Criticism and Obligation

Regular readers of the F-word will probably be aware that a post about speculated future scientific advances in women’s fertility attracted criticism this week. I’m not about to needlessly parrot what has already been said but, as it happens, I did think the criticisms were justified. As one of a large team of bloggers who do not vet each other’s posts, I caught up with the whole thing quite late into the discussions and, as it turned out, there were plenty of articulate responses to the post in question in the comments for it and also in those for the later apology from Jess, as the editor. Along with this, Anji from Shut up, Sit Down and Joanne from Journalesque very eloquently blogged about the matter.

It’s easy for me to say this now but I think I would have been compelled to add a comment to the entry if I had reached it to find very little had been said in the F-word comments about the ageist references to “dusty wombs” and “prune faced pensioners.” However, criticisms had already been made and I didn’t have anything to add to them. I would assume the same could be said for any other bloggers who didn’t comment. This meant I was a bit surprised to find Anji suggesting that we were negligent for not commenting and that even the publication of the post was somehow our collective responsibility:

Ms O’Reilly tried to make excuses for herself with “for those who have said they are using my post as proof of ageism displayed by The F Word – this post was my opinion and my opinion only.” However, it is impossible for her to not be representing the F-Word because she is writing for them. This was not a personal blog, it was a blog for a well-known feminist web site. There is no such thing as subjectiveness when your words are published by a site like that, because by allowing it to be published they are inherently saying “As a site agree with this behaviour.

I also find it interesting that none of the other F-Word writers (with the exception of the wonderful Anne Onne) have commented on the piece to call Abby O’Reilly out on her bigotry and prejudice. I am disappointed – in her, in the other writers, and in the editors of the site for letting such an ugly and sickening piece of blatant misogyny be published under the banner of ‘feminism.’

Hang on a minute. A “site like that“? Are we being mistaken for a national newspaper here? A big powerful corporation with massive funds and therefore massive responsibility? I know the F-word has had a certain amount of media interest, and therefore influence, but let’s get this in perspective! Because the last time I checked, it comprised around 200 voluntary contributors (and counting) with different opinions and backgrounds. As I understand it, Catherine started the site as a place where a variety of feminist viewpoints could be expressed and the blog was an add-on to the features rather than the driving force behind the site. Sure, there have always been some ground rules, in terms of etiquette, for anyone wanting to take part but any feminist is free to contribute and, hopefully, also free to make mistakes without being hounded out of feminism. We should all expect to be called out on any prejudices that, sadly, we might harbour but berating writers who played no part in a post and attempting to persuade us to act like a baying mob, in some effort not to be associated with it is, as far as I’m concerned, totally not on.

The demand to be seen to be doing the right thing (as opposed to being encouraged to genuinely try to do so) seems just plain creepy to me. Is pressuring each other to superficially tick boxes and please the crowd really helpful to the cause? Surely being critical about prejudice stems from a desire for social justice and a belief that we all share a duty to eradicate discrimination? If the feminist movement takes an authoritarian approach and reduces the matter to lip service, hollow posturing and social control, no-one will ever learn anything and nothing will ever really change. We’ll be just as bad as the very structures we fight against and those of us who might have stuff to work on will just end up nodding blandly in order to save face.

And what were we supposed to do anyway? Band together in some pompous show of mud slinging at Abby? Circle round her like vultures? Publicly denounce her so that everyone would know once and for all that we, the F-word, do not agree?

I’m more than willing to risk wounding a friend’s pride for the worthier cause of drawing attention to discrimination but if that necessary wounding seems to have already taken place, I’ll be damned if I’m going to run over and have a go myself.

I think both Anji and Joanne make excellent points about anti-choice arguments and ageism so, in essence, I agree with them. No problem there. The problem is that, on reading them, I have a sense that any defence against the charges made against us as F-word writers, will wrongly be taken as a show of support for ageism! For me, trying to make sure my genuine disagreement with the post is unequivocally clear just makes my words feel phoney and hollow even though I mean every word. Is this how feminist discourse is supposed to be? Because I don’t see that there’s anything liberating about it. (I also think all this is a little frustrating when one considers that, less than a week before chastising us for not ganging up on Abby, Anji herself was understandably somewhat exasperated to find a feminist she loves dearly being “sent to Coventry, Blyton-style” by other radical feminists for a perceived transgression.)

Who has the right to tell a voluntarily run website what stance they should take and when they should “speak out” as representatives? The comments about accountability in the comments for Anji’s post make me wonder if it’s worth anyone bothering to contribute to a collective website at all. What are we supposed to do? Disown any blogger who writes a bad piece? People complain our “Contemporary UK Feminism” tag is pompous but then expect us to act like some high and mighty, big branded faceless company. Can’t we just be a collective of individual flawed human beings taking the opportunity to speak out and offering our time for free to be able to do so? Does the success of the site mean we are owned by the readership? I appreciate that influence brings responsibility but penalising people for a bit of recognition in their field just seems churlish. There are so many brilliant feminist blogs out there that deserve exposure. The F-word is just one of them so, rather than punishing the blogs that receive attention, I’d suggest we we need more of those voices to be heard.

It seems like the politics don’t really matter when it comes to that irresistible urge in us all, as human beings, to find a pariah, somewhere, somehow. We seem to love to have someone to bash or boss around. Even when we’re trying to make a more equal world, it seems we can’t resist the opportunity to try to dominate one another. I always thought feminism was about trying to free ourselves from empty authoritarianism but it seems we just can’t resist those stuffy conventional moral codes that say we are obliged to react in a specific way when someone behaves badly. Fuck that.

Mob mentality is not the way forward!

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