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The Angry Feminist, “TERFs,” Tone Arguments, and Punching Down

Posted in Editorials on January 8th, 2013

Last week, I had a comment of mine deleted from /r/feminisms by a moderator. Someone had posted a link to several blog posts by Natalie Reed of Freethought blogs about transfeminism. Several commenters showed up who appeared to be “TERFS” (Trans* Exclusionary Radical Feminists). They suggested the ridiculous and bigoted notion that trans* women are trying to usurp feminism.

The discussion also touched on the following tweets by Julia Serano:

Rather than seeing Serano as calling for inclusion, they saw her words as an attack on feminism itself. It strikes me as sadly ironic that they cannot see their vitriol toward trans* women as being comparable to the racism and homophobia of feminisms past.

In response to a comment that:

feminism at its core is about the oppression of women as a sexual class by men.

I responded:

That’s generally accepted to be the definition of radical feminism.

Colloquially, feminism is a movement for the equality of people regardless of sex or gender.

Reproductive justice is a concept that arises out of feminism, but it encompasses more than just access to abortion, and people other than cis women. It overlaps with movements for racial justice, workers rights and yes, trans* issues.

reproductive justice is a concept that links reproductive rights with social justice. The reproductive justice movement arose in the late 1980s as an attempt by these organizations to expand the rhetoric of reproductive rights that focused primarily on choice within the abortion debate and was seen to restrict the dialogue to those groups of women they felt could make such a choice in the first place. In addition to advocating as do traditional reproductive rights platforms for the access of women to birth control, reproductive justice provides a framework that focuses additional attention on the social, political, and economic inequalities among different communities that contribute to infringements of reproductive justice.

a social justice movement rooted in the belief that individuals and communities should have the resources and power to make sustainable and liberatory decisions about their bodies, genders, sexualities, and lives.

So go be an angry TERF and fade into obscurity. Or join the 21st century, and realize that while cis women are oppressed because some people think of us as incubators – that’s not the only way women are oppressed and it shouldn’t always be the center of feminist discussion at all times and places for ever and ever until the heat death of the universe.

She called me “disingenuous.” And then my comment was deleted. Because:

there is never a need to invoke the “angry feminist” derailment, and it’s extremely disappointing to see a self-avowed feminist use it.

I replied that I was extremely disappointed to see /r/feminisms so friendly with trans* exclusionary radicals.

Yellowmix, the moderator, said I was being “antifeminist.”

I contacted her in private message and offered to revise my comment to get rid of the part where I said the that other commenter was “angry” if she really cared that much about not having tone arguments. She replied that I would also have to remove the terms “TERF,” “fade into obscurity,” and “join the 21st century” because they were “marginalizing.”

In saying that the other commenter was an “angry TERF,” was I making a tone argument? I don’t think I was. My favorite definition of what a tone argument is comes from The Unapologetic Mexican but there are other good ones too. A tone argument is when you stick your fingers in your ears and saying “LA LA LA I CAN’T HEAR YOU WHEN YOU ARE SO MAD. MAYBE IF YOU WERE NICE TO ME I’D GIVE YOU WHAT YOU WANT” to a person who is righteously angry about their own oppression. Generally, there’s also a power differential, and the person making the tone argument is privileged as to not experience the harms the less privileged person is speaking out about. That was not the case here. I was saying that if you want to be exclusionary, you will be passed by. Feminism is a big tent, and must be so. She could still keep her righteous anger at the patriarchy, at anti-choicers, at people or institutions standing between her and her rights. The problem is her misidentification of trans* women in general and Julia Serano specifically as being somehow responsible for her oppression as a woman. Serano said she felt alienated by the current discourse. That is in no way a threat to anyone’s rights.

There is also the matter of how to interpret people who are punching down instead of punching up. That is, whether or not the person you are attacking as more or less privilege than you do. It would be unreasonable for someone to say that referring a group of racists as “Angry White Men” is making a tone argument. When I made the comments I did, I wasn’t making a sexist claim that anger isn’t ever appropriate for women or denying that there are legitimate reasons for feminists to be angry. I was making an argument that her energies would be better spent elsewhere, and that her position that trans* women are a threat to feminism is blatantly false, complicit in the greater harms of transphobia, and has no place in the future of the movement.

Finally, I want to emphasize that the reason I wrote this post was because I want to draw attention to questionable moderating policies on /r/feminisms, and to explain the comments I made that were deleted. I’m thinking a lot about what Natalie Reed wrote about the difference between call-out culture and genuine discourse:

When someone says something transphobic or cissexist, that presents an opportunity for discussing that with the person, pointing out how/why what they said was messed up, and hopefully, slowly, gradually, helping steer that person (and those within earshot, and communities and cultures as a whole) towards greater trans awareness and sensitivity.
Rather than treating instances of transphobia and cissexism in your communities as an opportunity to show off what an ally you are, and exercise your internet smackdown skills, and hurt someone who “deserves” it, treat it as an opportunity to bring genuine trans discussion into the space, and strategically work towards improvement.

I think I fell short of this standard. I didn’t resort to name calling or slurs, and I wasn’t trying to show off. But I probably could have been more patient.

One Response to “The Angry Feminist, “TERFs,” Tone Arguments, and Punching Down”

  1. Miriam Says:

    No, I think you made your point well. The use of the word “angry” should not have distracted from what you said. Although maybe I’m biased because I disagree with TERFs so strongly.

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