*Totally self-absorbed post alert*
Yesterday I wrote a post about online feminism and privilege. And lots of people were nice about it, which made me think “ace! Lots of people agree with me!” But then it also made me think “hmm, that was a bit self-serving, really”. The thing is, I’d only written part of what I felt. I worried that the unsaid bits would make people like me less, so I didn’t say them.
As I wrote yesterday, I value online feminism and I don’t think it’s some ridiculous mean girls’ club. And I’m sick of people mischaracterizing the nature of online debate (you can learn a great deal about other people’s lives on twitter) . All the same if I am totally honest – really, truly honest – there is a bit of me that’s scared that one day, I will get on the wrong side of people without meaning to and I won’t feel so positive any more. And there is a bit of me that knows that this has already happened to some people and I’ve said nothing, first because it might “spoil” online feminism for me, and second because if I did say something, I might be considered a bad person, too.
What should you do if you think people are being bullied or that people are being unfair? Is it enough to say “well, that’s not what most of us are like”? Or to think “the mean people must have their reasons which my privilege prevents me from understanding”? Or “there’s no point me saying anything because I’ll just be accused of the same thing”? Or “I can’t say anything specific because that just makes it worse for the person under attack”? Or “I’ll only get accused of trying to police people’s anger”? It seems to me there are lots of reasons for standing back when people do pile in on one person, especially if you’re not convinced of the absolute, unassailable correctness of anyone’s broader arguments. I do this all the time. I say nothing, absolutely nothing, because I think, generally, I agree with those who use the terms “intersectionality” and “privilege”. I think, generally, people aren’t being cruel. I tell myself there is a kind of honour in simply not joining in. But I’m starting to think giving away only part of what I think is pretty cowardly of me. There is checking your own privilege because it’s the right thing to do, and then there’s not standing up for others when they’re accused of believing things they don’t actually believe. If you can say brave things in defence of an obviously marginalized group, why isn’t it possible to say brave things in defence of an individual? Because more is at stake, I think, at least when I look at myself. I’m selfish and I don’t want people to dislike me. I don’t want to “join the other side” (even if it’s sometimes imaginary), but above all I don’t want to make my own “side” reject me.
Clearly if I’m going to stop doing this I need to be more specific. I am thinking, for instance, of Helen Lewis who, as the typical narrative will go, I like because she lets me write for the New Statesman and because she is a white cis heterosexual Oxbridge woman like me. And perhaps some of that’s true. Actually, I’m sure it is. But it seems I like Helen Lewis so much I never say anything when she’s in the middle of an undeserved twitterstorm. After all, it might damage my own fairly fragile credibility. I might think “oh, that’s a bit mean” in private, but I never say it publicly (because people would make the assumptions I’ve just offered above). Instead I write posts like yesterday’s and leave the rest unsaid. Which part is avoiding upsetting people and which is just an attempt to manipulate people’s perception of me?
I’m thinking, also, of the Caytlin Moran twitter account. I thought it was very funny, and very clever, to begin with. A part of me still does. There’s an awful lot that Caitlin Moran has said with which I disagree and it’s parodied very neatly and succinctly. And yet it all starts to feel pretty self-congratulatory and inappropriate after a while. You retweet Caytlin Moran and it can sound as though you’re so confident in your own ability to privilege-check that the joke couldn’t possibly be on you. Surely that’s quite a dangerous space to occupy? If you’re so sure that privilege exists and that it’s often invisible to those who have it, why isn’t yours invisible to you right now? Is checking something you do once a day and then forget about?
I wanted to write this – in a fairly long-winded, self-obsessed post – not as some villainous big reveal (HA! I’ve one of those people all along!) but more, I’d hope, in the same spirit of what I wrote yesterday (that of responding to rather than ignoring flaws, which I think should be part of any form of privilege check). Through twitter and blogging I’ve controlled my own image and basically made people think I am nicer and more honest than I actually am. There’s self-censorship to avoid causing offence, and there’s self-censorship in an effort to maintain popularity, even if it’s against your better judgment. I think I use both of the two and it’s about time I separated them. It’s no good trying to maintain a pleasant, thoughtful aloofness in debates where real people get hurt. While I don’t believe there is a massive league of online feminist baddies, I do think some people say things to hurt rather than promote any form of reconciliation. And if others who believe in feminism feel afraid to write about it – even in a relatively welcoming environment – something has gone wrong somewhere.