by Robyn Banks
It all started with a Facebook event. Goldsmiths Student Union Welfare and Diversity officer, Bahar Mustafa, wanted to find out how she could help women and non-binary students of colour at her university. Aware that the voices of these minority groups were often difficult to hear, she decided to organise an event to talk to women and non-binary BME students alone. She created a Facebook event and politely requested that men and white people did not attend the event for people who weren’t men or white people. I don’t pretend to understand the reasons that white men at Goldsmiths were so upset that they weren’t wanted at the BME meeting, but they were, and before long the story had made it in to the right wing press and Bahar was splashed across the pages of the Daily Mail. After being put under harsh scrutiny and being the subject of a campaign of harassment, Bahar tweeted that familiar sentiment which has come to epitomise the frustration of third wave feminists, from Bikini Kill to Jezebel, in the form of a hashtag: “#Killallwhitemen”.
In this case, it’s apparent that mainstream society has decided that the caricature of reverse bigotry that feminism created, and which Bahar at times emulated, is ‘too far’.
It’s a joke with a certain meaning within a certain context, a context which many of its detractors seem a long way off understanding, but it’s often the case that diversity and liberation work operates on the borders of society. It requires a constant push against what society as a whole has deemed to be the proper way of doing things, and how institutions react to these heretics can reveal a lot about mechanisms of power usually disguised in daily life. In this case, it’s apparent that mainstream society has decided that the caricature of reverse bigotry that feminism created, and which Bahar at times emulated, is ‘too far’. Taking the piss out of power is not allowed.
As when any inequality makes itself evident in the public sphere, allegations of hypocrisy and double standards are being thrown around by both sides. Feminists, furious that their calls for better protection from hate speech have been ignored until that speech was directed at white men, don’t know what to make of it, while many on the right see it as feminism’s perceived authoritarianism coming back to bite. But while the main complaint of many feminists is that the law would not help them when they were the subjects of threats and harassment, as most feminists have been at some point, even some on the right are stepping up to question out of touch state powers stepping in to criminalise something so obviously a joke. Debates about censorship and state protection are being had in all corners of the internet, but this throws up a greater challenge for mainstream feminism than the thin line between protection and authoritarianism.
this has tended to take the form of distancing mainstream feminism from more radical actions, especially those considered to be socially unacceptable or, worse, illegal- even when those actions are effective.
Liberal, mainstream feminists tend to work within the bounds of law and accepted structures of thought, believing that it not only makes them morally superior but also that it makes their arguments more convincing to those outside of the academic bubble they often operate in. This is, of course, entirely reasonable- many of the rights that women enjoy today have indeed been won through democratic procedure within legal structures. Conceding on more extreme parts of an ideology is necessary to persuade people that equal rights under the law and within the society we already have are still worth fighting for. However, this has tended to take the form of distancing mainstream feminism from more radical actions, especially those considered to be socially unacceptable or, worse, illegal- even when those actions are effective.
So what are we to do now that such a common feminist joke- and one that those of us versed in academic thought understand to be harmless- has been ruled in the court of public opinion as not only socially unacceptable, but criminal? Are we to stop using it? Do we continue to restructure our feminism to be more palatable, forever playing by the rules made to deliberately disarm us? Or do we simply choose to ignore this new reality- that threats, made in jest or otherwise, are acceptable when aimed at minority groups but criminal when the target is the western white male- and continue as we were?
how fair is a justice system which refuses to protect those who need it, and which so often seems to work against what we know to be morally right?
I’d argue that where the law is immoral, it is immoral to follow the law. This seems like an obvious and uncontroversial statement when applied to twitter jokes, but becomes a lot trickier when generalised. However, Bahar Mustafa’s charge only shows that methods of protest which aren’t illegal today might be tomorrow, and vice versa. We, and by ‘we’ I mean both liberal and militant feminists alike, must be able to make moral arguments for and against different kinds of action and speech which don’t fall back on the arbitrary concepts of legality and palatability, because both of these are goal posts which can be moved at will to suit the interests of the power elite. It’s commonly argued that we are lucky to have such a fair and coherent justice system as we have, and that to work outside of the bounds of law would be to make a mockery of that justice system- to move towards something less ‘civilised’, something anarchic and frightening. But how fair is a justice system which refuses to protect those who need it, and which so often seems to work against what we know to be morally right?
I’m not arguing for rampant immorality, nor for some kind of feminist vigilantism, although that would be pretty cool, but there is no doubt in my mind that Bahar’s tweet harmed nobody. I’m arguing that mainstream feminism needs to make more of an effort to recognise the ways in which the structures of society, and that includes institutions such as police and the law, are so often constructed against our best interests and to stop glorifying our justice system to use as a lazy argument against things which don’t sit comfortably at first. That is, to be more oppositional than it currently allows itself to be. Maybe that means supporting civil disobedience at eviction resistance protests, fly posting, or maybe it just means tweeting your musings on white genocide. Either way, chasing the goal posts of a right wing society is clearly a waste of time.