Radical feminists, like many other groups, have an online community of people we hang out with and organize with every day. And like many other groups, sometimes we get into fights. We are not a homogenous group; we have a variety of different viewpoints on many things, and sometimes we find other women’s viewpoints to be very wrong. Every once in a while a fight rips through the community like a forest fire, destroying everything in its path, and leaving behind nothing but ashes, upon which new seedlings will have to grow. There are a few fights that happen over and over, and have been happening for a long time. Such as, for example, are straight women upholding the patriarchy by having relationships with men? Are mothers responsible for upholding patriarchy by giving birth to sons? Are straight feminists homophobic, and are lesbian feminists heterophobic? And there’s another fun fight, are meat and dairy eaters oppressing female animals by eating meat and dairy, and are vegans starving themselves and engaging in an elitist individual solution to a systemic problem? Honestly, I feel like rolling my eyes just typing out those sentences. No way do I want to get involved in any of those fights again!
There are many types of radical feminist. After a while you start to identify them when you see the stuff they write online. I’m gonna call my type a “traditional mainstream feminist.” One time a commenter came here and told me that I’m not a real radical feminist, I’m actually a traditional mainstream feminist. I didn’t take that as an insult, I thought it was a reasonable label and I embrace it. My feminism is real feminism, the kind that is about women, not the kind that has been ruined by post-modern academia, anti-feminist backlash, queer theory, and marketing schemes about buying products for Empowerment™. I’m not into certain extreme ideas that have come out of radical feminism, such as “kill all the male babies” or “all straight women are handmaidens,” but since I believe in analyzing patriarchy as the root cause of women’s oppression and believe that women are oppressed based on our biological sex, not our “feminine gender,” that puts me in the radical feminist camp.
There are lots of women who analyze biological sex as an axis of oppression and also have other philosophies, opinions, and viewpoints that don’t align with mine. There are essentialist types who believe that men are irredeemably evil, there are social constructionist types who think we are born completely blank slates and everything about ourselves comes from socialization, there are holier-than-thou types who want to die on the hill of political correctness and make it their mission to kick out anyone who isn’t politically pure, there are conspiracy types who are against Big Pharma and will heal the world with herbs and witchcraft (and there’s even a few anti-vaxxers in this group), there are vegans, and there are women who are against vegans, and there are women with personality problems who like to bully other women in the name of feminism. We are a wild and diverse group. It’s no surprise that the various personalities and viewpoints in our community lead to fights.
I’ve learned a few things about using the Internet over the last approximately ten years as I’ve engaged with online communities. Social media, as we all know, contributes to lots of misunderstandings and people saying extreme things anonymously that they probably wouldn’t say in real life. I have radar up that detect some of the following behaviours:
- Ignoring what the original post said, and instead spewing out a bunch of their feelings of anger and frustration in a way that doesn’t respond to the original post, but just offers them personal catharsis, as if the topic or article someone shared was an invitation for people to vent their feelings about whatever is wrong in their lives
- Ignoring what a person actually said, and instead responding to a strawman argument of their own invention, and delighting in getting angry over what they imagine the person to have said
- Deciding to hate someone ahead of time, before even reading their work, and dismissing what they have to say or denouncing them without caring what they are actually saying
- Taking things out of context to make them look bad, or getting angry about a statement that was clearly taken out of context and not looking for the original source to see if the anger is even justified
- Immediately jumping to the worst conclusions about a statement without first clarifying what the person meant by it
- Using excessive hyperbole, such as the ever popular claim that someone is violent and oppressive because they have a different analysis of a social phenomenon, or that someone is “literally killing” others by having a wrong opinion
- Engaging in unnecessary and pointless drama, such as stirring people up on purpose on topics that are controversial, and jumping into arguments that don’t involve you just because you like arguing and adding inflammatory comments to an already smoldering argument
I have radar up for these behaviours because I know that people behaving like this will just take up my energy on pointless frustration, and I’m done engaging with people who can’t have a mature conversation. I’ve left many Facebook groups because I see lots of these behaviours going on, and I just don’t want to hang out with unreasonable people. The groups I stay in are the groups of people who I put into the “traditional mainstream feminist” category and where nobody is causing drama for the sake of drama.
Lots of these problems are a product of social media. Here’s a fun anecdote about how different things are between social media and real life. One time a feminist woman called me a troll. I forget what the conversation was or why she said that, but I was pissed. I decided I wanted nothing to do with her ever again. Then about three years later I met her in real life, and we had a lovely time together and she was very kind to me. I don’t think she even remembered that she once called me a troll.
We spend so much time trying to “correct” people who are wrong on the Internet, and we see people’s typed statements but not their flesh and blood reality, and we don’t take the time to ask “what did you mean by that?” when a statement sounds odd. But even people who type out dumb shit online might be perfectly nice in real life. You were just a screen name and a statement to them, they didn’t know anything about you and the dumb shit they said truly had nothing to do with you the real person, and it had everything to do with them trying to “correct” whatever they read into your statement. Internet culture encourages us to write witty comebacks and funny put-downs rather than engaging maturely with each other.
In my first few years of using the Internet, I did get engaged in online drama. I think that online drama can be addictive. You get a rush of emotion from reading stuff that you believe is wrong or stupid, and you enjoy both the anger and the righteousness of correcting someone who’s wrong. When there’s nothing to fight about, you get bored, and want that rush of anger again, so you jump into another argument. Years ago I used to argue online about abortion a lot, and I don’t anymore. I consider the matter settled that if you want abortion to be illegal then you’re a misogynist, and I’m done trying to convince people that a born woman is more important that a fertilized egg. People who think that a fertilized egg is more important that a fully-grown woman aren’t reasonable people and they’re not going to change their minds, and there’s no point in wasting energy on them. I must have argued about socialism at some point, too, because I remember this guy who was furiously angry over his idea that socialists wanted him to share his bed and his toothbrush with other people. That’s not true, socialists don’t want people to share their beds and toothbrushes with strangers. This is an example of inventing a strawman argument and delighting in getting angry over it. When you see people doing that, you have to walk away. That’s not a person who wants to have a real conversation.
Recently the fight that comes up among radical feminists came up again, the classic fight about whether it’s morally acceptable to be heterosexual. A giant shit storm happened, and lots of women were really upset. I read through a long comment thread and I saw that there were a ton of people who were misunderstanding other people’s statements without asking for clarification, jumping to the worst possible conclusions about other people, calling people names, arguing against straw men and jumping into the argument to add to the drama instead of just leaving it alone. All I could do was shake my head.
Every once in a while we have to remind ourselves of a few important things:
(1) “radical feminist” should not be thought of as an identity,
(2) purity politics gets us nowhere, and
(3) online arguments don’t define feminism.
Identity politics have infiltrated everything, including feminism. Some people get caught up in thinking that we can determine whether or not a woman is a “radical feminist” by assessing whether she meets certain criteria in terms of her personal characteristics and choices. This is totally the wrong approach. We should all understand the root cause of women’s oppression and we should do things to improve the structure of society to benefit all women. At no point does it matter whether someone is labelled “radical feminist” or not, or whether she meets certain personal criteria. There are women all over the world fighting against things like FGM and child marriage, and for women’s rights to be educated and to live free of violence. These women are working for women’s liberation and they’ve never read any of the radical feminist theory that comes out of first world countries. They don’t need to. They already know that men are enslaving women because they are enslaved. It doesn’t matter whether they take on the label “radical feminist” or not. The actions are important, and the label is irrelevant. Same thing in first world countries—our actions matter, our labels do not. If you see women policing whether other women are “real radical feminists” or not, they’re doing identity politics and this is in fact liberal, not radical. It’s also pointless. You don’t have to get upset about what they say, because it doesn’t matter whether or not you meet other people’s criteria for an identity label that they’ve constructed.
Purity politics is something that happens in many groups, and I’m sure it happens on the right as well (whether someone is a “real Christian” or not, etc) but of course I am familiar with purity politics on the left. I myself have attempted to be as ideologically pure as possible, and so I’ve learned how this approach doesn’t work. In high school I learned about environmental destruction and cruelty to animals and the wasting of natural resources and all these things that we on the left care about. I wanted to make my footprint on the world lighter, use less resources, and harm less animals. I stopped eating meat for a few years, and I was trying not to use much electricity for a while. At one point I thought that using a washing machine to wash clothes was too much energy wasted, and I attempted to wash my clothes by hand. Boy, is that labor-intensive! But here’s the thing. If you are alive and in a first world country, you are complicit in all sorts of systems of oppression no matter what lifestyle choices you make. No matter how hard you try to be a good person, you are still oppressing somebody. You can stop eating meat, but even the way our industrial agriculture produces grains and vegetables is harmful to animals. If you eat anything at all, you’re harming animals and the environment. You can wash your clothes by hand, but they were created in sweatshops by people working for low wages, and you are still complicit in their oppression. And even if you manage to be as eco-friendly as possible in your own home, you still haven’t overthrown the system that is destroying the planet and you are surrounded by businesses that are doing damage on a way larger scale than your household is. Anytime you buy a product from a store, pay interest on your debts, and pay either rent or a mortgage, you are contributing to capitalism. The computer you use to read about how to be more politically correct was also made in a sweatshop by oppressed workers. There will always be something else you are doing wrong, and you can never be politically pure. The only way you can avoid doing any harm to any other creature or the natural environment is by killing yourself. Of course, the paradox there is that if you kill yourself to avoid doing any harm, you are harming yourself, therefore you are still doing harm. So you literally can’t not do any harm. (Double negative intended.) This means there is no way to be ideologically pure and this pursuit is not worth your energy. People who are acting holier-than-thou and being a better feminist or leftist than you are actually not accomplishing anything. They are just being self-righteous, and it’s not justified because they are personally doing things to contribute to the destruction of the planet and the oppression of humans as they speak. Anyone who’s typing on a smart phone is not politically pure because there are suicide nets outside of the factories that make smart phones because the working conditions are so bad. If someone is typing to you on her smart phone that you’re a handmaiden because you have a boyfriend, ask her if she’s succeeded in unionizing the female workers who made her smart phone yet. If she hasn’t, then she’s a handmaiden. But seriously, if people don’t think you measure up to their idea of political purity, you don’t have to get upset. You just have to do the best you can with the situation you’re in, and try and do the least destruction possible, and try to do the most good possible.
My third point up above, if you have been keeping track, was that online arguments don’t define feminism. We who access the feminist community online start to feel over time like feminism is something that happens online, and that fights among Internet users represent rifts in the movement. Not really, no. Remember that work is being done all around the world for women’s liberation, and tons of women who have never read feminist theory or cared about labelling themselves with a particular strand of feminism are doing excellent work every day. Tons of women who don’t have Internet access, and some of whom don’t even have electricity, are working for women’s liberation every day. Even if there is a big fight online, and even if some women claim to be “quitting feminism” because of problematic people, there are still millions of women who get up every day and go to work in jobs where they are making the world safer for women, and there are women from all walks of life speaking out against the predators and the barriers they are facing in their lives, and there are mothers raising feminist children, and there are schoolgirls punching out the boys who pull their bra straps, there are police arresting pimps, there are survivors of prostitution helping other women get out, and the list goes on and on forever. The fights on the Internet are almost irrelevant to the movement, really. They are a tiny blip on the radar. The movement is much, much, bigger than any online community.
Obviously, if there are people you love and support who are getting into nasty arguments, it will hurt. Of course it will hurt! But the sun will rise again every day, and the worldwide women’s liberation movement will continue, whether or not some people on the Internet are behaving in unsatisfactory ways. Deal with the hurt quickly and then move on—there’s lots of better things to do.