One of my roles in this Fit Feminist community is to be the backup, backup administrator for the FIFI facebook page. That page is mostly Sam, with Tracy as her second — and a few months ago, they added me so someone else could wade in occasionally.
One of the things that shocked me when I started paying more attention to that page is how quickly the comments can escalate from 0 to vitriol in about 5 seconds. That happened yesterday, and Sam wrote about it here. (Usually we don’t even notice until someone messages us, sometimes to alert us and sometimes to yell at us for not dropping everything else in our lives and jumping in sooner).
You can tell from Sam’s post that it’s … hurtful and deeply disappointing to have this experience. Sam posted something she thought was sort of funny, probably without a ton of thought because, you know, she has a GIANT FREAKING JOB, and posts on this blog at least four times a week, and has a large family with diverse needs, and just moved, and is trying to maintain some fitness while tending to a major injury that has been very difficult emotionally. And she had reasons for thinking what she posted was funny. And the thing is, anyone who reads this blog — or posts on the FB page — knows this. But the second she (or any of us) posts something that other people get upset about, she ceases to be the Sam who has put so much of her life energy into creating a space for this very important conversation and community, and becomes this faceless object of fury. When people react to something on this page or the blog, boom, they forget that there are other people behind every act on that page, and they zoom to fury, to name-calling into a faceless, dehumanized void. I have noticed that people even stop using our names, even when our names are obvious — they talk about “the writer” and “the poster,” not “Sam” or “Tracy” or “Catherine” or “Cate.” We stop existing as people.
The point of this isn’t to defend Sam, per se — although I would actually argue that she didn’t make “a mistake” yesterday — she just did a thing that some people disagreed with. That’s not a mistake, that’s a point in time, a perspective that other people took a different way. That shouldn’t have degenerated into absolute fury.
No. The point of this is to argue that when we slide into instant vitriol with people we already believe widely share our worldview — we’re on a feminist fitness facebook page, for crying out loud! — I literally despair of our ability to bridge any of the intractable divides in the world. How we talk to each other matters, even if it’s just on a silly facebook page. What we do to each other in conversation has consequences. It has consequences for how we see ourselves, and how we see each other.
In my little corner of the communication theory world, we recognize that what we say matters, but so does how we say it. And by that I don’t mean tone and all of that, although that is part of it. What I mean is that we need to look at two big dynamics. First, how we are positioning ourselves in a conversation? How are we positioning the other person? And what is the consequence of that? And second, what are we making here?
What that means in practice is that when I’m tootling along through life, dum de dum, reading a facebook page, and I come across something that triggers something for me, I have a lot of choices. I can pause and decide whether or not to engage — and if I decide to engage, I can decide whether to just immediately whack the person, or I can inquire about what they are saying and look for common ground. If I whack the person, I am positioning them as either Bad, Stupid or both. Definitely I am positioning them as a person So Different From Me we cannot even SPEAK. And I’m positioning myself as a Righteous Bully. (And who do we know in this world right now we think of as a righteous bully? Is that who we want to emulate?)
The second question to explore is “what are we making here?” By this I mean, what is the relational consequence of this interaction? For example — an adult reading a child a bedtime story isn’t delivering information about green eggs and ham, but is making love, connection, comfort. In our facebook interactions what are we making? Community? Uncrossable boundaries? Winners and losers? Are we making invitations to respond, or are we making hurt creatures who are going to slink off to their own corners and reload?
Why does this matter? It matters because we are actually engaged in a global pattern right now that cannot end anywhere good. And what we are doing on our facebook page is exactly the same pattern of interaction we are doing globally.
Bear with me for just one more burst of theory. There is a dynamic in social psychology of “othering” — meaning that when we talk to and about another group as though they are fundamentally different to us, we position them as “other,” and when we other people, we move through a pattern of seeing them first as inferior (stupid, not worth talking to), then less human (dirty, untrustworthy, criminal), then ultimately, inhuman. Once we move into the sequence of othering, we latch onto our own same-group identities and can no longer see the other group’s perspective. We stop seeing them as someone we can affiliate with in any way.
We see this dynamic written in giant skywriting letters every single hour of our politics right now. We can label the divisions we have in the world right now in any number of ways — left/right, liberal/conservative, homogeneity/pluralism, self-interest/communitarianism, protectionist/global, traditionalist/progressive — the labels don’t matter. But we immediately know which of these we affiliate with.
With this increasingly entrenched affiliation, you cannot have a conversation based on logic or argument. Both of you have an allegiance to your group that means anything you say is heard only as the “other side,” impenetrable to your perspective. (And I will fully admit I fight the tendency to “other” the right every minute of every day. It is HARD).
From the perspective of social psychology, when we hit a place in society where one group says “I won’t bake a cake for your group,” and the other says “your group can’t eat at the same restaurant as mine,” you are in the exact same societal dynamic that leads at the extreme end to genocide. It is the same pattern.
So what does it have to do with the fights on our facebook page? Surely that’s just “the way of the internet?” Aren’t we feminists “the good side” in this global tension we are currently in? Aren’t we just giving each other useful criticism? I’m clearly ridiculous arguing that there is a link between someone shouting at Sam for posting a meme about cycling that made them angry and genocide, no?
No. We are perpetuating the same dynamic. If the only way we can disagree with people with whom we MOSTLY agree is to position them as offensive idiots, we have zero capacity to start a more generative kind of interaction across bigger divides.
This post is starting to become far too long, so I’ll wrap it up. But I am just going to make a pitch for what is called “dialogic communication.” This means communication based in inquiry, and the assumption that the other person has a valid reason for their point of view. (Ironically, after I wrote this post last night, CBC’s The Current had a piece on exactly this thing). Understanding that the other person is coming from a place that is logical to them might enable us to soften toward them. And therefore, soften the divide.
What does this look like? Well, on our page, be aware that you are on a feminist page, but we all know that this not a kind of fundamentalist feminism. There are many variations that can be held under big tent feminism. (Don’t even get me STARTED on skincare. Or sugar). So if you are in that context, and you think “this doesn’t feel feminist to me,” why not get curious instead of police-y? Think maybe, huh, I wonder why Sam thought this was a fit on this page? how does her version of feminist differ from mine? ASK her — This triggers something for me, why did you think this had a feminist lens? Ask yourself — how can someone I otherwise agree with have this perspective? What am I missing about why they might have posted this? And even if you do understand and disagree, think about what this says about the wonders of multiplicity and how two people can differ and still respect each other and have more in common than they don’t.
(Sidenote: There’s a group in Boston that had its origins in great work in dialogue communication with two groups on the other side of reproductive rights at the height of clinic bombings, getting the groups together not to agree but to see a bit more about the grey in each other’s perspective — and to see each other as more human. Go read about them for more on dialogic practices).
The most important thing my beloved mentor Barnett Pearce taught me was the concept that dialogic communication is the ability to live in the tension between holding your ground and being profoundly open to the other.
It is not easy. I know that. And yes, I know all of the indignant arguments that boil down to “why should I listen to them, they’re not going to listen to me.” And the fear — the great great fear — that makes us hammer harder at our points because we are so anxious and worried that our voices can be suppressed, or because we cannot stand watching pain and injustice unfold. And yes, women and non gender conforming people are very angry at this point in history, and that is not a bad thing if it makes us disrupt the shitty historical patterns that inexplicably continue into this moment. But if we turn anger on each other, you can observe right there and then how we stop listening to each other. And we just slink off into hurt and righteous indignation instead of banding together. That’s not taking us anywhere.
I was thinking about the absurdity of this: I was trying to moderate an out of control comment section on the facebook page a few months ago — trying to leave some dialogue without deleting the whole incendiary post — and I asked people to just be a little kinder to each other. Someone called me a fascist. Because I was asking people to be kind.
That’s just fucked up. We need to be kinder, and we need to weave together across our grey areas if we are going to counter this very very dangerous othering. And there’s no better place to do this than on a page about using our strength wisely.
Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who has a PhD in social construction communications, and has had this pent up post in her for a while. And she invites people to agree or disagree thoughtfully and kindly.