Words, Words, Words: On Toxicity and Abuse in Online Activism

A landscape image of Shodan, a feminine face made up of green digital characters against a black background.
Digital Shodan by Chris R (http://twitter.com/offby1)

To all new readers: I’ve written a follow up to this article.

Not long ago my partner and I were seated in her car discussing the arbitrary nature of certain holidays and I opined, perhaps halfheartedly, that New Year’s was a worthwhile holiday simply for it being a useful vantage point for reflection, however arbitrary. It provides an overlook whence one can see a year of one’s life and world. A recent tranche of writing by several prominent members of the trans and queer feminist gaming community has renewed my faith in that idea– with the overleaf of the year we suddenly find a great deal of penetrating insight into activist discourse and the risks incurred by our silence about certain excesses that have come to define us too often.

The wages of rage in our communities, and the often aimless, unchecked anger striking both within and without have created a climate of toxicity and fear that not only undermine our highest ideals, but also corrode the comforts of community for the very people who most need it. One of the most leaden wages of that culture of rage is, indeed, fear. I have been praised for my voice by many in this community and called “brave” by more people than I can name, count, or thank; and yet sitting in my My Documents folder is a number of articles, some finished, others not, that are “on ice.”

When I mention the icebox of unpublished posts and articles to friends and colleagues, I do so with a forced smile, pretending that it’s a heady combination of academic perfectionism and fear of being attacked by bigots that leads me to suppress them. There is more than a grain of truth to this. As many of my friends, loved ones, and sisters in struggle have demonstrated and written about, there is a lot to fear from the 4chan-esque world of angry young men with ample resentment towards those of us they perceive to be purloining some birthright of theirs. My academic work is devoted, in no small measure to explaining their behaviour (more on this in a bit).

But I am lying when I say they are the sole source of my hesitation.

The rest, often as not even the lion’s share, comes from fear of something with the power to cut even deeper– my own community. I fear being cast suddenly as one of the “bad guys” for being insufficiently radical, too nuanced or too forgiving, or for simply writing something whose offensive dimensions would be unknown to me at the time of publication. In other words, for making an innocently ignorant mistake.

An image of a dark haired and light skinned woman, eyes closed with two fingers pressed to her temple as she is surrounded by a number of holographic images.
Woman’s place is on the internet– and it’s our responsibility to make it safe for each other. (Artwork from Eclipse Phase by Tariq Hassan used under Creative Commons).

The Tumblr-isation of Activism

I have feared stumbling over the Tumblr trip wire and falling into the abyss of “call-out culture” to be discredited with every slur and slander in the book by the people who I ought to be able to trust the most. This stays my author’s hand as much as anxiety about being attacked by, say, the same crowd that bedevils Anita Sarkeesian. I fear the moment I get tarred as a “collaborator,” “apologist” for privilege, or a “sell out” (to women, to Latin@s, to working class people, to trans folk). Equally troubling is the fear of my loved ones being caught in the mammoth whirlpool of Twitter/Tumblr Justice and tarred for their association with me.

Fear of this sends me, yearning, into the oblivious embrace of silence.

I have written about this in the past, obliquely, and spoken in either couched or very specific terms about my feelings on this matter, which have haunted my thoughts for some time. So much online social justice activism has become hyper-vigilant against sin, great or small, past or present. That sense, that even the smallest, meanest revelation of past transgressions would come back to haunt me, inspired this paragraph in an old article I wrote about the painful contradictions of feminist activism:

“The pressure for me has always been to aspire to that feminist Madonnahood, and the perfection this demands is rigorous indeed. There is a strangely Catholic quality to the demand I often hear to show my scars, to prove I am a woman by showing how I have been hurt, to prove that patriarchy can wound me by showing how it has.

For there is something very odd about what the perfection my activism and my internalised sense of morality has demanded of me. It is not only that I show my scars but that I, paradoxically, testify to my permanent perfection from birth. In this world where patriarchy has scratched, burned, and tortured me- and where proving this martyrdom is a requirement of feminist perfection- I must also somehow be unblemished by patriarchy.”

I stand by this, but I deliberately left enough spaces for readers to assume that I was speaking about white cis middle class feminism, the dreaded “mainstream” variety that it was more acceptable to criticise. I was, but I was also speaking about the wider activist enterprise upon which many of us are embarked. This includes the world of online social justice activism, trans politics–indeed, the radical left as a whole. We must paradoxically be “oppressed” and yet bear none of the markings of that oppression upon our consciousness; we can never bear baggage or scars; as people of colour we can never show our veil of double consciousness, per W.E.B DuBois. It feels, sometimes, as if we must arrive fully formed to the world of activism, the perfect agents of change, somehow entirely cognisant of the ever shifting morass of rules and prescribed or proscribed words, phrases, argot, and thought.

But this also presumes that there is some kind of Platonic perfection to which we must unproblematically aspire. There is the lingering but important question of disagreement; identity does not fully contain humanity, and there are many of us who are women, and/or trans, and/or people of colour who have good faith arguments against dominant strategic paradigms, or dominant cultures, norms, and rules. Time and again, I speak to people of my background in the whisper filled shadows of corners and corridors, quietly fretting about “getting it wrong” or being accused of collaboration or being a sell-out for voicing such criticisms. Even when such whispers have the audacity to become a loud conversation (behind locked doors) they rarely grow into public debates– too many of us fear we’re alone.

Identity and Politics

In a characteristically elegant act of rhetorical artistry, scholar Edward Said used his article on William Butler Yeats and colonialism to find insights about the entire colonial/anti-colonial enterprise. Said took the cultural ferment that he argued gave rise to much of Yeats’ oeuvre and used it to elaborate on both the triumphs and follies of decolonisation– to brilliant effect

Yeats, in being a tribune for Irish liberation (albeit a rather problematic one, as Said explains elsewhere), wrote poetry that was not only about Ireland and Irishness but also poems that held,

“…a good deal of promise in getting beyond them, not remaining trapped in the emotional self-indulgence of celebrating one’s own identity. There is first of all the possibility of discovering a world not constructed out of warring essences. Second, there is the possibility of a universalism that is not limited or coercive, which beliving that all people have only one single identity is… Third, and most important, moving beyond nativism does not mean abandoning nationality, but it does mean thinking of local identity as not exhaustive, and therefore not being anxious to confine one’s self to one’s own sphere, with its ceremonies of belonging, its built in chauvinism, and its limiting sense of security.”

“Nativism” is Said’s word for nationalisms that trumpet a reversal of colonialist hierarchies, exalting rather than denigrating the purported essence of the colonised. This, Said argues, leads to a “metaphysics of essences” that then begets an “unthinking acceptance of stereotypes, myths, animosities, and traditions encouraged by imperialism.”

So, what does this have to do with us and online activism? Said was speaking to vexations that have bedevilled every liberation movement, and used art to elucidate what is a fairly common struggle: how do we continue on the path to the promised land without taking perpetual detours in hells of our own making? How do we avoid the pitfalls created by the very fires we use to emancipate ourselves? And most pertinent for me: how do we do activism without taking too much of patriarchy for granted?

I have long argued (privately) that our current phase of online activism is very much hobbled by the logic of neoliberalism and its emphasis on the individual, in ways that many of us are completely unaware of. Much online activism exalts the particular at the expense of the collective, rewarding individual episodes of catharsis and valuing them with considerably higher esteem than the more hard-nosed and less histrionic work that sustains a community. This is the dark side of the anxiety over the “tone argument.”

The Uses of Anger to Late Capitalism

Odds are if you belong to marginalised group, you are saddled with a stigma against being angry. Women, people of colour, people with disabilities, trans people, the poor and labouring classes, all face various and specific stigmas for being “too loud” or “too angry.” There are paradigmatic stereotypes in the particular, as well, “Angry Black Wo/Man,” “Angry Tranny,” “Feisty Latina,” “Dragon Lady,” “class warrior,” and so on, with which we are all painfully familiar in one way or another. It was with noble intentions that many of us rallied around the idea that “tone policing” was an oppressive construct meant to deny us the eminent humanity and cleansing fire of anger. We had a right to be angry, as surely as anyone else; moreso, even. Oppression ought to make one angry.

But in the process, “the tone argument” came to be understood less as a complex piece of social machinery than an easily identifiable trope; it then became a badge that could be waved at will in any discussion to absolve one of responsibility for their words. Even though we as leftists quite literally wrote the book(s) on why and how language matters, we suspend that understanding when it comes to our own community members because we have come to value the sanctity of their anger over the integrity of the wider group. Some of us excuse this on the grounds that we provide the only safe place for certain people to express anger without being shamed for it, and that living with oppression leaves us with pent up rage that demands expression.

The individual catharsis, then, comes to matter more than the collective, and responsibility to a wider community is blurred, if not quite lost.

It’s why it was difficult for many in the trans community to challenge the #DieCisScum hashtag, for example, because any who questioned it would be charged with “tone policing” and denying the community’s right to be angry. But the problem always was that this pseudo-therapeutic exercise in catharsis only made a few people feel better while starting a violently unnecessary and unhelpful discussion with hordes of cis people who laid their own hurt and anger at every trans person’s door. It took a tarring brush to the entire community for next to no meaningful gain, other than sticking it to “our oppressors” for the benefit of a handful.

This is where we return to Said and his argument that nativism operated under colonialist logic; in addition to the emphasis on individual catharsis, the culture of unchecked rage that sometimes wracks us is also an artefact of patriarchy itself and its lust for competitive, often violent contest. Much ink has been spilled on the masculinism that infects activist discourse, leading to delightfully snarky epithets like “Manarchism,” but we ignore the fact that white cis men are not the only people perpetuating this; it’s a culture, it does not dwell only in those with a perceived “essence.” We often unthinkingly accept and venerate the modalities and methods that patriarchy most favours; rage fuelled, unempathetic, us-versus-them politics is an ideal fit with the political hellscape of modern, neo-liberal patriarchy. It is a world that prizes the atomised particular over the powerful but compromising collective.

Your rage fuels the profits of every major website on the internet; be it Facebook, Twitter, Fox Nation, the New York Times’ comment sections, blog comments, Reddit, Tumblr, or Slashdot, your rage gets others angry, committing them to call-and-response threads hundreds of comments deep, which keeps them coming back to threads obsessively, which generates pageviews, ad impressions, and more revenue for the interested parties.

Activist rage is linkbait.

The isomorphism between the particularly fiery posture of some activism and the weeknight lineup of American cable news ought not be lost on us. If we can recognise the latter as a cynical sop to capital that is degrading our discourse, then it might be time to acknowledge that, at least sometimes, we are pressed into a similar role by the cultural logic of our society. Rage seduces us all, no matter what our background, and its sirensong will always be in the language that most appeals to us as individuals, regardless of our politics.

An image showing two wire mesh human faces staring at each other in an amber/orange field of numbers.
I imagine queer cyborgs might look like this, only cooler.

Ethics for Queer Cyborgs

This past year I began to outline a theory of online behaviour, entitled Ethics For Cyborgs, that explained why we ought to go beyond blaming anonymity for the rash outbreaks of prejudice and mass cruelty that predominate online– what is sometimes erroneously called “trolling,” and what too often becomes a very material threat to one’s life and livelihood. I argued, in brief, that although anonymity was a part of the problem, it has been vastly overemphasised in popular and academic discussions alike, and that taking it away would not bring us to a significantly better place online, free from prejudice and the oppression of privilege’s collective soft power. Instead, I said it must be defended as a common human right for us all online, and that we must look instead to the fact that the internet is presented to us as a mobius strip of reality and unreality– real when it’s convenient, unreal when it is not, and that the cultural conceits educating us into thinking of cyberspace as less real than “meatspace” make inhumane behaviour inevitable. This is a new medium for human interaction, and one where our socialisation for it has been decidedly faulty, laden with the false conventional wisdom that our eyes deceive us.

This argument was presented as one that chiefly explained the well-known behaviour of prejudiced people who would form hate mobs directed at outspoken women and queer people. The hate mail, the organised campaigns, the rape and death threats, the pornography, the organised and well-marshalled targeting of people’s homes, families, and loved ones, would be, I argued, more intelligible within this framework.

What I did not foreground, however, was the fact that this theory– that we are socialised to believe the internet is less than real, and that this makes belligerent behaviour more likely and more defensible– also explained the less violent, but still worrying behaviour of some social justice activists who delight in vitriolic attacks against their own when they are perceived to have erred. The fusillade of expletive laden insults and cruelly-cast public aspersions by our own are equally explicable by that theory. We ourselves fail to keep sight of the fact that the people we attack are human beings, and that our words have power.

My friend, activist Kat Hache, spoke about this phenomenon in her own article on activist rage:

Anita Sarkeesian’s TED talk touched on this sort of performative cruelty, where targeting other individuals online has gained somewhat of a competitive aspect, similar to that of a video game, with a rewards system that reinforces toxic behavior.  I have to say, as much as I’ve seen directed at me that mirrors exactly what she describes in the threads about me on 4chan, I’ve seen a disturbing amount within the social justice circle.”

I find myself reminded of the time when I was a tadpole trans woman and mere neophyte blogger, when I was raked over the coals by a woman who damned me for defending a cis friend who had made a mistake on trans issues; not only was I torn into, but another woman even wished death to that same friend when I (ill-advisedly) brought up her terminal illness. My interlocutor hoped my friend would die sooner, she said.

It is an extreme example but one that is nevertheless entirely too common, and one that I came perilously close to taking as a model. There was a time in my life where I took pride in being a “social justice warrior” on Reddit, ticking the boxes of others’ mistakes, missteps, and misspoken words, cruelly scolding people, looking for those who were “doing it wrong” as a means of validating my own sense of integrity as an activist, as if each person I roasted would be a talisman against the same thing happening to me ever again. It was only when I discovered that I had made someone cry for hours that I took a long step back and asked myself if I was really making the world a better place by doing this.

I had at last allowed myself to acknowledge that this was not what I wanted to do as an activist.

A poorly drawn castle on a floating island in the middle of a starry sky with a poorly drawn crescent moon above it.
My old “castle in the air” drawing– it was one of the first things I drew for blogging that symbolised my aspirations

From Here to Eternity: Concluding Thoughts

At its best, activism is not merely opposition to what is, it is also constructive of what will be. Ours is not a utopia of negatives– a world without this, without that, and so forth– but also a world of affirmatives and possibilities. This swirling gyre of rage and ressentiment is a terrible artefact of oppression, and one we ought not consign ourselves to. It is not a wormhole to liberation, however much we may wish it to be.

What aroused my concern was the fact that there are too many people, in the trans community alone, who feel like they are unable to call it their community and find shelter there because the tenor of discourse is so corrosive as to be just as stressful and antagonistic as the outside world. I hear this from a number of people who are close to me and have contributed mightily to activist communities with labour, art, and struggle– and I hear it from neophytes and outsiders who wish to join but find themselves put off by the rancour they hear from within. One example of the latter was a trans woman named Deb who commented on an article I wrote criticising the culture that led to the vicious online firestorm surrounding Carolyn Petit and her review of GTA V. Deb worried that that same “poisonous attitude” was creeping into “otherwise nice places,” going on to cite examples of speech in queer communities that troubled her. My reply was at pains to draw a clear distinction between oppressive speech and counter-oppressive speech, and to assert that the difference in power between the two was not trivial. Nevertheless, her core points could not be denied and so I addressed those at greater length. What I said there is, I think, a good way to close:

“It is not reasonable to compare the angry speech of a powerless minority to the “hate speech” (in the legal and sociological sense of that term) of a privileged group, but there is an ethical argument to be made. We may not materially disadvantage cis people when we speak in such overtly aggressive ways, but we do something equally bad– and you exemplify this– we isolate our community members and corrode the very community that is meant to be a shelter for us against an often uncaring world. I do not wish to be in a community where spite and anger are the prevailing emotions, however justified they may be in some cosmic sense. More than cis people, we owe it to each other to make our community more productive. The simple and ineluctable truth about our corrosive call-out culture is that it’s part of this larger problem I addressed, where we use the unique nature of the internet to do harm. People saying that others should commit suicide, die in a fire, or making death threats are not acceptable– whoever says them. And as feminists and social justice activists, we must make that clearer without indulging in the overused and disingenuous argument that oppression makes that sort of expression valid.”

We must remember that considering the impact of our words and the register in which they are spoken is not genuflection to the oppressor, but love and respect for our peers.

I would now take this one step further to say that while sheltering our community members must always take priority, we must also challenge ourselves to be merciful to those who make themselves our enemies, and keep their humanity in sight even as they denude themselves of it with petty hatred. We can do more than simply meet their cruelty with ineffectual rage, and we can do more than simply shelter in place from their privilege. It is time that we took our convictions to their logical conclusion and set our sights higher than the call outs of particular points of failure evinced by some hapless individual; it is time we took the next step so many in our communities are already taking, to a social justice activism recommitted to changing social structures and not just creating echo chambers to declaim against what we have. In Mattie Brice’s words we “need to keep in mind that we’re fighting the system that uses people to marginalise others, not the people themselves.”

Throughout this piece I have, likely to the consternation of some, been less careful with my uses of the terms “anger” and “rage” than some of the other critics and activists I have cited. I did this in part because I think it can be healthy to be critical about what we admit as “anger” and thus acceptable under the dominant paradigms of activist discourse. One can take the excellent tack that Aevee Bee took in her article and say that “anger isn’t abuse and abuse isn’t anger,” recognising that abuse is not something we should excuse with the ennoblement of anger that we indulge, but we can also think about the efficacy of even “acceptable” forms of anger. Why? Because I believe that lack of circumspection is at the heart of the problem. We allow important activist insights to metamorphose into inflexible rules, rather than useful information to help us make sense of an ever-undulating landscape. Yes, anger is useful and sometimes vitally necessary. But we can hold onto that while judging activist tactics on a case by case basis. Rather than applying blanket rules (“all questioning of anger is tone policing”) we can be nimbly thoughtful in our assessments and recognise that not every problem we face is the nail to anger’s hammer.

Justice does not take the shape of punishment eagerly dispensed. Let us recommit to the just creed that has summoned us to this work: a clarion call that resonates with our shared humanity and compels us towards a more compassionate and merciful understanding of justice– surely we owe it to ourselves.

63 thoughts on “Words, Words, Words: On Toxicity and Abuse in Online Activism

  1. Jane Mayhew January 4, 2014 / 12:09 am

    I was worried at first when you mentioned tumblr as a shorthand for rage fueled activism, but you’re right that mercy would be and therefore should be a safer(better?) virtue for those on the short end of the stick to follow. For my part I accidentally stumbled on this concept by trying to “kill ’em with kindness” and so was able to explain my position and thus change someone’s mind(or so they claim).

  2. Lisa Harney January 4, 2014 / 3:06 am

    I remember when brownfemipower tried to talk about this, and s.e. smith tried to talk about this and I tried to talk about this (that’s when we started talking I think?) and I forget who else but there was more than the three of us writing about it, many more, and so many people didn’t understand what it meant and once new posts stopped going up people moved on and snapped back to the same old or found ways to justify the same stuff in the framework of questioning this kind of call out.

    And another thing that’s really hard to speak out against are obviously spurious callouts. Like people leveling accusations of things that their target has not done, but because of the way the social justice machine rolls, they’re taken at face value, and this has harmed too many people (one is too many, but we’re looking at far more than one, you know?).

    And god knows I’ve managed to hurt people, sometimes even when I didn’t intend to, and sometimes when I did. There are people I will not say a single word to about someone else bothering me in certain ways because no matter how many times I tell them to please not take any action on it they’ll do it. And I mean QT was like that, where I could post something about someone and suddenly there’s this big firestorm directed at that single person. That was not something I wanted to do and I did not even know how to deal with it when it happened, like just asking people to lay off didn’t seem to work, and some people would ratchet things up anyway.

    I am glad you wrote this, though. I hope it gets more traction than it has in the past.

  3. leftytgirl January 4, 2014 / 4:52 am

    Thank you for writing this.

    I’ve broached this subject myself in several pieces, though never as successfully as you’ve done here. I’m uncomfortable with the idea of living in a community where having experienced oppression somehow largely absolves a person of any responsibility for the things that they do or say. As you point out, it seems contradictory of the goals of social justice activism itself. And honestly, those arguments remind me of the logic that is often used attempting to justify abusive behavior enacted by radical feminists.

    I also feel that memes like #diecisscum (and it’s more recent relative, #fuckcispeople) in subtle ways open channels for abuse against our own community members from the outside, and more obviously give our opponents a convenient excuse to dismiss our community as a whole. Then there is the further point that attempts to discuss these things often turn into trans activists tearing into other trans activists over it. From my experience, there is a kind of disruptive effect from the latter that sometimes brings other forms of activism to a complete halt.

  4. Cel West (@Kosmogrrrl) January 4, 2014 / 6:03 am

    You make crucial points, I think. I don’t entirely agree – I think simply as humans we don’t pay attention to anything or anyone until they’re extremely angry; this tendency is foregrounded but not in fact more acute on Twitter.

    I’ve seen anti-racist activists tweet a point dozens of times calmly and it’s ignored. To be honest, I’ve done the same myself.

    I also think there are subtle differences between the US and UK – anti-LGBT or woman hate mobs are often created by the right-wing gutter press in a top-down way. The most lauded feminists here are those who say the nastiest things against minorities in the nicest possible way. And I’d never call myself a member of the trans community since receiving so many misogynist slurs for using the word “cis” when calling out a friend in public.

    Maybe we’re just backwards over here.

    As such I wouldn’t outright condemn even the most vitriolic hashtag – I think anger creates spaces for debate, new articulations, and new horizons – but it does have a personal and inter-community cost.

  5. The Goldfish January 4, 2014 / 12:36 pm

    This is brilliant, thank you. In recent months, I’ve seen so many arguments which start off as a genuine intellectual disagreement but quickly progress into arguments about which of the two parties are more oppressed and therefore most justified in their anger.

    I’m sure it makes a lot of us very nervous. There comes a point where there are limits on how much activism one can afford to be involved in. It’s a crying shame when some of the cost comes from bitter, ugly and often abusive rows taking place within our own movements.

  6. Cath January 4, 2014 / 12:45 pm

    I found your post from a facebook link on a friend’s page. Your courage is astonishing. I have experienced the kind of activist rage you speak about, experienced it to the point that I have completely withdrawn from the communities which were once my online home. Thank you for articulating the problem so clearly. May your words bring change!

  7. disfasia January 4, 2014 / 7:43 pm

    I liked your article until you got to two terms. First the word ‘cis’. You speak colonial hierarchies and moving beyond yet this term nothing other than colonising and insulting to most. I would rethink this term entirely as it racialises humans into categories and hierarchies that you establish (and in which they wish not to be included). Secondly, your ‘friend’ Kat Hache is a troll. I published a piece on issues that you discuss here and she harassed me for weeks on Twitter—a piece mind you that member of various communities to include the ‘trans community’ wrote to thank me for writing. Your piece loses credibility when you refer to someone who is herself a destructive force both to herself and trans politics. In fact, I would say this person very much fits the type who feels that her oppression by others gives her carte blanche to hit out at feminists.

    Otherwise, I do appreciate what you are doing here and the spirit in which you are writing.

    • Quinnae Moongazer January 4, 2014 / 7:58 pm

      There is a discussion to be had about why “cis” is insulting to *some* cisgender people that has much to do with the issues I raised here. But unless you’re going to argue that our ongoing political use of terms like “man” or “white” or “European” or “heterosexual/straight” are inherently “colonising and insulting to most” which “racialises humans into categories and hierarchies,” then I would suggest that you reconsider your own position. Even if the term is all but flung as an insult by some, it remains at its core a fair and neutral way of describing an extant phenomenon in many societies that avoids dehumanising and genuinely othering language; its origins lie in resistive discourse. It did not begin with privilege, but began as a way to name, understand, and combat a specific species of oppression.

      The word “cisgender” is no more a “colonising and insulting” imposition than it is to recognise that someone is white, or male, or heterosexual. It is a demographic term, nothing more or less.

      As to Ms. Hache, if you read her article she acknowledges her own personal failings in her history of activism; there’s nothing hypocritical about her words. If you have a personal matter to settle with her, I would suggest you do so somewhere other than this comment section; my citation of her is valid and credible. As I argued in this piece, none of us is perfect. Everyone I’ve cited, myself included, has participated in the destructive behaviour I criticise here. None of us is innocent, and to suggest that I throw Ms. Hache overboard because of her past mistakes (assuming your allegations are a true and fair representation of events) is to indulge in the same politics of purism and perfectionism that gives rise to rage culture.

      So, thank you for your compliments and for critiquing in a sobreminded way, but I fear I disagree with everything of substance in your comment.

      • aoifeschatology January 6, 2014 / 8:04 pm

        “It did not begin with privilege, but began as a way to name, understand, and combat a specific species of oppression.”

        Excellent. This is a point I found tremendously missing, even from those who are trying to argue from a post-colonial position (in American English at that). Very well said. A discussion to be had, yes. But let’s let those most in a position to offer an alternative analysis make the recalibrations.

      • sable January 12, 2014 / 8:58 pm

        Now, to be fair,”white was at one time considered an insult to those who thought they should be able to continue to use the term colored and that their skin tone should be considered normal. And heterosexual was considered an insult by heterosexuals who thought gay equated to deviant.

    • sable January 12, 2014 / 8:56 pm

      I will stop using cis when being trans or gender non-conforming no longer matters in any facet or aspect of life.

      The term cis in no way “racialises humans into categories and hierarchies.” Those categories and hierarchies were already there, long before the use of the term cis. It simply names the existing hierarchy so we can begin to address it and dismantle it.

  8. Faye Seidler (@FayeSeidler) January 4, 2014 / 7:52 pm

    A really provocative and insightful article! I tend to address a congruent point about the structure of the debate, instead of the essence of it (not that all the exchanges mentioned could be called debates). Often, I talk about the Game-Mind Principle of zero sums at work and how people only win by ‘taking’ from others. And…I try to discourage this when I see it. I offer each side the fact they’ve likely both made valid points and from that validation attempt to get them to understand the validity and scope of their opponents position.

    Seriously though, I really enjoyed this article. I have a kind of runners high after reading it, because the difficulty to subsume this caliber of information was just below my threshold to understand it. And like with most highs, I love talking/discussing/offering/listening during or after. 🙂

  9. Friend of a Friend January 5, 2014 / 2:01 am


  10. Sandy Hope January 5, 2014 / 2:14 pm

    So well said, and I can entirely relate, my own list of unpublished blog posts growing larger day by day, and at its heart a sense of needing to be loyal to the group that often fosters a lack of consciousness raising and appropriate introspection. I hope folks can hear this.

  11. Puma Rose January 5, 2014 / 4:13 pm

    Excellent article. Thank you for your observations & musings:-)

  12. Pavini Moray January 5, 2014 / 10:04 pm

    Feeling really grateful that you have articulated clearly the feeling I have been experiencing of late and have not been able to wrap language around. I will share with my trans communities, among others.

  13. Del January 6, 2014 / 12:01 am

    Reblogged this on Sex, Gods, and Rock Stars and commented:
    Although written about activist communities, I found myself making parallels to the recent tenor of discussion in polytheist online spaces as well. I hear so often that people want to blog about important personal moments of spirituality or philosophy, but refrain because they’re afraid of using a wrong word or phrase and pissing off imaginary hordes who sent death threats and sexual aggression. And I can’t lie to them – it happens. I’ve had death threats, been accused of sexual crimes, and been told to hold ideas in less I invite further threats. This is udderly ridiculous and needs to end. There are many ways to state a disagreement or point out problematic theories without calling someone a rapist or a murderer. In 2014, I can only pray our community can collectively work to end such hyberbolic “calling out” culture and resolve to find and support ways to share differing viewpoints and debate ideas without abusing those with the courage to share their thoughts, experience, and feelings – things newcomers want us to be writing and sharing. And those of us with a little cache or respect in the community can stand to listen to anger without responding in kind.

  14. cherry bomb January 6, 2014 / 3:37 am

    Reblogged this on fleurmach and commented:
    “At its best, activism is not merely opposition to what is, it is also constructive of what will be. Ours is not a utopia of negatives– a world without this, without that, and so forth– but also a world of affirmatives and possibilities. This swirling gyre of rage and ressentiment is a terrible artefact of oppression, and one we ought not consign ourselves to. It is not a wormhole to liberation, however much we may wish it to be.”

  15. Christine Noble January 6, 2014 / 11:25 pm

    Reblogged this on Hand of Ananke and commented:
    Very long, but nicely sums up some things that have been running around my head.

  16. Timothy James Scriven January 7, 2014 / 9:39 pm

    Hey. Thanks for this post. The tide seems to be turning on these things and there’s been a couple of articles like this recently, but this one seems to go further and deeper than the others.

    Nonetheless I have a critique. It seems to me that most articles on this topic sort of treat it as accidental that this culture of rage would develop in the social justice blogging community in particular, or that it’s simply the mirror of a similar phenomena at places like Reddit. I reckon it’s not accidental though- it’s not simply an unfortunate coincidence that it would happen here, nor is it a mirror of problems outside the left, rather it has to do with a failure in the kind of left theory social justice blogging implicitly subscribes to, and ultimately to the fragmenting conditions of late capitalism.

    The fundamental problem is that the social justice blogging community presents an image of the world as divided up into countless modalities of oppression (gender, race, sexuality, ability and “class”). Various modalities of oppression are seen as perhaps intersecting and mutually reinforcing, but ultimately separate structures. The upshot of this is that it seems like only members of oppressed groups have a direct interest in fighting their relevant forms of oppression- or at least the basis for a direct interest in others is unclear.Thus a white person who is acting oppressively towards people of color, for example, may well be acting in their own self interest. It would seem then that the only way to make them stop is to apply moral and social pressure.

    By contrast a perspective such as autonomist Marxism, which sees different modalities of oppression as expressions of an underlying logic of exploitation and accumulation provides a clearer, more obvious basis for a narrative in which we are all in this together, and thus aggression can be replaced by gentler appeals to mutual struggle. Similarly, the psychological effects of seeing all those not absorbed into the capitalist class as potential allies in the fight for the abolition of all forms of domination tends to lead to greater concordance.

    Anyway, just a few quick thoughts. I’d be interested to hear what you think of them. Thanks again for the article, which I think is very useful.

    • Quinnae Moongazer January 7, 2014 / 11:13 pm

      Thank you for your comment; I’m always happy to reply to thoughtful criticism.

      As I wrote in my follow up, I cannot speak for the other authors, but speaking for myself I don’t think this is an “accident” necessarily, and I feel I addressed at least some of the epistemological assumptions that lead SJ activists to this place. I do not disagree that reductive identity politics is a big part of the problem, but it is also not the sum total of the problem and I would say that it’s perhaps a bit too rosy to suggest that any form of Marxism, socialism, anarcho-syndicalism, et cetera is structurally resistant to this kind of behaviour. Revolutionary politics in general lends itself to towering infernos of rage. Identity politics may refract that in a particular way, yes, but it’s not the cause.

      One thing I did not talk about at great length is that “rage culture” also manifests in the romanticising of political violence, which is another uncritical reflex that is quite uniformly distributed throughout the left. Revolutionary Marxists and others are, by no means, immune to mythologising about violence and yearning for the day we “burn it all down,” whilst failing to grapple with the concrete realities of such a calamity. In the process, horizontal hostility is ignored, hierarchies of radicalism are created, litmus tests and dogma predominate, and the group atrophies under the weight of its own purism. This is a story depressingly familiar to just about anyone involved in any kind of radical or extremist politics– and not even simply on the left.

      When it comes to the intersectional politics you critique, I would point out that there are quite a few versions of it, many of which “see different modalities of oppression as expressions of an underlying logic of exploitation and accumulation,” and thus are not so different from the epistemology you laud. It is also worth keeping in mind that “social justice activism” is, contrary to some grousing in the particularly dank and mouldy corners of the internet, not an easily defined unity. Most of the problematic people on Tumblr, say, are indeed “social justice warriors” but social justice activism is a much broader enterprise that circumscribes most traditional Left movements as well, up to and including labour and trade unionist movements, anarchism, various forms of communism and socialism, and so on.

      For many feminists, anti-racists, queer and trans activists, and other leftists, there are well developed narratives about how oppressive societies have a perverse and deforming effect even on the putatively privileged; many amongst our number understand the ways in which oppressive structures inhibit the full flourishing of our humanity, regardless of where one stands in the social hierarchy. To take a quick example from feminism, we know that patriarchy depends on a dehumanising and often violent contest amongst men as much as it depends on the oppression of women, and it’s a beautiful thing to witness when a man emerges into a new understanding of what *he* can be when he realises the patriarchal dividend (per Raewyn Connell) is not truly humane sustenance– for him or anyone else.

      The line between the modalities of activism you describe seems to me to be a good deal more blurry and fluid, to the point where it may not even be helpful to *call it* a line.

      Your reasoning is, to a goodly extent, sound and there is a lot to be said for the fact that we– as I was suggesting by quoting the Said article at length– create new “essences” that simply replicate the logic of oppression under the guise of an emancipatory ethic. It has the potential to create dangerously narrow silos that divide us from one another, inadvertently replicating the individualising logic of neoliberalism (and this is, indeed, what I was getting at when I talked about how rage activism, and much of the postmodernism-inspired culture around it, venerates the particular over the collective). But I do not think the underlying logic therein is confined simply to those who make cause with “identity based” movements.

      Thanks for your thought-provoking comment, I always appreciate these opportunities to explore the narrower capillaries branching off from the things I write!

  17. syrens January 8, 2014 / 10:42 am

    Reblogged this on syrens and commented:
    There was a time in my life where I took pride in being a “social justice warrior” on Reddit, ticking the boxes of others’ mistakes, missteps, and misspoken words, cruelly scolding people, looking for those who were “doing it wrong” as a means of validating my own sense of integrity as an activist, as if each person I roasted would be a talisman against the same thing happening to me ever again. It was only when I discovered that I had made someone cry for hours that I took a long step back and asked myself if I was really making the world a better place by doing this.

    This is a brilliantly written essay. Holy life, does she hit it on the head.

  18. alexforshaw January 9, 2014 / 5:02 am

    A really well-argued article: great to see a rational voice advocating for safe, supportive online communities. I believe one factor in the toxic anger is when people define themselves in terms of the things they oppose, rather than those that they support. Being for something is inclusive, nurturing, validating — positive — and it would be good to see bonds being forged based on common goals rather than schisms based on [sometimes minor] differences.

  19. Linnea February 2, 2014 / 7:43 pm

    Your article articulated the major problems in the social justice/activism sphere better than any other I’ve seen. Instantaneous calling out of the slightest mistake and subsequent harassment, competition to see who could be more ideologically pure, defense of uncontrolled rage with accusations of “tone policing”–I saw this kind of stuff a lot on tumblr, but never knew how to respond. When oppressed people don’t feel safe in their own movements, that’s a huge problem. Anyway, thank you for writing this. I’m really exited to find your blog.

  20. Bonze Anne Rose Blayk February 8, 2014 / 9:11 pm

    Since I really feel the need to put this thought across a little more forcefully… Katherine, I believe the anons are a huge part of the problem; sockpuppets are deployed to manipulate “community opinion” so it will proceed into avenues of marginally coherent animosity guaranteed to leave the average person simply bewildered… and this kind of impersonation is being used to undermine the credibility of a wide range of social movements (some of them conservative in nature, right?)

    The most persuasive and committed proponents of “revolutionary action” in the demonstrations protesting the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968 were undercover police agents.

    Some of those anons who will lash you with criticism for violating the “correct line of thought according to the wisdom condensed from the voice of the masses” are there only to intimidate you. Period.

    During the blogwar over at ENDABlog (1.0), in which I helped out by promoting the sockpuppets to unleash more “weaksauce insults” so Kat could try to backtrace the IP addresses to “a certain party known to be an anti-trans activist” and counter the plague of ultra-toxic radfem socks, I asked a friend of mine who has a similar depth of knowledge on the workings of the Internet – but in a somewhat different area of specialization…

    “How many people does it take to give the impression that a bunch of sockpuppets constitutes a ‘movement’?”

    His answer was “about five.”

    I’ve been working on Internet software since 1985, and posing and posturing and the outright fraudulent assumption of phony identities is something I just accept (if not assume) as almost normative.

    And finally, reading over your very nice piece on the Little Ponies that you posted just after this one, I was brought to mind of a major basis for my unease with your assertion in the title that The Revolution Will Not Be Puppetmastered… it’s the excellent book by Andrei Codrescu (of NPR commentary fame), The Hole In the Flag, on the Romanian Revolution which deposed the tyrant Ceauceseu and his kin.

    Because gee, maybe The Revolution will be puppetmastered… ???

    – Bonze Anne Rose Blayk

    The Revolution Will not Be Puppetmastered

    I’d like to strongly suggest that you read that book – Codrescu was a great writer as well as a great radio commentator, and it’s a very provocative read… if you’re interested in how an ersatz revolution is marketed.

    – bonzie anne

  21. Bonze Anne Rose Blayk February 25, 2014 / 10:44 am

    Ah, what was I saying again?

    Oh yeah: interactions on the web are subject to all kinds of manipulation… some of it conducted by government organizations:

    Government plans to monitor and influence internet communications, and covertly infiltrate online communities in order to sow dissension and disseminate false information, have long been the source of speculation.

    – Glenn Greenwald, How Covert Agents Infiltrate the Internet to Manipulate, Deceive, and Destroy Reputations

    … h/t to my dear friend Nerissa Belcher for linking this on Facebook; Glennwald provides some really interesting documents made available through the bad offices of the extremely spooky Edward Snowden.

    thanks, Katherine!
    – bonzie anne

    PS: I don’t worry myself over the US national security folks focusing their attention on me, since I have a long history of “pro-establishment conduct” as a computer professional, and am otherwise 100% OUT and self-doxxing… but fora involving “social justice causes” might (or might not?) be targeted.

    This should not be a cause for undue paranoia, but the authenticity of “persons” presenting with internet identities who obsessively protect their anonymity should always be assessed with a modicum of skepticism, and such of those who advocate “radical measures” should have both their identities and arguments subjected to extreme scrutiny.

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  23. zmashko June 17, 2014 / 2:56 pm

    This is a really great piece. I think you’re absolutely bang-on about everything. But, for some, you leave yourself open here:

    “One can take the excellent tack that Aevee Bee took in her article and say that “anger isn’t abuse and abuse isn’t anger,” recognising that abuse is not something we should excuse with the ennoblement of anger that we indulge, but we can also think about the efficacy of even “acceptable” forms of anger. Why? Because I believe that lack of circumspection is at the heart of the problem.”

    The response from those who will take offense to your article will be that you’re bringing a conversation about tactics into what really ought to be a conversation about principle. To even raise the question as to whether or not anger ought to be deployed tactically is to cross a line – to engage in tone policing, and to implicitly deny the experience of the person claiming to experience anger.

    I think that you are absolutely correct in your conclusion that there needs to be tactical discussions surrounding the usefulness of particular expressions of anger, and also when expressions of anger become abuse. But I have to say that I’m very disillusioned and cynical about the possibility of this happening. I don’t believe that this is a debate that can be had in social justice circles right now. We are at a point where even the mere mention that such a debate ought to take place is grounds for ‘calling out’ and labeling such a conversation oppressive, colonial, privileged or what have you (all concepts that have been stretched beyond any reasonable degree of usefulness, abstracted to the point where they’re used more as epithets than bearing any reference to actual phenomenon).

    The result is that we’re living in a kind of anti-politics that results in a knee-jerk smothering of critical thought. Unless – miraculously – the fractured and insular communities calling (or not calling) themselves ‘the left’ at this point suddenly realize that a massive, diverse, and pluralistic body of thought exists out there on all types of oppression, and that there is room for legitimate disagreement to take place between individuals and groups without reducing competing perspectives to their relative oppressiveness, then we’re going nowhere fast.

  24. cnlester June 17, 2014 / 3:19 pm

    Reblogged this on a gentleman and a scholar and commented:
    A new post is on its way – but, for the moment, something excellent from another writer.

  25. L June 17, 2014 / 3:57 pm

    Reblogged this on FISTFELT and commented:
    A very important and sobering piece about a style of activism that seems to be gaining in popularity more and more these days, and which drives me to disengage from more and more spaces for the sake of my own well-being.

  26. sofieselnes August 18, 2014 / 1:48 pm

    This is brilliant! Thank you Katherine! I will be thinking about performative cruelty in collective identities, aspects of neo-liberal aggression in activist projects, and the self-perpetuating unreality of the communicated world, while avoiding the temptation of trying to police against them!

  27. Dr. H. Wednesday October 20, 2014 / 3:10 am

    I have many friends who seem only to vent. When we talk, most of their communication involves describing every rotten thing in the world, and being intractably angry and despairing. Although I largely share my friends’ concerns, it gets to be a bit much after a while, and I withdraw. I can’t imagine I’m alone in this. There’s only so much venom and anguish you can absorb before you lack the emotional strength to do so anymore, when your friends practically insist on being pissed off, shooting down any response which isn’t wholly consonant. I know they’ve been through bad experiences, and I endeavor to be supportive, but when they’re yelling in my face for the _nth_ time, I feel I might as well be an empty room.

    I suppose many groups reduce themselves to a core of individuals who simply shout at one another, and technically aren’t ‘activist’ because spreading the message is distant second to their members’ catharsis.

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