A spectre is haunting the left. The spectre of feminism.
I expect nobody is as annoyed by that opening line as me, but it got stuck in my head and I had to write it down somewhere, and here’s as good a place as any. I’m sorry.
I’m writing this in a fit of fury at the latest manifestation of left sexism, having spent two days in an argument with a left-wing man and a lot of his left-wing mostly male followers where they have been absolutely refusing to see the point I’ve been trying to make. Of course, this isn’t the first time something like this has happened, and it certainly won’t be the last unless something absolutely spectacular gives right at this moment. As I can’t hear the sweet sound of kyriarchy falling over and smashing into dust, I can only assume that all of this is going to happen again in due course.
Sexism on the left comes in forms as diverse as the beliefs of those who are lumped under the umbrella term of “the left”. The most overt form, perhaps, is outright sexist language (bitch, etc), and rape apologism (e.g. George Galloway, the SWP), but that’s the tip of a very sexist iceberg. Among the liberals, it often comes as a backlash against calling out sexism and pleas for unity. For some, sexism is a problem to be solved later, and we should, at present, fight the perceived “real enemy”. Then there’s the manarchists, swinging their dicks as they ignore their female comrades. There’s also those who can say all of the right words, and then their behaviour doesn’t match up at all, and they will defend their behaviour using theory that they learned and are apparently incapable of applying to themselves. Others still think that they’re doing more than enough already to combat sexism. Then there’s the ones who insist that intersectionality is somehow equivalent to identity politics, proving that they are ignorant about what at least one of these things is. This is hardly an exhaustive list. Left sexism manifests in so many ways.
It all has one thing in common: that self-assurance that they are completely right which comes with male privilege.
The impact of sexism from those who are ostensibly on my side is different to that which comes from those who are unequivocally not on my side. While I’ve written about my “oderint dum metuant, fuckers” mentality when it comes to dealing with abuse, it’s much harder when it’s the insidious sexism of the left. It’s more wearing by far, as these are men who genuinely believe they don’t hate women so definitely aren’t sexist, who think they’re doing their bit to fight sexism. So they react defensively when it is called out, and are backed up by other men, who I can only assume are terrified of the creeping feminist threat coming to get them too. It doesn’t help that society–and indeed, the way we organise–immediately constructs “saying something sexist” as “being a bad person who needs to be purged”. This means it’s very difficult to call out dodgy behaviour without it turning into a massive attempt at denial to avoid being lumbered with the identity of “sexist pigdog”.
Let it be known, male comrades, that I’ll probably only think you’re a sexist pigdog if you react badly once the problem’s been called to your attention. Privilege blinds the privileged to its presence, and ignorance is forgivable. Once the curtain has been opened and you have an opportunity to reflect upon your own unexamined privilege, it’s your responsibility to do this.
I tend to be politer when I encounter left sexism than usual, and this is largely because I often have to organise with at least some of these people (although I refuse to organise with some of the worst). It turns out that when I’m polite, it has an incredibly devastating effect on my emotional wellbeing. As you may have noticed, I shout and swear. It’s kind of cathartic for me, rudeness. When I bottle it up, the anger turns inward, leaving me anxious and close to tears with frustration. I dwell, and it’s fucking horrible for me. I’m not quite silenced, but restrained, and it eats away at me.
And often, because of this, I don’t bother challenging it at all, because I know exactly how awful it would be for me. There, I am effectively silenced.
This is exacerbated, at least in part, by a prevalent belief that everything is a matter for debate. This debate ought to be held cordially and civilly, ending with either agreement, or at least by politely agreeing to disagree. For the privileged, it is perfectly easy to view oppressions as a sort of intellectual game and little more than a topic to agree to disagree on. For those who experience these oppressions, it’s not that simple and it’s not a fucking game. And so we’re branded as over-emotional about things which we don’t have the luxury of turning off our emotions on. It’s a thing we face every day, and its very existence is being denied and defended by those who claim to be on our side.
I feel like I’ve written my fingers to the bone on how we really need to get all of the shit out of our back garden before we can get things done, and I can’t believe I’m having to do it again and again. All of this oppression is connected, and all of it needs to be challenged. This time I’m aiming this same argument I’ve put forward a dozen times before at the men on the left who exhibit sexism.
If you want unity on the left, then listen to those you’re (probably inadvertently) shitting all over. Listen up and be an ally. It makes me sad when I feel a bounce of pathetic gratitude when I talk to men who Get It and behave as good allies. That should be the norm, not the exception. That it isn’t is alienating for many, and nothing ruptures a movement more than (probably inadvertently) pissing off more than half of the population.
Men on the left, try to be better. Feminist struggle is not an add-on to class struggle, and sexism is not a small problem, because all of this is intimately connected. If your revolution is one-dimensional, I want no part in it. Be open to being wrong, and be open to being corrected. It will strengthen us, not weaken us. Be reflective and thoughtful, acknowledge and abolish your own blind spots.
I want men on my side who I am proud to call my comrades, and there are far too few of these. I want to see better, and I want you to be better. We have a world to win, and I’d like to be comfortable organising with you. I’m one of those who feels able to say this, yet there are many who cannot, silenced against sexisms on all sides.
In truth, there’s no such thing as doing enough to work against sexism. It’s a vast, structural issue, and, as such, requires vast efforts to bring this system down. I’m not doing enough myself. No matter what anyone is doing, as an individual, it isn’t enough. If you’re a male ally, accept that you won’t be getting pats on the head for your good work, and if you’re doing any of this to get a pat on the head in the first place, fuck right off.
We really, really can win these interconnected battles, though, if only we recognise the connected nature and start to challenge our own privileges and prejudices in the most important place: within ourselves.
Note on terminology: I have come to despise the term “the left”, signifying a diverse range of beliefs and ideologies which share almost nothing but a few common enemies. Often, it feels like I’m not on the same side at all as a lot of those who profess to share enemies with me, since I disagree with many about issues such as tactics, the role of the state and intersectionality. While I don’t feel that “the left” is a particularly meaningful category, I use it here as shorthand for that umbrella term of those opposed to those who definitely aren’t on my side, who are themselves classed as “the right”.
Also, obviously I’m oversimplifying when I say “men” and “women”. These problems also manifest in the form of cissexism and bad assumptions about gender, something which I, as the most cis woman on the planet, am occasionally guilty and am receptive to being called out on. “Men” can be read as “cis men”, and “women” to be “those who they oppress, who are often, due to statistics, cis women, but also covers trans people, intersex folks, genderqueer and non-binary identified”. Come to think of it, women is a terrible term, but I’m leaving the cis privilege I exhibited when writing this intact as I’m crap at rephrasing things effectively. Help appeciated in the comments 🙂