detox {on conflict, criticism, & who writes the history}

Innumerable blog posts, tweets, and think pieces churned out over the past few months offer blazing indictments of "toxicity" in progressive Christian and secular feminist online spaces. As someone who follows conversations in both niches and writes on faith and feminism, I'm particularly interested in how this trend plays out in parallel.

No one would argue the fact that the climate online can and does become hostile sometimes, but in fairness, so can the climate of the local bar, the church down the road, and my own home, if I'm honest. Sin is hardly native to the internet; humans behave badly everywhere.

I have no interest in the defense of personal attack, which has no fruitful place online or anywhere else. But I do tire of how easily and often honest disagreement and even the most careful criticism are conflated with bullying and among Christians, with sin, particularly when those pointing fingers have a stake in propping up the status quo and less-than clean hands.

The Power of Language & Discipline of Criticism

Receiving criticism is never fun, and it can take a personal toll. But it also comes with the territory of offering one's work and words for public consumption. Everyone love accolades, but critique is the other side of the coin. Public ideas invite public responses. It's is the nature of the medium.

We seem to understand this as a community when we're the ones talking back to corporations, politicians, megapastors, and gatekeepers. We laud the democratizing power of social media when our little words are heard, shared, and go viral, but how quick we are to cry foul when the tables turn and our own ideas inevitably come under scrutiny. I'm just the Little Guy, the Good Guy! Critique ought to be reserved for the Big and the Bad, right?

But media is media, no matter the scope, and each of us is accountable for the words we share, Joe Politician as well as Jane Blogger. If we want the platforms and re-tweets (and paychecks and book deals), we've got to accept that criticism is par for the course. Critique can't just be acceptable when we engage and hateful when she does, prophetic when it's our side holding the mic and the spotlight but nasty if it's them, (particularly if they are women of color). It's neither fair nor honest to assign malicious motives to anyone else's critique or to hold my own critics to different standards than I keep for my team, my friends, and myself.

Words shape reality, and Christians who worship Jesus the Word who spoke creation into being ought to understand this better than anyone. Feminists who recognize that "mankind" isn't inclusive language or can deconstruct modesty debates in their sleep, should not recoil if it's pointed out that our own language is transphobic, ableist, or otherwise harmful.

The Enemy Within

Our fight is not against people. Feminists don't fight men; we fight the patterns of patriarchy entrenched in our culture's discourse, institutions, and practices. Similarly, Christians affirm that "our struggle is not against flesh and blood" and that sin is as present in power and systems as human hearts (Eph 6:12).

Oppression. Injustice. Selfishness. Sin. Patriarchy. Racism. Violence. These are The Enemy, and they are in all of us to varying degrees. Contrary to popular belief (and privileged distress), critique is not synonymous with nitpicking, infighting, backbiting, or catfighting. We who've read movie reviews, written blue books, studied the liberal arts, or learned a bit about media literacy should recognize this. Criticism is a discipline about analysis and even reform, illuminating patterns that we might acknowledge and dismantle the systems that keep us in chains and inhibit shalom in our communities.

White supremacy doesn't crumble if people stop using slurs or because white people adopt black babies, just like sexism didn't end when women got the vote. The work of intersectional feminist or liberationist criticism is to connects the dots, identifying the persistent and systemic patterns that elevate some voices while punishing others, and illuminating another way.

I critique to make the invisible visible. There is power is naming, not to demonize but to demonstrate that words matter and that with them we can speak life or death. I don't believe in heroes or monsters; the potential for both is in all of us, and criticism of my work or behavior is not an indictment of me as a person, even if it hurts.

All The Feels 

Feelings are important, and feelings make us human, but feelings are an insufficient gauge of the whole truth of any given situation. When I am criticized, I might feel embarrassed, frustrated, or angry. I might believe I am being criticized unfairly, and the tenor or passion of someone's disagreement might make me feel uneasy, but "bullied" and "attacked" are not feelings but verbs. Feeling bullied or attacked is not equivalent to actually being bullied or attacked, and if we're going to introduce those accusations, we better be prepared to back them up. Similarly, feeling ashamed or uncomfortable is not sufficient evidence that another's critique is shaming.

I am responsible for my words and actions, including the harm they cause that I never intended. (No one gets up in the morning with "Marginalize people!" on their to-do list.) I am accountable because my words, behavior, and even inaction can reinforce oppression and stereotype without my meaning to(How often are men described as hysterical, catty, or contentious? Are white people generally spoken of as savage or brutal?) Misogyny and racism are rooted not in personal prejudice but in structures, institutions, and systems.

I am also responsible for expressing my own feelings in healthy ways. Perhaps I need sabbath, exercise, or firmer boundaries. Maybe I need to stick up for myself, broach a tough conversation, or get away for a while, but ultimately I cannot hold other people responsible for how I feel. Validating each other's feelings is a key aspect of being a good friend or partner, but we don't owe that to strangers on the internet.

Feeling bad isn't a solid indicator that I've been wronged. Discomfort with conflict is valid, but it can't on its own reveal whether a conflict is toxic. Feelings matter, certainly, but using my feelings to derail a conversation that isn't chiefly about me isn't fruitful or fair.

Being implicated in racism, homophobia, sexism, etc. feels crappy, but dealing with that is on me. Can I choose to see beyond my own feelings far enough to care about another's person's lived experience of injustice and my own hand in it? In the grand scheme of things, oppression is significantly weightier than personal discomfort, and compassion looks like acknowledging not just feelings but the uneven and unjust power dynamics at work.

Talking Back

Ugliness exists online, as everywhere, but it's careless to conflate strong words with malice or something that requires cleansing (by whom?). "Women of color know that when we leave the supposed 'toxicity' of Twitter, we are not going to another place that is not toxic" (Kaba & Smith).

There are no shortcuts around conflict to unity, and not every conversation that makes my heart race must be indicted or shut down. Sometimes I just need to shut down my computer and take a deep breath. Other times I need to commit to listening and doing the work, because "constructive crisis and tension are necessary for growth," and constructive is rarely akin to comfortable.

Having or cultivating distance from anger isn't any sort of inherent moral good either. Anger is often fruitful, catalyzing desperately needed change. It's not a fruit of the Spirit, but then neither is apathy, protected power, or smarm.

Social media is eroding the control the gatekeepers have historically held to shape the dominant narrative, and that's a breath of fresh, decidedly non-toxic air. The democratizing effect trickles down, and it's foolish to presume I should be able to control the narrative either. I can't always foresee what will happen after I press publish, which can be paralyzing or scary, but it also can be tremendously liberating.

Any of us is able to talk back, and each one speaks on her own behalf. There is power in naming and in making the invisible visible. Speak we life.

Interlopers on Social Media: Feminism, Women of Color and Oppression
The Color of Toxicity
Bigotry Not Twitter Makes Feminism Toxic
White Supremacy's Toxic Twitter Wars #BigBadWolfFeminism
This Is What I Mean When I Say White Feminism
words like weapons - poem

[shared with #FaithFeminisms]
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