Getting It Wrong Is Right

“The thing about feminism is there’s always somebody to tell you you’re doing it wrong” – comic author Gail Simone (Wonder Woman, Birds of Prey, Secret Six)

 This may shock you, but I’ve been wrong some times. Many times, in fact.

Much more often I’ve been called wrong. Being called out for doing things wrong is an occupational hazard for those who launch political campaigns or seek to raise awareness of issues. Every time someone new encounters your idea, there’s a very good chance they’ll be keen to tell you what’s wrong with it. Some of them leave their comments on our Facebook page, where we try to preserve them until they become abusive.

This is, of course, precisely the way it should be. When it comes to crusades, we must follow the lessons of comic books, and be sure to Not Be As Bad As Them. The only way we can be sure of that is to constantly check and evaluate our beliefs, our goals and our practices. It’s also important not to waste our time – or yours – with ideas that aren’t helping. Unquestioning optimism or smug moralising can actively damage a cause far more than apathy.

It’s also a vital part of any philosophy or movement, to ensure it remains relevant and important. An idea as big as feminism, as revolutionary as feminism, as new as feminism must and should be constantly questioned, and analysed and examined. It is such a big, new and revolutionary idea that it certainly cannot be expected to comprise only one idea at all, in fact. It is a large concept that everyone can and should have thoughts about and reactions to, and discussions arising from.

Perhaps the best thing about being called wrong though is it can be the whetstone that sharpens our ideas. That is to say, what matters less is being wrong in the first place, and rather how we respond to it. Twitter has recently exploded into a small firestorm as some radical feminists have been accused of being wrong in their exclusion of transwomen from their movement – to the point where they lost a venue for their 2013 convention to the glee of the anti-feminist Mens’ Rights Activists. Their response in many cases has been to up the ante, and declare transwomen to be the enemy, and even state they are spies of the MRA, keen to practice “corrective rape”.

I must also point out that others provided a more measured response, which in particular talks about how the branding of the entire #radfem movement as being anti-trans has created a huge divide that in the end has just kept women away from important information and shared involvement – to everyone’s detriment. Ultimately, that is the risk here: that adding barriers to who can or can’t be a “good” or “bad” feminist ends up weakening everybody. What’s more, the moment you start erecting walls and saying who can and can’t come into your club, you are definitely heading towards being Just As Bad As Them.

A month earlier over on this side of the pond, Helen Razer, a noted feminist author used her blog to accuse Jenna Price, a noted feminist campaigner of being wrong. This was due to the latter’s “Destroy the Joint” campaign being onanistic and misplaced; a convenient middle-class rage-masturbation aimed at straw men and hollow targets, diverting effort from actually smashing the tools of patriarchy and focussing feminism on the violence of men and the poverty of women. Ms Price responded with an article of her own, providing her smashing the state credentials, and talking about how small social media rage-masturbations are part of a larger tapestry, and that each hollow target called out is a tiny victory if only for the woman marginalised by it.

Both sides made excellent points, and the real glory of this event was in the overall exchange. Ms Price’s thoughtful reply gave her a chance to clarify her position and sharpen her drive. The lively discussion made headlines and prompted discussion around the country, and all discussers were pointed back at Ms Price’s rebuttal, where she made it clearer to everyone – and to a now far wider audience – the goals of Destroy the Joint, and the context it operated within. Not only was the message improved, but it was spread further. Even if it led to a few raised voices on the twittersphere, there could have been no better outcome. Nobody was excluded from anything, and the frank exchange of big ideas left everyone more enlightened.

As I said at the beginning, I get accused of being wrong all the time, in my role of running and promoting the MESSAGE. Every time I introduce it – which is what promoting it involves – somebody will ask about our motives, or our methods, or our goals. Many of them will pick holes in these things, finding what they consider obvious flaws or clear problems (which of course we have not spotted ourselves), sometimes just as idle conversation, other times as philosophical debate, still others as outright attacks. But I welcome them all, because every time I get asked something, I get better at providing the answers. I learn more about why we’re doing the MESSAGE, and how we can make it work. And I learn more about how to explain that to people, and get our message across.

 And sometimes, the wider discussion takes things even further. On one Facebook group, a male member lamented that our ideas – while laudable – were futile, because we were always going to be preaching to the converted: that the “good guys” already knew how to treat women, and the “bad guys” didn’t. This made me realise just how important it was not to divide the world up like that, that this was putting up the same kind of fences of exclusion I desperately wanted to avoid (and I’ll talk more about that in my next blog). I gained a clearer idea of what we needed to do and how do do it. 

In his comment however he didn’t actually use the word “women”. He referred to female players as “gamer girls”. And one of his fellow members spoke up at that point, pointing out how she found the prevalence of that particular infantilising epithet to be demeaning and prejudiced. A brief discussion – including apologies – ensued. And, as they say in family-friendly sitcoms, we all learnt a valuable lesson: that sometimes when you think you’re right, you’re actually wrong.

And I learnt, once again, just how important it is to be told you’re wrong. Because it’s the only way to get it right.