On what silencing is, and isn’t

There’s a new feminist publication in town. A new publication that has published an opinion piece combining classic slut-shaming with advocating the forced sterilisation of women. As you do, because advocating forced sterilisation and policing women’s sexual behaviour is simply what comes to my mind when I think of progressive modern feminism – note the sarcasm. This piece has since been removed, but Louise Pennington has a screenshot of it in her well-written response. Flavia Dzodan has also written a good response.

Theoretically, this piece was published under the banner of ‘everyone’s opinion should be heard for the sake of debate’. Really, screw your ‘debate’. Not every opinion out there is valid. It’s for this reason that sites and publications have editors – to make sure that harmful, hateful and bigoted pieces like this one don’t get published in the year 2013. But we live in an age where the assumption is that everyone’s opinion can be heard, no matter what the consequences. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: some topics require actual knowledge in order to be discussed. An ignorant opinion is not equal to an informed one. And just because someone has an opinion doesn’t mean they should, by default, be given a wide public platform in which to voice it. Especially not on feminist websites that have a larger responsibility to fight certain viewpoints and ideologies.

But we all know why this piece was probably published: click-bait and attention. It seems the more ‘controversial’ you are these days, the better. Never mind the damage you leave in your wake – as long as you get those eyeballs onto your site, screw morality and ethics. It’s disappointing to find such articles on any site. But it’s absolutely bizarre to find them on a feminist site. We should hold ourselves to higher standards. We should not be playing these click-baiting games, or giving people who shouldn’t have a platform the ability to voice harmful ideas. I would have thought we learnt that lesson with Hugo Schwyzer. Obviously not.

I think feminism as a movement is veering into the tactics so often used against it – only this time, these tactics are being applied within the movement. We pretend that all women are ‘equal’, when the reality is that there has never been and never will be a universal ‘female experience’ or history. It’s disingenuous to suggest that some women don’t have it better than others, that there are not as many inequalities between women as there are between women and men; that some women have better access to be heard than others, and that some women have historically been more marginalised than others. There is nothing ‘divisive’ about acknowledging this.

When pieces such as this one are critiqued, I often hear the defence that editors can’t ‘silence’ debate and pick and choose what can or can’t be included on a site. I’m sorry, but that’s precisely what an editor is supposed to do. I’ve worked and still work as an editor and you can bet that I screen submissions to make sure that nothing damaging, racist, sexist, homophobic, or bigoted gets past my radar. Because I have a responsibility as an editor to act like an editor. If a piece does more harm than good, I will not publish it or forget my ethics for the sake of ‘debate’. ‘Debate’ is not a god before which we must all bow down, people are more important.

Similarly, I screen comments on this blog because I will not give people who spew hateful and bigoted ideas a further platform in which to air these ideas. I feel this is my responsibility not only to myself, but to anyone who happens to read this blog. Occasionally, I will get emails accusing me of ‘silencing’ debate by not publishing wonderfully insightful comments such as “you should be raped”. It’s the classic, ‘I’ll use your tools of resistance against you’. Feminists are used to words like ‘silencing’, ‘equality’ and ‘oppression’ being co-opted and used against them by people with privilege. But it seems to me now that what I’m watching on too many feminist websites is the co-opting of these words and their meanings for the sake of popularity.

Real silencing and marginalisation lie at an institutional and historical level. They have nothing to do with individual choice. They are processes where certain groups of people have historically gained power over others and tailored their institutions to suit those with power. Those who are marginalised – those who are actually silenced – are the ones we don’t get to hear. We don’t live in a ‘blank slate’ world now where we have done away with the legacies of this historical and institutional marginalisation. We are still living with them today.

I know that the very fact that I have the tools with which to express myself and have had access to an education, for example, is a privilege that many people simply do not have. Not because they are not as smart or any less deserving, but because of institutional inequalities. So I take the privileges I have seriously. If I have access to voice an opinion, I do so with a sense of responsibility. I do so recognising that it is a privilege that has been fought for by women before me. I do so knowing others are silenced. Let’s stop demeaning those who are actually silenced even further by suggesting that proper editorial control of harmful ideas is ‘silencing’.