New Matilda Columnist Dr Lissa Johnson weighs in on why New Matilda has been extremely quiet of late (and by ‘extremely quiet’ we mean more or less silent).
If the proof is in the pudding, Claire Connelly seems to have stumbled onto something big in her article, The Feminist Far Left Is Making More Enemies Than Allies.
The piece generated an almighty shit-storm, even by New Matilda standards. Those who follow New Matilda may have noticed that things went distinctly quiet after Connelly’s article was published. For a while, it was the shit-storm that broke the website’s back.
While Connelly has been accused of many things, including arguing that feminists should “be good girls” and “pander to men’s needs”, the central premise of her article was that being unkind and hostile towards men is likely to alienate them from feminism.
She said, “I fear that… aggressive rhetoric alienates people who have only just begun to engage in issues like feminism.”
Her suggestion invoked a torrent of vitriol and rage, including vehement attacks on Connelly, and on the credibility of both New Matilda and editor Chris Graham.
In comments on New Matilda’s Facebook page, Connelly was called a “hack”, “scumbag”, “apologist”, “Stepford wife” and “crackpot”, while her writing was branded, “sad, whiny”, “bullshit lecturing”, “claptrap”, “total bollocks”, “crap”, “bullshit polemics”, “ignorant”, “nasty” and “trash”, to name a few.
Other responses included “Boo fucking hoo”, “Oh shut up”, “Talk about having no fkn idea what you’re taking about”, “I give no fucks to what you think of my feminism”, “I could not give a fuck what this Claire woman thinks”, “Where’s the ‘I don’t give a fuck’ button when you need it”, “you should really stick to economics”, “Grow the fuck up Connelly”, and “Stick to your day job”.
New Matilda was accused of being “insulting and disingenuous” when it defended women’s rights to disagree and debate. The decision to publish the article was called a “sad indictment on New Matilda’s gender politics”.
One reader thought that the article was “harmful and offensive and you should take responsibility for that”, asking, “New Matilda does stand for something doesn’t it? It’s disingenuous to claim this is just diversity.”
Chris Graham’s integrity was also questioned. One reader declared it to be “Controversial Views On Feminism Clickbait Week” branding the article an “obvious attempt to drive up traffic”. “This isn’t debate, it’s clickbait” said another. “It would be cynical to think it was published for rage-based clicks, wouldn’t it?”
And, finally, “Chris Graham, I do wonder if you are genuine or just in it for the money.”
Given that Chris Graham has never drawn a wage from New Matilda, and sold his house last year to keep New Matilda going, I doubt it’s money that drives him.
Besides being underpaid and overworked, Chris, at the time of the online siege, had been fielding four lawsuits against New Matilda, aimed at protecting an asbestos manufacturer’s right to spy on activists, and kill people, being an asbestos manufacturer, for profit.
I imagine that he was exhausted. Which has nothing to do with male fragility and everything to do with being a human being. So he retreated to regroup.
If it were me, I might have retreated to wonder whether working for no pay and sacrificing my house was worth it.
Feminism and men
It is true that Chris Graham is no expert on feminism. He has dedicated his career to Aboriginal affairs. I imagine that many feminists are no experts on Aboriginal affairs, either. I doubt, however, that Chris Graham would eviscerate them for it.
In her article, Connelly had expressed her concern that aggression and divisive rhetoric could “alienate people who might otherwise engage [with feminism]”. I wouldn’t blame Chris Graham if he never touched feminism again with a 10-foot pole.
But what was it about Connelly’s article that made so many women so mad?
The objections revolved around a few key themes, chief among them that Connelly doesn’t “get to tell other women how to ‘do’ feminism”, and that women are under no obligation to be nice to men.
Connelly, however, never argued that women had an obligation to be nice to men. Her argument concerned the utility of antagonism.
Her premise was that being hostile and caustic towards men who are interested in feminism is likely to backfire. She argued that it risks “making enemies of potential allies”.
Feminism aside, on psychological grounds she’s right. It’s not a controversial statement in the least.
If you attack people, most will retreat or attack back. Both men and women generally avoid hostile environments if they can. In fact, public shaming and harassment by a group are among the most psychologically aversive experiences for human beings. These are very effective tactics for creating enemies.
One needn’t be a psychologist to know that antagonism is not a fruitful approach to enlisting anyone’s support, male or female. Feminist or not.
Whether feminists wish to enlist men’s support, however, is another question. Connelly obviously thinks it’s a good idea.
Many of her detractors obviously do not. “Men should shut up and listen for a change,” said one. “Men can’t be feminists,” said another. “Most men claiming to want to learn more about feminism = trolls in sheep’s clothing”, “If they can’t [check their privilege]then they’re pretty fucking useless to any kind of equality movement, aren’t they?”
There was also mockery of men seeking to engage with feminism, for instance as “brocialists”. One reader jeered, “I am such a better feminist than female feminists and it hurts my feelings when they don’t accept my authority on the matter”.
It would have been interesting to understand these positions more fully, beyond the level of a Facebook rant.
In her book Why I am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto, Jessa Crispin devotes a whole chapter to why “Men Are Not Our Problem”. In it, her stance alternates between divisive and inclusive, possibly reflecting the ambivalence that many women feel around this theme.
On one hand Crispin says to men, “Your lack of enlightenment is not our problem. Figure it out… do your own fucking work.” On the other she says to women, “We must re-imagine our relationships to and with men, as well as our ideas of who men are…. They too are infected by the ideas of who we want them to be.”
Women’s attitudes to these issues have tangible implications for feminism and for women. If men aren’t our problem, for instance, what are the ramifications for violence-prevention programs such as these: Woke Feminist Men: Engaging Black Men and Boys on Sexual Violence Activism?
To combat male violence against women, a range of initiatives in black communities in America seek to “deprogram men” by “unpack[ing]sexist hetero-norms and attitudes about gender roles, gender identity and male bonding around violence”. The programs “Recogniz[e]young men and boys as violence victims/survivors” themselves, and as targets of “multinational corporations that promote and profit from sexist, misogynist images of women of color”.
Among the programs’ organisers are Black Women For Wellness and Wisdom From The Field, a “family of community members working to end the struggle felt by the Black family in our communities”. Part of their programs’ mission is to create “Black male feminist allies” and activists.
Perhaps, having fought slavery and segregation, American Black women never enjoyed the historical luxury of thumbing their noses at their oppressors. Perhaps they know something we white women don’t about overcoming oppression. Perhaps they understand the importance of fighting systemic causes rather than each other.
Evidence is on their side when it comes to violence prevention. A recent Lancet review of approaches to preventing violence against women and girls stresses the importance of engaging both men and women. It advocates helping both genders to understand and “transform the relations, social norms, and systems that sustain gender inequality and violence”.
Feminists have long held that members of marginalized groups, including people of colour and women, better understand the social dynamics driving marginalisation than members of dominant social groups. The reasoning is that because advantaged groups reap the benefits of the status quo they needn’t question it, rendering it less visible to them.
According to this view, marginalised groups are in the best position to educate others regarding the causes and remedies of discrimination. How this squares with, “Do your own fucking work” would be interesting to debate.
Although one reader derided Connelly’s article for not being topical, Crispin’s book has only recently been released, and focuses on many of the same issues as Connelly.
Crispin, for instance, says that one of her reasons for disavowing contemporary feminism is that it has become “a method of shaming and silencing anyone who disagrees with you, inspired by a naïve belief that disagreement or conflict is abuse”. She also sees contemporary feminism as coming with a marketing tagline, “Go ahead, be a monster. You deserve it.”
If the purpose of feminism is to enhance equality between women and men, would constructive engagement with men not advance that cause? Perhaps many women fear not.
Or is feminism about something else for some women? Perhaps not all women view feminism as tangibly goal-directed. Perhaps it is more of a philosophy, ideology, identity or intellectual endeavour. It would be interesting to know.
One of the most strident and repeated critics of Connelly’s article expressed the view that feminism is not so much about gender equality, which naturally invites male engagement, but the conviction that gender is “the primary source of oppression”.
Another reader disagreed, quoting the Miriam Webster Dictionary, which defines feminism as 1) The theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes, and 2) Organised activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests.
A useful debate on the meaning and mission of feminism could have erupted, but was drowned in bile and contempt.
It is ironic that many readers derided Connelly’s article for its “lack of contribution to the feminist debate” when that lack was largely due to the quality of their own responses. The paucity of debate also stemmed from her critics’ failure to grasp the central point that had been thrown up for grabs: whether women want to engage men in feminism, how, in what way, and why, or why not.
Those questions, in turn, could have opened further questions around the nature, aims and definition of feminism. As well as feminism’s stance on stereotyping men. All of which sound like worthy topics of debate to me.
But perhaps it was more the tone of Connelly’s article that rankled so many readers. Perhaps they felt patronised, criticised and attacked.
Rather than constructively engage, they attacked back. Which was Connelly’s point.
Another charge punctuating the Facebook comments was that Connelly had no right to speak on the subject of feminism.
“How’s she a feminist? Please explain?” said one. “Calling yourself a feminist doesn’t make you one,” remarked another.
One woman said, “I am struggling with the idea that this author has as much right to express her view as all of the other writers you have published. [She] has provided no more evidence as to her position as a feminist than self identification.” This reader questioned whether Connelly had “the same right to express her view on this topic as experts in the field”.
Some added that Chris Graham had no right to publish Connelly’s article in the first place. “The defence of its publication is nonsensical… she does not have a right to the public platform nor air of legitimacy that [her]view was afforded when you decided to publish the article.”
Others went a step further, and charged Chris Graham with deliberately publishing “anti-feminist” material.
For an article that “contributed nothing to feminist debate”, it certainly raised a lot of important questions: As well as What is feminism? What is feminism aiming to achieve? and How do women feel about engaging men in feminism? there was, Which voices are legitimate voices on feminism? and Who gets to decide?
What a shame no-one was in the mood to discuss.
Whether the anti-Connelly warriors realised it or not, their attacks upon Connelly’s feminist legitimacy were attacks upon epistemological terrain.
Epistemology is a branch of philosophy that concerns how we decide and define what constitutes valid knowledge. Feminist theorists have long taken an interest in epistemology and have shaped the epistemological landscape, particularly in the social sciences, in significant and controversial ways.
I know this because between 1997 and 1998 I studied feminist epistemology as my major theoretical elective in psychology.
My first essay on the subject examined the three main branches of feminist epistemology, and explored conflicts and tensions between them. Not unlike the clashes between Connelly and her New Matilda critics, feminist epistemologists disagreed partly about the extent to which feminism should appropriate traditionally ‘male’ qualities, such as aggression and control, or valorise traditionally ‘female’ qualities, such as co-operation and affiliation.
The three schools of feminist epistemology were feminist empiricism (the most conservative), feminist standpoint theory (the most controversial) and feminist postmodernism (the most radical).
From a feminist epistemological point of view, are Connelly’s detractors right? Can she even stake a claim to feminist knowledge as a ‘non-expert’? Is she a legitimate voice on the subject?
What, for instance, would the feminist postmodernists say?
Being postmodern, feminist postmodernism takes an ‘anything goes’ approach to knowledge. They do not believe in objective truth. They, therefore, would be fine with Connelly as a source. Their interest would more likely revolve around analysing the subtext of Connelly and her detractors’ narratives, along with the implications for gender politics and gender relations.
How about standpoint feminism then? Unlike postmodernists, standpoint feminists do believe in objective truth, and did advance specific prescriptions for delineating valid knowledge. Reacting to what they saw as the androcentric norms of traditional empiricism (objectivity, detachment and control) their epistemology revolved around qualities culturally aligned with femininity, particularly subjectivity, co-operation and affiliation.
Valid knowledge, according to standpoint theory, arises from subjective, lived experience. The standpoint method of knowing is phenomenological, and involves asking people, often women, to describe their experience of their own lives in their own words.
Rejecting a woman’s standpoint on the basis that she is not ‘expert’ enough would be anathema to feminist standpoint theorists. According to standpoint theory, to prioritise ‘expert’ voices over others would be to collude with a traditionally male, hierarchical and subordinating approach to knowledge.
Moreover, standpoint theory opposes prioritising system-sanctioned standpoints, such those of ‘experts’, over the subjective lived experience of women. They hold that this risks ossifying existing theories and concepts, which are often infused with male bias, by enabling those concepts to perpetually reproduce themselves.
Chris Graham providing Claire Connelly a platform to express her subjective experience of feminism is an entirely feminist act from a standpoint point of view. Epistemologically, censuring her for not being an ‘expert’ would have been the anti-feminist stance.
In fact, more broadly, New Matilda embodies the spirit of standpoint feminism. Truth, according to much standpoint theory, is best illuminated by the perspectives of as many marginalised groups as possible. It is akin to examining a 3-D object from as many angles as possible, not simply from one dominant, or one marginalised, vantage point.
On this analysis the pursuit of truth and knowledge is a collective rather than individual affair. Understanding the world is not about one vantage point winning over another, but about sharing, comparing, contrasting and combining different vantage points.
The third and most conservative of the feminist epistemologies, feminist empiricism, follows a traditional epistemological approach. This involves prioritising objective observation over subjective experience, and controlled experimentation over phenomenological inquiry. Feminist empiricists seek to redress male biases via greater female participation in existing paradigms, and via feminist critique.
Would feminist empiricists care whether Claire Connelly was an expert in feminism?
As the most conformist and traditional of the feminist epistemologies they might, were feminist accreditation a quantifiable thing. Being empiricists, however, they would require a specific set of criteria defining feminist expertise. They would also require that set of criteria to have been validated in some sort of institutionalised process, as per accreditation in other fields.
Given that no such criteria exist, I doubt that feminist empiricists would consider the matter an empirical issue.
Regardless, simply shouting “You’re not a real feminist!” does little to advance debate.
Feminism vs feminism: the gender politics of debate
Like the conflict that raged around Claire’s Connelly’s New Matilda piece, feminist epistemologists have long disagreed over how feminism should proceed.
In the 1990s detractors of feminist epistemology saw the entrenched disagreements within feminism as a fatal “impasse” and viewed feminism as arguing itself into a terminal decline. These critics were intolerant of feminist plurality, and held that accepting differences within feminism amounted to “capitulation”.
The attacks on feminist epistemology, however, foundered on the unspoken assumption that feminism should be a homogenous project, in which feminists march in unison down a single path. As standpoint feminists pointed out at the time, women inhabit a broad range of realities and identities, and feminism is a diverse project.
Like the anti-feminists of old, the feminist antipathy towards New Matilda has sought to censure controversy within feminism. It has done so by refusing to engage in reasoned debate, and choosing instead to hurl insults, epithets and slurs.
These assaults have been launched from essentially the same position as feminism’s former detractors. It is a position in which division within feminism is intolerable, unforgivable, and an assault on feminism itself.
Are these women protecting feminism from external attack, such as the feminist epistemologists endured? Are they afraid that any internal divides will be exploited from without, eroding feminism’s clout?
Or have they so appropriated traditionally androcentric norms that their own sexist double standards are invisible to themselves?
As I wrote in 1997, pressure for feminists to agree “can be seen as sexist, in that male philosophers and theorists have a long history of diverse opinions, conflicting perspectives and intellectual debate. In male-dominated intellectual traditions, such dissent is generally viewed as a necessary and generative part of open intellectual exchange, rather than a problem to be overcome… Assuming that open ideological debate nourishes and sustains progress, stifling the debate between feminists is likely to stunt feminism’s growth.”
Chris Graham, upon receiving Claire Connelly’s submission, could have chosen to reject it, which would have spared him a world of pain.
Rejecting it in good faith, however, would have required him to believe that feminists should think with one mind, unlike thinkers in any other intellectual domain. It would have required him to believe that women and feminists, unlike men and non-feminists, ought not to argue, debate, critique one another or disagree.
Moreover, he would have had to appoint himself – a man – gatekeeper of which women’s voices were, or were not, to be heard, and which women are, or are not, feminists. It is a paternalistic license that he could have easily granted himself, with no-one any the wiser.
Instead, he proceeded on the basis that women and feminists are free to disagree, like anyone else. He assumed them to be capable of responding intelligently to one another’s claims and arguing their positions cogently, like proponents of any other ideology.
Moreover, he heeded the requests from many women that men listen to them, and believe what they say about feminism. Connelly described herself as a feminist and Chris believed her. She had something to say, and he listened.
Consequences for feminism of suppressing feminist debate
Not content with angry Facebook posts, some of the women who objected to Claire Connelly’s article went after Chris Graham personally, offline, with false and defamatory charges.
Of all the weapons in the feminist arsenal this was the most vicious, and ultimately the one that sent New Matilda offline. It was probably just one defamation issue too many.
Apart from the obvious consequences for New Matilda and its many readers, what are the broader implications for feminism of such intolerance of critique?
Having pondered the controversies surrounding feminist epistemologies for a year, with the help of a sharp-thinking supervisor I wrote a second essay on the subject in 1998.
The essay is long (7,500 words), but in a nutshell the thesis was that, “Controversies surrounding feminist epistemologies have been profitable to epistemology as a whole.”
I argued that, “They have been profitable in that the debates have raised wider philosophical issues which have been taken up by mainstream theorists outside feminism. The ultimate impact has been to reshape some aspects of mainstream epistemological thinking.”
The Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, for instance, said, “new challenges posed by feminists [are a]central feature of contemporary philosophy of science.”
Had the internal divides over feminist epistemology been suppressed, feminism’s impact would have been diminished. The controversy at the time, far from being detrimental to feminism, enhanced its reach.
That controversy did so by spawning a thought-provoking debate that drew in mainstream thinkers from outside feminism, prompting a more rigorous self-reflective analysis of both feminist and mainstream positions, and, over time, a re-examination of the traditional status quo.
If one group of feminist epistemologists had sought to silence those who disagreed with them, or ruin the careers of male editors who got in their way, feminist epistemology would have been less rigorous and less influential as a result.
If one group of feminists today intimidates editors out of publishing writers who disagree with them, they will be robbing contemporary feminism of the same opportunity.
Feminism in the age of Trump
Another fierce objection to Connelly’s piece was her conjecture that telling non-feminists “to go f*** themselves” may drive people towards “movements like One Nation and the alt-right”.
One reader wrote, “are you aware that this article is actually claiming that feminism is responsible for the rise of white supremacy, hansonist (sic) racism and misogyny? One assumes NM takes some responsibility for what it publishes? Diversity of views is ok, but this is harmful, grossly misrepresentative claptrap.”
While there may be no empirical link between a feminist backlash and One Nation, psychologically, attacking people does polarise them and drive them further into their pre-existing worldviews. When personally castigated, demeaned or humiliated, most human beings self-justify and double down.
Moreover, Connelly does not hold feminism responsible for One Nation. She expresses concern that hostile antagonism may render right wing ideologies more appealing to some.
Connelly is not the first to draw the more general link between closed-mindedness on the left and the rise of the right. Following the election of Donald Trump, many commentators traced his victory to failures of the left, including a single issue, identity-driven myopia that failed to grasp the desperation of the eviscerated working and middle classes, instead alienating them with patronising contempt.
Pulitzer Prize Winning author and journalist Chris Hedges says, “Preaching multiculturalism and gender and identity politics will not save us from the rising sadism in American society. It will only fuel the anti-politics that has replaced politics.”
Increasingly, economic conditions in the West provide a psychological breeding ground for racism, sexism and xenophobia. Psychological research on prejudice indicates that scarcity (eg. economic hardship, poverty and disappearing jobs) fans the flames of prejudice of all kinds. As does fear.
Governments telling a poverty-stricken population, in which the economy serves the top 1%, over and over again that ISIS is coming, Russia is the enemy, and immigrants want their jobs, makes for a giant, human, xenophobia petri-dish waiting to explode. And explode it did, hurling the giant human hand grenade, Donald Trump, into the White House.
As Australia heads down an increasingly neoliberal economic path, with our own immiserated petri dish bound to swell, should the left learn the lessons of the US? Ought we be careful not to feed a reactionary beast with contempt and derision ourselves? If so, where does feminism fit in?
Chris Hedges says, “If we shed our self-righteousness and hubris, if we speak to the pain and suffering of [others], we will unmask the toxins of bigotry and racism.” For Hedges, it is not about pandering to men nor condoning racism. It is about seeking to understand people, rather than “condemning them as mutations of human beings”.
Once again, it is a shame that this opportunity for a meaningful discussion was lost.
The gender takes all standpoint
In that article, Max Chalmers told the story of Natalie, a woman with multiple disabilities, who had been repeatedly sexually assaulted by a night worker in the residential care facility where she lived, over the course of three years. Chalmers described other instances of abuse, and outlined the case for a Royal Commission.
The plight of these powerless and abused women in residential care, however, failed to capture the attention of most feminist readers that day. It couldn’t compete with the furore surrounding a male writer’s preference for Emma Watson over Clementine Ford.
As part of the current blowback from Claire Connelly’s article, in their offline attacks some women have criticised Chris Graham and Michael Brull for publishing articles on the war in Yemen and the plight of the Yemeni people. Their objection has been that the articles are written by a white male (Michael Brull).
This criticism is based on a gender-takes all standpoint, which has little to do with standpoint feminism. It reflects the view, expressed and implied in numerous responses to Claire Connelly, that gender overshadows all else as a source of social disadvantage.
Gender takes centre stage, elbowing aside disability, class, race, and, importantly, geographical location which renders many people of the world human targets for US drones, bombs, proxy-fighters and food blockades.
When a male journalist tries to help us understand the suffering and trauma of people in Yemen, what is more important? The fact that he is helping us to understand the trauma and suffering of people in Yemen, or the fact that he is a male journalist?
Had any Yemenis submitted articles to Chris Graham he no doubt would have published them, along with Michael Brull’s.
Most Yemenis, however, are too busy starving to death, watching their children starve to death, or dodging bombs to submit articles to New Matilda.
For Western, mostly educated, often-middle-class women to use their gender to bludgeon other standpoints into oblivion is not only an abomination of the equality espoused by feminism, it is callous. And indifferent.
To bludgeon an entire humanistic publication into oblivion is more of the same.
From my psychological standpoint, feminists striking a blow at the heart of an independent, truth-to-power media outlet such as New Matilda is emblematic of a wider, global phenomenon. Around the world, independent media, independent journalism, watchdog journalism, systemic critique and dissent are under attack, like never before.
From their gender-takes-all standpoint, many women have been jumping on board this censorship bandwagon. The vicious campaign against Julian Assange is a notable example. Gender-based loyalty to Hillary Clinton has fed this process, not only vis-a-vis Wikileaks, but also other dissenting publications, such as those targeted on the Washington Post blacklist in November last year.
That blacklist maligned some of the most credible and respected independent media sites on the internet, including Black Agenda Report, Consortium News, Counterpunch, Truthdig, and 21st Century Wire, home to ground breaking Syrian-based investigative journalist Vanessa Beeley. RT was in good company. (The Empire Files and The Real News Network should have made the grade as well – they are equally deserving).
All of these websites, like New Matilda, offer well-researched, intelligent bipartisan systemic critique and investigation, which was necessarily detrimental to Hillary Clinton by virtue of being truthful. The lasting damage has been that many women were taken for the Washington Post ride.
Another occasion on which New Matilda found itself the target of female rage, for instance, was after posting an interview between John Pilger and Julian Assange, in which Assange criticised Clinton, based on undisputed fact.
While mainstream opposition to systemic critique and truth is nothing new, I see its recent intensification as part of a broader effort by opinion-shapers to harness the activist energy unleashed by Donald Trump, and channel it back into support for the status quo.
To my eyes, throughout the US election and beyond, this phenomenon has played out like a textbook case of pitting activism against itself, which is a propaganda tactic. Psychologists call it mobilising hate, and mobilising a population for war. Shutting down dissent is an important preparatory phase.
Should New Matilda live to fight another day, I hope to write about this topic at greater length.
Meanwhile, the whole process is disturbing to watch, both overseas and at home. The hate-filled end result is the resistance you have when you’re not having resistance, dissent you have when you’re not having dissent, prejudice you have when you’re not having prejudice, and feminism you have when you’re not having feminism.
If this is the best we can do as the US Franken-presidency lurches chaotically around the globe, while fossil fuel, banking and military industrial complexes rub their omnicidal hands together, god help us.
To any women thinking that Hillary Clinton might have delivered us from evil, take a look at her from the standpoint of the American Black left. Glen Ford, respected black activist and editor of The Black Agenda Report says, “There is only one possible bit of solace in these circumstances: If Hillary had been elected, we might all be dead by now.”
Going forward, I hope we women can do better.
* Ed’s note: New Matilda is resuming it’s normal publishing schedule this week.