Online communities are relatively new things and we don’t understand them well. But I understand this listserv to be about a few basic things* – a place to share information and news of interest to feminists and their allies; a place to discuss issues relating to women; a place to learn and educate.
Moderators play a key role in creating the environment where these things take place and I have my issues with our moderators. But I’ve co-administered a Facebook place for feminists since 2009 and I well know that, just as it’s impossible to control any group of people anywhere, it’s just as impossible to control a group online, especially if one doesn’t want to become the thought and tone police. The balancing act is beyond difficult. The group of people has to “sign on” at a basic level.
If this listserv is meant to be a place for sharing information and opinion and for debate and discussion and for education and learning, it is failing with respect to trans issues. I think the moderators need to make some changes that could be helpful, but they could only be helpful if the group members were willing. I do not see that willingness.
I’m interested in what kinds of principles must be agreed upon to create a group that thrives. When I think of the goal of educating, and I am an educator, there are a few things I know. One is that if I attempt to provoke fear and shame in learners, I will be successful with some people but they will learn nothing other than to submit. That is not the thing I want people to learn. Another thing I know is that some people will not feel fear and shame, they will feel anger and they will resist. Sometimes their resistance will look as ugly as the words and actions of those trying to provoke fear and shame because that’s what reaction looks like. On the other hand, anger can energize people for battle. I wouldn’t have thought that anyone trying to convince another human of anything would want to provoke anger and resistance. The desire for freedom and liberation runs deep in humans and when they feel they are being oppressed (even if you think they’re not actually being oppressed) you have a deep and persistent problem on your hands that will have to be addressed before you will ever win anything, teach anything, learn anything, achieve solidarity and allyship with anyone.
There are a few members of this listserv – a very few – who make its goals impossible to achieve, assuming I’m even partly correct about its goals. I’m not interested in trying to blame or shame them. I’m interested in describing behaviour that has made this group a truly toxic place for achieving anything but a state of fear and shame and blame and anger and resistance.
In my view it is impossible to discuss trans issues effectively in this group because battle lines have been drawn and personal attack has been accepted from some, while a version of silencing and censorship has been imposed on others. Some of us are told that we must refer to a certain Jenner-person using the proper name “Caitlyn” and female pronouns, or our posts will be rejected. While others have posts approved that state no facts, make no arguments and substantiate no claims other than asserting that anyone who disagrees with what they say is a transphobic bigot. I have seen little to no attempt to engage with arguments about sex, the human brain and the social construction of gender – just attempts to shame and blame people who think, with good and explicable reason, that being sexed female or male or intersex are real things in the world and biologically immutable, and that gender is a real thing in the world but socially constructed and mutable. Not all people agree with these propositions, that much is clear. But these propositions have an intellectual history that cannot be made to go away by insulting them. My own views about these things become stronger the more people yell at me and offend me and cause me pain. That’s just human.
Is that what we want? Is there a “we” here? I feel close to invisible. If I want to disagree with and discuss the views of DJ Freeman, for instance, I have to prepare myself to be attacked. As an elder woman who has been a socialist and a feminist for over forty years and an online activist for eight years, I’m pretty used to attacks, but that doesn’t mean there is no impact. It’s not every day I’m up for it. Besides, what I have to do to make myself less vulnerable to attacks is shut down my heart and close my mind and fight. That’s no help to my own learning or my ability to articulate my thinking to others or to my ability to engage in rational, respectful dialogue. I shudder to think of the numbers of women who haven’t developed ways to deal with it and simply shut down, go away and refuse to engage. Whenever I post here, I receive private messages from some those women, thanking me. They are here. I regret that we cannot hear from them and that we make no attempt to create a space in which they can speak.
When I started my Facebook feminist group, it was “open to the public”. Anyone who wanted to could see that it existed, could see who its members were, and could see posts and comments. Because of attacks from people who were not interested in discussing anything but wanted only to be disruptive and make conversation impossible, I had to make that group “closed” such that the group description can be seen publicly as can the membership list, but no posts and comments can be seen. Even so it was a daily task to eliminate attackers and it still is, so much so that I have had to find other ways to use social media for education, sharing of news and information and rational discussion that are even less accessible to those who aren’t aware. That has been beneficial in some ways, but it necessarily excludes a lot of women and a few men that I would really like to talk to. So it makes me angry that it’s been necessary to do that and that anger is not going to subside. It will be channelled into action because it simply has to be. Women won’t sit on our anger forever and nothing makes us more angry than attempts to silence us. When we fail to create, sustain and protect spaces where the oppressed can articulate their understanding of their oppression and their ideas and strategies for liberating themselves and others, we fail democratic ideals, we fail any idea of progress and we fail our analyses of sex, gender, class and race. These failures are bad signs indeed but not unusual in these times. I believe these failures will be answered.
To those who are struggling for the acceptance of particular ideas about trans people, personal attack might be effective in closing down and shutting out some people, but that’s not what will happen to me and it’s not what will happen to the feminists I run with. You are forcing us underground in terms of the places we can meet and speak without fear of threat, harassment, reprisal and bullying. But you are also making us stronger because we believe in our struggle. I’m not enjoying being forced underground. But hundreds and thousands of women have lived and worked and struggled and resisted away from the public eye for hundreds of years so I will take up that task as an honour and a privilege. We will find our ways to be heard and to continue to work for the liberation of all women, of every race and class, everywhere. I worry about pressure cookers though: they have this nasty habit of exploding. I’m getting tired of working so hard to prevent explosions when some people (here) are interested only in causing them. I hope I’m up to the task of continuing to do that. But I honestly don’t know if anyone really is.
*PAR-L means Policy Action Research Listserv and it has always been focussed on women’s issues. Men are members of the group. This is a message I sent to the list this morning.