Monday, April 21, 2014

When Purity Destroys Movements

I entered feminism as an autodidact does, by fits and starts. When I was in college, I saw no need to take women’s studies classes. I didn’t harbor any ire towards women, but it seemed like a discipline that wouldn't interest me much, no different in that regard from Anthropology or Biology. It wasn’t until one of my sisters departed for the West Coast that I discovered the books she’d left behind. Those were my primary training and self-taught as I was, I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder for never having had any formal education. This is how I somewhat cautiously began my tentative engagement with the feminist blosophere.

It wasn’t easy. Though I usually didn’t mind being called out, some of the comments were unfair and entirely below the belt. It was fortunate for me that I absorbed the internal discourse and the terminology quickly, otherwise I’m not sure if I would have stayed around for long. In saying this, I want to note that I’ve had many experiences in that community which are uplifting and enlightening, not mortifying and painful. I have learned much in the past several years and continue to try to challenge myself and others.

The problem with all arguments based on purity is that they are not given equal weight. The priority of an issue held by a particular person conforms to their own passionate opinion. Passionate opinions are the backbone of every activist movement, but among some, they can become ravenously destructive. Feminists are understandably touchy with the notion of themselves as quick to judge and quick to anger. Nevertheless, there are instances when the stereotype seems justified.

Earlier this year, writer Michelle Goldberg wrote a column in The Nation about the wars and fissures within the movement. #Femfuture, to cite only one example, was a proposed program meant to boost the profile of online feminism.

The women involved with #Femfuture knew that many would contest at least some of their conclusions. They weren’t prepared, though, for the wave of coruscating anger and contempt that greeted their work. Online, the Barnard group—nine of whom were women of color—was savaged as a cabal of white opportunists. People were upset that the meeting had excluded those who don’t live in New York.

There was fury expressed on behalf of everyone—indigenous women, feminist mothers, veterans—whose concerns were not explicitly addressed. Some were outraged that tweets were quoted without the explicit permission of the tweeters. Others were incensed that a report about online feminism left out women who aren’t online.

[Activist Courtney] Martin was floored. She’s long believed that it’s incumbent on feminists to be open to critique—but the response was so vitriolic, so full of bad faith and stubborn misinformation, that it felt like some sort of Maoist hazing.

Feminism is not beholden to a strict orthodoxy with rules set in stone. If it was, there might be less confusion and potentially fewer vitriolic responses. Liberal thought is supposed to be predicated upon in the individual’s right to free expression. The intention is not to rate one grandstanding cause as superior to another, though at times this happens unconsciously. Without a specific set of standards in which everyone believes, the forcefulness and persuasiveness of argument, especially if it implies discrimination, can be more effective in conveying and directing thought than absolute truth itself.

Certain feminists place a greater priority upon favored aspects of feminist thought, usually the ones that resonate most prominently with them. This is where healthy dialogue should start, but often is when counter-productive discussions begin. Unproductive intellectual exercises like these have ended up going horribly, horribly wrong. No one seems willing to take the high road, seeming to enjoy knife-fighting in the comment section or from Tweet to Tweet.

Appearances can be deceiving. These discussions are usually framed by white liberals, who have particularly complex relationships with people of color and other minority groups. Writing in 1966, the noted historian C. Vann Woodward penned an influential essay entitled “What Happened to the Civil Rights Movement.” In it, he discussed consistently troublesome concerns that have never been fully resolved.

An incidental dividend that the philanthropist sometimes demanded of the freedom march or the jail-in was an ennobling catharsis. So promiscuous was the resulting role confusion that it was hard to say at times whether the actor was playing redeemer or redeemed, or whether the underlying purpose of a particular march or freedom school was black salvation or white.

The picture was further complicated by the exalted roles the white romantics assigned their black partners. In effect, they turned the tables of racial dogma and opted for Negro supremacy. But it was a dubious brand of supremacy, and the flattery, as Robert Penn Warren has pointed out, was shot through with the condescension implicit in the eighteenth-century adoration of the Noble Savage.

They embraced the Negro with an impulsiveness that and fervor that must have proved uncomfortable to the Negro at the time. Another turning of the tables seems to have endowed the whites with the gift for imitation traditionally attributed to the blacks, and made the latter the object of the most abject cultural imitation of modern times.

Regardless of the multitude of forces threatening to rip it apart, feminism, online or otherwise, must get its collective act together. Its culture can be toxic to everyone, especially visitors and online pilgrims that might be its long-term members. The more it turns on itself, the more every person engaged in the great post-modern debate loses. Woodward's words reveal the source of discomfort, but not the solution.

Insisting on being the single person with the most correct answer has been the undoing of many movements and pointless internet jousts. This unfortunate side effect is always on display. Wisdom, maturity, and common sense, not intelligence alone is what is needed most. We must think with our hearts, not just our heads.

Goldberg concludes her column with some caustic commentary.
[Some] are disengaging from online feminism. Holmes, who left Jezebel in 2010 and is now a columnist for The New York Times Book Review, says she would never start a women’s website today. “Hell, no,” she says. The women’s blogosphere “feels like a much more insular, protective, brittle environment than it did before. It’s really depressing,” she adds. “It makes me think I got out at the right time.”

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