ON PRIVILEGE, INTERSECTIONALITY AND TWITTER
I haven’t commented upon the recent, several, controversies on twitter and the blogosphere that have been about privilege (the idea that some of us are better off than others because of our social, economic and cultural positioning), intersectionality (the idea that -isms and -obias intersect and that sexism – the principle concern of feminists – does not exist in isolation to racism, classism, transphobia, homophobia etc.). Checking one’s privilege and decrying any feminism that isn’t intersectional have become the cornerstones of contemporary online feminism. This is important stuff – don’t get me wrong – so it’s not surprising that it has ended up in some pretty heated debate lately on twitter and elsewhere. You’ll have read all about it before now, I’d say, but I’ll summarise the latest bout for you: someone with a good deal of privilege herself blogged that it’s perhaps not always necessary to worry about your privilege or whether or not the issues you’re discussing intersect with other issues because, well, sometimes that’s just a bit complicated and difficult (or so I read it); she was challenged on her position (and rightly so for she was very wrong); she left twitter for a few days but not before many of her friends, it seems, had seen the challenges she had received and proceeded to challenge the challengers, often vilely and cruelly; tweeters and bloggers with considerably less privilege than her (in most cases) tried to stress the importance of checking one’s privilege; and so it goes on for a few days.
The original blog piece was very problematic; the blogger leaving twitter because she couldn’t face the criticism was also problematic (particularly so given the powerful voice she otherwise enjoys); the abuse that her challengers had to suffer from whoever the hell all those people were was stomach-churning at times; the challengers themselves were not necessarily (objectively) without fault in their approach; but that really is where I feel I must stop talking. And that’s why I’ve not commented at all thus far (oh, that and because I barely have time to sleep and eat these days). See, I am one of those card-carrying privileged women myself and, while I have a very good intellectual understanding of intersectional issues, I have seldom had to deal with any of them first-hand. The extent, then, to which I can comment upon the actions and approaches of those involved in challenging the original blogger is quite rightly limited – what I consider on only a theoretical level, most of the time, is part of some of their day-to-day lived experiences. That would be no easy living so it’s not for me to pass comment on how they go about their business – I’ve never been pushed into that sort of corner.
Most of the commentary which has emerged this week has been about tone rather than content (that is, the tone and language used in these debates rather than the substantive content of what’s been said). I’ve quoted some of these pieces below. Some of them have been helpful, and some of them less so. I’ll let you decide for yourself which is which.
I’ve come to learn something about myself over the last couple of months. Apparently, I am very underprivileged. As a mixed-race, gay woman, I’m pretty far down the privilege pecking order and as such, my life is beset with the inevitable problems that arise as a result of my minority status. I needn’t worry though. Should I feel ‘silenced’ or ‘oppressed’, it seems I can call on a group of Twitter freedom fighters, self-identified as Intersectional Feminists (IFs), who will jump in and ‘call out’ my oppressors. I’ve seen this happen a lot recently, and perhaps knowing they’ve ‘got my back’ should bring me comfort. But in fact, I find it hugely troubling, dangerous and infuriatingly condescending. Because while I acknowledge that on paper my life could seem potentially problematic, having lived it I quite like it.
Sure, I’ve suffered racism. I’ve missed out on jobs for no other discernible reason than the colour of my skin and felt my cheeks flush with anger when someone shouts something horrible at me. Because some people aren’t entirely OK about it, there are some places where I can’t openly hold my partner’s hand. And often, I see examples of sexism that make me question whether the feminist movement was simply a dream. But my life today is better than had I lived 50 years ago. In another 50 years, the race, gender and sexual orientation of someone like me will hopefully matter even less, as people continue fighting for equality. And I know that while there are people who’ve lived much peachier lives than mine, there are many, many more who have had it much tougher. So why do I feel as though I’m being pitied all the time? It’s never said outright but it’s implied by the way anyone with so-called privilege is constantly attacked. [Rest.]
I don’t think there is anything at all I can add to debates on feminism, twitter, intersectionality, privilege and bullying – other than that I think no one else can add much, either. It has reached a point where, in essence, in order to try and defend people I like without appearing to be “one of them” or “taking sides” I feel the only option is to defend them badly, with so many qualifications and ifs and buts that what I’m writing becomes impenetrable (or rather, it becomes terribly nuanced, so nuanced that anyone who so wishes can see a “hidden message” – and such a message can mean different things to different people). Hence there’s no point. If every single argument you make has no value because it’s just the kind of argument you would make – because your argument itself demonstrates your bias, hence invalidating itself – then there is absolutely no point in making an effort to connect. You might as well just patronize people by pretending to agree with them all the time or shut up.
To be perfectly honest, I think this has sod all to do with whatever blind spots and privileged assumptions we all, myself included, might have. If I was so bloody naïve, it wouldn’t be so easy to predict the kind of criticism I’m likely to bring on myself and/or others for saying this or that. It is really, really easy to predict these days, like having a vicious Microsoft paperclip pop up every now and then to ask you if you really want to risk writing something nice about X because that will upset Y and Z, who will then think it’s all to do with that one time X said something ambiguous to W, which will then mean that the “W incident” becomes a thing all over again, meaning that your desire to be nice about X has actually made X’s life a whole lot worse. So hey, don’t be nice about X, especially not if you like X. Niceness just isn’t worth risking in the twitter age. [Rest.]
From Zoe Williams (commentisfree):
This is a story about intersectionality. It’s going to displease a few people who don’t know what intersectionality is, annoy a few people who do, and enrage a load of people who don’t use Twitter. But I checked with my privilege, and my privilege said it was OK. (Don’t know what “check your privilege” means? This might turn out to be a problem for you, too). In January, an argument on Twitter started in the manner characteristic of, possibly unique to, that medium. Someone called historian Mary Beard a racist. Helen Lewis, the deputy editor of the New Statesman, asked what made Beard a racist. A small but persistent Twitter intersectionality-core rounded on Lewis, accusing her of mindlessly defending the establishment against outsiders, effectively using her platform in the mainstream to defend racists within feminism from the critical voices whom feminism ought properly to champion and defend.
That precis doesn’t quite evoke the tone of the attack: another Twitter feminist defended Lewis later with: “It is never OK to call another woman a vicious rancid bitch.” The fact that this needs to be said, in an argument between one feminist and another, makes me chuckle, though of course I won’t be chuckling if (when) it is said to me. A racist feminist just wouldn’t make sense. You can’t fight for equality on the basis of one innate characteristic without signing up to the precept that we’re all born equal. The problem was – and this happens quite a bit on Twitter – a mistake at the outset. Beard is not a racist. Lewis got annoyed and left Twitter this week, though only temporarily. It could be taken as an unfortunate misunderstanding, except for the obvious pattern; Suzanne Moore left Twitter after essentially the same argument, though it started not with perceived racism but with a remark that was taken to be transphobic.
Times columnist Caitlin Moran got on the wrong side of intersectionality when she said she “didn’t do race“. This made her a racist; also the mindless beneficiary of middle-class privilege, said critics. I weighed in, and said that not all feminists had to represent every perspective of feminism all the time. And middle class? She was raised on benefits. She’s rich now, came the reply, plus she has a platform; ergo, she’s part of the white, middle-class, straight, able-bodied, cis(gender) hegemony. To remain a true and respectful feminist with those privileges (never mind check them, it will take you long enough just to count them), your work must essentially be an act of atonement to all the people who are more marginalised than you are. As a feminist, you are occupying the space of the marginalised; to do so thoughtlessly is an act of trespass. [Rest.]
There’s clearly some deep misunderstandings going on amongst feminists and other lefty progressive types about what intersectionality is and what it demands. After all, the people who are troubled by the discourse of intersectionality are not white supremacists or Westboro Baptist style homophobes, but tend to be people with egalitarian political principles and a strong commitment to social justice. The more vocal proponents of intersectionality often explain this unease the rest of us have with it by reference to our implicit biases, and by the fact that those with power and privilege are usually reluctant to give it up, or feel uncomfortable having our prejudices pointed to out to us. While there is undoubtedly some truth in that, I think the intersectionality sceptics do have valid reasons to resist the doctrine, or at least, to resist it in the form in which its proponents usually present it. Privileged though white, middle class feminists may be, it’s rather uncharitable to assume that any discomfort with intersectionality is merely a symptom of our desperate (albeit implicit) desire to hold on to that privilege.
As I understand it, intersectionality refers to the fact that people have multiple aspects to their social identities and therefore experience multiple and complex forms of oppression. People can be oppressed on some dimensions while being privileged on others, and the various parts of our identities and the oppressions we face will interact in complex ways to create unique experiences of injustice. So far, so uncontroversial. It would be pretty difficult to deny that even though I experience some societal oppression as a woman, I am also advantaged by being white, middle-class and non-disabled, and that other women who don’t share these features of my identity will experience forms of domination and marginalization that I do not. As far as I can tell, there aren’t many people, feminist or otherwise, who would argue against this specific part of the intersectionality story. [Rest]
One argument I’ve seen is that using the very term intersectionality is offputting for anybody who is not an academic. I don’t accept that. It’s not a particularly difficult term or concept, and if you’re reading this on the internet then you have a Google search function. If you can make an iPhone work, download and play a song, understand what is meant by “wifi” or “jeggings” or “broadband” or “app” or any other term which has entered the language in the last 10 years, then you can understand intersectionality. Sniffing at feminist terms as “too academic” is just another way of dismissing us as a bunch of bluestockings far removed from the ‘real world.’ Sorry.
Having said that, we should not use accusations of lack of intersectionality as a lazy shorthand for a bad faith argument. One of the criticisms levelled at non-intersectional feminists is that they are ‘fun feminists,’ women who are only interested in other women like them (see: criticisms of the Vagenda). It goes without saying that if this was the only sort of feminism on offer, it would be a disaster, but there is room for pop-feminism within the wider movement: women and girls who come to feminism through experimenting with body hair or menstruation resources may well be the academic feminists or career politicians of tomorrow. We all start somewhere, and somewhere is usually with our own experiences and anxieties.
And we should not bully those who haven’t got it yet. It’s much easier, and much kinder, to ask “And what about <other> women?” than to say “OMG you are SO lacking intersectionality!” which leaves the offender entirely unaware of what she has or hasn’t done. By way of analogy, I used to have an art teacher who was able to tell me that my work was crap (it was) but not how to make it better. It put me right off art. Intersectionality is a great concept, which finally requires the white, middle-class face of feminism to see more than just her own face reflected in the mirror, and it should not be reduced to a fashionable buzzword to sneer at others. [.]
Finally, from flyingontherainbow.com:
My problem with intersectionality is twofold. Firstly, it is as yet little understood. We need to do much more in that regard to bring it out of the lecture theatre and into life .My second problem is the fact that the theory is borne out of disenfranchisement alone. Everybody even though they are part of a minority group, or more than one, will have massively different autobiographies and life experiences too. Surely the objective ought to be to become enfranchised too? Yes, there are times when collective, intersectional action is important. But we must ensure that we do not allow our precious, personal identities to become absorbed into groupthink. We do so at our peril.
If we acknowledge that not everyone is going to be an expert on intersectionality from the word go, and might make mistakes we are making progress. Or, if we could acknowledge that somebody could hold an opinion you disagree with, without a thousand strong Twitter mob piling on them, that would be yet further progress, and a progress orgasm if you realised they were just as intersectional as you. [Rest.]
(Clue: I think they’re all pretty helpful apart from Zoe Williams’ piece which was rather too apologetic for her friends for my liking.)