Saturday, June 29, 2013

Good grief, James McWilliams.

Is there some sort of secret manual distributed to white male writers advising them on how to respond to criticism from feminists in the most petulant, self-pitying, and defensive manner possible? I’ve been amazed at the similarities across so many of these reactions.

I just posted a few days ago about what I thought was a productive and civil discussion of sexism and objectification in the animal rights movement at James McWilliams’ blog Eating Plants. I’ve been reading his frequent and thoughtful posts for a while now, and generally make a point to read the comments, both because they’re intelligent and informative and because McWilliams typically replies with openness even to those who disagree. I thought the thread was a great example of feminists and allies within a movement discussing sexism and objectification, and explicitly contrasted it to the vicious campaigns of abuse and harassment with which feminists have been met in the atheist-skeptic-freethought community. Later, I read a post at Vegan Feminist Agitator expanding on her disappointment with some of McWilliams’ remarks.

Rather than responding to any of this, McWilliams zeroes in on a single tweet:
“James McWilliams represents the male leadership in Animal Rights; he is protecting misogyny & legitimating sexism”

The message above eased into the big slipstream of social media yesterday. The writer then posted a comment on my blog promoting her recent scholarship. I haven’t missed a day of blogging this year. Almost all of it has been original content. I’m a history professor with a full teaching load and long commute. Readers: this has been a labor of love. And I’m tired of the heat.
McWilliams hasn’t spared any harsh criticisms for organizations or people himself, and he’s never been subjected to any heat above and beyond the usual. If he wants to see heat, he should see here or here or here or here.

The person who tweeted that is Corey Wrenn (I have no idea why he doesn’t refer to her by name). She did link in his comment thread to a recent post and journal article, I assume not for the purpose of self-promotion but because they’re directly relevant to the issues he raised in his post (providing the sort of critical perspective he should have sought out before he posted). She also, like VFA, posted a response at her own blog. I wasn’t familiar with Wrenn or her work prior to this episode, and haven’t yet formed a general opinion of its quality or of her online activism. And I’m not going to make this about her general approach, much less about the kindness or fairness of that particular tweet. The point is that McWilliams, rather than responding to the comments from various people in the thread, to the articles Wrenn linked to, to Wrenn’s blog post, or to the post at VFA, churlishly focuses on one tweet.

[I’m not claiming that every charge that some words or behavior support sexism (or racism, or homophobia,…) is entirely correct, or that the response in every case must be an apology or admission of wrongdoing. In this case, we saw – as he notes – some prominent colleagues in the movement, as well as a host of regular commenters, making similar arguments in a measured and civil tone, and one more strongly worded tweet which is pretty standard in political discourse. He’s chosen not to engage with them at all.]
This “McWilliams the sexist” claim is only bound to intensify before it diminishes and, as long as I’m part of this “movement,” I fear it’ll never go away. So it’s time for a change. I’m taking a permanent break from Eating Plants in order to pursue other (less obvious) approaches to animal advocacy, ones that are, I hope, less prone to the name calling that characterizes the animal right movement.
So criticisms from feminists are irrational labels and petty name-calling. One harsh tweet and he starts to challenge the idea that there is even a movement and the value of the very forms of advocacy in which he’s long been involved.

I’d noticed that in the thread I posted about there was little participation from McWilliams, which was unusual. I assumed he was reading the comments fairly and planning to continue to think about the matter or to post a respectful response. That was a reasonable assumption based on his past behavior, but probably overly optimistic in light of the reactions of so many men to feminist criticism that I've seen over the past few years. He’d rather scornfully dismiss their remarks and close down his blog than engage meaningfully with their criticisms. I had a serious problem with some of his remarks in the post in question, but didn’t see him as being fundamentally disrespectful to women or feminists. This, however, is truly contemptuous.
I adore blogging more than anything I’ve ever done in my professional career as a writer. This labor of love has become integral to my life. But I can already feel myself getting swept up in a sordid controversy that I find truly anathema to what I stand for as a human being, a father, and an intellectual. And knowing what I know about this movement, I’m aware that the stain will never fade. Movements don’t forget.
The feminazi witch hunt with its sordid controversies claims another victim.
The charge of sexism may very well be of my own doing (however inadvertently my words justified the charge). Nevertheless, when a prominent animal rights academic decrees that I’m “protecting misogyny & legitimating sexism,” it drives me to seriously reconsider the nature of my advocacy.
Somehow, amazingly enough, it doesn’t drive him to seriously consider whether he might be protecting misogyny or legitimating sexism. It doesn’t lead him to question the person who tweeted that or challenge them to explain or defend it. It doesn’t cause him to think about how women have to live with objectification and can’t abstract ourselves from it through academic speculations. It doesn’t lead him to consider how engaging meaningfully with the arguments of feminists in the movement and learning from them might make him a better activist, might help him the better appreciate the interlocking nature of various oppressions, and might enlighten him about himself. It merely makes him question whether he has to continue to engage with those tiresome angry feminists.
This comment was made not through personal e-mail contact, but via a tweet. It comes on the heels of another animal rights activist condemning me for me more or less the same thing, although (decently enough) she did not do so publicly.
So typical. The potential accuracy of the comments and criticisms is raised and then quickly dismissed and ignored in favor of focusing on their manner of delivery. His public criticisms of people’s words and actions have been numerous, and I doubt it occurred to him to email them privately instead. Even when men make public statements that could affect women’s lives, women aren’t supposed to criticize or challenge them publicly. That’s indecent! Of course there’s nothing at all indecent about his discussing these communications publicly without revealing their content.
It’s becoming clear to me that my skin is not quite thick enough to be an animal rights activist who thinks out loud under the public eye.
Well, one who thinks out loud about sexism in the movement, and then listens little.
It may also be the case that I just don’t have the demeanor for blogging aggressively about issues that are conventionally central to the movement. I’ve always admired my readers whose activism was more quiet and probably a lot more effective than mine, and I look forward to pursuing strategies that are more anonymous and hopefully less prone to the scrutiny of my many imperfections.
If this is the case, I saw no indication of it prior to this incident in which the criticism was coming from feminists. Funny how that works.

(And note that this is another scornful allusion to feminism specifically. I wish the connection of speciesism to sexism or the criticism of sexism within the movement were really “obvious,” “traditional,” or “conventionally central” to animal rights activism.)
I know very little. But this I can say for sure: every word I have written from the platform of this blog has come from my heart. Directly, without a filter. I have chosen not to edit myself for how I might be perceived. Every word has also been in the interest of helping animals, something I will continue to do with great passion.
His work has been and will continue to be appreciated. But the idea that putting your words through a filter of understanding how they might harm other humans (and how this might in turn harm nonhuman animals) is some sort of unreasonable expectation is pretty surprising coming from someone so guided by empathy.
I have absorbed, and come to appreciate, a considerable amount of criticism. It has not only made me a better thinker and writer, but a better person. But being charged via tweet in such a public fashion for “legitimating sexism” and “protecting misogyny” drives me into the ground, or at least into the sanctuary of a more private sphere.
And you might want to ask yourself why this is. Why do you not owe women feminists in the movement the same respect you’ve shown to others who’ve criticized your words?
I’m not saying the charge of sexism is wrong. I’m not saying I’m free of all sexism.
Then engage with the responses to your post.
I’m just saying it’s too much for me to deal with as a public matter while remaining an open-minded thinker unburdened by what people might think about what I have to say.
That’s disrespectful. And frankly, it’s not all about you or your ego.
Plus, to be honest, I’d rather not have my daughter grow up hearing that her dad is an animal rights activist prone to “legitimating sexism.”
Then engage with the criticisms in the comment thread and blog posts.
For the record, here’s the phrase I wrote that got me dragged to the woodshed:
Sigh. (And for the record, the problem was more than that phrase.)
“Sex does sell, there is no doubt, and perhaps it’s overly ambitious to take on the evils of speciesism and sexism at once, especially if a little sexism can help alleviate a lot of speciesism. I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t.” I’m just barely smart and media savvy enough to know that any attempt to excuse/defend/rationalize/qualify the remark will only send me further into the snarled narcissism of differences that condemns this movement to fight with itself forever. I’m too old to dig deeper holes for myself.
Again – this fear of the “snarled narcissism of differences that condemns this movement to fight with itself forever” never came up in his past criticisms or responses to criticisms. It seems wholly specific to debates about women and sexism.

And the pouty fatalism that attends this paragraph is really just too much. “Nothing will ever satisfy these feminist scolds!” It simply amazes me that such an otherwise engaged person, so interested in learning, has simply decided that he has nothing to learn from feminist animal rights activists.
I also know that, more than anything else, I must think my thoughts authentically.
No one has asked him not to think or write his thoughts authentically.
I’d rather commit all my ideas to the privacy of a journal or speak them to the dried paint on a wall than write about hot button issues for a large audience as a person with a permanent sexist taint. Point being: this foul die has been cast. Even if others forget, I won’t.
This is simply ridiculous.
I can find better ways to work for the cause of animals than as a daily blogger ever on the defensive against sexist charges.
Right, because no one could ever legitimate sexism in any realm of the movement other than as a blogger. How astonishing that it’s all about the danger of “sexist charges” rather than the danger of acting in a sexist way. McWilliams can switch to another line of activism because he can’t face the possibility of public criticism of sexism (gasp!). Women in the movement can’t quit being women because they can’t face the possibility of sexism.
I realize that this might seem overly sensitive. It is. But it’s how I feel. And how I feel influences how I write.
The issue isn’t sensitivity. This wouldn’t be a problem if we were talking about a general sensitivity. In that case, I would simply agree that he shouldn’t be a blogger. It isn’t about that. It’s specifically about his response to feminist critics who’ve argued that some of his actions perpetuate sexism in ways that harm women within and outside of the movement as well as the animals – especially the female animals – he’s trying to help. I can’t understand why he can’t just engage with those criticisms, especially as his first post made similar arguments and even cited Carol Adams, and he’s posted quite recently challenging sexist notions behind the celebration of animal killing (doesn't seem to have considered sending those involved a private email).

When the response specifically to feminist criticisms is so uncharacteristic and extreme, it distracts from their content and creates the impression that they can’t be addressed reasonably. This does more to perpetuate sexism than any statement in the original post.
I very much hope you will stay tuned. I have a lot to say about a lot of things and I will say them. Eating Plants will be reinvented/ revived/ reformed/ renovated in one form or another. But it won’t be the same deal. Not even close. So, for the immediate future, it’s farewell to Eating Plants as we know it and hello to a future that awaits, one that will likely involve longer but less frequent thought pieces that cede the general territory of “conventional animal rights” to other writers and thinkers. After 601 posts, 9,232 comments, and 276, 382 views, it’s a reluctant farewell made with deep and sincere gratitude to those who made this project a magical experience that I never expected would succeed as well it did.

To quitting while (just barely) ahead, I say: cheers. To charting new territory, I say: onwards.


James McWilliams
If McWilliams wants to explore other avenues, that’s great. I think everyone should choose the means of advocacy most suited to them. But he’s better than this response. I realize he felt stung by the critical responses, but I would urge him to try to get past that reaction and read and engage with what they’re saying. Nothing could better show his daughter an example of a man who respects women not just in some abstract sense but as colleagues and allies in a shared movement than a real attempt to understand and rise above this initial defensiveness.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for writing this and drawing attention to some really important points about how feminism is treated (or squelched) in animal rights.