In a diverse political movement there will inevitably be arguments and disagreements, but how should feminists deal with internal conflict? Emma Stonebridge thinks it’s time for a new conversation about the way we conduct our conversations.
I’m at a feminist conference, in a room full of women (and a sprinkling of men). We are listening to a talk about the Everyday Sexism project, which gives girls and women a platform to share experiences of being harassed and bullied. The atmosphere is supportive, and the room feels united.
Later, the mood changes. Another speaker is interrupted from the floor by a woman who tells her to stop talking because what she’s saying is offensive. The chair asks the interrupter to let the speaker finish, and eventually she does. In the discussion, a few people criticize the manner of her intervention, but no one disputes her right to voice her objections, and she is given space to explain them. There is no resolution: the room feels divided.
Afterwards, the speaker discovers that some people at the conference are shunning her. If she tries to speak to them they turn away in silence. She also finds that people have made comments on Twitter: they have tweeted that she is racist, transphobic, whorephobic. Her feelings—shock, anger, distress—remind her of what the earlier speaker said about women’s reactions to everyday sexism. But the people who have attacked her are not sexist men. Like the speaker herself, they are feminist women.
If you spend time in feminist forums, the outlines of this conflict will probably be familiar. And if you’ve been a feminist for long enough, your reaction might be, ‘what’s new?’ There has always been conflict among feminists, and there have always been occasions when it got ugly. For some of us, the incident at the conference brought back memories of a similar conflict that erupted at a lesbian summer school in 1988. That also began when one woman accused others of holding views that could not be tolerated in a feminist space, and it escalated to the point of nearly derailing the whole event.
But I do think something has changed since the 1980s, and this is how I would (crudely) summarize it. Things that used to happen rarely have become much more common. Behaviour that used to be disapproved of, or seen as a problem, has become more acceptable. Conflicts that once involved a closed and relatively small community, interacting face-to-face, are now conducted in more open and public forums. And we no longer seem to talk about these things in the same way feminists once did.
When I first became involved in feminism there was a lot of talk about ‘process’, meaning the way things were done in feminist groups. This was treated as a political issue in its own right: our practice was meant to embody our theoretical commitment to egalitarian and non-hierarchical relationships. Feminist groups did not have leaders or elected officers; decisions were made collectively, and not by majority vote. This way of working required attention to group process. If the aim was to ensure that everyone’s views were heard, that tasks were divided fairly and decisions were made by consensus, then you had to have ground-rules for conducting your interactions.
One rule I remember being strictly applied was that you did not interrupt other women, tell them to be quiet or use insulting language to/about them. That kind of ‘unsisterly’ behaviour was strongly disapproved of. Some groups also had turn-taking rules (e.g. that you went around the room, or that each woman could only make a certain number of contributions), which were meant to stop the discussion being dominated by the most confident and verbally articulate women. And many groups had a rule that women’s accounts of their personal experience should be listened to without judging, criticizing or arguing.
Later commentators have criticized these ways of doing things, both for practical reasons—old-style feminist process could be ponderous, and that sometimes got in the way of effective campaigning—and more theoretical ones. One criticism, which was made by some feminists even at the time, was that in practice the rules did not eliminate inequality and hierarchy. In her classic early 1970s article ‘The tyranny of structurelessness’, Jo Freeman argued the absence of formal power structures in feminist groups just left the way open for informal, unaccountable ones to emerge, often based on women’s personal friendships.
Another criticism that has often been made is that the old norms (like being supportive, not arguing or criticizing, etc.) made it difficult to challenge the group consensus. Since that consensus typically reflected the experiences and views of the most privileged women—white, middle class, able-bodied and heterosexual—it tended to exclude other women’s perspectives, and block their efforts to draw attention to (what we would now call) intersecting oppressions.
The reality I remember was more complex and variable than these later criticisms imply. I do recall being in groups where differences–between working class and middle class women, lesbians and straight women, mothers and non-mothers–generated friction and resentment that went largely unaddressed. But I also remember groups where we could discuss our differences openly and constructively. Typically these were groups where women had got to know each other well, and developed high levels of personal trust.
Like most things, old-style feminist process had good points and bad points. And like all things, it was a product of its time. If it hadn’t changed significantly in the past 30 years that in itself would be a problem. But that doesn’t mean we can’t, or shouldn’t, reflect critically on the way we do things now. What does feminist process look like in the second decade of the 21st century? And what do we think it should look like?
The medium and the message
Feminism, like everything else, has been profoundly affected by the advent of digital technology. Today a lot of campaigning and political discussion happens online; even local groups which hold regular meetings may have more interaction via Facebook than face-to-face. The positive advantages of new technology, like speed, convenience and wide reach, are obvious. But our increasing reliance on digital media has other, perhaps less obvious, implications for the way we relate to one another.
Compared to most situations where people communicate face-to-face, online forums are ‘low trust’ environments, where it is prudent to conduct yourself with caution, and approach others with a degree of suspicion. In a medium which enables instant communication with an unlimited number of people located anywhere in the world, you can never know for sure exactly who you are interacting with. It’s not just that people could be lurking silently on the periphery of a discussion (and their motives could be malicious—they could be sharing sensitive information, or gathering intelligence for an anti-feminist campaign). Even when you’re aware of their presence, you will often know no more about them than they have chosen to reveal. And that might not be the truth: it might even be a deliberate pack of lies.
In a low-trust environment, we are less inclined to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty by giving each other the benefit of the doubt. And digital communication is prone to ambiguity, not only because of the lack of shared context, but also because it is text-based, reliant on the written word. Online exchanges may appear ‘conversational’, but they lack some key features of spoken conversation, where a great deal of the meaning, and almost all the emotional nuance, depends on subtle inflections of the voice, along with (in face-to-face settings) eye contact, facial expressions and body language. Without those cues it is harder to read people’s feelings, and easy to misinterpret their intentions. When this happens, the nature of the medium makes it more likely that people will respond aggressively. When our interlocutors are at a distance we have fewer inhibitions about making angry and abusive comments.
The main strategy which has been developed to manage these conditions is moderation: contributions to a site are monitored, and may be removed (or not approved for posting in the first place) if they do not meet ‘community standards’. What those standards are is variable: some online communities only remove contributions if they might be in breach of the law, while others are more interventionist. In feminist groups, moderation policies often include an explicit commitment to political values such as equality, inclusiveness and intersectionality. Some state that contributions will be removed if they are deemed to be at odds with those values (e.g. if they are sexist, racist, ableist, homophobic or transphobic). Maybe this is what feminist process looks like today: instead of unwritten rules regulating face-to-face discussion, we now have written-down policies regulating its digital equivalent.
But there are differences between the old and the new approach. Online moderation is a defensive strategy, designed for conditions where trust is low: the emphasis in most policies falls more on what will not be tolerated than on what will be positively encouraged. The old feminist rules did include some prohibitions (e.g. ‘no interruptions’), but they were less defensive in their overall conception because they were designed for an environment where there was less scope for deception and thus less reason to doubt others’ motives. Face-to-face groups were less likely to be confronted by interlopers who only came to meetings to disrupt the discussion and abuse other participants. Online this ‘trolling’ is so common that sanctions are needed to deal with it.
Another difference is that old-style feminist process involved rules which were mostly unwritten, and therefore subject to ongoing discussion and negotiation. Online moderation is more ‘top-down’, in that there’s a written policy enforced by a small subset of group members. Others may have been consulted when the policy was being developed, but many will have joined the group when the rules were already in place. A large proportion of the people who use a forum have probably never even looked at its moderation policy, just as most people don’t read through all the terms and conditions when they set up an account on Twitter or PayPal.
There’s also a difference which does not arise directly from the nature of the medium, but seems to have more to do with changes in our political assumptions. Old-style feminist process focused mainly on regulating the manner in which exchanges were conducted: some ways of interacting, like interrupting or using insulting language, were treated as unacceptable regardless of what point was being made. By contrast, the kinds of rules which are common in today’s online forums are less concerned about the form of contributions and more concerned with their political content. The specification that, say, racist or transphobic comments will not be tolerated covers not only cases where someone makes insulting comments or uses offensive language about a certain person or group of people, but also cases where someone advances, in civil language, a political argument that is judged to be racist/transphobic. Conversely, the rule does not apply to cases where someone responds to a comment they consider racist/transphobic by ‘calling out’ the person who made it, even if the form this takes is an angry personal attack couched in offensive/insulting language.
This tolerance, under certain circumstances, for ways of behaving that used to be considered problematic, was also apparent in the incident at the conference (which was, of course, an offline event, though it also prompted discussion online). The perceived offensiveness of what the speaker said was considered by some people to justify tactics like interrupting to demand her silence, and then publicly shunning and shaming her. Not everyone endorsed this: some women intervened to voice their disapproval, and one or two of them explicitly invoked the older feminist idea of ‘sisterly’ behaviour. However, the people who used the disputed tactics clearly felt they were defending a more important political principle.
(Anti-) social media
So far I’ve been talking about closed groups, where feminists can make their own rules. But a lot of feminist interaction also happens on social media sites which are open and unregulated (or at least, not regulated by feminists). The immediacy and the wide reach of social media make them powerful tools: in some areas (especially campaigning) that is a positive benefit, but their power can also have more negative consequences.
Earlier I mentioned the 1980s summer school which became embroiled in conflict. Afterwards, many women felt a need to reflect on what had happened, and the organizers created a space where they could share their feelings about it. In those days that meant a physical space and a face-to-face discussion among women who had all been there. Today, by contrast, discussions of this kind often take place on social media, where they can be carried on in ‘real time’ (tracking the events as they unfold from moment to moment), and where contributions can be seen, passed on and responded to by many people who did not actually witness the events in question.
This is what happened at the conference, where some people aired their reactions to the conflict on Twitter—a platform which takes the usual lack of shared context to an extreme by limiting single messages to 140 characters. If you read a tweet telling you that someone you don’t know, at an event you are not attending, has just made an offensive comment, you will be unable to evaluate that judgment fully, because the tweet does not (and in 140 characters, cannot) make clear what was said or what the circumstances were. In addition, if the author is live tweeting it is likely that what is being shared is a judgment made instantly in the heat of the moment. Twitter thrives on these quick, clear-cut judgments, and it also makes it easy for them to spread as people retweet them, reply to them, and post them on other websites. If enough people get involved, this can create the online equivalent of an angry mob, publicly attacking the objects of its displeasure on the basis of limited, minimally contextualized and often second or third-hand information. Not only are arguments taken into a wider public arena before those involved have had time to process their own responses, but also before there has been any discussion with others in the immediate context. That kind of discussion is a reality check, which may reveal that your own interpretation of events is not shared by everyone who experienced them. Even if it does not change your basic position, it makes you aware that there are other perspectives.
Researchers studying online communication networks have found that they reduce exposure to multiple perspectives on the same event or issue. That might seem counter-intuitive: the community of Twitter-users is larger and more diverse than any conference or meeting, so in theory it should also offer a wider spectrum of views. In practice, however, we navigate the vastness of cyberspace by being highly selective about who we connect with. At a meeting or a conference we do not get to pick our interlocutors: we don’t know in advance what opinions might be expressed, and we can’t just block those we disagree with. Online we have more control: most of us build networks of, and then mostly interact with, other people whose views are close to ours (we also tend, in a world awash with information, to select mainly those sources which reflect, endorse and amplify our pre-existing opinions—and then share the ones we like so our friends will have the same points of reference).
The technical term for this is ‘homophily’, meaning a preference for similarity or sameness. Some political scientists believe the growth of homophilous communication networks online is contributing to an increasing polarization of (mainstream) political debate. If most interaction takes place within self-selected communities of the like-minded, each community’s members will be constantly reinforced in their beliefs, and over time this increases the political distance between them.
Of course there is a place for communities where we know our beliefs are shared. But if we accept that feminist politics requires not only community building but also coalition building, which in turn requires dialogue between different positions, that might raise questions about the way we use social media as political spaces. Is what goes on in those spaces really dialogue, or is it more like a series of parallel monologues?
How to shut down dialogue
It could be argued that the conference participants who took to Twitter were opting out of political dialogue—bypassing the discussion in the room (where more than one perspective was represented) and addressing themselves instead to an online community whose agreement/approval they could count on. One piece of evidence for that interpretation is the vocabulary they used. ‘Whorephobic’, for instance, is a term that condenses a whole set of arguments around sex and sex work/prostitution, and embodies a particular position on that issue. That kind of shorthand does not promote dialogue, but rather entrenches division: its function is to affirm the goodness and rightness of your own position by contrasting it with the badness and wrongness of the position taken by some other group of feminists. Meanwhile, those other feminists are in their own corner of the virtual universe, having their own self-affirming conversation using their own in-group shorthand. These parallel monologues do not only entrench the basic political disagreements, but also people’s assumptions about what those they disagree with believe and why. And some of those assumptions are inaccurate: they would be harder to maintain if we did not spend more time talking about each other than to each other.
Another problem with parallel monologues is that the same terms may be used in different ways by different feminist communities: when they do interact they may be talking at cross-purposes because they are implicitly operating with different definitions of key words or concepts. Reading Debbie Cameron’s recent T&S piece on ‘isms’ and ‘phobias’, I found myself thinking that these terms are a case in point. What happened at the conference was an illustration: when the woman who interrupted the speaker was invited to elaborate on her objections, she explained that in her view it was oppressive for any woman who could not claim a certain identity or experience to express an opinion about it, or formulate an analysis of it, which conflicted with the one the group in question preferred. If you hadn’t been involved in sex work you should defer to the analysis made by women who had. If you were not a Muslim you should not talk about issues like the wearing of hijab, except to offer your support for the position taken by Muslim women themselves. For her, any failure to observe this principle was grounds for the charge of ‘whorephobia’ or ‘racism’.
But once the principle is made explicit, it becomes obvious that there’s a problem with it: it presupposes that everyone who shares the same identity or experience will subscribe to the same political argument, whereas in fact that is not the case. There are Muslim feminists who support the right of women to wear hijab and other Muslim feminists who oppose the practice. There are women with experience of the sex industry who defend it, and others who campaign against it. Which position should feminists who don’t share these identities treat as authoritative? How can anyone, of any identity, arrive at a considered position on any issue if it is defined as oppressive to have to listen to more than one point of view? And who decides which views are acceptable and which should be ‘no platformed’? Is this a new version of Jo Freeman’s ‘tyranny of structurelessness’?
It can certainly feel tyrannical sometimes. In some of the online forums I belong to, a fair number of participants are young women who have never been in a feminist group before. They don’t yet have a firm position on everything; sometimes they show a lack of awareness about issues which have not been part of their life experience, or ask questions about arguments that others are taking for granted. And sometimes they get called out for this. Their responses are usually apologetic, but some comment that they feel intimidated. Others just stop contributing. I find this frustrating, because it seems as if we are not making space for the development of ideas which is part of the process of becoming a feminist (and for that matter of continuing to be one).
Online moderation policies can be blunt instruments, making no distinction between offensive comments which are deliberately provocative, those which give offence unintentionally because they’re naive or clumsily expressed, and those which reflect real political divisions. I sometimes wonder what would happen if, as an experiment, we made a rule that participants in a discussion had to explain the basis for their disagreements or their feelings of offence as clearly as possible without using pejorative terms which are always going to be heard as personal attacks. This wouldn’t mean no one could object to anyone else’s contribution, it would just mean they had to do it differently. What makes calling out intimidating is not just the fact that it’s critical. No one enjoys being criticized, especially in public, but it’s especially hard to deal with—or learn from—when it’s framed in such loaded terms.
But vocabulary isn’t the only thing that can make feminist forums feel intimidating. In some of them, especially online, the style and tone of interaction owes almost nothing to the old ideal of co-operative and supportive exchange. It is closer to the mode of discourse which is typical of political discussion in non-feminist online forums: combative, polemical, full of righteous indignation, with no sparing of feelings or mincing of words. This style can be exhilarating to read: many of the radical feminist bloggers I like make entertaining use of it. Nevertheless there are things about it that bother me. There’s one expression in particular that sums up the problem I have with it: ‘end of.’ As in, ‘end of story’. As in, ‘this argument is over because I say so’. As in, ‘You’re wrong, I’m right and I am shutting you down’.
What bothers me about this isn’t the fact of disagreement, it’s the manner of expression. I’m not saying feminists should refrain from raising problems or drawing attention to divisions. Nor am I suggesting it’s never legitimate for one feminist to criticize another. If anything I think we need more conversations about the things we don’t agree on; but we also need to think about how we have those conversations.
Means, ends and the practice of our politics
Recently, I happened to be re-reading a second wave classic: the statement made by the Black feminist Combahee River Collective in 1977. And I was struck by a passage on the subject of feminist process:
In the practice of our politics we do not believe that the end always justifies the means. Many reactionary and destructive acts have been done in the name of achieving ‘correct’ political goals. As feminists we do not want to mess over people in the name of politics. We believe in collective process and a non-hierarchal distribution of power within our own group and in our vision of a revolutionary society. We are committed to a continual examination of our politics as they develop through criticism, and self-criticism as an essential aspect of our politics.
The language may have dated, but the point still speaks to me.