Challenging Feminist Groupthink

by cacophonies

I’m of the mindset that for any social movement to be effective, supporters– especially people who identify as a member of the group that is fighting for any kind of rights or better treatment– must be willing to educate the people whose support they would most benefit from. It helps absolutely no one to make every attempt to alienate anyone. A prime example would be the “groupthink” mentality of most groups– namely, modern feminism. With the language used on many feminist blogs and in many feminist circles these days, you’d almost have to assume that these “feminists” don’t actually want to further their cause, or achieve any kind of equality. They seem to go out of their way to make sure that anyone who could be of help to their cause (like the people responsible for perpetuating sexist behavior) are effectively removed from their realm of education and discussion.

For those of you who are not already readers of Feministe, they often have guest-bloggers who post for a week or so about various issues, from varying perspectives. It’s a pretty great idea, and usually works out well. I’ve touched on it a bit with Queen Emily‘s introduction/ensuing comment hell, and written a follow-up post about the way that commenters were treated by the regular commentariat and moderators, and how the general treatment– or even the allowance of those comments to be published in the first place– is problematic and ultimately detracts from the point at hand.

One guest-blogger, Miranda, caught my attention, though, as she’s pretty young as far as standard good bloggers/writers are concerned. She’s an excellent writer, and from what I’ve read, quite knowledgeable.

Some of Miranda’s posts have been related to youth- or teenage-centered topics, which is great, because we can talk about young women and issues they face all day long, but it’s far more valuable to have a (I am assuming) 16- or 17-year-old actually speaking from her perspective.

The other day, Miranda posted what seemed, at face value, to be a thoughtful post about womanism, and appropriate language for white feminist-identified woman to use to show their support for womanism. She used the blog’s wide readership to basically ask what kind of identifier would be most appropriate for her to adopt. Is it better to say she’s a womanist ally, a womanism supporter, etc.?

The commentariat did, of course, find several ways to tell her that she was very wrong in even posting that piece in the first place, and that it was a very glaring reminder of her white privilege. To be fair, there was some reading and effort needed that Miranda didn’t seem to get to before writing that post, but the comments nearly made that point completely irrelevant by turning it from a suggestion to a personal attack and insulting her intelligence and displaying blatant ageism.

…This isn’t just a rant about Feministe’s groupthink behavior or PCer-than-though attitude, though. This time, several people spoke up with thoughtful, arguably sensical complaints about the idea that people belonging to oppressed groups should never be expected, or even respectfully asked, to even minorly help aid in the education of a person who has more privilege than they do (in relation to the question being asked; in this case, race). For context, here’s what Miranda asks in her original post:

I want your insight on how we can acknowledge the ways The Feminist Movement has and continues to fuck up, while still identifying with its goals. Specifically, I’m wondering how I, a white woman, can acknowledge the dire need for womanism without stepping on the toes of women activists of color.

One question, for commenters of all demographics, with particular emphasis on WOC/self-identified womanists: is it fair to call myself a pro-womanist feminist, as a move towards accomplishing these goals? If not, how else can I humbly and respectfully identify myself?

There are a few suggestions and ideas, then Caoimhe Ora Snow responds to Miranda’s question with this:

Probably makes sense to ask the womanists you support, rather than here at a non-womanist site?

I’m just sayin’.

Miranda responds directly to this criticism by informing her that she has emailed two prominent bloggers, who are women of color, and asked them the same question. (Renee from WomanistMusings responded to Miranda’s email via a post on her own blog.)

Fair enough, right? Unfortunately, Caoimhe was wrong (according to other commenters) in instructing Miranda to ask anyone questions. No one calls Caoimhe out on this, though. My guess is that it’s because s/he’s already criticizing the original poster on her unintentional display of privilege, so she’s gained points within the community for calling someone out, and therefore is privileged enough to avoid criticism or her own call-outs. But the following comments take it from there, further criticizing Miranda for daring to ask women of color what they would feel comfortable with in terms of how she, as a white woman, identifies herself when it comes to being a supporter of womanism. Allison gently informs her that:

I know this might seem like a post that aims for nuance and complexity, but in asking for Renee or Tami to give you “input” — you are asking both of them to instruct you on language. It is not their job to teach you or provide you with a consise label for your activism.

..and is very gracious in providing several links where she feels Miranda should have consulted instead. Restructure! finds it appropriate and useful to inform Miranda that:

I got here via twitter expecting something insightful, but I find a white woman’s mini biography. The part about actual womanism is quoting a random Womanist Musings post, which I’ve read before, a long time ago.

Allison further explains that

It is a function of privilege to request someone’s input, knowledge, and experience to serve as your guiding post for philosophy.

ZC uses the “insults and ad hominem attacks work better than constructive criticism” method, complete with patronizing reassurances about eventually learning how to be a real, smart person when she calls Miranda names:

Well, Miranda, sometimes it sucks being young and dumb, but fortunately we got to read some great links as a result of you sticking your neck out, including the fantastic We Don’t Need Another Racism 101. That’s it. Labels don’t matter, actions do. Live your convictions whatever the hell they’re called and learn from everyone. I stopped calling myself a feminist a long time ago, and decided to BE one instead.

The blatant contradiction that ZC has posed, where s/he states that it’s not important what you call yourself (since we are constantly inundated with new, more appropriate things to call ourselves), can be left for later.

There are, of course, many more ways in which Miranda is criticized for asking how to be respectful toward people over whom she holds privilege, but I don’t want to copy and paste the whole post, so I’ll get to my point:

None of these comments suggest an alternative to Miranda’s supposedly disrespectful and problematic questions other than “read.” No one even went so far as to let her know how it is that she should be expected to know what to read, and where to find it (although a few did provide a couple of links that they themselves were already familiar with fr one unknown reason or another– prefaced by a snarky remark about how easy it was to Google it). Fortunately, like a breath of fresh air, we see several commenters sticking up for her (in indirect ways) by intelligently and clearly critiquing the expectation that privileged people should automatically be aware of their privilege, be okay with being considered an ass hole by everyone all the time, and not ask questions. Manju, who is presumably a woman of color, counters:

of all the new-fangled anti-racist rules out there, the one that leaves me the most gobsmacked is the “don’t ask POC for instruction” or its many variants.

its totally counter intuitive, to the point that anyone who’s outside the narrow echo-chamber of the radical left would find it preposterous. And i suspect that includes the vast majority of POC. Has there been some survey indicating we find this offensive? normally asking for instruction is a totally respectful thing to do

Shah8 is very insightful and makes many good points when s/he says,

While I understand very much about the whole privilege of asking for the signposts as if you were tourists asking for assistance from the native guides, I think this issue can be abused the other way around. I think that context and judgement is really important in deciding how to handle n00b questions.

I hate insular behavior, and creating “safe spaces” gives you the right be *curt*, not abusive.

We should always judge whether the n00b is an asshole, rather than assume so. The latter is treehouse politics.

(emphasis mine)

Tumbril says it well with:

All these syntax games and competing to see who can be the most sensitive, and of course, call out others on their insensitivity, making you their moral superior and in a position to lecture them, are really unhelpful. Do we want people to know what we’re talking about so we can affect change, or do we want to impress each other with an ever-expanding plethora of labels and sub-categories that mean absolutely nothing to anyone other than us?

(again, emphasis mine)

I’m happy to see that, while it’s important to be inclusive and respectful in language and considerations, people are finally speaking up in larger numbers about being consistently expected to grovel at the feel of anyone over whom they hold any kind of privilege, to beg forgiveness for merely existing. Miranda is clearly not an asshole, and should not be treated as such unless (not until) she proves herself otherwise. Who wouldn’t expect that treatment?

Piny from Feministe wrote a quite controversial post challenging a trans woman of color who was notorious around her circles for being unreasonably rude, mean, and insulting to everyone, and using her oppressed status as an excuse for that behavior. The comment thread ended up ripping Piny a new one in several ways, but ultimately, Piny had the guts to come right out and call a woman out for using her oppressed status to abuse other people. While it angered many people, it’s clear that it also got a lot of other people really thinking, and potentially reconsidering their propensity to be loud-mouthed assholes to everyone without considering whether or not they actually deserve it.

I’m glad to see that some people are really embracing the idea that groupthink just isn’t a very good idea.

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24 responses to “Challenging Feminist Groupthink

  1. I hadn’t read through that thread, but thanks for posting this (which made me go back through and do a little research).

    It’s not my place to get involved with such discussions, but more importantly, I most certainly wouldn’t, even if I weren’t a white man. I find certain folks discussion on these matters utterly counterproductive and a complete waste of time/diversion from ACTUAL real-life political movements for equality. Most of these musings are just that–musings. No action. What’s frustrating to watch as an outsider/ally, and some one who is making a career based on the study of social movements and political mobilization, is to see folks strike down honest questions from a 17 year old with sheer hate.

    The study of white privilege is something I do as a career–not to pass the time online. So when I read Renee’s work (which I try to avoid more often than not), and see her comments, and watch her allegedly “call out privilege,” it saddens me to see actual mobilization stymied. I like what you say in this post–challenging privilege, challenging groupthink, thinking deeply about these issues–but what some folks forget about is productive discourse.

    The internet is increasingly becoming a great place to build a movement. But it’s not going to be the movement in and of itself. Forums and community building, as you outline here, are an important start. But there’s actual, real life action and meetings and mobilization that needs to follow.

    Thanks for alerting me to all of this, and thanks for your comments.

  2. missincognegro

    I think that Jeremy bottles the answer.

    On one such feminist site, there was a post about the situation at The Valley Club. I’m sure you read about it. Anyway, commenter after commenter expressed her disgust and outrage. Until I posted, and said, “If each of you is as outraged and disgusted as you say you are, contact The Valley Club, and tell them.” Well, suddenly, words became action. However, it’s sad that it took me as the 21st commenter to make the suggestion, and that it had not occurred to anyone, not even the writer of the post in question.

    • i hear ya, but a movement requires much more. Social movements in this country and beyond have taken advantage of any combination of the following factors (among others): elite resources and money, clever framing of certain issues that bring many divergent groups together, national political realignments (think: Dixiecrat exodus to the republican party), effective leadership, mass media attention, and on and on. No single social movement has been effective by alienating constituencies with nominally related interests–at least they have been successful in enacting any of the “real change” that Renee continually references. Calling the Valley Swim Club merely exposes that racism still exists in this country; it doesn’t challenge white hegemony, it doesn’t challenge institutional racism, and it doesn’t get more folks mobilized as a cohesive movement. And this doesnt make such efforts any less admirable, nor does it challenge your (correct) assertion that mainstream feminists are guilty of a whole heckuva lotta racial privilege. But it does not make this so-called Womanist movement any more of an actual social movement, by any measure of “real change.” Other folks may actually disagree with me, but I’m all for “safe spaces” for groups–including whites–to get together and hash out sensitive issues. But this alone does not make a movement of any kind, radical or otherwise. It makes words, or sporadic action. There’s no planning, no meeting of the minds, no coming together. There’s no collective, sustainable action.There’s no real undertsanding of how big the community is, or who’s in it. *To suggest working together is not to exert or exude privilege when, in fact, your intentions are to actually have a sustainable, real life movement.* It’s almost insulting for this to be called a movement. I agree with you, missincognegro, on pretty much everything. And I’ve read a lot of research on the women’s movement(s) in different periods, beyond internet musings. And I know about white co-optation. But I just can’t get over how unproductive Renee’s vitriol is, especially when directed to such a young aspiring social activist. It’s sad, and disheartening, because I have really no idea what “movement” she is trying to build.

      • Sentence #3 should read “–at least the HAVEN’T been successful…” Sorry for the rant!

      • I’m glad you stopped by… what you said is really important and addresses so many important points.

        I just read her reply post and must say, I was actually kind of surprised by just how insanely hateful it was. Complete with cookies at the end.

        No single social movement has been effective by alienating constituencies with nominally related interests

        Yes, totally. What is it with these modern social movements in their thinking that this is somehow a better way to accomplish things? It actually just does. not. work. It amounts to nothing but a bunch of jaded, pissed off cynics bitching with one another on a bloody comment thread, waiting for the first unassuming n00b with an honest question to come strolling in, thinking that they’ll actually be treated with basic human decency and respect– you know, the very thing that these feminists are demanding from the society that we live in, but instead are yelled right out of the discussion, where they scowl at their computer and declare all feminists to be crazy, mean assholes. I sure did, and it took me a long time to really get over that and realize that that isn’t feminism. That’s just misdirected hatred.

        What happened to consciousness-raising? These blogs often claim to be doing just that, when all they’re doing is one-upping each other on who can give the snarkiest insult to a well-meaning people who wants to be involved and fight on our/their side.

        You’ve got it so right. We have to go out and actively engage people, actively educate people, and everyone needs to take a step off of their high horse and get their hands dirty. I’m personally not willing to sit around waiting for the people in charge (who every the current enemy may be– racist white people, sexist men, homophobic elderly people, etc.) to just “figure it out” on their own, while I type about how irritated I am that it’s taking so long. What a waste of time.

        …Furthermore, “activism” doesn’t mean standing on the corner, holding signs and screaming. While that can be effective (I get chills seeing protests of any kind– they are definitely powerful), it’s far from enough.

    • I think I read that post. And you’ve got a huge point. That’s a big deal, call them, how easy is that? I for one know that if I were the one answering that phone call, I’d pee my pants. I’d have no idea what to say in response to such a direct statement about how wrong something was that I actually had a part in.

      It seems that everyone would rather sit around bitching than actually taking any steps, even the most simple of them, to make relevant change.

  3. You know I read that post over there and I have to say that I was pretty disgusted by some of those responses. I know some of them were trying to be helpful without sounding mean but there were quite a few that sounded like they were more concerned with calling someone out than actually setting someone right. Its almost as if it is not okay to hide a bit of venom under the guise of “calling out” in order to get away with a snarky remark without getting called on it. And since this talk is about Feministe I’ll just say that that blog is by no means the only place such things happen. You’re right in saying that groupthink is a very dangerous thing.

    • I’ve noticed for sure that there are so many other blogs like that. Ballgame from FeministCritics, for example, wrote a post called Don’t Serve Wine With Dinner, in response to a brutal and completely irrational series of comments from a Shakesville post, and I was appalled to realize that Shakesville’s commenters would even be so… like that. I don’t frequent the site, but I’m familiar with it and have read a few posts that I’ve found enlightening in some way or another, and this just threw me over the edge. None of it made sense. At all.

      Then there’s The Curvature, Feministing (even though I’ve defended contributors from both against unreasonable attacks like the ones referenced on Feministe the other day)… it’s unreal.

      I really, really hope that we’re starting to move past this.

      • I hope so as well. So much hypocrisy, double speak, and anger, and of course groupthink poison those sites that it can be hard to get anything useful out of them but there are indeed good things to be found at those places.

  4. missincognegro

    There’s the saying, “The oppressed oppress the oppressed.”

    The more I read these so-called activist feminist blogs, the more I believe that the vitriol, snark, and one-up womanship really gets in the way of what they say they’re trying to do, which is to raise consciousness. Well, you don’t raise concsiciousness by turning the hose on the very people who are coming to your blog, and who are striving to learn, and who very well may join your cause.

  5. elementary_watson

    Great post, cacophonies, and here’s hoping that the right people read it and consider it.

    You write: “Miranda is clearly not an asshole, and should not be treated as such unless (not until!) she proves herself otherwise. Who wouldn’t expect that treatment?”

    Sometimes I get the feeling that this expectation is a function of privilege in itself, and I can even see the logic behind it: Yes, there are groups whose members can’t expect not to be treated as assholes, so it *is* a privilege to be treated as a decent human being unless proved otherwise.

    However, by retaliation the only thing you get is a vicious circle which gets harder and harder to break, especially when the retaliation comes again the very people who try to break it.

    • Sometimes I get the feeling that this expectation is a function of privilege in itself, and I can even see the logic behind it: Yes, there are groups whose members can’t expect not to be treated as assholes, so it *is* a privilege to be treated as a decent human being unless proved otherwise.

      That’s a good point that I hadn’t considered.

      On the other hand, though, when people are treated as assholes who do not expect to be treated that way unless they prove themselves to be one, they are, in effect, losing that privilege by being treated in that manner.

  6. This is arguably the best post that Nice Feminist has made, and I sincerely appreciate all of the comments given.

    In a funny way (given the nature of our digitalized communication) this type of thinking IS a movement “of sorts” in that a group of people who otherwise would feel outnumbered are asserting a common good which needs reinfercement. Reinforcement that can be achieved here on the internet via discussion. This is a very encouraging discussion, and I, along with others, am happy to see it happening.

  7. This certainly matches my experiences with not just online feminism, but online politics in general. There’s an element of tribalism, in that anything foreign (person, or idea) is initially greeted with hostility until deemed worthy of better treatment. Typically a person will not be accepted until they’ve deferred to the existing establishment, regardless of the quality of the ideas they put forth. An idea won’t be considered until it’s supported by a member of the existing establishment, regardless of it’s merit. This group behaviour is typically a conservative trait, which makes it quite disappointing to so often see it in progressive movements such as feminism.

    It’s my understanding that this hyper-defensive nature is a reaction to the general lawlessness of the internet, and the corresponding irrational and aggressive comments that a political site will encounter. As a sites’ reputation increases the number of comments will grow much faster than the ability of the site to reasonably moderate, leading to part reliance of a crowd souring approach to moderation. As with mob-rule approaches, the quality of the moderation will be limited by the lowest common denominator within the mob.

    Where I think this is amplified within feminist sites, is the general acceptance of the notion of privilege. I’m not referring to the notion that different groups of people will have different experiences and hence may not have innate awareness of certain issues. Rather its use to imply that one cannot gain understanding of foreign experiences and the corresponding assumption of bias and inability to fairly discuss topics pertaining to the privilege. This is used as a justification to ridicule the poster and dismiss any argument, no matter how valid.

    I think the quote from Tumbril points out another key driver of the tribal behavoiur. Some people will be posting, not to further a political cause or out of intellectual curiosity, but to satisfy psychological needs such as a sense of belonging or self worth. This will be especially so for feminism as it covers many very personal topics, and the personal reasons that will motivate people towards feminist sites.

    It’s refreshing to find a feminist site so open to new ideas rather than focusing on telling everyone “How it is.”.

    • That was a very interesting and enlightening addition to the discussion desipis. Thanks for chiming in!

      (truthfully, I am more than likely guilty of one behavior you described thusly: “Some people will be posting, not to further a political cause or out of intellectual curiosity, but to satisfy psychological needs such as a sense of belonging or self worth..”

      Quite thought provoking.

      • I’d guess that we’re all guilty of that in one way or another imnotme. It tends to only become a problem where one allows these personal motivations to interfere with the purpose of the site.

  8. This was a really interesting post and that “Don’t Serve Wine With Dinner” Link was awesome. I’ve had similar problems with Shakesville and other sites that think any disagreement means they have the right to personally attack you. I find it all a bit disheartening and wonder how their brains are capable of rationalizing such a glaring dichotomy.

  9. A self declared n00b has to say thank you for this. I only recently started reading a series of blogs on social activism. I’ve always been a ‘left wing thinker’, but I didn’t have the courage(?) to really consider joining or participating in any movements until recently.

    Feministe is one of the blogs I was directed to by friends who read and comment there regularly, and Miranda’s post was one of the first I encountered. After reading the comments there, I became very wary of saying anything at all. From what I’ve seen, no matter how much I read or educate myself, if I disagree with someone in a comment thread – or ask a question – the only response will be ‘go read a 101’, in varying degrees of condescension or rudeness.

    And I’m not saying it was only at Feministe that this happened. I’ve seen it on most of the other blogs I was directed to, as well as the ones I’ve sought out on my own.

    I’ll keep reading, because I think it is important for me to be aware and to educate myself, but I doubt I will participate in any useful way. Why should I bother if I won’t be welcomed?

    • From what I’ve seen, no matter how much I read or educate myself, if I disagree with someone in a comment thread – or ask a question – the only response will be ‘go read a 101′, in varying degrees of condescension or rudeness.
      I used to get this a lot too and whats even worse is when you go read said 101 and want to question it they usually presume that you must have misunderstood it if you don’t agree with it. Seems to me that people that do that have already concluded that their understanding of the basics are solid undeniable fact that cannot be questioned therefore if you question it you are missing something. I personally don’t have the patience or time for such arrogance anymore so I only read such blogs every once in a while because they occasionally post something worthwhile.

      And frankly that is why I started up my own blog in which I deal with the basics especially questioning the basics.

  10. Pingback: Interesting reads « ethecofem

  11. Hmmm… Privilege again. So if a man were to ask me what language I’m comfortable with him using with regard to my femaleness and my feminism, I should stifle his earnest and healthy curiosity by telling him that it’s not my job to teach those with male privilege how to speak respectfully? Whose job is it? I think it is my job.

    I ran into this when asking PWDs what about the word “healthy” offended them; and again when trying to point out that the term U.S. Privilege is just too broad to be useful in a discussion about Internet decorum. I would have asked what U.S. Privilege meant to it’s user, but I was banned before I got the chance. So I learned nothing.

    Yeah…I say your opening mindset.

  12. That’s its and share – damn auto complete/smart suggestion.

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