Sunday, 25 August 2013

Some thoughts on intersectionality and swearing on Twitter

Last week, Vagenda magazine wrote an article in response to M&S’s surprising re-brand of themselves as ‘womanist’. Apparently their PR people are unaware (or simply don’t care) that Alice Walker kind of got there first with womanism.

Towards the end of the post, the author wrote:

As to the question as to whether M&S have rebranded themselves as intersectional feminists, we're waiting to see if they take to swearing at people on Twitter for occasionally disagreeing with them (or, in some cases, not actually disagreeing with them at all but writing an article that dares to suggest that their methods may be alienating), and telling customers to 'check their privilege' or they'll 'call them out', the bastards.’

WHOA THERE! I said to myself. Where did THAT come from? This comment made me feel really fucking sad. What point have we reached where intersectionality – a concept which should be key to feminism – is reduced to ‘shouting at people on the internet’ by one of the most-read feminist websites in the country? What is going on?

(Vagenda has an open submission policy for their site so I did consider sending this piece there, but I appreciate they’re very much a humour website and frankly, my TOV is all wrong. I’m not very funny. Or sassy. Or concise. So I figured what’s my own blog for if not my own not-very-funny, meandering thoughts?)

So let’s rewind. I want to use this blogpost to try and articulate what I believe intersectionality to mean and why I believe it’s important – particularly in how it has helped influence my own feminism. And then if there’s time after that let’s consider why the word or concept has been devalued to ‘shouting at each other on the internet.’

Intersectionality is the theory or concept that we all experience multiple oppressions that intersect with one another. To coin the introduction to the Wikipedia definition (which is well worth a read):

Intersectionality (or Intersectionalism) is the study of intersections between different disenfranchised groups or groups of minorities; specifically, the study of the interactions of multiple systems of oppression or discrimination.’

The term was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 and the theory explores how social, biological and cultural categories such as race, gender, sexuality, ability and gender identity intersect with other axes of categories to contribute to systematic injustice and inequality.

What this means is that we all have different levels of privilege and we all lack privilege in other areas. How those categories of privilege (or lack thereof) intersect leads to and shapes our experience of oppression.

I’m a white, middle class, and cis with no visible or invisible disability. I have a lot of privilege. I’m also a woman and identify as bi, although I am in a straight relationship. In those areas I lack privilege. I have experienced sexism and misogyny, bi-phobia and homophobia (as a result of growing up in a gay household) in a world where power is held by white, middle class, cis, straight, non-disabled men. However I also benefit from having a lot of privilege within that patriarchal society.

Perhaps one of the problems people have with the concept of intersectionality is the word ‘privilege’ itself. After all, privilege stinks of David Cameron and his Eton mates, stalking deer that they then don’t even bother to eat for tea. We therefore have an uneasy sense that privilege must be bad, and that we must feel hyper defensive about having it. That shouldn’t be the case. We aren’t at fault for having privilege. The fault or the problems come when we use our privilege to stamp on people and silence voices – where a vested interest in maintaining the status quo means supporting the structures of oppression. Unfortunately, that’s how a lot of privilege gets used – ergo Etonian deer stalkers.

Intersectionality and privilege is of course far deeper and complex and interesting than my whistle-stop tour. I would recommend reading ain’t I a woman by bell hooks, Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh and generally there are some great blogs that discuss intersectionality, including this one and this one. And this one.

So why is intersectionality important to feminism and how has it helped me understand feminism more?

We all have slightly varying definitions of what feminism means and what feminism aims to do. To me, feminism is the social revolution to liberate all women from the capitalist patriarchy and improve the lives of all people everywhere.

The key here is ‘all women’. All.

Feminism is not – to me – about improving the lot of some women to be equal to some men. This is, perhaps, the definition of ‘blue feminism'. It’s a feminism that concerns itself with board quotas. Now, I am totally for board quotas and I do believe that more women in leadership roles will benefit women overall. However, if feminism is about making some privileged women equal to some privileged men – on the men’s terms, well then it’s not for me. All that does is replicate existing power structures that are damaging equality for a huge, massive proportion of the world’s population.

For example, having women on boards of huge textile companies isn’t necessarily going to improve the working conditions of women working in textile factories. It raises up one woman to be equal with one other man, on patriarchy’s terms. Meanwhile thousands of women continue to be unequal under patriarchal capitalism. In my view, we can campaign against power structures that lead to the exploitation of women’s labour across the global south, and ensure that women have equality of opportunity and outcome across the board (pun totally intended).

This is why intersectionality is important. We need to recognise and respect how we experience oppressions across a range of points and that those oppression intersect. Feminism that only seeks to benefit one group of privileged women is not going to achieve feminism’s aims of liberating all women from patriarchal capitalism. As Flavia Dzodan said, ‘my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit’.

For my own feminism, intersectionality has taught me so much. It has forced me to confront my own prejudices, my own beliefs and my own misconceptions and really question how my behaviour and attitudes can contribute to oppression. It has made me wake up and think about what my feminist campaigning looks like, and what I can do and must do to be part of an accessible feminist movement. It has alerted me to other struggles, other issues and other oppressions that I was ignorant of, and how I have been complicit in supporting those oppressions. Intersectionality has challenged me to be a better feminist and it is a challenge I try to meet. Sometimes I fuck up because we all do. But I hope that when I do fuck up, I apologise, learn from it and don’t do it again.

I hope I have made a convincing case about why intersectionality is important. So how is it that this vital and central tenet to feminism has been degraded to being ‘people shouting at one another on the internet?’

Just to go off track slightly here – a few months ago a famous male comedy writer was accused of ‘mansplaining’. He said ‘today I learnt what mansplaining is – apparently it just means shut up’.

Of course, on one level, mansplaining does mean ‘shut up’. But only because there are times (lots of times!) when we, as women, need men to quieten down and listen. We need men to listen to our experiences of sexism and misogyny, and we need them to listen and respect those experiences. We certainly don’t need men trying to tell us what our experience is, what our experience means, or how we didn’t ever even experience that experience in the first place.

Being ‘called out’ can lead to a similar defensiveness as being accused of ‘mansplaining’ can do. It can lead to us saying ‘how DARE you! I’m TRYING!’ in response to someone suggesting that we’re not being supportive.

That’s why, to me, intersectionality has to start with listening to one another, as women. Really listening, really hearing, and respecting what we hear. It’s really easy to go ‘oh no, I don’t agree with your experience because I would never do X'. It’s also easy to go the other way and to join in as an ‘ally’ and go ‘yeah, yeah, I would never do Y’ in response to women speaking out about our experiences of oppression. But just as I would not expect a man to try and deny my experience, or expect a ‘cookie’ for ‘getting’ my experience, I don’t think we should put up with it from other women. Sometimes it really is just about listening. And once we’ve heard one another’s truths, it’s about using our platforms and our skills and our activism to support one another, as women, in sisterhood.

But what has all this to do with shouting?

There’s a real debate going on in online feminism at the moment about shouting and politeness and women’s anger. Historically (and presently TBH), our expression of our anger has been used to silence and dismiss our concerns. When we get angry and upset about, say, 90,000 rapes in the UK each year, we’re called ‘emotional’ and ‘irrational’ and ‘ranty’. We’re shut up.

We have the right to be angry and to express that anger. We have the right to respond to oppression with rage. But what we don’t have the right to do is upset, attack or dismiss one another, or to use language that might trigger, or to hurt one another.

None of us wake up one day and become the perfect feminist. We are learning all the time. We make mistakes, we get things wrong. When we get things wrong, the hope is that someone will explain to us why we got it wrong and what we can do to fix it.

In my own experience, I once wrote a line on a Reclaim the Night poster to emphasise our trans* inclusive policy. I messed up the phrasing and it sounded the opposite of inclusive. I spoke online to a trans* woman who went through the phrasing with me, helped me fix it and was cool with my mortified apology.

I’m not saying that people who experience different oppressions from me should sit down and give me a talk about how to do inclusivity right. It’s up to all of us as individuals to Google, to read, to talk to one another and to learn. But I do hope that when we get things wrong, we are willing to accept mistakes and support one another – to learn from one another.

There’s a lot of shouting going on at the moment and I worry that rather than supporting one another to learn and explore intersectionality, we’re drawing up battle lines. These explosive rows can lead to feminists dismissing this vital and valuable concept as ‘people shouting at each other’. The idea that intersectionality is difficult or inaccessible is becoming entrenched. Considering that the whole point of intersectionality is to be accessible means this row is not good for feminism and it’s not good for social justice.

To sum up then, I guess this is kind of a plea. It’s a plea for all of us to explore intersectionality and approach it as a fantastic theory and tool for feminist activism. It’s a plea to not see feminist anger as irrational. And it’s a plea to listen to one another.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

I won't apologise for not 'getting the joke' of rape threats

Trigger warning for rape and domestic abuse

Last night, after a very long day that involved sitting in a car for eight hours in traffic jams on various motorways, I read the news story that Hadley Freeman and Grace Dent had received death threats by a man who was so angry at women having a voice in public space, his response was to say he had planted a bomb at their homes. 

Before I continue with this post I would just like to steer away the inevitable comment about the Twitter joke trial. The two cases are not analogous. They are not even similar. One was a joke about how flight delays are annoying. These are directed threats at two named women, naming the time and place where this Twitter user "plans" to kill them. See the difference there? One = joke in poor taste. Two = threat.

Reading this article left me with a feeling of total, free-falling despair. I kept whispering to myself, ‘they want to kill us. They want to kill us.’ That’s how these threats made to women I admire and respect made me feel. That some men want to kill women for having a voice. 

And then I remembered one very important thing. 

Every week, men are already killing women. Last month 12 women were allegedly murdered by men, because they were women. This month will be the same, as two women are killed each week. Even the most conservative estimate by the BCS tells us that last month 5,000 women were raped. It will be another 5,000 this month. 

In response to my last blogpost on online abuse, which was cross-posted at Liberal Conspiracy, I had what felt like legions of men telling me (not assuring me, not wondering – straight up telling me) that the threats I received last year, and the threats Caroline Criado-Perez is continuing to receive now, are ‘angry humour’. They’re not to be taken seriously. One man even hit the sexist and classist double whammy of calling it ‘proletariat vocabulary’ – as if rape threats are just part of being working class, and only come from the working class. 

They’re not ‘real threats’. That’s what they say.

They’re ‘just a joke’. That’s what they say.

Just ignore them. Don’t feed the trolls. That’s what they say. 

But, you see, when 5,000 of my UK sisters are raped every month, a man telling a woman that he is going to come to her house and rape her at 9pm that night simply isn’t funny. When two of my UK sisters are murdered every week, a man telling a woman that he has planted a bomb designed to kill her outside her house is, actually, a real threat

When every day I fear I will be harassed, groped, assaulted; men calling me a slag and a bitch and a slut isn’t funny. When I’ve sat there with friends or in discussion groups and heard women disclose the violence committed against them; men telling rape survivors that they’re going to rape them again isn’t funny. When I name the assaults that happened to me as sexual assault; men saying they hope I get kicked in the vagina, they hope I get raped, isn’t funny

We have to take these threats seriously because as women, we know they are serious. We know that there are thousands of men raping women every month. We know there are over a million men abusing their partners every year. We know that every single day these threats made online are enacted, in fact, offline. They are committed against the women around us. Maybe to us. 

So forgive me for taking it seriously.

Forgive me for not laughing when the Twitter abuse story rips open the ugly maw of misogyny that often resides behind closed doors, but that every woman experiences throughout her life. Forgive me for not laughing at the widespread abuse of women just because in this instance it’s online and not in the street, in the club, in the school, in the workplace, in the university, in the home. 

Forgive me for not laughing at the victimisation of women for being women.

We live in a society where violence against women and girls is epidemic. This news story has shone a light on the casual and not so casual misogyny of some men online. It is now out for all to see how some men view women as deserving of violence because they are women speaking, doing, acting. We take these threats seriously because we know they are meant seriously. 

They are meant to shut us up. They are meant to put us in our place.

They, like all acts of violence against women, are designed to control us. 

And every male commenter and commentator who is desperately trying to mock and belittle those of us who have received this abuse, you need to listen. You, who have never woken up to a man telling you he wants to rape you because you have written something, need to listen to us women who have. You need to listen to why we know it’s serious. You need to think about the context of violence within which these threats are made. Listen to us. Listen to our stories, our histories, our lives negotiating a world where 1 in 4 of us experience domestic abuse, where 1 in 5 of us experience sexual assault. Listen to us. Then try and tell us it’s not serious. Then try and tell us it’s just a joke. 

Because not only is this joke not funny any more, it was never funny to begin with. 

PS. Man who said I was ‘ranting’ on Liberal Conspiracy. If you thought that was a rant, well, this certainly is!

National domestic abuse helpline: 0808 2000 247
Rape Crisis: 0808 802 9999