There has a been a blog post by Kate Kelly, founder of Ordain Women, going around recently. This blog post criticizes a type of activist she has coined “nag-tivist”, an activist who never actually does anything productive but rather spends all their time policing other activists. Despite her assertion that this blog post is the product of many years of frustration, the timing (right after Grace’s BINGO post went up) and the fact that she used a direct quote from a discussion we were having in the YMF facebook group leads many of us to believe that she is talking directly about our blog.
And I get it. This isn’t the first time the YMF community has been criticized for our tone. We’re not nice, we don’t coddle new activists, and we have a very low tolerance for people who say problematic things in the facebook discussions (we will usually hound them until they apologize). We have had many a YAGE (short for Yet Another Grand Exit) from our group for this very reason. Where I depart from her thinking is in our effectiveness. While she criticizes us, uses sexist terms to dismiss us, and says the best thing for a real activist (a.k.a. someone who doesn’t nag) to do is to ignore us, I say that those of us in the YMF blog are doing just as important work as she is.
Don’t get me wrong. Organizing is important. Direct actions, rallies, campaigns and petitions are all critical to activism, and feminism and other movements need people who are willing able to be the face of the movement, to speak to newspapers and have their pictures taken. But to say that that type of activist is more important than online activism, or the only way to do activism, comes from a place of privilege. Those who live in poverty, work long hours or have inflexible jobs, are differently-abled, are under-18, are unable for whatever reason to let themselves be filmed by news cameras, or who do not live close enough to conceivably travel to the action, will largely be absent. Those who do come will usually be the most privileged of the group. On the internet, everyone is on a level playing field. It doesn’t matter if you make $100,000 a year and have a brand new computer, or are a single mother struggling to make ends meet and visit the library once a week, if you have internet access, you have a voice.
There’s a reason we spend so much time pointing out when others use oppressive language. Written criticism is a type of activism. Words matter because they shape our worldview, and our everyday language is littered with words that support the kyriarchy. If someone calls you out on your word choice it is not because they are trying to out-PC everyone else, it’s because they know that word choice is harmful, either to them or to another marginalized group. There are dozens of words out there, some ableist, some hurtful to women, and some insensitive to other races or other sexual orientations (like the GLBT, LGBTQIA+ example on the blog. It may seem petty at first glance, but I myself am asexual and so using an acronym with no A is literally erasing me from the community. Seeing it being made fun of was deeply hurtful). Another example of this is the term “nag-tivist” itself. It may have been intended as a gender-neutral term but the word nag immediately springs to mind an overbearing, unpleasant woman, and perhaps her poor, put-upon husband. It’s an ugly, anti-feminist stereotype that, like its cousin term feminazi, frames women having an opinion as being a bad thing.
Sometimes at YMF you will hear things that make you uncomfortable, that challenge assumptions and worldviews you have held all your life. Maybe this will be in the form of a blog post, or maybe this will be in the form of another activist getting in your face for saying something you didn’t even realize was problematic. And the correct response is not to lash out in anger at the criticism, but to learn from it. Because activism isn’t about us, it’s about the cause, and in the grand scheme of things, our feelings really don’t matter. ESPECIALLY if you happen to be an ally, and in the intersectional feminism YMF tries to model nearly everyone is an ally to some group or other.
Sometimes people at YMF do complain without offering any course of action. Sometimes they lose their cool and yell. Or maybe they bring out the snark. Grace’s post the other day was an example of that. And you know what? That’s all right. Belonging to a marginalized group is hard work, especially when your allies are contributing to rather than lessening your mental anguish. It is a very poor ally that can’t tell the difference between a hurting member of a marginalized group lashing out in pain, and an attention-seeking complainer. Righteous anger is a perfectly valid emotion, and criticizing someone’s arguments simply for being too angry, or too sarcastic, or not friendly enough, are all forms of tone policing.
What I think is most hurtful to me is the us-vs-them mentality when for the most part, we are not at odds with Kate Kelly. Many, many of us at YMF are simultaneously members of Ordain Women. We have been interviewed by reporters. We have attended conference calls, put up profiles, and gone to local actions and ones in Salt Lake. We attended vigils on the night of her church court, and mourned with her when she was excommunicated. We have defended her to our ward members, our family and friends, and even to complete strangers. Some of us have faced church discipline ourselves for our support of Ordain Women. To then be dismissed by the leader of Ordain Women is incredibly painful.
On the other hand, there are some here are not supporters of Ordain Women. I know people who have criticized the movement and its leaders (including Kate) for focusing only on white women. I know people who are focusing their limited energy on making the church a better place for LGBTQIA+ folk instead. I know people with many other reasons for not publicly supporting OW. And that doesn’t make their contributions any less valuable. Just because someone doesn’t support one particular cause doesn’t mean they are not working hard at other types of activism. And everyone’s contribution is going to look different due to differences in personality, mental health, privilege, etc. No matter how another person does their activism, we have the same end goals, and that means we are all in this together.
(a big thank you to all the people on facebook who discussed the original blog post. They brought up a lot of points that I mentioned in this post and let me know that a post like this was needed)