Sure, Feminism’s Twitter Wars Can Be Scary, But The Real World Is Still Scarier

Why is feminism as a movement microscopically fine-tuning its lens on hashtags when the problems faced by most women globally are visible to the naked eye?

In last week’s issue of The Nation, Michelle Goldberg called attention to a trend that will certainly resonate with anybody who’s ever been involved in the feminist blogosphere/Twitterverse: “Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars,” the feminist-on-feminist vitriol and hostility that are the daily bread of online feminist activism. “People,” says Goldberg, “feel emotionally savaged by their involvement in [online feminism]—not because of sexist trolls, but because of the slashing righteousness of other feminists.”

I echoed her on Facebook. As a white, cisgendered, middle-class feminist columnist with no academic training in gender studies, I felt that the words of Katherine Cross quoted in the piece exactly summed up the terror that stares at me when I sit down to write every week: “I fear being cast suddenly as one of the ‘bad guys’ for being insufficiently radical, too nuanced or too forgiving, or for simply writing something whose offensive dimensions would be unknown to me at the time of publication.” Nothing like the specter of abandonment within your own movement to kill your motivation.

After I posted the Nation piece, I received thoughtful responses from feminist friends who pointed me to this excellent reply from Suey Park at Model View Culture, where Goldberg’s article was framed as white women lashing out in terror at having their gentrified Internet turf threatened. Park quotes Jamie Kilstein, who called Goldberg’s piece “the print version of crossing the street when you see a group of black people.” Call-out culture and the “toxicity” of Twitter wars are actually, according to Park, exactly the bad-tasting medicine that white, cisgendered, middle-class feminists need to help them recognize their own privilege.

I’m just exactly the sort of white feminist blogger whose turf is ostensibly being threatened by women-of-color and intersectional feminism, and do in fact live in terror of gravely offending radical intersectional readers basically every time something gets published with my name on it. But I share both her concern and her anger at the reaction of utter bewilderment, defensiveness, and withdrawal from “mainstream” feminists when you dare to point out their privilege.

This concern and anger stems from my experience of living in a developing country for the past 18 months, which has been—how do I describe this?—the intellectual and ideological equivalent of having my privilege pointed at my head with a gun. Living in Colombia has made me aware of how unbelievably privileged I have been able to be simply by being born white, blue-eyed, and American. (This realization came after being subjected to male aggression ranging from constant catcalls to physical violence: I was almost certain during one violent mugging by three teen boys that I was going to be raped.)

Thus, even though I’m technically part of mainstream feminism, I remain susceptible to the same flashes of blinding rage as Twitter feminists. But in my case, at rich-country feminists who lambast each other with their hashtags while the most basic tenets of women’s lib are still denied to most of the women in the world, many of whom don’t even own a fucking computer.

When I write about this issue, as I did in a recent Role/Reboot column, mainstream feminists tend to roll their eyes and dismiss the conversation as an exercise in “Brocialism.” But I still demand to know: Why is feminism as a movement microscopically fine-tuning its lens on hashtags when the problems faced by most women globally are visible to the naked eye?

But we can’t have that conversation at all if we don’t understand that what we’re talking about when we talk about feminist Twitter wars is privilege, and that the intersections of privilege may not always fall along the lines we think. I charge that rich-country feminism is so steeped in privilege that it cannot see the injustice outside its own front door. Women-of-color and trans feminists in the States are making similar points, and fundamentally, no matter how uncomfortable this makes mainstream feminists, this process is making our movement a better, more conscious one.

The problem here, like everywhere else in life, is our egos. I have personally experienced the same uncertain, defensive bewilderment, the sadness at having my good intentions summarily evaluated and discarded, that infuses Goldberg’s Nation piece. It’s easy to retreat into self-pity and cynicism and dismiss feminist activism as an “insular, protective, brittle environment” that’s just too “depressing.”

But actually, doing that would be unbelievably stupid. We feminists still have so much work to do; we seriously need to get over ourselves and be a bit more resilient. This resilience requires saying what we believe, embracing perspectives that challenge our self-image as well-intentioned/”good” people, and then expanding the lens of our own perspective to incorporate the truths of others who are less privileged. (Note: The term for this process is developing a sense of integrity.)

But, please: We can’t allow ourselves to be distracted by our own offendedness. The world—the actual world, not the Twitterverse—is still an incredibly unjust and dangerous place to be a woman. And that is exactly why we’re talking to each other about all this in the first place. Isn’t it?

Samantha Eyler is a freelance writer and editor raised in Kentucky and London and now based in Medellín, Colombia. She has written about politics, immigration, Latin America, and social justice for publications such as NACLA and the New Statesman, and is one of the founders of the London Fields Feminist Book Group. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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