A year and a half ago I wrote that the internet was magic: “I can’t stand the luddites who romanticize the days where people talked. Face to face. Or called each other.”
Why meet when you could email, why talk when you could dm. The internet seemed a simpler, more efficient, less stressful route towards organizing. I didn’t understand the point of wasting time in a room when you could sit on your couch in your underwear doing essentially the same thing you’d be doing in a room but with more pants.
I was wrong.
To say that the internet is a useful tool — for sharing information, finding information, organizing and communicating — is a huge understatement. Bu when it comes to feminism, meeting face to face still matters. More than that — I’d argue it’s imperative.
I’m a writer. I work at home, on my computer. It’s pretty easy to get comfortable there. I don’t consider myself an organizer or an activist, either, something that forces a person out into the real world (or, it should anyway…). My social life is strong but, when it comes to my work, it’s mainly done online. I also wasn’t around during the second wave and I wasn’t involved in the feminist movement, really, before the inception of social media. When I started to write and to produce feminist radio, thereby connecting with women in the movement, Facebook, email, and Twitter were already things. They made life easier in many ways, sure. Especially in terms of sharing your work and accessing the work other women were putting out there. You could learn and say everything you wanted to about feminism online, or so I thought.
The thing that online feminism is missing is faces. And I don’t just mean because there are so many anonymous avatars online, making it difficult to know who you’re engaging with and whether or not they’re accountable or trustworthy, but because there is a piece of empathy that is lost when we aren’t literally face to face with the human being we are speaking to (or about).
In short, we’re mean to each other online. Not always, but often. And maybe women were mean to each other pre-internet feminism, too, but I’m pretty sure it’s worse now.
The things I witness many women saying to and about one other online are gross. I can’t think of another way to describe it. It, quite literally, makes me feel gross. What I see is exaggerated beyond belief, unsympathetic, untrue, uncalled for, unhelpful, and, often, quite sexist. Not always, but often these exchanges and conversations happen among people who don’t know one another and/or have never met “in real life.” And maybe that’s part of the problem.
This is not meant to be a “call out.” I’m certainly not the first to attempt to address trashing and bad behaviour in the movement. Speaking only for myself, I am aware of the different way I engage with people “in real life,” versus those I’ve never met. I can be short online. I trust very few people. (I have been bitten in the ass for being too trusting and too open and learned my lesson the hard way.) I’ll often assume people have bad intentions rather than good ones, that they are trying to trick me or weasel their way into my life only to turn on me, armed with screenshots, looking to destroy me.
Things are different when I see women “in real life” and when they see me. We are kinder towards one another, more compassionate, more understanding, and less judgmental. In short, we treat one another like human beings deserving of respect.
A couple of weeks ago, journalist, Julie Bindel came to town. As a result, a number of events were organized to provide opportunities for women in the movement to be together, to talk, to eat, to drink, to strategize and to socialize. It was an incredibly important reminder for me: Oh right. Seeing and talking to movement face-to-face matters. It is important and we must do it – not only to maintain positive, constructive relationships — but in order for a movement to exist at all.
Now, there are many women around the world who don’t have access to feminist communities and women where they live. I know that I am lucky, living in Vancouver, to be able to simply take public transit to an event organized by Vancouver Rape Relief, or meet a woman for coffee or lunch. Some women only have access to online organizing and online conversations. But wherever we’re able to organize and meet, face-to-face, we need to try our very best to take those opportunities. We’re all busy so of course it will always be hard to find time, but – and this a reminder to myself as much as anyone else else – we need to make that effort. I need to make that effort.
We’re not all going to like each other – certainly we don’t all have to always agree — there’s no reason why we should. Boundaries are not a bad thing. Thinking things through and coming to our own conclusions is not a bad thing. But in world where a flounce or a nasty comment or a rumour spread is at our fingertips, one way for us to be accountable for those insults or attacks is to see each other, face-to-face. It’s a lot harder to call a woman a “handmaiden” (or whatever grand variety of names we call one another that I need not be explicit about here) from behind a screen. It’s much easier to hate those we don’t know, to judge them, to assume the worst, to denigrate them – to dehumanize them. A rather ironic type of behaviour considering what our movement is all about… Remember? That thing we’re fighting for? Humanity? Let’s try that.
Meghan Murphy is a writer and journalist in Vancouver, B.C. Her website is Feminist Current.
Tomorrow: Sheila Jeffreys doesn’t give up.