“Intersectionality” is not a dirty word; “austerity” is. Reflections on an evening at Conway Hall.

"To Thine Own Self Be True" - Conway Hall, London

“To Thine Own Self Be True” – Conway Hall, London

Yesterday I attended the New Statesman-sponsored panel discussion at Conway Hall, London, titled “What is the most important issue facing feminism today?”. Speakers were: NS deputy editor Helen Lewis; writers Laurie Penny, Bim Adewunmi, Juliet Jacques, and VJD Smith; Vagenda magazine collaborators Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter; and, in the chair, Caroline Crampton, the NS‘s web editor.

More details about the event and participants can be found here.

[Disclaimer: I was taking notes on a brand new iPad, with which I have not completely got to grips. My typing averaged about one word per five minutes and I see today that many of these “words” are actually iOS auto”correct” gobbledegook. This will, therefore, be very far from a full and thorough report of the debate of the live-tweeting kind. Rather, these are my impressions of the event, the issues it raised, and what I took away from it more broadly. Any inaccuracies in the reporting are, it goes without saying, the fault of Apple inc.]

I arrived at the event with some firm reservations about the framing of the debate in terms of the “most important issue”, since I am as over-saturated as the next feminist reader/ writer/ academic with zero-sum premises. I have seen too many discussions in both meat space and the comments sections of blogs degenerate into self-righteous spats over why somebody is worrying about [insert feminist issue du jour X], when [feminist issue du jour Y] is obviously so much more crucial. So the title of the event had caused me a certain amount of eye-rolling. Yet, what was probably most interesting for me about yesterday’s debate was the fact that many of the panel members argued and presented in ways that effectively worked against the divisive “pick one issue” framing and reflected thoughtfully upon this kind of rhetorical gesture.

The event began with the speakers highlighting one or two issues that, for them, seemed especially pertinent. These ranged across the need for sex education for young people with an increased focus on consent, and the importance of unlearning of the ways children are presented with the idea of what is “gender-appropriate” — points I absolutely endorse. But the issue that came to the fore and provoked the most discussion among the panelists was that of intersectionality — that term that has been so hotly debated in social and news media in recent weeks and months, raised by Juliet Jacques and Bim Adewunmi. Juliet spoke eloquently about her experiences of identifying as transgender and then undergoing sex reassignment surgery, and of the male-dominated, gender-normative medical establishment. But she emphasized that she also benefited from a series of privileges, including white educational privilege. She talked about the importance for feminism of identifying the opportunities we have, as well as the oppressions we face, and of being aware of the massive role played by social class in the lives of women, a point picked up by Laurie Penny, who asked “has feminism failed working class women?”. She insisted that we cannot talk about either feminism or labour relations adequately without acknowledging the gendered division of labour. Citing the statistic that 92% of single parents are women and have sole responsibility for childcare, she underlined her point that class is too often sidelined in discussions of feminism, and that feminism is then blamed for not fixing things for working-class women, creating an unhelpful impasse and alienating from feminism some of the women who need it most.

Bim expanded this discussion of class by talking about the ways in which her experience as a black feminist intersected with her experience as a working-class child growing up between Lagos and East London. She also explained that as a writer who is passionate about film and television she is consistently confronted with the absence of adequate representations of a range of ethnic faces and bodies onscreen, pointing out that the popular series Friends featured only two black guest characters in the course of its long run and that both were introduced with the same storyline. She pointed up that many of us have the luxury of not noticing the default white subject we see in our media and in our midst (only a handful of non-white people raised their hands from the audience when she looked around for “brown faces”). I cheered internally when Bim passionately and convincingly stated that the principle of intersectionality is not an academic luxury or irrelevance, and that one feminism simply cannot fit all.  This led to a productive discussion of the importance of writers, teachers, and academics finding ways to  introduce the (rather straightforward) principle behind the jargonistic term “intersectionality” to a range of readerships and audiences who may be educationally unprepared for this kind of discourse, or simply too tired to read bell hooks or Judith Butler at the end of a long working day.

With Helen Lewis, the discussion turned to the continued naturalization and erasure of sexual assault culture. She used the example of the Julian Assange case to illustrate the way in which rape is downplayed when the offender is a powerful white man by means of the obfuscating rhetoric of “bad sexual etiquette”. She made the striking point that women are often no more than “collateral damage” when men are seen to be doing important (leftist) work.  The crucial question of intersectionality returned to this discussion of rape culture with Bim’s intervention describing how she chose not to take part in Slutwalk despite being broadly in sympathy with its aims, since brown female bodies and black straight female sexuality connote things in culture over which she cannot easily “take control”. Questions of the prevalence of sexual assault and rape are complexified once we take account of class and race. The US statistic that one in four women will be raped increases significantly when we take non-white women as our demographic.

Another pertinent discussion point for me was the question of whether it matters that there is infighting within feminism. While it can be frustrating, I agreed with Bim’s point that we should not be unduly concerned by conflicts, since these issues matter to us and many of us are rightly angry. Feminism is the only political movement in which everyone is expected to get along because we are women. I have long been angered by the idea that we are naturally empathic, pacifistic, care-giving gentlefolk, which strikes me as the worst sort of essentialist stereotyping and a reproach from within the ranks to be “nice girls”. This is nothing more than another form of insidious internalized misogyny.

Many of the speakers talked about the realities of being a woman with a media presence and of being considered too loud and strident simply for having a strong opinion while female — which is intensified if one has a strong opinion while female and black, or female and trans. Laurie talked movingly of the rape and death threats she has received over the years. But all acknowledged the responsibility, despite these odds, that those with a public media platform have to represent the range of issues facing women.

Were I to be asked the question that was posed to the panelists: “What, for you, is the most important issue facing feminism today,” I would probably answer (after a long rant about why I don’t think that’s the most helpful question to ask, naturally) that the vitality of feminism is dependent upon our robustly resisting the tendency, so prevalent in the neo-liberal worldview of the 21st century, to reduce every issue to the level of individual choice and to conflate the critique of social institutions with condemnation of people who, for whatever reason, may benefit from them. To wit: the moderator of a certain feminist Facebook group that I intermittently peruse recently noted her concern because the comments of a queer-identified member of the group suspicious of the enthusiastic embracing of the institution of marriage by gay friends had caused a number of married heterosexual women to pronounce themselves “offended” and leave the group in a huff. When (in this case white, middle-class, heterosexual) people become so defensive about the choices they have made in their own lives that they feel sufficiently offended by any criticism of pro-patriarchal and eminently conservative institutions that they leave a discussion, critical politics have given way to knee-jerk defense of lifestyle choice. A feminism that plays down the importance of how power relations operate within and across social structures risks being distressingly toothless as a political praxis. It was heartening that the old saw “every choice a woman makes is a feminist choice” did not raise its all-too familiar head once at the New Statesman event. Perhaps the self-evident impact of current “austerity measures” in the UK will restore class, race, and other structural analysis to a more prominent place on the British feminist agenda than has been visible in recent years. If last night’s discussion is a barometer I am — cautiously — optimistic that this may be the case.

Some thoughts on words and power, prompted by recent debates in print and social media

“Words – so innocent and powerless as they are, […] how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.” ~ Nathaniel Hawthorne

Writing is an inherently ethically charged act. Words are never neutral. Each time we exercise the force of our polemic and employ rhetoric to argue, persuade, or provoke, we have a responsibility to ask ourselves: what are the effects of our words likely to be, and who will be served by them? Of course there can be unintended outcomes. People read and interpret differently. Someone will always be offended. The meaning of words does not reside wholly with their producer. And yet, some effects are wholly predictable, aren’t they?

It is all too easy to use words against the marginalized and vulnerable (even if we occupy the position of the marginalized and vulnerable ourselves). The fact is that we all internalize the prejudices of the world in which we live. Slurs can be unthinkingly repeated by those of us who would rationally challenge the beliefs upon which they rest.* But the effects of slurs, whether intended or not, whether explicitly and maliciously written or carelessly and casually insinuated, can only be to perpetuate the status quo. Unless we are really happy with the system in which we live—a late-capitalistic hetero-patriarchy—we might want to think very carefully about any words we put out into the world that can have the net effect of shoring it up while pitting potential allies in discontent against each other. Context matters too. When a profit-making publication is paying a person to produce words, and when more money will be made out of perceived outrages committed, the onus on the critical writer to act ethically and deliver a message of social commentary without repeating society’s bigotry is all the more urgent. Yet even on our own blogs, on Twitter, in the free media that is the World Wide Web, how much more efficacious activism would be if we applied these ethical considerations to all our words.

Too often, sight of a potential common political goal is lost. Groups, self-defining along the lines of identity politics, engage in the much-discussed “oppression Olympics”, misdirecting righteous anger at each other rather than at the systems that produce and maintain the conditions of their shared oppression. A concerted effort on the part of a marginalized group, motivated by the passion of injustice felt, can be tremendously potent and have effects that are devastating. But what a waste of effort if such resistant, transformative zeal is misdirected, not at the institutions that perpetuate iniquity, but rather at a member of another group also urging change but using unwise words carelessly or angrily.

Writers interested in social justice need to think about strategies for promoting resistance and commonality. We need to avoid further dividing those who share an investment in challenging normativity, but whose approaches issue from (at once entrenched and precarious) exclusionary identitarian positions. A question to ask ourselves, before putting down words on paper or a screen, has to be: am I speaking truth to power or am I attacking those who are already disadvantaged by the system? This is not a matter of “political correctness”. It is, rather, both an expedient political strategy and a commitment to the ethic of avoiding causing harm to others. For, make no mistake, words can do harm.

*In cases where we are unintentional mouthpieces for a bigotry we do not believe in, but that is so prevalent in our culture that we soak in it and unwittingly reproduce it, we can respond responsibly and graciously when criticized. And we can learn from such criticisms in order to become better writers and readers. I try to do this. I will go on trying to do this.