Evil Twitter Feminism 2.0

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Warning: this is a post about Twitter. And blogging. It's really, really meta.

At the beginning of the year I wrote a post imploring people not to let the stereotype of the ‘Evil Twitter Feminist’ put them off being interested in gender equality. I think a lot of people identified with it because the increasing prominence of debates about intersectionality, inclusivity and language were causing people a lot of bother. There was quite a bit of reassessment of the actions and motives of well-known women and writers happening. Things were getting fraught. I hoped that people who felt unsure could see past the drama and continue to find community. I didn’t believe in the Evil Twitter Feminist, this increasingly bandied-about stereotype that was allegedly to blame for why young women wanted nothing to do with it all any more.

Here we all are six months later. I’ve refrained from blogging about any of this for a long time because a) it has all become a bit tedious and b) things have been so fraught, at times, and I don’t want to be the subject of a pile-on. But let’s be honest here, things are a bit of a mess.

Some of these women who were being discussed and having their actions raked over at the beginning of the year – I don’t see their tweets any more. A lot of people have unfollowed them. They don’t retweet them. Mention of their names is met with derision. This is often the start of it. You’ve got to know who’s in and who’s out. You might unwittingly retweet something because you agree with it, and only discover when the pile-on begins that you’ve associated yourself and your beliefs with someone who’s not ‘in’. They might be friends with someone who’s beyond the pale. They might support a campaign that’s really divisive. But you’ve gone there, and you might well have to endure hours of ‘engagement’ from whoever first takes umbrage with you, all their friends, and whatever hangers-on are up for some drama, until no-one even knows what they’re arguing about any more and probably about three people have deleted their accounts, while everyone subtweets everyone else, and people self-impose social media breaks for the good of their mental health.

Much of this centres on campaigns, of which there are at least three high-profile ones associated with feminists happening at present, each one of them a huge source of division. You take a side, and find out immediately who your friends are (or more likely, aren’t). If you don’t want in, you might spot people saying “we don’t want you [in the movement]”. You might spot people asking when you’ve ever set up and run a successful campaign, thank you very much. You might even spot people saying you’re anti-women, as they all tweet each other saying how much they love each other because they agree on stuff. And if you sign up, people will start asking you if you haven’t got more important concerns. What about the recession? What about welfare? What about violence against women? As if you don’t care, which isn’t fair, because you do. You just thought this one petition was a good idea, and let’s be honest, not everyone is super-invested in every single issue (a lot of people who get so angry about so many things fail to be at all bothered, or even slightly intrigued, by campaigns about maternal health and pregnancy-related issues. Just throwing that out there).

There’s always a dominant viewpoint on a subject, even if it’s going against the grain. This means that you struggle to blog about the reasons you support some aspects of a campaign, because what’s ‘in’ is to be totally against it, and you can see why, but at the end of the day, you just don’t agree. And at the end of the day, you don’t want someone tweeting “LOOK AT THIS POST; I AM SO ANGRY!” with a link to your blog, do you?

People have always said that Twitter is full of people going round in circles getting riled about stuff, whipping up Twitterstorms and organising Twittermobs full of fury until the drama dies down and no-one cares any more. That’s not what it’s about. Recent campaigns, and the way that many people have found support, new friends, formed groups, and taken action against things serves to counter that claim. But this year, I’ve seen a move towards these circles among groups that weren’t like that previously. No-resolution argument and massive fall-out, a lot of capital letters and a lot of expletives, until it dies down and people wait to see what’s going to happen next, what’s going to set off the next bust-up. Drama llamas back in the enclosure but sniffing the air expectantly, if you like.

Over the past couple of weeks, things have started to happen. Many people have already distanced themselves from a lot of this. But now others are creating new accounts, unfollowing swathes of people they’d have previously considered their friends, bowing out of certain types of discussion, not bothering to engage. It’s got too much. The tribes, the sniping, the subtweets. The whole set of people we’ve blocked because they think x about y. The voices that consistently go unchallenged because people are too nervous or too jaded to bother. The same issues that have killed off forums with a more precarious existence than Twitter (Livejournal feminism communities, I’m thinking of you). The same issues that have dogged the US online social justice community (Tumblr is renowned for it) for at least a few more years and that used to make me think “Damn, I’m glad I’m from the UK”.

I don’t even know what the solution is. At this point in time, what’s probably needed is for people to take a step back and reassess their priorities. What’s the point? Are you building up or tearing down? Helping people find community or making sure they know they’re not welcome? Criticising constructively or living for the drama? More concerned about being one of the in-crowd than speaking your mind? Celebrating success or making it clear that you couldn’t care less even though you’re broadly down with the same cause?

Come on. Don’t sacrifice debate. Not everyone has to agree about everything. You don’t even have to like everyone. But passionate activists (myself included, even though things are kind of quiet on the activism front at present) are tuning out of the conversation, calling it fatigue, calling it self-care, saying they're done, retreating into smaller communities of friends that feel safe and free from unpleasantness. Alarm bells should be ringing. Are you intent on campaigns being all about the arguments because you're fighting for what little bit of positive media coverage the movement actually gets and want it to best reflect your personal views? I will never say a movement doesn't need or shouldn't have diversity of opinion, but you also need perspective, and we need to learn from the history of the movement when it comes to trashing.

This is not a post that's directed at everyone I know, or an incitement to more fighting. It's a response to what I've seen developing over several months, a call for reflection. It's a post I've hesitated to write because I'm too tired and too busy. I want to say "too disillusioned" but maybe that's too strong - or maybe it isn't. It's not a call to "Pipe down ladies, what WILL people think of us?!" or a call to stop discussing certain issues. It's just my opinion.

But how do we move forward?


Marina S said...

I'm glad I'm not the only one who noticed the parallels with LJ. It seems that feminist / women's communities always devolve into these overwrought girl-crush cliques on the one hand and equally histrionic feuds and tribalism on the other (quite often, in that order). Partly it's because women are not socialised to deal with conflict; partly because feminism feels so personal to every woman active in it; partly because we're egged on by patriarchal divide and rule.

We move forward through dialectic, as we always have. The books are written. The campaigns succeed. Some laws change, or some aspects of culture, or some elements of the education system. By the time these changes are being implemented, we've all exhausted each other and retreated before an intensifying and vicious backlash. Yet another "wave" of feminism is deemed by right wing commentators to have simultaneously failed and ruined society as we know it. We go into a hiatus period - perhaps a decade or two. Till it all starts again, and the next set of improvements, the next increments of liberation are achieved.

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