Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Blogging to My PhD: Echo Chambers, Safe Spaces, and Social Media

Okay, this is (probably) my last post based on Patricia Roberts-Miller's Deliberate Conflict. After all, I still have like 50 more books to read, so I should probably stop re-reading sections of this one sometime soon.

I'll forgo the gushing over how amazing* this book is and cut right to the chase. At one point, Roberts-Miller has this to say about enclaves and the need to invent our ideas with tension:
Remaining entirely within enclaves is dangerous, as it never allows ideas to be tested, but having no access to enclaves is equally stultifying, in that it does not give people a place where they can explore their own partially articulated ideas. 

See, I believe (really, truly, with all my heart believe) that ideas need conflict in order to be any good. In rhetorical terms, I believe that there must be conflict at the stage of invention. That means that we can't just test our ideas against a hostile audience once we've already got them set in stone for ourselves (which is a lot more comfortable). It means that we have to toss those ideas out there into the fray while they're still budding, let them be shaped and molded by the arguments they encounter. 

Disagreeing with you allows me to think better. Either you will change my mind and I will agree with you, or you will change my mind and I will believe something different entirely, or I will still believe what I believed to begin with but I will believe it more confidently, knowing that it has been tested. 

I want to feel uncomfortable. I want to be put in the hot seat. I want to be questioned, prodded, and  challenged.

But what of that statement that Roberts-Miller made above. She's a fastidious proponent of the type of deliberative agonism that I was just describing, and yet even she admits that enclaves are not only helpful but sometimes necessary. Even she notes that we need spaces where we can take our thoughts and gaze at them in a safe space, one where we don't have to constantly hope that they can stand up to the battlefield. 

Sometimes, the bud needs a little time and nourishment before it should be cast into the mix. 

Rose Buds

All of this has led me to a question: how should I use social media? Should it be an enclave or battleground?

Let me explain. 

Recently, I (along with much of the internet) was impressed with and learned from the Twitter hashtag #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen. This powerful Twitter storm has brought to the forefront the need to talk about intersectional feminism and the way that mainstream feminism has very often silenced the voices of women of color. 

As I've written about on this blog (particularly in the aftermath of the Onion tweet), this is a lesson I--as a white feminist--need to learn. It is taking practice to listen instead of talk, to make sure that I am truly hearing what the women of color who feel isolated by mainstream feminism are saying because feminism without intersectionality is purposeless to me. It has nothing to do with my life or my goals. I believe all systems of oppression are linked, and racism's insidious impacts on the world I live in are a part of the ecology or my reality. 

So I read #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen and a few times the words stung and hit a little too close to home, but I took deep breaths, kept reading, listening, and learning. I was grateful for the opportunity. 

Then I saw a new hashtag trending. #BlackPowerIsForBlackMen attempts to emphasize intersectionality for women of color for black men as well by calling out sexism in the black community. After finding the #Solidarity tweets so important, I wanted to make sure I was still listening, still avoiding an enclave. 

But the very first tweets I saw on this new hashtag were attacking interracial couples. I saw things like this:

That was the one that hurt me the most, but there were several others taking aim at interracial marriage in general:

And I got upset. 

I tried to step back and ask myself if I was just ignoring my own privilege, but I don't think that's it (or, at least, it's not all of it). 

After all, my daughter (herself a female person of color for whom this movement is ostensibly trying to raise awareness and make a space) is the product of this loving marriage that is being attacked. And, more to my point in this particular post, do I really have to sit around and read about how my love, my family, my life is such a travesty in order to be enlightened? Listen to people say the color of my skin emasculates my husband in order to be socially conscious?

And, taking some time and re-reading the tweets, I know that it's not about me. I know that it's not a personal attack on my marriage. I'm not saying that these women shouldn't use this medium to voice their concerns and discuss what is, indeed, a divisive topic.

But is it doing me any good to listen to it? Really?

This is a time when I begin to question why I use social media. Am I looking for conflict to hone my ideas? Am I trying to find the battlefield that will leave my own thoughts their strongest and best?

And if I am, what about the enclaves? Am I forgetting that sometimes I need a safe space in which I can decompress and not be on the defensive? A place in which I can discuss without armor?

I've had a lot of people tell me that they block and unfriend people who they disagree with or who upset them. I think this can be a smart move that helps protect people's sanity and emotional safety, but it's a move I very rarely take. I relish the conflict. But maybe I am not fully considering my own rhetorical or emotional needs. 

What role does social media play for you? Where do you find your enclaves? How do you avoid them becoming echo chambers? What's the best balance of nurturing safety and fortifying conflict? How do you make sure your ideas have time to thrive but aren't crafted in isolation from the real world?

UPDATE: After having some discussion of this post on Facebook, I think I've figured out what's really bothering me about this topic.

The rhetorical purpose of these hashtags is not debate; it's enclave building. The hashtags are a very effective way at helping women who share similar experiences find one another and use their stories and poignant commentary to strengthen their courage and galvanize their anger. That's important. It is a worthwhile rhetorical exercise that gives their concerns voice and focus.

But it is not going to do much to actually create better intersectional feminism.

Hear me out.

The people participating in these hashtags should be heard and acknowledged by those of us outside of the experience, those of us who have done the oppressing. We can't ignore the way media narratives on beauty impact who is found "attractive" in our culture and how that plays into interracial relationships. We can't ignore the way women of color are often silenced in the mainstream media while most mainstream feminists are white and most people talking about racism in the mainstream are men. I absolutely believe in their cause, and I see intersectional feminism as the only kind of feminism that matters.

If it doesn't go any further, though, intersectional feminism won't be any better off for it. In order to make any true changes, there will have to be real, deliberative, agonistic debate among all of the people who have a stake in these overlapping topics of sexism, racism, classism, and oppression.

These hashtags serve an excellent purpose in getting the message focused and helping the people most impacted by these oppressions raise their voices, but it cannot be treated as the answer to the problem. Rhetorically, this is only a very, very early step in a long, difficult process.

I hope that we take the time to go through the whole process because the end goal of the people using these hashtags is really important.

*really, really amazing. Go read it.

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