On 'toxic Twitter feminism' and being called out
by Sarah Thomasin // 1 February 2014, 10:42
I am a white, cisgender, non-disabled feminist on Twitter. I'm going to be OK. I think.
I mean, it's hard to tell, you know? I could, at the drop of a hat, fall victim to "toxic online feminism". It wouldn't be the first time.
Yes folks, it happened to me: trans feminists, feminists of colour, and disabled feminists have all, in the past, had the downright temerity to call ME out! Of that, more later.
Thinking about it, I'm probably lucky that I'm not on the payroll of a powerful media outlet, or all this terrible rudeness would, presumably, become too much for me.
It seems that the more privilege a prominent feminist enjoys, the wider their platform, and the farther their reach, the greater their capacity to be injured by the reactions their words elicit from that dark, frightening underworld of public opinion, given voice.
I mean really. The way some people describe "Twitter feminism" - that is, feminism that includes minority voices and myriad opinions - could have been lifted straight from Joseph Conrad's Heart Of Darkness, or the wailing a of some prim white-flight suburbanite of the sixties. As (presumably-toxic) Twitter activist Suey Park puts it, "The internet isn't the problem. White feminists just want online spaces to be as gentrified as their neighbourhoods".
Twitter feminism is threatening. It's threatening a privileged minority of cis white feminists unused to sharing their platform. It threatens to challenge them from beneath, framing them as oppressors, instead of the brave spokespeople for Women Everywhere that they had fondly imagined themselves to be.
Don't get me wrong, I hate being called on my shit. Everyone does. And it's true: sometimes the distinction between intentional harm and genuine foot-in-mouth ignorance gets blurred. I know how it feels to confidently make a statement, smug and cosy in the knowledge that I'm being a "good ally", only to be overwhelmed by the responses of angry and upset members of a minority who now have their guard up against me.
It's a horrible feeling. It really hurts. And I can't stress this next point enough: IT'S UP TO ME TO FIX IT.
Whether I have misrepresented my view through a clumsy choice of words (all too easy with only 140 characters to work with) or actually displayed my ignorance or naïveté on a topic I thought I knew better than I did, it is my responsibility to apologise, listen, learn and improve. It is NOT down to trans people, people of colour, disabled people or any other group I have any privilege over to put a brave face on the effect my words have had in order to spare my delicate feelings. The fact that my good intent has misfired is my problem to deal with, not theirs.
At this point I want to acknowledge that I have, on rare occasions, been aggressively challenged - by people from minority groups - with accusations I couldn't make head nor tail of, try as I might. When this has happened, without fail, I have asked questions and other voices from the community in question have stepped in to give clarity, or to make it clear that this lone voice does not speak for them. Because hey! Guess what? Oppressed people don't have uniform opinions! They aren't all inspirational paragons of righteousness! They are - and every inch of my skin is crawling at having to point this out, instead of it being a fucking given - diverse, fallible and human.
The fact that a woman of colour once shouted at me does not give me the right to throw around coded racism about "uncivilised" behaviour from her community.
The fact that a couple of trans women think I'm clueless does not entitle me to expound on the supposed male privilege (seriously, what?) which has obviously led them to that conclusion.
Here's the thing. If you have more power than someone - let's say you have a column in a national publication, or a successful law practice and a ruthless reputation which makes challenging your abusive behaviour very high risk - and you exert that power, and those people adversely affected by your actions push back, YOU ARE NOT BEING BULLIED.
A trans woman like Sophia Banks, pushed into homelessness by a targeted online campaign against her livelihood is being bullied. A woman of colour like Suey Park, whose activism is dismissed as aggressive Twitter drama, yet receives so many death threats that she feels unsafe leaving her home is being bullied. You, dear white, cis, well-paid national columnists, when faced with negative reactions to your proclamations from on high, are not. Furthermore, representing that imbalance of power as some kind of equal, tit-for-tat exchange is disingenuous.
It's this behaviour that makes you an oppressor, no matter how amplified your voice is as you shout that the opposite is true.
Don't worry. Nobody is perfect. All of us misspeak, mistype and misunderstand. All of us have more to learn about other perspectives. When we fuck up, that scary, uncivilised, aggressive toxic, threatening online mob will kindly let us know. Then, like the adults we actually are, we can stop, listen, reflect and get to work to educate ourselves before re-joining the debate.
And I promise you, we're going to be absolutely fine.
Sarah Thomasin is a performance poet and sexual health worker living in Sheffield, England. You can follow her on twitter at @wordgeeksarah, see her perform some of her poems at http://www.youtube.com/user/Rahthoma and read her poetry in progress at http://wordgeekery.wordpress.com/
[The image is a Twitter icon made to look like it was created with felt-tip pen. It was made by obinoobie and is used under a Creative Commons Licence]