A Response to Nice Girl’s “The Dark Side of Geek Feminism”

Guest blogger Christie Koehler is a software engineer, community organizer, yoga nerd, vegan, queer, buddhist, Mozillian, co-founder of the Stumptown Syndicate and co-chair of the Open Source Bridge conference. This post is cross-posted to her blog at subfictional.com.

The recent post The Dark Side of Geek Feminism, authored by the pseudo-anonymous Nice Girl, and the mostly uncritical responses to it concern me for a couple of reasons.

First, it attacks all of geek feminism based on the actions of a few unnamed individuals. I find this problematic because there is no certification for being a geek feminist. Anyone can call themselves such. Certainly, there are those who call themselves feminists and claim to align themselves with our efforts to support women (in tech, geekdom and elsewhere), but then undermine those efforts with their actions. Or support women to the detriment of other oppressed groups. Folks who do this should be called out on their behavior. It’s not an attack or a condemnation to do so, it’s an opportunity for dialog and for social change.

Furthermore, the author discounts the need for accountability, equating it with vigilante justice. She claims that “naming and shaming” means “trying these things in the court of public opinion” and that both are “wrong and dangerous.” I find this conclusion to be flawed. Without question, it is a person’s decision whether or not to name their abuser. There are plenty of good reasons for not doing so. However, it’s clear that the author is withholding such information not to protect herself, but in order to protect potential abusers and derailers: “[Naming people] can completely ruin someone’s life. The internet lynch mob that it inevitably creates can haunt a person for years.”

Another aspect of the post to consider is use of the term “lynch mob” (quoted above) and the author’s response to being called out on its inappropriateness. Rather than reflecting on why it’s inappropriate to use such a phrase, she simply says she was being hyperbolic and accuses the person who called her out of trolling. What this tells me is that the author clearly doesn’t understand intersectionality and how it relates to privilege. For me, this kind of understanding, or at least the willingness to achieve it, is a prerequisite for engaging in feminist dialog in the first place.

Which leads me to wonder, is the author really engaging in a feminist dialog, or is she promoting an anti-feminist agenda?

I ask because Nice Girl’s post feels like an attention-stealing effort and an attack on anti-oppression dialog. Rather than having a productive conversation about specific people’s behavior, we’re discussing unidentified “bad feminists,” whom we have no ability to address because we don’t know who they are or the full content and context of what they said.

Nice Girl says she believes “naming and shaming” to be unfair. However, the approach she took is even more unfair because it attacks everyone associated with geek feminism; any one of us could be the person she’s talking about.

I’d be having a much different response if the author had written factually about her experiences and not given her post the damming title The Dark Side of Geek Feminism.

[Note: Wondering why is it not appropriate to use ‘lynch mob’ in the way the author uses it? Because it is a powerful term that evokes institutional violence against oppressed groups.]

More reading on intersectionality includes: the Geek Feminism Wiki and The Angry Black Woman.

13 thoughts on “A Response to Nice Girl’s “The Dark Side of Geek Feminism”

  1. KellyK

    On the one hand, I understand not wanting to criticize individuals because that makes it personal, rather than “this thing happened to me and got me thinking about X and Y.” **BUT** I think that doing that creates a responsibility to not slam a whole group of people based on the comments of one or two people. Titling it “The Dark Side of Geek Feminism” makes it about a whole group.

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.

  2. Itamar

    It seems to me that building a community would be a little easier if you don’t require people to buy in to a particular feminist theory before they’re allowed to participate in a discussion. Instead, pointing out as part of your argument why a specific theory is relevant or useful might be a good way to encourage people to learn about it.

    1. Tim Chevalier

      You see this as a “requirement”, I see it as setting boundaries.

      I think that other people have a responsibility to educate themselves, and if someone hasn’t seen fit to educate themself about intersectionality (perhaps because they don’t experience intersecting oppressions and only see women’s struggles as important, while ignoring struggles against racism, ableism, homophobia, and transphobia), that’s because they see it as in their interests not to be educated.

      And yes (like Christie), I do get to decide who gets to participate in a discussion with me. You seem to be implying that people who are being willfully ignorant are entitled to my time or attention. I reject that — it’s a waste of my time to educate people who don’t want to learn because learning would disrupt their privilege.

      1. Itamar

        Obviously you get to decide who you talk to, and I’m sure many people are willfully ignorant. But that still leaves people who are just plain ignorant, who have perhaps never heard of intersectionality. I could be wrong, but probably one would have an easier time convincing people to learn about the topic with an explanation of why it’s an important prerequisite to the discussion. This would likely be more successful than declaring that their ignorance merits they be ignored.

        1. Tim Chevalier

          What if you suggest that the person learn about the topic, and they react with anger and defensiveness rather than openness to learning?

          What if that happens to you a hundred times in a row (with different people, I mean)? Should you still assume that person #101 will be open to learning?

        2. Itamar

          (Apparently we’ve hit the nesting limit on comments, so I will reply here to Tim’s comment below.)

          Certainly if the vast majority of people reject an idea out of hand, convincing people on an individual basis may be unpleasant and pointless. In this particular case, however, we are writing on a public forum read by some number of people, with an audience that is likely to be more sympathetic than the general population. As such, you have a chance to address that minority of readers (however small) who might be interested in learning given some motivation or explanation. Even better, you get to do so in a fixed amount of time, rather than time (and unpleasantness) linear with the size of audience.

        3. EROSE

          Are you assuming these people don’t have Google on their computers? Because it’s not like this topic isn’t relatively easy to find explanations of for those who do want to learn. In fact, if someone wants to learn about it, I’d say insisting that others take time from a productive discussion to explain it until they’re satisfied is among the more dickish ways to try.
          There is no reason anyone gets to expect a whole discussion to grind to a halt because they don’t understand the basics of the topic. If they genuinely want to participate, it’s reasonable to expect them – not everyone else in the dicussion- to take on the burden of educating them.

        4. Itamar

          You obviously don’t need to interrupt your conversation to explain things if you don’t wish to, and certainly taking the time to explain the basics is frustrating and breaks up the conversation. Neither you nor anyone else is under obligation to do so.

          Nonetheless, I would guess that taking the time and effort to reach out and educate people would mean a larger, more succesful community, and more people with whom you can have productive conversations.

        5. addie

          I was reading a Facebook thread recently where a friend said, “I hadn’t heard of the term intersectionality, so I looked it up on Google and now I understand what you mean.” It was refreshing to see a different response to unfamiliar terminology.

          We’ve been discussing this a bit in some of my geek circles and there is some compassion for conversations heavy in higher-level terminology – our discussion mentioned how the vocabulary around Java can sometimes be overwhelmingly opaque, depending on what type of problem you’re working on. In some cases doing a Google search on a term just increases the confusion. So I get how the information can be overwhelming. At the same time, the GF community isn’t the only community that uses this language or moderates for inclusive language. It’s quite prevalent in many anti-oppression communities, and unlike a lot of technical documentation people have gone to exhaustive effort to make these concepts easy to understand, as long as you have the patience to engage with them.

          I have a friend who only has to respond to my (online) problematic language with “…” to tip me off to the fact that I’ve said something potentially hurtful. Sometimes I’m able to figure it out and sometimes I need them to give me a hint or a clue, and then I can follow up with research and correct my behavior. It required a bit of an attitude adjustment on my part to not get defensive about this feedback, but honestly I’m now reassured when I get it because I know I’m less likely to be silently hurting people in the future due to poor language choices.

    2. Tim Chevalier

      (I also don’t want to have a discussion with someone who has thought about intersectionality and rejected it, because that is someone who doesn’t think I deserve a place at the table, and why would such a person even listen to me? The “discussion” would be one-way.)

  3. Amanda6

    I like this post — my reaction to NiceGirl’s post was very similar to the sentiments expressed here.

    NiceGirl calls herself a feminist, as per her comments. She is absolutely correct in her understanding that the comments directed at her and her friend were anti-feminist harassment. Beyond that, though, her understanding of the movement and critical thinking regarding the situation lack depth. As this post pointed out, her willingness to ascribe the actions of these individuals to all geek feminists is suspect, even for a self-described feminist. Especially considering her apparent dismissal of intersectionality, I tend to believe that her understanding of geek feminist culture and beliefs is very shallow indeed. While I support her speaking out about her harassment, I don’t need her being a voice for geek feminism until she takes the time to learn a little more about it.

    1. addie

      I think the most frustrating consequence of this discussion is that it has a lot of people who are perfectly capable of engaging with other topics on a deeper level having a very shallow discussion about feminism indeed. Although I know Nice Girl’s article and some of the responses to it aren’t likely to be the first exposure to Geek Feminism for most readers, I’m still bothered by the amount of noise and misdirection it’s adding to the overall discussion. It’s especially difficult because despite the distress I feel about this I still want to show compassion and acknowledgement for her initial complaints about poor behavior at conferences. It’s the conflation of the two that’s making this problematic for me.

  4. NiceGirl

    It has come to my attention that the same username who posted my blog, and some of the response blogs, to Reddit decided to be an internet vigilante.

    This person posted the name, home address, and cell phone number of someone they think is one of the persons who harassed Nixie. I am glad that doing such things is against Reddit’s TOS, and the information was removed. This is why I do not approve of naming and shaming, which seems to be a preferred tool of some people in this community. I will cooperate with law enforcement if contacted.

    By the way, I did a follow-up blog to the original post, which you can find here: http://nicegirlslikesextoo.com/2012/08/02/this-is-why/

    I won’t be responding to comments here on GeekFeminism.org. I will, however, stay active on my blog and on twitter.

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