On online feminism and privilege

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.

13 thoughts on “On online feminism and privilege

  1. i love this more than words can say. I got ignored today by Joan Smith, you know one of those proper feminists because I simply asked if she had spoken to sex workers whilst promoting her Indy piece. I am now no doubt marked out as one of those monstrous online feminists.

    The interesting thing is those who refuse to accept privilege exists are those who benefit from it, funny that.

  2. I love to wave the online feminists flag and genuinely think it is one of the truly great results of the Internet (and only slightly counteracts all that nasty porn).

    Let other media have their boorish school boy debating houses and shallow point scoring.

    Twitter and the Internet at large is full of women having intelligent, informed conversations.

    Mumsnet and organisations like it have given many women a collective voice that has not been known before, the ability to share a space that is not the bar, or the golf club, or the boardroom. I find most feminists I come across online to be supportive and inspirational.

    Vive les ‘wimmin’

  3. The thing is, most of us are just living our lives, doing our jobs, taking care of our families, seeing our friends – having normal lives. Our normal lives don’t usually include getting to go on a panel with Camille Paglia, or a radio show with Caitlin Moran or a conference with Natasha Walter. We don’t get to interact with Kat Banyard or see Stavvers in the pub for a chat. For many of us, online is the main place we get to do our feminist interaction, where we have our discussions. Online is often predominantly where we learn – tweets linking to articles which trigger a discussion, blog posts, facebook groups – all of them are valuable resources for feminists who don’t get to do feminism as their full time job. And some of the people in the Online Wimmin Mob are generally nice, some are generally nice but have a bad day now and again, and some are arseholes. You know, just like the rest of humanity everywhere.

  4. For me personally, feminism is something I’ve learned about through the internet. I’m 28 this year so have been online for several formative years so that combined with having my children has made me more liberal through things I’ve seen and read about and that in turn has helped nuture my feminism. So I say yay internet feminists for helping me to figure this thing out!

  5. While I have to admit it sounds really whingey to me whenever people complain about being told to check their privilege (or “semantic bullying” as they call it), I also think that there’s room for admitting privilege checking can be a way of playing divide and conquer against ourselves (don’t get sucked into the meta vortex of talking about defining “ourselves” and privilege!). I read the work of a fantastic trans* feminist recently, arguing that some of what we call privilege is actually more “access to shitty bargains”. She’s talking I think mainly about cis (women’s) privilege in the face of male privilege (or Patriarchy as I call it, even if it’s old fashioned). I think it’s an idea that can have wider implications too though. Short and well worth a read: http://radtransfem.tumblr.com/post/42928117719/access-to-shitty-bargains-vs-privilege

  6. Great post. I wish more feminists online would question themselves and others and really think about their positions. A lot of what I see are assumptions – and yes, I think questioning our assumptions, that which we take for granted is ‘checking privilege.’

  7. I totally agree that the act of privilege checking (or more broadly, just privilege awareness) is important and useful in feminist dialogue and development. But I have often seen it used as a way of shutting down disagreement – responding to a comment or post with nothing more than “Check. Your. Privilege.” isn’t particularly helpful, even if the gist might be true. It’s not participating in a conversation, it’s trying to shut others down. That’s where I think it’s misused (and what I think Smith is talking about in the bit you quote).

  8. The intelligent, informed discussions are lovely, but I have encountered ‘online feminists’ who are just out to dismiss others views, or attack them for not having quite the right stance on equality. I love a debate and a discussion, what I don’t like is people who are not even prepared to listen to another’s views in full before declaring them anti-women, sexists and plain wrong!

    Feminism is something all women should be able to embrace as a movement, yet I know some who will not call themselves that as they do not want to be popped in the same corner as the extremists with the big voices. I wish there was nothing but informed and intelligent discussion, but unfortunately there is plenty of knee jerk reactions too. I would love it if people were better at agreeing to disagree about the small stuff, so we can work on the big important stuff as a team!

    Re ‘check your privilege’ I think it is very hard to formulate an opinion in anything that isn’t coloured by your own life experience so I agree with the commenter above that as a stand alone statement it does nothing to improve the quality of debate, just makes it seem that if you have ‘privilege’ you cannot have a valid opinion.

    I think as someone who doesn’t have a degree, doctorate etc I also sometimes feel excluded from the big debates as I do not have the required grasp of terminology, I get lost and have to consult dictionaries. I must find time to do some of my own learning so I don’t feel scared of adding my two penneths worth to discussions!

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