Dr. Dawg


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No one can seriously doubt the New Statesman Deputy Editor Helen Lewis’ feminist street cred. And in the conversation above, she seems anything but a blinkered, privilege-denying white middle-class woman daring to speak for all women.

Or so you might think. But in the borderlands where race, class and gender bump elbows uncomfortably, brawls too easily break out. Denunciation—the favourite tactic of the Stalinist left—quickly replaces civil discussion, such as the one in the video. Ad hominem of a particularly vicious kind replaces the free-wheeling and righteously intense discussions and debates that erupt where racism, sexism, heterosexism and class privilege are not only theory-fodder but lived experience.

The hashtag that is my lede is at once part of the problem and part of the solution. It’s an in-your-face challenge to white women, a counter-racializing move that has its witty and ironic overtones and from which, therefore, much can be learned. But it can also be merely a club to be wielded, a form of silencing that, among putative allies, is dangerous and devisive. And the social media can amplify this tendency to a simply amazing degree.

I guess Lewis isn’t new to this, but she got badly bitten yesterday for daring to be critical of this article, by Black feminist blogger Flavia Tamara Dzodan.

Now, I found the piece, a critique of food writing, interesting to some extent, but eye-rollingly facile. I disagree with Lewis’ dismissal of Dzodan’s technical vocabulary as impenetrable verbiage—it’s anything but, these days—but agree that it was poorly deployed.

No, it’s not “ableist” to write about healthy foods on a food website. No, it’s not a recrudescence of Puritanism to use the word “treat” when referring to desserts. No, it is not necessarily heteronormative to refer to a “family”—unless you proceed on the heteronormative assumption that families are all opposite-sex based. And no, food sites don’t exclude trans people because of their alleged heteronormativity. Good grief.

Yet the issue of gender assumptions in food sites or anywhere else is obviously open to debate and analysis. We can’t escape these ideological quagmires by dismissing them as unimportant or even non-existent. Nor can we expect smooth transitions to higher levels of understanding: resistance is futile, but inevitable. And, as my link above in reference to Lewis’ feminism indicates, that resistance can take vile forms.

But here is what happened when Lewis ventured to Tweet. First, the horns-locking of the two contenders. Then, a furious horde unleashed upon Lewis, who got sick of the personal attacks rather quickly, and has taken a couple of days off from Twitter.

That’s probably something we Twitterers should all do from time to time. The medium does not lend itself to serious debate in 140-character bursts. (Try it, and watch your followers, their Twitterstreams quickly filling up, unfollow you without ceremony.) It does, however, lend itself to unreflective blurts, anonymous trolling, and libellous accusations.

From the Tweets we discover that Lewis’ not-entirely-fair critique of the Dzodan piece is motivated by racism and transphobia(!). By criticizing Dzodan’s choice of vocabulary, Lewis is really saying that Dzodan, a Black woman, or WoC if you prefer, is being uppity, using words that are somehow above her. (I suspect that Lewis would give Judith Butler a hard time as well, but no matter.)

Dzodan herself, rather than respond to Lewis on the substance, lost no time calling Lewis a racist. The ironic counter-privileging here serves no useful purpose—it’s just a crude silencing technique.

Not that we shouldn’t be mindful of our various subject-positions. I’m writing this article as a white, middle-class, cis-gendered male. While I do my share of reflection and self-confrontation, no doubt there are hidden assumptions aplenty in my writing that should be exposed and critiqued. The same, obviously, goes for Lewis. But, as we see from the Tweetstorm that arose, discussion and analysis can quickly become unimportant. Contradictions among the people, as a “non-white” male once observed, are mistaken for contradictions between the people and the enemy. The sheer joy of self-righteousness takes over. Critique gives way to insult.

This cyber-tiff suddenly made me remember something. The Black lesbian feminist Audrey Lorde, once an angry voice in the wilderness, wrote an article in 1984 called “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” She sparked a much larger firestorm, in a period where intersectionality wasn’t yet a thing. People should take the time to read this critique of a false, universalizing liberal feminism that seeks to paper over fundamental differences: here’s the conclusion:

Racism and homophobia are real conditions of all our lives in this place and time. I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives there. See whose face it wears. Then the personal as the political can begin to illuminate all our choices.

She broke something open with that. Her essay aroused tremendous hostility, but it had a positive outcome. She dealt with ideas, and contradictions, and the different forms that oppression can take. She nowhere stooped to crude denunciation of individuals, but invited—no, she demanded—an urgent dialogue, one that continues to this day.

But “all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice,” said a dead white male, “…the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” Via Twitter, we’ve just had our fill of the second appearance.

UPDATE: Helen Lewis graciously apologizes for her part in all this [via Caroline Criado-Perez]. Will the other shoe now drop?

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on August 22, 2013 1:19 PM.

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