I was halfway through what I thought was going to be today’s post, and then Hugo Schwyzer up and quit the internet (so, you’re gonna have to wait till next week to get that post about Magna Carta Holy Grail & the kinds of social relations music facilitates when it is packaged or formatted as an app). I assume that Schwyzer’s retirement will likely follow the Jay Z or Bret Farve model, but, while it lasts, it’s a good opportunity to open out conversations about privilege, oppression, and the media, about the role of men in feminism, and about allies more generally.
Hugo Schwyzer is a professor of history and gender studies at Pasedena City College, and he has been a sort of male feminist superstar, writing for widely-read mainstream venues like Jezebel and The Atlantic. So, he’s a very, very public male “face” of and for feminism. And for a lot of reasons, he’s been the subject of vehement criticism, trolling, and plenty of ad hominem attacks, too, much of it from feminists (male, female, trans, queer, and otherwise) on the left. (And let me just say, if I was influential enough to make Malcolm Harris bring out his A-game trolling, well, I’d be pretty happy about that, even if it meant I was wrong about something.)
I want this post to be a place where we can discuss the issues following from Schwyzer’s retirement. Less mansplaining, more feminist pedagogy. In this spirit, I’ve identified some of the issues below, and I’d love it if we could help one another think them through.
1. If he needs to take a break for health reasons, then he should. There’s nothing wrong with taking time off from work to focus on your health (or caring for family and friends). (I’d also buy the argument that he needed to take a break to intellectually and politically regroup and rethink his approach.) However, it seems like this breakup with the internet is of the “it’s not me, it’s you” type. Schwyzer names his personal health as the second reason he’s quitting. The first reason he cites is “the toxicity of take-down culture,” which he finds “exhausting and dispiriting.” He continues:
The cheapest and easiest tweets and articles to compose are snarky and clever dismantlings of what someone else has worked hard to create. The defenders of this culture of fierceness call it intellectual honesty, but it is an honesty too often edged in cruelty. I’ll admit It: I’m a most imperfect man. I have an absolutely dreadful past, one for which I continue to make quiet amends. I’m also frequently a smug and sloppy writer. But despite that past and my glib prose, I don’t think I’m wrong that when it comes to a concerted effort to drive me off the internet, I’ve been more sinned against than sinning.
“More sinned against than sinning”–Really? If we’re keeping score here, then it seems like a hard sell to argue that a white straight cis-dude is so sinned against that he can justifiably quit his public feminist activism. In this sort of scorekeeping, how do we count the “sins” of institutionalized white supremacist patriarchy? If we follow this calculus, then no oppressed person would ever have any motivation or obligation to engage the institutions that oppress them.
Yes, people are mean to each other on the internet. But Schwyzer doesn’t experience the specifically gendered, racialized, sexualized threats that non-white-straight-cis-dudes regularly experience. His critics might be playing power games with him, but even so, they don’t use the full force of patriarchy, white supremacy, and cis/heteronormativity to reinforce their dominance and his vulnerability. (Lindy West has a great analysis of this over on Jezebel.) He’s not put in his place in a way that emphasizes his gendered vulnerability vis-a-vis a male critic and patriarchal institutions like rape culture. For example, in this interview he cites the following as an example of the worst of what he experienced:
All of us who write online want validation to some degree. We’re ready to take criticism when it’s balanced by affirmation. I just felt that it was very one-sided. After I wrote about Manic Pixie Dream Girls, this guy Chris tweeted, “the number one job of male feminists is to never let Hugo Schwyzer get another freelancing gig.” It got 120 retweets and 140 favorites in an hour. I mean, that wildly overestimates the job, right? And it was just really hurtful. I was like, I don’t want to go through this anymore.
If this is the worst, well…His critics don’t frame their objections in language that is also (and sometimes even primarily) sexual harassment. He’s not being threatened with rape or lynching, being called a c-word or n-word. This happens all the time to women, even and especially female academics. As this well-known study argues, sexual harassment is so pervasive that it “impedes women’s full participation in online life, often driving them offline.” For all the ways Schwyzer can be called out for being wrong, these call-outs can never be framed in ways that make him as vulnerable as someone who isn’t a white straight cis-dude.
And this is why I think there’s a massive, astronomically large, qualitatively incalculable difference between Schwyzer’s “Goodbye” and something like Keguro Macharia’s “On Quitting.” Macharia left the American academy because it was harming him in ways that, frankly, are just incomparable to Schwyzer’s discomfort.
At a required end-of-year meeting with my then department chair, I confessed that I was exhausted. I was tired of the banal and uncomprehending racism of white students who spoke of blacks as “they” and “them” and complained about “their broken English” and “bad dialect”; I was tired of a system that served black students badly, promising an education that it failed to deliver, condemning them to repeat classes, to drop out, to believe they were stupid; I was tired of colleagues who marveled when I produced an intelligible sentence; I was tired of attending conference panels where blackness was dismissed as “simple,” “reactive,” “irrelevant,” “done”; I was tired of being invited to be “post-black” as the token African, so not “tainted” by the afterlife of slavery; I was tired of performing a psychic labor that left me too exhausted to do anything except go home, crawl into bed, try to recover, and prepare for the next series of assaults.
In light of Macharia’s essay, Schwyzer’s “Goodbye” seems, well, offensive in its comparative triviality. I think we could have a more productive conversation about feminism and quitting by turning our focus away from Schwyzer and towards Macharia’s essay. I’d also like to talk about your thoughts on West’s proposal that, instead of ignoring trolls, women/feminists/oppressed people of all sorts “feed trolls until they explode.”
2. Laura Bates argues that it’s “pretty offensive when people tell us…we should leave Facebook instead of making a fuss.” Plenty of people far more vulnerable than Schwyzer have much thicker skin (and maybe this is related? Maybe this tolling seems overwhelmingly mean only to someone who’s generally been protected from bullying and harassment by his privilege?), and continue to make a fuss in spite of the threats, the pain, and the fear. To be honest, my initial response to reading his goodbye post on his blog, and the above-cited interview about it, was, somewhat ironically, “Geez, man, grow a fracking pair.” Less glibly, to be an academic and/or a public intellectual, you have to be able to take criticism, constructive or otherwise. If you have ideas, people are going to disagree with you. And that’s OK. In fact, you probably haven’t had any significant impact until someone has written a scathing takedown of your work. (Fiddy tol’ me go ‘head change yo style up/An if they hate then let ‘em hate and watch the money pile up, as they say. Or, read Marx’s thoughts on Hegel.) Moreover, as an academic, I was especially surprised that Schwyzer, as a fellow academic, hadn’t gotten used to the scathing, nasty, soul-crushing critiques that are often delivered by peer reviewers for journals. But then, I’m not sure that it’s a good thing that academia is as bad or worse than the internet in this regard. I also worry that I may be so desensitized by my own experiences of harassment that, like a fraternity or sorority active, I dismiss as a normal part of the culture what I should otherwise recognize as hazing. So, I’m very receptive to any attempts to argue me down from my “boo-hoo” response. If you had a similar response and wanted to make a case defending it, I’d also be really interested in hearing that.
3. Schwyzer has the option of quitting. I don’t know about y’all, but without the internet, without Cyborgology, Twitter, my personal blog, other professional blogs, I’d be pretty disconnected from other scholars. I’m not at an R1 (a big research university) and I’m not in a city like NYC/LA/Chicago/Boston with lots of universities and access to many other intellectuals in my field(s). Whatever networks, visibility, and influence I have, I have because of the internet. If I quit that, well, poof, it’s gone. And moreover, I don’t really have option of quitting this being a woman thing. Schwyzer can stop speaking about feminism in public, but I can’t stop being a woman, and I can’t stop being in public–I need to work, I need to buy groceries, walk my dogs, etc. For those of us without the option of quitting, what survival strategies help?
4. Feminism is hard. Being a feminist is hard, not just for men, not just for white women, but for all feminists. As Sara Ahmed has argued, it means killing a lot of joy, both for ourselves and for others. If your feminism is easy and makes you feel good all the time, well, then, you’re probably doing it wrong. Perhaps one productive thing to come out of Schwyzer’s erstwhile resignation is a serious conversation about how to support one another as we live with and work through the emotional pain, fragility, sadness, despair, melancholy, mourning, discomfort, awkwardness, and all the other difficult, unpleasant feelings that come with practicing feminism.
5. Perhaps the bigger question begged by l’affaire Schwyzer is about the role of men, especially cis-men, in feminism. As readers of Cyborgology should know, men can be awesome feminists. And men should care about feminism, because patriarchy affects us all (at least as far as globalized Western civilization reaches). It’s a system of social organization that affects everything and everyone. This means that men are gendered, and that they have a stake in feminism. They’re not outsiders looking in, but deeply implicated in the gendered phenomena that feminism studies, critiques, and challenges. And it’s this implication that shapes men’s roles in feminism. I’d like, if we can, to talk about the specifics of this in the comments. Given their various situations vis-a-vis white supremacist patriarchy, how can men do better by feminism, and as feminists, than Schwyzer?