A ‘Fragile Feminist’ Protest against Allegations of Weakness

8 Nov

Although Spiked Online is one of my favourite weekly reads, I did not find the editor Brendan O’Neill’s latest article published in The Telegraph quite savoury. Of course my disagreement with his views did not reach quite the red hot anger levels of this blogger, but it did stir me up and forced me to reconsider what exactly is the problem that the ‘Stamp Out Misogyny Online’ campaign aims to address and how O’Neill has both overstepped the marks of a rational critique of a movement as well as angered a specific group of people with his arguments.

First of all, despite my initial interest upon reading the title of the article about its content, the first line left me cold- universalizing ‘modern feminism’, establishing connections between feminists and Victorian maladies confidently, and blatantly assuming that feminists are exclusively women (not male, as well as anti-male) with a weak stomach for the coarseness that comes as a part and parcel of interacting, publishing, socializing online. I suppose I could have taken it as a joke if the entire article did not echo this sentiment. But O’Neill does not do his arguments (raising these arguments in an inoffensive and unbiased way might have been useful for the ongoing debates about internet security, online etiquette and abuse) any favour by colouring them with such bias (‘fragile feminists’, ‘delicate sensibilities’,Victorian maladies specific to women and suggesting weakness, a suggestion that those who don’t agree with what is going on should go and read The Lady, etc.).

And here we come to the crux of the problem. If we are given to the habit of calling everyone who protests against the current social practices weak then we will be living in an unvaryingly unjust society indeed. And that is exactly what the feminist bloggers are campaigning against. Abuse in chat forums and directed to Facebook profiles is a thing we have learnt to take in our stride and ignore. The concern now is when voices speaking up against (or for) something are buried under the avalanche of gender or race specific comments by users. The problem is therefore to restore our feminist (or other) voices, to nurture understanding that however angry or uncomfortable an article makes you, attacking the writer is not the best way to get your voices heard. After all, a string of comments hurling abuse IS just that- it is not constructive, it does not add anything to the debate or discussion. I will also remind O’Neill that democracy and freedom of speech are based on the ideal of rational thought and, although I will not get into the philosophical aspects of the notion, I will bet that most of these comments do not qualify. In fact it discourages other users from adding their opinion to the melee. I have personally been deterred by such abusive comments under an article or in a forum from commenting. A rational reply to a group of angry people not willing to engage in a rational discussion does not seem productive. This, I believe, is the concern we should try to allay.

As for the following argument O’Neill advances:

Muddying the historic philosophical distinction between words and actions, which has informed    enlightened thinking for hundreds of years, is too high a price to pay just so some feminist bloggers can surf the web without having their delicate sensibilities riled.

I would think that a philosophy that cannot stand the chance of being muddied by some delicate feminist sensibilities is a rather weak force and we should get rid of it anyway. I jest, of course. But the fact is that such distinctions, or even the concepts of what constitutes ‘words’ and ‘actions’ are under constant revision, both legally and scientifically (as in studied by various linguists, anthropologists, sociologists, etc.). Not getting into that in detail but as more and more people spend more of their daily hours online, living in the dot com world is becoming a reality. We do not just switch off our computers once we are done and go back to our world of ‘action’ where more ‘real’ things occur. To us internet exchanges have real meaning. Therefore, online abuse as well as threats, when felt, should be taken seriously. Ask anyone in high school- it can ruin your life (at least while you’re in high school). To not be taken seriously in such a circumstance would be too high a price to pay in order to preserve the mighty historic philosophic distinction.

What is truly funny, though, about the article is that it so unproblematically attributes various weaknesses and fragilities to feminists while also suggesting that these draconian forces, Victorian chaperones in the twenty first century, have something of an Orwellian streak determined to violently ‘stamp out’ things they consider bad. I do not support mollycoddling of the masses, women, children or otherwise. I do however have a problem with society not recognizing pain and suffering where there is some. Nor do I support the use of gendered, racist or other stereotypes used in a comment to make a point which otherwise would be laughing matter. We are not so far past the age when such prejudices were rampant and officially sanctioned that this would not be offensive and hurtful.

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