Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Feminist bloggers go meta: are we sacrificing truth for righteousness?

Sady Doyle had an interesting piece last week over at Tiger Beatdown where, under the guise of a book review, she manages to make some poignant observations about feminist blogging:
Maybe now is the time to tell you that I’ve been having some serious doubts about my place in Internet Feminism. Not my involvement in Internet; that, no doubt, will go on. Because what else am I going to do with my time? But there are problems, I think, with the terms of the conversation I’ve set up here; there are problems with my own place within that conversation, the person I’ve agreed to be when I talk to you. That outraged, righteous, upright, know-it-all person who has compassion for all the right people and scorn for all the wrong ones, who’s on the right side (your side) of all the issues: I think she’s dangerous, and I think she’s at least partially false. The falseness is the root of the danger; problem with Internet Feminism, or any politics of identity, any system that purports to help you get your life and problems understood better, is when it sets up a too-easy, pre-packaged narrative for your own life. When it gives you the language, the rules for engaging and discussing, but doesn’t help you to look with any greater or more dangerous honesty at what you’re thinking, or how you’re acting, or who you are.

I’ve seen it happen. Too often, I’ve seen it happen; the people who can criticize a post, and then, when asked to back that criticism up, can only quote a different post by another Internet Feminist. The people who can look at a piece of art — or, hell, TV or pop music, those work too — and can only classify it as Oppressive or Subversive, or located at a greater or lesser degree of “problematic”-ness, according to current theories of what is or is not problematic. The lack of original thought, or of aesthetic judgment, is creepy: It suggests that we’re approaching this all like math, like a standardized test to which there are right or wrong answers, rather than as art, or (preferably) life, where what matters is not just your conclusion, but how you got there. And there are other things: The way we’ll go out of our way to invent political defenses of art we like — feminist reading of Twin Peaks, anyone? ... Arguments where we invent political insults (you’re a classist!) to cover up the personal feelings behind them (you’re an asshole!) because we know we can win on the grounds of politics, but might not do as well if we actually, honestly dislike each other. Incidents where we make up political rationalizations (as a woman, I have a right to voice my anger!) for stuff we shouldn’t get away with (I am getting up on your junk and acting like a douche!) no matter who we are, and that we probably, on some level, know to be wrong.

...But it’s a problem, with any moral system of thought: At some point, we learn what we’re rewarded for saying, how we’re rewarded for seeming, and then we say those things and seem that way, for the reward. It’s like any other set of social norms. But when feminism is used this way, not as a means to get into truth, but as a means to make truth easier or even to avoid it, it’s really not all that different from, say, reading a lot of Ayn Rand. Granted, the results of its clueless or selfish application will probably be better than what the Objectivists have managed thus far. But it’s still something you do for you, rather than for the sake of doing it; it’s a means of propping yourself up. Of self-glorification.
Doyle then goes on to discuss how she and other feminist bloggers feed the cycle of insult and outrage, without necessarily advancing understanding:
Every time I yell at some pathetic anonymous commenter and people cheer, every time I get all righteously outraged without talking about what I’ve done that is the same or worse as what the person I’m outraged about has done, every time I play the toreador and gore a bull for your entertainment, I shudder a little. Because I’m helping it happen: Aiding in the creation of a discussion where we reward outrage and scorn and hatred and Othering of the ideologically impure, the bad feminists and unfeminists and anti-feminists, all the while pretending to a purity that none of us, living in this our inherently compromising and mindfucking world, actually possesses. I’m glorifying myself; I’m letting you glorify me; I’m giving you a false impression of how things actually work, letting you believe that the world consists of Good People and Bad People. I’m telling you that I am Good, and that you are Good to the extent you agree with me, and that people — other people, people on the outside of this discussion, not us, certainly — are Bad if they disagree with us. I mean: This is basically how every terrible thing in the history of humanity has started, the decision that there’s an Us and a Them and the former is good and the latter is bad. Doing it in the name of lofty principles doesn’t mean you’re not doing it; it just means that when the problems — the self-falsification, the repression, the insistence on ideological purity rather than self-examination or originality or thought — creep up on you, you’re less likely to notice them and more likely to rationalize them. Because your aims really and truly are good.
This post really struck something I had been thinking about feminist blogging for a while--the extent to which blogs and their comments seem to divide up people into "good" and "bad," on the "right side" and on the "wrong side" without helping to build understanding between the two.  Does doing this serve society?  Does smacking people down when they express an unfeminist (misogynist, racist, ableist, homophobic, etc) thought make the world more free from prejudice and oppression?  I have to think that, yes, at some level it does, but at the same time, I think it has its limits.  As I discussed in this piece about whether changing beliefs or behavior was more important, I think it's incredibly valuable to speak out against hurtful words and actions, and to do so with both guns blazing.  However, I also think it's easy to get caught up in this self-righteousness, and miss the underlying issues.  To miss the way each of our minds is colonized by privilege just a little bit, the way each of our actions are colored by prejudice, and how fallible we all really are.  Each of us is learning.  (Well, some people don't think they need to learn.  But, the following statement at least applies to anyone who wants to learn and recognizes the limits of their own experience and knowledge.)  Each of us deserves the benefit of the doubt at one point or another.

One blogger whom I have learned a great deal from, Renee Martin, recently had to ask her audience for that benefit of the doubt, when she was attacked for fighting Juneteenth racism among other things.
I fuck up. I am going to fuck up again, it is only a matter of time. I am learning PUBLICLY and that means there is a record of each and every time I have made a mistake, but what I don't need is someone dragging up shit that happened over a year ago and slapping me in the face with it. Your closets are no cleaner than mine.

Also, I am sick and tired of being called, racist, homophobic, sexist, ableist, and cissexist. The entire purpose of this blog was to give space to people that have been marginalized -- lofty goal I know. Sometimes I talk about things outside of my experience and I make mistakes, but does this make me any of these labels? It makes me someone who is trying to make my way in this world.
I think that statement could apply to many writers out there, but that's why it's important of us not to project an air of certainty or infallibility.  Because we are going to mess up, and when we do, wouldn't we rather go down questioning than accusing?

After all, it's not a contest about who can tag the most "-ist" statements before the clock runs out.  This point was made by Blackamazon, in response to Renee's piece:
the point is not to figure out hwo to be teh best fucking person
the point is not tos ee how I can most use a platform to sit here and beat up other fucking people
It’s about work , it’s about awareness , it’s about doing what cna be done to ameliorate , interact and push forward some kind of agenda ( that isn’t one’s right to be a god damn asshole )
Why are we here?  Is it to make the world a safer, more accessible, more equitable place?  If so, then we should ask what is gained each time we throw a stone or wield a spear.  Is it greater than the human understanding and compassion that is lost?  By waging these battles with those stones and spears, are we losing our ability to talk as humans to one another?  As deeply flawed, (maybe) female humans who come from different backgrounds and have different worldviews.

Doyle's piece continues:
Feminism — particularly second-wave and third-wave feminism — started as a means by which women could tell their own stories with a greater degree of honesty; it permitted us to say the unsayable. I don’t actually love being a mother. I don’t actually want to be a mother, and that’s why I got an abortion. Marriage was supposed to fulfill me, but actually, I’m just bored and depressed all the time. Marriage was supposed to fulfill me, but actually, I just get raped and beaten up. I like to fuck, and I don’t need to be in love to do it. I feel this pressure to fuck, and I don’t want to. I hate playing femme / it turns me on to play femme. Sex work is awful for me / sex work is great for me. You know, I really do like to fuck, but despite the authoritative statements of Freud, the medical profession, and all the dudes I’ve ever boned, I have never ever ever ever in a million years had a “vaginal orgasm.” “Consciousness-raising” was just this; telling stories, saying things that felt unsafe or bad or weird or over-personal, indulging in the messy female business of confession. Later, after we’d all talked it out, put our personal lives on the table, the group was supposed to start working on theories that tied it all together.
But we’ve been doing it for a while now, the feminism thing, and the theories are already out there and readily accessible. They even feel unquestionable, some of the time: Authoritative statements about our lives, like those uttered by Freud or the medical profession. To say that they just don’t feel right, that they don’t describe you or who you are or how your life has gone thus far, feels wrong and heretical; it might get you accused of false consciousness or bad feminism or internalizing the oppressor. Instead of starting where we are and trying to theorize it, all too often, we take the theories and try to cram our lives into them, and ignore or cut off the parts that don’t fit. What we end up with is a vision of ourselves that often feels purer and more Feminist-Approved than who we really are; it feels nice and strong and Good and, most crucially, safe. However, we’ve also barred off all of those messy, complicated, unlikable parts of ourselves, and forbidden ourselves to examine or learn from them. Which is a bad move, given that the messy and complicated and unlikable and as-yet-untheorized, the unspoken and the unspeakable, is where we’re supposed to start.
There are lots of less than admirable things about me. There are lots of less than admirable things about you. There are lots of things in my life that I started to figure out by reading and writing feminism, and there are lots of parts of my life where I’ve used feminism to excuse my own behavior or where the tenets of feminism seem not to have room for my experience, or to contradict it. 
 In this space, it's more important to me to have a conversation and learn from each other than to be "good" feminists.  And so I'll promise to try to be less reductionist if you promise to join that conversation, and help us learn from one another.


  1. Thanks, the linking was appreciated. I can relate to a fair amount of this. I was part of an activist group at university the main points of which were to discuss and confront racism, misogyny, homophobia, etc and to discuss transformation in South African society. Most of the members were from anthropology, sociology, gender studies and diversity studies. I was the lone economist who had frittered away some time on drama and English lit. When discussing the problems, I kept on getting into trouble for asking questions in ways or with words that many of the other members didn't seem to like - I didn't have the vocabulary that they did, but I did (and do) care about the problems.

    I like doing research in feminist economics and I have learned a lot from studying it. For example I care abut what we talk about when we talk about 'households', aggregating preferences, 'household heads', power structures in the household, who gets the money and who doesn't, whose work gets counted in GDP, etc. I care about economics education and the different ways of knowing that different people have, but how most of us economists continue to teach economics as if ways of knowing different to those typical of white males are irrelevant. In my activist group it often seemed as though, because I hadn't studied as much Butler, Foucault, etc, my interests in the problems themselves and my ways of expressing the interest were illegitimate. I know I'm going to get stuff wrong. I know I'm often going to think using the frames (e.g. marginalism) that I've been taught. I will try to question these. I'll slip up. But, as it seems you are intimating, I'd also like feminist/queer/etc blogs to help me to understand and to teach me rather than just insult me and call me a racist or an oppressor when I use taboo words or approaches, to catch me as I fall rather than to celebrate the downfall of oppressors when I hit the ground. I suppose one of the other problems with the internet rears its head here - tone, body language and sincerity often aren't conveyed. Luckily, I remain friends with the people from the activist group because my sincerity and dedication was always manifested. We eventually began to help one another better and my understanding improved as a consequence (though my scepticism of continental philosophy somehow persists).

    Anyway, that was my rather long way of saying - Yes, I hope to continue to be part of the conversation and please keep up the educating. I shall make mistakes. Forgive me.

  2. Glad to see that some of the Internet Feminists are coming into this space of self-reflection.

  3. I found it interesting that you asked, "Does smacking people down when they express an unfeminist (misogynist, racist, ableist, homophobic, etc) thought make the world more free from prejudice and oppression?" while also quoting Renee Martin saying: "Also, I am sick and tired of being called, racist, homophobic, sexist, ableist, and cissexist."

    I'm not 100% sure what "unfeminist" means, but I do find myself disagreeing (or sometimes, just not wholly agreeing) with many things I read in so-called feminist blogs, and yet I don't think that makes me a racist or a homophobe, or whatever. And I dislike that some bloggers and commenters jump to that conclusion just because someone questions a "feminist" argument here and there (I use quotes because I don't think there is a single definition to refer to.) I also dislike the "My views are right/All other views are wrong" tone that I get from many feminist blogs. Many issues are nuanced and should be discussed more openly without fear of being called an -ist word.

    Although I do proudly call myself a feminist.

    Just my two cents.

  4. Hey anonymous, I didn't notice how close the language came in those two quotes, but that idea was my point: we're so quick to label something with an ism that it can often block the conversation from developing and leading to places of new knowledge. But at the same time, it's often imperative that we do identify something as harmful, both to make our blogs and the world at large (grandiose, I know) a safer place. While Renee says she resents being called those words, she also frequently attaches those words to things she criticizes. I don't think it's hypocrisy, I think it's just a natural conflict between wanting to be heard out and understood ourselves, and yet wanting to divide the world around us into "feminist" and "not." We all have to draw our own line between where we say, "Interesting, tell me more..." and where we say "You know what, that's just really sexist (or some other ist)." I think the feminist blogosphere (mostly in the comments sections, not the posts themselves) may err too far to the latter, but I see why they'd be reluctant to grant the former courtesy to people who approach a topic from a place of arrogance rather than humility.

    If I could sum it up, I'd say, let's grant one another the benefit of the doubt more than we do, but also, if you want the benefit of the doubt, approach an issue with humility and admit your ignorance rather than coming at it with your own brand of righteousness. What do you think about that?

  5. (I think this is my first time commenting here)

    This post really resonated with me. I know that I've become frustrated with the style of Internet Feminism, and this post puts it into words. The decision to brush off someone as antifeminist if they disagree, or classist, racist, and ableist makes it much harder for these issues to be taken seriously.
    If I wouldn't have learned about feminism in school I doubt that I would have developed feminist ideals from the internet.

    Like Simon (again) I'm very much interested in the work of women in society; what work gets counted in the GDP and how much work done by women isn't counted; the economic stability of women in the workforce (here and other nations); and the unique economic issues faced by women due to childbearing, rearing, etc. I also care about racism, classism, etc. I'm a WOC so I'm personally invested in these issues because I am living these issues.

    Yet the name calling, the snarking, the superiority and self righteousness? I've been a part of it. And it's not helpful. I feel like the concept of privilege has become a way to win arguments. That wasn't the intent of it and it certainly doesn't benefit marginalized communities to use it that way.


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