My friend Craig is pretty awesome.
He’s smart, he’s funny, he’s an excellent teacher, he’s a big fan of those dude hats that have narrow brims and only come in earth-tone colors.
We used to carpool together when we both worked at that summer camp I love so much, and he’d talk about this podcast that he and his friend Andrew were making, and every time he brought it up, I experienced this moment of low-grade guilt. I’d nod and sip my coffee and go, “Uh-huh,” knowing full well that he would never ask if I had listened to it because he knew full well that I hadn’t. If you have friends who are, for instance, in an improv troupe, or who have ever written their own one-person shows, you will understand. It’s not that I don’t love you. It’s just that on the times I could have been a part of that thing you really cared a whole lot about creating, I chose to order Thai food and watch the same five episodes of Arrested Development instead.
My grandfather passed away several weeks ago, and I was in desperate need of something to take my mind off things during my long drive to his funeral. I didn’t want four hours of pop songs (inappropriate, given the event); I didn’t want the news (too depressing); I didn’t want the classical station (god, waay too depressing). Enter Craig’s podcast. I wasn’t thinking about how sad I was, or how difficult the weekend might be: I was laughing and engaging, enjoying discussions about books, being so simply comforted by hearing the voice of a friend.
I mentioned this experience to him, one thing led to another, and then this happened:
I’m the special guest, you guys!
And I wanted to blog about it today because I have a funny relationship with this piece, now that it’s been recorded and placed out there in the world. “Funny” as in, “Why hasn’t anyone told me how funny-sounding my voice is; IS THAT WHAT I SOUND LIKE??!” … and also “funny” as in, “I feel a little funny about this.”
Mostly that feeling comes from the nerve-wracking experience of having to articulate my thoughts in the moment, rather than writing them down and thinking them through. I am a writer who constantly revises as she goes: I know I’m “supposed” to be brain-dumping my scattered ideas onto the page and then refining them later, but that’s just not how I roll. So I sat at my desk, face in a microphone, having this conversation and craving the delete key. Did I say that correctly? I wish I could go back. Shit. Maybe they’ll edit that part out.
So as such, there are some points about this book – and about feminist issues in general – that didn’t get made. And some that didn’t get as fleshed out as well as I wish they could have. Which I think is okay, if not ideal: I’m a human, after all, and that’s a major part of what Roxane Gay’s book is asking us to do — recognize that humans are complicated and flawed, and that there isn’t one “right way” to be a “good feminist.”
But really, a lot of that anxiety just stems from the fear of being wrong. More specifically, the fear of being wrong on the internet.
At one point, Craig quotes this piece by Rembert Browne:
There’s no longer a space to improve as a person, publicly, online. Somehow, we’re at a point where you best have every opinion perfectly formulated by the time you’re ready to be a published writer. Instead of growing up online, it’s currently grow up–then go online.
Oh, lord, I know. I know. I know.
I wrote some dumb shit for Thought Catalog a few years ago that makes me cringe. I regret that. I can’t do anything about it now. I scrolled through a few years of early-college-era Facebook posts and was horrified: I said that? I did that? Did I think that was funny? Is that something I really believed?
I’m lucky that no one’s come after me for some dumbass thing I’ve said online at any point in time. But it happens, to other people, with alarming regularity. And in some ways, it’s created a mild level of panic in my life: surely, at some point, I must have done something thoughtless or stupid that can be traced back to me, and surely, someone will use that against me. It’s only a matter of time, right?
Craig mentioned a TED talk that was influential in his early feminist thinking, a talk that pointed out inequalities in the lives of daughters, wives, and mothers, and urged “all the sons” to fight for them. I beat myself up afterwards for not bringing up the counter-argument, popular in some feminist circles, that “men shouldn’t have to have feminism sold to them as ‘because of their wives and daughters,'” they should just recognize that we’re talking about basic human inequality and get on board because, well, duh.
Except that I don’t know how strongly I even believe that to be true. (Scratch that. Fuck it. Yo dudes, if you get tuned into feminist thinking after having a daughter, or recognizing that your sister/mom/girlfriend is a person deserving of equal rights: that’s awesome! I have no problem with women in your life serving as your gateway. The point is, you’re here now. Welcome! We’re glad to have you).
And when I found myself compelled to challenge a reference to a TED talk I’d never heard, in the name of an argument I didn’t entirely believe, it wasn’t about conviction at all. I just had a sudden nightmare of being called out on the internet by other feminists for allowing that moment to pass by without comment. (Yes, I am completely aware of the irony of fearing being called a “bad feminist” as a result of a discussion of the book “Bad Feminist.”)
Look. I write a lot of things on this blog that I believe to be true, in the moments in which I write them.
I also understand that sometimes, I might be wrong.
I also understand that people can be real fartholes about it when you are, because it feels immensely satisfying to be “right.”
But in the midst of all of this pondering and shaming and critiquing and thinkpieceing — and if you’ve read the internet lately, that feels like much of what we’re doing — it can feel like all the folks ostensibly on the same team are enjoying the bloodsport, want to walk out of the arena with prizes for being Most Right. It’s like the phrase ‘Preaching to the Choir” somehow morphed into “Saying Shit To the Other Choir Members on Twitter” or “Let’s All Read and Respond Passive-Aggressively to the Thinkpieces The Choir Wrote About One Another.” And in this analogy, there’s like a major choral number that has to be rehearsed because the concert is next week except nobody is learning the music ’cause we’re all bickering over who gets the solo and if the piano is even tuned properly and what color the choir robes should be.
And when we’re spending our time trying to anticipate the attacks, not just from those who disagree fundamentally with your beliefs but those who ostensibly want the same basic things as you do, I sometimes feel like I’m reading pieces written by writers who lead with the apology, not the thesis statement. I know I’m guilty of it. And yeah, I think that makes a lot of us lousier writers. It weakens our arguments. It creates a culture of fear.
I also fear that this tendency towards hyper-criticism means we’re leaving people out of the conversation. To go back to the earlier metaphor: if you show up for the choir auditions only to discover a room where no one is listening, where everyone is raising hell … chances are, you will march out that door and take your singing voice elsewhere.
I was having drinks with a friend last night — a male, white and straight, which it feels important to clarify. We were talking about an advertisement that had featured a woman’s bare backside to sell some stupid product, and when he kind of shrugged it off by saying, “Well, sex sells,” I side-eyed a bit, and said something to the effect of, “Yeah… but you’re telling me that this ad doesn’t reinforce an idea that women are just props?”
“Wait, no — hold on. I guess you’re right — come to think of it, there are always half-naked ladies used to sell stuff on TV, cars and beer and whatever — and — I mean, I guess there’s the Old Spice guy, but even that’s kind of played for laughs — I can’t really think of the male equivalent to that. Wow. Wow, okay.”
I forget sometimes that I’ve been thinking about these issues for years, and so what is obvious to me — that there is massive sexism in the way women are portrayed in advertising, entertainment, and media — is less obvious to those who have never been asked to consider those ideas before. And while there was at first a tiny impulse to eye-roll, to say, “Wow, gee, ya think?!” … it was so much more satisfying, so genuinely moving, to watch this person start to think through this issue and connect the dots by himself.
It was a great moment to watch unfold, and I’m fairly certain it only happened because I wasn’t going in swinging, using words like “patriarchy” or “misogyny,” words that are essential to our understanding but unfortunately come pre-loaded with assumption and blame. And — I think this is critical — I didn’t make him feel bad or ashamed for, like, not having seen “Killing Us Softly” by now. I didn’t make him feel like crap for never having given the issue much thought before.
It was a great moment. And it led to more great conversation. We talked, we laughed, we shot the shit about a whole bunch of other things, we paid the bill and left smiling. That’s how friendships work. And, incidentally, I also think that’s how progress happens.
I really, really want to believe that the internet can help facilitate moments like that. But honestly? I’m not so sure.
I want to end this with some kind of rallying cry for sanity. For forgiveness and acceptance, oh ye who Tumblr, ye Tweeps and Tweeters. For a compassionate understanding that we’re all struggling blindly into the world, and we’re all gonna fuck it up somehow, and approaching mistakes with kindness might be a better approach than to perpetuate the cycle of outrage.
You guys remember Justine Sacco? That tweet that ruined her career was a rancid joke, in poor taste. It was also maybe not worth ruining a woman’s life.
And here I go with the apology, the clarification, the need to state explicitly what I am and am not saying lest I be judged: I am obviously not advocating for the death of competent critique. I am not telling the critics to go away. We need the thinkpieces. We need the voices. We need the perspectives. We need those who see the world clearly for what it is to point it out when we get it wrong, in the hopes that we might someday get it right.
I am just saying, I suppose, that I am a person who is read on the internet.
So when I inevitably do fuck it up, let’s all try to be cool about it.
I promise, I’ll try to do the same for you.