Monday, July 16, 2012

Dear Readers of Feminist Blogs

Dear Readers of Feminist Blogs,

Hi!  Feminist blogs are great!  I'm glad that you read and enjoy them, and I hope that you continue to learn and comment and support feminism.

I've been reading feminist blogs for years now, long enough to feel confident commenting on certain recurring themes.

Sometimes a post receives some criticism.
Example #1: Your language here is pretty transphobic.  Here's a link to some educational material.

Example #2: I don't come here for this bullshit transphobic garbage.

Example #3: You're a terrible human being and I wish violence upon you.

Example #4: [slur] [slur] [threat of physical harm] [slur] [threat of sexual assault]
If you've been around feminist blogs long enough, you've seen a blogger post something *ist.  Some people point it out in the comments.  Other people comment in her defense.  Eventually someone comes along and says something to the effect of, "You're all mean and hateful!  This is why people are afraid to post around here!  This is why we can't have nice things!"
Here are a few of the problems with that.

1.) You're treating having your sexism pointed out to you as worse than having said something sexist.  The blogger said something sexist, people pointed that out, and now you're criticizing them as if they're the problematic element here.

2.) You're generalizing as if all critics are equal.  Even if it's not your intention, it sounds as if you're lumping the person in example #1 with the person in example #4.

3.) You usually make it sound as if the commenters find some joy in pointing these problems out.  You often make it sound as if feminists derive some sort of pleasure in attacking each other.

This isn't Heathers or Mean Girls or Jawbreaker or why in the world have I seen so many similar movies?  This is real life.  Picture it: the USA, 2012.  A tired woman comes home at the end of a long day.  Maybe she has dinner to make or kids to tend to or a dog to walk.  Worn out from another day dealing with the racist asshats at work, she sits down for a moment to drink tea and catch up on her favorite feminist blogs.  Ah, feminist blogs.  Sometimes she learns from them and broadens her perspective, gaining new insight and greater empathy.  Sometimes she laughs and nods and cries in solidarity with her fellow feminists.  Sometimes she feels a spark of fury and is moved to fire off a nasty letter to whichever treacherous douchebag has proven anti-feminist lately.

But what's this?  Instead of a post she can learn from or challenge herself with or recognize herself in, she finds the same bullshit racism she's been dealing with all week at work!  The same fatphobia she contends with every time her friends get together.  The same homophobia which keeps her away from family get-togethers.  What the hell?

Maybe she posts some kind, polite comment to nudge the blogger in the right direction.  (Example #1.)

Maybe she's fed up and impatient.  Maybe she's genuinely angry or hurt or disgusted.  Maybe she posts something a little less kind and a little less polite.  (Example #2.)

Those are both valid responses.  If a blogger has legitimately pissed her off and said something harmful, she has the right to express her disgust.

I don't for a second defend threats, violent imagery, or slurs.  And there's something to be said for reading and commenting in good faith.  If you've been reading a blogger for a while and think that you know her stance, and then she surprises you with something *ist, try asking her what she meant by that or saying "Here's how this comes across to me" to give her a chance to explain.  If you're new to a blogger, you could take the time to familiarize yourself with her material before commenting, "First-time reader here, I'm not sure that I get what you mean by [phrase]."

Bloggers make mistakes all of the time.  We're all working on bettering ourselves.  We're all at different places on our feminist journeys, so we'll naturally have some friction as people ahead on one path urge the rest to catch up.  But when we insult each other, even unintentionally, we have to give each other room to react to that insult.

"You're all being mean" often comes across as a tone argument, as if someone said something *ist and we simply weren't polite enough in pointing it out.  You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar!  Great, I'll take that advice the next time I'm trying to catch flies.  I'm not here for fly-catching, I'm here for feminist politics and solidarity and teaspoons and photos of cute pets.  I'm here to learn and grow and challenge myself and become a better person and improve people's lives.  We're gathering together to accomplish something, and promoting *ist ideas works against our goals.  Yes, that makes us impatient.  It's bad enough to have to deal with that shit in the rest of our lives, but I would hope that I can come to a feminist community and not be confronted with it.  At least when I am confronted with it, I should be able to point it out without being criticized.

I don't point that shit out for my own amusement.  I don't point it out to score points.  I point it out so that the blogger can work on whatever oppressive, prejudiced, hateful notions she's internalized.  I point it out because I know that there are people watching in silence, because I know that someone's already closed the browser and walked away, because I know that shit like that alienates people.  I point it out because if no one speaks up, the people watching in silence think that no one knows and no one cares.  I know.  I care.  I point it out so that you understand that when I fuck up, I want you to point it out to me, too.  I want to work on myself and challenge myself to be a better person.  Don't you want that, too?  Isn't that what we're here for?

If I say something *ist, I want you to tell me, so that I know to work on it.  If you let it slide, I'll end up saying it again, and I'll keep hurting people, and I don't want to do that.  I like to think that other feminists feel the same way.

The next time you see feminist commenters pointing out a blogger's *ist language, stop to consider why they're pointing it out.  What do they object to?  If they think that the post is *ist and you don't, what's different about your experiences and theirs that might make you disagree?  If you think that the blogger has a history of being great about *ist issues and this is post is an aberration, point it out in a "my history with this blogger leads me to give her the benefit of the doubt" way, not a "how dare you be so mean, her post was perfect and you're destroying feminism" way.

If you think that people are going overboard, be specific.  "I agree that the post is questionable, but threatening sexual assault is completely out of line" is a good way to start.  When your complaint is too general, you're lumping example #1 in with example #4, which makes it seem as if anyone who spoke up in any way is an abusive asshat.

It can be hard to speak up.  It can be hard to point out anyone's problematic wording.  It can be hard to speak out on a well-known blogger's home turf.  It can be hard to find the right words to criticize someone who's supposed to be on your side.  Pointing this stuff out semi-anonymously on-line can give us the tools we need to confront assholes in real life.  Sometimes it's easier to close the browser and walk away.  We're tired and we're aggravated and we deal with enough of this shit.  If I want someone to stop being *ist, it's because I still have hope that she can change.  Some people no longer have that hope at all.

I try to give my fellow feminists the benefit of the doubt.  I try to trust that they mean well, they want to improve, and they would rather have an inclusive community than an exclusive one.  I hope that you'll believe the same of me in return.

With love,
Frank Lee

TL;DR When commenters point out a blogger's mistakes, responding with "you're all being mean!" is a tone argument and fails to address the problem of harmful, alienating language. If you want commenters to extend the benefit of the doubt to bloggers, you should extend that to the commenters as well and understand why they're so fed up.

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