Archive for June, 2014

Arguing on the internet. One of those things that have become so famously useless that it’s hard to actually discuss it seriously (partially because it’s embarrassing to admit that you do it).

But I’ll admit it: I argue on the internet. I try to avoid it, but it’s often hard to overcome my natural tendency to not let anything go. I don’t seek it out, but I read and write in a lot of groups and pages that deal with things that are important to me, and every once in a while – someone says something that really pisses me off (or I say something that pisses them off). Most of the time this sort of online engagement in activism and issues of social justice is very enriching, interesting, and even empowering. I learn a lot from the women who share their experiences in small and big feminist discussion groups, I read a lot of interesting articles about sexism, racism, classism, speciesism and other isms, and find out about current events that aren’t covered by the mainstream media. AND, once in a while, I get into really bitter arguments with people I’ve never met, which often leave me feeling like a pile of shit on a bad day.

You might be thinking “well, why don’t you just stop arguing with people on the internet and use you time for something more productive?” and maybe you’re right, but that’s not what I want to talk about. It is a fact that a lot of people argue online at least once in a while, and so I think it’s worth thinking about without dismissing it as a silly waste of time as we often do. Also, like I said, a lot of good stuff comes out of discussing things online (particularly for people who don’t have access to these contents in real life), and sometimes it’s hard to draw the line between a constructive discussion and a poisonous argument, so it’s not so easy to just stop engaging in those (and I don’t think we should just stop talking about important issues on social media to avoid the arguments).

So here’s what I’ve been thinking about: the online arguments that really get to me, that have a strong and negative impact on my emotional state, that leave me feeling like the pile of shit I mentioned before, aren’t those infamous ones with trolls and mansplainers. They’re not with the people who comment “yum, bacon” on animal rights posts, they’re not with the oblivious men who burst into feminist discussions to generously explain how women are asking for it, and they’re not with the white people who express their deep concern over “reversed racism”. I mean, yeah, I do engage with those sometimes and they are always frustrating and really sad, but I always know that I have the online activist/feminist/anti-racist/social justice-ist community behind me, and I know that I’m most definitely on the “right” side, and will be treated accordingly. So most of the time I manage to let arguments with trolls and jerks bounce right off of me, and they almost never leave me feeling distressed in my personal life.

But when I encounter serious conflict within this “community” (which is obviously a very loose use of the word since it’s quite an elusive group of people) – that’s when it really gets bad. That’s when comments from total strangers stay with me for days, that is when I feel like just quitting all together, that’s when I wonder if I was just a fake feminist all along.

I’ve seen feminist communities tear each other apart online. I’ve seen activists that I really appreciate (in real life) behave like bullies when they don’t have to look the other person in the eye. I’ve done it all myself, wrote in ways that I would never speak and used my familiarity with the activist vocab and trends to get more likes and make myself feel cool. I think we all do this, all the time. Someone uses a word that we only learned is offensive two weeks ago – we bash them, someone asks a question we don’t like – we bash them, someone doesn’t know the exact way to talk about all the different issues we’re dealing with – we bash them, someone has a slightly different take on feminism – you guessed it, we bash them.

It’s not that we shouldn’t be angry when people say stupid shit. It’s okay to call people out and to be upset when they disagree with you. But I think that what is missing from the online discussions I’ve seen (and this is maybe the most obvious thing to say today about the internet and alienation and those kinds of things that people love talking about) is the simple understanding that on the other side there is a person, and like all of us, that person is in the middle of a process. “In real life” (as if when we sit in front of a computer we cease to exist in the real world) we put up with a lot from our friends, families, and fellow activists, and not only because we don’t want to make things awkward. Sure, that’s often a part of it, but the other part is that we are able to contain their complexities, recognize their processes, and give people the benefit of the doubt and some room to grow. We can understand them as more than just the binary of “totally awesome” or “awful and terrible pseudo-feminists”. We don’t start every conversation on 110% intensity and we don’t disregard people’s entire existence because of one thing they said. When I told my friend about the idea of the post she put it as “we see people online as static and as incapable of change”, and that’s a good way to think about it. Online our words literally stay static and out there (unless we choose to change them), and so every small comment or word weirdly becomes the static representation of our full and whole selves.

Illustration: bad calling out!

When we call people out, when our mom says that homophobic thing or our fellow feminist makes a slightly classist comment, we don’t flip the table and yell “You’re so damn homophobic and you should be ashamed of yourself!” (even if sometimes we feel like doing it). We say the classic “that thing you said sounded homophobic” and take it from there, giving the other person a chance to actually reconsider what they said or explain themselves (maybe even apologize or take it back), instead of shitting on their entire self and leaving them with nothing but resentment. And we expect to be treated the same when we’re called out, and we’re all called out every once in a while (or we should be), because we all make stupid comments sometimes and none of us started as the perfect activist who’s 100% against all oppressions, takes part in none of them and knows all the current and appropriate lingo in the world of social justice.

I’m a firm believer in the idea that the oppressed should not have to explain their oppression to the oppressor, so I know that it’s a little complicated to think about how we can have space to express our legitimate thoughts, frustration, and anger, and not have to “tone it down” for anyone, but at the same time still save space for the mistakes that we will all inevitably make and avoid policing and bashing each other. And that’s another important thing: we all have areas in which we are privileged and we need to remember that. Those areas of privilege, and just the reality of living in a messed up society, will definitely create messed up ideas in our heads that we will have to work through. We’re not just totally bad or totally good, totally feminist or totally sexist, we’re always somewhere in the process. And “working through it” doesn’t just mean learning which words will get you bashed online, it’s a more complicated process that takes time and happens on a deeper level. But it seems to me that this process, in the online world, has become not a process of learning and growing, but of trying to exert power over the other person, proving that we’re the better activist,  and constantly attacking and defending.

And it’s not surprising that we do this. When you read comment after comment saying really messed up things, when you have long arguments with really insensitive people who keep saying offensive and oppressive stuff, and when you’re just constantly in this battle called “the internet” (and “the world”), it’s natural to eventually just keep your sword in your hand at all times. It’s hard to tell a troll apart from someone who’s simply new to the topic, it’s hard to tell if someone’s being offensive or is just challenging something that is now “activist-consensus” and so it upsets us, it’s hard to tell if we’re talking to someone openly sexist or someone that just has a bit of a different take on feminism (or has a specific disagreement with us). All we have representing us and the other person is just a handful of comments, sometimes one sentence, on which we base an entire theory of who this person is and how they fall in our understanding of justice. So often we can’t tell the difference, and honestly, even when we can tell – we’re so damn tired, angry, and fed up with all the sexism, racism, and other isms on the internet, that we don’t even care.

I don’t have answers, no “Do’s and Don’ts of Online Activism” no “Ten Ways to Fix Our Poisonous Relationships with Each Other Online,” and no “17 GIFs that Will Change the Way You View Facebook Arguments.” just my thoughts and the hope that this is a conversation that people can have. For me, the bottom line is that we need to figure out what calling out can look like online (as opposed to bashing), what productive and inclusive discussions are (as opposed to bitter arguments), and how to use criticism to make each other better activists (as opposed to make each other feel like crap).

To conclude, I will give you an easy-on-the-eyes list of what I do know (some of them are reiterations) and I think can be used to help us rethink about our online conversations about social justice and activism:

  • Leaving people feeling like shit isn’t going to make them better allies/activists/feminists/whatever.
  • We are all in a process and no one is born the perfect activist (and so we all end up on both sides of this occasionally).
  • There are obvious activist trends that dictate which opinions are okay to express and which are not, and they are actually not so clear cut “good” and “bad”, they are often just different approaches to the issue, and although I might agree with a lot of them, treating any slightly different opinion as terrible betrayal doesn’t help us, it just keeps us from developing, critiquing, and improving ourselves and our activism.
  • Learning what words to avoid and what phrases to use to get more likes from other activists is not the same as understanding and deconstructing oppression.
  • When we use our familiarity with activist knowledge, trends, and ways of talking to make someone else feel crappy or to make ourselves feel cool- we’re not helping anyone.
  • Sometimes, when you’re being a “bad” ally, a “bad” feminist, or a “bad” whatever, maybe it’s okay to feel like one and to feel bad in general. Sometimes feeling bad can push us to become better, to expand our understanding of justice, to include more oppressions in our understanding of intersectionality, and to recognize the ways in which we are still benefiting from oppression. But it’s a fine line between all of these great things and the feeling of “I’m a bad feminist, I’m not worth anything, my activism is bullshit and I should probably just give up and go watch Netflix instead.” This is the line we need to find.

Hopefully we can take some of these thoughts, stir in some other thoughts, and find ways to create online communities that can handle complexities, include all of us as individuals who are always in the process of changing, contain our anger, provide us with opportunities for challenging, improving, and calling each other out, and keep us energized, hopeful, and strong.

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