1. Assume that people are competent, intelligent and are trying to do the right thing. And I don’t mean “pay lip service to that assumption”, I mean really live that belief.
2. When you see something that still seems offensive to you, do this: smile, then read it out loud. Seriously, try it. Because it may be that you got it wrong, that the tone didn’t come across, that you’re not familiar with this person’s dry sense of humour: a bunch of stuff. If it is capable of being construed ironically or sarcastically or as a joke, that’s probably how it was meant.
3. Additionally, assume that you’ve misunderstood. Always. If you see something you don’t agree with, that seems profoundly wrong and completely illogical, there is about an 80% real-life chance that it’s you who’s not getting it. Your first approach in any communication situation should be to ask a question…
4. …but this question should never – ever – contain any of the following: “um”, “has it occurred to you that”, “don’t you realise how”, “actually”, “excuse me”, or any other passive aggressive patronising self-righteous bullshit. If it doesn’t start with one of the 5 W’s, you’re being an asshole.
5. On twitter, or on a blog you’re not familiar with, click on the person’s name and have a little rootle
round their other writings before responding. Are the obviously on your side? A good person? Generally with the angels? Then consider leaving them alone. If they used (what you think is) the wrong word or said something you seriously think is un-feminist, there are plenty of people out there less evolved than you, and I promise you they’ve already let that person know their displeasure, oh yes.
6. Don’t join mobs. For fuck’s sweetest honey oozing sake, don’t fucking do it. You see someone telling someone off on Twitter? Great. That means that person has been told off. Your contribution is no longer necessary. The good deed has been done. Pat yourself on the back for having had the correct instinct & go make a cup of tea.
7. Don’t incite mobs. The next person I catch suggestively @ tweeting an offensive article/tweet into someone else’s stream, implicitly or explicitly inviting them to go & get medieval on the offending ass, is going to get a smack, they really are. What are you, twelve? Jesus.
8. Above all, nomero uno, the Rule Supreme of Feminism, this is it, genuine 100% 24 carat wisdom: ask yourself if you could be wrong. No matter how expert, how well versed, how experienced you are, how much more lived experience you think you have than this other person who is pissing you off, force yourself to stop, breathe in, and think for just a second: could they be right and I, wrong? Or maybe they could just have a point, if I follow Rule 1?
Feminism isn't an exact science, which means nobody – not Judith Butler, not Luce Irigaray, not Caytlin Moran, not Laurie Penny, nobody – has got it 100% figured out. Everything is up for debate and negotiation, and if you truly believe it’s not, then you need to join a religion and not a social justice movement, mmkay?
In fact if feminism were an exact science, you’d be in even more of a pickle, because then you’d be compelled by professional standards to evaluate new arguments brought to you, rather than just thinking of the most sarcastic way of knocking them down.
I actually try to apply that “scientific” approach myself – taking each new argument as if it might actually be right & going from there. Here’s a case study: last week, people in my timeline were freaking out that Richard Dawkins said that a baby is like a pig and only foetal pain stands between a woman and the right to abortion.
Now, abortion, as some people will know, is my baby (see what I did there?) – I can quote law details from like 10 different countries, statistics from all over the world, abortion rates, studies, services, educational projects, Nadine Dorries scandals… In fact it just so happened that I accidentally ended up lecturing the very same Richard Dawkins about it the following weekend. But.
I went to his timeline. I read the whole of his argument. I thought seriously about whether the discovery of foetal pain would change my mind about the subject of abortion on demand at any stage in pregnancy (probably not, but it was an interesting thought experiment). I saw how many people were already piling on on him… And I decided not to get excited about it.
Did that make a difference in the world? Nuh-uh. But would being the 100th person tweeting The Dawk to tell him what a bellend he is have made a difference in the world? Nope.
What’s true of someone like Richard Dawkins is much more true of some random feminist on Twitter who is probably really doing her very best to be in the movement in the most productive way she can. In the movement you don’t own, and your oh-so-enlightened, holier-than-thou friends don’t own, and I don’t own and she doesn’t own and that’s what’s so damn great about it.
Tl;dr version: if you don’t want to have a lot of in-fighting in feminism, don’t start any fucking fights.
So, does any of this mean I'm the Zen grand Master and never get into online spats? Like hell it does. Sometimes I get my feelings hurt & things run away from me. Sometimes I fail at applying the rules. Sometimes I'm having a bad day. But I've had more productive discussions with people on Facebook and Twitter than I've had rows, and I'd like to see that ratio continue to improve. Also, I'm fed the FUCK up with the self righteous yelling & screaming, and I felt like I had to do something constructive about it or I'd explode.