Feminism as Lifestyle: Conscious Conversations
Who do you talk with about your feminism? What do those conversations look like? And how do they make you feel?
The way I talk about feminism is almost entirely dependent on the person to whom I’m talking. I swing wildly between feeling like an uneducated baby suffragette who hasn’t read ‘The Second Sex’ and therefore should be quiet and listen to my elders, to trying desperately not to condescend to a co-worker who’s never heard of The Patriarchy and thinks Piers Morgan has some good points. It feels like a tightrope act.
I try very, very hard to listen, and to learn, and to be open and intersectional – my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit – mostly because I think it’s the right way to be but also, honestly, because I don’t like to get into trouble. This is an immature impulse; there will always be someone who knows more than I do about specific ways of living, and when they point that out and ask me to think again, I shouldn’t be focused on my hurt feelings. And yet. I always liked being the brightest child in the classroom. ‘The classroom’ is now ‘the internet’, and if you slip up, there’s a Twitter pile on and a Buzzfeed headline waiting to watch you fall. These criticisms are sometimes done in bad faith. There’s something coldly satisfying about being the first one to pull the receipts on a celebrity or a movement – it’s the equivalent of being the first one to discover a new band: “I knew it was problematic before you did!”
The corner of the internet that I move around in has been carefully curated and is populated almost entirely by people and organisations with whom I agree. There are words and ideas that are embraced, and some that are not. Part of the game is you must know which is which. You’re not allowed to ask. Do you ever find yourself reading a ‘thinkpiece’ that’s been hyped as controversial, and you get to the end, and you can’t figure out how you’re supposed to feel about it? I have. I scroll Twitter until I see someone who’s opinion I trust, and they tell me if this person/place/thing is cancelled or not. And I go ‘aha! That’s what I thought!’, like checking my answers in the back of the textbook.
Moving offline can be a bracing change in tone. Working in an office, for example, you get a relatively random sample of people and opinions and levels of engagement in The Discourse. You hear slurs. You hear stereotypes. You hear ‘political correctness gone mad’. And you have to decide: when am I going to step in? And how am I going to do it? You’ve talked the talk on Tumblr and now here you are in your very own Teachable Moment TM.
You have to box clever. If you jump on every questionable remark with “actually, I think you’ll find that some people find that term offensive” you’ll be greeted initially with raised brows and soon after by eye rolls. Trying to introduce someone to a topic that is wholly unfamiliar to them – like, say, trans rights – by saying not only does this whole thing exist, but you’re already doing it wrong, is a good way to turn yourself into white noise. When I get it wrong, I’d hope for patience from the person doing the correcting, so when I’m that person I should bear that in mind. On the other hand, there might be someone else listening who desperately needs to hear that they are not alone, and my relative level of privilege as the white cis lady in the room makes it my responsibility.
I rarely feel comfortable in my feminism. Or rather, I rarely feel comfortable explaining my feminism. I know how I feel and how my moral system works and what I believe, but if it’s questioned, I either back down immediately to someone I consider my Woke Superior, or I steamroll the person with a wall of jargon which a) lets them know how clever I am and b) shuts them up. Neither of these are useful reactions.
Content and context need to be more important than the competition to be the Best Feminist. American feminism is not the same as British feminism is not the same as Irish feminism. Very few of us are feminist scholars. We bring our whole selves to these discussions, our gender and our ethnicity and our sexuality, and it’s unreasonable to expect an emotionless conversation about such a personal topic. You can agree with most of what a person says, and the bit you don’t agree with doesn’t have to negate the rest. You can acknowledge errors and missteps and flat-out bigotry, and you can also recognise that holding someone venting on Twitter to the same standard as a public official is silly.
I don’t know what the answer is. Kindness, maybe. Compassion. Keeping perspective. Awareness that you will make a mistake, or several, and if someone takes the time to explain the problem you owe them your attention, bruised ego aside. We’re all aiming at the same thing – equality, justice, acceptance – whether we phrase it the same way or not. And we do need to keep talking about it, even when it’s not easy or we’re afraid of doing it wrong. Just keep talking. That’s how things change.