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12:29 pm
Thu February 6, 2014

Mean Girls Online: Can We Draw A Line In Social Media?

Originally published on Thu March 20, 2014 8:57 am

Last week, an article about online feminist activism set off a heated debate. The Nation's Michelle Goldberg examined criticism aimed at feminists by other feminists. "Is it good for the movement? And whose movement is it?" Goldberg asked.

She wrote:

"Yet even as online feminism has proved itself a real force for change, many of the most avid digital feminists will tell you that it's become toxic. Indeed, there's a nascent genre of essays by people who feel emotionally savaged by their involvement in it — not because of sexist trolls, but because of the slashing righteousness of other feminists."

Michel Martin of NPR's Tell Me More hosted a conversation with Goldberg and some of the writers involved in the debate: Mikki Kendall, a writer and media critic with HoodFeminism.com; Anna Holmes, founder of Jezebel.com; and Brittney Cooper, a professor at Rutgers University and co-founder of the Crunk Feminist Collective.

Below are some highlights from the interview; click on "Transcript" above for the full text or listen to the conversation.


Interview Highlights

On what compelled Michelle Goldberg to write the piece

Michelle Goldberg: I think it's something that I had heard people talking about privately for a long, long time and nobody wanted to talk about publicly. But I constantly was hearing feminists — including feminists who've been involved in online activism for a long time — saying that there was nowhere that they felt more intimidated, more afraid to speak, than online. And at first, I thought, you know, if this is just a problem of kind of white middle-class women, maybe it's not even worth writing about.

Maybe it really is just about people feeling threatened that their place in the hierarchy is being challenged. But as I started to hear about it also from women of color — there's a woman I cite in my piece who's a trans Puerto Rican woman activist who has written widely about the hatred that she receives from ... various racists and misogynists but [who] wrote that she actually feels in a lot of ways most threatened and most intimidated by people in her own community who she knows are going to come down on her if she steps over one of these invisible ideological tripwires. ... And so that's what convinced me that it was something worth delving into.

On the line between examining ongoing privilege and bullying

Michelle Goldberg: To be honest, I don't know that I can — I don't know that I or anyone else can really draw that line. I do think that, you know, when you kind of — when people tweet explicitly, you know, let's make this person cry, that is, I would think, crossing the line. And I also think there's a kind of consistent twisting of people's words and people's intentions. One of the examples I give in the piece is when the actress Martha Plimpton was organizing or tweeting about a fundraiser that had the title "vaginas" in the name. It was a fundraiser for a group of abortion funds. And people really came down on her for using the word vagina and saying that this excludes trans men who may have vaginas and need abortions but don't want their genitals referred to by female words.

It was this sort of very rigid and sort of recondite form of political correctness that is very difficult not to step into because I think a lot of people don't know where the rules are. But people automatically assumed, not just that she had defended them, but that she was this terrible transphobe, that she was somebody who could no longer be taken seriously as an ally. That's the sort of thing that I'm talking about.

On whether Mikki Kendall considers herself a bully

Mikki Kendall: I think that I am someone whose anger can be intimidating. Do I think that I can be someone's bully in their mind? Yes. I can't control how people feel about what I have to say. Do I think that it is as cut and dry as, well, I don't like the way you speak to me? Everyone's coming into this big umbrella from different cultural contexts. Do I think from the standards of my community that I'm a bully? No. But I'm not doxing anyone. I'm not calling up trans women's employers. I'm not leaving comments to undermine their businesses, calling their doctors to interfere with their health care. And these are things that are actually happening to people. I am not saying in large articles and national syndicated columns that, oh, well, we're going to talk about toxic culture, but we're not going to talk about all aspects of that culture. ... And we're certainly not going to talk about how people who are feminists and in power can upset, anger and bully someone, and then say, well, I am a victim, when the people they have said something to respond.

Michel Martin: Well, you know, people can be both.

Kendall: People don't have to like everything...

Martin: People can be both.

Kendall: Yeah.

On whether bullies and victims are sometimes the same

Brittney Cooper: I'm in this as a person who is very concerned about the way that we're having this conversation online. So I want to be clear that, as I said in the piece, I think that there has been real injury on the part of white feminists, particularly dealing with black feminists online. But I am also a person that cares about what kind of world we're building, and that means that there have to be some ethics of engagement and also a sort of concession that we deal with people giving them the benefit of the doubt. And that doesn't mean from my vantage point that we have to put up with things that we know are unjust, are racist, are sexist, are problematic. I think we can call them out, but I don't want the history of this moment, particularly in black and women of color feminisms, to be written as a history in which — where black feminists, particularly online feminists of which I'm a part, spent their time doing was primarily calling out white women for racism. I want this to be a moment where we're talking about the kinds of worlds that black women are building online through our progressive social justice activism. ...

On whether Anna Holmes would have started a women's blog today

Anna Holmes: I don't know that I would start a women's blog or a women's blog that focused on feminism, but — and there are a lot of reasons for that. I mean, I think I already did, and I wouldn't want to repeat myself. But I think that the discourse has become, as I said to Michelle, somewhat brittle and myopic and not particularly constructive, at least what I'm seeing on Twitter. And, I mean, listen, that's really the only social media platform that I'm on. I can only handle one at a time, so I'm not really on Facebook. I'm not really on Tumblr, I don't tend to read websites and blogs the way I used to. I tend to come to things from Twitter. So that's where I'm seeing the majority of this sort of behavior play out. And I found it pretty troubling. I mean, I'd say probably for the — probably about a year ago is when I started noticing that there were these call-outs going on.

And I really couldn't wrap my head around what the point of them was because if you want to build bridges between communities, like-minded communities, who have similar or — I won't say the same goals, but have similar goals — I don't see what is productive about an assumption or a starting point where you assume bad faith or equate disagreement with enemy-making. And that's what I've been seeing — again, I'm talking only about Twitter. I cannot speak about other social media platforms. You know, some people might argue that Twitter isn't that important. It isn't as widely used as Facebook. But there are a lot of journalists and activists and commentators and thinkers who are on Twitter, and that's why I have a particular criticism of the way the discourse is going on.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time for the Beauty Shop. That's where we get a fresh look at the week's news with our panel of women writers, journalists and commentators. Now we've talked before on this program about the hate directed at women on the Internet, often very harsh criticism, threats, insults. And when we talk about that, we're usually talking about men.

Today, though, we are focusing on concerns that online debates between and among women, particularly feminists, are sometimes crossing that line into disrespect and hate. Michelle Goldberg, writer for The Nation weighed on that with a recent piece called "Feminism's Toxic Twitter Wars." She takes on what she considers the over-the-top criticism aimed at feminists by other feminists. And she's with us now. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

MICHELLE GOLDBERG: Hi. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Also joining us, Mikki Kendall. She is a writer and media critic with HoodFeminism.com. She's one of the writers Goldberg talked about in the piece. She's been with us before. Mikki, welcome back to you.

MIKKI KENDALL: Glad to be back.

MARTIN: Anna Holmes the founder of Jezebel.com. That's an online website that focuses on women's interests. She's also cited in Goldberg's piece. And she's been with us before. Anna, welcome back to you as well.

ANNA HOLMES: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: And Brittney is - sorry. Is it Brittney Copper (ph)? Copper (ph).

BRITTNEY COOPER: Cooper.

MARTIN: Cooper. Forgive me. Brittney Cooper is with us. She's a professor at Rutgers University and cofounder of the Crunk Feminist Collective. And, Brittney, welcome to you to the program. We've dialogued online, but this is our first time visiting with you on the air. So thank you so much for joining us as well.

COOPER: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So, Michelle Goldberg, in your piece for The Nation, you say that while Twitter and other social media sites have become excellent mediums for feminists, they've also created bullies within this whole Twitter activism realm. Is there something in particular that compelled you to write this piece?

GOLDBERG: I think it's something that I had heard people talking about privately for a long, long time and nobody wanted to talk about publicly. But I constantly was hearing feminists - including feminists who've been involved in online activism for a long time - saying that there was nowhere that they felt more intimidated, more afraid to speak, than online. And at first, I thought, you know, if is this just a problem of kind of white middle-class women, maybe it's not even worth writing about.

Maybe it really is just about people feeling threatened that their place in the hierarchy is being challenged. But as I started to hear about it also from women of color - there's a woman I cite in my piece who's a trans Puerto Rican woman activist who has written widely about the hatred that she receives from, you know, kind of transphobia from various racists and misogynists but wrote that she actually feels in a lot of ways most threatened and most intimidated by people in her own community who she knows are going to come down on her if she steps over one of these invisible ideological tripwires.

MARTIN: And you...

GOLDBERG: And so that's what convinced me that it was something worth delving into.

MARTIN: Now you - but you say, you know - on the one hand, you say that some of the anger in the dialogue is based on race and the idea that white feminists routinely ignore the concern of feminists of color, but - and other people have attested to that. I mean, there was this piece that made the rounds, like, a week ago about a woman - I mean, I know this is going to sound sort of trivial - but this woman who was talking about her yoga class and how there was this white woman in her yoga...

GOLDBERG: Right.

MARTIN: ...Who was writing about the yoga class, and there was an African-American woman who was in the class who was larger-sized and who seemed - was a first-timer to the class. And this woman wrote about how, you know, she was sad because she felt that this woman was resenting her skinny white body, and - never having spoken to the woman and all...

GOLDBERG: Right.

MARTIN: ...And this kind of people - so the question I'd have for you, Michelle, is, you know, where's that line between people who really are focusing on something that is just tiresome and this kind of explication of kind of ongoing privilege and what really crosses the line in your view into bullying and just taking it too far?

GOLDBERG: To be honest, I don't know that I can - I don't know that I or anyone else can really draw that line. I do think that, you know, when you kind of - when people tweet explicitly, you know, let's make this person cry, that is, I would think, crossing the line. And I also think there's a kind of consistent twisting of people's words and people's intentions. One of the examples I give in the piece is when the actress Martha Plimpton was organizing or tweeting about a fundraiser that had the title vaginas in the name. It was a fundraiser for a group of abortion funds. And people really came down on her for using the word vagina and saying that this excludes trans men who may have vaginas and need abortions but don't want their genitals referred to by female words.

It was this sort of very rigid and sort of recondite form of political correctness that is very difficult not to step into because I think a lot of people don't know where the rules are. But people automatically assumed, not just that she had defended them, but that she was this terrible transphobe, that she was somebody who could no longer be taken seriously as an ally. That's the sort of thing that I'm talking about.

MARTIN: Mikki Kendall, where are you on this? Michelle Goldberg specifically cited you as a person who other people sometimes think walks into bullying. And you've also talked on our program about the way in which you have been attacked. I mean, you've been - I mean, I don't want to go into sort of all the details - but that you actually had to take some measures for your personal safety because of the way you've been personally attacked online. So where are you in this?

KENDALL: So I'm the one who said I hope someone cries because as a black single mother reading a piece that frames another black single mother's choices for her child is somehow inherently abusive and poor, in the midst of a firestorm of criticism around Gabby Douglas's family and their parenting, I found it upsetting. I feel like if we can say things that are harmful to people, we can then deal with the fact that people are angry. I think that with Martha Plimpton, when you say that you are speaking for all of these women in reproductive health and reproductive justice, then you need to be aware that it's not just women that get pregnant. You need to be aware that vaginas don't get pregnant. Uteruses can contain a baby, but you don't have to have a vagina in order to be pregnant. So...

MARTIN: Do you think you're a bully?

KENDALL: So...

MARTIN: Mikki, do you think you're a bully?

KENDALL: I think that I am someone whose anger can be intimidating. Do I think that I can be someone's bully in their mind? Yes. I can't control how people feel about what I have to say. Do I think that it is as cut and dry as, well, I don't like the way you speak to me? Everyone's coming into this big umbrella from different cultural contexts. Do I think from the standards of my community that I'm a bully? No. But I'm not doxing anyone. I'm not calling up trans women's employers. I'm not leaving comments to undermine their businesses, calling their doctors to interfere with their health care. And these are things that are actually happening to people. I am not saying in large articles and national syndicated columns that, oh, well, we're going to talk about toxic culture, but we're not going to talk about all aspects of that culture.

MARTIN: OK.

KENDALL: And we're certainly not going to talk about how people who are feminists and in power can upset anger and bully someone, and then say, well, I am a victim, when the people they have said something to respond.

MARTIN: Well, you know, people can be both.

KENDALL: People don't have to like everything...

MARTIN: People can be both.

KENDALL: Yeah.

MARTIN: You know, as that great philosopher Lady Gaga said, you know, the bully and the victim are sometimes the same, right? But, Brittney Cooper, where are you in this?

COOPER: I'm in this as a person who is very concerned about the way that we're having this conversation online. So I want to be clear that, as I said in the piece, I think that there has been real injury on the part of white feminists, particularly dealing with black feminists online. But I am also a person that cares about what kind of world we're building, and that means that there have to be some ethics of engagement and also a sort of concession that we deal with people giving them the benefit of the doubt. And that doesn't mean from my vantage point that we have to put up with things that we know are unjust, are racist, are sexist, are problematic. I think we can call them out, but I don't want the history of this moment, particularly in black and women of color feminisms, to be written as a history in which - where black feminists, particularly online feminists of which I'm a part, spent their time doing was primarily calling out white women for racism. I want this to be a moment where we're talking about the kinds of worlds that black women are building online through our progressive social justice activism.

And right now it's much easier to look at and focus on the kind of angry uprisings or angry skirmishes that happen online rather than the kind of work that folks are putting out into the world to change conditions in their communities. And to me, that's misguided and misdirected. And, frankly, I've also been the victim of some of these kind of very self-righteous women of color feminists online because I have chosen, in some strategic moments, to work with white feminists about projects that I think we have common cause with. And I am not here for folks pulling people's radical street cred cards in the name of black feminism. I don't think that's what the tradition is about. And when folks do that, then I feel like, you know, we have to step back and say, what is our end goal? Is it to call folks out, or is it to build a particular kind of world?

MARTIN: Brittney, do you feel - forgive me - Professor Cooper, do you feel that it's - too often becomes - it devolves - it's - too often these days it's devolving into kind of these, like, finely slicing the onion, to people's - kind of make it - to purity? You know, you've got to be pure on this or that, and you feel that the bigger issues are getting lost? Or do you feel - you know what I'm saying? I mean, is it - would you have written this piece? I mean...

COOPER: I would not have framed it in quite the same ways, you know. And I've shared that with Michelle, that I think that it's sympathetic to white feminists who I think have, you know - have not always dealt with black women in ways that are on the up-and-up, that are OK, and I want to be clear about that. But I was one of the women of color who was saying, I don't like the way that I'm being engaged online. There is a lot of assumptions about who I am, what my investments are in this kind of work. And part of that is about the limitations of talking to people online because it's often not matched by a set of conversations off-line, where we know each other in person and can sort of acknowledge that people are human beings.

MARTIN: Sure.

COOPER: But, yeah, I do think that these calls for ideological purity do not help feminist movement-building. And at the Crunk Feminist Collective, we are more interested in doing accessible kinds of work, particularly for folks who might not have the language right, but who are interested in doing work around justice. And I think we have to keep that at the fore of our organization.

MARTIN: Let's hear from Anna Holmes. And if you're just joining us, we're having our weekly Beauty Shop conversation. We're talking about the so-called toxic Twitter wars among feminists. Our guests are writers Anna Holmes, Brittney Cooper, Mikki Kendall and Michelle Goldberg. Anna Holmes, you founded Jezebel.com back in 2007 during the early days of Twitter. And you were saying you would not start a blog like this today.

HOLMES: I don't know that I would start a women's blog or a women's blog that focused on feminism, but - and there are a lot of reasons for that. I mean, I think I already did, and I wouldn't want to repeat myself. But I think that the discourse has become, as I said to Michelle, somewhat brittle and myopic and not particularly constructive, at least what I'm seeing on Twitter. And, I mean, listen, that's really the only social media platform that I'm on. I can only handle one at a time, so I'm not really on Facebook. I'm not really on Tumblr, I don't tend to read websites and blogs the way I used to. I tend to come to things from Twitter. So that's where I'm seeing the majority of this sort of behavior play out. And I found it pretty troubling. I mean, I'd say probably for the - probably about a year ago is when I started noticing that there were these callouts going on.

And I really couldn't wrap my head around what the point of them was because if you want to build bridges between communities, like-minded communities, who have similar or - I won't say the same goals, but have similar goals - I don't see what is productive about an assumption or a starting point where you assume bad faith or equate disagreement with enemy-making. And that's what I've been seeing - again, I'm talking only about Twitter. I cannot speak about other social media platforms. You know, some people might argue that Twitter isn't that important. It isn't as widely used as Facebook. But there are a lot of journalists and activists and commentators and thinkers who are on Twitter, and that's why I have a particular criticism of the way the discourse is going on.

MARTIN: And, you know, I have to apologize for that because we only have about four minutes left. And this is obviously a rich discussion, and you're all big thinkers. And you've thought a lot about it and stuff. And so I apologize we're not going to be able to get into the level of depth that I think we would all like. But, Mikki, I do have to go back to you on this one because I think the argument here is that, you know, unfortunately that - how can I put this - that there's a feeling that there's some people who either, like, enjoy being very cutting or that they're kind of replicating the same kind of aggressiveness that some people associate with - that a lot of people kind of associate with the Internet world at large. I mean, I don't want to be, you know, reductionist and say kind of white men, but just for the sake of, you know, being reductionist...

KENDALL: I think...

MARTIN: ...You know, the white male power structure, right? I mean, that people will say, look, gee, you're just replicating kind of the white male power structure, which basically puts people down if they don't agree with them and make them feel stupid and, you know, so forth and so forth like that. So, Mikki.

KENDALL: I think that when we talk about this and we frame it as being just about Twitter, I understand that some people don't use other social media, some people have been - I've been online since 2003. And I've seen these same things happen on blogs and other message boards, on Tumblr, a lot of places. And the reality is that all that's really happening is that, you know, you can't mute as easily criticism. But if you go back to the blogs, if you go to Tumblr, if you go anywhere, you will see people making the same complaints, having the same issues and feeling like they are excluded from a movement that claims to represent them.

And I think that at some point we cannot keep saying we will deal with this later. Also, to be honest, there's a weird tendency to focus on the negative. I did fast-tailed girls. I talk food gentrification, all of these things. We don't look at what these feminists who say, hey, that's not OK you're doing. Right? The Save Wiyabi Project happens, but you won't necessarily see anything about what Save Wiyabi does. You only see that they've criticized Eve Ensler for the harm that she is doing to their community. It's not just about criticizing white or corporate feminism - let's say corporate feminism.

MARTIN: OK.

KENDALL: It's also about the fact that there are movements that are happening that are being eclipsed by the mainstream focus on corporate feminist projects that harm the communities they claim to represent.

MARTIN: Well, I would just say that I think we've talked to you a lot about those projects, and I appreciate that.

KENDALL: Oh, I'm not saying you in particular.

MARTIN: Well - well...

KENDALL: I'm just saying as a general focus.

MARTIN: Yeah. Just in the spirit of kind of full disclosure, I just feel like we've talked a lot about those projects on this program. So, Michelle Goldberg, we haven't heard from you in a while. Where do you want this discussion to go from here?

GOLDBERG: You know, it's difficult for me to say because I'm both inside and outside these communities. I mean, I've kind of come to it as a journalist who's trying to get a handle on what's going on as opposed to, in many cases, a participant. I think that, to some extent, this is a problem. There are overlapping problems. There's a long-standing problem within feminism - or are a number of long-standing problems within feminism both of excluding and marginalizing women of color and their concerns, and at the same time, of devolving into factionalism and ex-communications and kind of bitter denunciations.

And it's exacerbated by the tendency of Twitter, in particular, to be kind of a machine for producing rage, not specifically about feminism, right? There's a lot of research about the way that anger as opposed to other emotions spreads like wildfire around Twitter. And so I think we have this confluence of factors that makes an already difficult political discussion even more difficult. As far as I'm concerned, the most productive way out is for people to deal with each other in person and on tangible political issues as opposed to these kind of bitter fights over language.

Although, at the same time, there's been some bitter fights over people meeting in person and people who don't necessarily live in their area or have access to those meetings feeling excluded. I'm not sure that there's ever going to be a solution in which everybody feels included. And I'm not sure that's necessarily the goal.

MARTIN: Well, I think we just scratched the surface. But I thank you all for that. Michelle, that has to be the last word. And I recognize that some people will find that problematic in itself. So I understand and appreciate that. But thank you all for participating. Michelle Goldberg's a senior contributing writer for The Nation. Mikki Kendall is a writer and media critic with HoodFeminism.com, with us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Brittney Cooper is the cofounder of the Crunk Feminist Collective, a professor at Rutgers University, with us from the studios at her campus. Anna Holmes is the founder of Jezebel.com. Anna Holmes was with us from New York as well as Michelle Goldberg. Thank you all so much, and we appreciate it.

KENDALL: Thank you.

GOLDBERG: Thank you.

COOPER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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