Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Speaking Up

This blog has been a little quiet on the subject of feminism recently. Appropriately, what I want to talk about today is the way in which we (in particular, we feminists) find ourselves not speaking out about things that appal us, keeping quiet about things that enrage us.

Those of you who know me might not think this is something I suffer from. I do find myself talking about feminist issues an awful lot and often with some force. But don't be fooled into thinking I - or anyone like me - is immune from being silenced. Knowing I might be faced with such an accusation, I spent about a minute thinking of examples of what I mean. Here are just a few of those that occurred to me off the top of my head.

- when a van driver or builder whistles at me in public, I do not shout at them to fuck off or noticeably retaliate. The furthest I can usually stretch myself is to shoot them a look of weary disdain.

- when a certain academic at the University of York started talking in a seminar about female genital mutilation as "FMG", making sure to pronounce those quotation marks so as to show that it was clearly a problem feminists have made up to entertain themselves, I said nothing.

- when I noticed an exceptionally sexist poster advert for credit card company Capital One, I didn't write in to complain. I got as far as googling it, noticed someone else had written a blog post about it, and felt that was enough.

- when I had a (fairly robust) feminist criticism to bring against a different academic's paper in a political theory workshop, I didn't feel confident enough to bring it up in the workshop itself and only mentioned it to the author afterwards, when he didn't have the opportunity to think about it properly.

- when I was waiting at the bar at The Duchess nightclub, I was approached by a male stranger who kept trying to put his arm around me, and ultimately succeeded at kissing me on the cheek; although I physically recoiled and attempted to extract myself from the situation, I did not go apeshit at him for sexually harassing me. I didn't even say anything.

Why does it happen, and keep happening, that when we're put in a position we don't want to be in or when we are faced with something we abhor, we keep quiet?

Answering the question, my first instinct was to give the disclaimer that sometimes, obviously, it is simply about pragmatism. There's a time and a place for behaviour like yelling at people, and in some circumstances certain reactions may be inappropriate or may only make things worse.

The more I think about it, the more I think that is pretty much bullshit. When faced with manifestations of patriarchy, what's "appropriate" - in every time and every place - is keeping quiet. That's kind of the point. To do anything else is inherently subversive, whether it's yelling at someone who harasses you or schooling a seminar leader on the finer points of acronyms. It's okay to have these concerns, but for goodness' sake, don't bring them out into public! People might think you were some kind of psycho radical feminist.

Speaking of which: can we talk about this for a moment? The way in which some kinds of feminism are considered socially acceptable while others are mercilessly derided, even by feminists themselves. It seems like it's okay to be a liberal feminist in the minimalistic sense of thinking that people are in some vague way equal and that we shouldn't discriminate and that's pretty much it. A step above the category of "I'm not a feminist but [insert feminist statement here]" is the category of people who do say they're a feminist but are very quick to qualify what they mean by that. Because they wouldn't want anyone thinking they were at all vocal or aggressive about their feminism. God forbid.

I have been guilty of this and looking back I find it inexcusable. Yes, some feminists are more radical than me. Some take it to extremes that I find hard to understand, or that I don't feel are compatible with my personal brand of feminism. But every time I, or anyone else, says "I'm a feminist - but not like that", we are publicly degrading feminism. We are adding to the atmosphere of silencing that stops feminists, all feminists, of every stripe, expressing their views. We have to stop doing that.

Going back on topic: is it that simple? Is patriarchy the reason we don't speak up, acting on us both consciously and subconsciously, telling us our views are unwelcome and making us feel unwilling to express them?

To a large degree, yes. But it's also about energy. To express the kind of feminist sentiment I'm talking about is to fight, and we can't be fighting every moment of our lives. No one is capable of that. We all have our own coping strategies for this. A lot of people, wisely, don't bother fighting with strangers on the internet (whether about feminist issues or something else entirely). I myself have largely given up fighting on Facebook, preferring to simply remove the offending friends. But the energy to fight can also desert us when we most need it - in serious conversations with good friends, or when we feel sincerely violated.

I haven't come to this question with a quick-fix solution, an answer that will empower us to reject being silenced and speak up every time we want to. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that we recognise it in ourselves when it happens, so as to better combat it the next time. There are a lot of things that are terrifying and difficult the first time you do them, but the more you practice, the more capable you feel. Maybe speaking up is one of them. We could probably all do more to test that theory.

I was going to close this with something about "picking our battles" and putting the effort in to fight only when we think there's some small chance of it making a difference. But again, I'm tempted to dismiss that as bullshit. Speak up whenever you can, and if you do that, then you don't have to beat yourself up about the times when you can't.

[P.S.: tying this post and my previous one together, one of the catalysts that got me to actually sit down and write this was a Feministe post 'on language, and body, and fear'. It's a really good explanation of the way we can silence one another, even when we (ostensibly) agree with the view that's silenced.]

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