Maya Angelou died last week; eulogized in memes on social media feeds, breaking up the erupting solidarity of fearful femininity marked by #YesAllWomen with quotes about courage and empowerment:
You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.
A wise woman wishes to be no one’s enemy; a wise woman refuses to be anyone’s victim.
What is a fear of living? It’s being preeminently afraid of dying. It is not doing what you came here to do, out of timidity and spinelessness. The antidote is to take full responsibility for yourself – for the time you take up and the space you occupy. If you don’t know what you’re here to do, then just do some good.
We allow our ignorance to prevail upon us and make us think we can survive alone, alone in patches, alone in groups, alone in races, even alone in genders.
I am never proud to participate in violence, yet I know that each of us must care enough for ourselves that we can be ready and able to come to our own defense when and wherever needed.
To be sure, the #YesAllWomen meme is an interesting development. It gives the women of the internet an opportunity to join their voices together and talk about their experiences with everyday sexism and the things they perceive as threats which influence the ease with which they go about their lives. It gives well-meaning men who agree that women should have equal opportunity a window into an experience that differs from theirs in ways they are often unable to see. That’s important, and valid. But the other side of a campaign like #YesAllWomen is the reinforcement, not of empowerment, but of fear. And the implication from the feminist blogosphere is that the solution to this particularly female set of problems lies in removing the sources of women’s fears, rather than in teaching women to feel empowered in spite of them.
It is a fact that the world is not a safe place. It’s a shitty, unfair fact, but it’s true. The public safety of individuals varies along many axes and situations, and it is true that women face a unique set of concerns. At the end of the day, the world owes us nothing. Attempts to make the world better are noble and can certainly help, especially when implemented within local cultural paradigms by people who understand the forces at work within those specific paradigms. But if we wish to be empowered, we cannot rely entirely on civilization to empower us. We must claim our agency and empower ourselves. We must meet humanity where it is, even as we work to change it.
But all too often, the two prongs of this principle are set at odds to one another, because to talk about transcending your own fear and empowering yourself is seen as invalidating to those who are crippled by their fears. Claiming your agency and discussing practical approaches to safety often garners accusations of victim-blaming. Attempts of well-meaning male allies to discuss risk/benefit analyses with regard to women’s fears are regarded as derailments. All of this happens because the online feminist community is held together by women’s desires to see their fears validated; to be reassured that they are not crazy for feeling the way they do; to convince men that their fears are not silly.
The feminist reaction to the recent mass killing in California is a great example of this phenomenon. The implication behind much of the commentary from the feminist blogosphere is a big finger, pointing and shouting, “SEE?! They really are trying to kill us! We’re not crazy!” This is entirely understandable. And these discussions and the ones coming from #YesAllWomen will likely go a long way toward getting middle- and upper-middle-class men, in the developed world, who were already basically on board with feminism, to step up and address these issues where they see them.
But what about the rest of humanity? What about the vocal, misogynist minority? What about the men and women in other cultural paradigms who are not part of this discussion? What about John and Jane Doe? What about future Eliott Rodgers? Are we really prepared to stake our liberation to the conversion of all of these people and the eradication of the forces that drive them? That’s not only unrealistic; it’s self-defeating. If we are not, indeed, the weaker sex, then we shouldn’t require a consensus vote from the men of Earth granting us permission to walk freely among them.
The internet is a revolutionary social force. It empowers us to organize around principles that transcend geography. It amplifies our voices by joining them together. It allows outsiders and marginalized individuals to find validation in a sense of community and shared experience in virtual space. These capabilities are undoubtedly creating positive change in the world.
But, as is true of all civilizational change, these capabilities come at a cost. The power and convenience of the internet as a communication and organization tool make it a cultural magnet, tending to draw everything into itself. It links locally active organizations with large, international communities. Because of the anonymous nature of much of online communication, organizations and their representatives frequently receive comments from trolls and trouble-makers and dissenters, whose motives are difficult to distinguish. These forces naturally create in-group defensiveness and wagon-circling within these online communities, which inevitably leads to a situation where even constructive criticism can be dismissed as attack, and those who ask the wrong questions can be counted amongst the enemy.
The demographics of internet access, combined with the above-detailed emergence of online tribalism within these groups, creates an environment in which the concerns of specific classes of people become the primary focus of online discussions, and, by extension, define the parameters of the most visible areas of activism. Combine with this the demographics of higher education access and the entanglement of academia in social justice movements, and a picture begins to form of an increasing prioritization of Western, middle- and upper-middle class concerns.
In addition, the mechanics of the blogosphere itself can influence the direction of activism within a community. The ongoing discussions of the #NotAllMen “derail tactic” among online feminists is a prime example of this. The very idea of a “derail” is the product of specific expectations that online discussion forums, in order that they do not devolve into chaotic flame wars, should be limited to pre-approved discussion points. This tendency is entirely understandable. It helps people create spaces in which they feel safe sharing their fears and experiences, which is a powerful tool in building communities. But at some point, the community has to be about something other than building itself, and the tools that a community uses to build itself can actually undermine its own efforts to fulfill the stated aspirations of its members.
The goals of the loudest voices in the online feminist movement are neatly situated within a careerist, capitalist paradigm, focusing on wage equality, reproductive rights, and the politics of identity and consumption. Within this context, it makes sense to try to win male allies in the fight to eradicate harassment and remove sexist barriers to female acquisitions of power. But this set of interests should not crowd out or dictate the terms of discussions of barriers to female empowerment within other paradigms.
For example, attempting to apply this same logic to street harassment and casual, everyday interactions outside the context of a corporate or academic workplace is doomed at the outset. Despite the increasing prevalence of adults walking around in sweatpants, the world is no one’s living room, and none of us has the right to expect to go through life without encountering unexpected challenges and scary circumstances. To tell ourselves that we do is to confine ourselves to “safe” prisons.
A couple of weeks ago, I was walking to the library – a journey which takes me through a lively, culturally-diverse section of the city – and I glanced down a side street as I passed. There was a tall, thin, black man walking clumsily in my direction, and after our eyes met, he ran up to me and started chatting me up as I walked. We had a friendly, easy interaction. He complimented my physical appearance, then told me he was high on crack and some other stuff, and that he was looking for a nice woman he could “spoil”. The whole conversation unfolded over about two blocks, and as soon as I told him I wasn’t interested, he said a friendly goodbye and walked away.
Did this encounter make me uncomfortable? Sure. I didn’t know this guy. He was a self-avowed crack-head. It was the middle of the afternoon, and there were a lot of other people around, so I wasn’t concerned for my physical safety, beyond the usual level of worst-case-scenario paranoia my brain likes to produce, no matter what is happening around me. And even though he did look me up and down like a piece of meat, he didn’t persist after I refused his advance, so I didn’t feel disrespected. In fact, the whole thing left me feeling rather positive about the human race.
This guy was acting within the parameters of a cultural paradigm very different from the corporate, academic, middle- and upper-middle-class expectations of the prominent voices in the online feminist movement. Part of my personal empowerment process is understanding these paradigms and learning to navigate them on their own terms, so that I can more comfortably traverse a wide variety of situations. Throwing temper-tantrums about unwanted male attention on the street accomplishes little, especially when that attention is part of a codified system of behavior practiced and accepted by both men and women within that context. If and when people within these paradigms feel oppressed and ask for help, we can certainly ally with them in respectful ways, but expecting to swoop in with your white privilege and teach “urban” men why it’s wrong of them to holla at you is the height of ethnocentric hubris. And walking briskly through those neighborhoods, wearing your headphones like a hijab and staring at the ground, as though danger you can’t see or hear can’t hurt you, seems terribly childish.
The crux of the feminist mission is to make a place in public life for women to thrive and make our own destinies. If we wish to take our places in public life, we must accept the burdens that come with existing as public entities. Public life is often chaotic, and it is impossible to exercise any ultimate form of control over what you will encounter, in public, on a day-to-day basis. We can support each other in meeting these challenges. Part of this support can take the form of sharing our frustrations. But we need to keep them in perspective. We need to remember that, in the end, the real progress we make will be in the rights we take for ourselves by deciding not to give power to our oppressors by believing their slurs and libels and threats; not in the ones we badger and cajole and shame them into provisionally ceding to us. We’ve got to be able to walk on our own. The world will never be completely safe for us.
Freedom isn’t a given. We buy it with our courage.