Trials of an opinionated feminist

Some of them are more or less inconsequential (like my extensive thoughts on the Marvel universe) and some are a little bit more serious (like my views on politics and social justice). There’s a difference between these opinion categories: if someone disagrees with me on the finer points of Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye run, it’s not world, or friendship, ending – probably. But when someone has an opposing view on a social or political issue, like feminism, it’s a bit trickier.

My friends know I’m a feminist, but while I write about it quite a lot online, I’m not very vocal about it in real life anymore. It makes life more complicated when you and someone you see on a regular basis disagree on something so fundamental to your worldview – keeping away from contentious topics makes life easier and less argumentative. Hence that rule about discussing religion or politics with strangers. It can be easier to avoid the tough topics and get along with someone rather than find out they have a differing opinion to you on something important – like the time a workmate told me that she didn’t believe Islam was a religion, it was an ideology (and a dangerous one at that).

The problem with talking about feminism is that it can be so personal and so divisive. Recently, I became infuriated when a guy in my training session kept talking about how much he hated feminism, apropos of absolutely nothing. I didn’t argue with him, because it was pretty clear that he was not going to change his mind, and I didn’t want to cause a scene – but afterwards, my friend told me that my expression looked like I was going to leap over the table and physically fight him. Luckily, that was just one day – he’s not someone I have to interact with regularly.

That’s the extreme end of the spectrum – since moving from Melbourne, living in what some might call a “leftie echo chamber”, into a new city, with full-time work, I’ve become friends or acquaintances with many people who don’t have the same political or social opinions I do. I’ve kept my opinions on the down low, only discussing contentious issues when I have to, and keeping conversations light. I’ve only gotten in a couple of heated arguments with a new friend, and I’ve had to extract myself from the situation before I get too angry.

I know that I’ve changed a lot. I used to employ the scorched earth approach to feminism, the straightforward, take-no-prisoners type that says: you’re either with me or against me. And if you’re against me, you’re a bad person. As a person who is bad at confrontation and has a burning need to be liked, I never told that to people’s faces; instead I would think it, filing a mental note: I don’t like this person, and I’m not going to engage with them.

There’s some logic to this blanket rejection, beyond absolutism and fear of confrontation. It can be hard being friends with a person when they disagree on issues fundamental to your worldview, or your very being. For a lot of people, the world is full of enough garbage. When your daily life is filled with people telling you that you’re going to hell, or that you don’t belong here, or that you don’t deserve to be treated the same as other people, it can get tiring. I know a lot of people who don’t waste their energies dealing with people who, as they put it, “don’t think they deserve the same rights that they do.”

I remember getting annoyed at an ex who was friends with a professed anti-Semite. The guy didn’t talk about his anti-Semitism a lot, so my ex’s reasoning was that it didn’t really matter. However, it would be a different situation if he had been Jewish. I remember arguing passionately about why it did matter – just because it doesn’t affect you, that doesn’t mean it’s okay. He said that there was no point; the friend wasn’t going to change his mind, so all that would happen would be an argument in which nothing changed.

I still believe that what people believe and say matters, but now there’s an element of practicality involved. I want people to like me, and traditionally, people who are overly loud about feminism and social justice will run into problems there. There’s only so many times you can correct someone’s use of the word “prostitute” to “sex worker” before they start thinking you’re kind of a killjoy. And I’ve seen that instant look of dismissal in some people’s eyes when I talk about feminism – is there any point in engaging with them when it’s obvious they’re not going to change their minds?

People who hold racist, sexist or otherwise bigoted views are not evil, necessarily. It’s easy to dismiss misogynists as basement-dwelling, junk food-eating trolls, or racists as Nazis, but the world isn’t so simple. Most people aren’t inherently evil. Most people are a mixture of good and bad. That’s not to give people a free pass to express whatever offensive views they’d like, but it’s another way to think about a person when it would be easy to just brush them off as being evil. It’s easy to paint with those broad brushstrokes because people don’t like dealing in ambiguity; it’s easy to think of the world as divided into two sides: the side you’re on as good and intelligent and right, and the other side as bad, stupid, wrong.

Moving away from this mode of thinking is hard. Even having made a conscious decision to do so, it’s hard. I have friends far more patient than I who cultivate Facebook friends purposely to get a wide variety of viewpoints when they post statuses, and it can be fascinating reading through the comment thread of a particularly contentious political or social question. There are a lot of benefits to this approach: opening your worldview up to different views is difficult but rewarding, and as long as everyone remains cordial, it’s possible to learn and have your preconceptions challenged – and to challenge others.

But simultaneously, there comes a point when retaining your sanity is more important than retaining relationships with some people. Trawling through the arguments in the comments is fascinating and eye-opening, but it’s also exhausting – never mind the thought of actually diving into one of those arguments. So I’m not always going to go out of my way to find people who disagree with me, and if that means that I miss out on some points of view, so be it. If retreating to the echo chamber means not going crazy, sometimes that’s also okay.

That’s the internet – in real life, we invariably have to deal with people we don’t necessarily agree with. Sometimes they’re friends, sometimes they’re colleagues, sometimes they’re just random people you never have to see again. And oftentimes there’s no black and white, no broad brushstrokes to be painted. I have friends I really like, but disagree with on major issues, and for now, that’s okay because I can balance that dissonance in my head. Maybe at some point down the line, I’ll change my mind, but who knows?

In the meantime, I’ll leave it to people far more eloquent and more patient than I to host Facebook debates, and I plan to stay out of the argument. Unless it’s about comic books.

Image: Seth Schwiet

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sharonaSharona Lin is a recent graduate and recent Canberra convert. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of Pop Culture-y (popculture-y.com), has written for The Age, Tone Deaf and The Music, and has written several award-winning short stories. In the coming years, she hopes to publish her first novel.

 

 

This piece has been published with the support of the ACT Government.

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