I meant to blog about unity some time ago, before my brief hiatus, but I never got round to it. However, recent events have served as a reminder, with the final straw being this article (New Statesman) which describes online feminism as “an exclusive, Mean Girls club” and the “Online Wimmin Mob”.
Most of the problematic aspects of the article have been debunked elsewhere (for example, in this brilliant post by Sam Ambreen and this equally brilliant post by Cel West and Zoe Stavri), so I’m going to focus on the reduction of calling people out to “whipping up huge Twitter storms and inviting feminists to flame other feminists” and an “excuse… as a front for making yourself feel superior at another woman’s expense”. That’s not what calling out is at all, but I digress. I think what the author is trying to say is that in-fighting is A Bad Thing and we should all just get along.
Now, I think those sentiments are well-intentioned and I can really see how the author got there. I’d love it if we all just got along. I’d love to have unity, in feminism and elsewhere. Evidently, a united front has a more powerful voice, and that can only be a good thing, right?
Not exactly. The “united front” ideal is also a powerful silencing tactic. It comes in two forms – within a group, and between groups.
My problem with the NS article concerns the former. For instance, if one feminist calls out a racist comment made by another feminist (inadvertently or otherwise), this sometimes leads to calls of “Stop nitpicking, we need unity!” to, in effect, defend said comment. I recently blogged about the problem with the “stop nitpicking” argument, and I’m not entirely sure how unity can be used as a defence. Being a feminist doesn’t give you an excuse to be racist, just as fighting against racism doesn’t give you an excuse to be sexist. Therefore, why should someone be prevented from calling out racism just because both parties involved happen to be feminists? The same applies to practically any combination of oppressions – it’s Intersectionality 101.
However, it’s not just within groups; unity can also be used to silence people between completely opposing factions, and it’s this type of silencing that I’ve wanted to blog about for absolutely ages now. Let’s stick with sexism as an example. There’s the myth peddled by the media that feminism is about female superiority. There’s the subsequent argument that we shouldn’t be “feminists” but “equalists” (for a thorough debunking of this argument, see this awesome Tumblr post by Diya Mukherjee). There’s the argument that women calling out sexism alienates men and tars them all with the same brush. Generally, there’s the idea that if men and women should have a “united voice”, feminists are Doing It Wrong.
This is where the silencing comes in. If you call out sexism, you’re told you shouldn’t because of the “united voice”. If you call yourself a feminist, you’re told you shouldn’t because of the “united voice”. If you voice an opinion that isn’t the majority opinion, you’re told you shouldn’t. If you deviate from the status quo, you’re told you shouldn’t. So, who does the “united” voice being called for really belong to?
A “united” voice that denounces and suppresses all dissent isn’t really united at all. It’s the voice of the dominant group. It’s the voice of the oppressors, whoever they may be. It’s the voice of privilege. It’s the voice of the status quo. And the status quo is only changed by disagreeing, by dissenting, by fighting for what you think is right rather than what you’re told to fight for.