If we can’t all get along, let’s at least cut the online vitriol

Image: Flickr/Christiaan Colen

Ok ok. It’s not just the internet. Infighting and division are not new to feminism, nor are control issues, political differences, gossip, and jealousy. But behaviours that plague political movements and human beings have been amplified and toxified by social media. It is very easy to tweet something in anger, or out of desire for an ego or dopamine boost. It is easy to snark online in a way we would never do in real life. It is easy to project all sorts of things onto the behaviours and activities of others that are not rooted in reality. Social media breeds division, drama, polarization, and hyperbole. As if we needed any more help.

We all fall victim to this — it’s practically inevitable. One thing we learned from The Social Dilemma is that social media is designed this way: these companies and apps aim to keep us on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Tinder… Pick your poison. They want us to keep coming back, seeking engagement and validation. Is it no surprise that, today, many of us make choices about what to say online, not based on whether or not it is worthwhile, productive, necessary, or even true, but based on whether it will gain likes, shares, and retweets. We are addicted, and the draw of the particular form of validation we find online seems too much for many to ignore, in favour of class, tact, strategy, or ethics. We have come to seek these temporary surges in attention, fawning, or shit-stirring above much else, and man has it made a mess of feminism.

It may shock you all to know that there are many women in this movement who I disagree with, who do things I would not do, who work with people I do not agree with, or who I simply do not like. There are women in this movement I think are obviously struggling with mental illness or personal problems, which manifests itself in unhealthy ways online. There are women in this movement who I think are attention-seeking narcissists and bullies. There are women in this movement who I think are naive, who have bad judgement, or who are insincere. There are also women who I like very much or who I respect, despite the fact I may not like everything they say or do. This is real life. There are friends and there are people I keep at an arm’s length. There are friends who I don’t wish to work with and people I work with who are not friends. And it’s fine. It is ok for people to do things differently than you. It’s ok to not like everyone. It’s ok to disagree. It’s ok to have boundaries. The notion of some glorious, accepting, loving “sisterhood” is unrealistic and, honestly, kind of a nauseating idea to me. (I’m not much of a love-in kinda woman, I’m afraid. I do not wish to live on womyn’s land, drink tea, and sing folk songs. I prefer the loud bars, probably rife with misogynist jokes and testosterone.) But thanks to social media, these realities are being aired in public, in exaggerated, toxic ways, and sometimes I honestly wish you would all shut up.

It feels like there is a new drama every week, a new series of far-too-long tweet threads, detailing opinions and positions no one asked for, on every move everyone else has made, why it is Wrong, and what is the Right way to do things. Every misdeed is the end of the world, the end of feminism, and the beginning of the apocalypse. And while I realize it feels as though chiming in on every single incidence of feminisming is tempting, as, if you spend a lot of time online, it appears to be the Thing To Do, it is obnoxious, dull, and too-often divisive. Imagine all the movement-building that could be done, instead wasted attacking other movement women? Imagine if we organized and took action, instead of tagging the women we wish to draw into a fight on Facebook?

Perhaps what I’m doing right now is equally as unhelpful: writing in vagueries about a possibly very insider baseball phenomenon. Those who know, know. And those who don’t know probably think they know, and are perhaps misunderstanding me entirely. But it’s not as though this practice only exists in feminism. The left is plagued by infighting, online virtue signalling, and endless contests to determine who is Top Radical. It’s amazing how easy it is to criticize other movements and behaviours, without realizing we are doing precisely the same thing ourselves.

The draw to virtue signal, to be the first to comment, to say the most powerful thing, that gains the most retweets, and reminds your chosen in-group that you are still part of the clique is a widespread problem at this point. It’s part of the reason America in particular is currently so polarized (although Canada and the UK seem eager to join in). It’s why leftist activists are engaged in an active campaign to alienate everyone except a small cadre of middle class college students who think “ACAB” is a personality.

I used to think feminism was above this. That we could see identity politics, elitism, and demands for political purity as problems for our movement — that there was a sense of solidarity and mutual agreement that we didn’t air our dirty laundry in public. I thought we wanted more women in this movement, not less, and that we understood women were different. That we did not all come to the women’s movement equipped with a Gender Studies degree, schooled in Marxism. I thought there was a level of respect we could show one another, that allowed women to do their work, even if we did not personally like the exact way that work was being done, while we did ours. You know, that, “if you don’t like what she’s doing, do something else” kinda thing.

I think some women and women’s groups are still operating in this way, which I very much respect. I am grateful to have learned from these women and groups to keep my personal opinions about various women off the internet, as best I can. I am grateful to have learned I need to try to put my ego aside sometimes, and suck it up, even when I want to strike back against those who trash and slander me. I have learned that speaking in person is better than “speaking” online, when it comes to conflict. I try not to name names, I try not to get involved in online fights among women, and I try not to engage with those I see behaving in toxic ways on social media. But it seems swaths of women gave up on attempts at tact and instead opted to fight dirty.

Believe me when I say this is directed at no one in particular, but is instead an attempt to address a larger trend I see snowballing out of control.

I’m not asking you to all be fake, or hide your critiques or disagreements. I’m asking you to consider checking yourself before reaching for your phone to air your anger or dislike online, publicly. I’m asking you to accept the fact that you can’t force your views or strategies on others, no matter how right you think you are. You cannot demand other women share all your political views, you can’t kick them out of the movement because they vote for someone you don’t like, you can’t bully someone into repeating after you, and you can’t harangue a woman into agreeing with you, when they don’t actually agree with you. You need to accept the fact that simply because someone does not see things your way, that does not necessarily make them wrong or dangerous. Think of it as intersectionality, but applied to real life.

The best way to get something done is to do it. So find people you want to work with, and go get it done. Feminism will not be destroyed because someone in another country failed your political purity test or had an opinion you didn’t like. But what we are fighting for is women’s rights, which may well be lost if we spend all our energy spewing vitriol at one another on the internet.

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.