Problematizing Dissent


I’m not here to pick on someone whose family has suffered so much (ha ha), but I think Williams’s statement above, while tempting, is dangerous.

Tumblr (where you may have seen this very meme) spends a lot of time talking about how white male is a “default setting” in our culture, and they’re not wrong. Babs BabsBunny is female because she has female signifiers: bows, skirt, and lashes. Remove those signifiers and she’s a pink male rabbit. Remove Buster’s lone signifier (his shirt) and he remains a male rabbit. I’m not here to worry too much about state of affairs — obviously I believe its main function on tumblr is to allow for signaling wars where people refine their demographic standing by seeing who can add the most adjectives (cis, het, temporarily abled) to the default setting. I just want to note that we often have a default setting, for whatever reason, and there’s an advantage to identifying with that default setting. Most scissors are right-handed scissors.

So there’s the appeal of saying: “My belief system demographic is the default one, and anyone who disagrees with us is some kind of aberration I have a readymade epithet for.”

Some people say the Russian Revolution was decided the day Lenin persuaded people to call his party the Bolsheviks (the majority) and Martov’s party the Mensheviks (the minority). Suddenly Leninism was the default, and sixty million murders an inevitability.


Julius Martov. Died in his sleep, to everyone’s surprise.

There’s always a danger when you become so persuaded that your demographic is the “natural” or “normal” demographic. Remember two years ago when a bunch of teenagers noted that feminism had acquired such a reputation for being shrill, sensitive, and narrow minded that they did not want to be associated with feminism — and feminist bloggers proved them wrong by insisting that non-feminists were idiots who shouldn’t vote? My statement here is not a critique on feminism, but I guess it is a critique of those people whose only reaction to hearing dissent is dumbfounded shock that anyone could ever be different from them, followed, as is our wont, by self-righteous vitriol.

(Obviously you don’t need to believe in demographic signaling for any of this to work — you can treat feminism as an ideology instead of a demographic and you have the same point, mutatis mutandis.)

If I were a chess player, I’d call this “controlling the center of the board”: Redefining board02.jpgterms to make yours the default, “centrist” demographic is an excellent road to power.

But it has one problem: You can shoulder your opponents to the edges of the Overton window with this strategy, but there’s only so much more you can do to them. In many cases they will hover on the margins, still dissenting from your orthodoxy. How can you silence them?

I’ve mentioned before that Marissa J. Johnson, the co-founder of Black Lives Matter Seattle, has proclaimed the phrase “All Lives Matter” to be a “new racial slur.” Obviously one statement by one member of one chapter of an organization is hardly representative of an organization as a whole — I don’t pretend to know the “mainstream” BLM stance here. I just want to look at why Johnson may have chosen to throw this idea into the ring.

“All Lives Matter” is a rallying cry, hashtag, and sort-of movement that is in ambiguous opposition to Black Lives Matter. Imagine the coup for BLM if it were able to convince the world that its rivals were using a racial slur every time they Untitled.pngasserted their existence. The primary method of dissenting from our platform is not just racist, it is a racial slur.

We’ve seen before the power that taboo language has. Suddenly NPR doesn’t even mention ALM’s name (just as they don’t mention the Washington R-words); suddenly ALM banners are digitally blacked out on the TV news. “I strongly believe that…” the ALM speaker begins to say, and the rest of his statement is a network-standards bleep.

I’m not paranoid — I’m not saying any of this is actually happening (I’m not even some kind of ALM activist, that’s not my demographic). It’s not happening, but it is the goal. This is the position we’re all jockeying for. Racial slurs are not criminalized, despite what people think (in the US, I mean; other people, YMMV); but they are the next best thing to criminalized, and I think it’s clear that we as a nation are going to be more willing to criminalize dissent if it can be sold as hate speech than if it’s sold as “some people disagree with me.”


The one on the rights silenced the one on the left and what is a progressive to do?

Last month the student government veep at University of Houston, Rohini Sethi, was suspended from her position and…cajoled? into taking a sensitivity seminar (I’m not sure whether she’s actually taking one, as reports vary) because she Facebooked “AllLivesMatter.” Student government isn’t government, and colleges punishing dissent is par for the course, so there’s nothing really new here. But we can see how effective the strategy is. U Houston students will probably think twice about not toeing the party line, am I right?

Of course, ALM may be inherently racist, as a movement, belief system, or demographic; it may be a demographic of racists. This is a matter we can discuss. But we cannot discuss it if attempting to discuss it involves using racial slurs.

Similarly, it will be difficult to discuss feminism with Maisie Williams if she insists that “feminist” is a synonym for normal person.

What I’m saying I feel like we should stop calling nihilistic humanists “nihilistic humanists” and just call people who aren’t nihilistic humanists “pieces of poop.” You’re either a normal person like me or a literal hunk of feces. Let’s see how far this gets me.


  1. While I agree with the general sentiment / point, I didn’t read the motivating quote about feminism the same way – rather, I took it to be advocating a sort of “big tent” inclusive definition of feminism and that the word itself should be done away with since it has too many divisive connotations. This kind of makes sense at this time in history, since the things the early feminists fought for (ending legal restrictions against women, e.g. suffrage) are now things that nearly everyone does agree with (right?), so continuing to call that position “feminism” is probably not useful. Or to articulate another facet of this perspective: perhaps the point is just that feminist/non-feminist is not a useful / inclusive distinction; rather sexist / non-sexist is? It may be a fool’s errand to try to have a civil debate with someone who disagrees about whether X is sexist, but it seems even less productive to have a debate about whether X meets some vague definition of feminism.

    Of course it’s possible I’m being way too charitable. Is there evidence that when she said this she meant “feminism” in a more narrow or radical way (or at least that that’s the overwhelming way people interpret it)?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t really know the context — although I’ve encountered this quote a zillion times, it has in 100% of them been as an out of context soundbite.

      It’s very possible you are correct — certainly we have a problem where the word “feminism” is ambiguous enough that several people I know have said something along the lines of: “How dare Hilary Clinton call herself a feminist when she supports Israel??!?” — but I’m suspicious of the big tent theory, as I tend to believe people build tents to emphasize who’s outside them.

      Obviously I believe that people of rival demographics will use ambiguous words like “feminism” as weapons in their jockeying for micropower over tiny fiefs. But I am aware that this belief is so spot on that it is almost a parody of the way I think. I should probably employ SSC’s spirit of charity at least every once in a while.

      Except it’s hard because I keep assuming people are murderers.


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