July 10, 2014

Internet Name Calling as Social Justice Work

Sexual equality symbol Català: Símbol de la ig...
Sexual equality symbol (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
There are many different issues that can be placed under the broad heading of social justice. For the purposes of this post, we just need to pick one that can be used as an example to inform the question I plan to pose. Since it is probably the one we in the online atheist community have heard the most about, I will select sexism as the example to use. You have heard a great deal about sexism, misogyny, and feminism on the Internet lately, so you have likely given some thought to these subjects already. That will help.

From a broad social justice perspective, sexism is a problem. It is an undesirable state of affairs which we are interested in correcting. While one does not have to label oneself a feminist to agree that sexism is problematic, feminism has been influential in how many of us understand sexism. For example, our understanding of sexism is often informed by our understanding of patriarchy, male privilege, and the oppression of women.

My question here is one of tactics. It is a question about how we accomplish what many of us would like to accomplish (i.e., gender equality, the elimination of sexism, an end to oppression). My question centers on one particular tactic that I see being used with great frequency on the Internet today by women and men who identify themselves as feminists interested in social justice: name calling.

Here is a concise statement of my question:
How does calling people names on the Internet result in progress toward social justice goals such as gender equality, the elimination of sexism, and an and to the oppression of women?
Admittedly, I am skeptical that calling people names on the Internet will lead to meaningful progress in these goals. In fact, I suspect that calling people names on the Internet may actually undermine these goals. I recognize that I could be wrong about this, and so I am open to explanations of how this is supposed to work.

I have seen more than a few people beginning to equate social justice work in general and feminism in particular with calling people names on the Internet, and I think that is unfortunate. The sort of feminism with which I am familiar emphasizes empowerment. The feminists I know work to empower women, and they view name calling as being detrimental to empowerment. Some would go so far as to suggest that name calling can be an instrument of oppression. It would never occur to them to invent names to call women who disagreed with them.

The sort of feminism with which I am familiar argues that patriarchy affects both women and men negatively. While men are perceived as benefiting in some ways from male privilege, there are aspects of patriarchy that are regarded as being harmful to men. The feminists I know generally focus on women but rarely find it necessary to be hostile to men in the process. It would never occur to them to invent names to call men or use jargon designed to silence men (e.g., "mansplaining"). They see such efforts as being counterproductive, as they typically welcome male allies who share their goal of gender equality.

The sort of feminism with which I am familiar strives to be inclusive rather than divisive. Differences of opinion are recognized as inevitable. Such differences are not just tolerated but valued. Most of the feminists I know have been influenced by multiculturalism and are interested in learning from others with different life experiences and perspectives. They do not assume that they are right about everything, classify certain topics as off limits to debate, or attempt to shield themselves from diverse perspectives. They seek to bring more people on board rather than devise litmus tests to exclude others.

Most of the feminists I know believe that language is sufficiently important to exercise some caution with how it is used. They would not, for example, characterize the expression of different opinions as "abuse" or "harassment." They would worry that doing so could weaken the power of these terms over time.

I might be wrong about name calling being ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst. If so, I'd really like to understand how it is supposed to help us achieve social justice goals with regard to sexism and gender equality. It seems antithetical not only to freethought but to feminism and social justice as well. This leaves me with the sense, right or wrong, that genuine social justice advocacy has little to do with the behavior of so-called social justice warriors I see everyday on the Internet.

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