If the Choice is Between “Toxic” Criticism and the Status Quo, I’ll Take Toxicity, Thanks
Last week, in a cover story for The Nation titled “Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars,” Michelle Goldberg made a lengthy case against the current climate of Twitter, where disagreements can escalate into personal attacks and call-outs sometimes stand in for measured discussion. And while few people would argue that @ replies like, “Shut up, asshole” are adding anything to the ideological discourse of feminism, Goldberg’s characterization of Twitter critiques as “Maoist hazing” also didn’t sit right with many readers.
My own belief is that Twitter and other social media allow feminism to grow in crucial ways. These platforms do away with the gatekeepers of media, creating a platform where people whose voices are often left out of the discussion can be heard loud and clear. That discourse forces those of us whose voices have always been accepted have to ask ourselves hard questions that we never would have considered before. The truly toxic era for feminism was one in which only middle-class, white voices were heard—which may be the time Goldberg is referring to when she writes wistfully of the "insouciant, freewheeling place" that Twitter used to be.
That said, I know firsthand what Goldberg was trying to get at. I am white, I consider myself a feminist, and I’ve written hundreds of articles on the topics of feminism, transgender representation in society, and media. Though I wrote each one with the absolute best of intentions, I’ve also said a number of things that have upset others or made them feel erased or excluded—and, as a result, have found myself on the receiving end of hundreds of angry tweets and emails.
At first, I got defensive. “Don’t you see that I meant well?” I’d respond to disagreement. “You’re not seeing the big picture. I was just using that as an example. It’s like you’re looking for something to be mad about,” I’d reply to others. Elsewhere, I tried to explain myself: “I know I didn’t mention non-binary, agender, genderqueer folks, but I was only given 800 words to work with. There just wasn’t a way to get all those ideas in there!” And maybe I had a point. Sometimes, by being too focused on my central thesis, I do lose sight of some of the broader factors. Maybe a wider-ranging piece wouldn’t be as impactful if condensed into the word count I was allotted. But I can’t deny that there were times where I just about threw in the towel, saying, “Screw it, I’ll write about music instead.”
Over time, though, I realized something. These “attacks,” the ones that made me feel so frustrated and hurt—I deserved them. And in each of these cases, once I was able to set aside my own selfish feelings I realized that whatever it was that I felt so strongly about that I needed to put into blog, article, or editorial format, the same strength existed in those who had called me out when they felt I’d wronged them.
I realized that it’s crucial to my own growth as a writer, as an activist, and as a human being, to listen to those voices of dissent. Maybe I need to issue an apology (I’ve done this before). Maybe I need to devote an essay entirely to the topic I’ve been criticized on (that too). Maybe I just need to elevate the voices of those who can more directly speak to the topic at hand (definitely that). What I don’t do is gain anything by calling anything or anyone “toxic.” And neither does Goldberg.
Here’s an example: It was only about a year ago that I became aware of ableism. To be absolutely honest, when I first received criticism about this, I caught myself thinking, “Wow, this person sure is being sensitive,” and brushing it off. A week or two later, I spoke with a friend, a woman who struggles with mental health issues and went into great detail about how much it hurts her to see people use words like “crazy” and “insane” to spice up headlines. While she knows that an article titled “The 13 Most Insane Chicken Pot Pie Recipes” isn’t actually referring to individuals who suffer with mental illness, she couldn’t help but feel as though the world was indifferent to her condition.
I thought long and hard about that. Was it worth knowingly hurting people just to make my headlines a little more click-bait-y? No. From that point on, I’ve made a conscious effort to rid my writing of terms like that, just the way I wish people would stop using anti-transgender slurs. You may think it’s “no big deal” to use the word “tranny” in sitcoms and blog posts, but do you lose anything by not using it? You really don’t, just as I don’t lose anything by not using “crazy.”
In my experience, those most likely to view these types of complaints as evidence of oversensitivity are those who come from places of privilege, unlikely to either benefit or lose out due to their word choices or attitudes. When the stakes are so minor, why are so few willing to take a stand against racist, ableist, or transphobic language? Maybe it won’t bring them much in terms of career advancement, but it won’t be their downfall, either.
And if your own success as a writer, media personality, or activist is threatened as a result of others offering criticism, it seems as though you might be basing your career on some mighty fragile beliefs to begin with. If you build yourself up by having to shut others down, especially those in the same movement as you, you’re failing that movement. And that’s where I believe Goldberg got off track, conflating ideological criticisms as personal attacks.
The piece opens, for instance, by recounting the criticism that founders of 2013 New York conference #Femfuture received. “[#Femfuture organizers were] savaged as a cabal of white opportunists,” Goldberg writes, briefly touching on some of these very real criticisms but ultimately discounting them as obnoxious—and very likely jealous—non–New Yorkers. To Goldberg, these tweets and the concerns behind them, originating largely from women of color, were, “so vitriolic, so full of bad faith and stubborn misinformation, that it felt like some sort of Maoist hazing.” And yet, by constructing a litany of all the ways #FemFuture was inclusive, Goldberg ends up framing this example—and the rest of the piece, ultimately—as “good” feminists beset by “bad” criticism.
True, not all criticism is constructive, not all criticism is correct, and not all criticism is offered in a way that’s polite and easily-digestible. But does that mean we need to label all criticism as “toxic? No.
Ultimately, it’s an individual’s decision whether or not they want to accept or ignore criticism. It’s an individual’s decision whether or not they would rather hurt someone else—even someone they don’t know—than espouse harmful ideas and word choice even as they plead good intentions. One example mentioned in Goldberg’s piece was the dissent that erupted over pro-choice organization A is For’s event called “Night of a Thousand Vaginas.” Some transgender individuals expressed concern that including “vagina” in the name of the event excluded transgender men who, while having reproductive ability, prefer not to associate themselves with the word “vagina.” Things escalated when Martha Plimpton jumped into the conversation, essentially scoffing at the criticism and asserting that she refuses to stop saying “vagina” in the context of pro-choice activism. If Plimpton wants to continue to promote events like these using language that may be hurtful to trans individuals, there’s nothing I or anyone else can do to stop her. But it’s also plenty fair to ask whether she actually cares about the individuals she hurts with her syntax.
There are points of views I will never understand. There are experiences I’ll never know. There’s a world of knowledge I’ll never access. It’s an exceptionally self-centered and privileged point of view to delude myself into thinking that my own personal point of view is unimpeachable. The same goes for Goldberg.
As a published author, widely read columnist, and frequent television guest, Goldberg is privy to an audience larger than most people’s. She doesn’t need to fight to have her views heard. This isn’t a bad thing, but it leaves her somewhat out of touch with those who don’t have the ease of access or the inherent trust of a mass audience. Adding Twitter to the conversation does nothing to diminish Goldberg’s voice, but it does allow the voices of the previously silenced to bubble to the top. No longer will the only voices we hear come from the point of view of cisgender, white, middle-class feminists (or, members of oppressed groups that cis, white, middle-class feminists approve of). Instead, Twitter allows us to question the message we’re being sold, to seek out additional points of view. What we’re experiencing is a changing landscape, and while that can be scary for some, it’s in everyone’s best interest to have a voice.
Goldberg’s Nation piece raises some important questions, but provides less than stellar answers. How do we adapt to a shifting media delivery system? How do we respond to ideas that differ from our own? Goldberg seems to favor the more centralized status quo, where all major ideas come from the same few activists with the most media reach. I favor the opposite approach, where we all have at least some input. When the reality is a combination of the two, the best we can do is to embrace dissent from those we align ourselves with. I’d much rather live in a world far too loud than one in which we need to fall in line with the ideas of the self-appointed few. How about you?
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