(Content note: Discussion of anti-choice rhetoric, general abuser dynamics, and brief references to rape, abuse and harassment)
Here’s something I’ve seen in literally every online feminist discussion space I’ve ever been in:
- Someone (almost invariably a man; sometimes, but not always, an actively malicious troll from the start) says something problematic.
- The issue with what they’ve just said is pointed out to them, directly but politely.
- Because there’s this general idea that accusing someone of an -ism is worse than the thing that led to the accusation (and it isn’t: only one of those things promotes a real, harmful power structure), the person takes this as a personal attack, and becomes defensive rather than maybe consider that they need to change their behaviour/language/viewpoint.
- They continue this until a long, unnecessary, derailing comment thread develops.
- They paint the people who called them out as the problem for “making such a big deal of it”, and are often believed, because feminists are so angry and aggressive and argumentative amirite? This is called gaslighting. Google it.
- The majority of threads, in which genuinely-well-intentioned-people-who-made-a-mistake are nudged in the right direction without major drama and discussion remains civil because there’s nobody deliberately trying to aggravate it, is disregarded, either deliberately or just because it isn’t as memorable or likely to repeatedly show up on the news feed.
- Suddenly, the whole group is criticised for being too argumentative, hostile, full of personal attacks (which on further inspection boil down to “pointing out something problematic”) and silencing “different opinions” (often code for sexist/transphobic/homophobic etc. views which literally cost lives). Nobody considers who actually started the arguments.
- People become scared to contribute because they don’t want to get caught up in arguments; with the actual cause of the conflicts long forgotten, this eventually becomes “scared to contribute because they don’t want to get called out” because of the aforementioned gaslighting.
- The conversation becomes one about how to avoid hurting the feelings of well-intentioned-people-who-made-a-mistake, which was never the problem, rather than the actual problem of how to deal with the trolls.
- The confirmation bias phenomenon kicks in; feminists are seen as irrational and overly aggressive, so when the next man-starting-shit comes along, they’re more likely to be able to paint feminists as the aggressors.
Seriously. It’s the same thing in Every. Single. Forum. It wouldn’t surprise me if there was something similar going on in offline spaces, too.
Telling a man that maybe he might need to re-consider is eventually exaggerated into aggression and some angry-mob-of-irrational-feminists-with-pitchforks. Dale Splender once noted “The talkativeness of women has been gauged in comparison not with men but with silence” and I think the same might be true more specifically when a woman confronts someone; her level of assertiveness is not compared to what is expected of men, it’s compared to what is expected of a silent, compliant, smiling background decoration. I know that personally, offline at least, I spend a lot of time being that “polite” silent woman because I’m too scared to confront people, and consequently I have certain male friends/relatives/etc who see me as some sort of “acceptable feminist” because I’m not like those feminists they see online. (Oh, if only they knew…) This really saddens me, because although they might not know it, the message I get from this is “women who stand up for themselves are okay, as long as they only do it in their own heads because of huge underlying anxiety issues” (stay tuned next week for more on that, by the way) and hopefully I don’t need to explain all the different levels of why that’s not okay.
Anyway, enough about me – let’s look at the bigger picture. 1 in 3 women will be abused by an intimate partner in her lifetime, and 1 in 5 women will suffer rape or attempted rape. Too often, these women are then blamed for the violence against them. We live in a world where men feel entitled to our lives and our bodies; we’re harassed in the street, in the workplace, everywhere, coerced into just-giving-in, or risking literally being killed for saying no. We’re paid less for equal work outside the home, and often still left to do virtually all the unpaid and undervalued work within it. We’re criticised for having children and going to work, for having children and not going to work, and for not having children. In media, we’re an afterthought, reduced to archetypes, and the structural violence against us is sometimes glorified. We’re underrepresented in politics, in law, in science, in virtually all positions of power. As noted above, we’re talked over. We’re shouted down. In many cases, we’re literally silenced. It’s normal. It’s something we’re used to. It usually goes completely unnoticed.
And you’re outraged because a woman disagreed with you on the internet?!
Yes, feminists are often angry – there’s a lot to be angry about. As we’ve seen this week, certain cis men think they can have a say in what those of us with a uterus should do with it. Even if we ignore the fact that this “debate” was organised by a pro-life group, frankly, our healthcare rights should not be up for debate, at least not between people that can only see it as an intellectual exercise – a sport, even. And no, they’re not “objective”, because nobody can be. After opposition and a planned protest, the college due to host the event pulled out.
“Students are killing freedom of speech!” the men declared to the world, from their fucking newspaper columns. Seriously. You couldn’t make it up.
“But why wouldn’t you allow a debate?” Maybe because to us, this is not a game. We might be seen as argumentative, but I for one don’t enjoy having to “debate” my own human rights. It’s demeaning to be constantly asked to justify why we deserve to be seen as full humans. Or maybe it’s because we know how this “debate” is going to end before it even starts; we’re not silent, complaint background decorations, so we’ll be seen as an aggressive irrational mob compared to the calm and rational cis men – who, of course, are calm because they’re not the ones who constantly have to put up with such constant policing of their bodies and life choices. We’d be laughed off.
Which brings me back to those men who like to deliberately stir up arguments on online feminist discussion groups. Because to them, it’s funny.
It’s funny when feminists get angry.
It’s funny when women get angry.
And I am so, so fucking tired of being seen as a wind-up toy.