The real toxicity of online feminism

4 years ago
This article was written by a member of the SheKnows Community. It has not been edited, vetted or reviewed by our editorial staff, and any opinions expressed herein are the writer’s own.

[TW: Transphobia, online harassment]

Infighting within the feminist movement has been rampant for decades. It is not, as one would assume, something new to the age of social media where everyone has a space to speak out their opinions. Disagreements on sexual liberation, objectification, slut-shaming, safe spaces and personal choices have always been present, but never in such a way that exposes the real exclusionary nature of mainstream feminism.

Writing for The Nation, Michelle Goldberg criticised the nature of online feminism that supposedly stifles feminist discourse because of its political correctness nature - seemingly, many feminists are afraid of posting their ideas online lest they be criticised by other feminists. As feminist blogger Katherine Cross, a trans woman from Puerto Rico, put it: “I fear being cast suddenly as one of the ‘bad guys’ for being insufficiently radical, too nuanced or too forgiving, or for simply writing something whose offensive dimensions would be unknown to me at the time of publication,”

It is hard to see your personal effort and work be deconstructed and destroyed by people online. By all accounts, being told you're wrong is a difficult thing to hear and it rarely ever results in an apology or a deeper exploration of that subject. When Jessica Valenti and Courtney Martin published their arduously written "#FemFuture: Online Revolution" report and received heavy criticism, it probably wasn't an easy thing to deal with. But that is the nature of being a public figure and releasing your work into the community, where, whether you like it or not, your work will be discussed.

While Goldberg has delved into this particular side of mainstream feminism she has failed to probe the real bullying in the online community. In a disingenuous reference to Jo Freeman's 1976 Ms magazine article “Trashing: The Dark Side of Sisterhood,” Goldberg alludes to isolation and being reduced 'to a parody of yourself' as your sister discuss whether or not you have earned you feminist credentials. This is a curious way to go when mainstream feminism is constantly, obsessively criticising self-identified feminist Beyoncé, trying to strip her of her new-found feminism and - how fitting - make her into a parody of herself.

Perhaps a valuable thing to take away from Goldberg's piece is that discussion in feminism should not be a matter of personal criticism but a conversation where clear arguments are laid out without name-calling. This is no doubt a valuable and valid point to take in, but what Golberg fails to acknowledge is that the alleged 'bullies' also get bullied in a much greater, life-threatening way.

Caitlin Moran, a prominent and famous feminist columnist, has equated being a woman to having a vagina and used the word tr*nny in her book How to Be a Woman. To the trans* community (and trans* inclusive feminism) this rightly translated to transphobia and Moran was widely criticised online. The result was an apology and an edit of her book, which seems a pretty tame result to 'bullying'. But that's what happens when you are a white middle class famous feminist.

But if we look to the other side, to the marginalized feminists, it is pretty obvious they only wish they could be so lucky as Moran. Trans* activist Sophia Banks has been repeatedly harassed by trans* exclusive radical feminists (TERFs) since she came out as a trans* woman, and it has completely ruined her life. Cathy Brennan, a prominent and controversial feminist, has led a vendetta against Banks, inciting transphobes to post fake reviews of her photography business on Yelp! Banks will be homeless this week and hasn't eaten in two days because of this harassment. It seems very privileged of mainstream feminists to cry about being bullied when stories like Banks' are hadly ever covered in the media. As with everything in mainstream feminism, the only bullying that is exposed and discussed is that of the most prominent feminists, who are mostly cis, straight and white and have been protected by this wide privilege their whole lives.

It is undeniable that Twitter has opened the door to millions of mouthy critics, but as daunting as that can be to a writer, excluding blatant abuse, this is a good thing. Being reachable and being held accountable is an important, even if completely upsetting, part of being a public voice. I have been told I am a 'dumb f*ck', that I will never 'get a man' because I am so opinionated, that I am a 'man-hater' but I have yet to become afraid for my life or lose my livelihood for the person that I am.

One thing that is more despairing than being told you are wrong or that you have been offensive is losing power of something that has belonged to you for decades. And this is what is happening. Trans* issues and discussions of race have been repeatedly put in the backseat while mainstream feminists went about the business of liberating themselves. Marginalized groups hardly had a voice before Twitter but now they have a huge following and people who are willing to listen stand by them.

As it is with all power struggles, this is unsettling for the dominating group of white women who have zero knowledge about all other issues that affect women that are not like them - women of colour, trans* women, sex workers, homeless women, illiterate women, women with no internet connection and the list goes on. Losing power is scary, and Goldberg's piece is telling in that the only microagressions that are mentioned are told by mainstream feminists - she is, once again, silencing women who are 'the other'.

As a cisgendered straight feminist I can say that I did not know anything about trans* issues or black twitter six months ago. Now, I am very eager to listen because that is how intersectionality works. Something that has been difficult to acknowledge and accept though is that my narrow perspective as a privileged female can be unwelcome in some safe spaces. It can hurt to be told 'Look, you don't get it because you don't have my lived experiences, so just shut up, listen and learn' but that's part of being an intersectional, inclusive feminist. As incredible as this might sound, people of colour do not need advice or comment from someone who, though brown and Latina outside of her country of birth, has largely benefitted from whiteness.

Tone policing is also a problematic concept to all women. Anti-feminist men often tell women to calm down, that they're too emotional, too angry. So why is it so difficult to understand that telling a marginalised woman the same thing is offensive and enraging? As Mikki Kendal, creator of the hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen, explained to Goldberg (who promptly dismissed and belittled her comments by shoving them at the bottom of the article and calling Kendal 'obsessed') as a prominent black female blogger she is not only constantly tone policed but also overwhelmingly harassed in a way white famous feminists are not.

She said: “If you look at the mentions for me, for @BlackAmazon, for @FeministaJones, for a lot of other black feminists, it’s hard for us to see this other stuff as bullying, I’ll be honest with you. Because we are getting so much more than ‘I don’t like your article.’ And we’re getting it all day. I had someone who spent four hours last week dumping porn images into my mentions. I’ve had people send me pictures of lynchings."

Is Goldberg really comparing being told 'this is offensive' to being sent photos of lynchings?

Personally, as a blogger, I am also wary of posting something that is offensive to others while I mean well. This often happens because privileged people haven't experienced life as a marginalised person and this clouds their judgement. But what stuns me about this type of behaviour in other feminists is that the wariness translates into a fear of offending so deep that they blame marginalised people for not letting them speak, as opposed to directing that wariness towards researching a subject thoroughly before putting their foots in their mouths.

This is what good writers do. They do research to enlighten their readers. They do not spill out their opinions like somekind of word vomit process, with absolutely no filter, and expect to be accepted and respected for being lazy at their trade. Try harder. 

In a nutshell, marginalised groups will continue to be angry if prominent feminists continue to believe they are being bullied and silenced when they are really suffering a fraction of the abuse non-prominent females suffer online and in real life. It is not constructive of Michelle Goldberg to ignore the other side of online bullying where actual lives are threatened and women are constantly abused and doxxed. While she might believe she is advocating for a more bland, polite landscape in online feminism she is simply further marginalising people who have only recently gained some space in alternative media. And to that, I say once again: try harder.

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