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Organising, Activism, and Goals

Sady’s post this weekend got me thinking about a series of conversations I’ve been having in my email, and elsewhere, about the state of online organising not just in feminist communities, but social justice-oriented ones in general. The State of the Internet is a topic I see coming up again and again, with a myriad of perspectives on the topic, and if there’s one thing that’s consistent, it is that the state of the Internet cannot be summed up neatly; it is not uniform, it is not universal, and people have radically different experiences with it. There’s one question I’ve been turning over of late, and it’s not something that has a neat, tidy answer:

What are your goals, in engaging with online spaces, whether you consider yourself an activist or not? What are our goals, in creating these spaces, in engaging with them? What are we working towards? Do we have a rubric to use to assess whether we’re achieving those goals? How do we know when we’ve reached them?

Online organising has a tremendous capacity which I don’t think I need to reiterate here, to amplify voices, to facilitate rapid responses to ongoing events, to exchange information and ideas that might be hard to access otherwise. People of all ages, and all walks of life, and all activisms, and all experiences, have come together online to create…something. But what are we creating? Why are we creating it? Is it doing what we need it to do?

I think we all share a common, overarching goal of liberation for all, although we may have different ideas about what that looks like. And online organising can be remarkably good at identifying short-term goals; get a sexist advertisement pulled off the television. Halt proposed cuts to health care services. And even medium-term goals; let’s get these people elected, so they can create change from within the government. But what about our long term goals? What do we want those to look like? We recognise that steps are the only way to progress, and that we cannot leap from the status quo to total, radical equality for everyone, which means we need long term goals, but…what are they?

Maybe you know! Maybe you have very fixed and stable ideas about your goals and how you plan to accomplish them and how you can determine whether they are being accomplished. And it’s not necessary for a movement, as a collective, to necessarily share the same goals; within a movement, people can seek each other out to work in solidarity on common interests. Some of us, though, appear adrift and uncertain about what we want to do, what the goal of, for example, writing a post is, what we want to do when we engage with a comment thread, where we are going with an article in a news outlet.

No matter how we are participating in spaces, what are we trying to get out of them? People say, for example, that they want to change hearts and minds. Okay, but where do you want to take that? You want to change social attitudes; one metric for assessing whether that goal has been accomplished is in examining how social attitudes express themselves. Are people less sexist? Less racist? Is legislation following social attitudes? Do we need more, or better, legislation to support an attempt at shifting social attitudes?

Are we creating good methods for accomplishing goals? I was reading an article in The Economist today about attempts to increase the representation of women in business in Europe. Several nations established quotas to mandate that companies increase the number of women on their boards. An issue (lack of women in business) was identified, a goal (increased representation) was set, and a plan for enacting that goal (quotas) was put in motion.

It didn’t work. Or, rather, it did, if you viewed the situation extremely narrowly. In nations with quotas, there are more women on the boards of corporations, though very few in executive positions. But many of those women are unqualified for the work, and are viewed as token hires:

Norwegian boards, which were 9% female in 2003, were ordered to become 40% female within five years. Many reached that target by window-dressing. The proportion of board members in Norway who are female is nearly three times greater than the proportion of executive directors (see chart).

The problem here wasn’t with the goal, but with the plans implemented to enact it. Just saying ‘okay, all companies need more women on their boards’ is not sufficient when the lack of representation for women in top positions is the result of multiple structural and social inequalities. Women are less likely to be encouraged to pursue business careers. They are less likely to be promoted at the lower level to acquire the necessary experience to succeed. They are more likely to be penalised for maternity and family leave. They still face pay inequalities. To fix this problem, we need a bottom-up solution, starting with girls and teens who need to be encouraged to pursue careers in business. The representation of women on the board should be the assessment used to determine if the framework for improving the status of women in the business community is working, not the framework itself.

I am not writing this post to tell you that I have all the answers, because I don’t. I’m writing this post because I am curious: What are your personal goals with online organising, activism, or engagement with spaces where these things occur? Who is your audience? Who are you trying to reach? What are you doing to accomplish your goals or to support the goals of others? What do you perceive as the goals of online organising? Recognising that things like liberation, equality, justice, can be hard to define and very nebulous, do you have an overall end goal? Do you think it will be reached in your lifetime? Is the community, as a whole, doing enough to support your goals? Its goals?

Sady wrote:

I would rather see a bunch of imperfect people fucking up for the right reasons than see a bunch of perfectly competent, brilliant people doing nothing because they don’t want to take a risk or represent feminism “incorrectly.”

In all these discussions about the problems with/future of the movement, are we perhaps forgetting that the next step, the step after you identify a problem, is deciding how to fix it? Setting a definable, measurable goal, and talking about how to accomplish it? Are we, perhaps, lost in a forest of meta?

Which I’ve just added to with this post?


  1. Amelia Jane wrote:

    I see this a lot on tumblr and am completely guilty of doing the same thing; criticising what’s going on without putting forward even a little idea to fill in the gap. When pointing out the flaws in something takes many spoons anyway, I suppose I usually hope that instead of joining me in sitting around pissing on a project, someone else will help fill in that gap. Once the flaw has been exposed, say, people will rush in with fresh ideas. But that doesn’t happen, and you just end up sat in a pool full of piss. And then people come and point out that you’re sat in a pool full of piss, and the pool starts to overflow…
    I only recently decided to get out of the pool, anyway. I’ll let you know how it goes…

    Tuesday, July 26, 2011 at 12:22 pm | Permalink
  2. Sady wrote:

    This is a really good question, S.E. And it’s one I’ve had to work on defining for myself. The meta is a black hole, and a time-suck, and a personal-equilibrium destroyer; not only our endless critiques of each other, but our critiques of each others’ critiques, and then the critiques of the critiques of the critiques, and… I am just way too guilty of that. Of having a discussion about the discussion about the discussion. And I’ve only recently come to realize how self-absorbed and self-aggrandizing that can be. I’m definitely not saying that every critique or disagreement is worthless. But I got to a place where I was just writing endless posts about the State of Internet Feminism, and they outweighed the posts about any-fucking-thing else I was writing about, and I couldn’t stand the sound of my own voice any more. It was whiny, it was entitled, it was self-aggrandizing, it was self-serious, and it was not a mode in which I wished to engage with the world. It was navel-gazing and defensiveness, substituting for actual thought.

    As for overarching goals: I’m uncomfortable setting huge goals, at the moment, as I’m still learning and always re-evaluating a lot of stuff. What I can say is that I think writing is valuable, as labor, as entertainment, and potentially as activism. I have learned a lot about how we can use Internet engagement to fund-raise, co-ordinate real-time and real-world protests, and potentially protest online, in this past year, and I’m still working to connect just writing about things with actually driving money to the right places, or communicating public will to the folks in power. But also, I think just writing, providing a perspective that isn’t thoughtlessly or fashionably pro-oppression, can matter.

    This isn’t even about “changing hearts and minds,” because maybe some people can do that, but I’m not willing to take it on as a crusade any more. This is about hopefully doing for people what the writing I love has always done for me: Make people feel less alone. Make them feel like there are other people who care about the things they care about, or understand what they’re going through. Or, hell, even making people laugh can help them to regain some strength and balance. If you can manage to keep other people and their needs in front of anything else when you write — which is a balance beam I’ve fallen off of many times — then you can provide something like companionship, or inspiration, or just stress relief. Hopefully, you can cover things that need to be covered, and give exposure to matters that are normally treated dismissively. And that’s great. Even if it doesn’t bring about instant or massive change. I’m skeptical about the possibility of instant or massive change in my lifetime, anyway. But I do think that being a friendly and/or challenging voice can have an effect, and help people to get through the day, which makes the work of gradual change possible.

    Tuesday, July 26, 2011 at 1:40 pm | Permalink
  3. Snarky's Machine wrote:

    My goal is not having every online conversation or movement is not dominated by the voices of cis white privileged females who think they’re super oppressed from some light marginalization they experience. My goal is to remind them they are not the most oppressed and they need to stfu.

    I’m not looking to change hearts and mind; I’m looking to stop certain behaviors and I’m starting within my community rather than it’s something that happens outside of it. I face more fuckery within than without. True story.

    Tuesday, July 26, 2011 at 3:21 pm | Permalink
  4. Snarky's Machine wrote:

    scratch the second not!

    Tuesday, July 26, 2011 at 3:21 pm | Permalink
  5. samanthab wrote:

    Yeah, I was going to say something along the lines of what Sady said, only of course not as well. As a reader rather a writer, though, I will confirm that that’s a lot of what good feminist writing does for me, is make me feel less alone and help me think through experiences in my own life. And, sure, you can say that isn’t *something* in of it’s own right. But norms are incredibly powerful societal tools, and when you don’t have the tools and spaces to see outside their bubble, it’s very hard to get past them. I mean, the feminist online output for combatting patriarchal norms ain’t jack shit compared to the output dedicated to shoring them up, quantitatively speaking. But when feminists shore up and think through and share their message, it’s understood (often) to be wasted time? Well, then why are the normativizing forces expending so much goddamned energy shoring up their message?

    And, also, isn’t there a very late capitalist element to the notion that you have to point to a solidly tangible “product” for something, or it’s worthless. There’s a profoundly dehumanizing aspect to that logic, as if we all ought to be some sort of activist output machines. I do do a range of activities that I believe promote feminist principles in their own right, but I think that I ought not be ashamed of the fact that this can be emotionally draining to me. And that feeling “not alone” counts- really, really counts- for something.

    Tuesday, July 26, 2011 at 3:37 pm | Permalink
  6. alanna wrote:

    This is dovetailing neatly with the book I just finished, Sara Marcus’s “Girls To The Front,” which traces the rise and eventual disintegration of Riot Grrrl. (Everybody go read it RIGHT NOW it is amazing.) Sady, I love what you said above: “Make people feel less alone. Make them feel like there are other people who care about the things they care about, or understand what they’re going through. Or, hell, even making people laugh can help them to regain some strength and balance.” It’s easy to dismiss the importance of creating/finding a supportive community (even if that community’s only “goal” is to exist). Even if that community per se doesn’t last – as with Riot Grrrl – its momentary existence can give members the tools to find their own paths and create new commmunities and goals for themselves.

    Personally, my goal is sort of the flip-side of Snarky’s Machine, I guess. I am one of those “cis white privileged” women (Hi there!) and I want and need to hear the voices of others who don’t share my experience. In a way it’s like learning to see with different eyes and hear with different ears – well, actually, I guess it is pretty much exactly that? I think (I hope?) it’s making me a smarter, stronger, kinder, wiser, better person. Anything else I do springs from that.

    Wednesday, July 27, 2011 at 11:35 am | Permalink
  7. AWH wrote:

    This post (and commentary) resonates with me on many levels. For a while now I’ve been feeling that there are many ways to produce and let the world see what content you create. These options have actually made me shrink away from generating and sharing content. I have no idea where to post, and what and how to gauge the audience (can I link to a blog post about rape on Google+? Is it going to provoke a useful discussion?).

    So I’ve been silent on the internet lately, but I’ve been reading more. For me, feminist voices on the internet are really important to how I conduct my life.

    I come from a privileged background and many of my relations and friends from childhood assume everyone has the same opportunities we had. This is obviously not true, and Tiger Beatdown and FWD and lots of other wonderful blogs have been instrumental in helping me put put my thoughts about feminism and privilege into some type of a coherent framework.

    I have learned a lot in the past couple of years about sexism, racism, sizeism and ableism just from reading lots of really good blogs and seeing the commentary.

    I guess, going from that conclusion (I’ve learned a lot from perspectives not my own) and from what Snarky said – as a cis-gendered, white, relatively solvent female who really doesn’t experience much oppression, is my voice needed? It seems over represented, and I like learning, but I don’t really feel like I have many things to say that add to the discussion.

    Wednesday, July 27, 2011 at 3:31 pm | Permalink
  8. Ashley wrote:

    I think this is a fabulous post and a fabulous question. I really think not having goals is very often a function of economic privilege, combined with the learned helplessness of oppression in other areas. When I was in Colombia and met student activists there, they had goals. Short-term, medium-term, long-term. A VISION. They didn’t need to putz around over that very much, because they were going to die if they didn’t get their goals met. In the states, it was like pulling teeth to try to get feminist college students to set concrete goals for themselves.

    I think that internet activism is probably at its best when it is an addendum to on-the-ground work. Start with goals specific to your community, that will actually make your life better (e.g. (“Get our local police to stop intimidating rape victims,”), put those goals in the larger context of an overarching goal (e.g. “an end to gender violence,”), and then use the internet to strengthen your local movement and connect it to others.

    @Snarkys Machine– Privileged women may not win the oppression Olympics, but getting people to shut up about their oppression should never be the goal of anti-oppression movements. Make room for other voices, yes. Shut up and learn when you’re ignoring/minimizing the oppression of others, yes. Shut up when you’re BEING oppressive, absolutely. But privileged women are still being raped and killed on account of being women, and minimizing the extent of that oppression doesn’t do anyone any good.

    Thursday, July 28, 2011 at 5:47 am | Permalink
  9. Val wrote:


    Where did Snarky’s Machine say privileged women cannot be oppressed?

    The comment was “My goal is not having every online conversation or movement is not dominated by the voices of cis white privileged females who think they’re super oppressed from some light marginalization they experience”

    I don’t see any attempt to get people to shut up about actual opression there at all…

    Friday, July 29, 2011 at 2:52 pm | Permalink
  10. Jennifer wrote:

    @Sady–you’ve succeeded–thank you. The feeling less alone thing is why I visit here, and other similar places, occasionally. It does give me the space/language/thoughts to shape discussions with others in my real life who aren’t so inclined toward feminism/sexuality/recognizing oppression, etc. I think it makes a difference sometimes in that regard (changing hearts and minds in those at times challenging conversations) and it’s definitely therapeutic for me.

    Saturday, July 30, 2011 at 5:11 pm | Permalink
  11. samanthab wrote:

    @Val, I’m a cis white woman who’s also been raped and spent months on end contemplating suicide on a nightly basis. That isn’t light marginalization, unless your a hell of an insensitive asshole. Feminist blogs are the only places I’ve really felt completely confident that I’m not alone in having suffered through those things. And frankly, if you think people shouldn’t be allowed to speak up against any marginalization, if you are telling people they have to live up to some kind of marginalization test to matter, then you are part of the problem. You are giving carte blanche to the evil in this world if you have set some kind of goddamned test as to when suffering matters enough. You are officially part of the problem once you enjoy minimizing the pain of others.

    Sunday, July 31, 2011 at 7:59 pm | Permalink
  12. Val wrote:


    I’m sorry someone did that to you.

    I don’t think rape and its aftermath=light marginalization. I don’t think Snarky’s Machine said rape and its aftermath=light marginalization either.

    Monday, August 1, 2011 at 11:59 am | Permalink
  13. Ashley wrote:

    Hey Val– I don’t know what Snarky’s Machine feels “light marginalization” is, but they did say their goal was to make people “stfu” about that marginalization, and that was what I was responding to.

    Tuesday, August 2, 2011 at 3:56 pm | Permalink
  14. Val wrote:

    Hey back Ashley…

    Of course, only Snarky’s Machine can answer your question.

    For me,

    @Snarky’s Machine’s comment

    “My goal is not having every online conversation or movement is not dominated by the voices of cis white privileged females who think they’re super oppressed from some light marginalization they experience. My goal is to remind them they are not the most oppressed and they need to stfu”

    and your comment

    “Make room for other voices, yes. Shut up and learn when you’re ignoring/minimizing the oppression of others, yes. Shut up when you’re BEING oppressive, absolutely”

    …are saying pretty much the same thing..

    I responded to you because you said Snarky’s Machine said privileged women CANNOT be oppressed. I didn’t see that in Snarky’s Machine’s comment anywhere, so I disagreed with you.

    Tuesday, August 2, 2011 at 5:12 pm | Permalink
  15. Ashley wrote:

    Val, I didn’t say that. I said SM was minimizing the oppression of privileged women, and I stand by that.

    Tuesday, August 2, 2011 at 8:14 pm | Permalink
  16. Sady wrote:

    @Everybody: Hi! It’s Sady! With some LIFE LESSONS FROM COMMENT SECTIONS.

    1) Telling people their oppression isn’t oppressive enough to matter = TERRIFYING NIGHTMARE TIMES IN THE COMMENT SECTION.

    2) Getting into discussions about whose oppression is oppressive enough, whose experience of pain is the most painful, getting everybody to list their painful experiences and marginalizations so that we can prove we are indeed marginalized and that it does indeed matter, etc = TERRIFYING NIGHTMARE TIMES IN THE COMMENT SECTION.

    3) Getting into fights about who is being mean to privileged ladies = SUPER ULTRA TERRIFYING NIGHTMARE TIMES IN THE COMMENT SECTION.

    I don’t want to shut down discussion, but look: I would think everybody who reads this blog knows how privilege and injustice work. Namely, just about everyone has some sort of privilege — which does not make you a malicious or worthless person, just maybe unaware of the advantages you have and thereby capable of acting the douche at times — and the vast majority of people have some experience of marginalization. (Certainly, I’d say the vast majority of people who comment on this blog probably do.) This is a place where it is okay to talk about your marginalization. It is hopefully also a place where people can recognize the ways in which they’re privileged. It is not a zero sum game, and the one does not cancel out the other.

    I think I get what SM is saying, which is that it’s just absurdly aggravating to hear people who are relatively privileged talk about their marginalization without also acknowledging that they have been very lucky. I also think that I get what other people are saying, which is that it sucks to be told that you shouldn’t talk about the violent misogyny or discrimination you DO experience. I don’t actually think SM was saying that misogyny against otherwise privileged ladies “doesn’t count” or shouldn’t be talked about, but the only person who has the right to clarify what SM meant is SM; I’m not going to presume to speak for her. What I can tell you is that if we start fighting with each other about whose oppression matters, the Law Of Internet dictates that this conversation is going to get into a really shitty, non-productive place real fast. So I would appreciate it if further discussion could center on S.E.’s post, and the questions ou asked, if that is possible. Thanks!

    Wednesday, August 3, 2011 at 1:35 am | Permalink
  17. Val wrote:

    Yep, I’m did say minimize.

    I don’t think SM considers rape and murder to be light marginalization and I still stand by that.

    Is polite disagreement on the internet a goal? Seems pretty minor, really…


    Wednesday, August 3, 2011 at 1:37 am | Permalink
  18. Ashley wrote:

    @Sady– Gladly, thank you!

    Maybe the goal of internet feminism should be to create so MUCH infighting that we all just get tired of it and go do stuff.

    Actually, to be kind of serious, that is something the internet is good for. Back in the day, when discourse had to move only as quickly as books could be published, it took way too long to hash things out. Feminists on the internet have made more progress moving toward consensus on discussions of stuff like sex work, armpit shaving and intersections of oppression in a few years than they had in the twenty before that. Sure, those conversations are always a little bit terrible and there are intractable conflicts, but the speed of the internet does allow for a lot more dialogue between a lot more people. So, building consensus on the thorny issues that are most likely to cause divisions in the ranks, and drawing attention to the areas where we can all work together? That’s a pretty good goal.

    Wednesday, August 3, 2011 at 6:21 pm | Permalink
  19. Val wrote:

    Sorry Sady!

    Wednesday, August 3, 2011 at 9:12 pm | Permalink
  20. Val wrote:

    Crap…should have been

    I’M SORRY, Sady.

    Wednesday, August 3, 2011 at 9:15 pm | Permalink