Yes, Activists Have Doubts Too, And Also Criticism Is A Process (A Rant About Two Kinda Different Things)


I was avoiding my statistics homework today and found this comic on Tumblr, by an art student named Alyssa Korea:

tumblr_mnw7hdhPfg1r715rxo2_500

tumblr_mnw7hdhPfg1r715rxo3_500

This really resonated with me, for various reasons. First of all, it really captures that feeling of Am I doing it wrong am I saying something problematic am I exactly what I’m fighting against that many of us experience as a constant low hum but never talk enough about. Activism of all kinds–not just social justice–has a high barrier to entry because you sort of have to learn a certain language, to talk the talk. You also have to learn to walk the walk and exemplify the ideals you’re fighting for in your everyday life, which is why many feminist women agonize over things like wearing makeup, wanting to be pretty, getting married, and having children–they fear that it makes them “Bad Feminists.”

This is, of course, not unique to activists. Communities define themselves both proactively and also in opposition to those they seek to exclude (and seeking to exclude people isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself). As the furor over “Fake Geek Girls” shows, geek/nerd/fandom communities are struggling with this too. And not just that–perhaps you have reaped the shame of being a Star Wars fan who enjoys the prequel trilogy, or a Harry Potter fan who prefers the movies to the books. (Only one of these two applies to me; I’ll let you guess which.)

But the stakes are higher with social justice. If you say the wrong thing, you risk more than just annoying people who think the prequel trilogy is totally the stupidest shit ever. You risk seriously hurting someone you’re trying to work with and exposing your own unexamined prejudice–which all of us have, believe me–to people you respect and want to gain the respect of.

It’s not just a social thing, though. We want to be right, not just for selfish egotistical reasons but also because we’re invested in the concept of being able to change things. If you’re wrong about what causes X Problem or how to fix it, then, at least in this particular instance, you’re not helping. And you really want to help. We all do.

That’s the other reason the particular sort of angst in this comic is something I can really relate to. I have a moment at least once a day when I’m like WHAT IF EVERYTHING I BELIEVE AND THINK I KNOW IS ACTUALLY WRONG. There are probably a few reasons for this: 1) impostor syndrome, 2) having always had plenty of people tell me that everything I believe and think I know is actually wrong, 3) having been raised a skeptic.

That third one is why I ultimately think that, no matter how unpleasant it is to do what the woman in the comic is doing–what I do every day–that is actually a feature, not a bug. Questioning yourself is good. It makes you better. Questioning your beliefs and opinions also doesn’t mean you have to question your worth as a person. You can be wrong about something–many things, even–and still be a decent, worthy human being.

Nonetheless, activism is contingent on getting people’s attention and making strong statements. I wish it weren’t, but it is. If I wrote a blog post like this comic, it probably wouldn’t have much of an influence because I’d sound wishy-washy and uncertain of my own positions. People wouldn’t feel compelled to think about what I wrote and to take action on it.

On the other hand, maybe it would do some good. Opinionated people are often accused of being “dogmatic” or “intolerant” of other opinions, but that’s partially because nobody hears or reads all the inner monologues and debates we have. There have been times when I’ve written entire blog posts, realized I disagreed with them, and deleted them without publishing. You’ve never read those blog posts. There are huge swaths of fascinating subjects that I’ve never written about–racial preferences in dating, whether or not religious belief is a choice, why boys are falling behind in schools, the usefulness of the DSM, whether or not we should abandon the label “feminist”–because I just haven’t made up my mind!

By the time I do write something, I’ve generally read a ton of articles about it (or even books in some cases), pushed it around in my mind like a picky eater pushes food around on a plate, discussed it with a few people, and debated myself extensively. Sure, sometimes I change my mind later, but by the time a blog post appears, hours and hours of preparation have gone into it. So you can imagine it’s a little annoying to be told that perhaps I just haven’t “considered” other opinions.

I like this method. It works for me. But I sometimes worry that if I reveal it to people, they will lose respect for me as an activist because they’ll see that I’m not always as firm in my convictions as I appear to me. I struggle with doubt. I wonder sometimes if we’re not just making mountains out of molehills or being “too sensitive.” (I wonder, of course, but you know how I really feel about that.) Maybe that’s an irrational fear. Maybe all of you feel the same way as the woman in the comic.

And that’s why I think the comic is so important, especially when it comes to feminist media criticism. People often try to play “Gotcha!” with feminists who criticize media, hoping to catch them in an act of hypocrisy. For instance, if a feminist says something like, “It’s kinda fucked up that all the female characters on this show are always dressed so revealingly,” a decidedly-not-feminist will be like “OH SO ARE YOU SAYING THAT WOMEN SHOULDN’T DRESS REVEALINGLY? HUH?”

Of course, these arguments are usually made in bad faith. I have been accused of “perpetuating patriarchy” by people who previously commented that they refuse to believe that patriarchy even exists. So when conversations like this happen, it’s generally pretty clear that the person isn’t actually super concerned with women’s right to wear as much or as little as they want; they’re just trying to force me into a corner in which I look like a hypocrite.

But this comic shows that 1) we do not have easy answers to this, and 2) criticism is a process, not a product. One doesn’t produce criticism and then go “Alright here’s my criticism! Here’s my Ultimate Answer To The Problem of Objectification of Women In The Media!” Feminist criticism is, rather, a process in which we think critically about the images and scripts with which we are constantly presented, picking them apart and figuring out why they’re so common and compelling, trying to design slightly better (but still wildly imperfect) ones instead.

And that, really, is what all activism is.

Comments

  1. Steersman says

    Good post. And nice illustrations of the conflicting arguments that we all have to deal with in one form or another.

    Although it seems part of the problem is in identifying the purposes and the reasons for various actions – part of, I expect, the attractions of a religion in that one can sort of abdicate the responsibility for those choices and put them all in “Gawd’s” lap. But it seems that without some effort to define those reasons and purposes the result is spinning our wheels, or riding madly off in all directions. Which is, of course, easier said than done.

  2. Stevarious, Public Health Problem says

    Of course, these arguments are usually made in bad faith. I have been accused of “perpetuating patriarchy” by people who previously commented that they refuse to believe that patriarchy even exists.

    Yeah, I get this a lot.

  3. says

    Being able to change your convictions is a particularly brave act, because it entails admitting that you were wrong, and so many people are really bad at that. To me, the essence of skepticism is being able and willing to change your mind in the face of new evidence, provided that evidence meets the previously established standard.

    But I sometimes worry that if I reveal it to people, they will lose respect for me as an activist because they’ll see that I’m not always as firm in my convictions as I appear to me.

    This is actually quite disheartening to consider, because we want to think that those on “our side” have considered the problem in the same way we have to arrive at the same conclusion (after all, such a thing would naturally strengthen our position), but in many cases this isn’t the case. People have an experience and come to a position based on that experience. Many times that position is the right one, but they may arrive there having never really analyzed the experience that led them there.

    Knowing you or anyone else have doubts and takes the time for self-analysis makes me have more respect, anyway.

  4. lurkingmenoway says

    It’s good that you shared that. Hopefully people who are a bit uncharitable with you and your writings will come across it.

    Even though you can come across as “opinionated” (hey don’t hit – you mentioned it!) in some of your pieces (like all of us do some of the time duh), your interactions in the comments section demolish any such notion for me.

    Perhaps a pro of having a somewhat open system of commenting as you do (and not talking down to even the people you consider ignorant on a particular issue, though I suppose that’s a major YMMV with some people on whether it’s a good tactic to adopt)?

    • says

      Perhaps a pro of having a somewhat open system of commenting as you do (and not talking down to even the people you consider ignorant on a particular issue, though I suppose that’s a major YMMV with some people on whether it’s a good tactic to adopt)?

      Thanks! That’s definitely what I’m doing for. And yes, YMMV with that strategy, but I’d much rather try it and fail than react harshly to someone who then shuts down when I might’ve otherwise been able to convince them or at least give them something to think about on their own.

  5. says

    Great post! I have this issue all the time. I also have the “WHAT IF EVERYTHING I BELIEVE AND THINK I KNOW IS WRONG” problem a lot, which I’ve always attributed to the fact that it already happened to me once.

    The points you make here are part of why I think it’s important to resist piling on when someone who’s previously been demonstrated to be a good-faith ally makes a mistake. It’s fine to react when someone makes a mistake; it’s fine to react angrily, especially if you’re personally hurt by that mistake. But I see a lot of situations where it looks, to me, as though bystanders are acting out their own anxieties around possible mistake-making by dogpiling the current target. It’s a very tempting emotional response (I know I’ve been inclined that way many times) but it’s one we should be wary of in ourselves. (And, just to be clear, dogpiling within a community is different from signal-boosting to a wider audience, and also I’d give a severe side-eye to anyone telling a particular person that they’re dogpiling rather than speaking out of a sincere individual reaction. The point is to be more self-aware and self-reflective, not to add yet another tool to the “You’re criticizing me wrong!” arsenal.)

    • says

      The points you make here are part of why I think it’s important to resist piling on when someone who’s previously been demonstrated to be a good-faith ally makes a mistake. It’s fine to react when someone makes a mistake; it’s fine to react angrily, especially if you’re personally hurt by that mistake. But I see a lot of situations where it looks, to me, as though bystanders are acting out their own anxieties around possible mistake-making by dogpiling the current target. It’s a very tempting emotional response (I know I’ve been inclined that way many times) but it’s one we should be wary of in ourselves.

      Agreed so hard with this. I can very much relate and sympathize with people who say that it’s not their “job” to reign in their emotional responses when someone says something really shitty. However, I don’t believe piling on is ultimately very useful as an argumentative tactic. Psychologically, it makes people shut down and either drop out of the community entirely or lash out in response. Firmly telling someone they’re wrong–whether or not you choose to follow that up with an explanation of why they’re wrong–works better from what I’ve seen.

      • Steersman says

        Seems to me that simply “telling someone they’re wrong” is just as problematic if not more so. Far better, as you suggest, is to explain why, although even better is to provide some data to back-up your assertions. Otherwise it looks rather like “my opinion is better than your opinion” – hardly the way to “win friends and influence people”.

        • says

          Yeah, that’s definitely preferable. But seriously, if I had to provide a personalized dissertation to every person who ever disagreed with me on the internet, I’d lose my mind.

          When someone tells me I’m wrong and clearly doesn’t have the time or energy to explain why, I try to at least do a cursory google search before I write their opinion off. We’re all doing this in our spare time. Nobody can devote that much time to it. And honestly, whenever I cite published research, people often just start picking apart whatever flaw they can find in it, or write off the whole concept of research in the social sciences. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

          • Steersman says

            I can sympathize and can well appreciate the time required to maintain these blogs – I frequently wonder how many manage. However I expect that “a personalized dissertation” is far more than what is required or appropriate – at least as a “first response”. My own tendency is to quote a phrase or two and provide relevant links – here (1) for example.

            And hypertext also works as well – as you’ve done in your OP – although that tends to be problematic for commenters as there seems to be some limitations in the number and type of links permitted. Hence the format I use below.

            But I also sympathize with the general conundrum you describe – reminds me of Yeats’ “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity” (2). Rather difficult, at times at least, to find a path between that particular Scylla and Charybdis. I find it helps to temper the latter with the possibility that I might be wrong, and the former with what one might call the “long view”, best exemplified by the BBC documentary and book The Ascent of Man (3).

            —-
            1) “_http://sinmantyx.wordpress.com/2013/06/05/fixed-that-for-you-skeptic-women/#comment-752”;
            2) “_http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Second_Coming_(poem)”;
            3) “_http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ascent_of_Man”;

  6. says

    Great article! It also very easily extends to all areas of politics, not just feminism. I’d say for all good politics, “if you’re not crippled with self-doubt every once in a while, you’re doing it wrong” is probably a pretty good rule of thumb.

  7. says

    It actually bothers me that people would lose respect for someone who harbors doubts. Shouldn’t it be the opposite? Shouldn’t admittances of doubt and thinking and “you have no idea how long I agonized over this, and moreso, I’m still agonizing over it!” create even more respect?

    This doubt and worry about what I’m doing wrong is the basis of my skepticism. I thought that this is what skepticism is all about.

    It increases my respect for you, anyway…

    • willydd3 says

      NateHevens, I think you are a SOOPER-GENIUS! I just wanted to drop a quick comment to say that I agree with you 100%.

      Great article, Miri, and I always respect someone who is strong enough to admit they may have doubts.

      • Steersman says

        Too bad she isn’t strong enough to allow others to express their doubts about her arguments here.

      • Steersman says

        Although I might have to concede that I was wrong as she seems to have allowed me out of her dungeon.

  8. Axxyaan says

    I am sorry you don’t feel comfortable writing about subjects about which you haven’t made up your mind yet. Personally I think such articles can be very illuminating both for writer and reader. I hope the climate of discourse in the future will change to be more accepting of people who express their doubts or the wresting they do about certain subjects.

  9. says

    As an aspiring writer who is also male, I get really paranoid about this kind of thing all the time. Just the other day I was agonizing over the fact that I have a female character who is the lancer for group. At first I was fairly proud as she’s strong both physically and mentally, she goes for what she wants, and she’s not defined by being a love interest. Of course, then I thought that someone might get mad that she’s not a love interest since it implies that strong women aren’t attractive, and then I thought that someone might think that I’m also saying that women aren’t important unless they are like men. On the other hand, I also have a female character who wears nice dresses and jewelry, is usually demure and submissive, and overall gives a bit of an Audrey Hepburn impression. Sure, she has a major hand in rescuing the former character’s brother from captivity by the villain, but I’m still pretty sure there will be certain feminists who will have a problem with her because she’s still a traditionally female character, and my portrayal might be seen as promoting that. Heck, I’ve got tons of female characters, each of whom is radically different in personality, background, and motivation, but no matter which I choose, I can see someone getting upset because it’s either perpetuating some stereotype or saying that only women who aren’t “womanly” are valuable. I can only take solace in the fact that, though pretty much any female character on her own may naturally come under fire from some branch of feminism, having a multitude of them who aren’t cardboard cutouts of each other will cover my bases enough that people will know that I’m not trying to say that “all women are like this character” or “this is what it is to be feminine.”

  10. Pen says

    Activism of all kinds–not just social justice–has a high barrier to entry because you sort of have to learn a certain language, to talk the talk.

    This worries me deeply. It’s like a jargon you have to learn to enter a field, and sure, medicine has a jargon, a bunch of theories. You have to learn it to practice effectively. But homeopathy is exactly the same, except it’s jargon is completely disconnected from reality and ineffective. And in this case I think we’re talking about a field that aspires to be evidence- and effectiveness- based, but I don’t think it’s specific precepts are well-grounded yet.

    You also have to learn to walk the walk and exemplify the ideals you’re fighting for in your everyday life

    No. Or rather, yes, ideally and it’s good to try. But if we’re talking about how certain disadvantaging situations seem very intractable, our whole point is that we can’t easily just walk away from them.The systems of patriarchy and privilege constantly force us to make really horrible choices, large and small and the fact is that we cannot win. I could, if I chose and you let me, take up your whole comment thread talking about the very ‘non social justicy’ aspects of my lifestyle, all the reasons they’re wrong, and all the reasons I’m there, but my ability to walk away from them is close to nil, or at least incredibly costly to me. If I need something on which to rest my feminist credentials, it’s going to be my ability to analyse the situation. By the way, the cartoons you posted don’t perturb me much, in that I think I can analyse their apparently contradictory positions into coherence, to my own satisfaction at least.

    The situation in which we’re the privileged ones is maybe more amenable to our own will to change, but even so, we shouldn’t hold ourselves or allow ourselves to be held to a standard of perfection when the whole point of our collective discussion is that we’re finding that hard to achieve or even identify.

    What nearly all of us very clearly need, judging by the way things go on the internet, are actively considered personal policies for dealing with the various situations in which we’re criticised for our alleged mistakes, inadequacies and imperfections, including agreeing, disagreeing, not being sure, wanting to change/retract, not knowing how to change… That sense of ‘sticking your neck out’ and risking being wrong may diminish a bit, when you have a plan for responding to the responses. Equally, we should all be a bit less quick to pillory people for being wrong in our eyes. Ideally.

    • says

      No. Or rather, yes, ideally and it’s good to try. But if we’re talking about how certain disadvantaging situations seem very intractable, our whole point is that we can’t easily just walk away from them.The systems of patriarchy and privilege constantly force us to make really horrible choices, large and small and the fact is that we cannot win. I could, if I chose and you let me, take up your whole comment thread talking about the very ‘non social justicy’ aspects of my lifestyle, all the reasons they’re wrong, and all the reasons I’m there, but my ability to walk away from them is close to nil, or at least incredibly costly to me.

      Oh, I’m sorry, maybe I didn’t convey what I meant very well. I don’t mean that you have to have a particular lifestyle that fits with everyone’s image of what a feminist is. I meant things like this: if you’re asking people to check their privilege, you have to learn how to check your privilege too. If you’re asking people to write letters to their congresspeople, you should be writing letters to yours, too. If you’re telling people not to slut-shame and victim-blame, you shouldn’t slut-shame and victim-blame either.

      Beyond things like that, there are obviously plenty of ways in which we can’t all be living our ideal super-progressive feminist dream all the time. Sometimes you can’t leave an abusive partner. Sometimes you need to shave your legs and wear makeup and dresses because your job requires it. Sometimes you have to make nice with your racist relatives. I don’t think these things are incompatible at ALL with being an activist/feminist.

      What nearly all of us very clearly need, judging by the way things go on the internet, are actively considered personal policies for dealing with the various situations in which we’re criticised for our alleged mistakes, inadequacies and imperfections, including agreeing, disagreeing, not being sure, wanting to change/retract, not knowing how to change… That sense of ‘sticking your neck out’ and risking being wrong may diminish a bit, when you have a plan for responding to the responses. Equally, we should all be a bit less quick to pillory people for being wrong in our eyes. Ideally.

      Very much agreed.

      • Pen says

        Ah, i see what you mean now. Thanks for explaining. I couldn’t agree more in that case.

  11. smrnda says

    I was going to agree that many accusations of hypocrisy are made in bad faith by people who don’t care about the issues at all, but just want to discredit whatever person. People like that are usually a waste of time to talk to – they’re only interested in a quick ‘gotcha’ type response and are frequently missing the fact that say, feminists deal with both the pressure women have to dress in certain ways *and* that women should be able to dress how they want without being slut-shamed.

    On walking the walk, I find I’m losing my stomach for being confrontational with people, either because I’m getting older or that, if I run across someone who is racist or sexist or whatever, I just decide that I’d rather not talk or deal with them.

  12. John Horstman says

    I certainly have this all the time – even more so as a male feminist: I usually encounter this problem trying to sort through whether my read of self-proclaimed feminist women doing things that strike me as kinda sexist and/or supporting patriarchal systems is a function of my own gender-privilege-blindness (or blindness due to other forms of privilege), ingrained/socialized sexism on my own part, their privilege-blindness (related to things that are not gender), or internalized sexism on their parts (and whether disagreeing from a position of privilege but also extensive knowledge from both academic studies of feminism and feminist theory and personal conversations and anecdotal knowledge constitutes mansplaining). I tend to have less doubt when critiquing people who aren’t on ‘my side’, which is itself another bias against which I struggle.

    I think what a lot of this comes down to is that in a fucked-up cultural discourse, a 100% unproblematic, consistent, and ‘correct’ attitude, position, or action may be impossible. The problem often isn’t any given depiction of a woman, the problem is that those are the overwhelming majority (or even only) depictions of women. Directly countering a particular depiction still often plays into the same problematic cultural framing (e.g. criticizing constant sexualized depictions of women plays out as slut-shaming, when the ideal would be a mix of representations in a culture without an extremely ambivalent opinion of female sexuality). It’s the pattern that’s a problem, and the given example helps constitute and perpetuate the pattern, and is also rendered problematic largely because of the pattern it serves to construct. Self-constituted discourse, copies without an original – the recognition of this process is what motivated postmodern social analysis that conceives of the social production of meaning and causality in somewhat different ways than modernist frameworks. Sometimes one simply has to recognize that there are no perfect options, take the least-bad one, and try to account for or at least acknowledge its shortcomings or failures.

    I come back to one of my favorite lines from a Metric song: “Stop trying to fix it, when instead we should break it; we’ve got to break it before it breaks us.” I’m not sure we really can ‘fix’ the existing culture/cultural discourse around gender (which is how I tend to interpret critiques of specific recurring depictions, tropes, etc.); we may need to try to completely break it so it can be replaced with something better.

  13. says

    Thanks for this post, Miri. Your insights are as appreciated as ever. I differ with you on whether showing the process of your thoughts is such a bad thing for activism. The reason that activist writing so often alienates the activist’s opponents is precisely because activists don’t show that dialectical reasoning process that accounts for all the possible objections. It is so many strong stands without all the work and evidence shown. I put a lot of care into putting all my cards on the table and accounting for all my critics’ views and it usually only earns respect except from those who find my views (or deviation from those) just intolerable on the most visceral level. Anyone who is openminded seems to appreciate the effort to present balance. And it’s never mutually inconsistent with taking strong stands in the final analysis.

    This is why I am an advocate of rationalism first and foremost and not just the social causes or the particular philosophical views that I care about. I want to influence people to be rationally open and careful and honest and to model the attitude that is more interested in showing a thought process than winning a convert or bludgeoning an enemy.

    And for what it’s worth I love your writing consistently and I love it most especially because you do show you understand the other side in a great many cases. So, here’s my encouragement to keep that up. It makes you very persuasive to me frequently. And it models a better mode of discourse than what one often finds online.

    • says

      I differ with you on whether showing the process of your thoughts is such a bad thing for activism. The reason that activist writing so often alienates the activist’s opponents is precisely because activists don’t show that dialectical reasoning process that accounts for all the possible objections.

      Oh, I completely agree with you on that. I also think that showing this process would be a wonderful thing for activism. But it would alienate those people who build up activists in their minds as these always-confident, never-wavering paragons of What It Means To Be A Feminist/Atheist/Etc.

      So for me, it’s kind of a tradeoff between trying to “appease” my opponents (which doesn’t work that well anyway) while possibly losing some of my supporters, versus appeasing my supporters while alienating some of my opponents.

      And for what it’s worth I love your writing consistently and I love it most especially because you do show you understand the other side in a great many cases. So, here’s my encouragement to keep that up. It makes you very persuasive to me frequently. And it models a better mode of discourse than what one often finds online.

      Thanks! I guess that’s a sign that I’ve managed to toe that line well. I DO want my writing to be a place where like-minded folks can find solace, but at the same time I want to Get Shit Done, which sometimes means examining claims carefully in ways that people don’t always like.

Trackbacks