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Online Feminism Is Far From a 'Mean Girls' Club , Especially if You're Willing to Listen

24/03/2013 23:18 GMT | Updated 21/05/2013 10:12 BST

Sadie Smith has written a scathing indictment of 'the online wimminz mob' over at New Statesman . It's a portrait that, as a member of the 'online wimminz mob' I don't recognise at all.

What I do recognise however is the frustration from many women, who encountering ignorance and hostility day after day, often from supposed 'allies' who fail to recognise concepts of privilege and intersectionality , and this is the key issue, often fail or refuse to educate themselves on the subject. That failure to take a step back, a blunt refusal to engage in discussion and very often a failure to recognise mistakes; that is what causes 'the mob' to vent their frustration. When many people are raising the same problems, highlighting the same issues to you, and you refuse to engage and insult the entire notion of intersectionality, which for many women is not 'academic jargon' but 'real life'. The result is often frustration along with calls to be a better ally, a subject Stavver's explains well.

I've seen plenty of people on twitter ask questions, makes mistakes, get called out on their privilege; I've seen the same people learn, apologise, move on and continue friendships with those who 'called them out'. 'Privilege' is seldom used to 'shut up women who disagree', never once have I seen this happen, even in the high profile 'twitter storms'. What I have seen is a refusal to acknowledge that one's privilege may make it more suitable to sit back and listen, to give a more prominent voice to those who actually have lived experience on the issue. For example, during the Caitlin Moran, Julie Burchill and Suzanne Moore transphobia debacle, the issue of privilege was distorted to focus on how unfair it was two cis-gender women didn't like the term and did not like being held accountable for the real offence they caused to many women. What those saying 'check your privilege' were highlighting was the absurd situation in which cis gendered, white, women with large platforms in national media were given space to soothe their wounds about being called out, rightfully so, on the use of offensive language, when trans*women were offered no such platform, talked endlessly about but seldom listened to. Trans*women were relegated to whatever phantoms of the imagination they were presented as by others, others in a more privileged position, and denied a chance to speak for themselves. That's privilege in a nutshell. If you don't get that, refuse to educate yourself about it, especially when people you are debating with suggest it might help deepen your understanding of the issues you are talking about, then yes people get frustrated, people get sarcastic, and quite frankly you probably deserve the odd sarcastic quip thrown your way. Smith's article smacks of the Tone Argument, which is silencing and insulting.

Intersectional feminism and the recognition of privilege, is not, as Smith claims a system where "it's not who you are but how you were born that determines whether what you have to say is worth listening to" , instead it is a system that acknowledges that our lives, our identities affect how the world views us and how we experience discrimination. Intersectionality recognises that inclusive feminism listens to all women and aims to ensure that women of colour, trans* women, disabled women, LGBT women and other marginalised women have a voice. The prejudices of society privilege certain women above others; white middle class, cis, straight, non disabled women are afforded a much greater opportunity to speak out, to be listened to, to gain media coverage than other groups. Indeed their experience seen as 'normal' as opposed to 'other' (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Other#Gender_studies), this 'othering' is something which leads to the marginalisation of many women within feminism, which intersectionality and an awareness of privilege seeks to address. It is about women speaking for themselves, a panel of white, cis, non disabled women talking about race, trans*, disability issues is just as offensive and silencing as a panel of men on women's hour talking about birth control and women's reproductive health. If you fail to to get it? Yeh then you might get told to fuck off, perhaps a short temper is because the layers of the 'shit puff pastry' got too much. However 'fighting back' by using your influence and platform on a well known website to call other women misogynist names such as 'bimbos' and 'bitches', belittling women as merely 'moaning on twitter' with no knowledge of what they may be doing in their real lives, snidely asserting a superiority that you are not 'one of them', by using the odd out of context quote to assert the majority are engaged in the online bullying a small minority may commit. No one should ever feel silenced, or be bullied online, sadly it does happen in all circles, feminism is not immune. But to conflate bullying with genuine issues around a noticeable trend of some feminists, backed up by those with the immense privilege of media influence, who point blank refuse to engage in issues around privilege and intersectionality, is not useful to anyone.