Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Questionable Ethics of Outing People Online, and Other Topics for Discussion Between Julian and a White Feminist Friend

image is from here

One criticism I have of myself is that there is sometimes a lack of openness and a use of analytic thinking to avoid other ways of being. It's not that I'm invulnerable; it's that being vulnerable has made me open to a great deal of pain and trauma and so I'm careful about where I'm vulnerable. Like so many other people, I was bullied. Many males and a few females were the perpetrators. It went on for seven years in my childhood and adolescence. To this day, when I hear people laughing in a group near me, I assume they are laughing at me and my first reaction is to feel humiliated.

Social networking sites don't feel very safe to me in part because of the bullying and meanness I've seen happen there. In my experience, that has happened especially and most egregiously to women of color, by white men, by men of color, by white women, and by other women of color. The thing about bullying is that anyone can be a perpetrator, even the victims of bullying. I tend to behave in rather invulnerable ways when at such places, when I'm there, which is rarely. So, with that said as sort of a personal preface, on with the conversation:

What's on your mind, Julian? Why did you want to get together to have a talk that will be public?

Well, there are few things distressing to me at this moment, other than the usual list of atrocities. Thanks for being willing to engage with me--people being willing to engage with me, respectfully, is one of the things I want to get to today.

Who is engaging with you disrespectfully? 

You know me well enough to know I won't name names. I'm not about that. Suffice it to say that some people have, and some other people have been saying things about me that are not true to the very best of my knowledge and recollections. They're not all saying this to me. In some cases it's being said about me in places when I'm not around.

What's being said about you?

That I have either outed women online or have supported women being outed online. And that I have supported women being called misogynist names.

I know you well enough to know that's not very likely. 

I don't believe I've ever done it, actually. But if someone has specific information to the contrary, I'd certainly hear them out. I welcome them to contact me and I will listen, with care. We may disagree about some things or have different recollections. But I'll listen and really try to get what their experience was and not dismiss it.

Julian, I gotta say this before we go on. I'm not a fan of you showing up in feminists spaces to voice your opinion in a way that triggers, annoys, or bores women. But I've never known you to "out" any woman. I know you're deeply concerned about how women have been terrorized by male supremacists online and offline.

That's what I generally stay very conscious of when writing about women here. If I have any doubt about whether naming someone--only as they publicly name themselves--might cause them to be more socially vulnerable to verbal attack or to other forms of abuse or threat, or to economic distress such as losing one's job, I won't name them.

What I have not taken to heart enough, nor to mind enough, are the ways some of my social behavior has been triggering to women. There's no good reason for me not considering it. I can say this: most people don't know when I'm triggered by them because if the triggering leads me to feel threatened or unsafe, I'm likely to simply not want to engage with them at all. My own triggering is specific to me but is also not atypical. And men can trigger me in various ways. I've grown immune to some things, such as men sending emails to call me a f*g or the classic "mangina". When someone is that ridiculous, it's kind of easy for me to just write them off as behaving like a jerk. But what you've helped me understand is that my anger, no matter what it's about, can be or may be or IS triggering or troubling for some women, for reasons having to do with sexual politics.

Yes. It can be, it may be, and it is. I know before I knew you better, I felt uncomfortable with your intensity at times and it gave me pause when considering whether to take a risk and get to know you better. 

Yeah. I'm glad you were willing to do that, but I'd also have understood if you didn't. I'm quite supportive of women not giving males energy.

I know you are. Which makes you showing up in feminist spaces more perplexing, honestly. Why do you do that, Julian?

Well, I don't show up in places where I haven't been welcomed to appear, by at least one woman there. And if a space is set up to be woman-only, I don't go there. But over the last decades, most feminist spaces aren't woman-only and that's a decision made by the organisers or administrators of those spaces. But because I do believe in woman-only spaces existing without male intervention and interruption, I have chosen not to go to most gatherings or discussion spaces that are woman-majority or woman-led. But that's truer now than it used to be.

Maybe because lately you don't get out much, huh?

Well, there is that! But I've been very slow to get that my presence isn't wanted by at least some women in most spaces where women gather, even if the organisers or administrators don't have a policy of being woman-only, or are explicitly welcoming of male presence. I plan to appear less in such spaces in the future. My appearance in a discussion in a feminist discussion space on Facebook was, I hope, one of the last times I do that.

But why have you done it? I mean regardless of what administrators welcome, why do you feel like it's ok to be there? You know as well as any male I know how hard it is for women to create woman-only space. And you know as well as I do that many women don't set up spaces to be woman-only because they don't feel like they have the right to do so. Or because men insist the women be liberally "fair" by being accommodating.

I know. It's such a common male supremacist argument. ... Why have I done it so often? I guess because feminist discussion spaces are spaces where the topics, the conversations, are of interest to me. I mean most of what men talk about isn't of interest to me. I've always had closer relationships--friendships--with women than men. I've always organised my private and social life more around women than men.

But you know that some women feel that you're presence is not only not helpful, but plays out some really typical male supremacist patterns, right? And the point of the conversations isn't to be appealing to you or to engage you or make your social world less small.

Well, I know. Yes. I mean my loneliness leads me to do things that I'm not necessarily prepared to do well.

Like offering to politically or more personally converse with gay and queer-identified men who seem like they are anti-racist and anti-sexist who you know you won't be able to tolerate for more than ten minutes?

Yeah. Like that. (Laughs.) A lot like that.

And like that last place: you went there, tossed out a whole lot of commentary, and then left abruptly, stating that you don't even like the space to begin with!

Yeah. I'd like to fill you in on what was going on there for me, if that's okay with you?

Sure, go ahead. I've been really baffled by that, to be honest. And pissed off with you too.

Okay, so first of all, I have been having the experience in many places that my voice isn't welcome, isn't wanted, and that even if I'm speaking to the issues at the center of the discussions, the response is to hear crickets chirping. And I'm not talking about women-majority spaces, in this case. I'm talking about male-dominant spaces. Or in places where discussions are led by men. Women do tend to respond, including by letting me know what I'm doing is male supremacist. Men often just ignore the comments.

And that's relevant how?

Well, because I have come to believe that people--in general--don't wish to talk with me about things. In my experience recently, most women don't want to and most men don't want to. And so this has led me to offer a perspective on what's being discussed, and then just leave. It shocked me that anyone actually objected to me leaving a place suddenly. I know that could sound silly in a way. But it really did surprise me. So I think that whole dynamic has led to a kind of "say what you have to say and then leave them alone" kind of approach to "engaging". Which is to say, I don't assume "engagement" is going to happen to begin with. I assume if I speak I'll either be ignored or disrespected. Because that's what's happened in enough places.

I'd think that would lead you to stop speaking up in places.

Yeah, you'd think. But I have this thing about not speaking up in spaces when something is going down that isn't okay--or, well, that doesn't feel okay to me or isn't okay with women I know well, and also with me. Almost without exception, if I'm speaking up in a space, it's because something is upsetting to me about what's being said. Like, either it comes across to me as male supremacist or white supremacist, or close friends alert me to how it is both. Or it could be profoundly liberal discourse. Those are the kinds of conversations that get me riled up.

What I haven't exactly tracked is how such conversations also upset me in ways that make constructive engagement unlikely. I have learned how to hold my tongue when I'm triggered by something--well, more often than in the past, but I have actually practiced NOT holding my tongue when something male supremacist or white supremacist is going on. Because that's what it means to be an ally, according to the radical women I hold myself most closely accountable to. It means you don't let shit fly around unchallenged, pretending it smells good.

So surely, then, you'd support women speaking up if you're presence is male supremacist, right? I mean, if the male supremacist part of the dynamic is partly or mostly yours, coming from what you are doing there, then you're not surprised if women respond negatively, are you?

I'm not surprised, no. But I have been alarmed by some ways a very few people have responded. Because in one case, a person responded with both disrespect and by engaging in terrorist tactics with me. And neither is okay with me. I mean I get how we can do things that come across as disrespectful. I'm not talking about that--shit happens. People upset each other. People trigger each other. And we can't always anticipate that. Hopefully people learn from past experience, and strive to trigger people less, or upset or hurt people less. Hopefully I learn to be less male supremacist.

As I said, I've been slow to "get it" about some of my behavior. I think that's partly because some of the people I've upset or triggered have withdrawn from me altogether--which I understand. My learning process is mine and is not for others to do for me or walk me through. I get that. I've witnessed enough males and whites saying to people we structurally oppress "Teach me!" or "Help me understand how what I'm doing is insulting or invisbilising of you" to know that it's not for the oppressed to educate the oppressor, even if oppressors are only likely to learn by experiencing the world from the vantage point of those they have structural power over.

And at the same time, people do learn best, I think, in relationship, in community where people share with one another. Me withdrawing from most spaces, for reasons stated above, and people withdrawing from me, means that I'm not likely to know what effect I'm having--I mean very specifically, to particular individuals.

I value my friendships because we do value letting each other know whether something upsetting has happened. And when I find out that what I've done is upsetting, I usually care about that and want to make amends or offer something that can be healing or productive. But I know that takes time and trust. And what I've been realising more and more is how internet spaces and many offline spaces too, don't have either time or trust as a base. So when people upset each other, or when one person--say, me--upsets a whole lot of other people, there's no agreement about how that will be dealt with. People do what seems best for them.

But you were saying that your experience is that you're ignored or insulted.

Yes. Or threatened.

So some people have actually threatened you? 

I can't really know what their intention is. I can tell you that some people--just a very few, fortunately--have employed exactly the same cyber-terrorist tactics as a way of engaging with me and mostly they've done so privately. Like there's a text book for how to do it and these people have followed the "to do" list to a T. Down to the smallest details. And that's not something that leads me to have much faith that healing or building relationship is possible with those people.

Again, I understand someone withdrawing and not engaging. And I don't think any woman owes me a damned thing. If I piss a woman off, I believe she ought to take care of herself as she sees fit. But going out of your way to terrorise someone, or insult someone, or disrespect someone--well, that's just not helpful to being in constructive, healthy relationship, in my opinion. But the thing is, it's not really "my opinion" alone. My feminist role models didn't model abusive interpersonal behavior. The women I learned radical feminism from didn't treat me like that. And they wouldn't have termed such actions as "feminist". So I took that to heart a long time ago.

You know that some kinds of meanness is especially commonplace now--on social networking sites, on blogs, at discussion sites. I mean I see it a lot in woman-only spaces. I see a hell of a lot more of it in spaces where men engage with women, though.

I know snark is valued in many spaces. And I can reflect on my own past snarkiness with men to see that when I've been in that mode it's because I didn't feel safe to engage in more honest ways. And I'm certainly under no illusions about woman-only space being utopian. I've known too many lesbian women well over the last few decades to arrive at that conclusion. But what I hear women say--you included--is that often enough there's a commitment to valuing community that often doesn't exist in spaces that include men.

So if you understand and appreciate--and support--women not engaging with men when the man, or male person, or the men have come across as threatening, abusive, hostile, or just plain annoying and typically sexist, why do you expect any woman to be honest with you about how your behavior has made her feel?

I don't expect that. And I wouldn't tell any woman she "should" talk stuff out with me. But I can want it or be hopeful about it nonetheless. I've been surprised by woman friends going the distance with me, and they've explained they're sure as hell not doing it for me: they're doing it for themselves, because having another male around who gets it that much more means their lives are that much less burdened by sexism and racism.

What do you hope for?

I guess I hope that a safe-enough space can be created with any woman I've hurt or upset or harmed in some way that was not intended by me, for us to heal some of that hurt or wounding. And to go on in such a way that the woman feels like she's less likely to encounter that from me in the future. And with the experience that I'm caring of how she's feeling.

Whenever I find out a woman is upset with me I do try and put myself in her shoes, to try to feel what it might have been like to be her, hearing or witnessing me be the ways I've sometimes been. But you know that only goes so far because each person has their own history, their own associations; their own wounds, their own triggers, and so forth. What's saddest of all to me in relationship is when both people are triggering the other, and wounding just gets compounded. I've seen that so much in work I've done when counseling couples. Sometimes the wounding and re-wounding is just too severe. There's not enough safe space for healing to occur.

In my case, I think some of the things that deeply alarm me, or trigger me, are so commonplace that the only solution is to withdraw in some way. I know that withdrawing is only an option for some people and I'm privileged to be able to withdraw in many of the ways I do. But I also see how people in long-term abusive situations who are not free to escape or leave, find their own ways to withdraw, such as through dissociation or being silent, or being cleverly dishonest, or getting into arguments chronically. And so when someone says something like "People should always be honest!" I often feel, "Well, being honest in some situations will get you beaten up. Or killed."

And those of us who have had our lives threatened and who have had death threats against us, if we don't want to give up publicly challenging the status quo, figure out how to go on being outspoken but also somewhat protected from the thugs and terrorists.

What I want women who I've upset or hurt or scared to know is that I'm willing to listen and that I will be caring.

I know you do care when you've upset someone. Well, if they're a woman. I've seen you not care so much when you've upset a man. 

Well, it depends on what has upset him. If me challenging his sexism or misogyny or whiteness is what's upsetting to him, then I'm not going out of my way to be too concerned about making things better. Well, unless there's a significant relationship there already. But I don't have a lot of relationships with men, as you know. But me challenging someone on their structural privileges and power isn't an open invitation to be abusive, mean, or intentionally hurtful to them. Nor to dehumanise them. According to my feminist mentors, anyway. I think Alice Walker is one person, someone I haven't met and don't know, who really models that behavior.

Do you maintain a relationship with those mentors, Julian? I'm not sure I know what happened to those relationships.

What happened, sadly, is that most of those women passed on. They died far too soon, of illness or disease. I miss them. And I miss the kind of culture that I had with them, and that they nurtured most when among women. Caring community where being mean and snarky just wouldn't fly without serious challenge. The whole reason I said, in that last conversation, that I hate Facebook, is that Facebook, in my experience, is a space that seems to encourage snark and meanness as an M.O., as standard operating procedure, for having political discussions. I am pretty sure there are plenty of conversations I'm not privy to that don't operate that way.

There are--and you're not privy to them. But there are always struggles and like you said, people do unintentionally hurt or upset one another. 

I guess the question is: Are we in the struggle together, or aren't we? If the struggle is to create safe woman-only space, then I'm not going to be in on that--other than by not showing up in woman-only and feminist-majority spaces. But if the spaces are committed to being open with regard to gender or sex, then I'd better only show up if I am in a mental and emotional space to be present, be accountable, and be caring--and when invited and welcomed, of course.

So why didn't you show up to do that, to be present and accountable, in this last case?

When I tried, I couldn't get back to it. I'm not sure why. Maybe one of the admins blocked me. I wouldn't be surprised if she did. But to also be named by other women in that space as someone who is not willing to engage, when further engagement is no longer an option, well, that feels hopeless. Because while I did engage in ways that seemed like I didn't really want a genuine exchange of ideas or perspectives, that doesn't mean that if me doing that was upsetting or alarming or annoying, that I wouldn't be open to processing that.

That's kind of problematic, isn't it? For you to want women to make some sort of exception with you? To give you some sort of benefit of the doubt when that may well be too costly to do, emotionally and politically?

Yes. It is problematic. It's outright unfair. I can be far too self-concerned sometimes.

And far too self-negating at other times.

Yes. That too. But the self-concern or prioritised self-regard--and this might also be called "being self-centered" or "typically male", when it's present, is kind of balanced with a lot of compassion and an ability to get beyond myself. I know that in so many situations, suddenly making such a process--about me and my feelings--the center of attention functions to derail the original conversation.

And socialisation being what it is, it is far too often the case that the man's, the male's, or the white person's feelings will get attended to while the sexually or racially or ethnically oppressed person's feelings will get ignored, or the assumption will be "the oppressed person exists to take care of me". But processing can happen away from that conversation and if it's mutual, then those oppressive dynamics don't have to be resurrected and reinforced.

So maybe a safe-enough conversation happens in a separate space. Maybe it happens privately. Because when it's public, that generates another set of dynamics--other people can get appropriately dismayed that any time is being spent attending to the feelings of the male or the white person. But that risk-taking to resolve or heal some negative interaction is probably only going to happen if it's worth it to the person who was hurt or upset--if it is in her own interest to do it.

I know you know what was said about you in that discussion, and what others have charged you with doing, because the conversation was sent to you after you couldn't get back in. I just want that to be clear to whoever reads this when it goes public.

Yes. That's how I know. Someone sent it to me to question what was going on there, to question the allegations, and to let me know the effect of what I'd said there initially.

And I know you get into trouble when you bring up the politics of whiteness, or of ignored white supremacy, in majority-white spaces where that's being ignored or put aside in favor of a politic that goes, "let's only talk about sex and gender even though most of us are white." 

Yeah. I'm also being accused of perpetuating or promoting "identity politics". As if refusing to be silent about race and white supremacy has anything to do with identity politics. I welcome anyone who feels that way to respectfully engage with me on my blog about that.

I know why you do bring it up and for me the problem isn't you bringing it up--it needs to be brought up and it's only the responsibility of white people to do it. The problem is that you're so intense about it sometimes, and honestly I think triggered too because of being Jewish and your own experiences with that ethnic bigotry and invisibilization, and knowledge of the history, that you do it in a way that frightens or triggers women: you become "the visibly angry man" in the space. 

Not just that. I am realising I also become the man who seems to be judging women harshly. Yet another male in the white women's lives who is judging them without knowing them well. But what I'm judging harshly is the white supremacy, not the white women personally.

You know, when this plays out with gender, white radical feminists are usually pretty clear that men should learn to take criticism about the politics of their gender and not take it personally, as if it's a personal attack. But the difference here--you know the difference, right? I don't have to spell it out, I hope.

The difference is that I'm a male doing it in female-majority spaces. I realise it's not the oppressed person challenging their oppressor, in which case the politic, the ethic, ought to be the one Pearl Cleage describes [in her book Deals With The Devil and Other Reasons to Riot]. Basically, "Listen and learn, in a posture of non-defensiveness."

Some white feminists could get the sense you go out of your way to challenge white women on racism, but let white men off the hook on that. And that you're trying to assert power over white women by doing so. Or that you're judging them as if from a superior position--like you "get it" about race and they don't.

Well, you know I also challenge white men about a lot of things including their racism. Which is why most white men won't engage with me. And I challenge men of color on their male supremacy and misogyny too.

I know that. But because that is done in spaces online that are predominantly male, white feminists won't necessarily see you do it. So I think it appears to some women like you only do this to women and that you've found this spurious way to go after women, not men.

I am realising that. Thank you for making that clearer.

Look, Julian: it's really upsetting and painful to see that racist shit play out again and again and again. Whiteness is not regularly interrogated in majority-white places. That's just the damned truth. And it's got to be different. Radically different. Andrea [Dworkin] named that shit in 1974. It was practically the first thing she wrote down when speaking as a white radical feminist. So did many radical feminists of color--correction: so DO many radical feminists of color. And there's nothing at all radical about protecting white power. And I don't think you mentioning that, as you have several times on your blog and elsewhere, is liberal, or is engaging in "identity politics." I really don't.

The same holds true with patriarchal shit in male-dominant places: there's very little commitment among men to collectively root it out. We know this. The collective commitment is to protect male power and to pretend male supremacy is a figment of feminists' imagination. I wish rape and incest and trafficking were matters of imagination. 

And the collective commitment among whites, among white women and among white men, is to protect white power, even though I've never heard any white feminist say that's what her aim is. I have heard white women decades ago say they wanted to protect "white people," though. And I have read online where men say their aim is to protect male entitlements and power. And the big-boy pornographers make a damned good living at protecting that white and male power, at promoting it as "good sex," and at unleashing it against women of all colors. It's always been the pimps and pornographers who most conflate sex and rape, not radical feminists.

It's all disgusting and I don't fault you for finding it profoundly upsetting and for feeling a need to call it out. I know you work hard to be accountable to radical feminist women you are especially close to. And I know why most of those women won't identify as "radical feminist": because the term is used so routinely by white women who, consciously or not, protect white power. I know you work to sincerely be a responsible ally to women fighting male and white supremacy. And I do hope you continue to be accountable to the women most centrally in your life, and that they continue to consider you as a solid ally. 

But I also hope you steer clear of majority-white woman spaces dedicated to feminist discussions. I hope you've learned that your ways of being there are, often enough, too upsetting or annoying or triggering for enough women--and not only white women, to make your presence not only problematic, but more to the point: not pro-feminist.

I do get that now, yes. You won't be seeing me participate, whether more or less obnoxiously, in those discussions in the future.


Now, what do you want to eat? I'm cooking.

Damn right you are! (Laughs.)