Wednesday, 3 June 2015

The Trouble with Feminist Discourse

This particular edition of my blog is, without doubt, most likely to be a mistake. As I write this now I have no idea what is going to come out below but I do know that my subject today is one that is often akin to lighting the blue touch paper. What I want to talk about cannot be clearly defined as one thing in my mind but I suppose you could in some way describe it as my attempting to understand online examples of Feminist discourse. It will be very easy, I don't doubt, for readers of this blog from a certain point of view to find offence in what appears below. But this is not because I am looking to cause offence. I'm not. I'm writing a personal blog in which, as with all my other blogs, I unpack my often incomplete thoughts onto the page and others get to read it too. If you've read any of my blogs you will know they are never the complete article. They are thoughts in the process of being formed, a work in progress. Nothing below is aimed at a particular individual and no one need feel targeted. For this reason there will be no names. Please take this under advisement.

If you go to the website of the Everyday Sexism project you will find what I think is a very curious phenomenon. For those who don't know, and I'm sure there are lots, this website basically "does what it says on the tin". It lists submitted (and unvetted) examples of what the writer regards as examples of "everyday sexism". This is assumed to be, I suppose, the kind of sexism that just happens and is either expected to be shrugged off or otherwise disregarded. But no, the creators of, and submitters to, this website think. These things should not be accepted whether they be a slap on the bum, an unwanted arm around the shoulder or an innocent but unrequested comment regarding your appearance. The website is there, so I understand, as a form of "raising awareness". "Raising awareness" is one of a number of buzz phrases in use today. And this website is there to do that. As far as this goes, I don't really have much of a problem with it.

You might think we could leave it there then. But we can't. For Everyday Sexism does not exist in a vacuum. Far from it. It exists as part of a discourse that has quite strong roots, particularly in some online spaces and with certain demographics. I'm going to call this Feminist Discourse. You can usually spot Feminist Discourse anywhere you spot the use of concepts such as "victim-blaming", "checking your privilege" or "misogyny". (God forbid anyone mentions "mansplaining" or "manspreading".) It seems that today almost everything is an example of at least one of these things and some are examples of all of them. Now this is not to say that these things don't exist in the real world. Of course they do. And where they do they are often to be deplored. But my subject here in this blog is not what we do about these things. It's about the Feminist Discourse that discusses, portrays and campaigns about them.

Let me be to the point. It is my observation that Feminist Discourse is many things. Amongst them, it is shouty, aggressive and a cartoon version of what actual serious discussion should be. Now I'm aware that critics of this position will immediately jump to conclusions. Of course, since it turns out I'm a middle-aged, white man that is probably already tweaking the over-sensitive nipples of my potential critics. But this is to be one of my points. What kind of discourse is it that assigns people identities and personalities and condemns them before they even speak? Didn't this used to be called an "ad-hominem" and regarded as playing the (wo)man and not the ball? Feminist Discourse, certainly populist Feminist Discourse such as you might find on social media or in The Guardian, doesn't play by these rules though. It's not so much a case of what you say, what it means and how it might triangulate to the discussion at hand as it is about who you are, who you are thought to represent and what you are looking to gain. And that, to me, ruins the possibility of any serious or genuinely meaningful discussion ever taking place.

Now I'm also aware that there are strands of Feminism (and in case you didn't realise it, all that Feminist stuff that gets pumped out on a daily basis is visible to the general populace, not just the Feminists) in which the concept of "shouting back" is encouraged. I can understand how if you have experienced oppression or feel oppressed that this might feel psychologically beneficial or cathartic. But my question is "Does it actually forward any cause or prosper any debate?" Rather strangely, I regard these things as the point of discussion. I have read many Feminist articles online. There are, like articles from anyone about anything, good, bad and indifferent ones. But I do wonder how many Feminist ones are actually very effective. Is it a good rhetorical strategy to swagger around demonstrating your expensive education and that you can mix it with the big bad world out there, accusing people (I mean men) to the left and right of you of all manner of crimes and perceived crimes? Perhaps I'm missing the point. Perhaps the point is, as I've read on the Everyday Sexism website a number of times, that "men can't tell women what to do". (In this respect I guess some reading this might regard my comments here as an unwelcome intrusion into a subject they "own". But can you own a subject?)

Most often when I have read the latest dazzling example of expressly Feminist rhetoric (I'm speaking of The Guardian or New Statesman kind since you ask) I ask myself what it was meant to achieve. Of course, the faults of this discourse are not unique to it alone and, in that, maybe there is something to be said. "Feminists" like to see themselves as different but, you know, I'm just not sure how true that is. I'm fond of criticising the lazy and arbitrary dissection of every single issue, no matter what it is, into an issue of gender politics. The thing is, it seems to me that any Feminist is a human being first, prey to all the faults that human beings have. They are not some other species. So when I see the latest tribalist ramblings of a Feminist it is, to me, no different to the latest tribalist ramblings of some other, definately not Feminist ramblings. If an alien looked down from space and saw Feminists on one side shouting and cheering and some non-Feminists on the other shouting and cheering back, wouldn't they just conclude that human beings as whole like shouting and cheering?

And so, yes, tribalism it certainly is. If I were a sociologist I'm sure I could now back that assertion up with a clever analysis. But I'm not and so I can't. I hope that you will take the point on board regardless. For what else is it when we have a group of people (and, yes, I know they aren't all women) who rush to the ramparts at every opportunity to defend a rhetorical point of view against any perceived dissenters, bandying around buzz phrases and pseudo-intellectual theories, imposing their judgments and delineations on others at will as if they were fact? Does that not seem to you like the actions of a tribe? When high profile college campus rape stories are splashed across the comment pages of newspapers and online magazines and the apparent victim is defended by the same old faces, even when the original story falls to pieces under the regular scrutiny that we would expect any story to face, what do we call that? I call it tribalism and I note that tribalism is mostly about the identity of the tribe. I might even say it's a bit narcissistic.

This brings me to a basic question: are Feminism and Equality two ways of discussing the same thing? My own view is that they aren't. I know that Feminists will tell you that gender equality is their animus and their goal but, at least in the case of the famous media ones who come to more public attention, I have trouble drinking that particular koolaid. (Of course, I believe that there are without doubt many good, well-intentioned and genuinely empowering feminists who do actually help to bring equality and social justice about.) I regard myself as someone in favour of and supportive of gender equality. But who could not be? I do not think that men can squeeze a girl's bum, encourage her to display her breasts "for the lads" or use the way a woman dresses or acts as a licence for something. I do not think that if I help a woman I deserve a fondle in return. These are just sensible beliefs that any sensible human being would hold, in my view.

But I do not regard myself as a Feminist - and I do not regard that as in any way saying I'm anti-equality either. I've discussed this with some (male) feminists and they don't seem to get the distinction though. I am not a Feminist because the Feminism I see displayed in the places I visit in my online and offline life do not seem to be about equality at all. Feminist Discourse, for me, is a form of power (often, if not usually, practiced by exclusively well-educated, middle class 20 or 30 something women and their male sidekicks), and power likes to be in control of things no matter who wields it - even something as basic as "the discussion". Can there be such a thing as a good-hearted dictator? Can a discourse that wants to control exercise benevolent control? Shouldn't Oxford or Cambridge educated people with prominent media exposure be looking at the power they wield and critiquing that before they criticize the chump of a fat, unemployed, middle-aged, white male who writes his thoughts in crayon below a newspaper's comments section, thoughts that might dare to critique their privileged, above the line, position?

So here is the problem. Feminists, in my opinion, are people just like anyone else. They want power and influence, they form tribes and and they create ecosystems in which they live and move and have their being. (Sometimes these are actually more like echo chambers and no interest in discussion or agreement without anyone outside the tribe is sought after or required. This doesn't scream "social progress" to me.) But imagine if, instead of Everyday Sexism, it was Everyday Human Existence. You write in every time something bad or shitty happens to you. Bad manners, immorality, social faux pas, potential criminality, the lot. That website would be a very full place and I'm sure we could all sympathize in many, but not all, of the cases documented. But, I ask you, what does the documenting of all these events of daily life actually achieve? There is a sense for me in which it cheapens existence and degrades the human spirit. Do we really need a 24 hour scrolling record of one person's shittiness to another? Shittiness, it should be remembered, is not an exclusively male to female phenomenon. We may also want to address the question of whether people should be judged on the basis of discrete snippets of their lives. We all, even Feminists, make mistakes. How would you fare if your life was documented, disjointed incident by disjointed incident, online? What view of the world would you get reading all the others?

And do we really need cartoon discourse beneath cartoon articles in national and international newspapers, magazines and journals? What purpose does it serve to accuse a faceless avatar of a person in a comment section or on social media of being a victim-blaming, misogynistic, non-privilege checking troll? In truth, most online discussion of Feminist issues, issues which should actually be important if you take the gender equality claims seriously, are prime examples of preaching to the converted and talking past each other respectively. Genuine discussion is a debate and requires interacting with points with which you do not initially agree. It involves, dare I say it, accommodation to other points of view. All too many online discussions of this subject matter end up being "nothing to see here". There is no persuading going on and there should be. Instead, we get all too much action (drama) and not enough interaction.

But I want to finish with what some might find to be an embarrassing admission. But nevertheless....

For a number of years now I have used the Internet using a number of fake identities, female identities. (I'm not alone in this. In the few discussions I have had about it with people I've found surprising numbers of others who do exactly the same thing.) Why do I do this? Well, for the fun of it and for the intellectual challenge of it. I have, I am sure, convinced several thousand people in that time that I am actually a woman. (I'm not an amateur at this. I come complete with photographs and a believable backstory or six.) How do I know this? Because I have in that time received a torrent of misogynistic rhetoric and everything from requests for marriage to unsolicited pictures of the correspondent's penis right up to pictures of the correspondent involved in sex acts he would like to involve me in too. Men have tried to blackmail me with pictures I sent them. I have been threatened with stalking. I have, in other words, received what I am sure is but a tiny fraction of the experience of what it is like to be a woman online. And, yes, it is ugly. Very ugly. It seems at times that to be a woman online is to be regarded as someone who is making themselves available for sex just because they dare to show their face in a public online space. Are there men who assume, overstep the mark and take liberties? I could point you in the direction of THOUSANDS of actual cases.

But what are we to do about this? Feminist answers I have read on the subject include banning men from the Internet (I wasn't sure if this was "bad" men or all men), requiring an identity scheme for Internet use that ties online identity to actual identity (governments would love that one. Genuine workers for human liberty not so much) and taking people to court for sending messages that were not solicited or in some way beyond the pail. That is, the "feminist" response seems to be to censor people, take away their rights (yes, I know, "rights" is a dubious notion but, for now, it serves my argument) or criminalise them. Now you may well be aware of a few high profile cases in which women received messages online that were less than welcome. The women concerned weren't happy to put up with or ignore this and informed the authorities. That was, I suppose, their prerogative.

But, taking everything as a whole and in conclusion, what I want to ask is this: Where is the Feminist Discourse leading us? What is the endgame? When will the cheerleaders of this particular discourse have their power satiated? What are their aims and goals? Must we wait until every "troll" is silenced (or imprisoned)? Must all dissent be eradicated, every criticism silenced, before the victory blast on the trumpet can be sounded? Ultimately, I think that Feminist Discourse is good intentions gone rogue. It has reached a point at which it has become self-defining and self-fulfilling. It needs fuel to feed itself and looks around to find it in the events of every day life in the realization that the appetite grows stronger every day. Feminist Discourse cannot be allowed to die. It is now an end in itself, aided by modern technology and the shallow appetites of modern life which value impact over substance. And being as it shouts into the void, there will never be enough shouting to be done for that void can never be filled. Commercial enterprises tap into it and parasitically strum it to ecstasy for a few dollars more.

I just wish it would ask itself from time to time what it's for and concentrate on making social progress rather than simply making a noise.


  1. the fact that people who want to write about feminism explain their motives in a way that implies they are afraid of the reactions by feminists on social media shows how destroyed feminist discourse is

    1. I take your point. It would be nice if people could write down their thoughts without having to anticipate the possible responses but, sadly, we don't live in that world.