Open Letter to Jill Filopovic
First, thank you for posting. I was one of the many people who assumed that your silence equalled assent; not only because of your (granted, years ago) public affirmations of affection/support for Hugo (and while I say this, remember that I noted that he had a certain visible absence after 2008)….but because of experiences throughout my life. In my experience, silence does equal assent. The power to ignore others is a very effective means for shutting them down. I did not expect a lengthy response, but just a short timely one. I was unaware of your health struggles and I do empathize—I also have a health challenge (hypothyroidism…..and geez, don’t get me started. I could rant for days on the general unresponsiveness of physicians to women, and the specific difficulty of trying to negotiate the healthcare system as an over-40 working class woman) and have personal knowledge of trying to budget one’s energy during conflicting demands. I do not intend to add to your stress level (trust, 2011 sucked for me too); I only want to speak to you woman-to-woman, as a former guest blogger on Feministe and someone who has been a part of the commentariat damn near since its inception…back when it was still Lauren’s gig.
I want to speak to you on some of the overall dynamics I’m witnessing on these recent posts and comment threads. From my perspective, there is an almost corporate-style mode of abdication of responsibility. The fact that Feministe has multiple staff bloggers will necessarily result in this default in the absence of a formal structure of consensus among the bloggers and in the absence of a mission statement. It seems to me that Feministe vacillates between being a pop-culture entertainment blog; an informative source for international news relating to women and feminism; a galvanizing instrument for political action; and a “LiveJournal”-style space for venting. Although there is a comments policy, there isn’t a declared mission statement of….goals, dreams, boundaries of any sort on what Feministe is or wants to be; nor is there a transparent description or process of how conflict within the community will be resolved. For that matter, there isn’t a definition of the community—does it refer solely to the staff bloggers, or to the commentariat as well?
This is very alienating to me as a labor unionist, as I come from a tradition that has very clear statements on who and what we are, and clear boundaries on process, policy, and conflict resolution. The stock answer in the blogosphere at large is a mercantile one—”if you don’t like what we’re selling, take your business elsewhere.” I don’t necessarily perceive this to be the attitude of Feministe, but strongly feel that the absence of a mission statement and attendant processes contributes to the hostile dynamics in the comment section.
But back to the “corporate style” as I call it, which I see very frequently in the comment section and is clearly evident in the recent threads: an ahistoricity, a blurring of boundaries during controversy or conflict, an assertion of “objectivity”, “rationality” and dismissal of emotion (particularly anger)….these are all concepts essential to the construction of whiteness as a political identity (which is to say, a means of teaching the people who are taught they are white, how to be “white”. I say this because I’ve been getting a whole lot of folks dropping by this blog lately since I was linked on Maya’s post at Alas, and I want to be crystal-clear to people unfamiliar with the term “white” as referring to anything other than light skin. I’m talking about the “whitewashing” of people of European descent; the assimilation into a “whiteness” that exists solely in opposition to people of color and other colonized persons). Even if the overt hostility of the comment section were abated, the affirmation of the ways and means of middle-class white communication are very uninviting (to say the least).
When I read statements like: (3) Feministe does have many contributors, and our views on the Hugo situation are not identical. Caperton’s post was a very good one and I agree with it, but we are not a monolith, and the various individuals who contribute here have wide-ranging opinions on the whole situation and the best response.”…I’ll be blunt. It sounds like fence-sitting to me. Trying to play both sides against the middle, in the face of a conflict that necessarily will alienate one side or the other. Some disagreements can reach a valid compromise, one that will satisfy all parties. This is not one of them. Again, this lack of clarity is a weakness of this blog.
What I find even more frustrating are statements (both in your original post and in the comment section) that use descriptors/analogies of violence for nonviolent acts of protest and resistance—even the merely verbal. This is another trope of whiteness; dismissing the perspective of those in resistance and denigrating/misrepresenting opponents. Note that this process tends not to call out opposition by name, but reduces us to a nameless, faceless “mob”. This, in the midst of a culture that values and respects individualism while standing in vehement opposition to any and all forms of collectivism and organized community. That this dynamic remains unquestioned and unacknowledged on a feminist blog is an egregious oversight, and perpetuates the status quo of “leaders first, then followers”. Whatever else feminism may be about, if it practices an employer/employee relationship between its visible spokespersons and less-visible adherents, it’s about nothing. I’m not looking for more feudalism in my political involvement, and I’m not alone.
One of the critiques I read on tumblr (and if the person in question gives me permission, I will link her own words; I will not do so without her explicit permission as she has deliberately left the Feministe scene) outlined the typical timeline of feminist blog controversy thusly: first, someone would very delicately, very diplomatically reveal that there was an institutional problem. Said problem would be quoted, described, linked to, and otherwise have its boundaries clearly delineated. Many times, possible and probable solutions to its resolution would be included. But then! The response would be one of redirecting into the personal—a list of reasons why This Person (who either was responsible for the original problem, or who was in a position to mitigate or otherwise alleviate/correct said problem) couldn’t do so. And finally, a further redirection into how This Problem is so much larger than one person, and a reassertion that The Problem has nebulous boundaries that can’t be broken down into more manageable parts for its solution.
And that’s a pattern that we see, time and time again. To reiterate, this perpetuates the standard relationship of feminist leadership to everyday feminists as one of hierarchy, with the leaders having the say. It illustrates why so many women for whom having no say is a perpetual part of life are profoundly alienated from feminist movement and do not identify as feminists.
From your most recent post, one of the most maddening statements to me was:
I am also concerned about the precedent this sets. I think that most of the critiques of Hugo are fair, as are the concerns about a former abuser rising to a level of prominence in feminist spaces — especially given his ongoing issues with women of color and his treatment of younger women. But the reality of the feminist internet is that there is a corner of it that plays the take-down game for sport, and that sees any mistake or imperfection or disagreement as evidence that one is Bad For Feminism and should be permanently sidelined. It’s destructive. It’s something I believe is incredibly bad for feminism as a movement and as an idea, and that’s bad for community-building, and that serves to silence more people than it empowers……I frankly don’t trust a group of people on the internet to always choose the right person from whom to demand blood. Which, again, isn’t to say that I think the focus on Hugo here is misdirected. It is to say that I have a real hesitance to participate, because I dislike take-down culture generally and because I’m not convinced that next time we’ll all be setting our sights on a worthy target.
This hit me like a slap in the face. I found it profoundly dismissive of the very vocal critiques made in the first apologia, during Hugo’s white-knighting, and dismissive of the use of the power of organized, nonviolent feminist resistance via blogging. I don’t recall you being upset when this form of organized resistance was used for your benefit. I don’t recall your opposition when this was used to change Michael Moore’s mind. Why now? Because y’know…..I was around when none other than Salon magazine mustered forces against Blackamazon for daring to say, on her tiny corner of the internet, “Fuck Seal Press”.
It’s always been radical to fight against the status quo; those in power want to keep it, to themselves, and will use any and all means at their disposal to do so. But you know what else is radical? SOLIDARITY. Standing in solidarity with others for justice. Even if/when it doesn’t directly benefit you. Even if doing so causes you to fall from grace with power. Even when acting in solidarity is risky. It is profoundly, unequivocally radical.
Remember my mention of whiteness? One of the things a white supremacist society must continually teach and enforce is that white people must never identify with nonwhite people. Separatism—physical if possible, but always mental. There are various ways and means of getting this message across, but as a very visible person in the feminist movement, surely you must have considered the impact of what your solidarity could do. The message it could send to other white feminists. Perhaps that explains your reluctance. In your post, in your many responses of apologia through the years, I note that you seem to both deny your (considerable) power and express discomfort with wielding it. That really slays me. Feministe is in the big leagues. I’ve got a copy of The Nation magazine at home that featured Feministe on the cover (along with several other heavy-hitters in the left-leaning sphere); I still use it for bragging rights (“wouldja believe they asked me to guest blog?! See! I don’t just mouth off, I’m good at it!). Feministe is a recognized presence in the left, and one that is remembered for standing in feminist opposition to professional male bloggers and journalists who routinely ignored women’s voices and denied our online presence (hence, the Feministe byline, “in defense of the sanctimonious women’s studies set”).
You have the opportunity to stand in solidarity. Or not. But either way, it speaks to where your alliances lay. There isn’t any middle ground.
Please understand—people look to a definitive response from you because your voice carries. It carries a hell of a lot farther in movement feminism than mine ever will. Labor union women still aren’t included in standard versions of feminist history; the work of my union comaris–as is mine–is seen as mere selfish struggle; an individual quest for better pay, benefits, conditions and opportunity that was/is only collective in appearance or by default. Certainly not something that impacts and benefits women as a class. So, our work, our lives, are erased. You have to be a diligent detective to find our herstories.
I’ve been very consistent with my critiques of mainstream feminist movement; one of them was quoted at Racialicious:
“The feminist blogosphere is: young, but not too young (25-35); mostly white (and of northern european extraction); middle to upper-middle class; highly educated (always degreed, usually grad school or law degree); able-bodied and healthy; non-religious (but typically with a Protestant or Jewish background); childfree by choice (also not a caretaker of an elderly or disabled adult); body size from thin to very thin; cisgender; heterosexual; conventionally feminine/pretty; fashionable; not employed in a nontraditional (>25% female participation) workforce; native English speaking (family of origin usually native English speaking also); non-indigenous and several generations removed from immigrant ancestors; raised in a nuclear family (either intact or divorced—but not “unwed” or extended family); lives in a large metropolis; favors capitalism; unmarried/unpartnered (meaning: no formal or legal ties of responsibility to a partner); never incarcerated (no family incarcerated either); and has plenty of personal contact with people in positions of actual power (gets invited to policymaking meetings/summits).”
If I was to rewrite that paragraph today, I’d be more explicit with my inclusion of military women. I was thinking of them in the “nontraditional occupation” category, but (name redacted upon request) has been commenting here a lot, and I’ve been thinking that military women deserve a special mention as they so seldom get it elsewhere. Anyway, that’s one of the things that stands out to me in the feminist blogoshere; that there is relatively little mention of servicepeople and veterans. In my environs, veterans are ubiquitous.
I remain a firm believer that our perspective results from our realities. Feministe has been around the block and then some as one of the representative samples of online feminism’s echo chambers. Has even attempted to make that not so by inviting other bloggers into the fold. It never lasts. Other bloggers leave in anger, frustration and hurt because you can’t add new faces to the same framework and expect the narrow backs of individual women to bear the brunt of changing the culture.
My suggestions for moving forward:
- Adding a declarative mission statement to the blog. Who/what is Feministe, and what are this blog’s objectives? How does it plan to reach them? What is the framework for its evolution? What are its obligations to its readers and/or responsibilities to feminist movement?
- Formulating and posting an open, transparent policy on how consensus is built and conflict handled, designed in such a way as to recognize the inherent evolution of the community and how power is exercised within it.
- A broader range of perspective. This ought to be self-explanatory. But it won’t be successful until and unless….
- Tighten up the comments section. Seriously. All the complaint about the hostility endemic within the commentariat on feminist blogs rings hollow when Feministe has been a place where it thrives. I recommend as your model the comment section at Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog. Sure, in order to make something like that work at Feministe would result in fewer hits, but it would reap rewards in making the site a more productive one for discussion. If the moderation was heavier, Feministe could be a place where a broader spectrum of voices could thrive.
I’d also suggest a frank acknowledgement that feminism isn’t just a challenge to the power dynamics from without, but to those within as well. It’s a liberatory movement. A revolutionary movement. A movement that will change the way we relate to one another, ourselves, and the planet. Or not—in which case it’s about nothing, and we’ll have to pack up and move on to a movement that will. With or without you.
But make no mistake—you have power. You have opportunity. Whatever else you do, don’t squander it. Pace.