As I dealt with the disadvantages of many of my personal circumstances, such as my health, my queerness and my trauma history, it was crucial for me to also reflect on ways I have power and advantage. Becoming vegan was just one outcome of this self-reflection – as was recognising the power in my relative maleness, and my white skin.
As it’s about coming to terms with human advantages, being vegan does inherently come from a place of privilege. That’s kind of the point – we can’t risk, as activists, mulling only over our disadvantages – not only is it self-serving, it’s inherently disempowering.
But given most vegans I know are queer or trans, disabled or mentally ill and relatively financially disadvantaged, I feel I want to challenge this idea that veganism is a privileged social position in and of itself, characterised by cis white able-bodied male hipsters, rather than just that, like all other movements, the animal rights movement is dominated by those who hold more of the social aces.
In my experience, we often come to a place of reflecting on our own advantages from having understood the impact of others advantages over us. This is probably why I know a lot of queer and trans vegans, many of them disadvantaged in multiple ways. “Vegan” does not indicate, or confer any particular privilege, but just like every other rights movement people “getting it” about animals does not necessarily mean they “get it” on other issues.
Vegans need to be pro-intersectional . . .
Caring about animal rights is only worth a damn in the context of caring about the rights of all animals, including human ones. Vegans who are racist and sexist, or who simply don’t give a crap what’s happening to humans in this world, don’t deserve praise for their ethics. Peta and its misogynistic campaigns are just one example of this.
There are some oblivious vegan tub-thumpers out there who go too far. Yes, you can eat healthily vegan on food stamps, as one disabled trans friend of mine does, and it’s true that many of the word’s cheap staple foods are or can be vegan – rice and peas, tofu, bean chilli, tarka daal, chana masala, and pease pudding are traditional dishes from all over the world that would have been traditionally eaten in places where meat was rarely, if ever, eaten by poor folk. At the same time in the Western world it is currently hard to eat vegan, and if you don’t have the know-how, it is even harder. If you’re young, haven’t come from a culture where such cooking (or any cooking skill) is taught, and you don’t have access to cooking facilities or guidance, well then of course being vegan may be nearly impossible. So there is an element of privilege speaking in the assumption that “everyone can do it” even if vegans are far from being members of an elite.
We need to let go of the idea that everyone could, or should, be vegan. Some folks cannot manage health on a vegan diet, and many people with eating disorders find the topic of veganism triggering. My life-long vegan friend has recently had to concede to eating eggs on doctor’s orders. Another could not manage her anaemia. Another vegan found she was developing problematic eating issues. Let’s not be ableist and assume it’s as easy for everyone.
Many traditional cultures work in harmony with hunting or agriculture in ways that are the very antithesis of modern intensive farming. Western vegans would be colonialist to attack such traditions. Equally, there is a racist undercurrent to many animal rights “shares” on social media – where we are encouraged to condemn the eating of dogs in other cultures more than the eating of pigs in our own.
So sure, the animal rights movement, like every other movement, needs to learn to be pro-intersectional, and often fails at this.
. . . But non-vegans need to stop making sweeping dismissals
Just like angry feminists and bolshy transactivists don’t “help our cause” so the existence of a bunch of non-intersectional vegans out there on the internet haven’t exactly paved the way to vegan peace in our time. But there are assholes in every movement, and they are always used as an excuse to attack the rest of us, in every movement.
Arguably there are many people who talk about “vegan privilege” as an excuse not to reflect on the relative privilege of being human. Which, if they’re disadvantaged and in the middle of their own struggle is quite understandable. But it’s also a shame, because such reflection is empowering and enriching. Learning compassion towards beings more vulnerable than us has a profound effect on our own wellbeing, how we treat ourselves, how we treat those around us.
This is futile if we reflect on human privilege in isolation from other structures of oppression. Our food choices need to consider the impact on the lives, environment and culture of all the beings on this planet. And if we do find ourselves worrying more about sheep than we worry about what’s happening to our fellow humans, then we need to do some soul-searching.
But for those of us who struggle with the gladiatorial arena that is social justice activism, going vegan is a way vulnerable people can do our little bit for the planet. Because giving up animal products does not just mean less animal cruelty, it means a massively reduced carbon footprint, massively reduced water consumption, and it means we are directly consuming crops that would have gone for animal feed, meaning there is more food to go around. All these things have a profound sociological impact, particularly on the world’s more vulnerable cultures.
So please don’t judge me for being vegan and I won’t judge you for not being vegan. I am just trying to do my best for a global community that needs as much care and compassion as we all can muster.
TW for discussion of violence and abuse, including sexual abuse
A long time ago, I was vulnerably housed, living in a hostel in a city down South. Next door to me lived a couple, a really tall older man and a young adult man who had dwarfism. I’m going to call the smaller guy Paul, although his real name has disappeared from my head. I’ll never forget his story, though.
People have always told me their life stories – I guess I have that kind of face. Paul’s was pretty tragic – a childhood of terrible neglect and physical, emotional and sexual abuse. It was hard to hear – the worst thing I’d ever heard at the time, which given the things I’d heard and experienced is saying a lot.
Paul’s companion was his “saviour” – someone who showed him love he had never known, but it soon became clear that this older man had a temper and was violent – sometimes I was called into the aftermath of blood, bruises, tears and apologies. They clearly loved each other, but I could see that what Paul had now was only good compared to the horror of his past – he was still being abused, and he was terribly vulnerable.
A journey towards separatism
Forward fast a few years and I’d pretty much become a lesbian separatist – I’d come out the other side of therapy for my own abuse from cis men, and I’d figured out the safest kind of world is a world without men in it, at least for me (okay, I admit that later I learned women weren’t as safe to be with as I’d hoped, but that’s another story for another time). Back then I worked for women-only domestic violence services, and I firmly believed they need to stay women-only (note: for me, that always included trans women).
But then the UK funding climate changed and the service I worked for started to work with men, amid resistance from myself and other workers.
But that work with male survivors changed me. It turns out there are other Pauls in the world, that male/female is not the only axis of oppression that exists. I discovered that sometimes women really do abuse vulnerable men, that as well as being a man, someone can be queer or elderly or young or disabled or little or a person of colour or economically vulnerable. And most importantly, I discovered that despite the power imbalance, women and men are not fundamentally different and our experiences of abuse and trauma are not fundamentally different. I discovered gender as a continuum, and human experience as a continuum, and began to free myself from the simplistic, convenient, and binary models I had clung to.
Back then, we would say “yeah, but men should set up their own services, women shouldn’t have to look after men, it isn’t their job”, and that works so well as an argument when I think of this group of people “men” with the attached picture I have of someone able and white and well-muscled. But it sounds callous, if I’m honest, when I think of someone like Paul. Really? Not the job of an able, middle class professional being paid by taxpayers money to care about a vulnerable, homeless abuse survivor with dwarfism? That sounds a little different, doesn’t it?
I’m not suggesting that Paul didn’t have male privilege, far from it. I am simply suggesting male privilege is not the only privilege there is, and that he lacked many others.
At the same time, I felt uneasy – a service with “women” in the title helping men was a bit like Cadbury’s making gravy. The whole thing needed a bit of a rethink. Because “domestic violence” had become synonymous with women, and heterosexual women at that, it had coalesced around one particular form of oppression – sexism. Ageism, ableism, racism, transphobia, homophobia, biphobia, classism and poverty (etc) were not getting a look-in or being treated as equally serious oppressions.
Perhaps this is because women’s organising does benefit from potentially having the weight of half the world’s population behind it. Women are not a minority, and maybe that’s an advantage they have over other oppressed groups. It’s helped them be the only oppressed group that’s consistently able to create publicly funded separate spaces.
Some time later still, I went to work for a mixed gender sexual abuse survivors service, and some of my feminist friends were angry with me – they did not believe there was such thing as a genuine male abuse survivor, they honestly thought that men could only be perpetrators. I was shocked, but I also understood – in a world where separatism had created a bubble in which we never heard about male survivors, it was easy to disbelieve their existence. What we saw more often was male perpetrators manipulating and abusing by playing the victim, a common story.
But by now my eyes had been painfully opened – male survivors do exist, male survivors of abuse by women exist. Even though the power structure between men and women is very unequal, on an individual level there are variations, and other power structures at play. For example, boys under 7 sexually assaulted by female relatives and then labelled as “seducers” based on their maleness have their child/adult power inequality erased.
My own history and the work I did was raising complex questions about gender, trauma and abuse that I needed to explore. I went and did an MA with a particular focus on gender and trauma. That journey led to me coming out as a non-binary transgender person, but it also opened my eyes to the many layers in the stories we tell ourselves about violence against women.
“For your own good”
Gender segregation – in domestic violence services, prisons, toilets, and other women only spaces is supposedly for women’s own good. We have to keep women and men separate because it’s thought impossible to expect the same standard of non-violence from men as from women. This constant threat of violence and micro-aggressions is part of what keeps women oppressed, even to the point where feminists argue for single-sex education so girls can “do better” despite the fact our country is ruled by an ex-boys’ school elite. Gender segregation keeps women out of power and yet it’s still seen to be in their interests.
When I wrote my dissertation, I came across evidence that feminist domestic violence services, in the US at least, were being controlled by an external, ultra-conservative agenda – the message to services, in summary, appeared to be “if you want funding for your shelters, then you must present and perpetuate the ‘women as powerless victims’ narrative” – any hint that women’s position in society is negotiable, changeable, evolving and conditional is erased to create a fixed condition of women as a static underclass. The reality, that some women are strong, violent, unassailable, powerful, has ironically become as unpalatable to the people defending these vital services as it has to the conservatives, and so we feminists working for an end to domestic violence found ourselves shoring up the very thing we wanted to dismantle. In order to support women in the world the way it is, we have given the way the world is an increasing solidity and sense of permanence.
All those years I spent in women’s spaces, I fought for their preservation. Even whilst knowing in my heart that gender isn’t a binary. Whilst knowing that I carried the male gaze and male socialisation into those spaces. That I identified as woman in some ways and man in others. That I myself was capable of both victimhood and violence (I was prone to physically lashing out as a youngster, something that’s hard for me to own up to).
It’s hard not to end up with more questions than answers when trying to think of ways forward. I will continue to stick up for women’s spaces, whilst hoping we evolve away from them. I hope that segregated spaces were a necessary part of the journey, but not where we’re going to end up. I want a world not of assimilation, of “not seeing gender” but of inclusion and anti-oppression, where there is an awareness of inequality and people’s vulnerability, and an empathy for difference in all spaces. This becomes increasingly necessary as we realise that many of the smaller minority groups will never have the resources or traction to create their own safe spaces. And as Audre Lorde famously said, we do not live single-issue lives, so our separation into neat, easy to delineate categories is more problematic than at first appears.
More than anything, though, I would love to see an end to the way we construct and reinforce toxic masculinity. I fear that in this neoliberal world, it may be in some people’s interests to maintain male violence and its function of domination, control and security. It is not mindless – it serves a purpose in keeping our country economically strong and our race in a superior position. Subverting that role in whatever way we can, and that includes breaking down the myths that separate us, is tough, complicated but important work.
When I came out at work about my plans to undergo a medical transition, at first I didn’t even bother to go into “non-binary” and what that means, because it felt too hard for people to understand. I told colleagues a simplified version of my truth, which implied I was transitioning to live “as a man”. It felt right at the time, but I quickly realised this identity was just as suffocating for me as the assigned female identity I’d been lumbered with at birth. I rectified the situation, took time to explain non-binary to people. They were nice about it, but clearly they did not understand. I felt more authentic, but way out on a very bendy limb. I was a unicorn*, tempted to saw off my horn to appear like a less authentic but more believable pony.
Of course, if all us unicorns wore our horns out and proud, we wouldn’t seem so imaginary. But the reality is, most of us, cis or trans, spend time negotiating the varying sized gap between “fitting in” and “being ourselves”.
Was I lying to my colleagues when I implied I was a man? No – in a world where currently there are only two legal and social options, I’m enough of a man – maleness being a significant part of my gender story – to deserve to be included in male spaces, male toilets, male services, if that’s what I need to exist in this imperfect, either/or world.
If we start to erase my right to belong to the group “men” by citing my femaleness, my femininity, then we’re falling into dodgy territory where people need to perform a perfect version of masculinity in order to be acceptable. Hell no, that’s not the way to go – though of course trans people are under constant pressure to perform this perfect stereotype because our identities are continually scrutinised and questioned – any hint of femininity, female socialisation, female-typical or stereotypical behaviour, and I am invalidated, as people encourage me to widen my leg position, shorten my hair, lower my voice etc. to “pass” as myself.
I am not always given the space I need to be “the same, but different”.
The tension between “sameness” and difference
I guess it’s normal to hide a difference if it comes with the threat of exclusion, but at the same time parts of ourselves can be suffocated, crying out to express “I am not the same as you!”
Trans people have our own unique experiences and culture, we have our own history of oppression and a profound difference in how we relate to our bodies, and how we culturally respond to assigned sex and gender. At the same time, when we are “othered” it marginalises us to the point where it becomes difficult for us to access things like services, toilets, social spaces and employment, so many of us spend a lot of time fighting for inclusion, and stressing our “sameness”.
Our dilemma is how to let the world know we are both different and the same; the dance many minority groups find themselves in, between isolating self-segregation and crushing assimilation.
Everyone has their own, entirely unique relationship with gender, sex and their own body. There are common themes, but none of them are absolutes. People need space to be different without risking rejection from the warmth, safety and security of the pack. Humans are suited to collective endeavour, but we are not a hive mind.
Organising across difference
Whether we focus on similarities or differences matters a lot when it comes to any kind of social organising. If we can only join together with other “people like us” to organise against oppression, or to create safety, there are problematic consequences. Organising around sameness and commonality risks erasing or excluding all difference. It also creates an inherently oppressive atmosphere in which assumptions are made about what “we” collectively think, feel and experience. It negates the need for us to work on our empathy and our ability to build bridges across divides.
Organising across difference lets the air in – people are free to not “fit in”, but to work together for something collectively beneficial. In a place where difference is celebrated and accepted, we are not always seeking to expel or exclude people, we are not focussed on doubting their legitimacy or vulnerability.
For non binary folk like me, there is an importance for both/and thinking that fights against the tyranny of the either/or: I have some experiences, feelings, history and biology that situate me as a woman. On the other hand, my predominant instincts from my earliest memories have drawn me towards male social rules, expression and behaviour, and in that I find I have a lot, if not more, in common with men. How I negotiate my relationship with the world given these complicated facts – how I identify, and where and how I wish to be included, should be up to me, as these experiences are inherently marginalising and render me highly vulnerable.
In an ideal world both parts of myself, and all the other parts of me that do not neatly fit this dichotomy, would be generally welcomed rather than excluded – there are some conversations that I do not feel a part of, but there are many, held under the banner of “women’s issues”, that certainly affect me.
The same but different
In reality, I am forced to conform to narrow ideas about who I am in order to negotiate my relationship with the rest of the human race; in my need to belong, I might sometimes grow tired of wearing my unicorn’s horn for all to see.
I am just the same as you, and I am nothing like you. Because mine is the minority experience, cis people have the power to choose whether to include me, accept me, believe me, or whether to use my differences to shut me out of spaces, conversations, civil rights, services, employment, toilets, and the safety of social inclusion; my being part of the human pack is entirely at the discretion of people who do not share, and may not understand, my experience and my difference.
*This blog was written just before I discovered the new, and infinitely improved, gender unicorn graphic:
Not all trans people are feminists, just as not all women are feminists. Trans people, much like everyone else, have a wide variety of beliefs about gender, ranging from radically feminist to deeply conservative. The theories we use should rightly be discussed, questioned and put through a rigorous feminist critique.
But what is not in error is the underlying fact of our experience and existence: we are real. This means that equally, feminists are ethically obliged to take the genuine nature of, and oppression of, trans people into account in their theories.
The win-win result of this act of mutual respect – of trans people wholeheartedly supporting feminism, and feminists wholeheartedly supporting trans people, is better, more developed, more nuanced thinking about gender and sex, and smarter activism.
And it really is not that difficult to do. Here are a few suggested ways forward for those of us who are more radically inclined.
1. Let go of simplistic, clumsy either/or theories about nature/nurture
Hopefully, we are all now way beyond a child’s colouring-in picture of the gender argument; the idea that “if gender is not 100% socially constructed, then it must be 100% biological” (or vice versa) lags behind the important trend within the scientific community to favour neuroconstructivism – the idea that nature and nurture interact with each other in complex and at times unpredictable ways; “nature v nurture” arguments are fundamentally out of date.
2. Understand that assigning sex is an aspect of gender oppression
It is absurd to believe that picking a baby up, looking at its genitalia, and then assigning it a legal and social status, and a set of pronouns to be used for life, is a biological process. When we say “sex” is socially constructed this is what we mean; the process of sex assignment is a human-made process not a biological one – we made up the words man and woman and sex, we invented birth certificates, we manufactured the need for signs on toilet doors – none of these things is biological.
Many believe this artificial, dividing, classification system was designed to manufacture a subservient class (women) and that it oppresses trans and intersex people in the process. In other words, sex assignment is an aspect of gender oppression.
3. Acknowledge we are not “opposites”
Men and women are not fundamentally different from one another – they do not have essentially different abilities and traits. Gender differences, including traits such as male violence and female passivity, are largely if not entirely socially constructed. Most importantly, social conditioning around gender is not uniform – we cannot predict the behavioural/sociological outcomes for any individual human, despite society’s efforts to condition us.
There are no behavioural traits that belong exclusively to men and are not found in women, or vice versa, whether socially indoctrinated or biologically innate. Human beings simply cannot be sifted neatly into two clear, non-overlapping categories based on any gender-related difference.
4. Affirm we are not our reproductive systems
Owning a particular reproductive system has a material affect on our lives, this needs to be acknowledged. But of course even here there is variation – intersex people explode the idea of a binary, but also fertility, potency, hormone levels and other attributes connected to reproduction will vary from person to person and also change through our lives.
Even if there was a binary, (and there isn’t), our reproductive differences are not substantial enough to warrant segregation. Assigning a legal/social status to someone based on their (assumed) reproductive capabilities is as arbitrary as assigning a status based on skin, hair or eye colour. And it is oppressive.
Our physical bodies may influence us, but they do not, or at least should not, define our identity.
5. Understand gender segregation is a tool of the patriarchy
Segregation is a manipulation founded in a patriarchal agenda – separating women from men “for their own good” serves to reinforce male dominance by making women afraid of men and less able or inclined to participate in mixed spaces. Male violence towards women is the engine that drives this segregation.
Separate spaces are an important temporary refuge in the world as it is, but their existence does nothing to help change things, and they may even reinforce the status quo. Such is the dilemma of people trying to find respite from oppression, but also wanting to end the oppression. Sometimes there are trade-offs between our current safety and our future ideals. There are no easy solutions.
6. Accept the radical challenge of risking our comfort zones to bring about change
The ultimate challenge for us as feminists is to end the vast inequality and false segregation between women and men and come to a place where we are understood as similar and equal and human. At the same time by necessity we have to speak up about our current differences in circumstance.
This is a somewhat paradoxical position that leads to a lot of conflict in terms of where we place the emphasis in our individual activism. It takes courage to build the bridges that will in the end unite us and erase the false divisions, but the fear-focussed, safety-focussed activism many of us retreat into is an understandable response to the levels of cis male violence and hierarchical oppression.
7. Challenge the bias towards masculinity
Equality needs to be won by acknowledging the boundary between the sexes is permeable in both directions. This means we have to learn to value those things we have relegated to the class “feminine” and not see maleness as neutral, or default, or privilege behaviours traditionally seen as masculine like strength, drive and invulnerability.
8. Break the foundations of gender oppression, not just the facade
The gender class system was based on reproductive biology but many other human traits and dichotomies have been projected onto a manufactured gender divide – e.g. dominance/submission, reason/emotion, strength/weakness, power/vulnerability, hard/soft, predator/prey. This is a natural consequence of falsely polarising human experiences, and similar processes happen when we polarise in other ways. It would be impossible to abolish “gender” as a social construct without abolishing the process of sex assignment that acts as a foundation to gender, with its false polarisation.
9. Recognise the colonialist roots of our gender discussions
A problem with the notion of gender abolition is that it would be colonialist to further abolish or erase non-western cultural experiences of gender such as Two-spirit and Hijras, which have already experienced erasure from colonialism. Abolishing sex assignment, however, would mean ending something that is imposed on vulnerable individuals (children) without their consent. Abolishing sex assignment at birth would not prevent people from freely choosing a sexed or gendered identity for themselves, but it would materially undermine those polarising assumptions of difference.
10. Allow all people bodily autonomy and the freedom to not be legally segregated against their wishes
Trans identities are valid with or without medical treatment, our identities should not be medicalised but we should be entitled to medical treatment if we require it. Such treatment should neither legitimise nor deligitimise us.
How we legally classify human beings is a human-fabricated choice and one that can be altered as we learn more about ourselves. If someone insists that we must choose to continue ignoring trans and intersex people when we classify people in this constructed language of sex difference, they are acting oppressively towards a minority for whom the created system simply does not work.
At the heart of these steps is the abolition of assigning people to a segregated sex class without their consent. Could the abolition of sex assignment and sex segregation lead to the equality and liberation of all women, trans people and intersex people? Almost certainly. However, it would be naive to think we can achieve this easily. In the mean time, any attempts to subvert or alter that classifying system and demonstrate its weakness and permeability are of course acts of feminism as well as acts of individual survival.
I spoke in a recent blog about how activism has become a competitive pursuit – for many internet activists there is a lack of interest in building relationships – challenging is a sport, a form of one-upmanship intended for the onlookers to rate the exchange rather than for the participants to meaningfully explore their own positions. It is about haves and have nots, about winning – a model where somebody needs to be laying in the dust while onlookers cheer and clap.
Some try to justify their behaviour by saying people only learn through force – but my experience of human beings does not bear this out. I believe, as social creatures, that everything we learn and every time we change this happens in the context of relationship. Collaboration comes naturally to most of us if the conditions are right, and we are at our best when we bring people along with us. I’d go further and say the “people only listen when you assert your power” is no different from the “spare the rod, spoil the child” idea that has ruined so many childhoods, or the patriarchal “power and control” model that characterises many abusive relationships. Both of these are evidence of a lack of relationship skills.
People can be horrible sometimes, but they also can be kind. Creating an environment where patience and empathy flourish is not just some “hippy shit” that will never work, it’s one vital aspect of building a movement – not the only one, perhaps, but still important. The emphasis on force within activism is a very competitive, dominating model that also privileges what are traditionally seen as more “masculine” behaviours over more “feminine” ones.
When you try and invite people in a closed activist space to be kind, to be gentle and friendly with each other, a whole bunch of well-rehearsed activists’ hands shoot up: “Er, I know this one! It’s tone policing!” That’s an important idea that has been appropriated to mean “I have carte blanche to be shitty with you if I can claim my cause is morally superior”. The important concept of tone policing now gets misused, or at least over-used – as long as folks think they have right on their side, they are allowed to be as verbally violent as they like. It’s that sense of entitlement that concerns me, because a sense of entitlement can so often lead to an abusive act.
Don’t we all think we’re right more often than is actually true? Don’t we all focus on our own disprivileges and remain a little too oblivious to other people’s? Aren’t we, essentially, subjective and fallible? So much of the violence done in this world occurs under the guise of “but I’m the real victim here”. Does the world really need any more of that? Couldn’t we just, perhaps, try not to destroy other people through our interactions with them, just in case there’s the slightest chance we haven’t got all the information, just in case our judgement isn’t as perfect as we like to think it is?
Because although it is true that “polite and civil” can often be code for “oppressive” this does not necessarily mean that disproportionate verbal violence is always legitimate in any situation, and sadly this is the way the “tone” argument is heading.
This is not about tone policing
Two different things have got muddled lately, so let’s untangle them. What I am talking about here is not the unquestionable right, for instance, of the black people of Ferguson to be angry and violent, in reaction to a clear and prolonged and deadly abuse of structural power. I am not asking the people of Ferguson to be “polite and civil” or to hug a policeman. I would not in any way condemn the black people of USA if they rose up and started a revolution, quite frankly, because for them to have any respect for law or civil obedience would seem nonsensical to me. Rioting and outraged violence is entirely proportionate to the issues people are facing. So sure, I am very tired of white people calling for calm. I’m not calling for calm.
But this blog isn’t about Ferguson. It’s about activists, between ourselves, on and off the internet, and how disproportionately and clumsily we often behave. I’m wondering if we can stop treating this like mortal combat, and centreing our own disadvantages to the degree we ignore other’s vulnerabilities. Our assumptions, our lack of awareness of other’s difference, our disproportionate responses, our personalisations, our lack of management of our own feelings, our lack of generosity and tolerance for people’s mistakes, all make for great sport but a harsh social environment. And of course that harshness replicates and perpetuates itself. Note I’m including myself in this, because once a culture becomes established, it influences everyone; I know I’m not immune.
Sometimes, we need to learn the difference between being tone policed and just being an asshole and getting called for it. And yes, there are asshole cis feminists, asshole trans folks, and every other flavour of asshole out there making activism a misery.
Leaving the bear pit
Words slung carelessly at each other can be violent and oppressive – not just to the recipients, but to some onlookers too, until the atmosphere becomes so toxic that those of us who are sensitive cannot breathe in it and we start to entertain serious thoughts of giving up activism, leaving the internet and instead making the world a better place through basket-weaving.
This has become an access issue – only those with robust mental health and low sensitivity or trauma that’s so entrenched they’ve dissociated from it, need apply.
My Facebook feed has become a bear pit, where people who could be working together are constantly jumping down each other’s throats. Please note: this kind of crass telling off is not the same as challenging – challenging is good, but doing it in a way that the person can hear, rather than in a way designed to put a person down and make them feel so small they instinctively want to fight their way back up, well that’s a skill – one I strive for, but admit I don’t always manage. I understand that it’s not always easily done, but let’s not pretend because it’s difficult that it isn’t valuable.
We need to work on our abilities to be together across difference, not just our ability to create more and more fractures.
Let’s also not pretend in this emerging dialogue about the necessity of force in activism that war is the only route to change and love solves nothing. Mars should not always be given priority over Venus. Let’s bring a little love back to activism this yuletide.
The recent flood of white people on my timeline vying for the position of “most intersectional activist of the year”, a competition I have felt myself compelled to join, has woken me up to a lot of uncomfortable realisations. The last thing the world needs is a white person blogging about racism and white supremacy, but I do have one observation that is far more universal, and applies not just to this one thing, but in general to activism today, particularly on the internet:
Activism has become competitive, capitalist, commodified. You can consume it, you can be entertained by it, you can raise your status in it, if you have sufficient education, means and leisure time you can become really good at it, even well known and endorsed for it, and then you get to crap all over the folks at the bottom of the ladder struggling to get on the bottom rung.
Capitalism is all about hierarchy. I reckon most of the bad stuff in the world happens under the influence of the competitive part of our nature – the bit that likes control, competition and dominance, the bit that counts beans and tries to make sure its own pile (or group’s pile) is bigger. We have a collaborative side, too, but it takes a different set of conditions to bring this out in us, conditions not prevalent in our capitalist, kyriarchal culture. Activism as a competitive process is doomed because it just continually re-orders the hierarchy (see Orwell’s Animal Farm, for the definitive satire on this phenomenon) – it will never dismantle it. It’s not designed to dismantle it, just re-allocate resources differently – a scramble for different types of privilege in an alternative structure that has become just as hierarchical.
The activist sphere has become a world where knights roam the landscape impaling as many people as possible on their swords of truth and justice, with onlookers cheering them on while they reach for the popcorn. Everyone has their own crusade, and it is just, and worth hurting people over. It’s an arms race where the weapons are the stacks of social justice pages we create that demonstrate the supremacy of our causes. Ideas triumph through popularity, measured in retweets, likes and shares that are assisted by none-too-socially aware algorithms. Controversy and attack attracts an audience, and so nuance and bridge-building become uneconomic activities.
Let’s not forget in all this that the spreading of fear and stress is in the interests of those who own the internet – because the less happy we are, the better consumers we are. And it’s also in the interests of those who want to rule us, because the more fearful we are, the more easy it is to divide us and control us. Fear is weakening us, impoverishing us, and strengthening the kyriarchs above us and among us.
Yes trans activism, I mean us. Yes feminism, radical and otherwise, I mean us too. Yes anarchism, green politics, left politics, animal rights and all the other groups from the Judean People’s Front to the People’s Front of Judea – I mean all of us. I mean me. I need to do better.
As someone who strives to build bridges, relationships, networks, understanding – love, even, I was seduced by social media to believe this was a perfect environment for this to happen, but now I wonder – is this a social media problem, is it my own deficiency, or is it just people being people? Whatever it is, I think I’m done with this capitalist model of activism; I want to grow something different – who’s with me?