Has social media ruined feminism?


Jane Gilmore

Revolutions have always had slogans. Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. Black power. Give me liberty or give me death. Power to the people. Deeds not words. It’s time.

Roiphe’s longwinded #NotAllMen defence in Harper’s magazine, entitled “How Twitter Feminism is Bad for Women” asserts that the “level of thought policing” the #MeToo movement has wrought is now so intense on Twitter that nobody “in their right mind” wants to say anything “even mildly provocative or original”. Roiphe quotes several tweets to back her claims, but ultimately, her essay is a wilful misunderstanding of the nature of the #MeToo revolution.

#MeToo is another slogan for another revolutionary movement, and the fact that it’s a hashtag does not render it frivolous, it simply reflects the reality of modern communication. Information and collective protest are not passed on by pamphlets or songs anymore, they’re shared on social media.

There’s a touch of the luddite in her conflation of the jokes and throw away lines that flow alongside the explosion of pain and rage women share in the #MeToo hashtag. The medium is not the message and misnaming the groundswell of women’s anger as a triviality that only exists in the online world vastly underestimates both the level of oppression and the strength of women’s resistance.

Minimising the work of writers and activists by labelling them “twitter feminists”, as if the only work they’ve ever done is send out thoughtless tweets demanding the instant decapitation of any man who’s ever looked at a woman, is nothing but ad hominem reduction of women’s work.

Like any revolution #MeToo is imperfect but unlike many revolutions it is not demanding a price in lives and blood. The movement is an expression of collective rage and an unrelenting demand to be heard and believed. Rage is a necessary response to oppression. Without rage oppression is normalised.

Roiphe wants us to take the anger out of women’s rejection of sexual harassment, she wants us to be calm and reasoned and considerate of men’s feelings when we talk about the two billion women worldwide who have been subjected to men’s need to prove they have sexual power over women. Calm down. Be nice. Think about others before yourself. Men’s egos matter more than your pain. Stop being so hysterical.

Her concerns might be valid if men were being flung into prison or summarily executed without trial. But they aren’t. Lives are being ruined, she claims, as others have before her. Ruined how? The men who held power are not being forced to give back the millions they made or the fame they’ve garnered during their years of using positions of power to assault women without fear of repercussion.

More than fifty women accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault. More than seventy have accused Weinstein. At least sixteen women have accused Donald Trump of sexual assault. None of these men have gone to prison. The worst they’ve had to suffer is that they are no longer allowed to continue to avoid consequences of the choices they made. Or they got elected President of the United States.

It’s not really surprising that people with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo demand that women submit allegations to a legal system that has been failing them for decades. Women’s right to work free of sexual harassment and receive equal pay has been enshrined in law for nearly fifty years and yet the gender pay gap remains stubbornly persistent and it took a global revolution for sexual harassment law to be anything more than another reason to disbelieve women.

When the legal system failed them, women did not take to the streets with weapons, they went to social media with words. They told their stories and amplified the stories of other women. They demanded an end to systemic collusion by and with predatory men. Some, but by no means all, of the men who had preyed on women were no longer allowed to keep their secrets. This, we are told, could lead to great injustice.

In all the concern about lives being ruined, the women who were victims of predatory men rarely seem to be the objects of compassion. Men who have resigned from jobs that gave them decades of fortune and accolades are prioritised over the women who were never able to get off the ground because what if she’s lying? What if he didn’t mean it that way? What if she felt afraid and pressured but he didn’t even know? He may have reaped all the benefits of being male but surely it’s unfair that he is now judged for being a man?

Powerlessness and rage, suppressed for too long, is not reasoned when it finally surfaces. Nor should it be. Instead of construing it as an unreasonable threat to men perhaps it should be recognised as a proportionate response to centuries of oppression and objectification. The power of anger, collectively harness anger, is required to force change. No one ever gave up power because someone asked them nicely over a cup of tea and a biscuit.

Roiphe is right that we can and should have strong public debates about consent, how we ask for it, express it and understand it. We should be talking about how men view women and sex. We should demand that men listen and participate, all the more so when they are reluctant. We should also be talking to women about how they understand and express consent. It’s a complicated and difficult conversation and we should be disagreeing and debating passionately about it. This is exactly how a revolution about ideas and behaviour should happen. But it cannot happen without making men uncomfortable and it can’t work if we are required to protect men from the consequences of predatory behaviour.

Men are going to suffer in a revolution against the abuses of male privilege. Good. In the words of another great slogan, it’s time.




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