In defense of abrasiveness

Dear activists: everyone hates you.

So says yesterday’s article at Salon summarizing a series of pilot studies assessing popular perceptions of environmentalists and feminists. Unsurprising to probably everyone who has publicly demanded change, Americans aren’t so in love with the rabble-rousers. Tom Jacobs writes:

In one [study], the participants—228 Americans recruited via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk—described both varieties of activists in “overwhelmingly negative” terms. The most frequently mentioned traits describing “typical feminists” included “man-hating” and “unhygienic;” for “typical environmentalists,” they included “tree-hugger” and “hippie.”

Another study, featuring 17 male and 45 female undergraduates, confirmed the pervasiveness of those stereotypes. It further found participants were less interested in befriending activists who participated in stereotypical behavior (such as staging protest rallies), but could easily envision hanging out with those who use “nonabrasive and mainstream methods” such as raising money or organizing social events.

Jacobs goes on to describe a third study, in which all participants were presented with an environmentalist plea. For some, the message was attributed to a “typical environmentalist” — the tree-hugging, hippie, aggressive, protesting kind — while others were told the treatise came from an “atypical, less-abrasive environmentalist” more into fundraisers than demonstrations. A third group received a bio from their fictional presenter that didn’t mention environmentalism at all. Those who heard from the “typical” advocate were less moved to join the cause than others.

The seemingly obvious message to activists is to calm the fuck down. Put on a nice big smile and stop shouting so much. As the Salon piece concludes, “Avoid rhetoric or actions that reinforce the stereotype of the angry activist. Realize that if people find you off-putting, they’re not going to listen to your message.”

Look, I get it. Sometimes you have to play Friendly Feminist to achieve your goal. Sometimes you don’t have the luxury of pissing people off and waiting for them to come around to your position; we make compromises to survive. But you know what? Other times the most powerful way to get what you want is to make some trouble. Maybe the politician whose vote you need won’t listen unless you’re loud, or your community won’t actually stop to think about your position until you make people uncomfortable. Maybe you need to make literal noise (by the old definition of “literal”) until midnight to stall an abortion bill.

And that abrasive shouting can, in itself, be a feminist victory. Whatever occasional strategic value one might find in Jacobs’ point, it’s clear that society’s insistence that activists — particularly women activists –  hush up isn’t advice proffered for our own good. While it’s often dressed up as such generosity (as many young and/or marginalized feminists who have bucked against the established non-profit/government elite can attest), the tone-policing insistence on unobtrusive “civil” discourse functions to preserve current distributions of power. As many other feminists and I have written about before, “good girls” are quiet and accommodating — which is both comfortable and safe for those whose privilege rests upon our subordination. It is unsurprising, then, that the vocalized anger of queer women, trans women, women of color is particularly vilified. So much power depends upon the enforced silence of these voices.

Our protest, then, is not only a tool toward a specific end but a utopian act of resistance: for a moment, we create a world in which women are loud. We refuse to forgive, as is endlessly demanded of us; we impose; we demand that you consider us. We make you uncomfortable, and in doing so, reject the confines of gender.

Occasionally we need to be politic — I get it. But sometimes we need to give a giant middle finger to politeness and accept our unhygienic, man-hating reputation as evidence that we’re doing something right.

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3 Comments

  1. Posted September 27, 2013 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    Check out this similar blog post exhorting atheists to be more abrasive in their activism.

    I think this is a bad tendency. The last place anyone should be is in the ideological ghetto – not just because it increases the danger of falling into patterns of incorrect thinking because the group shares some assumptions that will never get examined critically, but also because it creates an oppositional relationship between you and the people you want to convince.

    If the point of protest is merely terrorism – make enough noise and cause enough disruption that the powers that be decide it’s not worth it to continue doing what they’re doing – that’s one thing, but I think this is almost never the way protest is conceived. If the point is, instead, to draw attention and sympathy towards a specific greivance, then the fact that people typically react negatively to protest suggests that it is simply a bad strategy.

    If these studies are showing that there is a middle ground where the same message can be spread more effectively with different tactics, then why not adhere to those tactics? I often feel like we sometimes insist on abrasive tactics is because it’s self-gratifying, not because it’s effective. Yeah, when you’re aggrieved it feels good to scream and shout – but if that’s more alienating and just pushes people away, it’s not necessarily the most helpful thing to do.

    I also think there’s a false dichotomy being drawn between being abrasive and being quiet. The possibility of speaking loudly, firmly, and calmly also exists. And what looks better than that?

  2. Posted September 27, 2013 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

    I agree with Saurabh about abrasiveness being more gratifying than useful in changing minds.

    I think that if you’re going to be loud and angry, you need to have a message that most of your audience is going to immediately agree with and care about. It works if you’re calling stuff out. If you’re outside a Whole Foods screaming “Stop Whole Foods from selling puppy meat!”, whole foods customers are going to be interested, and you’ll reach more of them by shouting.

    Now think about Christian fundamentalists. They’re always shouting, hating, and angry. How much do you listen to them? If you did, did you do it just to confirm how crazy the other side is? Of the moral conservatives that I’ve listened to, they’ve pretty much all been polite respectful people. They’ve also been interested in listening to me, so I afforded them the same courtesy. They didn’t bring me to Christ, but I did listen and understand their points. We were both better for the conversations.

    I’m not saying that feminists need to be quiet. I’m saying that they need to pay attention to what methods get them to take seriously opposing opinions.

  3. Posted September 29, 2013 at 7:12 am | Permalink

    I agree with Saurabh and James. I love to rant, too because it feels good, but that’s why it’s something to do with those who already agree with you. When debating, I’ve humbly learned to ask myself, “Do I want to silence my opponents or convince them?”

    Nothing taught me the value of this more than an exchange a few years ago on Feministing. Chloe wrote A Love Your Body Day post, which many readers in the disability rights movement found off-putting, and several of them reacted very abrasively, to say the least. The Feministing editors banded around Chloe and told the commenters that their vitriol was uncalled for. So I gave Chloe the benefit of the doubt when I made my arguments, and she personally thanked me for this. Why doesn’t Tom Jacobs deserve the same benefit of the doubt? (He never said feminists should “hush up.”)

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