Check your advocacy

feminismikollaasi“Words are pale shadows of forgotten names.
As names have power, words have power. Words can light fires in the minds of men.
Words can wring tears from the hardest hearts.”

– Patrick Rothfuss

As passionate as I am about some of my own views I think it is also important to think about advocacy in general. Regardless of the cause, communication is key in making a difference. It is impossible to have a conversation with someone who merely fires off tag lines like a pinball machine while dodging difficult questions. What I mean by this is as soon as I hear things like “check your privilege” or “meat is murder” I automatically switch off. It’s not that I even disagree with either of these particular statements; I just don’t think that they are appropriate for anything else than for banners for a protest. The problem with catchy one-liners is that they are so easy to throw around that they quickly turn into static noise without substance. Once at a meeting with a visual merchandiser we talked about how there was now a bunch of buzz-words that they weren’t allowed to use in marketing anymore because the consumer market had started to resent them. Similar inflation can happen in any topic of public discussion where specific words or phrases are excessively used across media outlets. This is especially true to Twitter and clickbait headlines where a very compact expression needs to pack a punch and catch people’s attention. Replacing independent thinking, rationality and well-constructed arguments with 120-character statements just kills the conversation for me. There is no shortage of social justice memes to choose from – and all of them send me spiralling down into desperation with equal intensity, but let’s tackle a recent favourite, “white feminism”.

The phrase “white feminism” is generally used to represent one’s distaste of feminist speech that focuses on white women and ignores racial issues thus excluding women of colour. Technically anyone can be a “white feminist” regardless of their own skin colour or gender if the feminism that they promote is racially biased or exclusive. Fundamentally, the critique brought forward by this phrase is valid, but compressing the message into an easily misunderstood, and possibly provoking term seems counterproductive. I would predict that most people who hear “white feminism” assume that it describes all white women, implying that the fact of their skin tone automatically makes them racist. Because this is exactly what my first impression was. Needless to say that such a rhetoric doesn’t exactly encourage people to take into heart the very real issues related to ethnicity in the context of women’s rights. It is not surprising that upon being or feeling accused of something before having so much as a chance to voice their opinion, people tend to shut down or lash out, and not listen any further.

That said, I do think that there are times when when using more aggressive and inflammatory language is appropriate. Debates, speeches and protests can get very heated and emotional, and in instances where provoking reactions in your audience is precisely the goal, then it can be effective to boost up your message with evocative vocabulary. However, more often than not this kind of language only appeals to those who are already on your side, and you end up preaching to the choir. If that is what you want, then by all means. To be honest though, I still can’t see how using the term “white feminism” would be beneficial to the feminist movement. And I shall explain why.

There is a time and a place for big words when we are trying to emphasise the difference between our stance and that of our opponent’s. We want to draw a clear line between us and them and build up group mentality. That’s all fine even though personally I tend to frown upon the practice of blatantly demonising the other – unless they are a glaring bigot in which case they tend to do the job perfectly well by themselves.
I find that the problem with “white feminism” is that it drives a wedge within the feminist movement. And I think that this problem is both in the practice of ignoring racial issues, which is what this term is supposed to convey, and in using said term to discuss this issue. Obviously, women of colour tend to be at a bigger socio-economic disadvantage than white women. Many of these women live in third world countries or war zones of course, and my knowledge of the history and politics involved is nowhere near a level where I would feel comfortable discussing that particular struggle. There are many factors regulating the quality of life in conflicted and unstable areas. At any given time culture, tradition and religion are some of those things, and we can all disagree on how big of a part they play in the mistreatment of women. In my books, that part is significant.
It is all too easy to let oneself fall into the apologist void of “it’s part of their culture, and we must respect it” in the fear of being labelled a racist or islamophobic or whatever is the next trendy accusation. I couldn’t care less from which angle you look at it – the tradition of female genital mutilation is torture, not culture. This atrocity is only the tip of the iceberg, and there are numerous more covert ways in which girls and women face discrimination in the name of tradition.

Debating  the significance of scarves and veils that cover more or less of a woman’s head has been all the rage for a while now. Are they signs of oppression? Are they empowering? Is it totally “white” and ignorant to even consider that they might be problematic?
I suppose they can be either one like just about anything else. I wouldn’t even bother weighing in on this if I could be sure that the decision of what to wear was always the woman’s, and only hers. But alas, I can’t. The problem really isn’t the veil itself but whether its use is part of misogynous tradition. There are those who think that we shouldn’t criticise any culture of anything because it is their culture. What such people are really saying is that those who have had the misfortune of being born into a culture where casual violence against women is condoned, are inherently different from those who were born into as peaceful a society as can be found on Earth today. To say that white people shouldn’t interfere because they don’t understand the culture, and women of colour don’t need to be saved anyway, is equal to knowing that your neighbour beats up their partner and not taking any action to help. Just because the victim of violence hasn’t come to you for help doesn’t mean that they want to be beaten.

Just to clarify, I am not saying that white women need to save coloured women. I am not saying that the burqa is oppressive and the mini skirt empowering. And of course, Islam, which I keep referring to, is not a race. And of course, race itself is an arbitrary concept however culturally relevant. I may have strayed away from the topic of feminist advocacy into straight up advocating feminism, but hopefully I have made at least half a point. Perhaps what feminism in Western countries currently suffers from is detachment from severe oppression. Are we, the fortunate ones, so used to freedom of expression, economic independence, contraceptives and certain amount of social security that we have forgotten what life as a woman used to be like? The notion that women of colour don’t need to be saved by white women is correct in that we shouldn’t victimise and infantilise those who live in adverse conditions. But as there is a power imbalance like there is one between the sexes, shouldn’t we try to do something about it by sharing resources when we can.

Finally, I think that there are more and less important feminist agendas that have to be dealt with. Those accused of “white feminism” are in that moment focusing on a less pressing issue that mainly concerns more privileged women who are mostly white. Is this outright wrong? Is it unethical to try to improve your own situation if someone else has it worse? As far as I understand, this seems to be at the core of the judgement of “white feminism”. That because in general white women are better off than women of colour, they should pay less attention to issues directly and exclusively related to themselves. This is certainly true when it comes to overall representation and visibility of racial issues in feminism. There is diversity lacking in the public discourse for sure. But I also think that if we want to make genuine progress in women’s rights across the globe people can’t be chastised for sometimes thinking about themselves and their own situation. We can all agree that being whistled at when crossing the road is nothing compared to being forced to marry a man four times your age when you are still a child. These issues can and must be worked on in many levels simultaneously. Feminism is after all about equality, and anyone who departs from that is not a feminist regardless of what they claim.

The point about advocacy – and this applies to any cause – that I wanted to make is that the choice of words really matters. I matters whether you want to bring more people to your cause or not. By using popular internet memes instead of your own words can easily alienate the very audience your message ought to reach.

Victim of words?

blackholes copy“What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”
– Salman Rushdie

I talked about being offended by words and ideas in a previous post, and although I will now continue along the same topic I hope to avoid being too repetitive. A few weeks ago I came across a lengthy Facebook status by Sebastian Tynkkynen, a Finnish far-right politician, indeed the president of the True Finns youth party, which I mentioned in my recent discussion on gender. The story is in Finnish so I will briefly paraphrase what’s going on.

Following the Brussels terrorist attacks The Finnish Resistance Movement (part of an overarching Nordic National Socialist movement) organised a small-scale rally in central Helsinki to promote their anti-immigration views. Mr Tynkkynen was invited to the event as a speaker, and as he got up on the stage a bystander started yelling “Tynkkynen is racist, Tynkkynen is racist”.

“Public discussion has become taxing and those with critical views on immigration are being silenced by equating them with an ideology represented by the nazis who practised racial segregation: racism.“

Giving this premise Tynkkynen is now raising charges against his defier for slander, thereby trying to bring justice to the many immigration critics who are constantly being accused of racism. He is seeking to make his case a precedent in the public discussion of immigration; to eliminate “the racist card” because “the game has become too cruel”. Tynkkynen goes on to elaborating his reasoning for taking this to court. According to him a culture that allows indefinite slander of a person “if one knows how to do it right” – whatever that means – is growing stronger in Finland.

“It generates endless bullying and contempt which effect both mentally, socially and on one’s employability. I often get these messages from citizens and I now want to intervene. I’m not aware of a case where defamation of a citizen by the racist card has lead to a conviction – -“

“If this goes through, the ruling will have wider implications on the societal conversation at large. It follows that a citizen charging their adversary with racism would in practice automatically be convicted.”

Needless to say that I think this is ridiculous and bordering on offending free speech.
I agree with Sebastian on one point, and that is that the haphazard use of the word ‘racist’ in public discourse is 99% of the time unhelpful. The term has become so overused that it has lost its meaning, and nowadays those holding racist views tend to hide behind some version of ‘immigration criticism’. But even when calling someone a racist might be an accurate denomination based on their opinions it just doesn’t bring anything of value to the conversation. It’s a shortcut used in the place of actual fact-based arguments, and does not serve defenders of human rights one bit.

Defamation

Racist

Is it slander to call someone, who has publicly leant their voice for a known far-right group with glaringly bigoted views, a racist? Is it a false accusation to make the connection between his views and those of the openly racist organisation that he has for the moment sided with? Moreover, is pointing out this apparent connection harmful for the accused racist’s reputation?

Like I said, I don’t think it’s helpful or necessary to yell insults on either side but I also don’t think that being called out on prejudiced views, or affiliations with advocates of prejudiced views is particularly harmful to one’s good reputation. Perhaps Sebastian, and others in similar positions, don’t realise that by agreeing to dignify these kinds of groups with their presence as a public figure, one is making a statement. And should they indeed be so worried about being labelled a racist then perhaps they should reconsider what kind of events they want to appear at in the first place. If Mr Tynkkynen was being honest, we would admit that even his own party’s stance on immigration is somewhat radical and in itself grants him a role – whether wanted or not, in the debate of what is and isn’t racist. When one decides to be in the public eye one must grow a thicker skin and be prepared to defend oneself in the crossfire of comments and offences.

I’m not interested in personally attacking Sebastian Tynkkynen. In truth, I know hardly anything about him. This case merely beautifully illustrates the self-victimisation phenomenon in social media. I see it as yet another way of misunderstanding the essence of freedom of speech, and misusing the concept of it as a justification for holding intolerant views. I have said it before and I will say it again: yes, you are absolutely allowed to have your opinions and express them. But when you face resistance it does not mean that your freedom of expression has been infringed upon. Being offended does not automatically mean that you are right. This is something that many Finnish immigration critics, especially members and supporters of the True Finns party do not seem to grasp. The same can be said about the opponents of the equal marriage law who pretend that allowing same sex couples the same judicial standing as heterosexual couples somehow offends or limits their freedom to practice religion. I have no idea how this could be true unless it forced gay marriage on everyone – which it doesn’t by the way.

And let’s not forget that these champions of freedom of expression have come up with their own slander term for those who call them racist: “suvakki” or better yet, “suvakkihuora”. The first one is derived from the word “suvaitsevainen” meaning “tolerant” and in the second one the lovely word “huora”, “whore” has been added to the mix. Should all immigration liberals now start taking people to court for calling them tolerant whores? What a time to be alive.

But on a more serious note, the thought of a word being practically criminalised is rather chilling. There are obviously more eloquent ways of criticising people’s views than yelling “RACIST” but as Tynkkynen himself points out, the author of this insult was calmed down by a couple of police officers who were present at the event. No damage was done, no one’s freedom of expression was denied, no one was physically or mentally traumatised.

Understandably it is annoying and frustrating when our comments are dismissed as racist or otherwise irrelevant but instead of immediately seeking to deny the use of certain words wouldn’t it be more effective to take the time to explain why our opinions are actually relevant, to defend ourselves with intelligence rather than seeking to make resisting us a criminal offence. Criminalising certain kind of societal critique is a feature of totalitarianism which we should always fight against, in every way possible. That is, if we really want to preserve free society and liberal values, and that precious freedom of speech.
The use of force, physical or otherwise instead of intelligence only confirms the narrative of a bigoted caveman afraid of the unknown, which the word ‘racist’ is used to bring attention to. When the insult seems to do real harm to our career or image then it should be treated as a false accusation and proved wrong. When it is a random person at an outdoor event after a recent terrorist attack, who is in the end only manifesting his own shortage of temper and lack of elegant articulation, it ought to be ignored -in my humble opinion at least. By treating this incident as a valid commentary on one’s character you are only presenting yourself as a victim, lethally wounded by a word. You are saying that this slur has caused so much damage to your person that it is only right that the offender should be punished in the court of law, and that also everyone else who holds this view of you and your opinions should not have the right to call you out. How exactly does this advance our public discourse on the real issues of the immigration crisis in Europe? News flash: it doesn’t. I am no expert in this particular topic but I claim to know something about effective advocacy and communication.

Finishing with “I left with my dark-skinned friend” is also not the most convincing argument and doesn’t negate the connotations of being affiliated with a group notorious for using violence to propagate its antisemitic, anti-gay and racist agenda. If in your heart of hearts you know that you are not a racist then why would you publicly seem to support a group of known racists? More importantly, why would you care if a random bystander calls you a racist? Is it perhaps because they hit a nerve? I don’t know.
What I do know is that there are many and more people whom I disagree with on different topics but whom I still respect because of their ability and will to articulate well and think critically. Anyone who is not willing to have a proper conversation but instead just dismiss me as a feminazi or a privileged white girl or whatever else, I’m not going to bother with – let alone sue them. But maybe that’s just me.

So you’re offended?

IMG_9866Freedom of speech is very high up on the list of my most important values – as I believe it is for most. However, following the expansion of social media as a platform where anyone and everyone can have their say on any topic under the sun it seems that freedom of speech has become confused with the freedom of not being offended.

I used to be an avid Tumblr user some years ago. At first it was a cool place for pop culture and fandoms where you’d find a lot of people deeply devoted to sci-fi shows doing character studies and meta-analyses and what have you. Feminism, LGBTQ rights and anti-racism were always prevalent and I have to say I learned a lot about everyday sexism and racism in the U.S. (most users seemed to be American) among other things. But then gradually everything became offensive to someone, and the term ‘trigger warning’ started to appear.

By the way, I’ve now heard that some universities in the U.S. and even in the UK have student bodies demanding that lecturers issue trigger warnings and refrain from using certain words lest they cause a student to be upset – or rather traumatised.
I sometimes wonder how the human race has survived for this long…

The thought behind this is that some topics may be triggering to survivors of sexual assault or otherwise. I can see the value of the idea but so long as media platforms like Tumblr don’t automatically generate trigger warnings haphazard tagging by a minimal number of users seems pointless.
With regard to establishments of higher education and research, I can hardly think of a worse course of action than to start censoring people in spaces which were created for free enquiry, research, discussion, debate and open critique of ideas and theories. I simply cannot stand the thought of going to do a Masters degree and finding out that the professors and lecturers are having to hold themselves back in the fear of accidentally making someone feel uncomfortable. This is inconceivable – and in my honest opinion, individuals who feel that they would be seriously damaged by hearing certain words or discussing certain topics should probably not go to a university in the first place. Being uncomfortable is crucial for intellectual development.

“It’s now very common to hear people say, ‘I’m rather offended by that.’ As if that gives them certain rights. It’s actually nothing more… than a whine. ‘I find that offensive.’ It has no meaning; it has no purpose; it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. ‘I am offended by that.’ Well, so fucking what.
– Stephen Fry

But back to Tumblr: the more I read responses to apparently triggering content, the more I came to realise that for the most part people were merely upset or angry about something they had read, rather than actually triggered in a psychologically serious way. In Finnish we have a wonderful word,’mielensäpahoittaja’, for people who seem to actively look for things to get offended by so that they can attack the alleged offenderAs soon as one seeks to shut down a conversation or silence their opponent on the grounds of being offended, in my eyes, they have lost. No problem was ever solved by declaring it a taboo.
So then I stopped using Tumblr because my blood pressure couldn’t handle the “How dare you use that word you racist, trans-phobic, misogynist, white supremacist, ableist, sociopathic cunt!!!” type of rhetoric that was rampant.

Escaping Tumblr was only a short-term solution and being offended is increasingly trendy in every nook of social media. Of course there are words like nigger or fag that are found offensive in most of their uses. However words in and of themselves are not and can not be offensive; we give them meaning and one can either chose – or not, to give or take offence. There are ideas that can be viewed as offensive, such as women as second-class citizens, and of course some people find nudity or homosexuality terribly upsetting. All in all everyone has a right to be offended. This is not an issue. The issue is the misconception that being offended means you are right and the other person is wrong; that somehow you, as the offended party are entitled to be de-offended. Spoiler alert: you are not, and none of us are. Taking offence is our own business, and if we wish to confront our perceived offenders we have every right to defend our views. But simply stating “This is offensive” is not effective advocacy, and will not aid your cause whatever it may be.

The world is full of interesting and hard conversations to be had and the real tragedy is if intelligent and insightful people start to censor themselves under the pressure of thin-skinned opponents and audiences. I firmly believe that any topic should be open for discussion and any idea fair game for critique. We should all recognise that when our ideas, views and beliefs are being criticised, we as persons are not under attack. For instance, when I question your religious ideology I am not questioning your personhood, morality or value. I would never deliberately offend a person but I would offend an idea.
How about actually offensive and hateful speech though – isn’t that bad? I think everyone should have the right to present themselves precisely as bigoted and ignorant as they in fact are. Genuinely bad ideas will more than likely be faced with mockery, and genuinely malicious speech will be condemned. Shutting people up won’t stop them from generating stupid ideas, laughing them off the stage might.
That said, when it comes to representing the views of a group of people, one ought to be held more accountable for their statements as they are in fact not only speaking for themselves.

‘If someone tells me that I’ve hurt their feelings, I say, “Well I’m still waiting to hear what your point is”.’
– Christopher Hitchens

Some resources:
The Thinking Atheist Podcast – I’m Offended!
Sam Harris and Jonatahan Haidt talk about political correctness on campus and lots of other things (just listen to all of Sam’s podcast episodes, he’s brilliant and you might get offended)
SubReddit about Social Justice Warriors on Tumblr and elsewhere (it’s funny ok)
All of Christopher Hitchens’ debates on YouTube (he’s the bomb)