In the era of reactionary vitriol, allow me to begin by stating that feminism is important and very much necessary today. I know some readers will interpret a piece like this as an indictment of feminism, and that is absolutely not the case.
Likewise, this is not an indictment of the players involved. Some readers know me through my Twitter feed and are therefore aware to some degree of which accounts I follow. They might also be aware of recent events among those accounts and assume this piece is a direct response to that meant to condemn the behaviour or words of certain accounts. It’s not.
Those events did spark some of the thoughts that allowed me to compose this piece, but the truth is that I learned about those events too late and know people on all sides. Figuring out exactly what happened and why and how to form a resolute opinion on the matter is impossible.
I’ll come back to that.
Here is a completely non-scientific, out-of-my-butt study that was done on the general population regarding the distribution of gender equality attitudes:
I imagine the distribution is something like a double standard distribution on a spectrum from feminist ideology to sexist ideology, with the peaks occurring at the average for each (yes, I’d like to believe that more people are feminist by nature if not in name and that hill is taller, but this is illustrative only). At both ends it tapers towards an extreme group, with another odd minority in the middle that manages to do neither particularly well.
The problem I began to encounter with feminist Twitter is two-fold.
First, no progress occurs in changing hearts and minds. One of my early interests was learning more about feminism and feminist issues (which can be done outside Twitter obviously) from the voices of those affected. In this same spirit one can regard feminist activism on Twitter as raising awareness.
Is it raising awareness though? Or is it more echo chamber, preaching-to-the-choir phenomena? Through posting and interacting on Twitter I did find a good number of friends, but not one of them was someone who believed something different and found themselves persuaded by what I had shared. I connected with people sharing similar messages.
Those who disagreed continued to disagree. Vehemently. Often more with women than with me, but they disagreed with no intention of listening to the conversation.
The flip side to this is that those on my side would often do little to change that. They have no obligation to do anything to change that. No one is responsible for educating others about the specifics of an issue; that’s a decision that one makes freely. Likewise, one is free to express anger, frustration, resentment, and any number of other feelings in response to abuse, harassment, bad faith arguments, and the like.
Also true, the people on the sexist side of the spectrum are not going to change their thinking or behaviour in response to that. If they are not going to change those things, if there is nothing I can say in a Twitter dialogue to change those things, then what is the point of entertaining a dialogue?
The reason I used to tell myself is that others will see the exchange and perhaps gain something from it, but it’s the same phenomenon. The only responses came from those who already agreed or felt a need to troll the comment.
Another focus in the Twitter-verse is standing up for others being harassed and bullied. This works wonders in person. Someone is a sexist jerk, as a passer-by it’s effective to support the targeted individual and shut down the bad behaviour.
Online? The other person will persist, perhaps even calling for friends. In some cases the point is the trolling and eliciting annoyed responses is exactly the goal.
Anyone who has had a Twitter account for more than six minutes also understands the volume. One does not run into the occasional troll or jerk. It’s. Non. Stop. The more prominent the account, the bigger the lightning rod for jackassery.
Months ago I made the decision to unfollow several prominent feminist accounts and to just check their timelines directly because following them flooded my timeline with trolls and sea lions. Their core messages, which is what I had come to Twitter to see, became lost in the fold as the sheer volume and attention given to the response vitriol dominated the feed.
Something must also be said then that if one decides not to engage all of these problematic encounters, how does one decide which to engage? Bigger accounts tend to receive more problems, but one does not want to neglect smaller accounts because of that.
Lots of other people will rally to support an account in some cases. One of my personal considerations was often, “What good am I doing here? Do others already have this covered?” But with that came a constant anxiety about the bystander effect. What if I assume others will speak up in support and then no one does? On the other hand, at what point is responding superfluous because the account in question already received the same pushback from ten, a hundred, a thousand other accounts?
Sometimes people make mistakes. I won’t say honest mistakes – sometimes they are pure ignorance and sexism – but the person made an ill-advised comment and people begin to reply. There are cases where the original poster responds with, “Okay, I get it now. I hadn’t considered that.” In the meantime, the pile on continues.
The nature of social media itself makes me question these interactions. I tend to think of this Red Versus Blue clip from ages ago:
We tend to view the real struggle for gender equality in battle terms, and the Internet forums are but one battleground. Subtweet fights between feminist accounts and sexists/trolls are like the box canyon in Halo though. This opposition either genuinely believes what they are saying and will not change, or else they want to agitate the poster and their friends. Either way, the “battle” has zero strategic importance.
This all ties into the second, perhaps worst aspect of feminist Twitter: in-fighting.
For all of the challenges that come with battling sexists and trolls online, one faces the real risk of upsetting allies.
In some cases the upsets are necessary. Liberal-minded individuals tend to think of themselves as beyond prejudice because they are liberal, and when their subconscious bias reveals itself and others challenge their perspective they will lock down hard against the opposition. They become what they beheld and feel betrayed by the honest criticism.
However, this also includes bad takes from incredible accounts who refuse to take criticism. In some contexts, especially that of an ally challenging a feminist’s bad take, the challenge is itself dismissed as sexism or tone policing or general poor allyship. It can be these things; it can also be someone refusing to accept their mistake.
Worse yet, the nature of feminist Twitter is that the support structures lead to pile-ons in true World War I fashion. One of the accounts quotes a Tweet in question to their followers and that follower group, operating on the “this is someone I support” premise, go after the other account. The arguments can lose all objectivity in favour of personal relationships that prove destructive to the collective goals.
The regrettable conclusion that I reached after weeks of consideration is that feminist Twitter has little upside and a tremendous downside. It feels like my energy is better spent with friends, the mental health community, and the writing community online, and pursuing gender equality elsewhere.
It’s all based on experience and feeling though. Perhaps someone has a different take on all of this?