that loss, weighed on me for some years. I guess it’s like grieving a toxic family. Eventually all the positive things you’re getting out of the relationship are over-shadowed by the emotional beat downs every Thanksgiving. You can’t thrive when steeped in that level of anxiety. You can’t think your best thoughts, or feel your best feelings, or be in the moment with these people in this house. Eventually the laughs can’t be outweighed by the side-eye and passive-aggression and fear of failure.
It’s about time for the community to fret and collectively ask, “How do we move forward?” I don’t know. Other than talking about this situation peripherally and very occasionally, I moved on.
When I had some distance, I realized how much time and energy was spent policing that space and the people in it, and not living intentionally and with purpose. The people who are able to thrive personally and professionally inside the fray? No lie, I wonder about them a little.