How should feminists talk to one another when we disagree?

There’s a terrific piece on interaction between feminists called “Solidarity? Or Silencing?” over at the blog Hook and Eye.

“If a room full of feminists working on feminism can’t find a way to be respectful and kind in working through the ideas from that field, what hope do we have in the rest of the public sphere.I’m asking now because Things Are Going On on the Internet, where some of the most vituperative attacks on feminist writers are coming from other so-called feminists. We need to find a way to talk to each other, I think, where we can really listen to one another’s ideas in the full contexts in which they are offered. But how?”

Go read the rest of this piece over at Hook and Eye:

18 thoughts on “How should feminists talk to one another when we disagree?

  1. Excellent article.

    Personal story: Although I’ve been interested in justice for a while, I’ve only recently started seriously looking into, and working actively on behalf of, the feminist cause. To my mind, it is a noble one.

    Nevertheless, I cannot say that it has been a welcoming experience. In fact, I’m not sure if I’ve ever been involved in a less pleasant, angrier, or more irrational movement than contemporary feminism. This is so strange to me given that the cause is clearly just, and the good arguments for it so compelling; there is simply to reason for the negative culture. It’s not just unwarranted, it’s counterproductive.

    I contrast contemporary feminism, at least how I have experienced it, with the civil rights movement. Both have noble and attainable goals. Yet the latter is composed of really beautiful, wonderful people–hard working, liberal, tolerant, calm, and always with an eye on the prize. If you have participated in that community then you know what I mean. We would do well to draw lessons from that community as we work toward our own goals.

  2. “I cannot say that it has been a welcoming experience.”

    Fancy that! You start hanging out around an enormous, intellectually formidable, long-established political/philosophical movement, and while not knowing a whole lot about it, you’re nevertheless eagerly poo-pooing the way things are done and trying to insert yourself into the middle of every conversation… You can hardly be surprised that you haven’t received a hero’s welcome, with this kind of “criticise-first-ask-questions-later” attitude.

  3. Sorry for the snark LogicFan; a momentary rush of blood! If I was trying to make my point more circumspectly, I would have said this: my experience of feminist politics and philosophy has been that it too is “composed of really beautiful, wonderful people–hard working, liberal, tolerant, calm, and always with an eye on the prize”. So I was a bit miffed by your suggestion — which I thought both false and unfair — that those things aren’t true of feminist philosophers. Now, if your experience in this area has been more negative than mine, I’m sorry to hear that. But — and this is the main thing I was (snarkily) getting at in my post — it’s worth considering how your own approach to things might be contributing to the reception you’re receiving.

    Again, sorry for the snark… In this instance it was gratuitous (and yes, ironically so, given the content of the original post!). Best regards,

  4. I can imagine flying into a rage if someone tries to “nuance” porn just because they know the artist involved. Or if someone using prostitutes calls himself feminist or if someone testing a man’s love by getting pregnant and finding no love, then having an abortion is called justified in their ethical actions. There needs to be a set of established norms because the “everything goes” approach of multiple feminisms is always going to lead to argument. Politeness is used to shut down dissent by the privilidged, There should always be room for a justified slap down.

  5. I read the Hook & Eye post, and appreciate it, but I think the author blurs, just a bit, the differences between feminist interpersonal spaces such as classrooms, and these interwebz where all kinds of different problems abound. I’ve witnessed the sort of problematic self- and other-torture that feminists get into when all in one room, and it’s different in kind from what goes on online. It’s complicated.

  6. Jarrod, what is the “problem” with that post? Surely it can’t be the mere fact that I disagree with you (or perhaps the majority view among feminists, I don’t know) on a question that is clearly a matter of debate even among intelligent, well-informed persons . . . right? I mean, your objection seems to be that you view Bradley Manning as a heroic figure and I do not . . . but that’s not reason to engage in name-calling, or to refuse to debate rigorously. After all, I might well be right, as you might. It’s not a trivial question.

    I think, for example, that libertarianism is a mistaken political philosophy, pretty definitely false. But was Nozick an idiot? Can I just reject his views out-of-hand? Is it okay for me to ridicule him, to just refuse to deign to consider what he has to say? Of course not. If he’s wrong I should be able to show how. I think that I can.

    It’s actually a little baffling to me that this has to be explained.

  7. LogicFan: I think it’s pretty clear that what’s being objected to in the post linked to not merely the fact that you are disagreeing with the person who posted it. But note that you chose to characterize it in such an uncharitable way at length, and then fiegn surprise at having to give this characterization. Both of these are very much examples of things one shouldn’t do in a debate, and that people would be just to chastize. Therefore, as Robert Simpson says, it seems worth considering how your own approach to things might be contributing to people’s reaction to you.

  8. A–

    Jarrod did not state what he found objectionable. Just that my earlier post seems to be below consideration.

    It is natural to assume that the single most contentious point in that post is what he finds objectionable. You now say that that is not so. Okay, so what is it then?

    Robert Simpson’s point is well taken, but we’re not mind readers and there are good, well-established ways to engage in critical discourse. Rational argument consists of identifying where you think someone went wrong and then giving reasons in support of that view. Both precise identification and good justification were lacking in that thread. And, so far, they are lacking in this one, too.

    Again, if I am wrong about something–quite possible–please tell me (1) exactly what it is (I don’t know what you’re referring to when you say it’s “pretty clear”), and (2) sound reasoning in support of your view.

  9. If one were to walk into week ten of a metaphysics class in which the participants were arguing about whether ontological realism or antirealism was the better way to go, we might implore them to take one another seriously in order that they both understand the other point of view and to (eventually) make progress on the problem. It’s not clear that a call for civility in that context necessarily also covers a person who walks into that discussion demanding that if they’re going to talk about realism, why aren’t they talking about ghosts, since that’s the metaphysical issue that they’re interested in? I don’t think that being snarky with the person who enters a discussion they have opinions on but don’t have the relevant background information is the same as creating a culture in which the topic cannot be discussed.

    I would suggest that a person who feels that they are being shut out of feminist discussions here reflect on whether they might be demanding to talk about ghosts in a metaphysics course. Such a person might find it helpful to start out on a blog that explains feminist terms and ideas (such as this one: so that he or she might enter discourse with a clear understanding of what these mean in this context rather than demanding that people take his or her intuitions as equivalent to concepts that have been worked out through the historical discussions on the topic. If one were to do that, he or she might come off as someone actually interested in pursuing the topic and becoming a productive part of the discussion rather than as someone here to educate the wimmin who probably haven’t actually thought through these issues and who would benefit from his or her great insight.

  10. LogicFan: It doesn’t actually matter what the alternative interpretation of Jarrod’s statement is, and giving one isn’t required for my point. In fact, it doesn’t really matter whether Jarrod had a legitimate complaint against your earlier comment or not: the key point is that Jarrod is unlikely to merely be pointing to the fact that you disagreed with him (that, surely, is obvious). Now perhaps you simply don’t know why Jarrod obected to your point, in which case the right thing to do would be to ask Jarrod. The wrong thing to do would be to construct an implausible interpretation of Jarrod’s intentions and then to feign suprise at having to explain that these intentions are. But that’s what you chose to do.

    Now perhaps I am mistaken and you are not being intentionally uncharitable to Jarrod. Perhaps either your prior belief that this was Jarrod’s meaning is so high that you did indeed end up believe this. If this ‘uncharitable prior belief’ interpretation is correct, then this seems like something you should adjust yourself and not something that others have an evidential burden to adjust for you. Or perhaps you have no such uncharitable prior belief and you genuinely believed that this was Jarrod’s intention based on the evidence available. However, it doesn’t seem unreasonable for others to expect a certain minimal ability to respond to the evidence before investing their time in trying to correct your beliefs. And it’s hard to see how charitble prior beliefs plus a reasonable respnse to evidence could lead to anything like the conclusion you drew from Jarrod’s comment. So if that’s the case then it seems to me that no one should feel any real obligation to spend the time constructing a reasonable resonse to that evidence on your behalf (this does, after all, cost them time that would be better spent elsewhere).

    That being said, I think the points I have made here are those that reasonable people would consider sufficiently self-evident, and so this is the last thing I’ll be saying on the topic. I hope it’s helpful.

  11. LogicFan,

    I’ll set aside my suspicions that you’re a troll. In some of your posts you’ve contrasted feminism to the (African-American?) civil rights movement. So I’ll speak to one similarity between feminism and African-American civil rights:

    White people have roles to play in civil rights movements, and they’re important roles. But, as I’m sure you’ve found from your experience there, white people have certain obligations when they’re first “seriously looking into” the cause of civil rights. They’d do well to spend some time listening to the concerns of members of groups that bear the brunt of racial oppression. They’d also do well to respect the fact that those members have a prima facie right to take leadership roles and they’d do well to take note of the fact that they benefit from certain forms of racial privilege.

    I think what people are suggesting is that you’re failing to take the corresponding lessons with respect to feminism. And I’m strongly inclined to think those people are right. It seems like what you ought to consider doing is spending some time reading posts and responding to posts in a more charitable way, a way that takes into account your position with respect to the movement.

  12. Okay, the discussion of LogicFan in particular has, I believe, been very thoroughly explored. If anyone has comments to offer about the actual content of the Hook & Eye post, this is a post about the Hook & Eye post. I do not fail to appreciate the irony, etc., of re-establishing on-topic discourse on this comment thread. Nevertheless, please read the post at Hook & Eye, and then post here if you have thoughts about the Hook & Eye post. Please take seriously this request that we consider further discussion of LogicFan’s qualities of discourse to be completed.

  13. Since I contributed to the going-off-topic, I’ll contribute something to the bringing-it-back-on topic. I found the original post compelling, and I appreciated the careful presentation of this kind of ‘why can’t we all get along?!’ perspective. (And, tangentially, the piece also has a really nice narrative rhythm and flow!) But I’m inclined to agree with tryllans at comment #8. The power dynamics that are in play when people are being chided for their anger and vituperation end up inhibiting attempts to ‘kick upwards’, and thus they subtly favour ‘kicking downwards’. Or so it seems to me. Now, that’s obviously not the original poster’s aim! But the worry isn’t acknowledged in the piece. So, in short, I guess I’d like to hear more about how the author, and others who are similar-minded, are thinking about that side of things.

  14. I wonder if one contributing factor to such hostile disagreements is people not knowing much about who we are arguing with.
    Reasons why I think this might be the case:
    –The Hook & Eye OP cited that everyone in their class mistakenly thought they would agree on almost everything, and so when they didn’t, the discussions often turned hostile and uncharitable.
    –Classes where I know people personally and intellectually (i.e. where they stand on certain issues, etc) tend to be the ones where I can ‘fight’ with people intensely, but without hostility.*
    *(Excepting those few people where you may know them very well, but for other reasons are unable to establish respectful dialogue between the two of you.)
    –It’s hard to be respectful when you don’t know whether the person you’re conversing with is willing to be respectful in return. (And on the internet, you may often wonder whether the person you’re disagreeing with is being a troll.)
    –If you don’t know much about who you’re talking with, it’s a lot harder to figure out what the common ground between you is (or if there is any.)
    –In my experience, the most friendliest internet blog communities (even where there is lots of arguing and debating) are the ones with lots of regulars who have known one another for a significant amount of time.

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