Monday, 7 October 2013

Challenging sexism on left wing blogs - a difficult mission

Classified as: reflective journal - discourse, politics, feminist theory

I've changed the title of this post since I first published it, because I wasn't quite happy with the previous one, although it was kind of snappy. The point of the previous title "Patriarchy rules ok? Foiled again, feminists!' was that when feminists get diverted into fighting with each other we can't focus on challenging sexism, but I don't think that point is really well made in this post. Maybe I'll try again later on that.

I'm still not entirely happy with the post itself, and worried it might still upset and offend some of those feminists involved on Larvatus Prodeo, for which I apologise, but I have spent enough time on this and can't afford any more at present. 

Updating again (Tuesday 8 October) - I've reflected further and now am adding this (also discussed in more detail in my post on this day) - I acknowledge that in reproaching or getting angry with me, women on Larvatus, as one said, may be reacting not to the content of what I said, but to the way I said it. I am not always tactful or perceptive in the way I say things and I apologise for hurt that I have caused by that.

I don't mean to sound like someone "bringing the tablets of wisdom down from the mountaintop" as I was recently described by a feminist there, but I still think my key message below is correct. Focusing on individual cases of sexism is not sufficient, we also have to critically examine and challenge the rules which enable sexism to flourish, on left wing blogs as much as anywhere else.

Linda, who also comments occasionally on Larvatus Prodeo, has suggested to me that there will never be much point in opposing sexism on a 'mainstream' (or 'malestream') blog like that one, but I can't agree. As I understand it, people running left blogs like Larvatus Prodeo, or John Quiggin, have the same broad goals as this blog, to promote social justice and environmental sustainability. Surely they have a responsibility to examine their own practice to see whether they are practising, accepting or enabling sexism and sexist attitudes on their blogs?

Over the last few months I've been reading and taking part in debates on several left of centre blogs, including John Quiggin and Larvatus Prodeo (and Left Flank, but I've really only browsed there occasionally).

I've noticed that to varying degrees they all seem rather male dominated (judging by user names and the content of comments). The blog owners or originators and many commenters (particularly male commenters) generally seem to be Kevin Rudd supporters. As I noted in a previous post, they seem rather blind to the significance of sexism in what happened to Julia Gillard.

In Larvatus Prodeo (LP) however, there are also quite a few active feminists who confront these attitudes. Recently, especially when I was confined by my broken ankle, I got involved in participating in debates on LP, and supporting these feminists - as I thought.

I got involved in one particularly vigorous debate, where I was suggesting that Kevin Rudd and his supporters were arguably complicit in the sexism directed against Gillard, since they effectively benefited from it.

The debate was pretty heated and I got very angry at one point, but I think I was making some progress. As one woman later acknowledged - even though she was angry with me at the time - "you were shaking the place up".

Then I started to come to the attention of the moderators and got publicly rebuked, especially by one female moderator, tigtog. From what I gathered later, I think this was at least partly because the original blog owner, Mark Bahnisch, arrived back from leave about that time and was not pleased by the tone of the debate. He didn't say what he thought of the content.

Following this, I got into a bit of an ongoing debate with the two female moderators, tigtog and, to a lesser extent, Mindy, about whether I was being treated less favourably than some male commenters who had said some outrageous things. This went on both online and through the offline processes (which actually didn't work until I pointed it out to them).

Gradually other women on the site got drawn into the debate,  reproaching and gently (or sometimes not so gently) mocking me for not knowing or not following the spoken or unspoken rules of the site.

Eventually I put it to these women that maybe the rules weren't working the way they were supposed to, and that in "policing" me they were actually assisting patriarchy. This provoked a bit of a storm, which ended up with me being rebuked or virtually shouted at by about four women and one man in one thread. (Please also see updated comments above acknowledging that it might be not so much what I said, as how I said it, that made them angry).

At that point I decided I had really better bail out. I've been back to look a couple of times since, and the same old stuff is still going on. The same men are bagging Julia Gillard, the same feminists are exasperatedly trying to make them be fair, and so it goes on.

I would bet my house that if asked to do a critical analysis of how the so-called "rules of merit" disadvantage women in the Liberal National party, those same women could do it on a flash. But the rules of a left wing blog? Nothing to see there.

I believe that if feminists want to create a fair and equitable society, then policing other women to make sure they comply with rules that support male dominance, isn't going to help. We should be shaking the system up, not going along with it. Interested to hear people's views, as ever.


Anonymous said...

Dear Val,
Sexism must be opposed wherever it arises - not only because it is unjust and usually cruel - but because it is inefficient and it neglects and wastes half the talent in a society.

Sexism is diffuse, like an air-borne bacterial disease. It is not a single discrete entity or event like The Devil or a tsunami. That, I think, is where a lot of the problems in eliminating sexism arise.

Without wishing to stoke up the embers of old fires: I wonder if the single term, Sexism, though useful as an overall term for a collection of bad behaviors and nasty attitudes - is a bit like the term, Cancer, which covers a whole range of disorders of different aetiologies - and so might need to be supplemented by other, more specific terms when discussing aspects of Sexism.

This, to me, seems a common problem with The Left.

The Left expends so much energy, for instance, raging against a nebulous Big Business when that same energy would be more effectively spent attacking specific targets that are relevant to the everyday lives of many people, such as condemning the abuse of trust and outright robbery committed by executives against employees, against small shareholders, against customers and against suppliers.

(Mind you, The Right loses its support by always blaming the victims of exploitation).

Perhaps a completely different approach to combatting Sexism might work - eventually - and that could start with recognizing that the experience of Sexism is an individual thing; that it can range from its absence in everyday life for one person to a constant oppression and violence with the real threat of death for another.

Cheers, Graham Bell

Linda said...

This is why I prefer to use the term male supremacy, Graham, to refer to a global system or an occupying force.

Anonymous said...

Dear Val - and Linda and everyone,

One problem with Feminism, in my opinion, is that it is often seen as being negative, as being ''against' rather than 'for'.

Well, here is my little contribution to making Feminism more positive and more hopeful: a link (I hope) to an ABC-RN "Breakfast" interview with Malala Yousavzai, the Pakistani school student who was shot in the head by the damned false Moslems who behave worse than the Crusader robbers ever did

Alright, she does sound a bit pushy but you can't change the world by being too shy.

She wants girls to be educated. Who, in their right mind, could possibly disagree with that??

Although we now all accept that educating women is a normal and essential part of our own society and culture, what I really cannot understand at all is that in such an out-and-out paternalistic society, why the broadest possible education is NOT given to girls. Many girls grow up to become mothers; mothers are the ones who have generally have the closest contact with their children and who have influence on their development - intellectual, moral, spiritual. (Yes, there were rare deviations from this such as in ancient Sparta).

Surely to goodness, it would be in the best interests of maintaining the status quo in such a paternalistic society to give priority to the education of girls and surely it would only hinder and weaken that society to deny education to its future mothers. Maybe the men in that society are not actually powerful at all but a bunch of wimps and weaklings who lack confidence and who are just plain scared of shielas; maybe they have only a very slippery hold on their domineering position in their current society and so are forced to use oppressive and counter-productive measures out of terror at the thought of losing their grasp on that position.

Sorry, I haven't had enough contact with Pakistani migrant families here to comment on how girls and women in those families change - or do not change - after living in a more progressive (well, sometimes) social environment.

By the way, you could drive a truck through the gap between the teachings in the Qur'an and the actual practices in parts of the Islamic world. The theological basis for oppressing women in Islam is very dodgy indeed.

Anyway, I hope you can listen to - or read the transcript of - this inspiring interview .... and then do something to help these girls get the education they not only deserve but that they must have.

Cheers, Graham Bell

Valerie Kay said...

Thanks for the link Graham, I haven't listened to this one but I did listen to Malala's address from the UN (it was linked in the Guardian). I certainly wouldn't say she was 'pushy' just a brave and forthright young woman.

Yes I certainly cheer for women like Malala but there's all sorts of problems with people (particularly men) trying to say feminism should be more positive (it's a bit like saying feminists should be nicer - which I've tried to critique in the post above).

Feminism is positive in standing for equality and a fair go for women and men (although men don't always recognise this!). It's critical (or negative if you want to put it that way) in criticising sexism and patriarchy. This can be more challenging and is therefore more likely to be resisted, but it's equally important.

I doubt you would say to an Indigenous woman (like the Koori woman at that she shouldn't be "negative" or critical of racists. By the same token you shouldn't tell her or me as feminists that we shouldn't be critical of sexism or sexists (I'm not sure if that's a word but it should be - bit hard to pronounce but useful).

Think you are definitely doing some 'mansplaining' here, so be careful!

Linda said...

Yeah settle down there Graham.

"One problem with Feminism, in my opinion, is that it is often seen as being negative, as being ''against' rather than 'for'."

Oh it IS against. It is AGAINST patriarchy and the tyranny, violence and exploitation that women experience at the hands of men, across time and place. This is not a problem with feminism, it's a problem with men railing against any tiny challenge to privilege and power. My position is that there is no way to make feminism nice and positive enough for men, because men want and actively perpetuate the current social order, even the nice men whom we personally love do this. Telling us to just make it a bit nicer has actually kept women hamstrung for decades now; it's a form of obfuscation which has served as a way for men to maintain the status quo whilst still giving us the impression that they actually care about our issues, enough so that many of us will continue to serve them through domestic labour and sexual servitude. Some of us are over that shit already and are looking at other options.

Also, you might want to check out Anti-Feminist Bingo to see what feminists say about men who raise the subject of non-Western women's oppression, in discussions with Western women.

Anonymous said...

Dear Linda,
Whoa! Hang On! I'm dead set against sexism and tyranny and oppression and exploitation and patriarchal domination too! It sounds like you have met too many bad and narrow-minded men.

I said Feminism is SEEN as being negative - the problem arises from the PERCEPTION, not from the reality. I said "more positive and more hopeful" and said nothing about being "nicer". When the need arises, you do have to be as tough as nails.

Having been badly bloodied in a few unsuccessful social campaigns, I've learnt the hard way what does not work and, in my opinion, being SEEN as too negative and SEEN as too ready to be against anything-and-everything is a sure-fire way to fail in achieving your overall aims. It is not losing the support of men you should worry about; it is losing the support of other women that can come from being SEEN as too negative.

I shall try to find the Anti-Feminist Bingo you mentioned later. If it informs me then I shall learn something. If, on the other hand, it is yet another group that wants me to Read!-Believe!-Obey!-Shut-up! then I shall treat it the same way as any other propaganda (and that's one of the reasons I no longer bother going to Catallaxy to discuss economic issues).

Dear Val,
I've just found out that there is now a book "I AM MALALA". I shall ask the regional library if they can get it on an interlibrary loan this year.

There are risks in bypassing the subtle variations opinion and overlooking slightly different viewpoints to get to a simple yes-or-no, black-or-white, for-me-or-against-me position .... and one of these risks is of getting an unexpected or counter-productive result. If I am forced into an either-or situation where I have to chose between been seen as "mansplaining" or - what? - what do you think my response will be? Will it be a predictable choice between two opposed positions or perceptions of my myself? Will it be a predictable reaction? Will it be an surprising reaction? Or will there be no response at all?

Graham Bell

Valerie Kay said...

Hi Graham, I don't think my reference too 'mansplaining' is an attempt to force you into an either/or position, it's about being aware that men in our society (especially in older age groups) have grown up with a widespread perception that men are more competent than women (I've been looking at the research on this, I'm still intending to write something on it when I have time).

Therefore there is a tendency on men's part, if they see women having problems, to feel that they can step in and explain what to do. I'm pointing out that that is something you have to be aware of, because unfortunately so much of this stuff we are not even conscious of. It's really fascinating reading up on all this and I do look forward to discussing this more in future when I have time to write it up properly.

The thing is that there was a really complex situation going on at LP, where several people - Linda, myself and others - thought the blog owner wasn't really responding to the issues about sexism that were being raised. Yet at the same time everyone agreed that he had done a great service by providing such an interesting blog, and recognised that he felt personally attacked by some of the criticism that he was receiving. So it's a really difficult situation - what do you do? I've withdrawn from it because I can't see any answer at present.

So while you are of course entitled to have views on feminism and express them, what you are saying isn't really addressing the complexity of the situation we were dealing with.

Anonymous said...

G'day Val.
Thanks for clearing that up. :-)

I was worried that, as had happened to me before, "All" and "Some" and "A few" might have been treated as synonyms - by women as well as by men when trying to "win" a discussion.

I heartily agree when you say "there is a tendency on men's part, if they see women having problems, to feel that they can step in and explain what to do". I suppose that some men - and some women too - do turn a blind eye, when it suits their purpose, to the distinct line between seeking to assist dialogue and seeking to grab control of an agenda or a story.

(sorry, have to rush off - more later)
Graham Bell

Anonymous said...

Dear Val,
You are right about the complexity.

Like a lot of other things that happen in the world, I have difficulty seeing how anyone can get any pleasure at all out of sexism. It is just not logical as well as being downright unfair and objectionable and harmful.

Yeah, I know, it happens anyway no matter how illogical it is .... and from what I've seen, sexism is committed by blokes who lack confidence in themselves and they use sexism to make up for their deficiencies ....but what a waste of time it is; what stupid reactions.

So what is it in their upbringing that makes them use sexism as a substitute for resolving whatever issue it is they have to deal with? Bad male role models is one obvious answer but it is far from being the only cause of sexism.


Graham Bell

(p.s.: may not chat here much this coming week; have quite a full plate)