Before I even start writing this piece I feel hesitant. While I usually welcome feedback about my articles, I fear the responses to this one may be a little more than I can handle. I anticipate criticism that I'm not feminist enough, or Woman-Of-Color-enough, or educated enough on what I'm writing about, or thoughtful enough in the way I'm phrasing my points, for this piece to be taken seriously.
All of this is a sign of what Michelle Goldberg's article in The Nation was supposed to be about -- how women writing on the Internet about women's issues and activism are torn down by other women who are also writing on the Internet about women's issues and activism. And how said tearing-down creates a "toxic" environment for productive dialogue.
"Everyone is so scared to speak right now," activist and writer Samhita Mukhopadhyay told Goldberg.
A piece by Katherine Cross, quoted in Goldberg's article, expanded on that concern: "I fear being cast suddenly as one of the 'bad guys' for being insufficiently radical, too nuanced or too forgiving, or for simply writing something whose offensive dimensions would be unknown to me at the time of publication."
I know that feeling intimately.
Unfortunately, what Goldberg's article seemed to actually be about (and I am evidently not alone in this thought) is a divide between white feminists and non-white feminists on the Internet -- and how one group allegedly "bullies" the other. (Spoiler alert: the non-white feminists are the bullies.)
As Goldberg herself wrote, "There's a shorthand way of talking about online feminist arguments that pits middle-class white women against all the groups they oppress."
I do not disagree that Internet conversations often contain vitriol and personal attacks that offline conversations would not -- and that these attacks can create a culture where women silence themselves rather than continue talking. It's easier to poke holes in an argument and call someone out for a mistake from behind your own computer screen than it might be in person. You have time to craft a response, resources at your fingertips and, in some cases, the comfort of anonymity.
But if we really want to talk about online toxicity, we don't need to frame the argument as racial, or as "minorities vs. the privileged." Twitter has carved out an important space for the voices of women of color and other people who have historically been silenced. As Roxane Gay pointed out in a series of Tweets, there have always been divides within feminist communities, racial and otherwise. But online toxicity goes far beyond these schisms.
Critiquing, correcting, and asking for inclusion in response to someone else's work are not necessarily toxic things -- and let's not forget how difficult it is to ascertain someone's tone from a 140-character posting.
But regardless of an author's color, sexuality, gender identity, or anything else about them, it's a near-certainty that commenters will tear them down. Commenters will say, "you are wrong." They'll say, "what do you know about this topic?" They'll say, "you have the wrong priorities." They'll say, "you can't speak for me."
All of these things can be construed as constructive remarks, even if they come from a place of anger, and especially if they come from a place of hurt. But if every piece about feminism, about women of color, about sexuality, and about the future of feminism is torn to shreds by people who read it who are not trolls but supposedly allies in the struggle, fewer people are going to write about those topics -- people with voices that are just as important, with stories and viewpoints that are just as valid -- for fear that they too will be dismissed as traitors or apologists, without being given a platform to productively engage.
And here's where I start going around in circles, because it seems that there is no solution. If a woman reads a piece online and takes issue with it, why shouldn't she stand up and say so? If she feels excluded from a movement, unrepresented somewhere that's meant to be a safe space, offended by someone's phrasing of a difficult issue -- why stay quiet? And on the other hand, who's to say that we should all just be braver, and open ourselves up to vitriolic responses for the sake of the "greater good" here? Perhaps the key is not that anyone should be censoring their opinions, but that we need to remember that there is another human being behind the words we're reading and responding to.
At this point, all I can suggest is that we all keep reading the pieces other feminists are producing, whether we agree with them or not. Read work by every feminist you can find. Acknowledge your own privileges and learn how to be an ally. Write about what you think and what you know, and hope that resulting conversations are productive rather than toxic. Understand that your words might hurt someone, and be willing to listen to why.
Because the one thing I know for certain is that these conversations need to continue.