By my friend Jess, aka @electricpenguin.
In 2004, my mom and I attended the March for Women’s Lives in DC. According to NOW, the organizers of the march, its aim was to “demand political and social justice for women and girls regardless of their age, race, ethnicity, religious beliefs, economic status, sexual orientation or ability.” We’re big fans of political and social justice and women’s lives and nondiscrimination, but all the same, we weren’t really sure what we were doing there. Women’s lives weren’t being actively threatened on a legislative level — no proposals on the table to outlaw abortion, no pending legislation about domestic violence or equal pay or rape or reproductive freedom or support for mothers. Women were there in force, chanting and waving signs, and we knew that things needed to change — but “What do we want? To live in a culture where women’s body autonomy is considered a paramount right, where women’s voices are taken seriously, where misogyny is given no quarter, and where women are treated in all things as fully equal and valuable members of society! When do we want it? Now!” isn’t much of a rallying cry.
This week I participated in #mooreandme, a Twitter campaign spearheaded by Sady Doyle. Our aims there were smaller: to make Michael Moore and Keith Olbermann acknowledge and apologize for misrepresenting rape claims, mocking the alleged victims, and massively boosting the signal on a false article that lied about the allegations and publicized the victims’ names. Just a quick apology, just two men, just supposed progressives who were supposedly on our side — it wasn’t exactly “political and social justice for all women.” And we didn’t march, and we didn’t chant, and we didn’t shout and raise our fists. We just asked, over and over, for them to acknowledge what they did wrong and apologize. Acknowledge and apologize. Acknowledge, please, and apologize. Don’t give us justice, don’t solve “women’s lives,” don’t even promise to respect us in the future — just acknowledge what you did wrong, and apologize. It was small, and quiet, and hopeless, and exhausting. And in the end it was much more meaningful and much more successful than that march six years ago.
People like science fiction writer Will Shetterly, late of Racefail ’09, disagree. They have accused #mooreandme of being “slacktivism,” zero-accountability faux activism that risks nothing and gets nothing done. “I’ve [been] beaten in the fight against racism,” Shetterly tweeted yesterday. “We were willing to march & speak out in public & risk being beaten because the cause mattered.” Activism in online spaces, where activists only risk being the target of ugly words, is thus both cowardly and meaningless — the risk is not enough so the cause doesn’t matter. If you don’t risk being physically assaulted or arrested, Shetterly said, you are a slacker. (Words, of course, are terrible when they hurt Keith Olbermann’s — or Will Shetterly’s — fee-fees, but a trivial danger when it comes to justifying online activism by women.)
Malcolm Gladwell aside, this is a wildly outdated objection. Dismissing online activism because nobody’s getting punched is like complaining that people aren’t printing and distributing political pamphlets, so nobody does REAL activism anymore. (As others have pointed out, #mooreandme is secondarily about inability to understand how the internet works — Keith Olbermann’s tantrum and huffy sortapology in particular show a misunderstanding about what it means to retweet something, who sees a retweet, and who sees an individual @ reply.) Dismissing all internet activism out of hand requires misunderstanding of either activism or the internet. Slacktivism is a great portmanteau word and a real thing — I’m not going to dispute that posting your bra color on Facebook, purportedly to “raise awareness of breast cancer” without saying the words “breast cancer” or “breast” or even for that matter “bra,” is inane. (A friend invented a brilliant ploy, in which activists start an offensively stupid and facile campaign in order to get people to donate to real causes out of exasperation and rage. I named it “smacktivism.”) But that doesn’t discredit a campaign like #mooreandme, any more than the existence of “Selleck Waterfall Sandwich” discredits Daily Kos. The internet, she contains multitudes.
Nor is activism a monolith. For one thing, though Will Shetterly has regularly proved himself unable to handle this concept, it isn’t limited to white cissexual men working oh-so-generously on behalf of the oppressed. Shetterly brags about endangering himself for the cause of civil rights, and hooray for that; as a white guy, he got to make that choice. If he’d been black, he would have been endangered every day by his lack of civil rights – and he would still be endangered by racism today, just as women are endangered by misogyny and gay people are endangered by homophobia and trans people are endangered by transphobia and disabled people are endangered by ableism. They – to risk speaking for others, we – don’t need to put our safety on the line. We live on the line. It’s pretty rich for Shetterly to call himself the better activist because he chose, at one time, to take on a portion of the danger involved in not being a white cis male.
But enough about that, because if I kept talking about who was or wasn’t a gigantic butthorn in all this I’d never get to stop. I do have an additional point, though, which is this: There is more than one job, and more than one tool. Many oppressed groups, including women, still face bias that’s engendered in (or at least not counteracted by) the law. But law is at least starting to catch up to justice, while social discourse, including among progressives, lags behind. It is thanks to people who were willing to risk physical harm and arrest that we’ve been able to make the advances we have made. Civil rights protesters shed blood to change laws — nobody disputes that the risks were more immediate and the eventual results more monumental than when people type words to change a conversation. But those broad advances, while critical, were also crude. For the finishing work — for lifting tenacious ugliness to the light, for uncovering the frameworks of privilege, for crafting a progressive movement that truly values everyone it represents – we need different tools. To continue the work using only marches and sit-ins, because they are the only tools we’ve deemed to be valid, would be like hacking away at a topiary with a scythe.
When faced with unfair laws, it makes sense to disobey those laws and face legal consequences like arrest. But when faced with an unfair culture, it makes sense to disobey that culture — to refuse to make the assumptions you’re expected to make, to refuse to play by rotten rules. You can’t root out the privilege and bigotry festering at the heart of society by chaining yourself to a fence. You need to engage where the wrong is being done — which is now not just in the laws, but in the discourse. And much of that discourse takes place online. It’s not the only possible locus of activism, which is lucky since many don’t have reliable access to the internet and that in itself is something to be taken on. But it’s a valid locus.
#Mooreandme is not a slacker protest. It’s a different form of civil disobedience. We’re not flouting the law — there’s no specific unjust law, in this case, to flout. We’re not marching, because marching is meaningless here; our issue is not with the writ-large, protest-sign, bumper-sticker policies of progressivism, but with the misogyny that comes out when so-called progressives wink and nudge at each other in private, which Keith Olbermann and Michael Moore demonstrated and legitimized in public. We object to the conversation, and we object with conversation. We disobey the rules that say women should not engage powerful men. We disobey the rules that say women and allies should not demand accountability from powerful men for the harm they do. We disobey the rules that say women must not band together, that we must make ourselves small and solitary and vulnerable. We disobey the rules that say a threatened woman must back down.
That’s not slacking — that’s hard, and it’s powerful, and it can be (and has been, and will be) used not only against misogyny but against racism, transphobia, ableism, you name it. When people are made invisible by the progressive movement, when we are trivialized or marginalized by those who claim to support social justice, when we are not heard, the solution is to make ourselves heard. The solution is to make ourselves impossible to ignore. They won’t arrest us for it — they’re not the law. They probably won’t beat us for it, though they might, not because we’re nobly martyring ourselves for the cause but simply because there’s always danger in speaking when you’re not a white cis man. But they will flail and shout and complain in the tide of our voices, in the force of our indisputable presence. They will notice and acknowledge us, and that’s the fight we’re fighting now. It’s not a fight Will Shetterly wants to allow. It’s not a fight that makes him feel comfortable, or that makes Keith Olbermann feel comfortable in his magnanimous superiority. But isn’t that sort of the point? Those who decry internet activism as “too easy” need to wonder: Am I upset that it’s easy? Or am I upset that it’s possible, now, for people who aren’t me?