24 Jan 2013

Chivalry, Feminism and Double-Edged Swords

It was great to read Ben Atherton-Zeman's post for Ms. Magazine, entitled 'How Some Men Harass Women Online and What We Can Do About It'. In this clear and incisive piece Ben lays out how "my gender’s online harassment of women seems to go unquestioned, even defended, in most circles", why this is deeply problematic, and gives practical suggestions for how men can be helpful allies instead of bystanders. The first suggestion he gives is the simplest but the most often ignored - "Listen to women’s experience of online abuse and threats by men" (my underline). It's amazing how many people still adopt an attitude of 'I don't want to hear it' and will dismiss, deny or make excuses for online misogyny.
But that's not what I'm here to talk about - what I want to address was the predictable comment that appeared amongst the many comments thanking Ben for his insightful piece. It was the usual "If you can't take the heat, get out of the internet, baby!" comment that seems to confuse feminism with wanting women to get special treatment. Displaying the classic uneven approach to spelling, punctuation and grammar that's so common amongst online shit-stirrers, 'Andre' states the following - "First of all if women ARE equals FULL STOP. They don’t need men rushing in white-knighting to protect them from negative comments or posts they find unpopular. 2) You are being sexist for suggesting and implying somehow males have this greater to step in a protection women, solely because they have penis. No offense, its 2013, your an equal, your more than able to fight your own battles." This thinking is borne from the simplistic idea that a) online abuse affects everyone equally, and is never gendered or racialised and b) that wanting equality means giving up your right to complain about anything, ever. It also takes into no account the fragile nature of the (by no means complete) steps women have made towards equality so far.

Women's rights remain in a precarious position and one that is very, very new - when my grandmother was born, women wouldn't get the vote on equal terms with men for another 7 years. When I was born, rape in marriage would be not made illegal for another 8 years. A century of progress after millennia of oppression does not mean women are in a powerful, or even strong position yet -  as the War on Women in the USA shows, rights that took centuries to obtain can be reversed at the stroke of a state governor's pen, and women can very quickly and easily be pushed back to where we were in the 70s. Or the 50s. Or the 1900s. So it's hardly a massive leap to say that women being the disproportionate target of some of the most vile abuse when they dare to have opinions online is evidence that there are still many out there who feel threatened by women's voices, and wish to shove women back to a time where they were forbidden from entering the public arena. Men may get online abuse, but they don't get it for simply being men. Therein lies the problem. A man may be told to shut the fuck up or be called a jackass because he criticised a videogame everyone likes, but he's not going to be called a cunt/bitch/whore/slut, threatened with rape or have his appearance criticised just because he dared to speak his mind. That's what female writers face every day online.
And yes, of course having an online presence involves a certain degree of turning the other cheek when it comes to getting aggro - it's part and parcel of being a writer and having a public voice. But I disagree with the dismissive approach that says 'It's just the way the internet is, deal with it'. I'm not going to accept that a place that can be such a fantastic arena in which to connect, communicate, entertain and educate must necessarily entail dealing with so much hate. In Ye Olde Pre-Internet days, the worst thing writers had to deal with were angry letters to their editor. Now you can be inundated with forum comments, tweets, Facebook messages and blog posts calling you every four-letter word under the sun, threatening you or your loved ones, and of course, taking the requisite pop at the way you look too. Saying 'Well if it's threatening call the police, otherwise you just have to take it' is a cop-out - there has never historically been a public arena before where people can dole out such aggression and hatred with absolute impunity, and we should recognise that's fucked up, rather than make excuses for it. Do we really want the legacy of the early 21st century to be a set of tweets saying "You fucking ugly cunt, if I ever meet you I'll rape you"?
Anyway, getting on to the other part of 'Andre''s criticism, the whole 'white-knighting' thing. Ah yes, that clever phrase which manages to hamstring both women who might want men's support, and men who might want to support women. If you ask for a man to be an ally, you clearly can't be a REAL feminist because being a feminist means doing everything completely ALONE to make a point about women's strength, right? And if you're a man who wants to be an ally, you must be doing it because you want a cookie, or even think it might get you laid. Another commenter 'Michelle', describes how "the standard response to a man who defends a woman is “She’s not going to sleep with you, dude.” The idea being, of course, that no man could possibly side with a woman without that ulterior motive." This is horseshit that needs to be addressed, as it's a way of silencing both the women who are being abused and the men who are calling out that abuse for what it is. 
The whole 'chivalry' thing is very tricky - there was an inane phone-in on my local radio station this morning (which I hasten to add I was only listening to because my MP3 players is broken) asking 'Is chivalry dead?' with a healthy subtext of 'And is it women's fault for wanting equality, those uppity bitches?'. As a feminist, if you dare suggest that it'd be nice if men stepped up as allies to the women they respect, you're immediately slammed with 'But you feminists WANTED it this way, you claim not to need men's help!'. Actually no, what we wanted was freedom from being treated as if we need help whether we've asked for it or not. Asking for help per se is something humans do all the time every day, and I'd also hope that giving help is something a lot of us do every day too, often without being asked. I move my neighbour's bins for them, I take my care client's holey garments home and sew them, I hold the door for whoever's behind me. That's called courtesy and consideration, and it's not exclusive to either sex, neither is carrying it out a reason to demand thanks, nor receiving it something that makes you 'weak'. The bind that men had women in for so long was to treat women as incapable of doing anything independently, and therefore make women reliant on male support for everything. Just because modern women are now speaking out about online abuse and suggesting that it'd be good to hear from men who aren't abusive keyboard warriors doesn't mean we are asking to return to lying on a chaise longue all day clutching a handerkerchief to our foreheads, having constant fainting fits and being too fragile and feminine to be able to cope with working or voting or handling our own finances. We're asking for the same courtesy that means if you saw a man shouting 'fucking ugly whore!' at a woman in the street, you'd, if not step in to object, at the very least check she was OK.
Because that's what makes existence in a world where people assail us with cruel, designed-to-wound words on a daily basis bearable - the support of others. Knowing there are others who will support you, maybe even stick up for you, and who will listen when you tell your story, rather than silencing, denying or trying to blame you for what happened. We all need that, men and women, in order to endure the slings and arrows of injurious modern life. So straw arguments about chivalry really need to be dispensed with, because just as we wouldn't condone racism or homophobia on the grounds that  black or gay people 'should fight their own battles if they really want equality', we have to accept that making a woman-friendly society is always going to be a team effort. If you're not in an oppressed group, recognise how lucky you are to be in that position, and use your privilege to listen to, support, and stick up for other groups who are not as protected from vile prejudice as you are.

1 comment:

Ben said...

Thank you so much, Chas! Very well said, as usual.