The trouble with Twitter feminism

I love the internet. I really do. And I can’t stand the luddites who romanticize the days where people talked. Face to face. Or called each other. The phone? Really? Please. Fuck the phone. The internet is magic.

I have found dozens — I’d even be so bold as to say hundreds — of brothers and sisters across the globe who I would have otherwise never found, if not for the ability to connect online.

So I have no interest in blaming technology or social media for people’s behaviour or arguing that Twitter is unequivocally “bad” (or “good,” for that matter). Things are never quite that simple. But what I will say is this: Most days I hate Twitter. And many days I think Twitter is a horrible place for feminism.

While I would never argue that feminists stay off of Twitter and do tend to believe it’s a necessary evil, of sorts, if you are in media/writing/journalism, I don’t think it’s a place for productive discourse or movement-building. I think it’s a place where intellectual laziness is encouraged, oversimplification is mandatory, posturing is de rigueur, and bullying is rewarded. I think it’s a place hateful people are drawn towards to gleefully spread their hate, mostly without repercussion. And more than half the time I feel as though I’m trapped in a shitty, American, movie-version of high school that looks more like a popularity contest than a movement to end oppression and violence against women.

Here is a list of FACTS I hear about myself on a daily basis on Twitter:

– I am a white supremacist

– I am rich

– I am getting rich off of someone’s “back”

– I have some big, fancy “job” that requires me to promote radical feminism and if I don’t make critical statements about the sex industry I will be fired from said “job”

– I love Hugo Schwyzer, am his BFF and his Number One Top Defender

– I am evil

– I hate women

– I hate prostituted women

– I am literally responsible for the rape and murder of women

– I am in charge of feminism

– I hate sex

– I am Satan

Who is this lady!? She sounds like a shithead. Somebody fire her from the internet! LET’S START A PETITION.

Now, that list was hardly comprehensive, but I think you get the point. On Twitter, it’s easy make up whatever the hell you want, put it out into the world, and many, if they so desire, will take it as TRUTH and spread it far and wide.

And it isn’t just me. Many, many women are maligned on Twitter on a daily basis, in much worse ways than I. Just the other day I was informed that Gloria Steinem has been a “catastrophe” for feminism. A catastrophe!

While Steinem may well be problematic in ways, every single feminist (and person!) who ever lived is problematic in ways. But Twitter doesn’t like nuance. Twitter likes statements. Preferably dramatic ones. And once you’ve made said statement, be sure not to back down. Twitter doesn’t like wimps, either.

Lest we get sidetracked by debates on the life and work of Gloria Steinem, my point, to be clear, is not Gloria Steinem. She’s doing fine as far as I can tell. My point is that this is how feminism works on Twitter. We have 140 characters and are making public statements. And this is where the posturing comes in. We are made to care more about appearances than compassion, and more about winning than understanding.

People tend to treat Twitter like they do hockey fights. Because we are fighting in public, we can’t back down, and we get either egged on or booed by fans or haters. We’re all showboating, trying be Most Right, trying to gain fans and supporters, and we have a ridiculously tiny space within which we can do it. We often succeed in being Most Right by proving that someone else is terrible. Winning by default or destruction is a popular Twitter strategy.

Rumours spread quickly, lies and myths become fact. When you question the lie or “fact,” you are chastised: “HOW COULD YOU NOT KNOW.” “LOOK IT UP.” “I’M NOT DOING YOUR RESEARCH FOR YOU.” “DO YOU SEE THIS BITCH. SHE DOESN’T KNOW THINGS THAT I CLAIM TO KNOW AND NOW SHE’S DARED TO ASK ME HOW I ‘KNOW’ THEM. GET HER.”

This response is typical because, generally, the accusers actually have no idea where they’ve received their libelous information, or are just speculating, but are unwilling to admit it. Rather than appear “weak” on Twitter, we like to turn it around on the the other person, preferably in a way that pretends our beef is political.

Honestly, I’m sure I’ve probably engaged in this behaviour myself. I don’t think I’m at my best on Twitter either, which is part of the reason I dislike it so. Nonetheless, I don’t think it’s so much to ask that we explain ourselves when we make sweeping generalizations or paint individuals as “Satan,” for example (as I was recently labelled by the editor of The Good Men Project), or as A CATASTROPHE FOR FEMINISM.

Friend, feminist ally, radio guy extraordinaire, and comrade, Ernesto Aguilar (founder and editor of the now defunct People of Color Organize!) told me this, when I talked to him about this piece:

Within organizations, there’s an internal culture and discipline where you have debate, but the goal isn’t to destroy comrades, and the infrastructure keeps debate on fair footing where people don’t get to just bully people. On Twitter, so much of this is left by people’s moods and reactions with no agreed-upon movement standard. Thus, you get the 50 shades of cray we see on Twitter.

Twitter seems not only to be anti-human, but anti-movement.

And speaking of human beings, here’s a thing: The vast majority of people I know, like, in real life, aren’t on Twitter. I’m going to go ahead and say that about 90% of people I know and interact with, in real life, go Twitter-free on a daily basis. The ones who are there maybe follow some public figures or joke accounts, but say little. Beyond that, the majority of women I know who are actually working with battered women, rape victims, and prostituted women don’t use Twitter with any regularity, if at all. The women who built this movement — now relegated to snarky quips by third wavers whose postmodern indoctrination have them believing feminism is a series of made-up words and that identity politics are radical — are not on Twitter.

What does this tell us about representation on Twitter? What does this tell us about feminism on Twitter?

Twitter feminism is all about hashtags and mantras. We all compete to make the most meaningful, (seemingly) hard-hitting statement in order to gain followers and accolades. Invent the right hashtag and you can become a feminist celebrity. While I’m not excluding myself completely from this phenomenon, as I do participate from time to time, I find it all a bit empty.

I don’t want to completely decry “hashtag activism.” It can be potentially worthwhile in terms of consciousness-raising as well as a way to raise awareness about particular issues and events. Many women value the space it provides for their voices and I support women speaking out in whatever ways they can and sharing their stories, opinions, and experiences in ways that suit them. If you need to or find value in doing that on Twitter, I completely respect and encourage that.

But, for the most part, I haven’t found Twitter to be a positive experience. And I’m not just talking about harassment from misogynists, I’m talking about the internal shit. The mean girls-style popularity contest so many of those on feminist Twitter engage in. The take-downs, the bullying, the mocking, the defamation, the snide remarks, and the absolutely endless stream of hate.

And sure, you might say, people behave like that in the “real world.” But the funny thing is that, in the real world, I’m happy. I generally enjoy my life, despite common challenges like rent-paying, work-finding, relationship-maintenance, etc. I don’t feel or see an inordinate amount of hatred among the feminists I know and work with on a human-to-human level. It happens, sure, but not daily. Not constantly. And the vitriol is decidedly muted.

While writing this piece I came across an article by Ngọc Loan Trần which talks about “calling in” instead of “calling out.” They* write:

we have been configured to believe it’s normal to punish each other and ourselves without a way to reconcile hurt. We support this belief by shutting each other out, partly through justified anger and often because some parts of us believe that we can do this without people who fuck up.

While Trần doesn’t suggest we stop calling people on their behaviour, they* do suggest that the way we do it might be unproductive and a fear-based response:

in reality, we are just really scared. Scared that we will be next to make a mistake. So we resort to pushing people out to distract ourselves from the inevitability that we will cause someone hurt.

Movement and coalition-building does not happen by attempting to destroy those you disagree with or perceive to have made a mistake. Ernesto told me this:

Often shaming people for their mistakes, tearing down people for perceived failures and so on are really the province of subcultures (recovery programs and religious groups come to mind, as they seem to present that accepting one’s mistakes is a first step in renewal) and not (forward-thinking) political organizing.

For these reasons, I see the trouble with Twitter feminism as two-fold:

1) It is not at all representative of the feminist movement and the actual beliefs of and work done by feminists around the world.

2) It is a, generally, toxic and unproductive place for feminism and movement-building.

We seem to dehumanize one another on Twitter. I understand this is a larger phenomenon online because we aren’t face-to-face, sometimes we are anonymous, and because we are dealing with people we don’t know in real life and, therefore, often don’t see as full, complex, real, human beings. But I haven’t experienced the emotional, mental, and physical breakdowns (yes, physical — being attacked and bullied and called names for days on end is mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausting), the days and hours spent crying, the nasty mean girls shit, the bullying, the lies, and the attacks, and the defamation, on any other medium, in the way I have on Twitter. And again, this isn’t just from men. Frankly, I don’t give a shit what men think about me. This comes from women. Women who likely see themselves as feminist.

Maybe-probably Gloria Steinem doesn’t give a shit what people say about her on stupid Twitter. And gosh I wish I didn’t care what people said about me on stupid Twitter. But I do. Because surprise of surprises, I’m a real human being with feelings and thoughts and other such frivolities. I don’t have some big fancy job, I don’t have a comfy income, I don’t have the backing of an institution, and when people say things about me that are untrue and/or nasty, it bothers me. When people completely misrepresent my work, my beliefs, my life, and my intentions, it bothers me. People often tell me to ignore it, and I try, but whether or not we take Twitter seriously, no one likes being hated, no one likes being bullied, and no one likes being lied about. No matter where it happens. So I don’t find “just ignore it” to be particularly useful advice.

Twitter is not representative. But we seem to believe it is. Twitter tends to amplify certain perspectives and voices and erase others — either because they aren’t there or because they’re too scared to speak up, lest they become the next target. Thinking about who is on Twitter and whose voices are loudest on Twitter is worthwhile. Are poor women on Twitter? Are people who are busy working on Twitter? Are people who are sick of being harassed and bullied and attacked on Twitter participating in conversations? Who’s there? Who feels safe to speak there? I’m preeeetty positive that marginalized women living and struggling on the Downtown Eastside aren’t all up on #SexWork Twitter every day, for example.

Simply because you see a perspective shared widely on the medium, doesn’t mean it’s representative. And it doesn’t mean it’s right.

We know full well what to say if we want to be popular in internet feminism. We know how to get followers and cookies. It’s easy. Toe the party line, spout fakespiration. If you hate on someone you know others hate, you’re sure to be rewarded for your valiance. If you support those internet feminism have deemed BAD, you will be excommunicated. We all learn the rules quickly.

But as someone who is not only very far on the left end of the political spectrum, who leans heavily on the radical and socialist end of feminism, and who is critical of choice feminism and empty, apolitical mantras, my arguments are never going to be the popular ones.

I’m not trying to turn this into a Meghan Murphy pity party. I don’t feel sorry for myself. There are women who suffer far more than I, online and in real life. The point is not WAH TWITTER IS MEAN (though it often is). This isn’t just about being “nice.” This is about the validity and purpose of Twitter feminism, as well as the toxicity, silencing and take-down culture it not only accepts but promotes. It is about the way we treat one another and the way we encourage others to behave. It’s about discouraging critical thinking, humanity, and going straight for the jugular, while onlookers cheer on the virtual blood bath.

And so my question is this: What is it we think we’re accomplishing with our hashtags and our bullying and our shit-talking? Do we take Twitter feminism seriously in any way? Do we realize that this behaviour has nothing to do with movement-building? Do we recognize that, simply because we don’t completely agree with every single thing a person says or believes or because we don’t like every single person they tweet at or follow or retweet or don’t immediately attack on demand because it’s the bandwagon we’ve all been told to jump on, that it isn’t reasonable to vilify them? Do we realize that bullying people, calling them names, and encouraging your followers to join in isn’t actually activism?

Here are some actual truths, for the record:

– I am not rich

– I am not evil

– I am not a white supremacist

– I don’t hate women

– I don’t hate men

– I don’t hate prostituted women

– Blogging about feminism has never been, nor will it ever be, lucrative

– Freelance writing is extremely difficult, a constant struggle, completely disheartening, a lot of work, and not a feasible way to make a living

– I have never publicly defended Hugo Schwyzer or suggested anyone else defend Hugo Schwyzer. I have been consistently, publicly critical of him, his work, and his teaching, from the moment I was aware he existed. I challenged his involvement in Slutwalk back in 2011, his position as a self-described “male feminist” and a gender studies teacher, as well as his “work” on porn and prostitution. I was friendly with him, periodically, for a short time, on a personal level. I interviewed him once, two and a half years ago. A gross mistake, in retrospect. I hoped his personal tale of redemption was true, at the time (enmeshed as I was in a relationship with an addict who kept promising me change), but did not demand or even suggest others believe this. All the work I produced, then and now, with regard to Schwyzer, was extremely critical. His politics were never acceptable to me and I was loud about that. I was derided for being critical of him, after the most recent shit storm. The myth of my support of Schwyzer came from a bully and it began because I dared challenge her behaviour by saying, as I watched her blame woman after woman for the abusive, sociopathic, manipulative behaviour of a man:

I will never — not now, not ever — apologize for a man’s behaviour. No woman should. To demand such a thing of our sisters is the antithesis of feminism. It isn’t ok to blame the victim. And women were Schwyzer’s victims. I don’t believe Schwyzer is feminism’s fault. I was attacked and slandered and bullied because I asked that we blame a man for his behaviour, not women. And because of that, these kinds of statements have become common place:

Despite what I said, over and over again, those who wanted a reason to hate me or who were too lazy to do their own research, were only too eager to turn me into something imagined, leaving the perpetrator and his actual defenders and supporters, alone. What this told me was that they were willing to side with those they liked or agreed with on other issues, or who they felt had real power in this world, and were attacking me because of my relative lack of power and my unwillingness to kowtow to popular feminism/ts. What was clear was that, in attacking me, they would prove themselves to be the True Best Rightest Feminists — but only in relation to the Wrong Bad Worst Feminists.

Whether or not I’ve made mistakes or had bad judgement from time to time is not debatable. I have. I will likely continue to. As human beings do. But the mythology built around me, my thoughts, my beliefs, and my actions, primarily via Twitter, is quite insane. Especially considering that my entire body of work exists online, for anyone to look at. Those who know my work, know better. Those who don’t care to know better or to know my work, don’t.

What I’ve learned from Twitter is that it doesn’t matter what I do. It didn’t matter what I’ve done, what I’ve said, what I’ve written. My body of work doesn’t matter and my actual thoughts don’t matter. Not to those who have decided to hate me. What matters is to destroy and silence. And that, dear friends, seems to be a goal of Twitter feminism in particular and, sometimes, of internet feminism in general.

It’s one thing to disagree with someone on a point of inaccuracy or ideology, i.e. “You stated _____ and it’s untrue/misrepresentative/inaccurate, etc.” “I don’t agree with you because _____.” But when when the aim is not only to smear, but to marginalize and to say a person’s body of work is to be ignored as a result of the smear, I fail to see the purpose, either in terms of feminism or in terms of human decency.

Twitter is not for nuance or humanity. It is for sharp words, glib remarks, and inspirational quotables — feminist greeting card style.

So as someone who is on Twitter often, talking about feminism, arguing about feminism, and engaging with other women and feminists, my opinion is this: Twitter feminism is, in it’s current form, toxic, unproductive, and far from representative.

That said, I have no solutions to offer, except this: Consider the humanity of those you are tweeting at or about. Consider that Twitter represents very little about real women’s lives and the state of the movement. Consider whose voices you hear the most and why. Consider who isn’t there and who isn’t speaking. Consider that, simply because you saw it on Twitter, doesn’t make it true and that you might consider exploring a woman’s actual work before vilifying her. Consider that we are human — neither all good or all bad. Consider that feminists are, most likely, in feminism because they have good intentions, rather than malicious ones. Consider that political disagreement is just that — political disagreement — not an excuse to call another feminist the devil or tar her entire body of work or her very being because so and so tweeted that she was a Rich Elitist Woman-hating Devil Bigot From Hell. Consider that your words impact people in their real lives. Consider that feminism is a political movement to end patriarchy, not a popularity contest.

Ripping women to shreds and piling up the virtual bodies in order to reach the top of the heap may bring you more followers, but it won’t bring us any closer to liberation.


*Edit, December 19, 2013: It was brought to my attention that Trần does not identify as “he,” but “they.”

Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.