There is a constant stream of articles from various online sources – newspapers, blogs, periodicals – which argue along these lines: Feminism’s main problem right now is in-fighting. We’re too busy firing shots at one another and getting ourselves worked up about the latest Twitter spat that we’re forgetting the Real Enemy. The Real Enemy is watching our catfights, licking his lips and rubbing his hands together in glee, and maybe hoping we’ll all have a pillow fight in our underwear. He is Patriarchy, and we are letting him win.
When it’s pointed out how bollocks that argument is (I can have a Twitter spat and still have a hand free to fight the Patriarchy, easy), then some feminists themselves weigh in with a bit of yellow-bellied kow-towery. “We are a bit aggressive sometimes,” they wheedle. “You lot really were nasty to Caitlin Moran,” they pout. “You’re making feminism look more elitist than the Bullingdon Club. You’re discouraging dissent and punishing those who disagree,” they wail.
That’s also bollocks.
Here’s the deal with almost any political movement on the planet, which I’ll illustrate by invoking the (universal, I’m sure) metaphor of a student political group meeting. I’ll dub them Student Political Group. Here’s how it goes: You have some unifying goals, otherwise you wouldn’t all be at the meeting. You have lots of other stuff you wildly disagree on, and that’s cool. You stick with the people you agree with, but have useful debate and healthy disagreement with others. But then there’s always someone careering around the room, interjecting every five minutes with some non sequitur about Isreal and Palestine, making a nuisance of themselves, and saying things like, “so what if Julian Assange had sex with her whilst she was sleeping, it’s not rape-rape!”
This person needs to be dealt with, because they are identifying as a member of Student Political Group, they keep writing their vile views in the student newspaper because their mate’s the editor, and they are making everyone ashamed to be associated with them. They are actively destroying the useful work Student Political Group are trying to do, because they are a complete and utter knob.
So, you ask them to leave, or write a response to their article in Student Newspaper, or continually have explosive, derailing arguments about why exactly it is white people don’t use the n-word. And people, most of whom aren’t even involved with Student Political Group, accuse you of crushing dissent like a big hairy Feminazi.
Here’s another little truism: if you, a Famous Person, say sexist/racist/transphobic shit on Twitter, you may as well be shouting it through a loud-hailer into a crowd of millions. People will shout back. And, as with most crowds of people, 50% of that shouting will actually be constructive and attempting to open debate, 25% will be people shouting “I HAVE ALWAYS LOVED YOU, YOU CAN DO NO WRONG,” 15% will be absolute knobs and bullies who just want to humiliate and threaten you, and 10% will be people saying “What the fuck? What did I miss? Why are we shouting? WHY ARE WE SHOUTING?” But in the end, it all just sounds like shouting to you, the Famous Person who shouted through the loud-hailer in the first place. Yes, I agree that nobody should be bullying, slanderous, threatening or abusive just because you don’t like something that Famous Person said. But I also think that you will get that knobbish 10% who will be abusive and threatening no matter what subject you’ve shouted about down that loud-hailer. You don’t stamp them out by saying, “stop arguing on Twitter.” They are knobs. They won’t listen.
Let’s apply all of this useful advice (which I’m doling out for free, you lucky things) to our favourite whipping-girl of the moment, the feminist movement. We can’t police one anothers’ identities by saying that someone can’t identify as a feminist because they slut-shame, ignore the experiences of non-white people, or engage in hate speech against trans people. The reason that we can’t say that is because no one has a monopoly on what the label ‘feminist’ means. However, we can self-critique. We can self-improve. We can say, “you might call yourself a feminist, but that slut-shaming article you just wrote plays into strong misogynist ideas about women, and that’s not cool.” We can say, “Banning trans women from your women-only event means you have a strict idea about what a woman is, and as a fellow feminist I’m not down with that.” We can say, “I respect that we have differing views on sex work, but when you reduce sex workers to caricatures you’re engaging in some really oppressive language, and I don’t find that fits with your other feminist beliefs.”
Here’s another nugget of truth. Suggesting feminists argue too much amongst themselves plays into the hands of misogynists. Feminists don’t have an obligation to be nice and polite to one another, or anyone else; we have only the obligation that everyone in the world has, that of being a Decent Human Being. If you suggest that we all need to calm down, hug it out, and face the world with a sisterly smile, you’re the one who can’t tolerate dissent.
It is a concern if feminist debates turn people away from the movement. I have hope, however, which I draw from my own experience. When I first encountered feminism, I read some books, a blog post or two, and went along to a couple of meetings. Slowly but surely, I developed an idea of what type of feminist I was, and only then began to follow debates online, and formed opinions on them. I did not get thrown into the Twitterpit to fend for myself as feminists duelled around me, flinging words like ‘intersectionality,’ ‘kyriarchy,’ and ‘privilege’ around. I’m not sure why people imagine that’s the way new feminists are being introduced into the movement, as if the only feminist activity around is centered on a small collection of blogs and Twitter spats.
So go forth, argue amongst yourselves, and never stop getting worked up about the latest Moran faux-pas. Because you’re not the carrying the future of the movement on your shoulders, you’re not setting a bad example; you’re thinking critically and contributing to a continually adapting feminist discourse.
Just try not to be a knob about it, OK?