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  1. On Twitter Toxicity And White Feminists

    January 30, 2014 by Miss Lemonade

    When I was a feckless youth in college, I had a job briefly for a group that billed itself as a public advocacy group. In less fancy-talk, it mean that they were a grassroots lobbying group. Our job as peons was to go door-to-door knocking and asking people for donations to help us in our fight cleaning up the Superfund sites across NY. Superfund sites are places that the government have earmarked as places of high amounts of toxic waste and waste dumping that need to get cleaned up because they are imminently damaging the lives of people who live near them. It struck me very early on that most of the people donating were doing so under the impression that we were working with the EPA to actually physically clean up these sites, but the truth of the matter was that we were soliciting the money so that the group could continue to go lobby in our state capital.

    This is a much harder thing to deal with when you are talking to a mother whose child has a birth defect because they live near one. I felt disgusting and disingenuous. I quit that job very soon after.

    I mention this because I see a rise in articles, seemingly from all pretty well-connected white women at mainstream feminist blogs decrying how toxic Twitter is, and by extension, the feminists that are on there. Feminism, from their perspective, is seemingly being torn apart by women fighting each other with Mean Girl-style tactics and being vicious, so much so that people are feeling shouted over or scared. The only problem is that these articles still only seem to be pointing at groups most often affected by how toxic Twitter can be, that is to say women of color, trans women and and throwing them under a bus for being “too angry” and not actually addressing the moments when Twitter can truly be a toxic place.

    The point I tried to make (and failed pretty spectacularly at) yesterday was that when it comes to having the discussions about Twitter being a hazardous place for feminists, the people running that discussion have been, and should be, women who are disproportionately affected by the fights and harassment that seem to crop up whenever they dare to talk about anything. Most of the time when a well-connected white feminist steps up to her microphone to write a pitched piece, it glosses over those narratives and simply skips to going on about “those angry people” who consistently get over fights about “unimportant things” like “cis” or “race relations.”  Very often, it seems like the authors of the pieces are frequently coming off a bout of being criticized themselves for marginalizing other feminists.

    So in this way, the problem consistently seems that the people most often making Twitter (and other forms of social media) places of hazardous, neglectful discourse are the same people who feel like they are most affected, and in turn, should be the ones to drive the discussion and look to save feminism from it’s nasty clutches. But are they really going to save anything? At most, it feels like they want to collect the attention, care and most notably, monetary rewards from being an outspoken advocate against it but not really reflect on how the mess got there in the first place or their role in not helping clean it up. It is a dishonest thing to shit up a place you don’t necessarily need to espouse your opinions and tell everyone who relies on it for activism, group consciousness-raising, and networking (or fun things like having friends) to leave because it’s disgusting.

    I do believe we need to have this conversation about Twitter fighting but one only needs to look so far to people like Flavia Dzodan (@redlightvoices), Mikki Kendall (@karnythia), or Sydette Harry (@blackamazon) to see that this has been going on a long time already. (It is almost as if following many different women on Twitter has been influential to forming opinions on how social media is used! Shock!) When I say “we” I do mean other white feminists. Because our complicity in this is often times more the reason social media is so aggressive and toxic, why the responses are vitriolic and why fighting happens so frequently – we say shitty, oppressive things while being feminists and refuse to listen to criticism about it and label the participants as unjustifiably angry. While I do believe that there are moments on social media when things can get “too heated” or nasty, I’ve had the privilege to only have those moments with other white feminists. Being criticized while online does not fall under “nasty” for me, especially if I say something terrible from my position of being a white lady.

    So when I remarked kinda off-the-cuff about “not being scared of other feminists”, it was my attempt to reflect on that idea. I recognize that too often people feel like they can’t truly dissent or express their opinion within feminism for fear of reprisal. But I feel like someone like me stands a far better chance of getting away with saying literally anything and getting away with it just because of my position in the community. The distance between myself and someone like Michelle Goldberg could easily be a one-way ticket back to Brooklyn and a couple of book deals. I’d be a terrible mouthpiece for why Twitter is so toxic within feminism, and why it’s problematic on a structural level to have only white feminists being the ones to have neglectful and downright dog-whistle-y conversations about what the “real dangers” of social media are within the feminist community. Even in writing this article, I am taking a big leap of authority to tell other white feminists who might want to sign on wholesale with the notions of Twitter toxicity and not look often at what is being said and who the fingers are being pointed at rather than letting people better suited for this discussion to really lead the charge (as they have been doing for some time.)

    Like I said before, it is dishonest to talk about the mess when you had a hand in it, and it’s unfair to work from a place where you can neglect an outlet so many of us use as feminist networking and socializing to tell us how terrible it is. Wanting to solicit support from the people who have been left holding the bag of our mistakes while simultaneously blaming them for the failures of feminism on social media is not only disingenuous but outright supremacist in its approach. We need to reflect on how this toxicity came about, recognizing that anger and criticism for our neglect and shitty behavior is warranted and working the hardest on making social media better for everyone.

    Follow-up: Suey Park knocks it out of the park with this takedown of “toxicity” from white feminists but also in support of Twitter feminism.

     

     


  2. Press Button, Receive Pain: Twitter Implementing Report Abuse Feature

    July 29, 2013 by Miss Lemonade

    If anyone hasn’t been following the story lately, Jane Austen recently was announced as going to go onto the 10 pound note in the UK. What does this have to do with Twitter? Apparently a lot of people were mad at the woman who petitioned it, Caroline Criado-Perez and flooded Twitter to send her rape threats.  Seems like a normal day in the life for a feminist with a social  media presence but due to the news profile that getting a woman on money got, the wave of threats and general shitbaggery was quite a lot more voluminous.

    So much in fact that Criado-Perez turned around and petitioned Twitter to implement a Report Abuse feature. Now, several days later, Twitter has already responded that they will be implementing it.  Seems like a good thing right? Well the problem is that many people over the weekend raised their legitimate concerns with why adding a Report Abuse feature to Twitter won’t really make the problem of threats or abuse go away, and might even hurt those it is supposed to protect.

    The problem is that Twitter, for being a free service (Caitlin Moran, shut the fuck up), doesn’t do much to aid those who use the service when it comes to potential violations of not only their Terms of Service but actual statues regarding internet harassment. Their website does have ways to report abuse right now, but nothing terribly convenient and many people, including even high-profile Twitter feminists like Feminist Frequency are given boilerplate answers that rape threats do not constitute “abuse.” It seems like Twitter has a support staff for these things but largely has a laissez-faire “everything is covered by free speech, we don’t step into disputes” attitude, even when someone is legitimately the subject of a one-sided hate campaign.

    How do I know this? Well, like so many other people on Twitter who were protesting the efficacy of this feature, I was a victim of Twitter saying one thing and doing nothing. Over the course of four years, I had a stalker who was dedicated in making most of my waking hours a torturous hell. Once he found out that I had a Twitter account, a prolonged daily attack of hundreds of Twitter accounts tweeting at me was my life for 2 years. He would Tweet at me innocuous but hurtful things about my appearance, post pictures of me but it soon escalated on most days up to and including threats on my life, that he was going to rape me, and posted my phone number, address (or enough to scare me once I got the cops involved.) He also would like to threaten me with literal genital mutilation, posting pictures and threats about what he was going to do. He’d tweet sexually harassing things as well. There wasn’t anything vile that he didn’t stoop to, including harassing people through me – my friends, especially other women. Twitter on multiple occasions either didn’t respond to me trying to keep up with the dozens of new accounts per day, or gave me the same answer – that it doesn’t violate their policies. It made me think, “What does violate?” Apparently spamming does.

    People have used the “Report Spam” button to either toss a bad person in the trash but also to get rid of  critical Twitter accounts if they have enough support. Anti-Racism Dog has repeatedly gotten the Report Spam treatment despite being a Twitter account that does nothing but tweet at racists on Twitter with barking noises. This is definitely not giving me a good feeling that implementing a Report Abuse feature is going to be used the same way.

    No one is going to be protected when Twitter puts this in on all their various apps or website because Twitter simply doesn’t have the moderation, concern or staff to make sure that anything that is reported is vetted for content. It shows that even when the content passes muster for 90 percent of humanity as abusive, that it doesn’t violate their rules. At best, what a Report Abuse button is going to do is nothing. At worst, abusers and other oppressive people who are upset that someone is justifiably mad at them (very often marginalized populations on Twitter – transfolk, WoC) are going to use it to further silence those people who already can’t fight back. Where are the celeb supporters for them? Petitions? Were they hiding around a corner somewhere while the rest of us were dealing with this?

    Stuff like this needs to come with not just an assurance of being created but actually enacted in a way that requires way more human interaction, time and concern for their users than Twitter has at the moment. Twitter has a responsibility, even as a free service, to do more to protect people from whatever the Internet decides to throw up on them in 140 characters or less. It is one of the juggernauts of the social media world and like Facebook, has really done very little to do this. It makes me exceptionally bitter that people who had been disenfranchised by Twitter and abused repeatedly were not given any audience in this discussion between one high-profile white feminist and Twitter as a corporate entity – well, except on their Twitter accounts of course. It is because Twitter is where all the actual good discussion happens.

    Imagine if all that good discussion starts getting snuffed out because detractors, abusers, and misogynists start abusing the Report Abuse button and Twitter continues the hands-off policy. It will be a sad day for the service indeed but more for the fact that Twitter has routinely been one of the few places online, harassment be damned, to actually interact with people in a way that isn’t moderated by oppressive policies. But in doing so, Twitter has also created a perfect place for abuse to go unabated, and this just seems like  more of the same.

     


  3. “It’s Just a Joke” – Upholding the Status Quo with Comedy

    December 20, 2012 by Miss Lemonade

    Trigger Warnings: Discussion of comedy relating to rape/sexual assault and other gross behavior.

    I’m sure you’ve been here before. Someone tells a crappy joke about something that makes you feel gross. You make the mistake of telling the person how you feel.

    “It’s just a joke, god, stop taking it so seriously.”

    Comedy is one of the oldest and most potent forms of narrative and can be endlessly complex. It’s just as capable at diminishing societal structures as it is upholding them; lately it feels like comedy has done a better job propping them up than not. This topic has circulated quite a few times around individual incidents and the discussion about the incident in particular tends to bar a larger conversation about why this occurs at all, ever. But why do people (particularly men) make these jokes at all?  To me, it is privilege acting in place of reality. Now, granted, comedy happens in many different forms and in many different ways and a lot of what we find funny differs from culture to culture, or what kind of comedy you’ve been exposed to. However, our comedy has been dominated by the same patriarchal norms as everything else, so I feel a lot of what people find funny is entrenched in the same bullshit that’s been around everything else. Hence, shitty comedy and shitty jokes. But what constitutes to “good” and what constitutes “shitty”? Here’s some of my loose guidelines for comedy that have served me pretty well:

    1. Comedy subverts the audience’s expectations.
    2. Satire kicks up, not down.
    3. Don’t make jokes about an intrinsic facet of someone.
    4. Don’t mock awful things that haven’t happened to you.
    5. Know your audience and don’t joke about things that you have no way of knowing about them.
    6. If you make a joke that hurts someone, fucking apologize.

     

    (I can already hear cries of people not understanding how you can be funny adhering to most of those rules, in the distance.)

    Privilege and patriarchy in Western society (which is what I’m addressing) often makes people not follow a great portion of these rules from the outset and keep reinforcing this nonsense. I believe this is because the expectations (and by nature, reality even) comedians or other joke-tellers work to” subvert” are vastly different than the people they are squashing down with their jokes.

    It should stand to reason that a lot the problematic comedy that upholds this latticework of oppressive norms comes from men. Not only is the comedy rife with -ist behavior  but a lot of how men react to being told their jokes are problematic is something that begs to be looked at. I believe so many jokes that tumble out of dude’s mouths are there because we’re still soaked in a culture that reinforces one idea but is incredibly different from a lot of people’s lived experiences. Hence, why some jokes a dude makes (particularly if he’s also white, cisgendered, able, or heterosexual, et al) tend to only be funny to other dudes. They predicate on subverting the expectations of a reality that they’ve inhabited their entire lives, one that that hasn’t been examined, and blinds them to other people’s. They make fun of groups of people they have had power over all their lives, they diminish experiences they’ve never lived in fear of or had happen to them, and they use painful subjects as fodder for punchlines because they’ve never been stung by them.

    How are people even hurt by jokes, I seem to hear a lot. People who tell shitty jokes don’t even realize that they are shitty to someone, mostly going back to this idea that it is a reality that they don’t inhabit. And quite often the defense is that it is merely a joke and meant to be “funny.” The problem with this line of thinking is that jokes can fail. They can fail spectacularly and cause emotional distress for people if you choose to make a joke about something serious. I mean, just like you have eaten shitty versions of your favorite food, a joke is not going to be successful or worthy of a laugh every time you make it. The idea that a joke begs laughter by the virtue of being a joke, or your dazzling comedic taste, is faulty. It goes back to this egotistical idea of men being centered in this idea that everything they say, including jokes, is valuable. When they are criticized, rightfully so, they double down and refuse to acknowledge other’s feelings or that it failed. To do so would mean thinking about what their words mean, or that they somehow weren’t right about this reality they are fixated on.

    This kind of egoism and defensiveness over criticism seems to occur a lot when I see call-outs happen from people who were hurt or upset by comedy. It is this conflict again between the reality that makes these jokes seem reasonable and people who are actually hurt by these topics in real life. Men who grab for rape as a punchline get salty because they want the freedom to really make that edgy joke, to really go THAT far to prove a point or elicit a joke, regardless of who is hurt by it. Jokes are more important than someone’s feelings. Especially in the case of where these men make money off doing jokes like this, whether it is a stand-up, or a webcomic, they feel that their job and cash flow is at stake if they can’t make any joke or content that they want. It is the terror that lurks in the dark for them – the idea that their freedom and livelihood is going to be gobbled up by some straw feminists telling them what to do. In reality, a lot of it comes down to content creators being aware that their audience makes their livelihoods possible and hurting people with jokes is a pretty terrible thing to do. It doesn’t take much to earn goodwill back with your supporters if you really listen and look at the criticism. Accept that people could be hurt, and just apologize. I don’t know why this is such a hard thing to do, but given that we’re dealing with privilege and years of ingrained beliefs, digging in your heels seems to be the thing shitty joke-makers like to do the most.

    Now, despite the fact that there’s been some egregious examples of this shitty joke problem out there, what really kicked off this conversation that’s been happening in my brain over the past year was actually something that happened on Twitter.

    Twitter has been really interesting to watch over the years that I’ve been participating in it; the idea of it having a unique brand of comedy that exists in 140 characters is pretty neat. A lot of it focuses on hyper-fast jokes that setup and hit the punchline in a couple words, other times it undermines normalcy with absurdist or even Dada-esque flights. Some people make jokes as part of their normal minutiae and others tend to make it the focus of their Twitter persona. While Twitter has an extremely high quotient of funny ladies, the problems I’ve had recently have fallen squarely on the shoulders of male-dominated discourse and joke-telling. Despite it being a brave new medium for expression, I find that a lot of it still supports an ultimately male-envisioned reality. Jokes that routinely focus on casting the dude in question as the gross, macabre or ultimately “weird”  can be funny but fall along the same lines despite being anti-egotistical. There’s nothing funny about jokes that cast you as a sexual predator, and there’s nothing subversive about your boners, dudes. I got mad at two of my friends for doing weird jokes about flashing people at a fairground and masturbating on public buses. Two things similar to this have happened to me in my life and both times it wasn’t hilarious or “weird,” it was scary and upsetting. This is the largest and most confusing example of “people making gross jokes living in a reality remarkably different than their audience” being that they use situations that alienate a lot of us (particularly women) as fodder for self-deprecating humor rather than remarking on why these things are a problem. The problem with a lot of it that focus on sexual situations in particular is that history has long been about men being amused by their sexuality, their aggressiveness and their own folly. However, it is the mark of privilege to suggest that it is hilarious to any of us on the receiving end have found it laughable this entire time.

    So, what can we ultimately do about this? Keep saying something. Keep speaking up. Deconstructing humor, having discussions about why these kinds of jokes are not okay and most importantly, people looking into their privilege and the criticism and not being giant douchebags about it. Take your audience seriously. Examine your situation and how it differs from other people’s. Stop trying to do satire when you are the dominant ruling party.  Stop trying to hide behind irony – there’s nothing ironic about ape-ing the prevailing culture. And most importantly, learn how to listen and apologize sincerely when you fuck up. Because at some point, you probably will. Apologies will go a long way – it might not be very funny, but sometimes things aren’t.