Emotional Pacifism: Responding to Feminist In-fighting with Nonviolence
Bringing Dr. King's 'Beloved Community' to the women's liberation movement
If you follow my work outside of 4W, you may have noticed that there are multiple contingents of “activists” on every side of the aisle trying to start a war with me. They use manipulative tactics to defame me, attempt to undermine my work with lies, and generally make my life hell.
One woman called me a “nasty bitch” (a misogynistic term) because I publicly thanked those who have been supportive of my efforts. Others delved into my personal life, calling for me to break up with my partner in order to be allowed to continue my work. Still others have made up blatant lies, such as that I am homophobic because I am a bisexual woman and wrote about my struggle to come to terms with my sexuality. Overall the message from other women is clear: “You are not good enough. Get out.”
This isn’t unusual for a feminist activist. A woman who has any measure of success in the women’s liberation movement will inevitably face attacks from both outside and within. Men want to stop us from achieving our goals, and other women are jealous and want to elevate themselves by tearing us down. Nearly every woman who has made a dent in the Movement has probably experienced this pattern of abuse from our “sisters.”
In 1976, Joreen Freeman, a woman who had previously been very involved in the women’s lib movement, described the harm that “trashing,” as she called it, was having on the women of the Movement, herself included. In an article for Ms. magazine, she wrote openly and honestly about the effect that trashing had on her:
“I was one of the first in the country, perhaps the first in Chicago, to have my character, my commitment, and my very self attacked in such a way by Movement women that it left me torn in little pieces and unable to function.”
Trashing, she says, is not an honest disagreement or political struggle, although it may be disguised as such. Rather, she says trashing, “is a particularly vicious form of character assassination which amounts to psychological rape. It is manipulative, dishonest, and excessive.”
Freeman points out that those who face the most severe trashing are usually women who are defying traditional gender roles — especially by being successful or outspoken. She quotes Anselma Dell’Olio’s speech, “Divisiveness and Self-Destruction in the Women’s Movement,” which was delivered to the Congress To Unite Women:
“If you are in the first category (an achiever), You are immediately labeled a thrill-seeking opportunist, a ruthless mercenary, out to make her fame and fortune over the dead bodies of selfless sisters who have buried their abilities and sacrificed their ambitions for the greater glory of Feminism. Productivity seems to be the major crime — but if you have the misfortune of being outspoken and articulate, you are also accused of being power-mad, elitist, fascist, and finally the worst epithet of all: a male-identifier.”
Nearly fifty years later, as per usual, it seems not much has changed. If anything, the problem has become worse. While previously trashing was limited to the group of people who knew and interacted with each other in real life, now trashing can be accomplished virtually to strangers you have never even met, and never plan to meet, via the internet. Anonymity online provides trashers a cover from facing their own consequences — they can always just switch into another alter-ego. Those who dare to put their real names and reputations on the line for the work are made to regret it. Now, you don’t just get trashed. You get #cancelled.
One woman, who prefers to be anonymous, argued in response that this behavior is rooted in women’s self-hatred, and can only be overcome through conscious intent. “If (the) feminist movement is to succeed, women need to monitor and manage their anti-woman animus,” she writes, “However, that requires self-awareness and self-control.”
This woman experienced her own trashing, which left her feeling like an outcast in the women’s movement. She, a black woman, was not interested in interaction with one particular woman, who was white, outside of work. The woman decided to take this reasonable boundary-setting as an excuse to trash her. The impact was to drive her out of the movement:
“She then used the Internet to slander and defame me and encouraged others to do the same. This has gone on for years. It has impacted my quality of life, employment opportunities and overall well being. It’s been almost 10 years but I will never have my privacy back. As an introvert, that is an unforgivable loss. I dislike women intensely. Each time I interact with any type of feminist group, I am reminded why I don’t participate in such groups and I don’t have relationships with any females outside of family. However, fairness keeps me interested in issues of sexism. So, here I am.”
It’s clear that this is a pervasive problem in our community.
I’ve watched women respond to trashing or cancellation in two main ways: 1) mostly dropping out of the movement like Joreen Freeman, or 2) trashing back. Anyone who has participated in radical feminist corners of Twitter knows what I’m talking about. It’s gotten to the point where there are warring factions.
Trashing back is certainly an attractive alternative to dropping out of the Movement when you face your own trashing. If you can trash your opponent harder, maybe you will win and get to stay. If the trasher is using lies and manipulation, as most do, you hope that if people only knew the truth then they would see you are not who they say you are.
Instead, what ends up happening is all-out war breaks loose, and feminist in-fighting takes the place of real struggle for progress. The only winner in a feminist civil war is the patriarchy.
I believe that as feminists it’s time to adopt a new, intentional, policy of resistance to this behavior that is damaging not just the movement, but the actual lives of women we claim to be helping. I call this “Emotional Pacifism.”
Pacifism, generally, is the ethical opposition to war or violence. Emotional Pacifism, as I’m describing it, is the ethical opposition to the emotional wars that are intended to harm individuals — including trashing.
I don’t appear to be the first one to have coined this term. Caris Adel, a pacifist Christian blogger, used the term on her blog in 2014. “Part of walking around weaponless is to be reminded that all people are worth knowing, worth loving,” she wrote, “And knowing them is worth the risk of getting burned in the same ways again. Doesn’t seeking the way of non-violence mean accepting risk? How can I accept the risk of love, the threat of abandonment, if I withdraw into bitterness?”
I’ve noticed that some people perceive not attacking back as a sign of weakness, or worse, an admission of guilt. But Emotional Pacifism comes from a position of maturity and strength, and like other forms of nonviolence, may actually be a powerful tool for change.
My background as an activist is in Kingian nonviolent direct action. Developed by activists who were trained during the civil rights movement by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Kingian nonviolence isn’t just the absence of violence, it is an entire framework for interacting with the world. I was first trained on Kingian principles as an animal rights activist, where we applied the philosophy not just to our actions of civil disobedience, but to how we interacted with our own community. This changed my entire worldview.
There are six principles of Kingian nonviolence:
Principle 1: Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people.
Principle 2: The Beloved Community is the framework for the future.
Principle 3: Attack forces of evil not persons doing evil.
Principle 4: Accept suffering without retaliation for the sake of the cause to achieve a goal.
Principle 5: Avoid internal violence of the spirit as well as external physical violence.
Principle 6: The Universe is on the side of justice.
When we apply these principles to the problems we see internal to the women’s liberation movement, additional potential responses beyond leaving or trashing back become evident.
Rather than trashing back, we can accept the suffering without retaliation and welcome our enemy into the Beloved Community. Emotional Pacifists do not see the trasher, or the one attacking them, as their enemy or the “other” to be defeated. Rather, we see them as victims of the same systems which oppress us, and we aim for reconciliation. According to the Positive Peace Warrior Network, “If we use violence, fear and intimidation in our effort to make change, that will be what is reflected in the change that we create.” Violence, manipulation, and emotional destruction are patriarchial tools — we can not build a feminist world by using them.
Learning about Kingian nonviolence in my early twenties was a revelation to me. I had learned through a traumatic abusive relationship as a teen that physical might was power, and to be violent was to be strong. The man I was with taunted me and humiliated me for being weak. He called me a “puppy,” saying I was “cute but pathetic.” I became conditioned to be tough to survive with him. I learned to fight. I learned to be cruel, manipulative, and hurtful. I hurt many of my own friends just to prove that I could. I enacted violence on my own body to prove how tough I was to myself. I still wear the scars of that violence.
“I don't necessarily believe that words are literal violence, however, I do acknowledge that people can be hurt by them.”
I believe many women who now act out emotional abuse in the Movement likely have similar backgrounds or stories. I empathize with that.
To eventually learn that nonviolence was powerful, perhaps more so, was life changing to me. I stopped harming myself, and I stopped intentionally harming others, too.
I don't necessarily believe that words are literal violence, however, I do acknowledge that people can be hurt by them. As we’ve seen from the testimony of trashed women, we know they can greatly impact someone’s quality of life. As a believer in Dr. King's vision of the Beloved Community, I know that I have an obligation to do no harm with my words, just as I do no harm with my body. As a utilitarian, I know we can’t afford to keep alienating productive activists in a Movement that is still floundering centuries after its founding. Even if you think Emotional Pacifism is hippy-dippy nonsense, you must acknowledge that our community can not continue on as it has been. We have not been effective. Patriarchy is as strong as ever, and women are terrified to speak out.
Certainly, people may feel hurt or challenged when they disagree with me. I am, after all, a controversial writer. Not everyone will agree with everything I say. But sharing your ideas and vision with the world with the intent to improve it is different from using your words to intentionally hurt and attack others. When I was younger, I considered it a win if I could end an argument by hurting my opponent with the most devastating or clever insult. Now, I consider it a good thing if I can exit an argument without using my words to intentionally harm. I consider it a win if my attacker and I can find common ground. This isn’t easy.
Some may say that I am weak, afraid, or conflict-avoidant. Some may say I’m only running from the fight because I am guilty of what they say of me, and I do not wish to confront this “truth” about myself. Some may say that it’s my female socialization telling me to be meek, and to accept the pain without fighting back.
“I have struggled with myself, and still do every day, to try to align my actions with my ethics.”
But I believe that “might is right” is a patriarchal notion, and healing and peacekeeping are undervalued in our society precisely because those are and have always been women's roles. And, let there be no doubt, overcoming our worse selves is an incredibly strong thing to do. As principle one states, “Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people.” I can certainly tell you that it is not easy. I am not a pacifist of any sort by nature. I have struggled with myself, and still do every day, to try to align my actions with my ethics.
Do I still daydream about posting the biting comment that I thought of the shower, or publishing my own tell-all exposé of the abuse I have received from within the Movement? Of course. And, yes, there are chapters that could be written debunking the lies and rumors that jealous individuals have used to try to take me down. I’ve got the receipts to prove it.
But I know that bringing more pain into the world, especially against my sisters, will not solve any of the problems that have led these women to attack me in the first place. I also know that, deep down, trashing back will not really make me feel any better. So, I will bite my tongue while refusing to bow to campaigns of bullying and harassment. If you think that means I'm guilty, so be it. But I refuse to be a part of this culture of tearing each other down. My words are for healing, not harming.
Dr. King may not have been exactly a feminist, but his vision for a world of positive peace should be one the feminists can align with. There is good evidence that nonviolent resistance works — certainly on a mass scale. Applying these principles in our day-to-day interactions with each other, especially in the women’s movement, can help bring us one step closer to achieving our goal. We need to make the intentional decision to do this; it is against our conditioning.
So, I am calling on my feminist sisters to join me in a campaign of Emotional Pacifism. Without getting our own house in order, we’re in no position to do the work that needs to be done for women and girls.
Will you join me?
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