Michelle Goldberg’s article in The Nation got me pretty steamed yesterday, but I want to use that debacle as a ‘jumping off point’ to make a larger point about what is actually happening in these ‘spaces’ and ‘debates’. I’ve made a similar argument in a previous article:
Walking hand-in-hand with privilege is a grossly-misplaced sense of entitlement. All spaces are assumed to be welcome and open, and your opinion is always appreciated and listened to. The fact that you lack relevant knowledge and experience is immaterial – you still deserve a place in the conversation. This is why you see creationists sneer their way through “why are there still monkeys” questions on evolution forums. It also explains why they react with butthurt whines and a cloud of scripture whenever their ignorance is revealed, and especially when it is pilloried. They have never experienced a circumstance where faith was not accepted as evidence; where sincere belief is not a substitute for fact.
The Real Issues
Part of this issue, I think, is that people disconnect the message from the intended audience, and assume that all people having a discussion are having that discussion for the sake of everyone who could possibly be watching. When a person, new to a topic, decides that their perspective on, say “reverse racism” or “misandry” is clearly being neglected and needs to be added to the discussion, they jump in with both feet. This is, in a way that I hope is obvious to readers of this blog, extremely problematic. The term “derailing” describes a circumstance in which someone enters a conversation and tries to change the topic to something ze wants to talk about instead. It’s rude at best, and erodes the possibility of conversation at worst.
The problem, or at part of it, is that different groups of people have differing ideas about what the “real issue” is that needs to be discussed. In Ms. Goldberg’s article, the online push against the Susan G. Komen foundation for distancing itself from Planned Parenthood was an example of when ‘feminists’ united on the “real issue” that feminism is supposed to address. In that case, the voices who claimed that Komen was being “bullied” were wrong, because what was really happening is that ‘feminists’ were expressing a healthy dissent and righteous anger toward people who were trying to damage women’s rights and access to health care. Dissent isn’t bullying, it’s dissent.
But where this argument always falls into hypocrisy is when someone confuses what they personally think the “real issue” is with some sort of objective standard. I’m sure there were feminists who thought that the pushback against Komen was unnecessary, divisive, and counter-productive to the “real issue” of, for example, pay equity. Was the campaign against Komen therefore an example of “toxic feminism” at work, unnecessarily dividing the ‘feminist community’ when what they really needed was “solidarity”? Who gets to make that call? Everyone is free to make it for themselves, but who gets to make that decision for others?
I put it to you that no such decision-maker exists. If Ms. Goldberg had merely said “I have had bad experiences with feminists”, then it’s a personal account of her own lived experience. Fair enough. People can call it short-sighted, maybe, but that’s the nature of personal accounts. Where Ms. Goldberg’s article makes its fatal mistake is when she confuses her own personal perspective (and that of those who agree with her) with one that is objectively true. Repeatedly she makes the assertion that because some people are uncomfortable speaking up, the environment is therefore toxic and must be cleaned up. This is begging the question. There is another explanation: that people who say problematic things get treated like people who say problematic things. The fact that those people don’t like the reaction they get – that they don’t personally think they are at fault – is not necessarily evidence that the reaction is unfair or “toxic”. It might simply be a product of the extraordinary claim that people don’t like being yelled at.
If we can agree that there is no such thing as an objective arbiter of “the real issue”, then we are at sea when it comes to deciding whether or not a given criticism is fair. After all, if you think that I am saying something misogynistic and I don’t see the misogyny, do we just “agree to disagree” (no – the answer to that question is always ‘no’)? In the absence of an empirical test, I have two options: I can either accept the possibility that the person making the accusation sees/understands something that I don’t, or I can brand the criticism as “unfair”. What I have to decide in that moment is as follows: who is more likely to have imperfect information? Is it more likely that I have said something that is at least partially occluded by my relevant privilege, or that the other person is making a false argument?
While I recognize the possibility that it’s the latter, nearly every time I have been in a position to adjudicate a “toxic feminist” environment, it is the case that someone has made a flawed argument and then goes on to complain about being “misinterpreted”. My usual response, therefore, is to assume it’s the former – that I am in the wrong for reasons I don’t yet understand – and interrogate myself accordingly. This is, by the way, a far cry from the ‘sackcloth and ashes’ fear-mongering that is drummed up in Ms. Goldberg’s article and other places. Usually it is enough to apologize and to try and do better next time. It always has been for me. I’ve seen that approach been applied for bad actors elsewhere.
The Place of Anger
Where the Nation piece particularly touched nerves is that it builds, perhaps subconsciously, on a longstanding tactic that is used to dismiss the legitimate grievances of members of minority groups: that they are “too angry”. That if they exercised more “restraint” then their arguments would become more persuasive and more valid. It is very directly a demand that those who are the victims of oppression be more accommodating and sensitive to the needs of the oppressor. The reason it might be particularly galling to WoC feminists is that this meme has been used to dismiss the claims of women (which should have set off a few alarms in Ms. Goldberg’s head) but PoCs, queer people, poor people, whatever the relevant minority group is. It’s the easiest of ad hominem approaches to argumentation.
Now, I want to make something clear here: I do not personally believe that Michelle Goldberg was intentionally gaslighting feminists of colour, queer feminists, whoever. I don’t think she wrote this article with malicious intent. I do not doubt that, from her perspective, she was merely articulating a concern she has with a community that she believes is important and could be more productive on the “real issues” if it managed to stop the “infighting”. This benign intent, however, does not rescue her argument. The argument is still bad, and it is still gaslighting, whether she did it consciously or not.
And this is where the problem ceases to be merely about “wrong” and becomes a discussion about “harmful”. The people who are most commonly on the receiving end of the admonishment about being “too angry” are, usually, the people who bear a disproportionate burden when it comes to the issue under discussion. “Feminist issues” often harm women of colour, poor women, queer women even more strongly than they affect white middle-class women. In a fair world, that would instantly translate into deferential treatment for those perspectives, with the charge being led by those who represent those most affected. In the world we live in, however, the charge is led by those with greatest access (which usually means white people with money and formal education).
It is a perversion of justice indeed to be told that your level of investment in an issue is “too high” by the standards of someone who is less exposed the harms accompanying that issue.
It is a further perversion to be told that the issues that affect you aren’t “the real issues” because they affect people who are not representative of the majority.
And when that perversion manifests itself again and again at the hands of the same group of people (a group that, in other circumstances, is the oppressive class), it ceases to be merely wrong in fact, and becomes linked to a larger series of injustices that the group seeking “solidarity” never seems to get around to. A social justice movement should be concerned with the issues of those most vulnerable to injustice, and yet articles like this one in the Nation only serve to reinforce the fact that justice will be indefinitely delayed by those who are the least vulnerable.
And that hurts.
Far far worse than the bruised feelings of someone who has been called a “sister punisher” when she doesn’t personally believe the charge to be accurate.
On A White Steed
There is another aspect of Ms. Goldberg’s piece that is not addressed by the above criticisms, and I want to take a couple of paragraphs to take it on, because it’s a common complaint:
On January 3, for example, Katherine Cross, a Puerto Rican trans woman working on a PhD at the CUNY Graduate Center, wrote about how often she hesitates to publish articles or blog posts out of fear of inadvertently stepping on an ideological land mine and bringing down the wrath of the online enforcers. “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,” she wrote.
One self-described white feminist tweeted at [Jamia Wilson, present for the beginning of the FemFuture discussion] to explain that no women of color had been at the Barnard meeting “and that I needed to be educated about that,” Wilson recalls. Somehow, activists who prided themselves on their racial enlightenment “were whitesplaining me about racism,” she adds, laughing.
Ms. Goldberg does spend a bit of time discussing the fact that the search for ideological purity is a typical hazard of liberal communities – that there will always be someone coming at you from your left. In some cases, these self-appointed guardians of truth embarrass themselves by overstepping their knowledge and assuming that others are in need of “education”. This happens. Yes, it’s annoying. People shouldn’t do that. People are at a particular risk of doing that when they begin admonishing others on behalf of groups they don’t belong to. I am certainly running the risk of mansplaining online feminism as someone who is a middle-class, able-bodied, cis gendered, straight man from Canada.
However, the fact that some people sometimes do shitty things is not somehow evidence that feminism is uniquely “toxic”, or that criticisms of feminists are especially likely to be due to an overabundance of zeal. This is a phenomenon that exists in all spaces, and occurs in all debates. Gamers and comic fans try to out-geek each other. Fans of bands attempt to draw boundaries around who is the ‘real fan’. Yes, it’s annoying. Yes, we should regularly interrogate our own behaviour to make sure we’re not doing that, and if that had been the entirety of Ms. Goldberg’s point then there wouldn’t be much to talk about.
The problem occurs when we turn the blame and interrogation outward and say “you’re looking for enemies”. We then get right back to identifying anger as the problem – that is, the kind of anger that is not directed at “the real issues”. Instead of identifying ‘enemies’ based on their actions, the “looking for enemies” meme attributes a very specific motivation to people’s objections to someone’s statements: that the offence is not a reaction to real hurt, but that it is instead a political tactic akin to “playing the race card”. And again, while I do not think Ms. Goldberg is consciously, knowingly, and intentionally making a “race card” argument, the fact that she “didn’t mean it” does not rescue her argument from being built on flawed premises.
I hope that I have not been unfair to Ms. Goldberg here. I have no particular beef with her as a person – aside from a couple of appearances on MSNBC shows, I don’t know anything about her. Her piece is not the first such article to be written making this absurd argument, nor is it likely to be the last. I have tried here to engage with what she said, because the structure and components of the argument she is making are wrong, and I’m sure that she’d be among the first to articulate a version of the points I make above if an article decrying online feminism as being “hostile to men” were to be published somewhere prominent.
I will leave you with this article from @Prisonculture and Andrea Smith, which makes many of the same points I have, but with quite a bit more heft:
We’ve been involved over the years in various transformative justice and community accountability efforts. We know something about the importance of allowing for mistakes. We all make them. We understand something about intentions (good and bad). But we also understand the imperative that when you know better you should try to do better. And here’s the thing. Many white feminist now know better (or they should) but they simply refuse to do better. That’s the truth. The pain, anger, and frustration that emanate from this must find their place. Often, that place is online.