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Bidding online feminism goodbye |

Young Star

Bidding online feminism goodbye

Andrea Panaligan - The Philippine Star
Bidding online feminism goodbye
The world is nuanced, and it’s okay to change your mind upon learning new things but online feminism and its well-intentioned ‘cancel culture’ doesn’t really teach you that.
Art by Neal P. Corpus

MANILA, Philippines — In 2016, I cried in my science class when I found out Trump got elected president of the United States. I was 16 and, you know, not American, and it frustrated me that I could do nothing but sit and watch. In 2019, despite being of age, I did not vote in the local midterm elections.

I grew up on the internet, so of course it taught me almost everything I know — from homework help to how to make soufflé pancakes, and of course, feminism. That’s why I was so engrossed in US politics then, because that’s what the feminists I looked up to online were talking about. The internet, being a global platform, very often ignores context and cultural differences in favor of an imperialistic ideological monopoly — its ability to “bridge gaps” has been distorted into the erasure of non-dominant (i.e. non-Western) ideas. Of course all my feminist role models would be Western, and all the feminist issues I was learning about mattered most in the West; the feminism that benefitted white, middle-class, able-bodied cis-heterosexual women dominated the platform. I didn’t give much attention to local issues because, frankly, it wasn’t on my feminist heroines’ radars. 

The feminism on the internet is individualistic. It is often devoid of any mention of systemic oppression or structural inequalities, instead rooted in identity politics and celebrity activism. It has been diluted from a social movement to an identity; and from a ridiculed identity (“feminist killjoy,” anyone?) to a fashionable one. That’s why I found it so easy to identify with: it glorified choice, something I was privileged to have. I was comfortable with individualistic feminism because I was not as inhibited by oppressive systems as those with less privilege. I didn’t care about something unless I could insert myself in it, or unless enough people already cared about it so I had to do nothing besides echo their pleas. My feminism existed in this narcissistic, myopic bubble, and the internet was my blueprint.

Online, there exists a running commentary on everything that’s happening the moment it happens. It became easy to get away with not forming my own opinions because there was always someone spoon-feeding me what to think, how to react. While there is no harm in learning feminism from others (that is how it is normally learned, after all), doing so exclusively on the internet — an echo chamber where algorithms showed me only what I wanted to see — made me blind to things I wasn’t already aware of. I lived in this post-feminist fantasy where I thought everyone was woke and the work was done. Grounding my feminism in the echoes of viral hot takes made it harder to be intersectional, as I was simply reinforcing things I already knew to be true.

Sixteen-year-old me thought she knew everything about feminism. I didn’t realize this was because the feminism I knew then was self-serving, and of course I knew what I wanted. Because the internet uplifted the voices of people of color (POC), I thought having this “additional layer” of marginalization made me more qualified to be a feminist. But me being a POC doesn’t mean my feminism is automatically intersectional and inclusive if I refuse to acknowledge my privilege. (Me being a POC in a country where I’m never the minority is a privilege in itself.) I was outspoken, but only on issues that concerned the middle class. It took me a while to learn that, while the personal is political, I don’t necessarily have to relate to something before I can start caring about it.

The internet’s penchant for black-and-white discourse made feminism sometimes dogmatic and often exclusionary, like an elite club inaccessible to those not as progressive in thinking. The feminists being revered online are the ones making the most noise, so it was easy to think that to be a feminist is to always know what to say. But how can you learn if you don’t listen? The world is nuanced and it’s okay to change your mind upon learning new things — online feminism and its well-intentioned “cancel culture” doesn’t really teach you that. 

The feminism of the West is useful as a framework, but applying it wholesale in a non-Western setting is not only pointless but damaging. It has a bias that sees women of the Global South as “other” or “traditional,” and I began to see women in my own country that way. I deemed the women unaware of the feminism I identified with as stuck in this outdated patriarchal system; meanwhile, I was oblivious to the unique oppressions they experience. While feminism’s goal to uplift the marginalized is universal, these marginalizations are not all similar. Learning about Western feminism online only widened the disparity between me and the people in the margins that my feminism wished to serve in the first place.

In the same way that some Western feminists are more concerned about problems in Third World nations as opposed to their own, I paid more attention to Western issues because it required nothing of me, and I could pat myself on the back for doing the bare minimum. Because the problems seemed so distant, I was absolved of my passivity. I was well-read on the Black Lives Matter movement but not on the anti-poor extrajudicial killings happening in my own country. I championed myself for being this strong woman, unaware that my feminism was self-celebratory and carried no weight. It was a desirable trait that did not challenge anything.

The pandemic made me more aware of this, because while it is a global crisis, it requires a localized response. For many years the state has gotten away with not providing sufficient social welfare to its constituents, attributing survival to our individual ability to “work hard.” The defects of this individualistic, capitalist system have been laid bare by the virus, and its victims are now seeking accountability from its perpetrators. A feminism that exists comfortably within such a system is not one worth having.

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