It's no accident that the justified anger of left-wing women is being ignored in favour of cynical weaponisationby Abi Wilkinson / July 17, 2017 / Leave a comment
A few years ago, if you’d informed me that the misogyny on the left would soon become a mainstream political concern, I’d have been delighted. After decades in the wilderness, the left being taken seriously at all feels like a breakthrough. The thought that journalists and commentators would also, finally, listen to leftist women’s specific concerns about harassment, violence and marginalisation by men ostensibly on ‘our side’ would have sounded too good to be true.
Perhaps that’s because it is. If there’s one thing that can be said about the current debate around leftwing politics, misogyny and online abuse it’s that women like me aren’t being listened to. In the narrative that has gained most mainstream currency, we don’t even exist. Women in politics are situated somewhere on a spectrum that stretches from Andrea Leadsom to Stella Creasy. Anything to the left of that is the domain of “brocialists”: aggressive, bitter woman-haters wallowing in a swamp of Marxist dogma and undiluted testosterone.
A cynical agenda
It’s grimly ironic that men who’ve developed a sudden and keen interest in opposing misogyny (sometimes, in a direct contradiction of their previous stance) so frequently erase a whole category of women as part of this crusade. The longer it continues, the harder it is to interpret their concern as anything other than entirely cynical. This is a straightforward smear campaign: the point is to discredit an entire political tendency by associating it, inextricably, with the worst behaviour of a minority of its adherents. Ignoring the existence of leftwing women isn’t some unfortunate oversight—it’s the point.
Point out that men (and indeed, on occasion, women) from across the political spectrum are perfectly capable of being creepy, aggressive and intimidating online and at best you’ll be dismissed. At worst, you’ll be informed that talking about your own experience amounts to apologism. As someone who has managed to piss off left, right and centre commentators at varying points over the past few years, I feel fairly well placed to comment on the issue. But when I have tried to comment, I’ve been criticised by men—and accused of distracting from an exclusive focus on the misogyny of leftwing men.
Quite frankly, it’s enraging.
Anger musn’t be a proscribed emotion
Rage is, I feel, a legitimate reaction to such insincere manipulation. It’s an acceptable emotion to feel in a wide range of different contexts: it’s okay to feel anger towards politicians, whose decisions have far-reaching consequences for all of our lives. It’s fine to be cross at journalists, public figures and random strangers who espouse views you consider harmful.
However, it should go without saying that anger doesn’t justify threats and harassment. That it doesn’t make sexist, racist, homophobic or otherwise bigoted speech any more justified, and that it’s not good praxis to focus disproportionately on women as targets for your enmity. Petty, personal nastiness doesn’t help the left achieve its goals—particularly when it takes the place of structural critique.
To avoid a political culture where only the most vicious and impervious feel able to participate, it’s crucial to distinguish between acceptable expression and abusive speech. Stepping over the line shouldn’t necessarily preclude someone from any further involvement—humans are imperfect, and I’ve been struck by how many of the people insisting on a “zero tolerance” approach have less-than-spotless records themselves—but it does need calling out. Equally important is resisting efforts to define “abuse” so broadly that anger becomes a proscribed emotion.
Take, for instance, the media outrage at John McDonnell’s use of a term “social murder” to describe the Grenfell Tower fire. It’s reasonable to argue his language is inaccurate or hyperbolic (though I personally agree with Aditya Chakrabortty that the phrase, taken from Engels’ seminal work The Condition of the Working Class in England, is entirely appropriate) but some opponents went a step further. Because the notion that possibly upwards of 80 people died as a result of political decisions with knowable risks is likely to inspire fury, they suggested it’s an idea that shouldn’t be expressed.
Feminism has always been driven by anger
If we follow this line of thought to its natural conclusion, the responsibility for abusive speech is no longer assumed to lie with those directly engaging in it. Even non-abusive criticism is unacceptable if it expresses or risks provoking anger, as some enraged individuals might engage in toxic behaviours as a result. Political discourse therefore becomes the preserve of those able to engage in a cool and detached manner. Pointing to a graph and suggesting your opponent has made a factual error is fine. Arguing that their stance is the product of inadequate morals and twisted priorities is off limits. The suggestion that our social, political and economic system is intrinsically immoral, and that anyone invested in its perpetuation is culpable for harm caused, is perhaps the most inflammatory claim of all.
Through this rhetorical slight of hand, the entire political left can be dismissed as toxic and abusive. Socialists’ fury at the status quo is understood as antithetical to feminist priorities—which are assumed to be greater civility, and increased representation of women in positions of power. This claim is, of course, not grounded in any sort of accurate history. From its inception feminism has called for the radical reconfiguration of social structures. It’s a movement driven by justified, righteous fury.
My priorities as a feminist and as a socialist are not contradictory, but inextricable. Welfare cuts have disproportionately affected women, who’re statistically far more likely to be single parents and thus dependent on state support. Removing the social safety net forces women to stay in abusive relationships just to keep a stable roof over their heads. It pushes people into sex work against their will. People on zero hours contracts and in other insecure forms of employment are far less able to challenge sexual and other harassment in the workplace, and women are disproportionately affected. Domestic violence and rape crisis services have been shut down as a result of government spending cuts.
Women are forced to self-censor
It’s perverse to be censured for expressing anger about these things, on the grounds it encourages abusive behaviour towards politicians. This is abuse. Politicians are morally culpable for the consequences of the decisions they take. Feminists are right to oppose hateful, misogynistic speech towards female politicians; but it’s also abhorrent to focus exclusively on protecting powerful women while others suffer as a result of the cruellest government policies. (For what it’s worth, I don’t believe many of the people attempting this actually are feminists according to any normal definition. Mainly, they seem to be individuals with centrist or rightwing political views who’ve spotted an opportunity to punch left.)
“Two warring, predominately male factions are left defending equally ridiculous positions: either the left is uniquely and irredeemably misogynistic, or it has no problems at all”
Frustratingly, this cynical weaponisation actually makes it harder for leftwing women to fight misogyny in our own circles. Attempts to raise sincere concerns are met with heightened suspicion, and we risk being accused of “siding with the enemy.” We know that anything we do say might be jumped on, overgeneralised and used as ammunition against the left—and so self-censor. Two warring, predominately male factions are left defending equally ridiculous positions: either the left is uniquely and irredeemably misogynistic, or it has no problems at all.
It’s hard to know how to respond, except by repeatedly asserting the simple truth: that sexism permeates every part of our society, and leftwing organisations and institutions are no exception. The existence of socialist feminists might be inconvenient for anti-left narratives—but rest assured that we exist. And we see what’s going on.