Where Twitter and Feminism Meet
Editor’s Note: Michelle Goldberg’s cover story on the explosive interaction between feminist activism and Twitter kicked up a roiling debate about how social media can empower grassroots feminists and shake up the established feminist agenda—while keeping the movement focused and effective in the fight for gender equality. Since that piece appeared, the social media platform has played host to ever more outbreaks of organizing, consciousness-raising, and outrage. Many women told Goldberg that Twitter facilitates an ideological policing that borders on bullying and makes candid conversation impossible. And yet Twitter campaigns have sparked public outcry as ordinary women use it to reach wide audiences with their stories of abortion, sexual assault, racial stereotyping, and more. How can feminists grapple with the limitations inherent in the medium, while exploiting its potential to build support for critical fights? We invited four women—Andrea Smith, Mariame Kaba, Lori Adelman and Roxane Gay—to respond to the piece, and reflect on the role Twitter will and should play as the feminist movement continues to grow.
Each of us has been engaged in feminist, anti-racist, anti-heterosexist organizing for over twenty years, and we do not recall a time when our organizing has not been fraught. Before the advent of social media, instead of 140-character tweets, we and our comrades wrote “open letters to (some) white feminists” who were engaged in the same exclusionary, hostile and generally oppressive behaviors as today. Some of these include the appropriation of feminists of color theories without attribution, intentionally excluding marginalized feminists of color from public forums (such as publications, conferences, etc), tokenizing the inclusion of feminists of color in feminist venues, and derailing valid critiques through personal attacks. Organizing has always entailed political and ideological contestation.
What has changed through the development of social media is the immediacy of the pushback and its more democratic nature. Social media offers the opportunity to expand our platforms to discuss ideas that can encompass thousands of individuals rather than the small and sometimes insular groups of people with whom we work. Social media also offers opportunities for some who do not have access to traditional publishing venues nor the resources to travel to share ideas beyond their geographic locales.
As such, we are deeply suspicious of narratives that claim that there were “good old days” when things were much simpler and nicer. For the marginalized, the “good old days” are a lie. The world was and is currently structured by white supremacy, settler colonialism, heterosexism and patriarchy. So, the complaint that social media has become “toxic” and is therefore no longer a “safe space” strikes us as ahistorical and strange. How can social media exist independently of the dynamics and forces of oppression that structure the world at large? The answer is simple: it does not and cannot. Feminists of color know that when we are not on “toxic Twitter,” there is no other place we can go where we won’t have to deal with the intersecting forces of racism, sexism and capitalism. There is no safe space from oppression anywhere. Thus, calls for “safe spaces” from toxicity are ultimately attempts to reinforce the status quo by those who have the privilege to avoid individuals that trouble and challenge them. Rather than build movements to end all structures of oppression that cause societal toxicity (such as ending mass incarceration, gender violence and economic exploitation) we are invited to create artificial “safe” havens that amount to exclusive clubs. As Christina Hanhardt notes in her germinal book, Safe Space, these calls for safe space end up becoming both protectionist and carceral moves to excise those generally racialized populations that pollute the safe spaces of those who are more privileged. She states: “Safety is commonly imaged as a condition of no challenge or stakes, a state of being that might be best described as protectionist.”
And who are the culprits who are making social media toxic? In Michelle Goldberg’s Nation article, it’s clear (to us) that, despite the range of feminists interviewed, ultimately the people who are making Twitter toxic are some Black feminists in particular, given that the article centers on one Black feminist as THE main embodiment of her article’s thesis. (We are sure that other contributors will address their reading of the article). Calling out racism within feminist circles is unfairly portrayed as bullying. The implicit and perhaps even explicit threat looming in the article is if some Black feminists do not stop being “bullies,” white women and their allies will leave (online?) feminism. But this assumes that feminism is a country club rather than a politics committed to dismantling the structures of patriarchy as they intersect with all other forms of oppression. The threat to pick up one’s ball and go (where?) also seems to imply that white women are and should be the center of feminist politic and that women of color are its appendages or supporting cast. Now that feminists of color, Black feminists in particular, have moved into the online feminist neighborhood, white feminists must now flee for the post-feminist hinterlands (somewhere off Twitter presumably). The concept of social media “white flight” permeates a number of recent articles about the (current) toxicity of social media. This threat implies that feminism is being imaged as a safe space for the affirmation of (white) women rather than a politics based on dismantling patriarchal oppression. This is not a project to which we subscribe. There is no problem with social media that the dismantling of overall structures of oppression in the world at large won’t solve. We should continue this work.
‘Hostility Aside, We Need Meta-Conversations About Feminism,’ Lori Adelman
Last fall, Twitter, the online social networking and micro-blogging service, became a publicly traded company. When Twitter’s financial filings revealed a dearth of women in top positions at the company, public condemnation was swift. The issue was decried in a rather devastating series of articles in The New York Times, among other publications. As the Times wrote, “The board? All white men. The investors? All men. The executive officers? All men but for the general counsel, Vijaya Gadde, who has had the job for five weeks.” It was especially insulting considering that women and black people are overrepresented as users of social media, including on Twitter. (On December 5, Twitter named its first female board member.)
Twitter’s sexism problem was not mentioned in the much-discussed cover story published by this magazine, which characterized the site as playing host to a series of inter-feminist disagreements dubbed the “Toxic Twitter Wars.” Journalist Michelle Goldberg described a climate of “coruscating anger and contempt” directed at “floored” feminists despite their best efforts to be “earnest and studiously politically correct.” In closing, Goldberg quotes Jezebel founder Anna Holmes saying she would never start a women’s website today.
Is the intra-feminist debate described in Goldberg’s piece a new phenomenon? It’s hard to tell; perhaps it’s simply more visible in our digital age. Increased attention to how we engage, critique and dialogue with each other as feminists can also be attributed, at least in part, to a numbers game: feminists are fighting more often because our movement has grown, and so there are more of us to disagree with, and more spaces to disagree in. Feminism is also enjoying a hard-won moment of mainstream popularity, which can translate into a core base feeling alienated from its own movement, or disagreements taking on a higher sense of import.
Whatever their inspiration, it’s clear that meta-conversations about feminism—including intra-movement critiques—while sometimes hard and, yes, hostile, are an indisputable and valuable part of the current wave, or “waves,” of feminist activism, for many reasons, not the least of which being that they help the movement reflect, self-correct and grow. A movement’s inner workings including processes, strategies, goal-setting and organizing tactics all have huge impact on the social change that ensues, and they are almost always worthy of all the dialogue we can muster.
Twitter acts as a microcosm (and a fishbowl) for how these issues play out more broadly in the world. While it’s undeniable that Twitter—along with other online spaces—have helped elevate the voices of marginalized communities and offered new venues for feminist action, it also sees its fair share of racism and bullying behavior—both of which, though certainly not unique to feminism, have long been plaguing our movement.
As intra-feminist disagreement takes center stage in the mainstream media, crucial context for journalists is that this dialogue is informed by a vast scarcity of resources and opportunities endemic to our deeply sexist society. You can’t talk about intra-movement conversations happening in online platforms without talking about the majority white, male multi-billion dollar tech companies that built said platforms. That is to say, you can’t talk about feminism without also talking about the oppression it seeks to eliminate: Twitter the company cannot be separated from Twitter the tool. The company’s representation problem is one small example of the broader problem at hand—sexism, racism, misogyny and gender-based oppression— that feminists are working to address, with very few resources available to them relative to the people who are perpetuating injustice. Though we’ve come a long way in making progress on some feminist issues, gender-based oppression persists: from Arizona to South Dakota to Wisconsin, from Mexico to Uganda, from the boardroom to college campuses, from Facebook to the literary world to the mainstream media.
There is a particular stress, well-known among activists, feminist or otherwise, that comes from fighting very tough social battles day in and day out, on Twitter or in any space, with inadequate financial, institutional and emotional resources. That’s not to excuse bullying behavior, which I can attest is real and devastating, but to put such behavior, especially among feminists, in its proper context.
As feminists are left to fight for scraps on a platform that was not made by or for us, it’s worth remembering that the meta-dialogue, though important, should not be conflated with the feminist movement itself. The debate around how feminism happens (is it centering the voices of people of color? are its tactics sustainable?) is but one component of the vitally important work of the movement—which continues, often without much fanfare, day in and day out, across the globe and on various media platforms, by diverse activists. They include restaurant workers organizing for better wages; campus activists successfully petitioning the White House to take action against rape and sexual assault in their communities; trans activists and allies calling out privilege and transmisogyny in mainstream media; passionate writers and activists coming together to build an independent, intersectional and sustainable feminist platform; and so, so, so many more. Their work deserves coverage and attention everyday—not just when there’s “dissension in the ranks.”
A few weeks ago, my Twitter timeline was flooded with wonderful quotes from the famed black feminist Audre Lorde, on the occasion of what would have been her 80th birthday. One after another, pearls of wisdom seeped into my day: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self preservation”; “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive”; and one of my personal favorites, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” In absence of a feminist utopia, we do what we can to make such tools work for us. And Twitter, at turns cathartic, toxic, mundane, silly, revealing and crucial, can be best understood as one “tool” among many imperfect ones figuring into our modern feminist movement as we strive to fight gender-based oppression on multiple fronts: in 140-character bursts, in 600-word blog posts, in 200-page books, on the streets, at our workplaces, in our homes, and into the future.
‘The Matter of Language,’ Roxane Gay
Recent discussions in feminism have gotten me thinking about language, and how all too often, language is used as a weapon instead of a bridge. All too often, language forces us apart instead of bringing us together. I agreed with much of what Michelle Goldberg wrote in her Nation cover story but I took issue with some of her language choices—particularly the language meant to inflame rather than inform. Framing the debates within feminism as a “war” for example, implies a level of discord disproportionate to what is actually taking place within feminism and particularly online.
War is war—violent, bloody, mortal. What is happening within feminism is not war; it is disagreement, sometimes contentious. These are growing pains—as feminism becomes what it should have always been—intersectional and inclusive. When we try to sensationalize feminist discord and debate, we diminish ourselves. We diminish our aims.
I remain excited by how feminism is evolving. Social media and online platforms have empowered the voices that were, for far too long, overlooked by so-called “mainstream” feminism. Social media has made it possible for many streams of feminism to coexist instead of merely a mainstream. Women of color, queer women, working class women, transgender women are all finding ways to insert ourselves into the feminist conversation, and more importantly, direct feminist conversations toward the issues that are most critical to our communities. The importance and necessity of this direction cannot be overlooked.
Certainly, tensions arise when so many voices are heard but tension is not necessarily a bad thing. We don’t have to all like each other. We don’t need to get along to still be strong feminist voices, to still have important things to say, to earn and hold respect for one another.
What we do need to do, though, is be more careful about how we use language. We are not at war, so let’s not act like we are. We need to listen as much as we speak up. We need to talk to each other instead of over each other. We need to be able to disagree without completely dismissing the ideas with which we disagree. We need to stop cherry picking and manipulating the words of others to suit our own purposes. We need to stop moving goal posts as we try to effect change. This is asking a lot from all of us. It’s asking us to be our best selves for the sake of feminism, the world we live in, and how we are welcomed into that world. Particularly online, language is the best tool we have, so we need to use it in ways that befit language’s importance.