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.

New Haven, CT

Alexandra Brodsky is a senior editor at Feministing.com and student at Yale Law School. Alexandra also serves as the Board Chair of Know Your IX, a national student-led movement to end gender violence, which she co-founded and previously co-directed. Alexandra has written for publications including the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Guardian, and the Nation, and she is the co-editor of The Feminist Utopia Project: 57 Visions of a Wildly Better Future. She has spoken about violence against women and reproductive justice at campuses across the country and on MSNBC, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, FOX, and NPR. At Yale Law, Alexandra studies antidiscrimination law and is a member of the Veterans Legal Services Clinic. After graduation, she will represent girls facing discriminatory suspensions and expulsions as a Skadden Fellow at the National Women's Law Center. Most importantly, Alexandra is the mommy to Margot, a tiny pomchi rescue from North Carolina

Alexandra Brodsky is a senior editor at Feministing.com and student at Yale Law School.

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