Sometimes talking IS the work

This post was inspired by recent events in online/NZ/Twitter-based conversation, but it’s also part of wider thinking I’ve been doing about activism and policing other people’s behaviour. Remember: if it’s not about you, it’s not about you. If it is about you – that’s on you.

It confuses me when people attack activists for “just” sitting on Twitter doing “nothing” but talk.

I’m not puzzled about the inaccuracy of it – no one I know “just” confines their activism to Twitter. Besides, activism doesn’t always mean organising a rally or printing a zine or starting a hashtag. In a society which is doing its utmost to drive you mad or kill you – and that’s the reality for many people – surviving and thriving is political activism in of itself. But that doesn’t matter to the Twitter-deriders: their goal is to shut down criticism and demonize the people who dare to say “you screwed up”. Even if it’s a load of tripe.

I’m puzzled because they’re erasing the value of talking.

At its most basic: how do you build any kind of action without talking? Without discussing the situation, defining the problems, creating solutions and spreading the word?

“Just talking” is probably the single most important step in activism. Even if you’re “only” talking to yourself – even if surviving a society which hates you is the grandest goal you have. Even more so when you want to change the whole world.

There’s a passage in Susan Brownmiller’s In Our Time, a history of (part of) the second-wave feminist movement in the USA. (Big disclaimer: there are many things the second wave messed up on.) Brownmiller talks about attending her first “consciousness-raising session” run by New York Radical Women in the late 60s:

Saying “I’ve had three illegal abortions” aloud was my feminist baptism, my swift immersion in the power of sisterhood. A medical procedure I’d been forced to secure alone, shrouded in silence, was not “a personal problem.” My solitary efforts to forge my own destiny were fragments of women’s shared, hidden history, links to past and future generations, pieces of the puzzle called sexual oppression. The simple technique of consciousness-raising had brought my submerged truths to the surface, where I learned that I wasn’t alone.

For those feminists, talking was the most powerful thing they could do. When society normalized ideas about getting married and having kids, and pretended no one else ever got divorced or had abortions or questioned their paycheck, just talking got the ball rolling.

And when they began to organise “real” events, what were they? Speak-outs. Talking. Lifting their voices in public on issues like abortion and sexual violence.

Talking wasn’t just part of the work. Talking was the work.

TWhen you talk, others hear. And hopefully, some listen. Because no one ever changed their mind about how society oppresses other people, whose lives they will never experience, without some kind of external stimulus.

I don’t believe I’m perfect (another dismissive line that gets thrown around.) But there are things I’m conscious of which others aren’t. And as a more-privileged woman, I can call my peers up on those things – not leaving it to women of colour, or people with disabilities, and so on, to always do the work of correcting others.

These aren’t problems I face. I didn’t intuit their existence. They are issues other people talked about, and when I listened, I learned.

I say “when” because believe me, there were times I did not listen. I have been the ignorant ally who said “well actually” to trans women. I have been the person getting personally offended because yes I know some white women try to compare their hair issues to black women’s but I don’t, tell me I’m good!

… And I am so, so sorry about that.

But me being sorry isn’t the point. The point is that, eventually, I listened. I got better. Not perfect. Better.

But that would never have happened if all the trans women, queer women, women of colour, indigenous women, or women with disabilities had sat down and kept quiet because I always deserved the benefit of the doubt. If their real allies – the other white cis women who probably re-explained everything to me because I was too pigheaded to believe women outside my peer group – had just said no, Stephanie’s one of the “good” people. If I had been given a pass each and every time because I meant well and everyone who knew me thought I was really respectful and right-on.

When we talk, we create solidarity. There’s massive value in knowing that out there in the world is someone else who totally gets why you’re angry or how you’re feeling or what you’re going through. That kind of bond doesn’t just build movements, it literally saves people’s lives.

If you don’t think that counts as constructive, righteous, progressive social justice work, you need to go back to a dictionary and look up every single one of those words again.

Some recommended reading on related themes and those recent events:

The worst sexism ever

Back in 2011, Skepchick founder Rebecca Watson made some really mild comments about a dude’s inappropriate behaviour at a conference. Things blew up, especially once the prince of Internet Atheism, Richard Dawkins, left a comment mocking Watson for making such a fuss over such a small thing. His argument, in a scathing “satire”, boiled down to: how dare you talk about this bad experience, things are so much worse for oppressed Muslim women.

(Being Richard Dawkins, he said it as offensively and gratuitously as possible.)

And that was Elevatorgate. Neither the first, nor the last, but definitely one of the premiere cases of the thing I’m blogging about today.

Again and again, when women (or any other group of people pointing out the ways their lives are constrained and affected by oppression) speak out about something – no matter how “calmly” or “reasonably” they put it – we’re scoffed at. “Oh, like this is the worst sexism that ever happened *eyeroll*” or “Things are way worse for women in Syria, you know“. The only possible inference is: “you shouldn’t talk about this, because this isn’t really serious.”

As I wrote in my post about the myth of language policing:

It’s never just one word. Women aren’t walking around living practically perfect lives, taking it all for granted, until one poor guy says one bad word, at which point we descend upon him like harpies and rend the flesh from his bones.

It’s one guy saying “chicks” … after another guy called you a “cheerleader“, after another guy referred to you as “the office girl”, after another guy joked that you’re “more than just a pretty face”, after another guy asked if your husband was going to sign off on the kitchen quote, after another guy got praised for repeating something you’d said 5 minutes earlier, after another guy assumed you were the nurse not the surgeon, after another guy assumed you couldn’t do basic math.

That’s what sexism is like. This omnipresent state of “being a woman in a patriarchy” is manifested in a hundred different ways. Yes, most of them, if they were “the only” thing happening, would be trivial, easily brushed off and forgotten. But they’re not. They’re constant. And sometimes women complain about them.

And when we do, it seems to just be a matter of time before someone jumps up to point out that, well, this isn’t the worst sexism ever so stop complaining.

Whatever your intention, however you phrase it, you’re effectively telling women to stop talking. That their concerns aren’t valid – and that you are the person who gets to decide whether or not they are, largely based on being (usually) white, or male, or cisgendered, or wealthy, or famous – or any other of the characteristics which our society infuses with credibility. We don’t get to decide what’s important for us, what harms us or what we want to tweet about. You do.

And when we women say “hang on, this feels a bit like you want me to shut up”, the response is: “I don’t want to silence women! I love women! I was just making a point, I never said you shouldn’t have an opinion at all!”

Every single time: this issue is trivial and that experience is all in our heads and this problem is just a misunderstanding and why, oh why, are we talking about it at all?

As I get older and theoretically wiser, and see the same “well-intentioned” calls to sit down and stop making a fuss made over and over, I stop believing that this isn’t malicious. It’s too easy to make women shut up about everything this way – because nothing is as bad as The Sum Total Of Patriarchy. And The Sum Total of Patriarchy is so massive and pervasive that there’s no practical way to attack it directly. So what option do we have but to sit down and stop making a fuss?

We’re told to “pick our battles” on pretty much every battle there is – and we already have a list that’s too long of the battles we’ve already surrendered.

Well, to end on a note of high drama, here’s the battle I’m picking: I won’t be quiet about sexism. Sometimes I’ll talk about the big issues. Sometimes I’ll talk about the small ones. And if you desperately need to try to tell me whether the things I talk about are or aren’t important, I’ll probably be talking about you next.

wednesday-addams-smiling

Damn right I’m angry

It’s funny (or depending on your point of view, completely predictable) how often feminist analysis and leftwing analysis overlap.

There’s a term: “tone argument”. It refers to the regular pleas directed at feminists, anti-racism activists, indigenous rights activists, trans activists, etc to stop being so aggressive and ask nicely for fundamental human rights and dignity instead of shouting so much. It’s a derailment, a troll move, a way to undermine and ignore the actual arguments being made. As summed up by the Geek Feminism wiki:

The tone argument is a form of derailment, or a red herring, because the tone of a statement is independent of the content of the statement in question, and calling attention to it distracts from the issue at hand. Drawing attention to the tone rather than content of a statement can allow other parties to avoid engaging with sound arguments presented in that statement, thus undermining the original party’s attempt to communicate and effectively shutting them down.

The irony is that these voices are already marginalized. Shouting is often the only way to get heard.

But it occurs in “normal” politics too. The idea that rational, reasonable, calmly-delivered arguments are inherently superior to loud, assertive, passionate – emotional – arguments is strongly ingrained.

And thus Cameron Slater and his little helpers jumped to label Andrew Little as “Angry Andy” from the moment it looked like he was going to put his name forward for the party leadership. Look, he’s so shouty, the meme goes. Voters don’t like shouty people. Shouting must mean you’re not very sensible.

We’re not mean to get angry, you know. But why wouldn’t we be?

We have a government which has shrugged its shoulders while families have been forced to live in cars and chronically-ill people have been driven off benefits. A government which has sat back and let the people of Christchurch wait five years – and longer – to get their homes repaired to liveable standards.

A government which removed the right to regular rest breaks at work and refuses to take a strong stand on health and safety. A government literally making it up as it goes along on dealing with the Auckland housing crisis – a crisis it barely acknowledges exists.

A government which refuses to properly fund sexual violence services and has done the absolute minimum to ensure the clients of Relationships Aotearoa are being properly cared for as they transition to new counsellors. Which let a diplomat accused of sexual assault flit off to his home country and bad-mouthed his victim for her political beliefs.

A government which is selling us down the river on the TPPA, paying off Saudi millionaires for vague promises of free trade, and sending Kiwi soldiers into harm’s way in Iraq to please our (former?) colonial masters.

We have a government which has consistently eroded our democracy, our work rights, our public services, and our social safety net – and expects us to go along with it for the promise of an illusory Budget surplus and maybe some small tax cuts after the next election.

A government which has cemented its power with a dirty tricks campaign run out of the 9th floor of the Beehive and paid for with your tax dollars.

If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention.

And when you’re angry, you can change the world. That’s why anger scares them so much.

(Note: Video NSFW, sweary awesomeness)

Bingo time: being a killjoy feminist thought policewoman

A bingo board of responses to a one-word comment I made on The Standard yesterday, criticising someone’s “joke” about a cis woman’s appearance and comparing her to a trans woman.

(It isn’t nearly as pretty as Waitangi Bingo but I’m an amateur.)

misandry bingo

I especially like the Gerry Brownlee reference, since I’m often one of a very few people on that site who does actually say “let’s stop making fat jokes about Gerry Brownlee (or Paula Bennett, another favourite), there’s plenty of valid things to criticise him/her for.” I usually get much the same dismissive crap for my trouble.

The thing is, I’ve been doing this being-a-woman-who-has-opinions-online thing for a while. And I can already tell you that if I posted this bingo board at a site like The Standard, the responses to it would go along much the same lines, only with a few additions like, “But I never said I hated you for being a woman, so my comments can’t be sexist” or “It’s got nothing to do with the fact you’re a woman, it’s about the fact you’re a nagging/shrill/bitchy/catty/oversensitive/overemotional/PMSing cow.”