Hello, I’m Hattie, and I am the outgoing President of UEA Feminist Society. This will probably be my last blog post for UEA Feminism, and I’d like to make it clear before everyone shouts at me that I don’t represent opinions of the society as a whole. Many of you will recognise me as I regularly run the discussion group. Because of that, I would say I’m pretty used to “calling people out”.
There are times when people come to the group and they are just so unused to feminist discussion, so sexist, so offensive, that people shout at them, and they never come back. Perhaps it’s for the best, because people in the group were hurt and made uncomfortable by the things they said, and we should be protecting those people if we run a feminist society. Or perhaps these people are just somewhere else now, spouting the same offensive bullshit to other hurt and uncomfortable people, only now they think “well, I tried to be a feminist and the feminists didn’t want me, they’re just shitty people.”
I genuinely don’t know which the better outcome is. It depends if the role of our society is to provide a safe space for feminist discussion, or whether it’s to change other people’s minds. I’m inclined to think the latter, because I’m one of a dying breed of optimists who think we can make the world a better place. But I accept that a lot of people in the society don’t think like me, and I should be catering for them too.
And sometimes this happens on a smaller scale, sometimes people come for the first time and they use a phrase that they didn’t know was offensive, and someone else who they’ve never met before will tell them pretty firmly what’s wrong with it, and they get scared and never come back. What people forget about feminist discussion groups is that women haven’t been given a space to speak very often. They’re not very used to it. And they’ve been conditioned their whole lives to be silent and told their whole lives that they don’t really know what they’re talking about and when feminism does the same thing, you’re perpetuating this problem. No one has ever had their mind changed by being yelled at.
Language is hard, especially when no one’s taught you it before. There aren’t seminars on feminist jargon, and it’s not on the national curriculum, as much as we’d like it to be. Most feminist books you read nowadays will start with a chapter that explains terms, because it’s not easy. Even when you’ve been taught you will slip-up from time to time, and it’s not even like the whole community agrees on these things… to pretend oppressed peoples have some kind of hive-mind, a collective voice, is just another form of oppression.
This, to me, seems like common sense… but it’s not a commonly accepted idea on the internet now. There will be people who want to start a fight with me about this, who will think I haven’t heard all the arguments they’re going to present to me. Trust me, I have heard them. I have used them myself. I have spent years thinking about them. Don’t tone police, people have a right to be angry, people don’t have an obligation to educate. I agree with all of them… except I’m President of a Feminist society, and part of my role is to hold my anger back. It’s a really really important part. It’s not that I don’t feel it, and sometimes I can’t help myself, sometimes I will lose my temper… maybe more times then I’d want to admit. But I try, because I want people to want to be feminists. I’m pretty dedicated, but there have been so many times that even I have wanted to give up… and if I do, how must it feel to be someone who’s only just starting out, who still has a lot to learn.
So I defend your right to be angry, and your right to refuse to educate people, I do… but if you really want to change the world, that’s not how you go about it. You’re not talking to the blogosphere any more. The real world doesn’t understand how you’ve already earned your anger. When I lose my temper and yell at someone who just didn’t know any better, I feel ashamed about it… and I don’t think that’s because I’ve been conditioned to feel that way. I think if you want to make the world a better place it requires patience and selflessness, no matter what side you’re fighting on. If you want to change the world and you do it by yelling and silencing people and walking out of conversations, you’re doing it wrong. Oppression doesn’t come with an obligation, but activism does.
My feminism is small scale but I’ve lost friends and I’ve had twitter wars and people Facebook messaging me looking for a fight and when you have that on one side and the patriarchy on the other, you want to give up sometimes. Many times. Throughout this year I’ve thought “what if I just told people I quit? what if I said it was too hard? would someone else takeover, someone who’s stronger than I am, because I am insecure and I am oppressed and I am just one person and my voice barely makes a ripple and how can anyone tell me this is worth it?”
And that’s just me, known at most by my 300 or so twitter followers and the UEA Discussion Group. I cannot imagine how much worse it must be for feminists actually in the public eye, like Caitlin Moran or Laci Green.
Today Helen Lewis, deputy editor of the New Statesman, who is sensible and successful and articulate and who has on so many occasions written fantastic balanced articles, has left twitter after feminists yet again launched a campaign of “calling her out”. And she’s not a human cyborg and she’s not a privileged arsehole like Richard Littlejohn, she’s a feminist who wants to change the world and finds that she is being hounded from all directions. Anyone would need a break from that from time to time, but when it’s this relentless, when people are writing you off for good left, right and centre, I can’t help but think that one day we will lose these people – Helen Lewis or Laci Green or countless others – and we won’t get them back. And the movement will have permanently lost a voice that, if we really looked at it, was doing less harm than good.
I know it is easy for me, as a white, able-bodied, straight cis-woman, to say this, but there is a weird black-and-whiteness to the way we talk about privilege on the blogosphere for something that we’re constantly arguing isn’t binary. People want to say that you’re for us or against us, to paint anyone who makes a mistake as an outright villain, and the world isn’t like that. I would hope that most people can see that when I argue against rudeness I am not in fact arguing against intersectionality, but I know a lot of people will tell me that I am wrong, that I need to check my privilege. That’s what Internet Feminism has become; tribal and introspective. It’s little wonder that so many of us feel so ground down by it all.
Here’s what I think about calling people out… would you say the same thing to your best friend, had they made the same slip up in a face-to-face conversation? Because we’ve all had those conversations where someone we love and respect has made a mistake, and I’m sure we don’t yell at them and get all our other friends to join in and then when they run away in tears say “well that’s what you get for being oppressive, don’t tone police, I know I’m in the right.” If you wouldn’t say it to your best friend, don’t say it to someone over twitter. I know it’s easier on the internet, but you either need to become a braver IRL feminist or you need to step back, calm down, and think about how you can really make the world a better place. Everyone should do both.
Because maybe someone makes a slip up, and they do deserve to be told off… but being told off by hundreds of people starting an internet campaign is disproportionate to the error. They are just one person learning like the rest of us.
I would like to welcome comments and discussion – I am tired of feminism where people are afraid to speak because those who disagree shout them down.