Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Shouting back vs. shutting up: the lost art of listening

(This post can also be read as an article on Femusings)

This morning, I joined the ranks of the superconnected, and purchased my first smartphone. To be exact, it is an IPhone 4S, my first ever Apple product, and it is forcing me to learn all sorts of new technology skills. I consider myself pretty computer savvy ‒ for example, I lost track of the number of classmates' theses I helped format because I actually understand the logistics of Microsoft Word's formatting codes and systems, which apparently is not a common skill ‒ but over the past few years I've sort of revelled in being utterly lost as soon as anybody hands me a fancy phone. What is this? Why did it just turn itself off? Why aren't these keys thumb sized, even though they expect me to type with my thumbs? Can it tell when I turn it sideways? Why do you have all these silly games? Why are the birds angry and what could it possibly have to do with me?

The decision to join the world of smartphones happened for two reasons, First, because I can't actually use a Tesco PAYG Motorola Razr from 2005 for the rest of my life, no matter how much I may want to. Second, because I am now at that stage of internet dependence where actually, the ability to access e-mails and twitter whilst not sitting behind my laptop has started to sound not just good but... a bit necessary. Avoiding a smartphone upgrade because you don't want to feel like that about your Twitter feed is sort of redundant when you already do.

And yeah, it is kind of about Twitter (I know, I know, I said no more writing about Twitter! But this is a important I promise). I've upgraded to Tweetdeck and now I've upgraded to Twitter everywhere, and now my entire purpose feels like it is based around building Brand Adrienne for the world to see. So far only 115 people have actually followed Brand Adrienne, and more than one is a personification of a library building which doesn't actually tweet any more, so even if I was not being utterly sarcastic about the concept of Brand Adrienne, it's not been too successful so far. But I keep trying to be interesting, partially because interacting with strangers on social media is actually a pretty difficult skill for me and I'd like to develop it, and partially because it sort of feels like I'm supposed to. Because I want to use Twitter, and that's what I should do on Twitter, right? Tweet, follow, follow back, grow those numbers. Platforms, reach, networking. Other. Words. Like those. Etcetera.

Except when people actually ask me in person why I've started spending so much time on that website, I never respond with "oh well I'm slowly making some arbitrary numbers bigger and it makes me feel like a more important person", even if that is a little bit true sometimes.* What I usually say is "ah, when I am on Twitter I read so much great stuff that I never read when I'm not following it!" This is true. If you set it up right, Twitter can be the most amazing news aggregator. Why check news websites individually when you can get the right 100 other people to check them for you? Not to mention getting access to blogs and other less well-known opinion sources that are generally much more interesting than any newspaper-approved comment section. When I read from Twitter, I feel like I have become a generally better-informed person than when I'm obsessing over academic texts or browsing the Guardian every morning.

Two put the above two paragraphs more simply, I can use Twitter for two purposes: I can speak, or I can listen. I am a little biased in that, strange as it may seem for somebody who writes thousands of words on a daily basis, I actually tend to be better at listening than speaking. This is because I am very quick to convince myself that I don't have anything useful to say about a given issue, and that if I do want to speak I should do it quietly, in my own space, to myself and not expect anybody to care. This is a state of mind that modern feminism is pretty vocal in opposing: like Sheryl Sandberg's comments about how "bossy" girls should be celebrated, like the Women's Room, like #shoutingback as a response to abuse. Women are silenced in patriarchy, and feminism fights patriarchy, so it's logical that a big part of the movement is about encouraging women to find a voice.

Except for some inexplicable reason, we expect it to be just that: "a" voice. One voice, singular. An assumption that if all the women of the world could speak, they would be talking about the same problems, and expect the same solutions. When the "mainstream" visible feminists have differences of opinion, it's treated like it's the end of the world, or a terrible reflection of the terrible state of our terrible movement. It's the same picture of baying crazed infighting women that the anti-suffragette movement used for decades to explain why women should not be within the political system. And when I see worries about "solidarity" in feminism ‒ why attack Caitlin Moran over Twitter Silence? Why get mad at online editors for letting a known abuser use their platforms when they were secretly being manipulated too? Why is #solidarityisforwhitewomen attacking me personally, I haven't done anything wrong! What about the movement? ‒ I see a lot of women who seem to refuse to accept that the "a voice" myth of feminism doesn't exist, and is silencing a lot of very important debates.

When I think about solidarity, three things come to mind. The most basic is "people I want to give support to"; I would add to that "not doing shitty things that hurt others just because they are convenient to me", because solidarity is a state and a process, not just one action that you do and then tick off your list for the day. You have to do a bit more than just tweet "poor you :( hugs xoxo" every time a feminist internet celebrity friend has a bad day. Even more than that, "not hurting others" means learning about more than just the bad days of your feminist internet celebrities‒ it means actively seeking knowledge about how women you don't even know are affected by your actions and behaviour, and, yes, your prejudices. It means knowing what a racist microaggression is so that you can combat them in your own behaviour, it means learning about how trans women and trans* people experience violence and discrimination and adding that to our knowledge bank about VAWG instead of making snide remarks about men in dresses. It means, in a word, accepting voices, not "a" voice. It means that the women out there who disagree vehemently with your feminist priorities and still dare to call themselves feminists have just as much right to call themselves that as you do, as long as their ideology is about achieving equality for women (and here I do mean all women, so TERFs are still not really feminists.) It's alarming how many feminists see themselves as receiving abuse from above and below, as if "shouting back" at women who are telling you your feminism is incomplete or offensive is as noble an act as "shouting back" at waves of misogynist abusers. If a woman tells you your feminism is offensive to her, you are a pretty rubbish feminist if you think that is something that can be dismissed offhand, no matter how wrong you think she is.

As somebody who struggles constantly with the legitimacy of her own voice, I'm grateful to feminism for giving me the message to speak out against sexism, and against systematic discrimination against me as a woman. But I do wish that feminism taught feminists ‒ particularly white feminists, although almost all of us have our privileges in some form or another ‒ how to listen as well as speaking up, and how to figure out the difference between listening and silencing. Saying "this woman has experiences of womanhood that are fundamentally shaped by her skin colour/sexuality/gender presentation/disability as well as just being a woman, and they are different to you, white straight able cis-feminist" is a call to listen, and actively seeking out and promoting these marginalised voices is not silencing, because the majority voice already has more than enough people repeating its message (an ironic thing to say for a white girl blogger with delusions of Twitter grandeur. But I'm young and stupid enough to believe I can find my niche and maintain my integrity about this, because it's a pretty basic belief for me).

I said I had three definitions of solidarity, but I've only given two so far. My third definition is a bit vaguer, and possibly stolen from that man who did the TED talk about Disney Princesses, but it is also the one that resonates with me the most. Solidarity, to me, is about my definition of who is on "my team" ‒ if I am A Feminist, who would I most like that label to associate me with? The answer is "pretty much everyone I follow on Twitter" ‒ not Big Twitter Celebrities, not dead white people with Must-Read books. When I identify as feminist, I have in the back of my mind the diverse range of women and men who, like me, probably spend far too much time staring at Tweetdeck or an Iphone sharing their view of the world for the benefit of others. Right now, I don't give back as much as I take, because I still have a lot to learn. Mostly? I listen.

*I've just outright said I'm still very much learning about this myself, so I don't know why anybody would want my advice on interacting, but in case you do, here is my super short guide to be cool and feel good on Twitter. 1) Don't post TOO much about arbitrary things in your day, because detractors of Twitter are correct in their assertion that nobody cares what you ate for lunch. They are wrong in that they assume that is all that is on Twitter. 2) Pass on interesting things you read, especially if they come from obscure places that people may have missed. 3) Don't be afraid to tell people if you think they are great or if you agree with things they say, because everybody likes to hear that and it will make you feel good to compliment others. BUT 4) Don't apply the Nice Guy principle (if I say enough vaguely nice things, I am entitled to lots of nice responses and recognition) to interactions with anybody, "famous" or otherwise. 5) Know when a thing is serious, when it is not serious and (most importantly) when the other person thinks it is serious but really it's not worth your time. In the third case, just stop talking. Also 6) is "don't abuse people" but really that should just be unwritten.