How to fail at online feminist debate

This morning I took down a post I’d written the night before. No one asked me to and I didn’t feel particularly bullied or intimidated into doing so. I took it down because I tried really hard to achieve a particular objective and I failed, badly. I know writing stuff isn’t magic and most of it makes no difference anyhow but sometimes, the feeling that you rarely, if ever, have genuine exchanges with people who see things differently – and that all that really happens is you gain the approval of people who would have agreed with you anyhow – is just a bit grim.

I don’t think there is anything at all I can add to debates on feminism, twitter, intersectionality, privilege and bullying – other than that I think no one else can add much, either. It has reached a point where, in essence, in order to try and defend people I like without appearing to be “one of them” or “taking sides” I feel the only option is to defend them badly, with so many qualifications and ifs and buts that what I’m writing becomes impenetrable (or rather, it becomes terribly nuanced, so nuanced that anyone who so wishes can see a “hidden message” – and such a message can mean different things to different people). Hence there’s no point. If every single argument you make has no value because it’s just the kind of argument you would make – because your argument itself demonstrates your bias, hence invalidating itself – then there is absolutely no point in making an effort to connect. You might as well just patronize people by pretending to agree with them all the time or shut up.

To be perfectly honest, I think this has sod all to do with whatever blind spots and privileged assumptions we all, myself included, might have. If I was so bloody naïve, it wouldn’t be so easy to predict the kind of criticism I’m likely to bring on myself and/or others for saying this or that. It is really, really easy to predict these days, like having a vicious Microsoft paperclip pop up every now and then to ask you if you really want to risk writing something nice about X because that will upset Y and Z, who will then think it’s all to do with that one time X said something ambiguous to W, which will then mean that the “W incident” becomes a thing all over again, meaning that your desire to be nice about X has actually made X’s life a whole lot worse. So hey, don’t be nice about X, especially not if you like X. Niceness just isn’t worth risking in the twitter age.

How weird is that? How fundamentally weird is it? That you can’t just, you know, like people (in a non-Facebook-clicking way) and therefore object to them being hurt. That it can’t just be about that – the goodness of people – and not a power structure with which you’ve sided. And yes, now the paperclip is back telling me well, I would think that, what with me having sided with a power structure without wanting admit it because obviously, those who make these compromises never admit it to themselves, do they? I just would make that argument because I’m precisely the kind of person who wouldIn addition, I’m even the kind of person who’d see fit to comment on the circularity of such a situation, mainly because it means I don’t have to engage with discrimination which actually, in this abstract instance and in some actual, real, live instances, has fuck all to do with the dynamic I’m discussing here.

“It’s all very well wanting to be nice”, people say. And “good intent isn’t magic”. Evidently not. But I don’t expect it to be magic. I just wish that, for starters, there was a little more of it.

16 thoughts on “How to fail at online feminist debate

  1. I so much agree. It would be wonderful if we could just have direct conversations without the super nuanced innuendos and in-group stuff. It would be great if “inclusive” wasn’t turning “he” into a paragraph’s worth of inclusions and exclusions that completely obfuscates the point your trying to make. I would love to have a conversation without super loaded terms that mean everything and nothing and everything in between at the same time. It would be wonderful if we could just have simple direct conversation again.

  2. Personally i find it easy. Don’t put theory over people. That extends however to the theory of sisterhood. I fuck up however i learn who sees the person from how they react to the fuck up. niceness is not kindness which involves effort .

  3. Waffle and appeasement. You wrote something real and visceral and then erased it. Not everyone will always like your writing and unforthunately you seem to conflate this with liking you. Hence waffle and appeasement preceded by erasure.

  4. Confession – I hadn’t read your post so I looked at the Google cache. I feel a bit bad as obviously you didn’t want me to read it, but at the same time I’m really glad I did. Because I think the nuance was good. I think you said plenty of valid things. I might have a different conclusion, but at the same time your post was a great contribution.

    At the moment I feel really torn about “twitter feminism” (for lack of a better term). I suspect that if we were in the same physical room having a debate/discussion, or were involved in a series of articles going back and forth on a reputable website with decent editors then the tone would be pretty different. There would still be huge disagreements but there wouldn’t be the same horror of receiving a flood of tweets mentioning you in unpleasant ways and there would be more space to make arguments. I am awful in 140 characters (as you can tell from this comment I’m pretty wordy). I struggle with clear communication about things which stir my emotions and that tiny character limit makes it even worse.

    I’m sure someone could get a (very meaningful) PhD or two out of these phenomena – the use of language, the effect of the character limit, immediacy of communication, the urge to take sides.

  5. “…sometimes, the feeling that you rarely, if ever, have genuine exchanges with people who see things differently – and that all that really happens is you gain the approval of people who would have agreed with you anyhow – is just a bit grim.”

    I don’t see it that way. I’m not just writing for myself and my friends, but also to women I may not know who feel like something is wrong but not be able to articulate it, or who know something is wrong but feel silenced by everyone around them. If I can encourage those women to feel more confident about thinking and speaking out against women’s oppression, then I’ve done my job.

    I don’t measure success by how many people of opposing views I’ve managed to convert. I don’t think it’s possible to persuade such people anyway, because they are mostly driven by feeling rather than reason and they won’t consider anything that doesn’t ‘feel right’ to them or is outside of their own experience. Also, I don’t believe that the cooperation of the oppressor class is necessary for ending oppression so I don’t try to change their minds. They have too much to lose by dismantling the patriarchy and it’s a waste of feminist time and energy to engage them.

    Supporting my feminist friends is valid feminist work, especially in a world that is so hostile to feminism.

    1. “I don’t believe that the cooperation of the oppressor class is necessary for ending oppression so I don’t try to change their minds. They have too much to lose by dismantling the patriarchy and it’s a waste of feminist time and energy to engage them.

      Supporting my feminist friends is valid feminist work, especially in a world that is so hostile to feminism” Agree so much!

    2. Thank you for such a great comment! Feeling a lot less down than when I wrote that post (I knew I had upset people I didn’t mean to upset – but it’s so difficult with heightened feelings). But you are so right about this. Thanks:)

  6. Here, right here, is everything that is wrong about the online social media world of feminism. You write a thoughtful piece about kindness and solidarity and feel the need to remove it. Meanwhile, so called feminists belt the shit out of each other in an unapologetic and relentless way online, in a way that seems similar to the hateful misogynistic trolling many feminist writers have become “used” to.

    Please don’t stop putting your thoughts and views out there. You are insightful, considered and what you feel matters. Not just to you, but to women like me who read it.

  7. Wouldn’t it be great if people responded to call-outs as Rachel Rostad did to call-outs regarding her Letter from Cho Chang to JK Rowling:

    “I understand if you still disagree with me, but I hope that you now disagree with me for the arguments that I’m actually making. It’s been humbling and amazing to watch people respond to this video. I think that the presence of so much passionate dialogue means that this is an issue that needs to be talked about. And yes, I made mistakes, just as I think JK Rowling made mistakes with some of her characterisations. But what I hope people realise is that dialogue about social justice is not about blaming people for making mistakes, whether it’s me or JK Rowling. It’s about calling attention to mistakes that, I’ll be the first to admit, is painful, and using those mistakes as an opportunity to grow.

    I personally have learnt so much from the mistakes I’ve made in this process. I want to thank the community for calling me out on that. Social justice is about holding each other accountable”.

    Although of course, in the dialogue between Rostad and the Aisan women in her fan-base, whom I think she’s addressing, no-one is talking from a position of significantly more privilege (in the sense of “power over”) than the other party (at least in terms of the oppression at hand – racism). Or Rostad probably wouldn’t be so polite!

    I think this is they key thing, mentioned in the article I link to above – being called out is not comparable to doing something that’s worthy of being called out for. You get called out for being oppressive, which is not the same as hurting someone’s feelings. People shouldn’t get so immediately defensive when called out. Unless, obviously, it’s a man calling a woman out for being sexist or something…

    1. I think the key to this is learning to let go of the need to always be “a good person” to the point where we think we can’t have done wrong and hence anyone who tells us we have is wrong. It’s so much better to face up to our failings and try to learn from them, but that can be really painful, especially if the criticism comes from an angry stranger (or relative stranger).

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