Feminist twitter wars: Is it possible to be a pluralist feminist in the age of social media?
Being an opinionated feminist, particularly on social media, isn’t easy. Feminist twitter gives me almost as much anxiety as did talking about feminism in front of mocking boys and sceptical girls at school. Often the most difficult thing about expressing an opinion on social media is the backlash one might receive from a self-described opposing subset of feminism. Whose tribe shouts louder, kind of thing. My take on pluralism in this article is somewhat philosophical; can one acknowledge multiple ‘truths’ or ‘correct’ logics within feminism based on the belief that perspectives are essentially subjective and constructed? How does accepting ‘truth’ interact with morality and validity of opinions and perspectives? And, most importantly, is it possible to articulate pluralist feminism in a social media age of tribalism, polarity and ‘cancel culture’? Looking at #MeToo, intersectionality and sex work, I’d say yes. However, when it comes to trans-exclusionary feminism, I’ll conclude that there’s room for absolutism in rejecting hate.
Not too controversial: #MeToo, Owen Jones and Intersectional Pluralism
Feminism is not a homogenous ideology or movement. There are so many opposing views within feminism, many of which appear compatible and some which proclaim to be diametrically opposed. On twitter feminists seem to be divided into factions, with little room (literally - tweets have a 280 character limit) for nuanced or balanced discussion. To give a fairly surprising example of how obscure the rifts can go, Donegan (2018) writes in relation to the #MeToo movement of tensions between ideologically ‘individualist’ anti-#MeToo feminists and ‘socialist’ pro-#MeToo feminists. According to Donegan (2018), individualist feminists privilege notions of pragmatism and self-sufficiency by critiquing #MeToo for depicting victims of sexual harassment as weak and without moral agency. Perpetuating a generational divide, self-described feminist Katie Roiphe even termed #MeToo ‘Twitter feminism’, implying the movement was merely an expression of narcissistic millennials complaining about a non-issue (ibid). Socialist feminists on the other hand emphasise the importance of #MeToo for revealing the structural pervasiveness of misogyny and sexual harassment, and accordingly critique anti-#MeToo feminists for placing the responsibility on victims to ‘toughen up’, to ‘say no’ and to ultimately prevent or mitigate their own victimhood (ibid). Contentious and heated debate fell on all sides during the heightened #MeToo era, with younger, socialist feminists caricatured as naive, idealistic and ‘out for blood’, and older feminists depicted as ‘crotchety or out of touch’ (ibid). From a pluralist perspective, is it not possible to argue simultaneously that we must continue educating both young women and men on the importance of consent, boundaries and individual agency, whilst prescribing blame for sexual assault and harassment - understood to be an important issue constitutive of a continuum of gendered violence - only on the perpetrators and never on the victims?
In all fairness, the above example is not too controversial; presumably the number of feminists who ardently oppose #MeToo (and who would give you significant grief about it online if you did support the movement) are few and far between. Yet, it is surprising the level of twitter antagonism one may receive for articulating an opinion that is either nuanced or not fully thought out in the absolutist eyes of other factions. In May 2020 Owen Jones tweeted that those who can afford to pay for cleaners should continue to do so whilst encouraging their cleaner(s) to stay at home during the Covid-19 pandemic. He followed this tweet with what was interpreted as an ill worded ‘[people who pay cleaners] have the time [to do cleaning themselves]’, which quickly prompted indignation from some feminists who pointed out that women end up having to do most of the housework (when not employing cleaners). What started out as a debate over the requirement of cleaners to work during a global pandemic, turned into a frenzy over the ethics of hiring cleaners at all. ‘Intersectional feminists’ rightly criticised the white, middle class privilege of those opposing Owen Jones, on the grounds that defending women who pay cleaners over the cleaners themselves (who are often lower-paid, or socially or economically marginalised) is unethical and emblematic of ‘white feminism’. Overall I agree with the latter argument - Covid-19 has already revealed the rampant classism and racism that structures British society so let’s try our best not to force low paid, marginalised cleaners out of their homes during a deadly pandemic. I also think it may be constructive to see different sides of feminist twitter examining the issue at hand without resorting to manic accusations, twisting words or co-opting debates.
This isn’t to say anyone should be able to tweet or post anything without scrutiny; it is to say that if one can find a middle ground or holds a pluralist perspective on the matter at hand they should be able to express that opinion without fear of tribal condemnation. To this end, one can be an intersectional feminist by simultaneously acknowledging that cleaners are disproportionately lower paid, non-white or non-British women, AND that it may not be as easy for disabled women, for example, to clean their own homes. Then to add another level of pluralism, once can also take issue with the clumsiness of Owen Jones’ words whilst critiquing feminism for spending too much time engaging in in-fighting rather than collaboratively dismantling the Patriarchy.
One should also acknowledge, however, that tackling the Patriarchy requires a certain level of critical internal debate if we are to forge a truly pluralist, inclusive form of feminism that reveals universal experiences whilst respecting difference. In discussing the differences between women and the ideal of pluralist feminism, Eugene (1992, p.96) argues that ‘noninteractive acknowledgement’ on the part of white or otherwise socially privileged feminists, acts as a problematic disclaimer. This disclaimer permits disengagement from the implications and effects of white feminist logic on other women (ibid). So when balancing a variety of opinions as a pluralist feminist, it is equally important to reflect upon what you can learn from others, particularly pertaining to that which you haven’t experienced, and then integrate that knowledge into your everyday thinking and actions. I tried adopting this mentality following a poorly worded tweet sent out last week. I originally tweeted:
‘#Karen [the meme calling out entitled behaviour] is the epitome of misogyny. @CCriadoPerez’s Invisible Women teaches us that society thinks male. So why do we blame everything on female?’
I sent this out with good intentions, frustrated at the internet’s commitment to blaming all forms of negative or taboo behaviour on women throughout the ages (think ‘Overly-attached girlfriend’, ‘Susan’, ‘Felicia’, ‘Fake Nerd Girl’ etc...). Yet I was quickly and accordingly DM’d by a woman who pointed out that ‘Karen’ originated from black feminist twitter and ultimately calls out the racist and classist behaviour of many white women as experienced by working class women and non-white women. She sent me the excellent article by Attiah (2020) which really illustrates this point. So I had a deeper think and deleted the tweet. Whilst I’m still frustrated with the predominantly white, male co-optation of #Karen that seems to circulate the internet in order to just have a go at women without really critically engaging in the entitled and racist behaviours that #Karen represents, #Karen herself no longer annoys me. I’m not trying to sound self-congratulatory, but I do think it’s important that feminists such as myself who don’t experience other forms of oppression other than that of being female, openly talk about our feminist shortcomings or taken-for-granted assumptions and try to integrate learning, reflexivity and intersectional pluralism into our own academia and activism. It is perfectly possible (and valid) to debate and discuss the ways in which white, cisgender women are disadvantaged by the Patriarchy, for example. But it is little more than positivistic to accept this as the only morally valid or truthful perspective.
Lana Del Ray recently compared herself to (predominantly black) female singers and lamented that women who look like her (by which she supposedly meant fragile and delicate) are chastised for displaying overt sexuality (McNamara, 2020). Whilst this is often true and prompts us to question patriarchy’s general fixation on critiquing the behaviour and sexuality of female cultural icons, it’s important to note that she overlooked the privilege historically afforded to ‘white ladies’ for possessing ‘soft’ or ‘modest’ qualities (ibid). These were contrasted (through a binary, essentialist and racist lens) to ‘immodest’ ‘coloured women’ deemed less worthy of respect (ibid). Importantly, the artists she mentioned are helping to make visible the struggles, stories and agency of non-white women. When bel hooks answered the question ‘what is feminism?’ with ‘feminism is for everybody’, she emphasised that a sisterhood is only powerful so long as it includes all sisters and understands patriarchy as simultaneously rooted in white supremacy, heteronormativity and class oppression (hooks, 1952). It is necessary (and might help prevent twitter arguments) to graciously accept that which you don’t know or can’t authoritatively speak on. This includes the progressive/intersectional/common-sense view of feminism as equally if not more so rooted in the struggles of non-white, non-heterosexual, working class, non-cisgender women. If you think that feminism is about ‘accepting’, ‘accommodating’ or ‘including’ the issues of non-white or ortherwise less-privileged groups into feminist academia and activism, then you are probably a ‘white feminist’ (and twitter will call you out accordingly).
Feminism and Sex Work
Next we have the radical feminist versus liberal feminist debate. To take one issue as an example, should we call sex work, ‘sex work’, or does that erase the notion of male violence, objectification and exploitation of women and girls that radical feminists perceive to be synonymous with ‘prostitution’ and commodification of women for men’s sexual desires? This radical feminist position, however, simultaneously seems to erase women’s agency and ignore female sexuality and male sex work. I suggest it makes more sense to argue that for some women, sex work is legitimate employment that may empower them and for which their agency and choice must be respected, whilst also acknowledging that male objectification and sexualisation of women is a global phenomena which underpins aspects of sex work and pornography. Can’t we reasonably argue that sex work should be destigmatised and decriminalised for reasons of principle, safety and access to criminal justice, but also acknowledge the real problem of violence committed against women who consent to engaging in sex work as well as those who are forcibly prostituted or trafficked? I would hope so. Studies show that 50% of women ‘prostituted in the UK’ working outdoors and 26% of those working indoors have been victims of violence, whilst 81% of those ‘prostituted outdoors in the UK had been beaten, choked, raped, threatened with a weapon, slashed or stabbed’ (Watts and Zimmerman, 2002, cited in Taylor, 2020, pp. 17-18). Many of the women working outside are working class or contend with poverty and it may not be as easy to say that in general for them sex work is a ‘choice’. Anecdotally on the other hand, I have several friends who are sex workers; some of them have been objectified and abused, others haven’t and continue to enjoy the work they do or appreciate the income boost they receive. To borrow an excellent phrase from Vice (Alptraum, 2015): ‘It’s a lot harder to assume that sex workers are mindless, manipulated fuckbots when they’re tweeting thoughts on feminism, racial justice, or the newest Star Wars film.’
I don’t have a clear cut solution for tackling these injustices when navigating opposing viewpoints - and maybe that’s a perceived problem within pluralist or non-tribal feminism; the solution is not as easily found when rejecting the absolutism of either side. I can boldly suggest, however, that blaming and stigmatising women who do sex work (by refusing to call it sex work, for example) is not the solution to a feminist utopia that champions women’s agency. Nor is it the solution to blindly ignore the horrendous abuse and violence that many sex workers face, which may be linked to the wider societal problem of male entitlement, sexual objectification and rape culture perpetuated in the sex industry. Whilst at the beginning of this point I categorised opposing points of view on the matter as broadly liberal or radical, the more likely truth is that there are many feminists out there with more balanced (or pluralist) views on the matter. Whether you (or a particularly influential/famous feminist) could express an opinion such as this on social media without inevitable outrage and backlash from multiple sides is doubtful. It’s even scary writing this article, knowing that what I would call a balanced opinion may be too little or too much for some. Ultimately, I acknowledge that to get things done and to politically influence others it is basically essential to have and share an opinion. What I would stress, however, is that a balanced or pluralist opinion can be equally valid if not as politically fashionable.
Defining your pluralism and creating a moral framework: no place for hate
So what happens then, when you seek to navigate an even more contentious debate? Being a pluralist feminist doesn’t mean that you have to agree with every opinion or accept every stance, particularly when some aspects of feminism appear dark or even hateful. If your philosophical definition of pluralism pertains to a constructivist perspective that there can be multiple truths, rather than one objective or absolutist line of reasoning, it can be difficult confronting different beliefs that you naturally oppose but which other feminists ardently support. It leaves you with a bit of anxiety - am I the right kind of feminist? In answer to this question I suggest developing a framework that looks something like the following:
Does my pluralism take into account a sense of validity that is guided by a moral framework? (I.e can you accept that whilst multiple perspectives may be equally ‘true’ in the sense that they are subjective or constructed, this doesn’t mean that they are necessarily reasonable, valid or moral).
Does my pluralism in any way reinforce prejudice or discrimination? (Linked to the above point, I would boldly suggest that any acceptance of a viewpoint that perpetuates prejudice or discrimination is immoral and totally invalid).
So as an example, here I look to the debate between transgender feminists and trans exclusionary feminists (sometimes called gender critical); the point of contention most likely to result in an all-consuming twitter feud. I refrain from calling the latter group trans exclusionary radical feminists because, whilst almost all trans exclusionary feminists would call themselves radical or second wave, it is certainly possible to be a radical feminist who isn’t trans exclusionary. I’ll unpack this as I go, but essentially I believe you can be opposed to forms of what radical feminists call sexed oppression (pertaining to abortion rights, trafficking of women and girls, male on female violence and abuse etc.), whilst still agreeing with queer and feminist scholars like Judith Butler (1990) that sex is an arbitrary construction constitutive of gendering (i.e we are assigned sex at birth and this has many harmful gendered implications on many people’s lives - especially transgender, intersex or non-binary people who are stigmatised into living an inauthentic life and whose existences are routinely erased).
In this discussion, I’m not really balancing the pros and cons of each side, because I believe the trans exclusionary perspective is based on willful ignorance at best, and hate at worst. By willful ignorance I mean seemingly well-intentioned arguments such as ‘female victims of male violence should have access to single-sex spaces’ (code word for cisgender female spaces). Of course, if someone were to argue that victims needed racially segregated spaces, they would be referred for therapy to address the trauma as well as underlying phobia and racism. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have women only and men only spaces, but to exclude transgender or non-binary people from those spaces serves only to blame or scapegoat already marginalised groups for violence which they are otherwise at the same or even higher risk of experiencing (Stonewall, 2018).
Rather, I’m suggesting that the burden of reconciliation between the two perspectives - so that the feminist movement may move forward collaboratively - falls on the trans exclusionary or ‘gender critical’ side to resolve the dispute. In this sense, being a pluralist feminist does not equate to accepting moral validity within an immoral stance, but rather finding the common ground necessary to disseminate ignorant attitudes and non-constructive debate. So what are the trans exclusionary feminist concerns? Mainly that transgender people have co-opted the feminist movement and pose a risk to cigender women. This is based on the argument that sex is fundamentally distinguished from gender, that transgender women are really men appropriating cisgender women’s lifestyles and claims to oppression, and that transgender men are just cisgender women or lesbians who have been coerced into becoming heterosexual men (Stonewall 2018). Clearly this account removes any notion of transgender peoples’ agency, and ironically perpetuates a form of misogynistic woman-blaming. There is no comprehensible evidence to show that cisgender women are endangered by transgender people, and many shelters across the UK have already been supporting transgender women for a long time without problem (ibid). Furthermore, excluding transgender people on this basis perpetuates gender essentialism. The make up of one’s genitals does not predict an ability to abuse. Exclusion of transgender people from ‘cisgender spaces’ perpetuates the same gender/sex essentialism that radical feminists detest. Yet they only seem to detest essentialist ideas when they effect cisgender women.
The ‘gender critical’ label originates from an attempt to minimise or disguise the transphobic undercurrents of the trans exclusionary feminist movement by arguing that transgender people, through transitioning, cement rigid gender roles such as transgender women growing out their hair, wearing dresses or doing their nails. But this is still transphobic, because it privileges the ability of cisgender people to be criticised for engaging in gender roles – which means they are at least permitted to exist.
If cisgender people are allowed to exist in a world in which feminist scholars critique gender roles, then why aren’t transgender people?
Disproportionately blaming transgender people for the perpetuation of gender/sex roles is both transphobic and cruelly ironic. Linking to my previous point on Judith Butler, many ‘gender critical’ feminists criticise sex roles but refuse to acknowledge that sex is a gendered construction in and of itself. Butler (1990) suggests that whilst sexual organs are of course materialistically ‘real’, the manner in which we assign and categorise sex is an arbitrary form of gendering which reproduces sex/gender roles. Therefore, any level of subversion from sex or gender normativity should be celebrated as culturally transformative and liberating. Yet, through the erasure of transgender identity, and the fixation on transgender bodies, ‘gender critical’ feminists reinforce the sex/gender roles they critique. Most significantly, they claim to speak for cisgender women and justify their exclusionary attitudes by scapegoating transgender people for female oppression (which transgender people also experience).
Whilst any form of online or in person abuse is abhorrent and may be perpetuated by a minority of individuals from either side of the debate, it is more than understandable that trans exclusionary feminist arguments attract animosity from those (and their allies) trying to protect their own identities. In my opinion, therefore, the maximum level of sympathy one could afford trans exclusionary feminists is to understand their frustration with the limited progress women as a collective (but particularly those who are not white, cisgender or otherwise privileged) have made over the last couple of decades. To blame any marginalised group for that lack of progress, however, is little more than projection of abuse and hate and fails to advance the rights of any woman. To quote Audre Lorde (1981): ‘I am not free whilst any woman is unfree, even if her shackles are very different from my own’. The best position a pluralist feminist could take in this case is either to try to educate others on the rootedness of Patriarchy that underpins both misogyny and many aspects of transphobia (in the hope of a more collaborative feminist collective going forward), or to concede that - ultimately - some debates require a more-or-less black and white line of argumentation in the face of prejudice, discrimination or hate.
So, yes. It’s definitely possible to be a pluralist feminist with a more balanced or overlapping set of opinions on many of the debates out there than feminist twitter may have you believe. An important aspect of pluralism is to be intersectional in acknowledging that which you don’t understand, actively learning more about it, and including new knowledge in your thinking and activism going forward. Ultimately, it is important to balance post-positivist, pluralist thinking with a framework for moral validity: through debating we must be careful not to ascribe validity to intolerant or hateful attitudes. Can your thinking be nuanced and should it be shared? Absolutely. Could you articulate all of this on twitter without inevitable backlash and more than a bit of anxiety? Probably not.
(But if I’m only getting cancelled by trans exclusionary feminists, then who really cares?).
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