How to respectfully disagree with Naomi Wolf


Like many Americans, I was deeply affected by the shooting that took place this weekend in Arizona.

Among other things (like the fragility of life-yes it’s been a rough weekend), it made me think about the harm that violent political rhetoric can cause. How it brings down the quality of life for you, for me. How it has unintended consequences for innocent third-party victims.

And I’m more convinced than ever that we have to hold each other to a higher standard. We have to speak more compassionately to each other– and not just when people are saying things with which we agree.

Well, I haven’t always followed this advice to the T. It can be easy to get carried away as a feminist blogger. Rage, indignance, outrage. That stuff fits in quite well here in this corner of the feminist blogosphere, as Sady Doyle has so eloquently exposed. Never mind if it’s pointed enough to be productive, or tempered enough to ring true.

Now’s the time to change all that. It just so happens that someone with whom I disagree vehemently has been doing a lot of public talking lately. And while many have taken her to task for the ideas she’s repping- which range from the bizarre to downright incorrect- not everyone has done so in a way that deliberately avoids the same sort of aggressive, inflamed political rhetoric that is coming under so much criticism in the wake of the Tucson shootings.

Which is why I’ve come up with 5 tips and tricks for the modern feminist/progressive/free-thinking person who happens to disagree with Naomi Wolf. Because as important as it is to dismantle and deconstruct ideas and opinions that harm women, it’s just as important to do so respectfully, and with compassion.

1) Acknowledge what she got right. For example, you don’t have to agree with the use of the phrase “dating police” to describe Interpol to acknowledge that it is probable that the prosecution of Julian Assange was somehow affected by his position at Wikileaks. (If you can think of anything else she got right, let me know.)

2) Humanize her. Naomi Wolf is a human, a person. She’s a woman. She’s a mother. She’s written wonderfully important feminist books. We may not see eye to eye on everything, but she’s not a monster. Which leads me to tip number 3.

3) Avoid employing familiar misogynistic tropes to criticize her. You can hardly object to her claim that “the only tools that dismantle the master’s house are the master’s tools” while using them yourself to take her down. Much better to rely on the “activists’ tools”. Which brings me to number 4.

4) Rely on facts. Remember those? Try relying on facts and logic, and you should be alright. Ok, maybe some persistence, a bit of courage, and a little luck (read: media savvy) might pay off as well. But my point is that there are perfectly logical ways to argue that the arrest of Julian Assange isn’t a travesty of justice for rape victims everywhere, or that rape accusers deserve to remain anonymous, or that abortion should be legal in the US. Katha Pollit has done a great job of this in the Nation this week, for example.

5) Criticize as a means to a higher end. Keep perspective. Her ideas matter because she is a public figure, but don’t get bogged down in criticizing Naomi Wolf. What else have you done to end rape culture lately? Shitting on Naomi wolf doesn’t count. Well, maybe half a point. For starters, donate to your local organization.

Brooklyn, NY

Lori Adelman is Executive Director of Partnerships at Feministing, where she enjoys creating and curating content on gender, race, class, technology, and the media. Lori is also an advocacy and communications professional specializing in sexual and reproductive rights and health, and currently works in the Global Division of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. A graduate of Harvard University, she lives in Brooklyn.

Lori Adelman is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Partnerships.

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  • nazza

    Thank you for reminding us of this. We always need to keep this in mind. I myself get wrapped up in the same thing from time to time, but I try to make myself take a step back.

  • Sarah

    I agree with this completely. Thank you for bringing voice to the importance of humanizing disagreement. Just a slight nitpick, re: master’s house and tools. That idea came from Audre Lorde’s essay in Sister Outsider, it is not original to Wolf, nor is it “her claim.” The title of Lorde’s essay is “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” and can be found here.

  • Catherine

    Thanks so much for this take, Lori. Friends and I have been trying to analyze the Assange case, but often get more involved in conversations about OTHER conversations about Assange – mostly involving Wolf. It’s rarely felt entirely fair or reasoned on either side, despite some of Wolf’s assertions that can get my blood boiling. It’s good to be part of a community that encourages reflection like this.

  • Lara Emily Foley

    I was kinda under the impression that that’s what most of us have been doing, no one is telling her to fuck off, not in public blogs anyway. I mean can you give me examples of how feminists aren’t disagreeing respectfully. Really though he’s earn the scorn. If it had just been her early few pieces on Assange, people would have disagreed and moved on but she kept upping the ante. To the point where she was arguing anonymity for rape survivors, making a baseless connection between low rape convictions and anonymity and then telling rape survivors that if they really want to be anonymous they can just not report their rapes to the police and be anonymous forever because filing a police report on rape should have major consequences. I mean honestly listen to her BBC appearance, it’s honestly revolting what she said and how she acted, cutting off rape survior’s telling them to please calm down and not be emotional.

    Here’s the thing, nothing Naomi Wolf is saying now invalidates the good she said before. Her awful statements now doesn’t mean The Beauty Myth now is meaningless and should be thrown out, burnt ignored, whatever. That being said it is absolutely fair to take Naomi Wolf to task over her current words, she’s a prominent feminist, when she goes on TV, she often gets Feminist as her subtitle. As such she needs to be held to a high standard and she needs to heavily criticized for what she is saying especially for what she said on the BBC, she’s been giving a lot of anti-feminist people ammunition to use against Feminism and that can’t be ignored.

    Also I’d say spreading the word that a prominent feminist who is telling women “that if they don’t want their names in the paper they can just not report to the police” doesn’t speak for all or at least most other Feminists is very much helping fight rape culture. If you can’t keep your own base honest, who can you?

  • Lara Emily Foley

    this part should read: To the point where she was arguing against anonymity