The feminist Twitters and blogosphere have been ablaze the last few weeks, as a very troubling figure in the greater digital feminist ecosystem first announced his retirement from feminist discourse and then erupted in an explosive Twitter confessional.
It's a long story, but here's the digest version: An academic with no particular background in women's studies managed to refashion himself, through connections and sometimes unethical means, into a prominent writer representing male feminists. He was given a number of platforms, even after it became known that he had had abused power and been straight up abusive, and despite the fact that his writing veered into racism and misogyny. Some of the bloggers who spoke out most loudly against him were women of color, who he then attacked viciously--sometimes impacting their work opportunities and careers in significant ways.
During his Twitter confession on August 9th, he acknowledged that he had, in fact, gone after women of color in particular. He tweeted, for example,
"Do you think @redlightvoices is going to accept a manic binge as an apology?"
"And WOC, yes you @amaditalks and @Blackamazon, you were right. I was awful to you because you were in the way."
As a rabbi watching this unfold in real time, one thing that struck me was that this set of apologies was not, from a Jewish perspective, real tshuvah--real repentance, return, or healing. As Rosh Hashana approaches, one starts to see a proliferation of notices on the Jewish internet of apologies not too different from this one. The confessions may generally be less extreme, but there do tend to be a lot of emails going around saying "I'm sorry, I was awful to you," and, even more, Facebook statues and Tweets of the "to anyone I may have hurt, even unintentionally, I'm sorry," variety.
These are not real apologies. Confessions are not apologies. Confessions may make relieve some of the psychological weight from the guilty party, but they do nothing to actually help those who have been injured. Even using the word apology, here, is valueless--it is directed not even directly to the person hurt, but to the Internet at large, asking a rhetorical question to which he, deep down, knows the answer.
- Acknowledge and specify the hurt inflicted
- Articulate how this hurt will not be inflicted a second time
and then, together with the hurt party,
- Negotiate some sort of reasonable amends, which may be an apology, paying back money owed, covering the bill for damages incurred, or something else.
But every reasonable effort must be made to undo the damage inflicted. It is for this reason that murder is considered an unforgivable sin, and that defrauding the public and destroying someone's reputation--both germane here--are considered virtually unforgivable.
As all this went down, some of the more prominent feminist editors who had promoted his work did not, in their post-confessional disavowals of his work, publicly express concern for or remorse about the women whose words they had discounted when originally supporting him--even when called to do so by those reading their comments.
Here, we have a situation in which some of those in power have been complicit in enabling abuse, and they have not yet acknowledged the role that they have played in facilitating the marginalization of others. These editors are even a step behind in the tshuvah process than their fraudulent former writer--they cannot even acknowledge the harm that they have inflicted, when called out on it, with grace and respect. One editor, at the time of this writing, however, has posted a humble reflection on her choices before and during the most incendiary moments of the last week. It's painful to acknowledge that, even when well-intentioned, you have participated in systems that have directly hurt others --and, in this case, specific other people--but this, for us Jews, is the work of the month of Elul and the time of the season. Their failure to acknowledge the power and privilege they posses at times when it was urgently needed can be a clarion call and a warning to us.
Mikki Kendall (@ karnythia) began the #solidarityisforwhitewomen hashtag out of frustration with the way in which she felt that these white editors were complicit in their white former writer's racism. She wrote in the Guardian,
It appeared that these feminists were, once again, dismissing women of color (WOC) in favor of a brand of solidarity that centers on the safety and comfort of white women. For it to be at the expense of people who were doing the same work was exceptionally aggravating.
The hashtag quickly took off, and began trending globally, as women of color worldwide gave voice to the anger, pain and frustration about the many systemic ways in which the feminist discourse has privileged white perspectives and concerns--often at the very real expense of other women's bodies and lives. In that space, people talked about immigration, the prison system, pop culture, political power, who becomes a mouthpiece for what ideals, and much more.
The hashtag is powerful, and important. If you haven't seen it, go in and have a look around. You'll see some white folks acting defensively and feeling under attack, but under those tweets is the pain, anger and frustration of a lot of women whose voices and communities have not been at the center of the feminist conversation. It is a privilege for white folks such as myself to be allowed to, with humility, listen in on it.
And here, in the end, is the real lesson about tshuvah and power. Many white feminists expressed surprise and dismay as they began to understand how deeply embedded white supremacy still is in the feminist discourse. This is hardly the first time that this conversation has been had--there have been several major face-offs in feminist history in which women of color have called out the white feminists in power. And yet, here we are again, in 2013, with an astonishing amount of work to do.
In order to not make the same mistake again, and again, and again, there has to be a willingness to listen, really listen. Before the person making tshuvah can make things different, she must understand the hurts inflicted. We're not even remotely to the part that involves negotiated amends. Now it's time to understand what's happened, and to figure out how to make it different next time.
The deceitful blogger hurt women, particularly women of color, in so many ways. The editors' defensiveness and refusal to hear--really hear--when people tried to articulate their pain and frustration has stopped them from entering into any sort of accounting of the soul--though, as mentioned above, it seems that that process has finally begun to happen. The feminist community as a whole has, through this whole situation, been gifted with an opportunity to perform what the sage Maimonides defines as perfect tshuvah--to arrive, next time, at the very same situation but to choose not to repeat the same mistakes. But in order to get there, those with power and privilege need to listen, to serve as partners and allies in instituting change and to figure out what negotiated amends might look like. If we can do it right, maybe, this time it could be possible. Maybe next time, solidarity will be for everybody.