Saturday, January 7, 2012

Do the Ends Justify [the Meanness of] the Means? What are the Values and Practices of the Internet Blog-and-Comment Culture?

image is from here


A friend recently reminded me that a blogger colleague of hers insists on a strict set of values and practices at her blog: no insults, no ad hominen attacks, no disrespect, no tearing down of other human beings to build oneself up. The blog is defined as feminist and that understanding of 'feminist' is one I grew up with. Audre Lorde took issue with stuff Mary Daly wrote; Andrea Dworkin and Audre Lorde had very different perspectives on the erotic; Dworkin and MacKinnon weren't on the same page with what happened to their anti-pornography ordinance in Canada, but that didn't mean they couldn't be respectful of one another. Audre Lorde wrote explicitly about the need for oppressed people to find respectful and compassionate ways to engage across differences such as race and sexuality. Alice Walker has demonstrated an increasingly rare form of compassion for people who structurally oppress women. See this piece for more, from her blog:

I don't see much care, respect, or mutual regard on the internet any more among people who are not the most socially dominant. Or, even, among those who are--to each other. Insults fly easily. Disrespect and snark is the increasingly defaulted mode of communicating disagreement.

The whole of contemporary Western society, of many societies, is set up to infuse spoken and unspoken acts with misogynist hatred and degradation. When women notice and speak out about it, the act of objecting or resisting or organising against such misogyny is itself termed another form of hatred: misandry. I don't believe objecting to one's people being denigrated as a class by another more powerful class of persons constitutes a form of hatred. Self-love on the class level is not hatred. Resistance to being used and abused on grand and grotesque scales isn't hatred either. So we have to be careful about how language is used to mean anything at all.

In my own experience, any challenge to white power and entitlement by anyone who isn't white is considered an insulting thing to do--to whites. As noted above, the same holds true for women's serious challenges to men's unearned and lethal power over and against women and girls. It makes sense, in a perverse sort of way, for the uplift and mutual support among members of an oppressed group to be portrayed as action that is hostile to their oppressors. Such a portrait of marginalised and subordinated people by those who exploit and assault them is part of how social dominants maintain control and power over them/us. The very use of the term "uppity" for politically active anti-racist African American men and women and for anti-sexist women across race is proof enough that trying to get where white men are structurally located is not acceptable to most white men. The amount of anti-feminism among men across race demonstrates men's contempt not only for women but for women's efforts to be free of men's dominance. Andrea Dworkin, among other feminists, noted that whether women resist men's dominance or not they will still be degraded by men. This truism applies to many oppressed people and is reason enough to resist and organise revolutionary strategies of social change.

I have tried to create a blog space that is free of snark but I have failed at times. I think I used to be a snarkier person than I am now, only in part because I see it taking over what were once reasonably compassionate zones of discourse. Snark is "in". I've never been one to do what is fashionable, especially if it is part of how the status quo stays empowered. But another reason for doing away with snark is that I've come to see the raced and gendered dynamics of snark and self-satisfied insult-hurling. It wears thin, in my experience, as a way of communicating important ideas and political challenges. If I had it to over again, I might withdraw all the insults I've hurled at MRAs here. Not because I think MRAs are respectful of women or care about being respectful even among themselves. I see most MRAgendas as profoundly dangerous to women and I've seen how bullied MRAs are among each other. I guess I now see how being snarky towards MRAs is practicing their own well-honed values.

I just want to opt out of the pattern of anti-feminist disrespect and degradation. It isn't what brilliant radical feminist authors and activists like Audre Lorde and Alice Walker taught in their own work.

I believe in having role models as long as we don't turn them into idolised G-ds. I've been accused of doing just that with the use of a term I occasionally have used here, "Lorde knows..." My point in bringing Audre's last name into the term wasn't to pretend she wasn't human. It was to note that her humanity was as divine as anyone else's, and so why not say "Lorde knows" instead of "Lord knows"?

I understand Audre Lorde and Alice Walker to be deeply human beings. I studied their work to understand what "feminist ethics" means, in practice, in daily life. It means, in part, not participating in bully-culture.

A lot of what I've seen men and whites do is bully other people to bolster their/our own already structurally well-supported sense of self. Of course any individual's sense of self may be worn down by verbal or physical assaults against them. Or by various injustices flowing from institutionalised heterosexism, racism, and misogyny. People with white power don't necessarily have the powers afforded people who are heterosexual and male. Men are degraded socially by class, race, and sexuality if not by gender.

Among males and among whites, I've seen many hierarchies develop and how the values of social dominance infuse interactions designed to have a few control the many.

I was bullied for seven years in grade school. I felt the emotional burn of humiliation and the visceral fear of being beaten. I generally avoided being hit but not always. I'm not into physical fights. I was called a coward for not fighting boys. "Cowardice" in male supremacist and masculinist world is often understood to be akin to "pacifism". As I recall from my early life and accounts since of the era, white male hippies were called misogynist names by old-fashioned patriarchal white men who believed real men shoot and kill one another--well, not one another necessarily, but shoot and kill men and women of color in many parts of the Americas and across Asia. I was too young to be part of hippy culture but I did grow up with an erotic aesthetic build on the idea that males could be gentle and caring people. One of the boys who bullied me when I was young was degraded at home by his father. I didn't know this at the time. I kind of wish I had, as it might have helped me despise him less. That I despised him wasn't evidence of me being a man-hater. It was evidence of me trying to find some way to feel better about myself by distancing myself from him and his hurtful behavior.

On MRA sites over the years, I've seen little to no evidence that any of those men value care and gentleness. I see how the culture of bullying, meanness, and self-aggrandisement pervades particular disagreements and overall discourse. I see how terrorism and threats of gross brutality are collectively passed off as appropriate treatment of those they disagree with.

The last time I engaged with an MRA on this blog, I did so with the understanding--his and my own--that we would attend to each other's perspectives with regard and respect, no flame throwing, no verbal assaults. I regret he ducked out of the conversation. It was indeed refreshing to have one like that with someone I strongly disagree with on several points. See the links just below for more of that. They are from the blog in late May and early June of 2011.

Some women have written to me privately about how much bullying there is among white self-defined feminist bloggers and commenters online. Facebook, in particular, can be a vicious place to hang out in: I go there rarely. I know women who have been driven out of there by other women who apparently valued being very mean and hurtful. (And by men too. Lots and lots of men.) The women who have written to me don't or won't speak out against the very patriarchal practices (their determination, which I agree with) of woman-demeaning and woman-hurting done by white women; they don't want to be more targeted for harm and degradation than they already are by people they want to believe are on the same side of their political struggles.

I've witnessed some white women engaging in the very threatening tactics of the men's rights activists they claim to oppose and be so different from. According to some radical feminist women of color I know, they are behaving in similarly cyber-terroristic ways in the name of doing feminist work. I can't say for sure but I don't believe Audre Lorde, Andrea Dworkin, or Alice Walker would call such behavior "feminist". Alice is still alive and perhaps somewhere in her work she addresses this directly. If you know of such passages, please let me know of them. Some of Andrea's and Audre's work is still being published and somewhat available to be read. I'll refer you to their writing to verify my hunch and not to rely my own suppositions about it.

Meanness, callousness, and cruelty weren't feminist values according to every feminist activist and writer I grew up reading and adoring--unless I greatly misread their work, of coure. Given what I've witnessed early in my life and more recently, I currently understand being mean and cruel as definitionally white and male supremacist ways of being human. And while anyone can participate in such behavior, the practice of it seems to only reinforce and maintain white and male supremacist power not ameliorate, mitigate, or eradicate it.

I don't mean to put value on a liberal kind of humanistic kindness or on "civility", which as I understand it, is a dishonest and despicable form of covering up the bloodiness of a society's genocidal and gynocidal practices by appearing to be 'good-natured' and 'reasonable' in the classist, racist, misogynist sense. I admire oppressed people who don't prioritise caring about oppressors over caring about the oppressed. And all of the most radical activists I've known personally didn't make it their practice to consider any class of people inhuman, no matter how entitled or oppressive.

I've encountered some white women, mostly women who don't identify as radical feminist, who consider men to be less-than-human. When I've asked them if they'd advocate a political perspective that supports women of color viewing whites--men and women, as less-than-human, they don't answer the question. I believe this means they don't see how lethal and horrific the power of their institutionalised whiteness is. I've encountered men of color who believe they are more oppressed than women of color. When I note that men of color systematically assault women of color in their homes and beyond, they don't respond.

More startling still, I've encountered many white men--heterosexual and economically-empowered at that--who believe they are the most oppressed and put-down group on Earth. To this there isn't much to say, really. Such avoidance of knowing how other people live demonstrates a kind of self-centeredness and willful refusal to empathise with people-not-oneself. Meaningful intervention into such normalised sociopathy, unfortunately, is difficult for me to imagine. I've certainly not had much luck shifting that kind of political self-unawareness and spiritual myopia through conversation. I attempted to address these issues with James Huff in the posts linked to above but he disappeared before we got that far.

I wish us all luck and strength as we find ways to radically transform a very mean society into one that cares about humanity and all life on Earth, off-line if not also on.