Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars
In some ways, the fact that people are being mean to each other on Twitter is hardly worthy of comment. Still, as the #Femfuture report attempted to point out, the Internet is where a lot of contemporary feminist activism is happening. “The Internet is the modern-day agora,” says Cross, who studies online social dynamics in her academic work. “It is increasingly a place where so many people are coming together and doing very meaningful, very real things, so that the social patterns prevailing on the Internet are of interest to everybody.”
Further, as Cross says, “this goes to the heart of the efficacy of radical movements.” After all, this is hardly the first time that feminism—to say nothing of other left-wing movements—has been racked by furious contentions over ideological purity. Many second-wave feminist groups tore themselves apart by denouncing and ostracizing members who demonstrated too much ambition or presumed to act as leaders. As the radical second-waver Ti-Grace Atkinson famously put it: “Sisterhood is powerful. It kills. Mostly sisters.”
In “Trashing: The Dark Side of Sisterhood,” a 1976 Ms. magazine article, Jo Freeman described how feminists of her generation destroyed one another. Trashing, she wrote, is “accomplished by making you feel that your very existence is inimical to the Movement and that nothing can change this short of ceasing to exist. These feelings are reinforced when you are isolated from your friends as they become convinced that their association with you is similarly inimical to the Movement and to themselves. Any support of you will taint them…. You are reduced to a mere parody of your previous self.”
Like the authors of #Femfuture, Freeman was trashed for presuming to represent feminism without explicit sanction, in this case of the group she’d founded with Shulamith Firestone. It began, she told me, when the left-wing magazine Ramparts published a neck-down picture of a woman in a leotard with a button hanging from one breast. The group decided to write a letter to the editor. Four members drafted one without Freeman’s knowledge, and when they presented it to the rest of the group, she realized it was too long and would never be printed. Freeman had magazine experience, and she decided to write a pithier letter of her own under her movement name, Joreen. When Ramparts published it but not the other one, the women in her group were apoplectic, and Freeman was excoriated at their next meeting. “That was a public trashing,” she says. “I was horrible, disloyal, a traitor.” It went beyond mere criticism: “There’s a difference between trashing someone and challenging them. You can challenge someone’s idea. When you’re trashing someone, you’re essentially saying they’re a bad person.”
For feminists today, knowing that others have been through similar things is not necessarily comforting. “Some of it is the product of new technologies that create more shallow relationships, and some of it feels like this age-old conundrum within feminism,” Martin says. “How do we disentangle what part is about social media and what part is about the way women interact with one another? If there’s something inherent about the way women work within movements that makes us assholes to each other, that is incredibly sad.”
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There’s a shorthand way of talking about online feminist arguments that pits middle-class white women against all the groups they oppress. Clearly, there’s some truth here: privileged white people dominate feminism, just as they do most other sectors of American life. Brittney Cooper, an assistant professor at Rutgers and co-founder of the Crunk Feminist Collective blog, is one of the black women who participated in #Femfuture, and she has spoken out against the viciousness that dominates Twitter. But she also emphasizes that the resentment expressed online is rooted in something real.
“I want to be clear: I think there’s an actual injury,” Cooper says. The online feminist efflorescence a few years back led to book deals and writing careers for far more white women than women of color. “Black women are brought into these mainstream feminist websites to bring a little bit of color or a little bit of diversity, but that doesn’t parlay into other career advancement opportunities.” On Twitter, by contrast, women of color, trans women and other people who feel silenced can amplify one another’s voices, talking back to people with power in an unparalleled way.
That doesn’t mean, though, that social media’s climate of perpetual outrage and hair-trigger offense is constructive. “There is a problem with toxicity on Twitter and in social media,” Cooper says. “I think we have to say that. I’m not sure that black women are benefiting from the toxicity.”
After all, it’s not just privileged white women who find themselves on the wrong side of an online trashing. The prospect can be particularly devastating for marginalized people who depend on the Internet for community. As an academic, Cross studies the terrifying harassment many women face from sexist trolls, but she says that putative allies can be nearly as intimidating.
Being targeted by other activists, she says, “leaves you feeling threatened in the sense that you’re getting turned out of your own home…. The one place that you are able to look to for safety, where you were valued, where there is a lot less of the structural prejudice that makes you feel so outcast in the rest of the world—that’s now been closed to you. That you now have this terrible reputation… I know a lot of friends that live in fear of that.”
If your professional life is tied up with activism, the threat is redoubled. “To suddenly be tarred by the very people that I’m supposed to be able to work with, my allies, as being a sellout or being infatuated with power or being an apologist for this, that and the other privilege—if that kind of reputation gets around, its extremely damaging,” says Cross.
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