Meta discussions about discussions are the worst. I know. So I’m warning you ahead of time, this is kind of one of those posts. But I think there’s also something more important here, so, please, bear with me.
My hypothesis: Much of modern, online feminism suffers from the same pathologies and problematic issues that plague modern day evangelicalism.
As someone who straddles both the worlds of feminist activism and the evangelical/post-evangelical/churchy sphere, I’ve been put in a unique position of trying to work out two ideologies at once and reconcile them to each other.
When I can get the two to reconcile and work together well, I find a vibrant, healthy, awesome community of support that pushes me to be a better person while simultaneously loving me as I am. I don’t view “you can do better” and “you are a person worthy of love” as contradictory messages, due in large part to this reconciliation between two schools of thoughts previously believed disparate. There’s a lot to love in both feminism and Christian theology. The first helps me to fight for my rights, to see myself as a person, to understand the world and the socializations within which I function. The second helps me with the why of things, gives me a steady hope for deeper change, and grounds my love within a theology of community.
But, when either of these two goes wrong, they go really, really wrong. And, remarkably, I’ve noticed that they tend to go wrong in almost exactly the same ways. It’s a disturbing confluence of the problematic nature of ideology embraced above hearing opposition and it is, in many ways, a perpetuation of marginalization and oppression.
It goes like this: prominent person says something controversial or promotes a problematic idea. Criticism comes in – some just downright mean, some hard to hear, and some spot on. Flurries of typing, tweets, and comments result in a sometimes overwhelming response. People post blogs in response, in defense of, in offense of. After about a week, or maybe longer, the meta discussions begin, and almost all of them have the same tune: “We’re broken, we’re bickering, the infighting is killing us, why can’t we all just get aloooong.”
See, for example, Jill Filipovic’s response to criticism of both Sheryl Sandberg and the #femfuture report, in which she accuses critics of going forth in “kneejerk critic” mode, and admonishes them for attacking “successful feminists.”
See, for example, Matt
Appling’s post in defense of Emily Wierenga after she posted an “open
letter to feminist sisters” and Wierenga’s
own posts portraying herself as a persecuted martyr.
Feminism, indeed, offered me affirmation of my questioning that I hadn’t found in evangelicalism. But then I started to notice the same, uncomfortable pattern. “Successful” feminists – including both male and female feminists – would respond to criticism of their movements by appealing to their marginalization, saying that “we need to present a united front! Stop dragging down successful women! No wonder we can’t get anything done.” It didn’t matter what the criticism was – legitimate or not – the criticism itself was a problem. Christians, likewise, play this card, picturing themselves a persecuted minority in a world unfriendly to Christians, and that we therefore must be united as much as possible. It feels, in many ways, like I’ve traded one bad system of thought for another.
This is a problem for feminism in the exact same way it is for evangelicalism – critiquing the tenets or the output of popular persons within the faith is infighting, bickering, failure to present a united front to The World Out There Because They Are Watching.
This rhetoric was incredibly useful for shutting up dissenters when I was a conservative Christian. After all, if I’m a perpetual witness for the faith and I’m not getting along with my Christian brothers and sisters, what impression does that leave of the faith itself? How will we get converts?
But the same thing happens in feminism – we need to be united as sisters because if we don’t, we show the world that Feminists Are Catty and Eat Their Own and Look at Those Terrible Women. If we cannot be a good witness and keep our disagreements quiet, how are we going to get converts?
It’s no coincidence that the person who first made big-f Feminism okay for me was a woman who self-describes as a “feminist evangelist.” The rhetoric of such a movement is remarkably similar to the right-wing Christian rhetoric within which I was raised – it’s all about winning people to the cause, changing hearts and minds, and presenting the best image of feminism we can.
And, in a way, I’m all for that. Making feminism palatable for people who have grown up with distaste for it is part of my motivation in blogging.
BUT, when we prioritize being witnesses for the ideology over being good feminists (or Christians), we end up in a place where we quash discourse, where the appearance of presenting a united front is more important than actually sorting out what it means to be alive. We end up prizing conversion to the ideology over and above a discussion of what that ideology looks like. We end up prioritizing the appearance of being good people over being actual good people.
And these calls for unity tend to follow lines of power. Those spouting these ideologies tend to match the status quo of capitalist power; they end up supporting (even unknowingly) white institutionalized power structures and patriarchy. These calls also tend to flatten all criticism into one furious strain, as though all people offering criticism are simply “haters.” They contain within them a sense of martyrdom, of persecution, of marginalization within a marginalized movement, despite being the one who either started the discussion or who benefits most from the promotion of existing power structures.
Take, for example, the reaction to critiques of Sheryl Sandberg’s ”Lean In” campaign. Many feminist women of color have pointed out that Sandberg’s Lean In really only works for white feminists who work well within masculinized power structures. For Latina feminists, for example, Sandberg’s advice does not quite work as it does nothing to disabuse people of stereotypes of Latina women. It is also only applicable to middle class women who have the means and access to a job that has a corporate ladder. This is an important intersectional critique, because a feminism that is only applicable to women willing to work within white male power structures is a very limited feminism.
Filipovic, however, characterizes the criticism this way:
No one would be expected to speak for all of womankind. Sheryl Sandberg could write a book about gender in the business world without facing attacks from other feminists, criticizing her for having a nanny, for talking to male CEOs more than female domestic laborers, or for not representing working-class women – the takeaway being that Sandberg isn't enough of a caretaker, and therefore not sufficiently feminine. And in a more perfect world (or movement), a feminist book written by a female domestic laborer would get as much traction as one penned by the COO of Facebook.
The solution to those imperfections, though, is not to attack the women who do succeed or stand out. That only creates a movement of knee-jerk critics, who, when presented with a piece of feminist work, engage the "find what's wrong with it" mode.
Similarly, almost any time something problematic by Mark Driscoll or John Piper gets bandied about in the evangelical/post-evangelical blogging world, we get told that we’re ignoring the good things this Man of God does in favor of nitpicking, and that we shouldn’t criticize our brothers. Criticism that is legitimate is conflated “bashing” and “divisiveness.”
The similarities between the two spheres are remarkable. The similarities also mean that a solution is similar: stop caring about unity.
A good movement isn’t built from making sure that marginalized voices wait their turn while the successful white men and women move on and through. A good space for exploring what we think isn’t built from everyone either agreeing or shutting up or even phrasing their criticism in the nicest way possible. You aren’t going to win people over simply by being nice or by getting dissenters to play nice.
Embrace the questioning, embrace the criticism, embrace the messy. The messiness of discussion in both feminism and the Church is important. It is life changing. And trying to quell that by playing the martyr or implying critics are simply jealous simply perpetuates the movements of power we claim to be fighting. Quashing criticism – especially criticism from marginalized voices – in the name of “unity” is just another way to reinforce existing kyriarchy.
Every Christian and every feminist needs to be wary of perpetuating power structures which marginalize. Every Christian and every feminist does not need to agree on every little thing – the spaces between, the gaps and disagreements: that’s where life is.
If our feminism, if our theology, is not going to be bullshit, we need to understand that disagreement, criticism, discussions, and getting called to the carpet are all part of the growing pains that will help us be better. Better as feminists, better as Christians, better as people. But only if we don't throw up our hands and cry "persecution" at the first sign of dissent.