How to Talk About Feminism on Social Media


 People mean many different things when they refer to feminism or describe themselves as feminists (or anti-feminists). For some, feminism signals one's belief in the equality of women and nothing more. For them, a feminist is simply someone who believes that women are equal to men. Using this definition, most of us are feminists even if we might not chose to identify ourselves as such. Others use much more expansive definitions of feminism, adding all sorts of things that reach well beyond equality (e.g., patriarchy theory, "rape culture," microaggressions, and so on). For them, feminism is a complex socio-political ideology with many components that occupies a prominent part of their worldview.

In order to move past yelling at each other and engage in any sort of meaningful discussion about feminism or closely related topics, we must begin by asking each other what we mean by feminism and what we are saying when we refer to ourselves as feminists or anti-feminists. If we do not, misunderstanding and conflict are inevitable. We will make the mistake of assuming everyone defines these terms as we do, and we even may end up attacking someone who shares our views without realizing that we are in agreement. This may sound far fetched, but I have seen many heated arguments during which it has become obvious that the parties arguing were actually in complete agreement the entire time and did not realize it.

We Agree, So Let's Be Enemies

Suppose that a woman who views feminism as nothing more than gender equality comes across a woman who labels herself an anti-feminist. The feminist woman is bound to be upset. She thinks she has just encountered someone who does not believe in the equality of women. And yet, this probably isn't the case. The woman using the anti-feminist label almost certainly is using a broader definition of feminism and is objecting to something that has little to do with gender equality. In fact, she's probably objecting to something she perceives as being antithetical to gender equality! Maybe she rejects patriarchy theory, "rape culture," or what she perceives as misandry on the part of some vocal feminists. Maybe she's skeptical about the wage gap or widely cited campus rape statistics. Maybe she has grown tired of what Ella Whelan described as "a cult of victimhood, one which demands that women cry on social media about their faux daily oppression at the hands of the opposite sex and beg for the intervention of a protective state." Or maybe she's frustrated with the behavior of social justice warriors and equates this with feminism.

What should be evident is that both of the women in this example are mistaken. The woman who labels herself a feminist and views feminism as nothing more than gender equality is incorrectly assuming that the woman who labels herself an anti-feminist rejects gender equality. But the woman who labels herself an anti-feminist is not rejecting gender equality; she is reacting to other aspects of a broader view of feminism with which she disagrees. And the woman who labels herself an anti-feminist is incorrectly assuming that the woman who labels herself a feminist is using this broad definition of feminism when she is not. It is likely that the two women both support gender equality. They agree without realizing it, and they may come to despise each other based on this simple misunderstanding.

What a sad scenario this is! We could easily find ourselves with two women who both support gender equality and who both have the passion and drive to make them effective activists squandering their energy on social media squabbles because they do not realize they are on the same page. It is difficult to see how this advances the cause of gender equality in any way.

Changing for the Better

If we spend our time on social media primarily because we enjoy arguing, calling others names, publicly shaming those who do things we do not like, we can keep doing what we are doing without giving it any thought. If it does not bother us that our views are becoming increasingly polarized, inflexible, and tribalistic, then there is no reason for us to change our behavior. If it does not bother us that our behavior is alienating people who might actually agree with us, then there is no reason to change course. We are getting what we want and can keep doing what we are doing.

But if we want to be more rational, have meaningful discussions with others, win allies to our cause, or bring about social change, we need to be clear about what we mean when we use commonly misunderstood labels to identify ourselves. And even more importantly, we need to take the time to inquire what others mean by them before we go on attack. We might even find that the person we almost attacked agrees with us.

While this post focused on feminism, I think it applies to other sorts of labels (e.g., liberal or conservative). When we assume others use labels in the same way we use them, we are prone to making costly mistakes.