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.
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No, identity politics is not to blame for the failures of the left

This is no time to back away from our commitment to women’s rights, racial justice and sexual equality.

In these troubled times, it's good to know that moderate conservatives, anxious liberals and even your neighbourhood Trotskyist uncle can come together against the common enemy: students. Prissy, stuck-up students, with their trigger warnings and political correctness and highfalutin ideas about racial justice. It must be their fault. Forget the gurning neo-fascists goose-stepping into power across the globe, it's the students who are the real enemy. If they hadn't been so hung-up on identity politics, we wouldn't be staring into this abyss. You know I'm right.

That was me being sarcastic. The reason I need to point that out is that on or around 9 November 2016, the age of irony gave way to a new one of deadpan sincerity. It happened at some point between the election of an orange billionaire tycoon to the White House and authorities condemning Native American protesters at Standing Rock under the outgoing administration. So, unfortunately, I must be clear: no, I don't think that “identity politics” is the greatest threat to western civilisation. Some people, however, really do, and are at pains to point out that this geopolitical disaster could have been avoided if we had all been less precious about gay rights and women's rights and black lives and concentrated on the issues that matter to real people. Real people meaning, of course, people who aren't female, or queer, or brown, or from another country. You know, the people who really matter.

In the wake of successive victories for the venal far-right, commentators from all sides of the self-satisfied, chin-stroking debate school are blaming “identity politics” for the disaster on our doorsteps. What they seem to mean by this is “politics that matter to people who aren't white men in rural towns”. I have always thought of that simply as politics, but according to Mark Lilla, writing in the New York Times, I was mistaken. Diversity, Lilla writes, is:

“A splendid principle of moral pedagogy  but disastrous as a foundation for democratic politics in our ideological age. In recent years American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.”

This is an idea that has remarkable staying power across a fractious and divided left: the idea that issues of race, gender and sexuality are at best a distraction from class politics, and at worst a bourgeois tendency that will be destroyed after the revolution. The logic is that by focusing on issues of social justice, the political class has abandoned “real” working people to economic hardship.

This notion is horribly wrong, and the worst thing is that it's wrong in the right direction, a train of thought that stays safely on track right until it slams into the hoardings next to the station. The political class has indeed rolled over and let kamikaze capitalism wreck the lives of working people around the world. Identity politics, however, has little to do with that cowardice. That the two are now yoked together in the popular imagination is something the left must answer for.

All politics are identity politics, but some identities are more politicised than others. The notion that the politics of identity and belonging have been allowed to overwhelm seemingly intractable issues of class, power and poverty is, in fact, entirely correct  but this is not a problem for the traditional left. It is a problem for the traditional right, which has pursued a divide-and-conquer strategy for centuries, pitting white workers against black and brown workers, men against women, native-born citizens against foreigners in a hierarchy of victimhood that diverts energy and anger away from the vested interests bankrolling the entire scheme.

As journalist Michelle Garcia noted, responding to Lilla in the New York Times:

 “The attack on political correctness fits within the brand of identity politics Donald Trump exploited during his campaign. Mr Trump's victory relied on fusing a culture of racism and sexism with economic anxieties and the backlash against neoliberalism.”

It's a shell-game. A con. It did not start with Donald Trump, but the real-estate mogul and social media tantrum-artist has taken it to its logical conclusion. The president-elect and his fellow travellers and sugar daddies have committed political fraud against the entire western world. They have compounded it – as all good fraudsters do – by making us believe that it was our fault for being so naive in the first place.

It is, to some extent, reassuring to believe that it’s all our fault. If it’s all our fault for being too politically-correct, too committed to “diversity”  if it were liberals and leftists who messed up by listening to these whining hippies with their patchouli-scented ideals of fairness and tolerance and police not shooting young black men dead for no reason  we might have to face the much scarier notion that what’s happening is, in fact, beyond our control. Instead, those who should know better are encouraging the most vulnerable to throw themselves under the bus for the greater good. This is not just offensive. It is also stupid.

The truth is that social justice and economic justice are not mutually exclusive. Those who would sacrifice one for the other will end up with neither, which is of course what the unscrupulous narcissists manspreading at the gates of power are counting on. The mainstream political left has, for generations, been unable to answer the core economic issues that  shocking, I know, but hear me out  affect the lives of all human beings, of every race, gender and background. For generations, in the face of late capitalist hegemony, all it could realistically achieve was to tweak the system incrementally, making things a little fairer for individual groups, without challenging the structural inequalities that created the injustice in the first place. This must change, and soon. Not just because of “fine moral principles”. Trying to fix economic policy without tackling structural inequality is not just morally misguided  it is intellectually bankrupt.

Race, gender and identity are not side issues in the current crisis. On the contrary. Capitalism has always divided its labour supply along lines of race and gender, ensuring that in times of unrest, we don't start burning our looms  far safer for us to set fire to one other. All politics are identity politics, and this is no time to back away from our commitment to women’s rights, racial justice and sexual equality. This is when we double down. The fight against the corporate neo-fascism funnelling out of every television set is not a fight that can be won if liberals, leftists and social justice campaigners turn on one another. It is a fight that we will win together, or not at all.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.