Two years ago I wrote a musing for this blog. It was a few thoughts on the oddities of being a feminist; what it means to me and what I should do about it. I ended on the optimistic view that if I, and anyone sharing my quandaries, were to look around and soak up the myriad of opinions out there, we would work it out. Now I want to ponder on going one step further; speaking up. Because feminism needs us. In fact, the human race needs us.
Speaking up is scary, in more ways than one. Firstly, your opinions, and your feminism are your own. There is something inherently personal about your ideas. Opening up about what you think is like putting your IPod on shuffle at a party: pretty risky. The way we feel about feminism is founded and formed by a collection of our own personal experiences (and often not the easy ones). Airing them to strangers is hard, but hearing from strangers can be brilliant: Eureka! I’d never thought of it that way. So it is a shame, considering that most of us can relate to that “Ohhh, so you don’t see the irony of that R-Kelly song?” feeling, that so many people feel the need to give each other a hard time when they do speak out. If I was down with the kids I think there would be a word for that. I think, that word would be “haters”. I plunge myself into the dangerous world of modern lingo because this word seems to mean something specific. When I talk about “haters” I am not talking about a person with an opinion that is not the same as mine. I am not talking about someone with a different solution to a problem than me. I am talking about the toxic, terrifying wave of ridiculous, disproportionate responses that are sweeping through our culture and making people afraid to speak up.
Now, I myself have never been much of a wallflower when it comes to politics. I generally have an opinion (and I’ll generally talk to anyone about it, particularly after a glass or two of Lambrini). But lately, I feel the wind leaving my sails when it comes to speaking out. I don’t know if it is because I’m getting older (and have moved onto Merlot, at least most of the time); perhaps I’ve started spending time with people with increasingly similar views to my own. Or perhaps its years of working behind bars and having pointless arguments with drunk/sexist/racist (delete as appropriate) men. Perhaps. But I do feel like it’s getting harder. I recently had a particularly bad experience after posting an article online about the release of a new video game, which depicts violence towards sex workers (I should add; female sex workers, by male characters). I read several reviews and posts about said game, brought about by a family store withdrawing it from sale in Australia after a petition. It was an interesting social debate so I decided to post one of my favourite articles on one of my favourite time wasting social media sites. The article was written by a games reviewer (who happened to be male, and also a PhD lecturer in something media related). I thought it was good; it talked specifically about gaming culture moving into the mainstream and about the sexism rather than the violence in general. The usual crap popped up on the comments feed, some of the (weyhey) ‘lads’ I went to school with loosely attempting to make it a freedom of speech issue. Fine. That’s something I’ve come to expect on social media. This time, however, it went further. I received private messages in my inbox; really rude, mean messages. In my private inbox. Where no one but me can see them. Seriously? About my opinion of a video game, by men, defending their right to have an opinion of the video game! What the fuck? That’s not debate. That’s not a lively conversation about censorship. That is nothing more than bullying; straight from the playground and into my inbox.
Needless to say I blocked all of them and I haven’t felt that much is missing from my life since. But, and though I hate to say it, it has made me think twice about what I am willing to post or say online. Some women’s experiences with online super-fans are a lot more sinister. The case of footballer and convicted sex offender, Ched Evans comes to mind. There is a video of his victim on his official website, her name has been released more than once and she is in hiding because of the horrendous online abuse from his fans. Can it really be that we are living in a world where people believe that their penchant for a video game, or a football team, is more important than the rights of women? This isn’t a defence of free speech, or a protest of a conviction; it’s some kind of deluded crusade to (defend?) the right to violence and sexism in popular culture, through bullying and intimidation. Stop that spaceship, I want to get off.
Recently I have had conversations with amazing people, particularly women, about how worried they are about speaking up. It came up again in the pub, talking about this very blog. And these women, believe me, are the ones I want to hear from. Some of my all-time favourite women are becoming scared to get into debates, particularly online. Not good news. Although my personal experiences have been with abuse from men because of my opinions, I know that other women are often the culprits. Feminism, as with the left in general, has a habit of being rather academic. When a group has been marginalised for a long time there is, understandably, a lot of anger and words and phrases that have been used to oppress people often become offensive. Of course we need to be sensitive to that. But people are clumsy, and we need to let them be. Organise! Educate! Debate! Yes please. But abuse? Judge? Ridicule? Hell no. There is a real risk that, by not having a culture of openness and tolerance, we are not only alienating young people from joining the feminist debate but also scaring away people who have been involved for years. Everyone is a product of everyone else, no woman is an island and we all deserve to be heard in an environment of safety and respect. Even if we say something fucking stupid and someone has to take us to one side and explain that no one really thinks R-Kelly is ironic.
I am a festival baby; I was raised in a field with a tie-dye t-shirt and John Lennon shades so if I sound like a hippy, blame my mum. But, really, we have got to give each other a break. While opinions differ and we all have hang up’s that are really personal, when it comes down to it if you are brave enough to not only identify as a feminist (Katy Perry I’m looking at you and your sexy Bakewell’s, come over to the dark side) and to actively engage in conversation with other people, then you deserve to be heard.
Sir David Attenborough recently said that the human race is all but doomed. We stuffed it up. He also said that the best chance we have as a species is to give women political control of their bodies, and that it is essential that we speak up for those women who do not have choices. So next time you feel like the repercussions of standing up for your beliefs and speaking up are becoming a bit too real, if it feels lawless and scary, remember this; Attenborough has spoken. He thinks you should speak up. And so do I. Maybe there will be people who don’t like what you say, or how you say it. You might even look back at it in a year and not like it either, all that means is we keep on learning. It doesn’t matter; speak up anyway. Just be nice about it. If someone offends you, don’t automatically assume they meant to. The one thing you can bet on is that the meanies will always speak up; “haters gonna hate”. But let’s make them the minority because if the rest of us are intimidated into silence, we’re all fucked.
I’ll play R-Kelly. You choose the next one.
By Sarah Dearing
Sarah runs a small studio in the centre of her hometown, Brighton, where she makes costumes and produces various fabric based trinkets. She has a keen interest in politics and feminism and occasionally dabbles in writing for fun, or for this blog.
Artwork by Georgia Flowers