Unless you are an MRA and therefore hate all feminists, you’re probably amendable to the idea that some of them are nice and some of them aren’t. But how can you tell who’s who? In a recent piece for the New Statesman, Sadie Smith offers some tips for amateur feminist spotters: the nice ones – those who represent “good, honest feminism in all its manifestations” – tend to be western women who were especially active in the latter half of the twentieth century, whereas the nasty ones are lurking on twitter right this very minute (shh! They might hear you!).
So, we know who’s who, but what’s the difference? The nice feminists are often of high status (e.g. Camille Paglia, Luce Irigaray) and while they might say some strange things, their familiarity breeds a patronising presumption of niceness (a sort of “oh, that’s just Camille having another of her funny turns…”). The nasty feminists, on the other hand, might not have the same status but they are mean. Mean, mean, mean. So it’s best not to provoke them (otherwise it’s “intersectional this” and “check your privilege that”. Honestly, they never stop!).
I’m a feminist myself but only tend to get expressive about it on twitter and blogs. I guess that makes me one of the Online Wimmin Mob, as Smith terms it (she suggests it’s provocative but I rather like it). I’m not very high in the ranks – don’t think I’d make the sinister Committee, whatever that might be – but I don’t feel particularly excluded, which makes me assume I’m not (although perhaps everyone bitches about me behind my virtual back – I flatter myself with the idea that I’m important enough for at least one person to have coined the term “Glossbitch” before I did just this very minute).
The thing is, I value online feminism a great deal. I think people who work in environments where being a feminist could conceivably be part of your overall package – academia or journalism, for instance – underestimate what it’s like when you work somewhere where it can’t be (as I do). Feminism is not part of my daily conversation – I fit it in where and when I can. It happens, mostly, when I’m online and in my free time, of which I have a limited amount. I don’t travel all that much and my background means the circle of people I mix with isn’t all that diverse. The online feminist community has expanded my horizons. I’d like to think it’s made me a more open-minded person – at least open-minded enough to still know I’ve got a lot to learn.
Smith reserves particular ire for online feminists who use the term “check your privilege”:
“Checking your privilege” is about playing an inverted game of Top Trumps where the real message is that it’s not who you are but how you were born that determines whether what you have to say is worth listening to. It’s not a dissimilar message to that of your average bar room sexist – or transphobe for that matter – but so much more depressing coming from our own side.
To be honest, I think this is bollocks. I do, however, have a degree of sympathy for the position. I don’t particularly like using the term “check your privilege” (indeed I don’t use it) and I can see where misunderstandings creep in. It feels too short and curt a phrase to sum up what’s needed: that people recognise when their arguments are distorted by their limited experience of what constitutes being human. Failing to acknowledge this – and behaving as though gender, race, class, sexuality etc. impact on us in the same ways – isn’t fair. Alas, when you put it like that, you move from sounding curt to sounding like a sanctimonious knob (or at least I find I do).
Unfortunately I find it impossible to write about privilege checking at all without sounding like a sanctimonious knob. After all, I’m quite posh, me, and I know that when I say things I often present experience as universal when it isn’t (that is, I know it in general terms, and well enough to accept I’ll miss many of the precise examples). Sometimes I can hear a voice in the back of my head saying “don’t write that, it just shows you think everyone’s just like you, you privileged idiot”. Other times I think “well, I bet the really privileged people never worry about this, so doesn’t it just privilege them more when people like me do? After all, I’m a goodie!” And then I also think “isn’t it privileged to lecture other people on privilege?” Before then thinking “it’s probably privileged to think it’s privileged to lecture other people on privilege” (not to mention self-indulgent to write blog posts about it). And then, just to complete the overthinking circle, I think “a lot of the people I like worry about privilege, hence maybe I only worry about it due to self-interest rather than any authentic recognition of my own privilege, which must then mean I’m not a goodie after all”. That’s the kind of crap I tend to think.
And yet, I think checking of privilege is good. It changes your perspective (not into “argh, I’m such a pointlessly indulged person whose views don’t count”, but into “I didn’t realise class / race / gender etc. had that sort of bearing on X until now”). It is shocking – or at least I find it so – to find that some small part of nice, liberal, open-minded you actually didn’t see people who are “other” as quite so human. I don’t think this means you are therefore officially one of “the privileged” – doesn’t it just mean that you’re more sensitive to what touches on your own lack of privilege than what relates to other people’s? Isn’t that just to be expected? In an ideal world, there would be no need to make people aware of their assumptions but that’s not where we are. People who are excluded or undermined within particular debates suffer a double disadvantage in having to make others conscious of their privilege; it’s even worse if they’re then accused of bullying or “being mean” for doing so.
Of course, some people just are mean. All the same, I just don’t think we’re experiencing a surge of online “mean girls” feminism. Perhaps the online environment is just where positions get challenged the most. Perhaps it’s just a shame that we can’t let more of this critical awareness seep out into everyday life. “Good, honest feminism in all its manifestations” is surely strong and important enough to take it.