Friday, April 11, 2008

If your friend is on fire, I'd avoid pouring more fuel on the flame...

Holly and Amp and about a million other people, I'm sure, have posts up about the most recent... conversation? taking place in the feminist blogosphere.

I hesitate to call it a conversation for the most part, because a conversation is, by definition, an exchange of ideas, but there's not really that much exchange happening, because lines have been drawn and sides have been taken, and that never really goes well for anyone.

I'm not going over the details of this particular incident- Holly's post is a good place to start- it's filled with links to a lot of the blogs that'll do a much better job than I could hope to of explaining exactly what happened and why people are upset. What I'm interested in talking about is building bridges. Specifically, how we go about it.

These sorts of events, and it's becoming increasingly obvious to me that they're a pretty regular thing at this point, make it clear that we have a need for building bridges. There's a lot of a anger, and there's a lot of criticism, but, unfortunately, a lot of it gets dismissed or ignored. And I can understand how that happens. I think that most of us feel really invested in the work we're doing or trying to do.

The things we write, the networks we build, the comics we draw, the conferences we organize, the music we make... it's important to us, and we're pouring our hearts and souls and blood and tears and anger and joy and excitement into it all the time. And, no, we don't all come from the same place and the stakes aren't the same for all of us- some of us, and I'll readily admit that this includes me, are coming at it from a more detached place. I'm not a woman, and I'm not sure that I can ever realy understand the lived experiences of a woman. That will always taint my understanding and color my perception. For others, their work is their lived experiences. Their work is vital because it's about surivival. I can walk away... not everyone can.

But, even recognizing that, I think it's clear that for most of us, it's personal. I don't mean that in a bad way or in a divisive or dismissive way- it's the truth though. Our words and our work are very personal, and our passion for what we're saying is high. And now, there's history, too. And so, when people start arguing and when the air gets thick and hot and tempers flare and people are responding in anger... it is personal.

Maybe it shouldn't be, and maybe these kinds of conversations would be a lot easier or more productive if we could be clinically detached, but I just don't see how that can happen. I imagine if I read a post that I thought had appropriated someone I care about's work, I'd be pissed. And if the person doing the stealing was associated with a group that I felt had a history of appropriation, or that I had a personal problem with, I suspect that my anger would be... significant. And if the appropriation was pointed out, and the person in question, rather than saying "oh, damn, you're right, and I should have linked to some of the people working on this" and providing links, acted defensive and hostile? Well, I'd probably be fuming, to say the least.

At the same time, if I saw dozens of posts accusing me of stealing other people's works, and talking about how selfish, or stupid, or arrogant or whatever I was, I'd be angry and hurt. And, no, I doubt I'd react with cold detachment to the allegations. I can't fault someone who feels attacked for being defensive or upset about serious allegations. Because I am a human being, and I know that there are times when I simply don't act rationally or when I'm unable to see the bigger picture because my feelings are hurt, and I think that's normal, if not particularly helpful to larger issue discussions.

And maybe this is just my perspective as a feminist guy, but, it's sometimes very hard not to take some issues personally. When we're talking about sexism and misogyny and patriarchical systems and privilege, and someone is talking about what "men" do... yes, it's difficult sometimes not to take that personally. When people say "we need to educate men about rape" I sometimes feel like "Wait, what? But... I'm a man, and I got it." And, yeah, sometimes conversations about race end up feeling the same way. I'm not about to deny that- I admit and own that the feelings are my own, and that it's my responsibility not to let that feeling dominate the discourse.

But, that's the personal level. There is, as both Amp and Holly point out, a much bigger issue that's not personal. There's the bigger issue of how women of color are treated by largely white feminist circles. There's a bigger conversation about appropriation and about how well or poorly we address the intersectionality of race/gender/sex.

And I think that's where the people- like me- who actually aren't directly involved in a particular argument, come in. As I'm looking over the conversation at Feministe, I notice that there are a lot of people making it clear that they're taking sides, which, I think, is a natural reaction. If someone I have personal attachments to looks like sie is being attacked, my first reaction is to want to jump to that person's defense or point out the ways that the attacks are unfair/baseless/whatever.

But, the reality is this: It's not helpful.

There's a really interesting comment by Pinko Punko over at Feministe that I'm still rereading and thinking about:

It is clear that many people want to deal with big picture stuff because they are personally detached from the specific situation, no matter how personally invested they are in the larger framework.

It also seems pretty undeniable that there are personality conflicts that taint motives. Note that motive and argument are not the same. Beyond this, as usual, in blog comments it is always a 5 million way argument and many things get conflated. So you have 100 people on each side arguing that the other side is conflating their arguments with things they haven’t personally said. I;m sure we could spend weeks parsing everything that came before this thread and identify the asymmetry in every persons understanding of where we are now.

Given what has been said, I have to say that I find it ridiculous in practice to level serious allegations against someone and expect them to deal with it like an emotionless robot. Holly has illuminated an alternate way of lighting an analogous situation that seems fruitful, the only problem being the situation isn’t really analogous because it just didn’t go down that way for Amanda.

This thread is full of intelligent people but how intelligent are we if we are demanding that right his second Amanda needs to act totally rationally in some predetermined way when it is obvious, at least to me, that there is no way I could be acting in an emotionless fashion under these circumstances, and I don’t really expect than many others would either. I do not think she is overstating what has been said about her, even if not everyone is saying it, that just doesn’t matter, because many people have.

Additionally, if one is already friends or enemies with AM, how are we to judge either their partisan defense of her, as we’d all love our friends to defend us when attacked and the alternate side, the people that she rubs the wrong way, for any number of reasons, reasons that predate the latest business. They all have arguments to make. They ll have motives that can be questioned, separately from their arguments.

The last batch of people just wants to survey the field and talk about the other stuff, the bigger stuff, the stuff touching AM and BFP but much bigger than that. This is commendable, but how reasonable is it to act like right this second these are the issues we’d like to demand AM deal with, and if she doesn’t right this second we’re gonna find her responses “telling.” I just don’t think it is reasonable, though it may be rational.

I’ve spent the last few days reading up on stuff to understand as much as I can just about the personalities involved and the baggage people have with one another because this seems to be the dominant forced in this specific debate.

Everybody wants a piece right now, and they want an answer to many legitimate questions, questions about the bigger picture, questions about how ideas are related to, how they are trafficked, how blogs work as blogs (whether they are like shorthands for conversations between people, but they are also like legitimate publishing) and what does that even mean? It just seems unfathomable that anyone could expect AM to be able to give a satisfactory response just right this second. Not in you know, a couple of days, or maybe a week, or maybe one on one.

I’ve suggested the ol’ back door policy before, and have been called a concern troll on this very blog. I can see that argument, but I can see a different, more pragmatic argument based on just what do you want your comments to accomplish and just what do you really think they’ll accomplish?

I’m all for disagreements in public. I think this would be great. It is not gonna work in all cases, and everyone here that thinks that this thread is a great way to get the calm, emotionally divested response from AM has just not been reading the internets the last few days.

I agree with a lot of that, but I think that one of the things that can happen, is that those of us without a direct and personal stake in the argument can talk about the big issue. I don't expect either BFP or AM to be in a place where they can remove themselves from the personal attachments- maybe they can, and if they are able to, that's great, but I don't think it's unreasonable to think that it's hitting a little close to home right now. But, there's no reason why the rest of us can't try to address the bigger issue, I think.

In fact, at some point, we have to.

And it's not like I have a magic solution that will build bridges and make us one big happy feminist family. Hell, I have my doubts and reservations that we'll ever be some kind of utopian feminist collective. Ignoring that there's a lot of bad blood between some people and groups, there's the simple reality that, for example, I will never find myself a perfect happy ally with feminists who think it's okay to accuse transpeople of being mentally ill or for whom advocating and working for the rights of sex-workers is anathema to the feminist cause. But, I do think that we can be a lot better than we are. And, honestly, as many WOC bloggers have repeatedly said, it's not that hard..

Example: When I posted about Seal the other day, I linked to BA's blog. But, I remembered that, in other threads, I was pretty sure that I'd read BA mention that there were times when she didn't want to be linked. My solution?

I e-mailed her and said "Hey, I'm writing about this, and I mention your blog, is it cool if I link." It took all of forty seconds. And you know what? She e-mailed me back and said go for it.

I just noticed that Sheelzebub, in the comments at Feministe, has a really great comment that has advice that I was going to mention:

Amanda, if it wasn’t intentional, fine. Whatever. But much of the reason why you run into so much rancor from people is the way you react when your posts or actions are criticized by your allies. I remember the “joy-killing” line over criticism of the cover of your book. Now you, Lindsey, and Hugo seem to think that this whole thing is feuled by jealousy, that BFP, Sylvia, Donna, and BA aren’t acting in good faith, and that they’re somehow out to get you.

I said it at Hugo’s place (in a far pissier post) and I’ll say it here: If you just explained where you got your ideas from AND THEN added links to BFP, a blogger whom you’ve read for at least two years, this whole thing would have died down. Even something along the lines of, “BFP spoke about this at WAM, you can read the text of the speech here, you should check it out.” But instead, there are accusations and rhetoric that are reminiscent of Kos’s “sanctimonious women’s studies set” bullshit.

They aren’t calling you out on this because you’re the big blogger with a book deal. BFP wasn’t some random blogger whom you’d never heard of; she’s written plenty about immigration in the past two years you’ve been reading her. And the thing is, I’ll bet the mortgage that I’ve done the same thing you’ve done. I get that you feel defensive. I DO TOO when I’m called on my shit. But it’s not as if we don’t know who these folks are–they don’t do this shit for sport, and it would be really nice if we could all consider what they’re saying, and what they’ve been going through, instead of invoking Stalin or some such crap. IOW, BFP, Donna, BA, Sylvia. . .they’re all acting in good faith.

As for Belledame–look, I get that you two don’t like each other. Certainly, there are people who have criticized you whom I don’t particularly like or trust. But that’s beside the point. It doesn’t negate what WOC bloggers are saying. If I was calling out, say, Kos on something as part of a much larger issue, another blogger posted in support of me, and Kos accused that blogger of sucking me into a personal vendetta, you bet your ass that would piss me off no end. Same goes for right-wing baiting–Christ on a cracker, I get enough of that shit from misogynist “progressives” who think that not worshipping at the altar of the sexual status quo means that I love me some Phyllis Schafly. This isn’t a tactic of the right wing–have BFP or BA encouraged people to send you rape threats? Are they putting pressure on Seal Press to pull your book? NO. They aren’t interested in hurting your career. From where I stand, they’re beyond frustrated with the response they get from White feminists like you, LIKE ME, like Lindsey, when they voice their concerns.

It would really, really help things a LOT if people would consider what WOC bloggers are saying. And if you don’t want to, or cannot, for the love of all things holy and profane, stop throwing gasoline on the fire.

Like Sheelzebub, I know that I've thrown fuel on the fire before. I'm sure I'll do it again. When it happens, I hope that I'll have the good sense to step back and rethink what I'm doing and get back on the right track. Because, here's the thing: Even if some of the people in these discussions are acting in bad faith... even if there were some personal vendettas coloring how people look at the issue... even if there were people acting out of jealousy or out of personal bias or out of whatever... how, exactly, does throwing fuel on the fire help?

Holly is absolutely right, if you've got a megaphone, if you've got a big audience, if you've hit the maintstream and you're getting out a message that a more marginalized group of people have been working on for a long time, you've got some obligation to point in their direction. Whether a particular article was inspired by that community or by something else, it's just the right thing to do. One of the major benefits of blogging and the internet is the ability to create networks and to link to the things that you've read and been inspired by.

It costs nothing to say "Damn, you're right" and link to people who've made it a point to work on a particular issue, and, in fact, helps get those marginalized voices heard and get their work more attention and respect. Likewise, to the people who think that they're helping AM by jumping to her defense or by dismissing or deriding the people who've raised concerns: it's not actually helping. It's reinforcing what has become a really nasty problem. It's thowing fuel on a fire.

There's a reason why I've been trying to take time to think about these kinds of blow-ups when they're happening, rather than jumping right in and wading into the fray. Because, even if my first instinct is to jump in and back up the people I like, that's rarely the best tactic.

Like I said, I can completely understand where AM and BFP might have strong feelings about what's happening, and I'm not in a position where I feel comfortable condemning or lambasting them for taking the events personally, but for the rest of us? If we're acting from a place of jumping to the aid of our friend and we're dismissing or ignoring the Big Picture aspect in favor of the personal?

We're becoming part of the Big Picture Problem.


Hugo Schwyzer said...

I accept, Roy, that I jumped on the words "stealing" and "plagiarism" (which BFP never used, but her allies did) and demanded a retraction. At the time I started posting, I saw Amanda taking a beating, with no one asking those making these accusations to show their evidence.

But the goalposts have moved, and as we slowly get away from the discussion about Amanda's alleged appropriation to the larger story of how white writers take, without credit, from WOC, we get closer to the point of having productive discussion.

I know Amanda. I've met Amanda. I like Amanda. But I've also met some of the folks on the "other side." I think that those who accused Lindsay and me of coming to Amanda's defense based on affection alone were mistaken; I can't speak for Lindsay, but in my case I looked at the evidence and saw an outrageous, borderline slanderous charge being levelled against a woman who has given so much to the entire blogosphere. I saw an outpouring of scorn that was hate-filled. And I was angry, not for my friend Amanda, but for a fellow human being whom I felt was being unjustly maligned. It's not about friendship or whiteness, though i realize that most folks will have a hard time believing that.

In any event, Roy, a good attempt at starting the move towards healing. And we can all sign on to Melissa McEwan's statement today at Shakes.

jeff said...

I'm coming in a bit late here, but I wanted to thank you for a complex discussion of the ideas here, Roy.

I also wanted to note that our reactions need not be monolithic (and often aren't monolithic). That is, Amanda may have reacted defensively and all that, and, at the same time, copped to screwing up big time. I think such a mixed reaction is possible (if not the 'best' reaction we might hope for.) For instance, she might have said, sincerely(?), "I fucked up. I have been fucking up in this regard. Here's what I'm going to do to fix it...and now I'd like to also address how this feels like a personal attack as well as a calling out of legitimate concerns.

Sure, she may have been called on wishy-washiness for such a response, as if she were trying to have it both ways, but it would have been a much better response than the one we got...

(Not that I think that you explaining how hard it must be for her absolves her in any way, btw.)