Intersectionality, Privilege and Twitter Etiquette

As the family therapy essay I’m currently procrastinating on would attest, I’m interested in group dynamics and the way people communicate with each other. I tend to think about these issues both in the real world and in social media, particularly Twitter. There’s lots of good and interesting ways that Twitter can be used for communications, but also some pitfalls. Chief of the latter is the Twitterstorm.

I used to presume, probably rather naively, that if someone is getting bombarded with angry messages from multiple tweeters, then they’ve probably done something pretty unpleasant to deserve it. All too often, that isn’t the case, particularly if somebody is spoiling for a fight.

Here’s the funny thing about Twitter. Where else would a single full stop be the source of enormous trouble? Quick technical primer for non-tweeters: if you start a tweet with somebody’s @ username, like this….

@thus_spake_z your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!

….then it goes to them, and also appears in the feed of anyone who is following you both. However, if a tweet begins with text, then it appears in the feed of everyone who follows you. Hence people sometimes stick a full stop before the @ identity, like this:

.@thus_spake_z your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!

….and so your caustic retort is re-broadcast to a much wider audience. If you have a large number of followers, then at least some of them will take that as an invitation to a pile-on.

There’s a certain segment of tweeters who seem to get embroiled in Twitterstorms on a fairly regular basis. Melissa Thompson has an excellent and detailed post about the discussions involved. To summarise briefly, those involved tend to identify with intersectional feminism, and also take an interest in questions of privilege.

Intersectionality discusses the way in which different systems of oppression – race, class, gender, sexuality etc – can interact, and calls for greater cooperation between various liberation movements. I think that’s a very worthy aim, and fully agree with it. It’s therefore a shame that the tweeters involved are so often involved in Twitterstorming other members of the left. Most recently it was the New Statesman editor Helen Lewis. Before that it was the Independent columnist Owen Jones, and on Lord knows how many occasions it’s been the author and Times columnist Caitlin Moran. All too frequently, these are over fairly minor issues of semantics. In Owen Jones’ case, it was because he condemned George Galloway’s rape apologism, but didn’t sufficiently emphasise the condemnation.

I guess this is why the right always wins.

Regarding the politics of privilege, I’d broadly agree that it’s good to think about how your relative advantages and disadvantages affect your thinking – but only up to a point. Privilege and oppression can affect people in various ways, and not always in a predictable way. For example, one might argue that George Orwell’s keen awareness of social inequality was at least partly because of rather than despite his Eton-educated privilege.

It also shouldn’t be used as an ad hominem retort.

“Thank you for aggressively tweeting at me to ‘check your privilege’. I appreciated that suggestion, which prompted me to engage in a bout of self-analysis and has enriched my awareness and insight.”

-No one. Ever.

It’s also important to remember that everyone has their own individual privileges and oppressions, not all of which may be immediately apparent. An online friend of mine was recently Twitterstormed over her perceived (though probably not actual) transphobia. Unfortunately one of her hidden oppressions was an anxiety disorder, and the Twitterstorm triggered a relapse.

I’m not going to get into the original reasons behind these various Twitterstorms – actually I think most of those reasons are monumentally banal. But what I am going to do is suggest a few etiquette points that might encourage people to debate in a more constructive way. If I were to get back to the family therapy essay that I really, really need to stop procrastinating on then this would be what’s referred to as “moving from content to process”. Which is a fancy way of saying that often it’s not what’s said that’s important, but the way it’s said.

1. Exercise caution before retweeting or deploying the Thermonuclear Full Stop. Just because you disagree with someone doesn’t mean you need to throw it open into a free-for-all. A discussion is not a gang fight.

2. Don’t presume to tell other people what their privileges are or aren’t. Particularly if you don’t know them offline.

3. Don’t use privilege as an ad hominem. “You are male/white/straight/cisgender/able-bodied, therefore argument invalid” is never an appropriate retort.

4. Remember that the ability to haul in large numbers of other people into the fray is itself a platform and a privilege.

5. If somebody blocks you, or makes their account private, or temporarily suspends their account, then respect the fact that they have the right to do so. Nobody is obliged to have a conversation with you.

6. Finally – and this is probably the most important point – be willing to accommodate difference and disagreement. This is particularly the case when discussing with people who are part of the same broad left. Outside of certain extremes, they’re mostly decent people who mostly share the same views and aims as you. That small part which they might think differently on is not as important as the larger common goals. You don’t have to agree with them on everything and they don’t have to agree with you. If you can do this, then that would be…..oh, what’s the word? Ah yes. Intersectional.

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21 thoughts on “Intersectionality, Privilege and Twitter Etiquette

  1. Z, thank you. I have been intending to write something like this, but haven’t quite good the words. I truly, fundamentally supports the ideals of intersectionality, but find some of the rhetoric and semantic criticism of it decidedly off-putting. Twitterstorms are almost certainly not going to achieve an infrastructure of change- I agree that intra-feminist and intra-left in- fighting can only benefit oppressors. Of course, there are times when feminists/leftists/whatever really fuck up (Cathy Brennan?!) and deserve to be called out, but minor incidents don’t deserve the stormy airtime they’re given. It depends on one’s interpretation of ‘minor’, naturally, but some of the stuff I’ve seen on Twitter lately has been A Bit Much.

  2. Yes, yes and yes again. Excellent piece that deserves a wider audience. This “check your privilege” twaddle is just another form of internet bullying because there can be no retort that doesn’t get the “check your privilege” battallions even more self-righteously outraged. The pile-on of Suzanne Moore was one of the more unseemly displays of petulance and viciousness that I’ve seen on the net.

  3. @FatPooftah – more “unseemly” than Moore’s frank and open transmisogyny? Really? More vicious than her remarks about “cutting dicks off”? More “petulant” than her storming off Twitter in high dudgeon – repeatedly – rather than answer the thoughtful and disappointed critiques she received?

    Wow. That’s an… interesting way of looking at things.

    To address the post: I think it fundamentally misunderstands several aspects of what is going on; and it’s not Oppression Olympics, so a person who suffers an anxiety disorder is perfectly capable of holding transphobic views, and those views should be challenged in order to combat transphobia. And given the really rank sexism and other bigotries which lurk on the left (as well as the right), a call for “unity” ends up being a call for the silencing of minorities. Which is not helpful at all.

    • Without getting into the rights and wrongs of the Suzanne Moore Twitterstorm (for the record, I do think she said some things that can be criticised, and Julie Burchill’s intervention was spectacularly unhelpful), I think I need to comment on this :

      More “petulant” than her storming off Twitter in high dudgeon – repeatedly – rather than answer the thoughtful and disappointed critiques she received?

      Any such critiques need to be seen in the context of a Twitterstorm. I don’t know if you’ve ever been Twitterstormed but I have been. An individual sending one tweet may feel that they’re being “thoughtful and disappointed”. The person at the other end, who may have received hundreds of tweets in an hour (some of which are likely to be not thoughtful but overtly abusive) may feel rather differently. They may well be too deluged to reply to each message even if they wanted to (which they probably don’t).

      And I also think I need to refer back to point #5 that I made in the OP. It’s Twitter, not Parliament, and anybody has the right to quit the discussion at any time. Indeed, some people may feel at times that they need to in order to safeguard their mental health.

      The right to free speech does not include a right to a reply.

      so a person who suffers an anxiety disorder is perfectly capable of holding transphobic views, and those views should be challenged in order to combat transphobia.

      The trouble with that is that the person with the anxiety disorder didn’t hold transphobic views. I’ve spoken with her since writing this post. She hotly denies any transphobia, and insists that she was simply misquoted. I haven’t seen any evidence to contradict that.

      This is the problem with hair-trigger outrage. By the time any discussion about nuances or misunderstandings has taken place, the twitchfork-wielding mob has already piled in. Inevitably, this results in innocent collateral casualties.

      a call for “unity” ends up being a call for the silencing of minorities.

      Nobody is calling for silencing of anyone. There is absolutely no reason why anyone couldn’t follow the five etiquette suggestions I’ve listed above without also engaging in criticism and upholding the rights of minorities.

      I don’t have a problem with criticism. I have a problem with cyber-bullying.

      • Hi there, I think this is a great post and very helpful. Reading the link in your comment reminded me of something that’s hopefully on topic.

        People rightly point out that having a lot of followers means you are in a position to abuse that by tweeting into their timelines someone saying “bad things” which inevitably means they are on the receiving end of a lot of unpleasantness. While it’s not always a deliberate “get him!” it acts that way – those with many followers.should use that power wisely and not to crush random passers-by.

        The other side of that coin though is one I’ve only rarely seen spoken about. Those with many followers are often on the receiving end of daily abuse, not just a one day “storm” (which is quite frightening for those on the receiving end). So the example you point to where a woman and then you were piled on started with her telling someone she’d never met that she detested him and him simply asking why.

        I don’t defend anything that happened after and her response was elegant but, in the context of the daily abuse he probably receives, she was as guilty of piling in on him as any of his followers were on her. Being successful or famous or having lots of twitter followers doesn’t make him any less human and being told he is detested by random strangers can be difficult to deal with.

        I don’t think we should give ourselves free passes because we’re small and they are large. If we don’t behave ethically then we help create an environment that we may later regret.

      • Hi Jim

        I hear what you’re saying in that regard. And to be fair, it is true that Ilona did at the beginning of the exchange say some things to Dr Jessen that I wouldn’t have said. Though as a doctor it reflected poorly on him that he responded by kicking off a Twitterstorm, and the General Medical Council has made it clear that it expects doctors to conduct themselves professionally on social media.

        (Incidentally, Dr Jessen has been sounding off lately on his Twitter feed about how he’s got no intention of abiding by the GMC social media policy. All I can say to that is that if he wants to pick a fight with his own regulatory body, that’s his funeral.)

        Speaking in a more general sense regarding your point about those tweeters with large followers – I think that’s a very live issue with regard to the likes of Caitlin Moran, Owen Jones and Helen Lewis. Those who criticise Caitlin Moran for not engaging with their feedback don’t seem to understand what it means to have 400,000 Twitter followers, and what that means her Twitter Connect page is likely to look like.

        And that’s before one adds the effect of having a collection of self-appointed semantics police ready to launch into howls of outrage at any linguistic slips. I’m rather glad I don’t have people poring over my output looking for things to be offended by.

        It also strikes me that a lot of the vitriol aimed at Moran, Jones and Lewis comes across as distinctly personal, like there’s a vendetta going on. I’ll probably get some angry denials for suggesting this, but I do wonder if there’s some whiffs of jealousy fanning the flames. As in, “Why did these people get book deals and newspaper columns when I didn’t?”

  4. As someone who’s working class, and really only learning about all of this stuff, I find waking up to talk of “cisprivelege” and other terms I don’t understand properly really daunting! Of course, these things are important. First thing in the morning however it is very daunting and often have to wonder how much of this is generated by the middle class.

  5. Can do the 6. Intersecting currently with 84.0 Brain, and 16 shells from a thirty ought six. Does that make me pro-cis or anti-transfeministing?

    But how do I factor in my white, male, middle class, anglo-saxon (not) Privilege? Are there Hail Mary’s or is castration the only option?

  6. I always have time to talk to you, Z, and I know we’ve crossed swords over this one a few times… I think we hold quite different opinions about the value of discussions about privilege and the ability to be intersectional in out attempts to establish social justice (I call it feminism, but you may call it whatever you want).

    Whenever we’ve discussed it, we don’t fall out: we don’t resort to ad hominems: we can quite happily go on to share photos of emergency kittens half an hour later. So I do think it is possible to have “civil” discourse about such things.

    But, for us, I suspect a lot of this is academic. I don’t fly into a terrified rage when I see transphobia. That’s because I’m not trans*, and ultimately, my life is not at risk by people in society being transphobic. That is my privilege. I just can’t bring myself to blame people for expressing anger and fear when they encounter views that affect their immediate physical safety and mental health. Their anger is justified.

    Does that make sense?

    • Hi Claire

      The problem I have with that goes back to my friend with the anxiety disorder. She was not transphobic and most of the people who twitterstormed her were not transgender. They were people who saw a pile-on and joined in.

      Oppression takes many forms, and many of those are not immediately visible. I think it’s also important to recognise that a Twitterstorm is in itself a form of oppression. I don’t think it can be trivialised simply because it’s online. In my job in child and adolescent mental health it’s now at the stage where barely a day goes by that I don’t deal with an issue that involves some form of cyber-bullying.

      I also think it would be insulting to many trans people to suggest that the only way they could express themselves is through cyber-bullying. I’m a big fan of Roz Kaveny’s writing, and on many of these issues she’s been the voice of reason. This was particularly the case with regard to the RadFem conferences of the past couple of years.

      Ultimately, it’s important to remember the old saying that the right of someone to swing their arm ends at someone else’s nose. We don’t do anyone any favours by suggesting that their oppression gives them the right to oppress others.

  7. I’m not going to equate the “oppression” faced when someone states were mistaken online with the very real structural oppression faced by oppressed groups in wider society. That’s the first thing I want to make clear.

    Secondly, if someone points out a Tweet used transphobic language, why must people feel they are being accused of “being” transphobic? Why doesn’t the discourse remain at the level of “that thing you said? You reflected transphobia because of your choice of words. Is there any way to explore what your feelings or thoughts are without using oppressive language?” It always seems ironic that people accused of doing identity politics are not actually critiquing other people’s identity, they are trying to change the way we describe and thus inhabit the world around us.

    I tried to explain this the other day: if I was at work and someone used racist language, I wouldn’t stop my “unconditional positive regard” for the person, but I would challenge the language, explain why it wasn’t appropriate and could upset people, and ask if they want ed to explore the reason they felt that way about a group of people.

    Does that help explain where I’m coming from?

    • I’ve no problem with challenging people. You could easily follow the five points I suggested and still challenge someone online about their use of language – by talking to them one-on-one. Just as you would have done with your hypothetical racist colleague.

      What I’m objecting to is the way people are challenging others. In your example, an analogy would be rather than discussing it with him face-to-face, you’d told everyone in work, plus people in adjoining workplaces, the people down the pub, stuck it on a billboard in the local shopping centre, along with his phone number so anyone passing could ring him up and tell him what they thought of him.

      Somehow I very much doubt that everyone who rang him up would do so in a spirit of unconditional positive regard.

      Going back to my example of the tweeter with the anxiety disorder, she was neither “being transphobic” nor “using transphobic language”. After being called out she responded by pointing out that she had not in fact been talking about transgender people in the first place, but had now amended her article to avoid any confusion. But by that time, the mob had piled in.

  8. I think the biggest problem here is that these people don’t that they represent no one.

  9. A lot of this seems to boil down to discussing the *issue* not the *person*; twitter is such an awful, *awful*, platform for nuanced discussion that any criticism of statements and positions held by someone gets edited down to fit the character limit and, whatever the intention of the criticiser, this often slips into criticism of the individual rather than the statement: ‘You are wrong and a terrible person for saying that thing’, rather than ‘the thing you said could be interpreted in this way: XXXX, which you might not have considered?’. People then instictively feel like they have to defend *themselves* rather than the position/statement which leads to the intercine warfare that, as you say, means that the right always wins. Hopefully we can slowly work towards a more civil discourse within the left that doesn’t assume the worst about someone who is, largely, fighting our corner, because of the percieved privilege we see them as having.

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  12. Really great piece that voices so many things I’ve been wanting to say for a long time. While I agree that Intersectionality is fundamental to our understanding of how structures of oppression work and, hopefully, our means to overcome them, too many times have I seen the term being used as a means to silence others or shut down debate.
    The problem with Twitter is that you have many almost-strangers making a lot of snap judgements about other users based solely on a few words of their profile. As we know and you’ve pointed out, oppression and privilege are incredibly complex and nuanced, and just because someone is privileged in one specific area does not mean they’re not oppressed in others. Similarly, many different groups of people share the exact same strategies of oppression.
    Finally, many of the people who claim to be Intersectional and are the first to shout ‘middle class privilege’ at others forget that Intersectionality and its concomittant theories were developed within academia which, for many of the working class people they purport to represent, remains largely a middle class and economically unviable place.
    My background is in academia and I consider myself to be an Intersectional feminist, and I would be the first to admit that this in itself is the privileged opinion of someone who was fortunate enough to go to university.

    • Thanks for your feedback.

      The ironic thing is, I fully agree with the theoretical basis of intersectionality. It’s purely the way some people communicate it that I have a problem with.

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