A part of this piece was published before in Heroïne, in their ‘Ministry of Truth’ issue.

Picture by Janne Biersma

Opinions are tricky things; every opinion demands space to be heard, to be considered and maybe, eventually dismissed when other arguments prove them wrong. It can get very tiresome to have to explain your opinions to others who have not spent the amount of time and effort reading about the topic of debate as you have yourself, especially when discussing certain topics, such as gender equality, with which an entire lexicon of terms and names comes and floats to the surface. It can be hard to discuss your own arguments with people who do not know/master this lexicon the way you yourself do. It is especially tiresome when the topic of the debate is something very close to home. People who do not share your position as the actual topic (1) of discussion that try to silence you with their arguments can feel very frustrating. Constantly defending your identity or your opinion in an environment that does not take into account how exhausting it is to keep hearing the same counter arguments, to constantly feel like you are being outnumbered and to generally receive hostile reactions is utterly demotivating and sometimes even depressing. No one would want for that to continue forever. Therefore, it is necessary to create spaces for the people that experience this on a daily basis: Spaces they can turn to, to find, meet and converse with like-minded people that may share experiences or that simply listen and try to understand. This is one of the reasons we have created PISSWIFE: a platform for intersectional feminism (2) that strives to be a space for every feminist out there and wishes to be the one to tell them that yes, your experiences and your opinions matter. PISSWIFE sometimes makes mistakes in trying to achieve this goal. We’re constantly trying to improve our language and learn from other activists we come across here in Amsterdam. Being a feminist platform is a learning process and there are many pitfalls, and today I want to discuss the issue of elitism in feminism. Elitism in feminism is not only an issue on itself, it also relates to how feminists among our own communities react to each others mistakes: A structure that has been named “call out culture“.

A platform that insists on being a safe space should look further than their own perspective. Inclusivity is a goal that any safe space should strive to achieve, and this also costs effort. An essential aspect of reaching this goal is making sure that there is no major threshold keeping anyone wanting to feel safe in the space away from this space; that is supposed to be there for them, too. It is relieving and rewarding to surround yourself with people that, for a change, do care and take the time to read about the theories you find applicable to your everyday life. It takes a weight of your shoulder if you can talk in feminist rhetoric without having to explain your jargon. However, expecting everyone to be fluent in your language is not making you space inclusive. In fact, you set a very strict boundary and make your safe space inaccessible for people that would love to be included in the conversation, yet do not have the resources to obtain this kind of knowledge. Education and academic theories are not self-evident standards in every individuals life, thus we must see them as useful tools to add to our spaces instead of making them our priorities. Using academic terms in a safe space to speak about mundane things might benefit some of the people in the safe space to the detriment of anyone who would not understand (even though not everyone who isn’t an academic inherently doesn’t understand academic rhetoric). The usage of this language actually reinforces classist and ableist power structures that are the very system that a safe space is attempting to separate itself from: The people using the language are essentially avoiding a conversation with the people they are intending to stand up for.

“Expecting everyone to be fluent in your language is not making you space inclusive.”

Furthermore, it is so important to be cautious with the power dynamics (3) that grow within your safe community. A major danger is turning out to mirror the power dynamics that you were trying to free yourself from in the first place. Any safe space need to be policed and curated to a certain extent to keep the space actually safe; otherwise anyone could barge in on the personal stories of people seeking shelter in the space in question and flood it with negativity and hostility. Intruders of the safe space that show they have bad intentions should be removed immediately; they have violated the friendly environment and damaged the trust and comfort that the community had in their space. Everyone should be held accountable for their actions whether they intended to do any harm or not, but intentions should be taken into account when making judgement as well. There is a large difference between premeditated hurtfulness and willingness to do the right thing but simply falling short. This difference deserves recognition from the curators or moderators. People who fulfill the function of curating a safe space and judging the actions of each person in it, take on a difficult and time-consuming job, often on voluntary basis. This deserves respect, but should not set the bar lower for them when it comes to judging them. In order to keep the space safe and accessible for everyone, the moderators need to take into account that not everyone in their space has the same perspective and knowledge that they have. In taking on the task of a moderator of a safe space and subsequently removing or silencing people that use the “wrong” rhetoric, there lies the problem of using your authority and stature to exclude opinions and thoughts of people that are less familiar with the community and what its members have agreed upon. In a safe space that substantially revolves around people’s feelings and experiences, there is no place for censorship towards people that work towards the same goal as the moderators do.

Expecting everyone who wants to join your safe space to be aware of everything you are aware of, leaving no room for growth or education from the community, is ignorant. Creating a threshold; an interrogation on the doorstep of a safe space, is counterproductive behavior. Questioning people and their knowledge on theories surrounding social justice or making them feel like they should have known these academic terms, is proving your safe space to be intended only for a prioritized audience; a social justice elite, if you will. Now I am not arguing that we should all be easier on each other and quit calling people out on their wrongs: Marginalized groups have all the right to be angry and critical when their existence is disrespected. I intend to say that in order to be a truly intersectional feminist space, it is needed to not only think of the ‘intersections’ that apply to you, but also keep in mind the position of the person you are speaking to. While remaining critical of our surroundings and speaking our mind when this is necessary, we should always keep our feet on the ground and try to speak each others language.

(1) Within identity politics, it could occur that an identity is being discussed in a distanced and political manner, while for you it is a lived reality.

(2) Intersectionality is an analytic framework which attempts to identify how interlocking systems of power impact those who are most marginalized in society.

(3) Structures of power relations, ‘power dynamics’ refers to the way power is divided in a certain setting.

Text: Tessel ten Zweege
Image: Saïda Ragas

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