My present relationship with the feminist movement is akin to one’s begrudging love for their loud old aunt Mildred who has too many cats and a nasty habit of getting drunk and telling offensive jokes at family reunions – she’s often a pain in the ass; but she’s your dear old pain in the ass. So, I’m at once cognizant of the fact that most self-described feminists are middle-class white people with gross, reformist politics and that my own ideological roots are in the feminist community – this is why I’m still willing to defend feminism from attacks by whiny outsiders1, in much the same way that you might feel OK mentioning the fact that Aunt Mildred kinda smells like mothballs & Dr. Scholl’s foot pads; but hearing random strangers who aren’t family members laugh about it sets your blood to boiling. Yes, she’s weird and rude and smells like the bottom of her bedroom closet; but she’s my weird, smelly aunt and I love her despite her flaws, so back off.
Upon meeting large numbers of feminists in meatspace during my mid to late teens and onward, I encountered a likable enough community. Yes, there was no shortage of smug, middle-class white liberals and infighting about irrelevant crap; but generally, even online discourse was what I’ll call ‘outwardly-focused’ – talking about and/or planning on-the-ground activism, heated debates on how certain business practices and government policies impact different women, anecdotes from our daily lives, and so on.
..and then, like a careless chef dropping a head of lettuce behind the fridge and promptly forgetting about it, I was completely uninvolved with the feminist community for a couple of years. Upon my return, I encountered a big old rotting mess.
Self-congratulatory wankfests over non-issues like ‘the systematic erasure of demisexual heteroromantics’ in your favorite fanfic or why the word ‘stupid’ is ableist. Big arguments over how people apparently always need to use gender-neutral pronouns and words like ‘people with uteruses’ instead of ‘women’ when discussing abortion or childbirth. Self-righteous ‘call-outs’ that look more like elementary school bullying than earnest discussion. People making a show of trotting out their identities like resume credentials, reciting stale laundry lists of jumbled ‘tumblr activist’-speak, like so:
‘I am a gray-asexual, homoromantic, polyamorous dyke. My privileges include being white, under 30, over 18, urban, right-handed, and probably several others that I’m too privileged to truly recognize as privileges. If any persyn engages in busted behavior on my blog/tumblr/etc., I WILL CALL U OUT!’
Lest you be comforted by the possibility that this hypothetical example is merely an exaggeration, take a look at any prominent feminist blog these days. In short, pretty much all of the talk has turned inward to become navel-gazey nitpicky nonsense, primarily about language; and people are mistaking this for activism.
What the fuck happened? Once upon a time, people didn’t behave this way; and no feminist I’ve ever met in meatspace behaves this way. I strongly suspect that it’s related to internet behavior – for a lot of feminists I’ve encountered online, sitting on tumblr or whatever and ‘calling people out’ for their linguistic missteps is the height of their activism; and this sort of environment is particularly welcoming to trolls who basically harass people under the guise of being ‘progressive’.
What’s tricky is that ‘social justice’ trolls tend to have different motivations than your typical internet bottom-dweller. They aren’t MRAs or evangelical Baptists who’re unambiguously hostile to any manifestation of feminism, after all. Usually, they’re either intellectually lazy people; narcissistic people; self-righteous, backpatting ‘allies’, or some nasty combination of all of the above.
So, if you’re a neuroatypical person who’s personally upset by being described as ‘lacking empathy’, rather than coming out and saying something intellectually honest like, ‘Please don’t use those particular words to describe me – because of my personal history, it upsets me.’, you can claim that there’s something generally ‘ableist’ about the very concept of ’empathy’; and that anyone who uses the phrase without knowing about your pet personal issues with it is being ‘oppressive’2. (And at this point, a smarmy chorus of ‘allies’ looking to score some trendy radical queer points will chime in to agree with you.)
Or if someone says something you don’t agree with for some reason but don’t understand how to refute, you can chip away at their argument by linguistic nitpicking – they slipped up & used the phrase ‘both genders’ (binarism!) somewhere, they used the word ‘hysteria’ (misogyny! ableism!), or anything else you can squeeze out.
What’s particularly ironic is that the ability to spend such considerable time on the goddamn internet ‘educating’ yourself about some tiny online community’s linguistic norms is a privilege, also. It’s no accident that the navel-gazey nitpickers tend to be urban white people under the age of 30 – most narcissistic internet-dwellers are urban white people under the age of 30.
Countless times, I’ve seen (usually older, rural, or working-class) people who clearly haven’t spent much time online (& hence, aren’t hip to all the lingo that the self-appointed Social Justice Brigade deem acceptable on any particular day of the week) dismissed as reactionary bigots akin to Focus on the Family devotees, simply because they commit some mortal sin like using the word ‘crazy’ or referring to themselves as ‘bisexual’.
If this is what feminism has been reduced to, I don’t have time for this crap – I have a baby on the way. My partner & I are trying to move into a house. There are bills and shit. In short, I have a life that revolves around issues more important than keeping up-to-date on the Social Justice Brigade’s ever-changing lexicon. So, I probably won’t be involved in anything that bears the name ‘feminist’ anymore, if that’s what’s required. (Most working-class women & women of color don’t describe themselves as ‘feminist’, anyway; and those who do are significantly less likely to join in on these navel-gazing fests about language. These are the people I care about.)
This is a shallow, ultimately useless feminism that under-serves everyone but a tiny minority of smug internet-dwellers; and it needs to die a fiery death.
In closing, in case this isn’t clear: No, I don’t think all ‘call outs’ are trolling – I’m not advocating some laissez-faire approach to language in which it’s totally OK to be an asshole just for the funsies and racists, ableists, transphobes, & other assorted turdburgers need to be coddled; nor am I saying that people who are genuinely offended by something are obligated to be polite when they correct people on it. This is why I don’t often like to bring up this issue, and pretty much never discuss it with non-feminists – it’ll just be used to justify people’s ignorance. As in, ‘Teehee, feminists are so PC about language! So you must agree with me that it’s OK to think of random women who won’t respond when I say hello as ‘frigid bitches’, right?’
Also, there isn’t anything inherently wrong with spending lots of time in internet communities – they can be a refuge for isolated people who don’t have an offline feminist community to bond with, or who don’t have enough leisure time or resources to participate in most offline activism, and they can be a starting point for offline activism, too; but as an end in themselves? Nah. Sitting on the internet isn’t activism, period.
1. The operative phrase here is ‘whiny outsiders’. Obviously, there’s a difference between a trans woman who’s been turned away from a women’s shelter saying, ‘I hate feminists’ and some MRA who’s just butthurt about his divorce settlement saying,’I hate feminists’.
2. People can be triggered by all manner of things no one expects – there are certain hand motions, tics, speech patterns, and (non-sexual, completely innocuous) phrases that actually make my skin crawl because they remind me of the person who abused me as a kid. There are also certain wallpaper patterns that gross me out because they remind me of having to share a room with him as a child. This is my personal shit, though; and I wouldn’t give any broad political reasons for expecting anyone to accommodate it. There’s a difference between, ‘I personally hate seeing people make that hand motion because it reminds me of so-and-so.’ and ‘Doing that hand motion is oppressive to sexual abuse survivors.’