Being an activist used to excite me. Many influential women in my life encouraged my feminist mindset from a very young age. Therefore, it came as no surprise when I spent hours scrolling through activist Instagram pages, trying to soak up as much as I could. I found myself enticed and followed quite a few of the pages. I knew I wanted to be there for marginalized communities, both my own and others.
I thought I was doing a pretty good job; if someone ever pointed out a flaw in my language or told me that something I said may be construed as offensive, I immediately corrected myself. However, my enthusiasm receded when the activist pages I followed began to post more and more about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I found many anti-semitic depictions of the Jewish community and explanations of the situation void of nuance. I went to the comments to defend myself and my people. I was informed that I hated the Palestinians, and that I was racist and a terrorist. Most hurtful to me were the comments telling me I was a “bad feminist.” I have always, and will always, believe in the rightful claim of both groups to that land. They both need their space there, and individuals from both groups have made finding that space difficult. To degrade the deep-seated conflict between the two is to erase years of history and strife, and to blame an entire group for the actions and desires of a few seemed antithetical to the movement I was there to support.
Now, I am not here to debate the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I share this story to point out how, for my perceived misstep of defending a point I strongly believed in, I felt alienated from the activist community I loved so dearly. After being told I was a “bad feminst,” I no longer felt welcome. For activists, there seems to be a laundry list full of dos and don’ts, and with one wrong move, it’s over: you’re out. This exclusionary, unspoken rule makes becoming an activist that much harder.
For those just joining the activist community, this “rule” can pose as a serious barrier to entry. For example, if you don’t know the long list of words that some consider to be ableist (stupid, dumb, and idiot, to name a few), then you’re unlikely to get far with other activists on social media. Language is important, certainly, but the level of policing and respectability prevents free flowing conversation from occurring. The idea of free and equally accessible conversations is what creates movement and progress. When people who don’t know the lingo are excluded, new ideas are never introduced, and to prevent those ideas from being heard is regressive. People should be informed when their language may be infringing on someone’s identity or is offensive; they can be corrected without being shoved out the door.
There are many who see injustice in one place and not another, or who don’t align themselves of all the “required” positions of “good feminists.” Due to the exclusionary practices these people often experience, they may alienate themselves from activism as a whole. For example, I know quite a few women who are pro-life who would engage more with feminist spaces if it wasn’t for the backlash they received when sharing their pro-life views. Debate is necessary; I’m not arguing that the pro-life position be included in feminist spaces. Rather, I would argue that we constructively converse with pro-life feminists when it comes to reproductive rights without revoking their invitation to feminist spaces.
People are human. They’re bound to make mistakes as they progress on their activist journey.
Additionally, they are bound to disagree on some matters that are considered “requirements” of participation in any activist space. These issues cannot be prerequisites for self-determination as an activist. If we accept the current exclusionary practices, we promote the illusion that activism is not about innovation. Instead, we promote a competition of who can be the “best” at advocating. It encourages activism to be performative and flimsy, or only a place for “experts,” as opposed to a true and deep-seated commitment to progress.