Bad-faith justice: ethics of the call-out

This is a guest post by Jane Clare Jones, philosopher, feminist and person who really, really likes Doctor Who.

A couple of years back – a week after she coined the slogan that would inspire an internet feminist revolution – Flavia Dzodan wrote a piece for Tiger Beatdown dedicated to skewering the “toxic” nature of “the collective dance commonly known in blogging as the ‘call outs.’”  The problem with call-out culture, she wrote, is that it “has developed as a tool to legitimize aggression and rhetoric [sic] violence.”

For while, “[o]n the surface,” call-outs are  “seemingly positive” and “done ‘for good,’” they are not, she suggested, mere instruments of justice. Rather, they need to be understood in the context of a culture in thrall to the cruel theatre of reality television, as a “performative” spectacle of ritual blood-letting fashioned “for an audience” and intended “more often that not … to make the one initiating the call out feel good, more righteous, more indignant, a ‘better person’.”

This points towards a distinction that demands fuller reflection, not least since Michelle Goldberg’s piece on Twitter toxicity further fueled the increasingly internecine debate over the ethics and politics of the call-out. For while the call-out, as Dzodan notes, ‘seemingly’ aims at justice, there are some serious questions to be asked about the justice of its methods.

Call-outs claim to ‘do good.’ They are intended to educate, to shine a spotlight on injustice, by drawing attention to the fact that someone has said or done something (or not said and done something) that serves to support systemic inequality. And they do so by mobilising an explicitly political or social notion of justice – an understanding of justice as a matter of the equitable distribution of power, privilege, and possibility.

These words might sound abstract, but they’re not. They are the conditions of a successful human life. And as a feminist, and an anti-capitalist, they matter to me. In its own way, my experience of the world has made it clear enough that structural inequality is a thing, and that people’s possibilities are circumscribed by, often, multiple oppressions. I recognize that we are force-fed a high-fructose diet of media designed to make systemic domination appear as inevitable as rocks, and which usually reflects the interests, aspirations and assumptions of the people who have most power.

I accept that privilege is often invisible, and that, as a well-educated and mostly able-bodied white woman, the world bends around me in ways it does not for everyone. And I am convinced, therefore, that there are things I cannot see, and that when people with less power than me say that I – or women like me – have mis-spoken or misrepresented something, then we have a political responsibility to listen to them.

But I am unconvinced by much of call-out culture. And I struggle with it – as do many left-wing feminists – because I believe in much of the politics and yet have an abiding problem with the practice. Expressing this problem is fraught, freighted both with guilt, and with the suspicion that it is futile, that I am addressing an audience that will not hear.

For, as the response to Goldberg showed, criticism of call-out culture will be politically re-packaged in an instant.[1] The narrative[2] is, by now, well-rehearsed, and impervious: White feminism rejects intersectionality because privilege.  And this narrative is reiterated, reflexively, regardless of whether the criticism of the call-out is made by a white woman, or a gay WoC , or a trans WoC (who will be situated within a political discourse about white women or otherwise erased[3]).

This move is disingenuous. And it is disingenuous in a way that is indicative rather than incidental. Because the conflict over call-out culture is not about politics, it is about ethics.[4]

Justice is complex. It is both structural and particular, political and ethical – a matter of how adequately we, as a society, distribute possibilities but also the way I, as an individual, approach any given other. At a personal level ‘doing justice to someone’ involves adequate representation, in much the same sense that we talk of a picture ‘doing justice’ to a landscape.

The last century of French philosophy, informed by the dehumanizing cataclysm of the Holocaust, focused much of its attention on the ethical encounter. Expressed, for instance, in the figure of unconditional hospitality, the ideal of ethical justice is to approach an-other in complete openness, suspending all preconceptions about who they are and allowing them to appear entirely in their own terms. And while this is an impossible ideal, I think it is an inspiring one. It reminds us that when our interpretations are over-determined by our projections, we are, in ethical terms, not being just.

Clearly then, there is some tension between the openness of the ethical encounter and the insights of a structural analysis which considers political knowledge to be socially situated. How are we to marry the privileged position of ‘seeing from the margins’ with the ethical imperative to not impose a particular perspective upon a differently-situated other?

On the one hand, the intuition that when speaking truth to power, we are not required to genuflect before another’s self-understanding, is undoubtedly correct. Without it, radical analysis would be impossible, and we could all pack up our feminist bags and go home. But nonetheless, there is a meaningful distinction between the facts of what someone has said or done, and the interpretation of those facts. And to wade into the age-old debate on means and ends, acting in the interests of justice does not relieve you of the responsibility to act justly. Which is to say, in this instance, you still need to represent those you are critiquing fairly.

In the many months I’ve spent watching the feminist blogosphere and Twitter-space convulse with successive call-outs, I’ve noted two specific types of unjust representation:

1.  Misrepresenting what someone has said or done

This is difficult, because the person being criticized may not recognize the way their words or deeds are being characterized for reasons of social position – what with the invisibility of privilege. However, if I want to criticize Richard Dawkins for saying something stupid about chewing gum in an elevator, it is possible to parse ‘what he said’ from ‘why it is stupid.’ In an economy run on 140 characters, this distinction often gets collapsed, and very fast, an interpretation-posing-as-fact will be disseminated and assimilated as the truth about what a certain person did, and more often than not, what a certain person is (see point 2).

Additionally, I have, on several occasions seen the facts of what someone has said, or a particular sequence of events or exchanges, be concretely misrepresented to create a certain impression. If you think this is acceptable because you possess omniscient certainty that you are fighting the good fight, OK. But understand that not everyone agrees with you, and their concerns are not motivated only by the desire to dominate or silence. The belief that just ends are not served by unjust means is genuine, and not straightforwardly structurally distributed (regardless of what you’ve heard from a Slovenian philosopher with a taste for revolutionary violence and really sketchy views on women).

quote(Huh.)

2. Attacking the person rather than the action

This is spectacularly common, and, I suspect, exacerbated by the rigid sediment of a structural analysis which collapses social identity and political position. From there, it’s a short walk to, ‘They said a fillintheblank-ist thing because people like them are fillintheblank-ists.”

But things are not that simple. We all live under conditions of structural domination. Every one of us has internalized views and assumptions that serve to perpetuate that system. That someone said something which represents, say, a damaging exclusion, doesn’t tell you they are a vile bigot in the essence of their being, or that they are a dues-paying agent of the kyriarchy.  And it is, at best, uncharitable to suggest that it does. And that goes doubly for extrapolating directing from a particular event to a totalizing dismissal ending in –phobe.[5]

Jenny

Both these types of misrepresentation fall squarely under the rubric of ‘engaging in bad faith.’ It is true that intention isn’t magic. At least, it is true that whether I intended to say a fillintheblank-ist thing doesn’t determine whether it is fillintheblank-ist  (although it’s not clear that intensity of pile-on is what determines it either). But it is one thing to argue that a specific intention does not define a particular act, and quite another to refuse to credit the person you are addressing with good intention in general.

What concerns me is that the hand-waving of unjust representation takes place against a background assumption that certain people – by virtue of their (often reductively ascribed) social privilege and/or platform – are incapable of a genuine concern with justice[6], and as such, don’t deserve to be treated justly. Not only is this a bleak, and indeed, thoroughly neo-liberal,[7] view of human nature, it presents us with something of a paradox.

On the one hand, the call-out justifies itself by posing as an educative intervention performed in good faith. (And, just to be abundantly clear, I have seen examples where it is just that.) On the other, the tendency to misrepresent people, and invoke totalizing slurs – often accompanied by violent invective – suggests that there is, actually, no assumption of good faith on the part of the call-outers.

And, to return to our starting point, this raises a question about the call-out’s purported function. Because why on earth would you bother telling someone they have done something harmful, if you are proceeding from the assumptions that people-like-them don’t care about doing harm?

More than one answer presents itself, but Flavia Dzodan’s observations about performativity are pertinent to several of them. Yes, there are examples of good-faith call-outs which are genuinely intended to challenge or inform, but they are relatively rare. More often than not, the call-out is performed for an audience, and is undertaken for the benefit of the person or persons performing it.

As such, it may serve several functions. It demonstrates your political credentials, and (for many white women) launders your privilege. It raises your profile, and nets you allies and followers. It bestows the sweet sense of having-right on your side, of bravely battling against the massed forces of domination and injustice. And, perhaps above all – it’s a great way of dumping all your aggression, and usefully comes with a political narrative that exculpates you from taking any responsibility for that.

What has become known as the ‘tone argument’ is important here. As Katherine Cross[8]  has noted, the injunction against tone-policing derives from an important insight. People who experience oppression are angry, and their anger is both legitimate and politically important. Moreover, they are often subject to cultural stereotypes which serve to restrict their ability to assume and express that anger, and in the interests of justice, this needs to be resisted.

At some point however, the tone argument assumed a law-like status which, Cross writes, can “be waved at will in any discussion to absolve one of responsibility” and contributes to what she beautifully describes as “a rapidly oxidizing corrosion” of political discourse.  The ethics of expressing anger are, indeed, challenging. On the one hand it is – often literally – vital, to affirm that anger is legitimate, and recognize that people’s wellbeing and survival depends on channeling it away from themselves and towards the structures of their oppression. But it doesn’t follow from this that every expression of legitimate anger is itself legitimate.

I may be – in fact, strike that, I am – both deeply affected by, and furious about, the levels of sexual coercion in this society. It is rage I’ve carried with me all my adult life. In my twenties it used to spill out, in sudden, inchoate, waves, directed at random men who made me feel disempowered in some way – sometimes by doing something as innocuous as adding a five-quid supplement to my train ticket. When I look back at those moments, I am forgiving of my anger, but that doesn’t mean it was OK to use a hapless train-conductor as a punching bag.

stavvers

And it’s not OK for several reasons. It’s not OK because the person you are raging at is not the source of your oppression. Your oppression is systemic, and individuals are, at worst, symptoms, and indeed, frequently being used as proxies for that system. When a woman is expected to gracefully absorb a long stream of invective, she is being asked to do so, not as a person but as a cipher.

Because of a tweet, or a misplaced phrase, because she asked the wrong person the wrong question, or tried to defend someone, or said something flippant, or challenged the political point of one white-woman calling another white-woman ‘scum,’ she is summarily elected as the representative of an entire structure of domination. She is no longer herself, but today’s chosen instantiation of white-cis-liberal-middle-class-capitalist-colonial-ableist-whorephobic-(and probably, indeed, patriarchal)-supremacy. [9]

Not only is this monolithic system not actually a monolith – another representational error because it is also, well, intersecting – but deciding you are divine violence, and taking it upon yourself to deliver rhetorical punishment to someone on the basis that they are this system, is dehumanization and exemplary bad-faith. And the recent prevalence of tweets mocking women’s ‘sadfeelz’ and ‘White Tears’™ makes it pretty apparent that dehumanizing white feminist women because they have been deemed emissaries of evil is now considered at the very least acceptable, and indeed, by some, a thoroughgoing act of justice.

FlaviaBut people are not structures. They might say things that support structures, and they may well, often by accident rather than design, benefit from how those structures work. And that should, indeed, must, be incessantly critiqued. But individual people – with all their mess, and nuance, and strength, and vulnerability – are not structures. And even if left-wing-white-feminist women really were the best possible proxy for patriarchal-colonial-capitalist-white-supremacist domination, taking to Twitter to lob rhetorical Molotov cocktails at them is not smashing the kyriarchy, it’s being verbally violent to another person.

Unlike structures, which are implacable, and must be slowly, painfully, chipped away with constant, precise critique and concerted political effort, people can be very easily, and seriously, harmed by rhetorical violence. In 2011, this was something expressed well by Flavia Dzodan:

Human beings are complex creatures, not these receptacles of ‘good’ OR ‘evil.’ At once good in some aspects and gross in others. Simultaneously oppressed and oppressors. However, in this performative culture of blogging all this subtlety is obscured. You are either ‘one of the good guys’ or ‘you are the worst person ever.’ …I must question this dichotomy because call outs, and the modus operandi behind them, the pile-on, can potentially kill people. The most virulent call outs can exacerbate existing PTSD. They can drive a person to severe episodes of anxiety and/or depression, they can lead someone to feel isolated and suicidal. It is a toxic and destructive phenomenon.

And it is a “toxic and destructive phenomenon” that seems impossible to resist. As Dzodan noted, call-out culture is “insidious” because “who would dare to say something…when it is supposedly done against oppression?” As was evident from responses to the Goldberg piece, if the call-out is a tool of social justice, then anyone who questions it can only be concerned with strengthening the status quo. And so, shielded by this impervious defense, the call-out adopts a pose of ethical invulnerability, and is free to carry out its righteous work.

The flaw in this defense is, however, that while the call-out claims to work for justice, it is often, in itself, unjust. And while it styles itself an intervention aimed at education, and claims to have engaged its interlocutor in good faith, in many ways, as I have shown, this is a lie. The disquiet many feminists express towards the call out, is animated, not by their desire to keep a grip on power, but by their frustration at repeatedly engaging in an environment pervaded by bad faith. And by the futility of trying to resist.

Because the call-out is a vicious circle. It selects its target as a proxy of ‘The Oppressor,’ and when its bad-faith overture is greeted as precisely what it is, it parades this lack of receptivity as evidence of the very pre-supposition with which it started. It is a snare. A game of ‘Gotcha!’ A way of whipping-up endless vortices of self-perpetuating outrage. It is poisonous, and corrosive, and damaging, both to individuals and to the very possibility of genuine political communication across our differences.

And what it isn’t – when it piles into an encounter, stoked by certainty and suppositions while dressed up, disingenuously, in the garb of good faith, careless, and indeed, often, reveling, in any harm that it might do – is an instrument of justice.

It isn’t doing any good.


[1]When the powerful condemn the medium of a marginalised messenger, it is the messenger they are truly after…Few who see themselves as advocates for justice support the condemnation of those who use it to fight for their rights.” http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2014/02/blame-it-internet-20142453122572101.html

[2] “Goldberg, on the other hand, through her work defending corporatized feminism, has a vested interest in gatekeeping. Now that the gatecrashers found a platform where they can be heard, her pushback was inevitable.” http://kenzoshibata.com/2014/02/03/breathe-michelle-goldberg-itll-be-ok/

[3] “whoops. mail, mirror, sun.. blah blah. papers that routinely pick on the most disadvantaged (read: minority). it’s your bread and butter, can’t have that challenged.” Comment on http://melissa-fix.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/privileged-problems.html

[4] This erasure of ethics by politics is well illustrated in Kenzo Shibata’s response to Goldberg. She writes, “The real irony I read in her piece is that Goldberg, using her mainstream-ish platform, labels women without a major platform as “bullies.’ Bullying requires punching-down.” This argument relies on the conflation of oppression (structural/political) with bullying (interpersonal/ethical). It is not, by definition possible for a person with less structural power to oppress someone with more structural power – because the power determining their relation is systemic not personal, and cannot be changed within any given encounter, although it make be invoked or off-set. But structural power is not the only type of power. In an interpersonal encounter, power may also be distributed by the willingness or ability of one party to use some type of rhetorical, psychological or physical violence against another. This is what is involved in bullying and/or abuse. It may well be true that it is easier for people with more structural power to bully people with less structural power (as they then have both structural and interpersonal violence at their command), but it is not true that is impossible for someone with less structural power to bully someone with more. As Flavia Dzodan notes, “What is rarely pointed out is that a person can be at once oppressed and an abuser.” A far more honest way of having this conversation would be to ask the question, ‘is it politically justified for people with less structural power to invoke some form of interpersonal violence against people with more structural power?’ That is something we can talk – and may very well disagree – about. But to pretend there is no genuine ethical question here is a smokescreen.

[5] As a friend pointed out to me, the accusations of ‘whorephobia’ and ‘transphobia’ function as analogues of ‘homophobia’. That is, they are claims that someone’s position is entirely motivated by moral disgust, and that therefore, they, and their position, can be categorically dismissed. On the one hand, it is evident that moral disgust towards prostitutes and transgender people is a very real phenomenon, and is ethically and politically unacceptable. On the other, it is not true that ethical discussions about the possible harms of prostitution or gender-critical discussions within feminism are necessarily motivated by moral disgust. There are a number of major issues (sex work, porn, sex/gender to name the most significant) where feminists have good-faith disagreements. But to reduce such disagreements to an issue of ‘phobia’ relies on the conflation of moral disgust and ethical harm. (And to be utterly clear, I am in no way suggesting that a transgender identity is an ethical harm, or questioning people’s right to exist. What I am suggesting is that wanting to ask if the reification of gender represents a harm to some women can be distinguished from moral disgust. Which is to say that it is possible to ask that question in good faith.)

[6] The following caricatures effectively deny:

1) That women are oppressed as women 2) That women who are only (or predominantly) oppressed as women are capable of genuine compassion or concern for anyone other than themselves.

(Just think about that for a second. Not only is it pretty dubious feminism to think that an individual who is only oppressed as a woman, is not really very oppressed at all, and is necessarily self-serving, but it is massively self-defeating for feminists to adopt a model which decrees that, therefore, any woman who finds herself with the power to challenge injustice – and who is thus ‘privileged’ – should be immediately disqualified from exercising that power).

White feminists sit around daydreaming about their next campaign. They’re not fighting for basic recognition like the rest of us, they’re thinking of even sillier ways to assert their power and so they have the luxury of poking at the institutions to look as if they are doing something worthwhile. So we show them how bullshit their feminism is and how do they respond? Do they take on board our feelings about how we are being erased? Do they accept that there is a kyriarchal structure they personally maintain? Do they fuck.  http://samambreen.wordpress.com/2014/01/28/white-feminism-101/ .

Sarah Ditum is on Twitter this morning, promoting herself, as she must, since what she sells is the wisdom of Sarah Ditum, to anyone who’ll pay for it… So, since Sarah’s opinons are the product she’s selling, and presumably tailoring to her market place, we can’t be sure they’re what she actually believes.  http://sometimesitsjustacigar.wordpress.com/2014/02/09/logically-speaking/

The B Classes of white feminism fighting tooth and nail for a place at the table. At our expense. With your writing commissions, the coins tossed in your direction by the men who own the media you so desperately want to be part of. And we pay the price of your success. You are not even good enough to be in charge…The fact that now you are low level media whores edited by people who would gladly throw you into the lions if it meant they can pocket the change is irrelevant for you. We are the bootstraps you pull in the hopes of raising to the top. And raise to the top you will. The top of a vat of turds floating in your own media shit. No ethics, no qualms, no compassion, no humanity.  http://www.redlightpolitics.info/post/77475031929/i-hate-you-all-media-vultures

The only explanation that makes any sense is that being a woman is the only oppression they face. Imagine growing up being told…that if you work hard… and follow Daddies* rules you will…achieve your dreams. Then you grow up and discover…you live in a society where women are paid less, where your work is appropriated by male collegues, where men treat you just like the sluts Daddy warned you about. “Its not fair” you scream…! / These are oppression of course… but if the only black spot in your life is that Daddy wouldn’t buy you a pony you come across more as Veruca Salt than fighter for social justice, which is precisely where white feminism is at right now…Like Veruca Salt these feminists can only see their personal oppressions and think that anything that has happened to them is the worst thing that could possibly happen to a woman. Daddy not buying that pony is a tragedy, because it is their tragedy.  http://sometimesitsjustacigar.wordpress.com/2014/02/21/my-little-pony-feminism/

[7] This is the end-point of a too-rigid application of identity politics. Yes, my social position and lived experience are likely to significantly inflect my political understanding, but it does not determine it. People are capable of acts of imagination and empathy, and only a social-Darwinist-come-neo-classical economist would seriously argue that all human beings act only out of brutal self-interest.

[8] I’m using Katherine Cross’s writing because it is by far the most developed analysis I have read of many of the problems with call-out culture. But I want to recognize that using it is not unproblematic – insofar as while my concern is with the mechanism of the call-out in general, I am also, given the position from which I experience it, particularly familiar with its role in the conflict between intersectional feminism – specifically as practiced by white women – and white feminism. Cross has rightly pointed out that responses to the Goldberg piece served to erase her contribution to the dialogue – which is particularly concerned with the corrosive effects of the call-out within her own community – and re-centre it again on issues of the conflict with white feminism. I am aware that I am doing something similar here, and my thoughts about that are mixed. Cross’s analysis expresses correctly the ethical problems with the call out, and I believe those ethical problems hold in almost all political situations (violence as a political instrument must be very carefully justified – for both state and non-state actors – and it is never justified to dehumanize in order to justify violence). My argument here is that there are serious questions about an unethical instrument of political justice which transcend one’s socio-political interests – because ethics is not reducible to a tool of domination. Elements of Cross’s published work support that argument, and so I have cited them. By so doing I do not want, however, to erase the fact that her political situation differs from mine, or suggest that she would support this analysis.

[9] The phrase ‘white feminism’ is generally used to signify, not simply feminism practiced by white women, but a feminism which is complicit with other existent structures of domination, as Reni Eddo-Lodge suggests here:

reni

White feminism is usually conceived as concerned only with gains for middle-class white women, and has come to be typified by the type of corporate liberal feminism exemplified by Sheryl Sandberg. There is something to this. The problem with the term however, as suggested here , is that the framing allows for only two feminisms – intersectional’ and ‘white.’ Firstly, this is deeply ahistorical, and lumps together all previous (and existing) strands of feminist thought (Marxist, Radical, Psychoanalytic etc) with contemporary corporate feminism, and hence erases the work of the many feminist thinkers who were not rich white women, and/or were not concerned with promoting the interests of what is now called, with considerable imprecision, kyriarchy.  

Secondly, anyone who criticizes the practices of IF and happens to be white, is deemed, by default, a ‘white feminist,’ without any knowledge of their social position or views. There is a totalitarian logic at work here: 1. People’s views are entirely determined by their social position. 2. IF represents ‘the oppressed’ and white feminism represents ‘the oppressor’. 3. Your social position can therefore be deduced from whether you espouse or criticize the beliefs and the practices of intersectional feminism 4. The best way to demonstrate you are not ‘the oppressor’ (perhaps the only way if you’re white) is to regularly denounce and attack people identified as being so. 5. If you think that’s kind of shitty, it’s because you are the oppressor.

Hence, by writing this piece, I become a de facto ‘white feminist’ – even though I am a Marxist-anarchist who thinks Sheryl Sandberg sucks. Indeed, as tends to be a problem with excessively rigid identity-politics, Twitter intersectionality functions with an incredibly reductive account of the relationship between social position and political principle (Marx, Engels, Lenin and Guevara were middle-class, people!), and also, a very reductive vision of its ‘other,’ having, as far as I can tell, no account of the mechanism of kyriarchy beyond amorphous ‘domination’. The fact of this imprecision, and the rapidity and vehemence with which the label ‘white feminist’ – and its homonyms – are dispensed, raises the suspicion that, as a political force, twitter feminism is above all animated by the impulse to expel negativity onto its other. For all its laudable political principles, in practice, intersectional feminism is as ‘you’re either with us or against us’ as neo-conservatism. It is, in many respects, simply its dialectical reversal – an anti-colonial totalization to neo-conservatism’s colonial one (and just because that’s not as bad doesn’t mean it’s good).

36 thoughts on “Bad-faith justice: ethics of the call-out

  1. I have been thinking for some time that the “white feminism” label is extremely narrow and inescapable. It’s absolute and there is no allowance for other ideology. If you happen to be white, you are identified as belonging to that group by other people, whatever your personal views on the matter might be. A thoughtful post, well expressed.

  2. Thanks for this. I think it’s worth reiterating that there are real consequences to the death threats and abuse online, whatever the source. The Australian TV personality Charlotte Dawson killed herself yesterday after sustained abuse online, something that she had become a campaigner on.

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-2565903/Trolled-death-Model-Charlotte-Dawson-bombarded-vile-messages-Twitter-just-hours-death.html

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-26304644

    Of course she’s a white, relatively privileged woman – but it didn’t do her much good did it? I can’t help thinking of this when I read the tweet above gloating about making a white woman cry.

    I think the thing you said that I particularly like is the way that personal abuse, of even the most obnoxiously right-wing person, does absolutely nothing to challenge social structures that reinforce inequality and/or injustice. They do nothing to create the kind of social solidarity we need if we’re to create a social movement that shapes a society of tens of millions and it does everything to break that solidarity in favour of individuals and small cliques making themselves feel good about themselves by causing human misery.

    They can, sometimes, come across as people who’d love to be the oppressor – and do their best to become that. It seems to me that many people see this and it has both a chilling effect on public debate and brings the left/feminism into disrepute because it’s hard to see the desire for a better world in this behaviour*.

    * it probably doesn’t need saying but I’m not talking about mistakes, the occasional angry outburst or heated disagreements but the attitude that it is your right to be as vile as you like to someone because, in your view, their views make them less than human.

  3. Nice selective quoting from me there Sarah (in footnote six).
    I am not a feminist, so I’m not sure why you’re quoting me in this context, but it’s thoroughly dishonest to quote the piece you did, and miss out the para that follows that says

    ‘However, in Sarah’s market segment authenticity of sorts is a key mark of quality, like the red tractor on a pound of pork sausages, so let’s give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she means what she says.’

  4. Carter: you were quoted as an example of the call-out culture in social justice (in your case, the “justice” being what you consider sex-workers’ rights), and the quote is intact apart from some parenthetical stuff you wrote about advertising which doesn’t make sense because I don’t carry ads on this blog. Not even the WordPress ones. Saved you some embarrassment there really.

    However, thanks to your nice selective reading, you missed the first line of this post which tells you I didn’t write it – “This is a guest post”. Imagine if all your readers had the same amazing attention to detail you do. They’d come away with the impression that I just write any old balls for money, which is of course exactly the impression you’d like to give.

    I’m just going to stand back with my arms folded for a bit and marvel at the idea you think you’re some kind of master stylist when you manage to trip up on a five-word statement.

  5. So… attacking people with their own words. I want to say ‘classy’ but maybe that’s not quite what I’m searching for…
    I guess I mean, if you were so impressed with Dzodan’s excellent, nuanced critique of call-out, why didn’t you just link to it, amplify it, comment on it to say how much you related, tell people about it when the subject came up etc instead of appropriating her argument in order to diss her?

    It doesn’t matter how elegantly these pieces are argued – they *all* miss the point that being ‘called out’ as a white feminist does not approach the daily harassment faced by Women of Colour who speak out about racism. (Also, white feminists could generally avoid them by ‘staying in their lanes’ rather than complaining about intersectionality or call-outs or the word ‘cis’ or whatever, while WoC cannot avoid racism, trans women cannot avoid transphobia etc etc (please apply intersections) in the same way none of us can avoid sexism and so we are *tired* and worn down and wounded by it, as you recognised) I am really unconvinced that these articles are written with the expectation that people will respond by ceasing to be nasty to white women. The effects of such writing are in my view likely to be:

    -the piece in question being used as ammunition against anyone who tries to critique the words of a white feminist
    -increased frustration among WoC feminists & womanists
    -the piece being used as further evidence that white feminists are too busy defending themselves from call-outs to do anything helpful to dismantle kyriarchy* and thus
    -increased polarization & discord among feminist communities online and thus
    -more angry call-outs

    Therefore, I am of the opinion that they are written in bad faith.

    *although making feminism a place where dissent is welcomed is a laudable aim in my view & probably that’s what you intended to advocate for here. But it seems to me the ‘shut up, WoC & allies’ message is right there between the lines, even though you go to such lengths to not say it?

  6. Zanna: it isn’t an attack on Dzodan, it’s an endorsement of her position. If you see an implicit reproach of some kind here, that’s not down to any skullduggery on Jane’s part. And no one is told to “shut up” in the course of this piece.

    What it does ask is whether unjust attacks are congruent with the aims of justice, and I’m strongly inclined to agree with Jane that they’re not – and not only are they wrong in their own terms, they’re also ineffective because they fail to address structural oppressions.

    One last thing: Jane points out that these attacks also target women of colour who are deemed to have transgressed in some way. This is not is any sense about “protecting white women”. It’s about a basic principle of how we all engage with each other as individuals, and we need to do better for all the reasons laid out in Dzodan’s 2011 post.

  7. Maybe she goes to such lengths to not say it because it’s not what she wants to say?

    But then again if your definition of pieces like this is that they are inherently & necessarily written in bad faith, you can’t believe that.

    That whole approach fails Occam’s Razor, by the way: embroidering elaborate implicit motivations is a good way of reconciling cognitive dissonance (in this case of the fact that a woman you respect has behaved like an abusive bully), but it’s not a very convincing way of thinking. Because you can literally say anything – you can just stand up like Glenn Beck in front of his whiteboard & draw lines with a marker:

    “This woman was once seen at a party attended by a CIA agent, therefore she is clearly a mole & the rape accusations against Julian Assange are a US honey trap with no merit”.

    Or “this woman who works at this magazine once worked at a newspaper whose editor is really evil, therefore her current employers are also evil & she is evil for working for them, & a nasty racist vulture whore to boot”.

    You can say that. People *do* say that. So, there we are. Something someone has obviously put an awful lot of work into is deemed to be in bad faith because you know that it’ll piss people off.

  8. Thanks for your comments. To answer your points:
    1. I’m not appropriating Flavia’s work. I’m citing it. And the reason why I’m citing it is because I think it’s excellent. The reason why I’m not just linking to it, but using it as piece of another work, is because I wanted to explore the distinction that she raises, and add my own thoughts to how that might be fleshed out further. That’s a thing that people do with other people’s work. The main point of this piece is not to diss Flavia – it’s to discuss the ethics of the call out. The fact that I have highlighted some inconsistency between something that she wrote 2 years ago and things she has written/tweeted recently is because I find it genuinely odd that someone who once seemed to understand so well why this culture is inhumane, seems to no longer have a problem with it. And I did think that was worth drawing attention to.
    2. You say at the end of your comment that I intended to advocate for a feminism where dissent is possible and that is laudable. That was exactly what I was intending. I want to advocate for a feminism where it is possible for us to have good faith disagreements, without slinging invective, and dehumanizing each other. You got it.
    3. So it seems rather odd that you also want to say that this post was written in bad-faith, and that my intention was to tell WoC and allies to shut up – when I explicitly stated at the beginning that that was not my intention – and that I agree with the substance of a lot of the critique. As you say, I go to great lengths not to say it. That’s because it’s not what I am saying.
    4. What I am saying is that exactly the criticism you have made – that critique of the ethics of the call-out is just a cover for a rejection of the politics – is constantly used in order to derail discussion about the damage to discourse caused by the call out. And it’s not only a damage to discourse – you claim that ‘white feminists’ can avoid this stuff by staying in their lane. It’s not true – it comes and finds them. And it makes it harder for them – many of them campaigners – to maintain the mental strength they need when undertaking the business of chipping away at structures – which is always imperfect, and slow, and laborious. It damages women’s ability to actually do the work they want to in the world. And that’s really unhelpful.
    5. If it’s not possible for this writing to be taken in the spirit in which it was intended – as a good faith plea for the possibility of good faith critique – and you think it will be used as evidence that white women don’t care about dismantling kyriarchy, and to fuel more angry call outs, then, to be honest, that is not my responsibility. I can only write in good faith, and hope it will be received as such, and that my words might provide some stimulus for thought, or give support to women who I know are out there trying to do what they can, and getting worn down by the negativity. And I don’t think any of this means that being called out as a white feminist is comparable to experiencing daily racism. No-one is suggesting that. But justice isn’t a zero-sum game. There’s not a limited quantity. There is as much good faith and compassion in the world as we choose to try and produce. And the world is a shitty violent place and it’s really hard. But that’s what we have to do. Because that is all there is.

  9. I really don’t get why people, white feminists in this case, are going to such great lengths to avoid feeling like shit when they make a mistake. Just learn from a ‘call out’ and move on. That’s what you would want a dude that you felt treated you in a sexist way to do. That’s it! Why are we having to read tomes of ethical and political and justice and and and when all it’s doing is helping you work this out in your own brain so that you don’t have to feel bad or try harder. Just. Try. Harder.

  10. Flavia Dzodan is arguably as much to blame for call-out culture as anyone. “Intersectionality” provides a perfect excuse for denunciations as in practice no one can (or should!) deal with all problems at once.

    It is a relativistic pseudo-politics that leads to an excessive focus on identity over political content and makes it impossible to point out when the “oppressed” (a word I think is actually inappropriate most of the time) are wrong.

    I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this – it’s actually the “intersectional” kind of feminism which is bullshit. To an outsider the degradation of the feminist movement over the last few years is remarkable. All the honesty and integrity has been sucked out of it and it’s “intersectionality” that’s done that.

  11. Tiffany. Okay – the reason why these are being written (you don’t have to read them if you don’t want to! :)), is because they’re not about call-outs that people need to learn from when they’ve made a mistake. Those would be the good-faith ones, the one’s that I said were fine. The bad-faith one’s are about something else. The point is that there are lots of women that can’t ‘move on’ because the ‘call-out’s’ directed at them aren’t actually critiques of what they’ve done, they’re negative campaigns against who they are. In what way should a person learn and move on from being told multiple times a week that she’s a reprehensible insert-expletive responsible for personally maintaining global structures of domination? These women could try as hard as you like, and they do try. I watch them trying. And it makes no difference. Because that is not the story that some people want to tell.

  12. @Sarah
    I don’t claim to be a master stylist. I’m not quite that arrogant. You have missed, with some style, the point of the reference to adverts – this blog, and much of your other output, is an advert for the product you’re selling – your writings. Before word processors were invented I could have got away with a joke about you selling penjobs rather than handjobs,which might have been more fun than trying to explain to you that I don’t see a categorical difference between selling handjobs and penjobs, (and many of the sexworkers I know are far more sincere than the majority of journalists I know) but hey ho, the world moves on.

    Do I think you write any old balls for money? Not all of it, but some of it, although I think you’d happily accept payment for all of it if there were that many fools willing to be parted from their money. You’re being selective, like your contributor. I think you believe some, or maybe even most of the tripe you write – that was the point of the whole reference to the red tractor, that your USP is that you really do believe what you write, and that you’re not just a feminist Littlejohn (since that space in the market has been seized by Burchill…)

    As publisher of this piece though, I still would love to know why you think you were being called out in my piece; it’s a debate about sex work. Now you and your contributor might think I am a little rough on you, but in what way am I acting, or have I acted in bad faith? I think you’re dangerously wrong, and self-regarding in an unaccountable way, but that’s a sincerely held opinion which i justify at some length in the original piece.

    You;re right about me missing the fact that this was a guest piece. Must be why I’m just an enthusiastic amateur, eh?

  13. Chris, I’m not going to agree with you that it’s a relativistic pseudo-politics. Situated knowledge is politically important. It really really is. Meaning arises in context, and that means that people who experience the context are much more likely to understand certain things about it. It doesn’t mean it’s impossible for others to understand – as I say, we have imagination and empathy – but it really helps. And because that makes things a little but more messy and difficult has no bearing on whether or not it’s true. (The most magisterial articulation of this ever, was given by the brilliant Sady Doyle. http://tigerbeatdown.com/2011/08/29/chronicles-of-mansplaining-professor-feminism-and-the-deleted-comments-of-doom/)

    And that doesn’t mean you can never tell other people – even other people who experience oppression – that they are wrong. It does mean that you should think really really really carefully if telling them they’re wrong consists of explaining to them why something they say they find oppressive actually isn’t really that oppressive at all. And you should make really damn sure that when you are engaging them you don’t find yourself using some trope lying around in the culture which delegitimses their voice http://tigerbeatdown.com/2011/11/10/but-how-do-you-know-its-sexist-the-mencallmethings-round-up/ http://mindingandmattering.blogspot.co.uk/2011/06/hysteriawatch-like-twitching-but-for.html But there are some basic ethical principles we can work with. One of which is that dehumanising other people is never okay. And it’s okay to say that, even if the person doing the dehumanising has less structural power than the person being dehumanised. That was my point – and I made it really clear that what I was not doing was criticising the politics. Because I think the basic principles are important. My beef is with how they’re being used. And I don’t want this piece to be interpreted as a call for a return to some kind of universalism over above situated knowledge. Both are important. Basic ethical principles about harm and humanity, and political understandings about situated experience.

  14. Right sorry my bad: cited. You cited Dzodan’s post in order to diss her.

    I recognise clearly that you did not want to say ‘shut up WoC’ but when you actually devote a lot of your piece what appears to be a silencing attack on someone, just like the Goldberg piece did, that’s an implicit takeaway?

    I agree with a lot of the content of your post and I accept your statement of intent. But thinking positionally, it fits into the pattern critiqued by Kendzior in the piece you linked to, and won’t achieve its aim to create a space for a kinder and more respectful discourse. Did Dzodan and Eddo-Lodge consent to having their work used in your essay? Of course, you don’t need their consent to quote them, but I’m sure you can imagine how they will feel about their words being used in this way, as well as how your piece functions as further obstruction for them in tackling structural oppression and could add to the abuse and harrassment they receive. So you have not written in the spirit you apparently want others to write in? Is that not double-hearted? Should we not, y’know, be the change we want to see?

  15. Carter: “in what way am I acting, or have I acted in bad faith?”

    Here, let me help (all this is from your comment above): “Do I think you write any old balls for money? Not all of it, but some of it … I think you believe some, or maybe even most of the tripe you write … I think you’re … self-regarding in an unaccountable way …” Speculating on internal motivations to discredit someone rather than engaging with the substance of their argument is the definition of bad faith.

  16. Zanna: it’s not a diss. Quotation and extension or refinement of ideas are how ideas get established. It’s what makes them useful and alive, rather than static markers. It would be unfortunate is Eddo-Lodge and Dzodan are unhappy to be quoted, but since they’re both represented fairly, I’m not sure what grounds such unhappiness would have (I found the idea of “doing justice” in the sense of representing someone accurately one of the most enlightening parts of this post).

    I’m really at a loss as to how you think this piece could be an “obstruction [to] tackling structural oppression” (given that the practices it criticises do nothing whatsoever to challenge structural oppressions), or how you think it “could add to the abuse and harassment they receive” (given that it very clearly shows abuse and harassment of any kind are illegitimate).

  17. Zanna. You can choose to brush off the cited/appropriated thing, but I think it’s an important distinction. To say I have appropriated is to imply that by citing someone’s work, for either the purpose of praise or critique, I am participating in a regime of colonial domination. Firstly, I have no idea how we are to conduct conversations in public about political practice (about anything actually) if it has been deemed that quoting people is a de facto act of imperialism. And secondly, by using that phrase you are therefore implying something about my politics and intent, which to return to the issue of good faith, I reject. And no you’re quite right, I don’t need to ask people’s permission to cite their work published in the public domain – and yes, I am using that work to raise questions about certain practices with which they are implicated – and I don’t expect them to necessarily like that. As we are told all the time, people don’t necessarily like critique, but that doesn’t mean that critique is not something that should be done.

    If you think asking for people to engage in good faith is a silencing technique, then that perhaps says something about your assumptions about the people I am addressing. Is it not possible for people to engage in good faith? Because if it is, then I am not silencing them. And is it is not, then why not?

    So, we find ourselves at exactly the same place as we were with your last comment. You agree with a lot of what I say, and accept my statement of good faith. But at the same time you are concerned with my ‘implicit takeaway’ and say I ‘have not written in the spirit’ I ‘apparently want others to write in.’ So which is it? If someone takes a piece of writing which is explicitly about how it’s not okay to harass and abuse other women – other people – as an excuse to harrass and abuse other women, in what way I am responsible for that? And in what sense is certain women’s important work to tackle structural oppression dependent on them being immune from critique which is not specifically about that work, but the way that they sometimes engage other women? Unless you think that ‘tacking structural oppression’ and ‘using certain women as a proxy for that oppression’ are the same thing. I see absolutely no reason why tackling structural oppression necessitates engaging other women in bad faith. It necessitates critique, yes. But what I am critiquing is, as I have very clearly stated, things which are not good-faith critiques. The problem with your position as far as I can read it, is that you are committed to the idea that a woman with more structural power by virtue of being white cannot say anything about any behaviour of a woman with less structural power by virtue of being a WoC. Which is very close to saying that the distribution of structural power means that certain people cannot expect to be treated ethically by certain other people. And I don’t accept that. Especially not in the name of justice.

  18. I was unsure what call out meant in this context, since Stavvers being abusive to Piers Morgan was cited as an example, the comments have cleared it up tho, a call out is anyone disagreeing with those feminists with a media voice in any context. Apparently Carter called out Sarah when he wrote about sex work from his perspective.
    Glad to have this cleared up, all disagreement with anything mainstream feminism says, in any media is a call out.

  19. Sarah
    I feel you are avoiding the issue of consent that I raised… I am interpreting like this: ‘i’ve treated you justly according to the idea of justice I just defined by representing you fairly according to my idea of your intent without asking you’ which doesn’t sound like something I’d want to co sign?

  20. Jemima. So the fact that I’ve cited Stavvers telling a famous-white-not-enormously-feminist man to choke on his own piss as an example of a call-out tells you that I think a call out is anything that involves disagreeing with a mainstream-white-feminist woman. OK.

  21. You’re a science teacher, aren’t you, Zanna? So you know that ideas in science progress by people picking up the work of others, investigating it, testing it and advancing it. The same is true for any kind of knowledge, including feminism. The idea that consent is required to quote someone is highly eccentric – it effectively prevents criticism, and ends the idea of collective intellectual work.

    If I’d objected to people “using my ideas without consent”, I’d never have encountered the productive criticism that made me move my ground on a whole bunch of issues. (There are things I’ve written that I no longer support that are still quoted to support or illustrate positions I no longer hold. That’s fine too. My work belongs to the world of ideas, and I can’t deny other people the use of it.)

    If you think the individual is the sovereign of their own output, and no one else has any right to incur on that output – if, in fact, you imagine quotation as incursion in the way that you have – then you’ve killed the idea of intellectual exchange between people of different backgrounds and beliefs, and you’ve inadvertently committed to individual stagnation and political conservatism.

  22. Zanna. What issue of consent? I haven’t actually re-presented anyone. I have quoted them directly. That is all. The definition of engaging fairly I have given here is that someone is represented – or better even, directly quoted – correctly, and that you don’t make inferences or sweeping generalisations about who they are and their political motives and/or social position on that basis. And I haven’t done these things. I have cited work people have voluntarily put into the public domain – and done so in such a way as to highlight an inconsistency in the work of one of them. It is allowed to point out that something someone has said doesn’t sit well with another thing they have said. If you want to challenge my idea of justice, then do that. But I have applied the principles I laid out, because I believe in them.

  23. Consent not needed to quote, obvious.

    But in the context of using someone’s words against them, I think it’s totally contrary to the intent of the piece not to seek a dialogue instead of/before doing a big public call out? Or just black out names if you want to make points without attacking an individual. That sort of thing. Compassion and good faith.

  24. Zanna, with your permission, I would like to try an experiment. I value your opinion & am genuinely interested in your answer & the thinking behind your answer, so I would really appreciate it if you would take the time to think this through – while acknowledging that you owe me nothing & I have no claim on your time & effort.

    This experiment is to do with identity, how it is conferred on people, & what epistemic authority they can derive from it.

    1. Flavia is an immigrant from the Global South. I am an immigrant for the Global South.

    2. Flavia is an ethnic minority living in a European country. I am an ethnic minority living in a European country.

    3. Flavia has roots in Eastern Europe & Latin America. I have roots in Eastern Europe & Central Asia/The Middle East.

    4. Flavia was at one time an undocumented immigrant. I started life as a stateless refugee; this is maybe not exactly the same, because Flavia is probably documented in her country of birth, whereas I am not & have no legal status there (or anywhere else where a birth certificate would come in handy, because mine was confiscated & destroyed by the USSR).

    5. I am living in the country of the colonial power that once occupied my country of citizenship, & Flavia isn’t, but I’ll give her that one & call a draw.

    If we say that Flavia’s authority to speak on issues of intersectionality etc. derives from her identity as a woman of colour, & that in many way my identity shares strong similarities with hers, then can we also say that I derive authority to speak on issues of intersectionality etc.? If not, why not?

    As an immigrant ethnic minority woman, this piece of Jane’s does not offend or anger me. I think it’s a great piece & I even made a very modest contribution to the process of writing it. I, in other words, endorse it. Does that change your view of it as a piece of White Feminist provocation? If not, why not?

    Mx

    PS If anyone other than Zanna is reading this & is interested in exploring the questions I’ve raised, please jump in – this is not an attack on Zanna or a trap designed to put her in a difficult position. I would very much like to hear from others who agree with her (& why wouldn’t you, she is a persuasive & intelligent woman).

  25. Zanna – again, you make the mistake of thinking this is about using someone’s words against them. It’s not – it’s about using words to advance and develop a discussion. The ball is here, the woman is over there, and it’s the former that’s being played in this post.

  26. Zanna. Okay. Yes. I thought about this very carefully – and if I thought it were possible to engage either of the parties concerned in a good faith dialogue, I would have done that. It would have been my preference. But I have watched over the last months, and I have seen people trying repeatedly to engage in good faith. And the consequence is that they have been called ‘whores,’ and ‘turds’ (by Flavia), accused of having no principles, of only doing the work they do for their own self-advancement, and being interested in nothing but strengthening their own power. They have been positioned by a series of associations as right wing white capitalist men. They have been called racists, and transphobes and whorephobes and SWERFs and TERFs. People have demanded that other people denounce them. They have been told they are a waste of chromosomes. They have had any expression of their feelings of discomfort about this representation routinely derided as ‘white tears.’ And this is by many people. The two people you are concerned about have also both explicitly stated that they do not want to engage with ‘white feminists’ in any way – because all engagement is read as imperialism. CCP for instance, after the encounter with Reni on Women’s Hour (when she was trying to raise this issue about good-faith engagement) wrote a public good faith apology recognizing that the structural power of the situation, and the wide reach of that particular platform, meant that it had not been an appropriate place to engage in that way. Reni’s response was to compare a certain group of women to the EDL and tell them to jump in a pond. And as shown above, when Louise Mensch tried to use Reni’s comments to say that Reni was ‘disgusting’, both Sarah Ditum and Helen Lewis told her she was being unhelpful, which was then reported by Flavia as Helen Lewis saying that it was a shame that Reni has a voice. Notwithstanding people’s direct instructions to not engage them, which I have respected, I would ask that, given all that I mention (as only a slice of a general situation) you will forgive my skepticism about the existence of good faith conditions under which I could make my critique as a direct approach. I really wish it was different. And it is my genuine hope that it could be. At the moment it’s not.

  27. Many thanks for this essay Jane. It was desperately needed.

    The only potential objection that I think you need to grapple with is the idea that communication acts should only ever be judged on their effect (an effect which always implicates oppressive hegemonies). I think this idea crystallizes many of the criticisms that your position has attracted in the above comments and elsewhere.

    Consider the following line of reasoning. Many people believe they “know” certain things about you (skin color, gender, socio-economic status, etc.). These things will (rightly or wrongly) influence their interpretation of your words and therefore the effect your words have in the world. So, for example, when you say “X should use more humanizing language,” perhaps what gets heard by a large chunk of your audience (because of what they believe they know about you and what they believe they know about X) is “X should stop speaking.” You can cry “misinterpretation!” all you like, but it won’t affect the way that those readers have interpreted your words (well, it might, but it’s just as capable of reinforcing their interpretation as undermining it).

    It’s actually more complicated than this, because the “misinterpretation” on the part of your critics is not necessarily their own; rather, it’s misinterpretation on behalf of some vague “others.” When you say “X should use more humanizing language,” your critics aren’t necessarily claiming that you honestly want X to stop speaking. They are claiming, however, that “others” will conclude from your statement that X should stop speaking. They are saying, in other words, that you should not write things that are likely to get interpreted by others (because of structural domination) in a way that reinforces structural domination, and that this is one of those things.

    It follows from this approach that there are certain people whose perceived characteristics (e.g. white, male, rich) mean that it is very difficult for them to say anything at all that “others” will interpret in a way that undermines structural domination. Whether the relevant individual actually has the characteristics that this vague “others” perceives them to have is seen as irrelevant (although in the case of gender, race, etc., this distinction is perhaps meaningless). The fact that the “others” perceive them to have those characteristics is all that matters for the purpose of assessing how “others” will interpret their words.

    As I see it, the debate comes down to one between the belief that “incessantly humanizing everyone feeds into the liberal/rational debate/civil society ideology that has sustained centuries of violent oppression and is not capable of supporting real liberation,” and the belief that “failing to humanize is an epistemologically unsound, violent, and self-defeating practice that forecloses the possibility of a truly just world.” Like you, I favor the latter, but I don’t think this is a debate in which strong convictions either way are desirable.

  28. So on reflection
    I see lived experience as bestowing epistemic authority (when speaking about intersectional issues)
    We often use identity as a collection of signs to make guesses and assumptions about people’s lived experience. In the field of… identity politics? this makes some sense since we’re concerned with how the signs of identity shape experiences. Nonetheless, I think it’s important not to collapse the two… the distinction between White Feminism and feminists who are white is probably resting on that awareness.

    As white provocation… I couldn’t get anywhere with that.
    I tried thinking about it as a failure of empathy, since you perhaps present the case that you are in a position to empathise with Flavia… I didn’t get far with that either

    The truth is that I see the piece as the re-assertion of Whiteness
    I know! Ridiculous! We are all good anti-racists here!
    But White supremacy as a structure of domination tends to be reasserted without and even against our intent. Despite that fact that Jane writes carefully about anger, I read in her piece the reinscription of the trope: troublesome angry WoC. And despite the fact that Jane points out that the victims of overzealous/performative/cruel/opportunistic/ignorant calling-out include Women of Colour, I read the re-centring of White women’s suffering (not at all that people shouldn’t care about these victims (there is indeed as much compassion as we decide to have!), but the suffering of White women as a weapon of White supremacy has a history that needs to be considered in many contexts?)

    How can I possibly mis-read so grievously against intent? Because I’m reading standing back, looking for the signs that are big enough to read at a sort of… 140 character distance. Perhaps I am playing ‘the audience that cannot hear’, but I hear the failure to see Whiteness structuring so many of the interactions discussed.

    So to return to what you asked. The fact that you endorse the piece…
    Doesn’t change my view of it as the reassertion of Whiteness. Perhaps this reveals how over-determined my perceptions are by the effort to see (and if possible tackle) Whiteness at work. The reason it doesn’t change is partly that I’m rarely surprised by who agrees with what – experience is unique. And partly that I see you, perhaps incorrectly, as a person with a degree of access to the currency of Whiteness? So if a Black woman came and told me she agreed with the piece I would be MORE inclined to look again. It’s less your proximity to Flavia in terms of relation to Whiteness & experience of oppressions… because I see the article as one more sign in a chain of signs that (from an ever more nuanced and unassailable position) say (to me) that White women own feminism and must control the terms of the discourse (even though as we have noted it does not explicitly say or intend to say any such thing – I read that because it follows the pattern)… than my assumptions about your ability to see Whiteness. I make such assumptions without wanting to, but I try not to let them determine my views. I recognise that you are an anti-racist thinker and a victim of racism, and may well be better equipped to see Whiteness and divest yourself of White privilege than I am. Nonetheless, my perception of you as person-with-some-access-to-Whiteness means that if you had written this piece (I got further thinking about it this way) I would have only a slightly less (slightly less, because of your experience-based claim to empathy with Flavia) negative view of it from my standing-back-to-read-the-sign position (because I think the identity-sign of Whiteness situates the piece in the larger discourse)

    Thanks for helping me to consider my ideas, and apologies for any ignorant & offensive remarks about you.

    I probably will not reply any more on this post.

  29. LJ. Firstly, thank you for your comment and for taking the time to engage so thoughtfully with my piece. It’s morning here, and I’m just waking up, so I’ll give some preliminary responses, and suspect I might end up mulling it over during the day and come back to you again.

    My first thought is that, evidently, there is a lot of truth in what you say. The effect that a speech act will have in reinforcing structural domination should be a very important element of the way that it is judged. But you’ll notice I say, very important, rather than only. I did consider this carefully, because I am myself very concerned to not reinforce systems of dominance that I have dedicated my life to critiquing. But harm is the criteria I apply to the making of both political and ethical judgements – and as I intimated in the piece, I am not convinced that political harm necessarily trumps ethical harm. This is not a hard and fast rule. Ethical judgment is a matter of applying general principles to particular situations. It is a question of weighing the harms in any particular case against each other, and making a specific decision. In this instance, we have on one side, the harm of reinforcing a narrative of domination (and the extent to which I fully accept that characterization I will return to, but to take your point), and on the other, the harm to particular individuals being treated unethically, as well as, the harm to their ability to continue their political work (which I understand some people consider to be ‘domination’ – which as I have suggested, I do not accept), and the harm being generated by this increasingly bitter rift inside left-wing feminism. I weighed it up, and decided that that the latter harms were getting sufficiently bad to take a chance. That there was a possibility that some precision regarding the arguments might help disentangle an ever tightening vortex of misunderstanding and recrimination, and help people caught between the ethical and political arguments to maybe think more clearly about where we are. Because I really want it to stop – both for the well-being of all the women concerned – and for the well-being of internet feminism – a potentially really productive political space, where we are presently devoting a lot of our energy – on both ‘sides’ – to this conflict.

    So, to turn to your point about the way in which what I have said will not serve the ends for which it was intended. You draw together two things. The effect on the women who will understand this as me telling them to be quiet. And the extent to which these women think my words will give succour to an amorphous ‘other’ who will interpret it as me telling them to be quiet. To take the second point first. I actually think in this case it’s a bit of a red herring. This is a debate inside the left – and a rather small pocket of the internet-based feminist left at that. It was not published on a mainstream media platform (deliberately), and unlike the Women’s Hour debate (which is why CCP accepted that it was an inappropriate place to raise this issue), it does not have a general reach. That is, it is addressed to a small audience of people who are already involved in this conflict, who understand it’s context, and who are not – albeit given the necessary internalization of structures of dominance – inclined to read it as ‘WoC should shut up.’ I actually think this is a really important point – because the accusation that certain positions are reinforcing more general systemic patterns are used elsewhere to close down discussion. The most obvious being the claim that the violence of patriarchal men against trans-women is somehow reinforced by the work of gender critical feminists. As if the radical critique of gender was in some way disseminated widely enough (as opposed to being thoroughly marginalised) to inflect the age-old practices of heternormative masculine invulnerabilty. (And I’m not saying that what some of them say is okay, it’s really really not, but a claim like ‘no-one can make a gender critique because it kills trans-women’ is based on this elision of left-wing discussion with wider structures which are often utterly impervious to it).

    So the fact that what I am saying may be interpreted as, effectively, ‘you are giving succour to – for example – racists,’ is based on misrepresentation of what I was doing, and who I am addressing – and I think then, potentially, it’s a way of redeploying a political narrative (which isn’t plausible in this case) in order to not engage with the substance of what I was saying. This of course relies on the belief that the women who are being called racists in this conflict, are not, in fact racists (including of course a caveat about implicit bias etc). Which brings us to your first point, that some women will interpret this as being told to be quiet, notwithstanding the fact that I have been very clear that that is not what I am saying. As you say, this depends on what they think they know about me – and that depends on judgements made about my race, socio-economic status etc. I guess to return to the issue of good-faith, that is what I am addressing. Yes, it is the case that if someone has already decided that people like me are, say, racist, then anything I say will be interpreted within that frame – and hence there is going to be a problem with people like me saying a whole lot of things.

    This returns to the long-standing question of ‘not all white women.’ It is often said – and of course I am familiar with this from feminist debates with men -‘well, if it’s not about you, then it’s not about you, and don’t take it personally.’ That’s fine. At least it’s fine with respect to people responding personally to general critique. But that is not what we are talking about. We are talking about specific women – and more generally, pretty much any woman who occupies a position of (yes, necessarily compromised given out social circumstances) power – being labelled as white supremacists, and ‘whores’ etc. It is not a personalization of a general critique. It is a series of repeated particular attributions. And those attributions are being made on the basis of a generic structural model, with no knowledge of who these women really are, or what they actually believe. This is not something that is just there, lying around in the world, because of structural domination. These are judgements that individual people are choosing to make about other individual people, by virtue of a reductive application of a structural model to particular persons. That is not just. And the fact that by making these attributions, these women are being placed in a position of being unable to correct that misrepresentation, because it will then necessarily feed into a structure of domination, is also not just. (And I am aware that certain women’s social position means that they are dealing with all kinds of shit that inflects the choices that they make – and don’t want to sound like a liberal who thinks choice is just something straightforward exercised independently of context. But there has to be a point at which each of us has to bear ethical responsibility for what we decide to put out into the world, irrespective of what we have had thrown at us. And that point has to be there otherwise there can be no possible end to cycles of violence.)

    I am also probably going to have some thoughts about your point about liberalism as well. As I think I’ve made clear – in many respects, I’m not much of a liberal. As a starting observation, the history of liberalism is chequered – the bearer of rights began as (and often still is) a rich white man, and many of the violences committed in its name have not been caused by incessant humanization, but by hierarchies of humanization. But at the same time, liberal ideas of rights have given energy to many of the most politically effective movements of modern history. That is, it’s a discourse which has been mobilised both for liberation and as a cover for domination – depending on circumstance. But the point I am concerned with is not a liberal one, but from my own background in post-stucturalist ethics. ‘Othering’ people – any people – doesn’t lead anywhere good. Ever. And I disagree, I think it is important to have strong convictions about that. And it’s important whether it’s done in the name of ‘democracy’ or ‘freedom’ or ‘God’ or ‘the purity of the people’ or ‘national security’ or ‘civilization’ or even ‘the oppressed.’

    Anyway – I need to get on with my day. Again, I really appreciate your thoughts, and I’ll continue to turn them over.

  30. Zanna. I’m happen to be here now, so although you are addressing Marina, I’ll just thank you for your considered response. I understand what you are saying, and I don’t totally disagree with your interpretation from a distance of 140 characters. I guess where we disagree, is that I don’t think individual people (i.e. me in this case) should be read only as signs (i.e. Whiteness). As I said in the piece, individual women are not ciphers, and treating them as ciphers is dehumanizing, and I don’t think that’s okay. I think we could get a lot further in this conflict if we all stopped reading each other as signs. Because we’re all people, and no people respond well to be dehumanised by other people – and I don’t think it’s okay to justify that by further returning to the idea that one group of people deserve it by virtue of belonging to a group gathered under a certain sign.

    Anyway. Thanks for your input. It’s been very constructive..

  31. I don’t think we disagree about that!
    But I do think the conflict is very differently perceived by the different sides. ‘We would get further’ – but towards what? I feel there are different directions of desire often overlooked – this is where I think the need to listen to Women of Colour is most urgent ; )
    Thanks for engaging thoughtfully with me.

  32. Towards dialogue and working out strategies to chip away at the structures that we all want to resist. If you do want to say more about ‘different directions of desire’ I would be very interested to hear your thoughts. I have listened to Women of Colour – I do listen, but what I hear most loudly is the critique of whiteness as a sign (which I agree with), and of individual women as bearers of that sign (which I don’t necessarily), and being told that I don’t understand that there is any other type of structural oppression other than gender, and that I need to listen. And then when I listen, I hear something similar again. If there is something I am not hearing that you think pertains to these ‘directions of desire’ then I’d be very interested to.

    On the other hand, I have just seen the news that Flavia is very ill. So, perhaps it is time for us to put this away for a while. Thanks again Zanna. Best, Jane

Comments are closed.