Radical feminists understand that the institutions and structures we use, together with cultural and social norms, benefit men at the expense of women. The internet is no exception (see my blog post about how misogyny works online to silence, isolate and abuse individual women https://sisterhoodispowerful.wordpress.com/2012/04/30/internet-misogyny-how-online-patriarchy-operates/). This article explores the political meaning of the internet for radical feminism, its dangers and how we can make it work best for us.
Radical feminism faces three main challenges brought about by the internet era:
1. How do we challenge patriarchy in the form of misogyny and sexism (including lesbian-hatred and other forms of woman-hatred) on the internet?
2. How do we identify and develop a specifically radical feminist approach to using the internet? What would it look like? How would it differ from a patriarchal/male use of the internet?
3. How do we reach out, welcome, and find, existing and new radical feminists without becoming a movement usurped by “pretenders” as feminism itself has become? How do we assert ideological boundaries for our movement in an environment where anyone can interact on the internet and claim that what they say fits within particular ideologies, even when it doesn‘t?
1. CHALLENGING PATRIARCHY ON THE INTERNET
When I first discovered the internet, I was awe-struck by its potential. I even remember thinking “If we’d had all this at our disposal during the 1970s/80s, how much more widespread would feminism be, and, surely we’d have had a revolution by now?”
Now we have the opportunity to use the internet for feminist organising, I am realising that the internet itself comes with its own set of challenges. Men own it, invest in it and have designed the shells which we use to find each other and communicate. That power structure and those shells are inherently patriarchal. We’re at an immediate disadvantage – yet again.
We are hampered by a range of man-made barriers including:
- Sites like Facebook refusing to take woman-hatred seriously
- The very language we use, including internet-specific language, reflecting a patriarchal way of viewing the world
- The perpetuation of stereotypical, woman-hating ways of interacting online
- Silencing, dismissing, trivialising the raising of misogyny when we do so
- The mischaracterization of radical feminism by men and their female supporters
Nonetheless, we can, and have, used the net to work effectively towards our many goals to dismantle and fight patriarchy, including:
- Challenging on and off-line misogyny through campaigns, text dialogue, pictorial evidence, quotes from radical feminists
- Explaining to non-radfems what radical feminism is (and isn’t)
- Encouraging new women to become radical feminists and join our movement
- Reaching out to each other through a range of electronic ways of communicating and making connections with each other as radical feminists
- Organising together and doing political work online
- Moving effortlessly from online activism through to real world activism and dovetailing between the two.
- Having ideological discussions to improve and broaden our understanding of radical feminism
- Sharing good news, and supporting each other with our achievements anywhere in the world
2. A SPECIFIC RADICAL FEMINIST APPROACH TO USING THE INTERNET
The internet was invented within the heart of patriarchy. Women have learnt how to use it, and communicate on it, using patriarchal modes of interaction. Many of the mediums we use have explicit rules which promote hierarchy, automatic compliance with capitalist-patriarchy (e.g. constant flow of woman-hating/hurting adverts) and in-built power structures. The internet, by its very nature, encourages users to become insular, particularly within online groups. In order to further radical feminist goals, it’s vital that there are specific projects which focus on dismantling patriarchy. By having externally focused projects, radical feminism will avoid the dangers of turning inwards, as most groups on the net do, often finding an internal scapegoat or focusing on differences among group members.
This patriarchal system of communication encourages and develops the social construction of anti-feminist online behaviour. Unless radical feminism is able to articulate and unpick how it works and find alternatives, our movement online will be doomed to failure.
The type of behaviour the internet encourages includes:
- Individualism – the interactive textual form of communication means it is more difficult to work cohesively with others than it is in real life
- Egotism – the blogging culture and other ways of promoting online popularity and success encourages an emphasis on the skills and achievements of individuals and this massages the egos of those individuals – at the expense of group orientated projects
- “Group-think” – the existence of private groups on Facebook (for example) encourages negative group dynamics and can persuade group opinions to form about individuals, if they’re discussed – often unfairly. Unlike the spoken word, the written word is more permanent and can be re-read, through screen-shots or other preservation techniques, leading to opinions, grudges, disagreements becoming much more fixed than in the real world. It is a common pattern on the internet, for the same conflict between the same internet users to constantly flare up over periods of many years and across different social media sites.
- Entrenched positions, – the patriarchal form of political “debate” tends to be about “winning” an argument forcing contributors to compete, use passive aggressive tactics, personal attacks and other anti-feminist ways of communication (enhanced by systems using“like”or “dislike” thumbs/ticks so that posters feel they are playing to an audience, gladiatorial-style)
- Factions, – group dynamics online seem to form particular patterns whatever the politics underpinning the group’s formation. Friendship and other loyalties, ideological/political disagreements, remembered past conflict/mistrust, all serve to create group divisions and splinters, particularly when aided by private group facilities on the same site. This is a distraction for radical feminism which is about collaboration towards shared goals.
- Trollism under the cloak of anonymity, It is easy for Male Rights Extremists (MREs), anti-feminists and those with personality disorders to hide their gender, true identity and other factors on the internet. People do this all over the internet, it fosters mistrust, suspicion and paranoia within groups and creates divisiveness
- Pretenders – All online spaces are difficult, if not impossible, to ring-fence and protect and it is very easy for someone not to be who they say they are. We reveal a great deal of personal information to strangers on the internet. It is easy to foster false intimacy, particularly if we feel we are in spaces with like-minded others. There are those who manipulate and misuse the trust placed in other net users.
These patterns of behaviour are commonplace everywhere on the internet. And yet our movement is hurt when they are enacted in our spaces because they distract us from our common goal of liberating women.
A successful radical feminist movement is focused on improving women’s lives and dismantling patriarchy. We can, and do, use the internet to further those aims but we are also restricted by the patriarchal nature of the framework we use, as with other aspects of life. Accompanying that framework is an electronic culture which encourages the anti-feminist behaviours listed above.
Radical feminism has been grappling with these anti-feminist behaviours since emerging on-line but, because we’ve not had opportunities to name them as being patriarchally induced, we’re in our very early stages of successfully overcoming them. They are all the more challenging because they come from within.
Some radical feminists mistake the need to develop a radical feminist approach to the internet as being about “niceness”, as if being “nice” were “liberal” or, somehow, a de-radicalisation of radfem politics. Being “nice” for the sake of being “nice” is irrelevant. What matters is whether we communicate effectively. If we allow discussions to become about ego, competition, factional disputes, who is winning and who is losing, we do patriarchy’s job for it. Our attention is turned from fighting patriarchy to attending to inner strife and conflict. All internet groups face this problem – for radical feminists, it’s a derail from our project of destroying patriarchy and we need to examine how to avoid that.
Here are some ideas and observations about how we might go about this. We do need more time to develop a radical feminist approach to the internet and to try out different approaches.
- For those who can, carry out activism in real life because a. trust is easier to build on and b. the internet can be used more as a tool to organise, and be used in conjunction with, real world activism
- When engaging in radical feminist internet activity, focus on what commonalities and shared goals exist, not that which divides and causes conflict
- When engaging in online conflict (it is not inherently a bad thing) being clear what our goals are and who that conflict serves
- Identify and set up specific radical feminist projects online and work on them collaboratively, valuing the contributions of all members.
- Agree a way of identifying divisive and destructive online behaviour and eliminating it whilst being careful not to confuse that with disagreement and conflict
- In the long-term, although it takes money and resources we haven’t got, set up an online radical feminist space which is free from features/structures which inherently create conflict/power dynamics in the way the patriarchal models do. This space should be collaborative and involve many women, not left in the hands of a few.
- Identify the limitations of patriarchal language (Mary Daly) and actively create pro-radical feminist alternatives. There are some radical feminist “memes” already in circulation – let’s consciously put more into internet space and help them go viral
- When we run and organise private “groups” identify ways of promoting collaboration and effective ways of communicating about specific radical feminist goals
3. REACHING OUT TO NEW RADICAL FEMINISTS WHILE PROTECTING OUR BOUNDARIES
Radical feminism is an expanding movement. As patriarchy’s war on women intensifies, more and more women are recognising its horrifying consequences. Only radical feminism clearly and uncompromisingly “names the agent” (says that men, as a class, are responsible for the war on women). Liberal feminism calls for “gender equality”, rendering men’s oppression of women invisible, and queer/post-modern ideology promotes the embrace of gender while denying it is the vehicle for women’s oppression. Neither approach explains why woman-hatred is so prevalent on the internet and in real life. And, so, many have turned to the old writings of radical feminists from the 1970s/80s and to contemporary radical feminist online writers and posters, particularly bloggers, for explanations about women‘s oppression.
The growing number of radical feminist bloggers/writers/posters is an excellent opportunity for us to be clear what radical feminism is (and, equally important) is not. “Feminism” is in danger of losing its meaning because the word is now in popular usage to describe anything a wo/man happens to do – as opposed to being about women’s liberation.
There is danger of that happening to radical feminism too. It’s popular, hip, to call yourself a radical feminist without knowing what it means. In order to protect our movement’s boundaries, and so that the term has meaning, radical feminists need to be clear about our goals whilst, at the same time, supporting and encouraging women new to the movement. A level of coherency is required for this because, often, women on-line will insist they are radical feminists whilst promoting anti-radical feminist ideologies. This creates confusion.
One of the ways in which this happens is that new, emerging radical feminists often come into radical feminist spaces via the queer/liberal feminist online groups route. Typically, these groups make much of online notions of “respect” and being anti all isms without understanding/articulating the ideology behind structural oppression. This approach is then used in those groups to mask, or drown out, a radical feminist critique by arguing that all posts should be “respected“ and respectful. If our posts don’t conform, radical feminists frequently experience them being deleted and our presence removed from groups. Radical feminists expect patriarchy’s representatives to be offended when we name our oppression. The call for “respect” has become confused with preventing the articulation of radical feminist politics which is not in the least bit “respectful” of how patriarchy operates. This method of silencing through an insistence on being “respectful” happens within all spaces, including feminist ones. New, emerging radical feminists often bring that confusion into radical feminist spaces. A radical feminist internet approach will name the differences and be uncompromisingly ideological while, at the same time, expressing those politics as civilly as possible.
Groups like the one coordinated by Cassaundra Blythe are very useful for those new to radical feminism. Set up for the purpose of existing and new radical feminists to have conversations about the meaning of radical feminism, the group has clear parameters:
“This group is about Consciousness Raising. We are all in here to help ourselves become more aware and more critical, more able to see and unpack misogyny on all levels. From individual transactions such as males sexually harassing us up to Institutional level oppression such as Marriage and Prostitution. And across all time scales back to it’s inception, and forward to theorising future solutions.”
Cassaundra feels that, because there are so many women radicalizing all at once, some stages in consciousness-raising are often missed out. She’d like to encourage women to share reading in the group so that we can understand and agree with the core goals of radical feminism.
Not only is Cassaundra clear about the purpose of the group, she has articulated the importance of learning within a conducive online environment:
“This group is NOT a group for debate. Debate is competitive. Debate is argument for the purposes of defining a clear Winner and Loser. There is NO winner if there are ANY losers….that kind of oppositional thinking is the essence of what is WRONG with Patriarchy….When we interact here, the point is not to score points against the other womyn, but to listen and learn from each other. Our goal is for each of us to reach Understanding, not Victory. “
This blog post cannot provide definitive answers to the question of how radical feminism avoids internalizing inherently patriarchal ways of using the internet. It is at the start of the debate. I hope radical feminist online groups will use it as a discussion point to develop new ways to strengthen and develop our movement on the internet.
Opinions expressed here are my own but I am very grateful to many online sisters for engaging in discussions about how we might go forward from here to work towards our goals by using the internet. These discussions have been both in groups and in private messages. Special thanks to Cassaundra Blythe for allowing me to quote from her group.