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Why we can’t promise a feminist space will be a safe space

Image description: Colourful drawing of five women in silhouette, suggestive of diverse ethnicities/races.
Image description: Colourful drawing of five women in silhouette, suggestive of diverse ethnicities/races.

We here at Fit Is a Feminist Issue like to talk about our “big tent feminism” and how we try to make space for everyone. That’s a lofty goal, I know. One of my favourite questions in feminism is “is an inclusive feminism possible?” I use it as a thematic frame for most of my teaching in feminist philosophy and women’s studies, as a way of pushing people in my classes to think about inclusivity and intersectionality not just as theoretical ideas, but in their actual material practices.

It’s hard. We struggle. People get defensive. There are misunderstandings. Hurt feelings. Anger. Difficult conversations. People are called on their privilege and need to look at that. People are afraid to speak for fear of offending, excluding, saying the wrong thing on a multitude of other levels, sounding closed when in fact they are open, hurting others’ feelings, having people be upset with them. Sometimes we find ourselves at an impasse. We have to agree to disagree or be stuck.  This is all in the context of feminism, where the majority of students are already there with respect to the broad strokes of it.

And though I do my best to manage the discussion, to push it forward or in a different direction if any of the above takes place, I can’t promise a totally “safe space” where no one will ever feel shitty, be offended, say the wrong thing.

Because guess what? Feminists disagree amongst themselves sometimes.

Oh, you might say, feminist disagreement isn’t necessarily “unsafe.” Well, that would be right. It isn’t necessarily unsafe. But as Cate said a couple of days ago and as Sam experienced this week, offense can turn to anger and vitriol pretty quickly. And when it does, it’s hard to know who will be in the line of fire. Or, if you feel some responsibility for the space, what to do about it. And sometimes our own content can be the instigator. We post a lot, there are many of us, we don’t spend a ton of time on each post — many risk factors at play.

We often go to what seems like the commonsense solution when things get ugly: tell people to engage respectfully with each other, not to be mean about it, etc. But guess what? That seemingly sensible suggestion is mega-triggering for some. One woman’s “be nice” is another woman’s “tone policing.” There is no feminist on this planet who hasn’t been told at some time or another that her anger is misplaced, that she should “be nice,” that she “shouldn’t” feel that way. It is a dismissive tactic used to undermine legitimate social justice complaints.

If a safe space is a place where you’re insulated from all possible hurtful, harmful, or offensive comments, then even on a feminist page we can’t promise that. It’s not so much the misogynists who take us down — we can deal with them by deleting and blocking. But it’s much harder to take that same approach to other feminists. I mean, we’re all on common ground when it comes to feeling sick to our stomachs about what Christine Blasey Ford is about to endure today, right?

I very much like Cate’s questions that press us to think about what we are making:

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?

Obviously we don’t want to  be making something shitty where people feel awful. I felt awful the other day and engaged in a way that was unhelpful, more emotionally charged than I’d have preferred it to be, and ultimately left me feeling emotionally drained and hungover. That was no one’s fault but my own, because I was angry and defensive and instead of going off and breathing for a bit, I shot back comments seeking to be understood.

The irony of acting exactly like the way I perceived the people who were pissing me off to be acting was not lost on me in the least. That I wanted them to feel compassion for Samantha when I was exhibiting none for them indicates the type of logical block that takes hold. I could feel it happening while not being able to stop. There is a certain adrenaline that gets pumping in these things. Tempers rise. Everything escalates. It’s hard to think clearly. These are times when (for me anyway) silence is a better option.

And when that’s happening, the thing we least want to hear is “whatever whatever but do you mind being nicer?” As one of the angry people said (I’m paraphrasing), “how about trying to understand why we’re angry?” By then lines had been drawn in the sand (this is how it happens) and there was not going to be a lot of understanding.

I get it. Even as I argued and swore (yes, I swore at a reader in the comments on our Facebook page) I could see that this wasn’t a productive way to engage. That people were getting more angry. More hurt. More frustrated. We reached the impasse. More frustrating still because it is among feminists.

Feminist solidarity all the time would be wonderful, wouldn’t it? That kind of sisterhood where we all get one other. But it isn’t like that all the time. The history of feminism, the non-intersectional feminism of privileged, nondisabled white women, claimed to be that — to apply universally to the experience of women. And then feminists of color said, “hang on, your feminism doesn’t include me.”  And disabled feminists said, “wait a minute, your feminism doesn’t include me.” And feminists who lived in poverty said, “you’re not speaking to my experience.” And feminists who didn’t live in “The West” said, “the material realities of our lives aren’t represented by your feminism.”

The women in positions of privilege wanted a big tent, and they said it was open so anyone could wander in. But the tent didn’t feel so inclusive to the women who struggled in ways that the big tent kind of neutralized and didn’t seem to make space for. And so the space didn’t feel safe because they had things to say that couldn’t be said without making the more privileged women feel defensive or attacked or just not quite as comfortable in the tent as they wanted to be and aspired to be.

The road to an inclusive feminism that accurately represents differences among women instead of assuming a homogeneous sameness has been long and winding and difficult, sometimes even divisive, hurtful, harmful, and dangerous to women. No one is trying to make it this way. We aren’t dealing with malicious motives. But invisible privilege — the privilege of asking others to be nice perhaps — yields a type of denial. It’s not intentional, but it makes uptake of different experiences more difficult.

Does this mean that I don’t believe in our “big tent”? Not at all. I believe in it very much. But I am also aware that as big as the tent may be from my/our perspective, it doesn’t feel totally open to everyone all the time. And yes, I would like all the people who enter  — whether through the blog or the Facebook page or the Twitter discussion — to be kind and respectful to each other. Why? Because truly, we are all feminists even if all feminists don’t have exactly the same set of beliefs. But we can’t promise harmonious non-hurtful interactions all the time.

I can say that I myself will attempt to do better. And I know that as a collective we do actually grow through these stormy times.  We’re not perfect (yet!). There is always going to be room to improve, to modify our practices, to do things differently. It never feels good to be attacked, so we can hope that over time, we build up enough good faith that when we misstep and someone wants to let us know, they’ll be kind and not mean about it. But upon reflection, I do think that sometimes even that might be too much to ask.

When people get angry (including when I get angry), that vitriol usually lands on someone. And ouch. No one likes to be on the receiving end of fury. Sometimes it’s directed at one of the blog authors. Other times it’s a member of our community who has ventured to post a comment. But that we can post things that anger and upset people, and that people’s anger can land on us and others are both reasons for saying that as much as we would love to keep it all nice and kind and civil and harmonious, we can’t promise to do that.

2 thoughts on “Why we can’t promise a feminist space will be a safe space

  1. Good words. Sometimes letting the anger out is necessary. For me, at least, it usually feels bad after it passes, however.

    And it rarely accomplishes my goal.

    Perfection in all things is an unlikely outcome. So I guess we must try to give each other a bit of leeway.

    Thank you all for at least erecting the tent.
    Anne

    Liked by 3 people

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