There’s no point in online feminism if it’s an exclusive, Mean Girls club

Ever tried to engage with feminist discussion on the internet? Chances are, you won’t be welcome.

 

There’s a story that does the rounds in politics about a radicalised council in north London in the 1980s, when the Trotskyite entryists were worming their way inside the local Labour Parties with all the potency of dry rot. It goes like this: if an unsuspecting comrade, new to the area, wanted to join his or her local branch they would be informed that they couldn’t.

“Sorry,” they would be told as the door was slammed in their face. “No vacancies.”

Ever tried to engage with feminism on the internet?

I’ve had to start differentiating between feminism – good honest feminism in all its manifestations from Luce Irigaray, to Greenham Common, to Andrea Dworkin and even (although the Lord knows, she’s not to my taste) Camille Paglia  – and what I’ve started calling the Online Wimmin Mob. The latter is meant to sound insulting. Borderline misogynist if you like, and there’s a reason for that: the Online Wimmin Mob don’t seem to like feminism. There’s not much evidence that they like women very much. Perhaps this is the reason that they don’t want you to be a feminist either.

If you try to join the club that they seem to believe they have seized control of, you too will be told that there are no vacancies. No room for you, with your “privilege”. They will sneer at you and imply that you’re only into “lipgloss feminism” and that, with your inferior intellect and experience, you could never measure up to their sophisticated world view. “Run off and cry to mummy Caitlin [Moran]” is an insult I’ve seen levelled at more than one curious young woman, whose naive but genuine interest has fallen foul of The Committee.

"Shut up and push off you stupid bimbo" is the message that comes over loud and clear.

I, too, have not been allowed to join, which I think is highly unfair as I too can be just as pretentious and full of my own self-importance, while simultaneously adding nothing that makes my pontifications in any way relevant to anything that is going on in the real world. I’d like to present to the Court this as evidence: my dissertation title at university was “How far has a philosophical dichotomy affected changing attitudes towards women?”

Pick the intellectual peanuts out of that one, ladies.

The Online Wimmin Mob takes offence everywhere, but particularly at other women who are not in their little Mean Girls club, which has their own over-stylised and impenetrable language, rules and disciplinary proceedings.

“Check your privilege!” This has become the rallying cry of the Mob when faced with a woman with whom they disagree. “Privilege”, when out of the hands of Mob bullies, is actually not a bad concept. God knows, party conference fringes involving Harriet Harman chatting to her public school mates about the importance of getting more women into politics have been known to bring me out in a bad case of the hives on more than one occasion. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with thinking, “Woah, there! Is it possible that there are more things in heav’n and earth than were dreamt of in a South Kensington champagne bar over tapas with Jocasta?”

Where “privilege” goes wrong is that it is routinely used for, I’d argue, shutting up women who disagree with the Online Mob. The whole foundation of the argument is flawed anyway; about 35 per cent of the world’s population has access to the internet. Everyone on Twitter is privileged. Everyone. Claiming “unprivileged” underdog status when you are in the top 35 per cent of the entire world makes you sound like the sort of annoying princess who screams that it’s just not fair and she hates you because she only got an iPhone and a pony for Christmas.

All women suffer from discrimination, internet connection or not, in one form or another. For some, it is mild. For some takes the form of sexist comments or harassment or female genital mutilation, rape, crap pay, rubbish pension, the glass ceiling, domestic violence, transphobia, botched abortions, slavery, death in childbirth or as a result of, or in combination with, of all of the above. Not to mention mental health issues such as eating disorders, bipolar, anxiety or depression. It’s not good times.

“Checking your privilege” is about playing an inverted game of Top Trumps where the real message is that it’s not who you are but how you were born that determines whether what you have to say is worth listening to. It’s not a dissimilar message to that of your average bar room sexist – or transphobe for that matter - but so much more depressing coming from our own side.

For myself, I reckon that until we identify the poor sod who’s officially recognised as the least privileged woman on the planet, women should welcome other women’s thoughts and experiences, not with the aim of identifying the “best” and most “relevant” one, but as a means of understanding that in spite of our diversity, we have more things in common than we don’t.

I also object to the requirement to deny the power of language. This state of affairs has arisen from the entirely admirable aim of making transgender females feel more at home within the movement, and better able to express the particular concerns they have as a result of the women that they are.

But, again, language has become a weapon to denigrate women’s experience.

In Sexual, Textual Politics by Toril Moi, she said that we, women, have had the power of naming taken from us. Language is not just communication, it is the prism through which we filter and understand the world around us. Words are weighted and have meaning beyond being the mere grunts by which we communicate, “Change the channel love, I’m saving Hollyoaks for the omnibus.”

Words that are used to describe sexual self-determination in women imply sexual incontinence (slut, whore); words used to describe the same behaviour in men imply virility and manliness (stud, lad).

Words are not just words, otherwise the terms “tranny” or “slag” wouldn’t be so offensive, but part of the wider narrative of language. Language is a system of belief – like the Force – it binds us and holds our universe together, shapes us in terms of how we perceive ourselves and others. And it was designed by men and for the benefit of men.

So we come to the word “cis”. I invite anyone who wants a more detailed definition of cis to Google this one, because one step wrong on my part and I’ll be up to my eyebrows in a flame war for the next fortnight and I have plans for Friday night. In summary, however, cis means “not trans”.

A lot of cis women have a problem with the term in a way they can’t quite fathom. Well, I’ve fathomed it and I’ll tell you: because it’s a name that has, once again, been conferred upon a certain group of women without their consent. It would still matter, although infinitely not as much, if a Twitter search of “cis” demonstrated that the term is mostly used in a sisterly and affectionate manner. Nah, more like “cissexist” or “cisfascist”.

And that’s the stuff I didn’t search for, I just happened to see it on my feed one Tuesday evening.

So forgive me if I hear “cis” as an insult to the very essence of who I am and then, when I complain, feel aggrieved that I’m not entitled to experience my discomfort because my “privilege” means that my point of view doesn’t matter and my opinions don’t count.

The good news is that cis is a term that can be reclaimed. After all, it is just a word and meanings of words can be rehabilitated. But in its current manifestation, through its misuse, it is laden with pejorative connotations.

If you are a member of the Mob, you spend your evenings in noble pursuits. Namely, picking up on ill-considered comments on the internet (which are often, although admittedly not always, well-meant but made in ignorance) and encouraging all your mates to weigh in to beat up on the woman.

Is this beginning to sound like an evening out with the patriarchy to anyone else?

There is nothing wrong with arguing with other women, disagreeing with them, or suggesting that they might be wrong about certain issues. I’m all for standing up to sexism and transphobia too, although often I think that a lot the statements deemed capital crimes by the Mob come down to lack of experience and understanding on the part of the perpetrator. But this is not what we see online.

For the most minor infraction, women are flamed in the most hideous, unsisterly way. A living offence, she is told, to the sisterhood and the ideals of feminism she is the worst kind of disgusting privileged bitch, the sort of woman who revolts all right-thinking women, who deserves to “f**k off and die”. She will slink off with her guilt and upset, not quite clear what she has done, but clear that she should feel dirty and ashamed of herself.

This is definitely sounding like an evening out with the patriarchy.

I’ve considered myself a feminist for as long as I can remember, even before I knew exactly what a feminist was and this state of affairs sickens me. Feminism is not bullying and beating up other women. It’s not denouncing diversity instead of celebrating it. It is not stigmatising women instead of listening to them. It is not telling them that their opinions and experiences don’t count. It is not about thinking that sitting behind your computer at 2am, looking for offence (on the internet, you will always find things to be offended by) and using the excuse that you are “calling out” someone on something that you disagree with as a front for making yourself feel superior at another woman’s expense.

Come to think of it, anyone who thinks that anything can be achieved on Twitter at 2am has no business feeling superior to anybody.

There’s a big, wide, world out there and a lot of the time it’s bloody awful to people in general and women in particular. It has become clear since the India bus horror that there are some subsections of that society who reckon that there’s nothing wrong with a bit of cheeky rape if they’re in the mood. Malala was shot in the head by the Taliban for the crime of wanting the same education as her male counterparts. Trans women often exist in fear of their lives, and for good reason: transmisogyny is, disgracefully, still seen by some as the kind of sexism it’s socially acceptable to indulge in. And in Steubenville, the community has given the impression that they think that the real victims are the rapists, and their comatose victim a “slut” as a result of what was done to her.

And how are the Online Wimmin Mob responding to this tiny tip of the iceberg? By whipping up huge Twitter storms and inviting feminists to flame other feminists. Yeah, keep it up, ladies, the patriarchy’s quaking.

If modern feminism is simply about exclusivity, abusively picking nits out of each other’s differences, and organising bullying mobs against women, then count me out.

This feminist, for one, really hopes that it isn’t.  

Not everyone is allowed to sit at the Mean Girls' table for lunch.
Ellie Foreman-Peck
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Martin Schulz: could this man bring an end to the reign of Angela Merkel?

The German Eurocrat is the biggest threat to the possibility of a fourth term for Merkel. 

At first sight, Martin Schulz looks like an unlikely political saviour. Thin of hair and thick of waist, the 61-year-old was a member of the European Parliament for 23 years and its president for five. In an anti-establishment age, it was predicted that Schulz would struggle when he became the Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) candidate to replace Angela Merkel as the German chancellor in January. Instead, he is spearheading a remarkable revival in his tribe’s fortunes. On 19 February, for the first time in a decade, the SPD polled above Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), attracting 33 per cent to their 32 per cent. The SPD vote share has increased by 12 points in a month. The cause is clear: “Martin mania”.

For months, it was assumed that Merkel would secure a fourth term as chancellor in September’s federal election. The SPD, the grandfather of European social democracy and Germany’s oldest party (it was founded in 1863), had polled as low as 19 per cent. After forming a grand coalition with the CDU in 2013, Schulz’s party was marginalised as Merkel claimed credit for policies such as the country’s first minimum wage. Voters defected to the far-left Die Linke and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland. The SPD’s future looked to be one of managed decline.

Sigmar Gabriel, the party’s leader since 2009, stood little chance of supplanting Merkel as chancellor. As a result, like François Hollande, he reached for the pearl-handled revolver: he announced his intention to step aside on 24 January after internal SPD polling showed that Schulz would perform significantly better against Merkel. “It was not an easy decision but I’m convinced it was the right decision,” Gabriel told reporters. His judgement was vindicated as public polls gave Schulz an 11-point lead over Merkel (49-38).

The German chancellor’s apparent unassailability owed less to her strength than to her opponents’ weakness. Eleven years after she entered office, voters had grown weary of Merkel’s leadership but saw no viable alternative. In Schulz, they have found one. Having been engaged at EU level and held no domestic office since standing down after 11 years as mayor of the north-western market town Würselen in 1998, Schulz has been embraced by voters as a relative outsider.

Unlike his SPD colleagues, Schulz can criticise the CDU’s record without appearing hypocritical or feeble. He has attracted voters with a centre-left emphasis on redistribution and social justice. “When people see that their taxes are used to give their children a future, they buy into it,” Schulz has said in interviews.

The European Parliament has been a useful platform for his pugnacious style. He is best known for being compared to a concentration camp guard by Silvio Berlusconi in 2003 and for his interjection in 2010 after Nigel Farage branded the then EU president, Herman Van Rompuy, a “damp rag”. Schulz retorted: “It’s not right that this man should be able to trample over the dignity of this house!”

Voters have warmed to Schulz’s personal story as well as his political history. He was born on 20 December 1955 in the village of Hehlrath, North-Rhine Westphalia, to a policeman father and a homemaker mother (he is the youngest of five). Rather than going to university, he trained as a bookseller and was a promising footballer. Two severe knee injuries ended his playing career at the age of 18 and he sought refuge in alcohol after falling into depression. Having contemplated suicide, he recovered to open a bookshop in his home town (which he ran until he became an MEP in 1994) and has been teetotal since 1980.

Schulz educated himself by devouring historical fiction (his favourite writers are John Steinbeck and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa) and retains the restlessness of an autodidact (he often works 18-hour days). His bonhomie and blunt manner appeal to voters who regard Merkel as aloof.

That Schulz has come to the SPD’s rescue is unsurprising. He joined the party at the age of 19 and became the youngest mayor in North-Rhine Westphalia when he was elected in Würselen at 31. After more than two decades serving the EU, the attractions of a return to domestic politics were obvious. “People must look into your eyes and see that you are a bloody streetfighter,” he remarked in 2013, as he presciently dismissed Ed Miliband’s electoral chances.

Schulz has disoriented the Christian Democrats, who failed to anticipate a centre-left renaissance. In a mark of how much he has unsettled them, the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has denounced him as a Trump-like populist for his slogan “Make Europe great again”. Were Schulz to replace Merkel and Emmanuel Macron to be elected French president, the pair would unite in seeking to impose punitive Brexit terms on the UK.

For Germany’s Social Democrats, the fear is that Schulz’s surge has come too soon – voters could swing back to Merkel and the CDU before polling day. But after years as an emblem of centre-left malaise, the SPD has momentum. Schulz is determined to prove that there are second acts in political lives. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit