Not too long ago, I was talking to an “offline” girlfriend — and by this I mean a friend I had pre-internet writing, who is highly unfamiliar with most of the internet at large — when I mentioned the term “rape culture” in passing. She immediately got this strange, inquisitive smile on her face and stopped me to ask, bluntly, “What the hell is that?” I was a bit taken aback at first, having assumed that just about every young, intelligent, savvy woman was familiar with the term and the ideas it represents, but I gave her what I felt to be a pretty thorough little rundown on the subject. And incidents like this aren’t a rarity.
There is a huge divide in my world, one which I believe exists in the world of anyone who writes or reads heavily online. There are the people I know through comment forums and personal blogs and longform articles and Twitter conversations, people who are deeply versed in the injustices in our society and what it means to have privilege. Then there are the people I know in real life, people who are either completely unfamiliar with these concepts or flippantly dismissive of them, viewing them as a clear case of the PC police run amok. While there is a huge range between my “standard Democrat who doesn’t think too much about what it means to be a white man in America today” and my “we knew each other in the south in elementary school and I think George Zimmerman is a martyr” (the latter I usually defriend or get into frothing arguments on status updates with), they are both deeply uninformed when it comes to the more nuanced social discourse that takes place on a lot of the internet.
And working for a website which often publishes articles from the perspective of oppressed groups and seeks to inform the public at large on the basics of privilege and injustice, I am often viewed as being a part of the “PC police” that they will lightly mock. “When did you start writing all this feminist stuff,” they’ll ask me, “You never used to be like this.” And that’s absolutely true — before I started reading and writing actively on the internet, I thought that feminist was a dirty word. I agreed with a lot of the self-hating rhetoric about how women are supposed to have a certain place, and that there are certain rules of decorum that we weren’t supposed to break. Nearly three years ago, when I first started writing for public consumption, I was willfully contrarian on a lot of very simple concepts and even worked against my own interest as a woman to prove that I was not like what I perceived to be the “PC hivemind.” And I wrote for a website — the one at which I am Senior Writer today — which chose to publish my articles, as ignorant and cringeworthy as they might have been. Some of you might remember one of my debut gems, “The Funny Thing About The Slutwalk.”
I was convinced, at first, that the angry commenters and people seeking me out on every forum to humiliate me were going to ruin my life, and that I did not need to change for them. But as one day turned into another, and I began listening to their perspectives, I started to see the world in an entirely different way. I began to see how the toxic beliefs I held hurt not only my fellow woman, but myself. While it was one of the more painful experiences of my life, it was an incredibly important change for me to go through, and the catalyst that took me from being a self-hating woman to the kind of woman who actively spreads self-love and awareness about feminism. I will forever be grateful for the lesson.
A few days ago, Thought Catalog published this article, “Being Privileged Is Not A Choice, So Stop Hating Me For It,” and the response was — to put it lightly — extreme. Nearly every major website on the internet, from Salon to Gawker to The Atlantic, was only too happy to tear us a new one, and to tear the author along with it. It was the perfect formula for Thought Catalog — and by extension, millenial — disdain. It was obtuse, it was self-important, it was ignorant, and it was whiny. It fit the narrative of “sheltered young woman writes witlessly about her own feelings” so well that it was impossible to resist the urge to take it down with glee. The critiques ranged from “click bait” (an argument so disingenuous in a landscape where even the old guard of journalism is not immune from throwing integrity under the bus for a few more hits), to “trolling” in its complete blindness to the way privilege works. We even featured a thoughtful — and prompt — rebuttal here on TC, along with two parodies.
In talking to my good friend and TC contributor Josh Gondelman about the issue, he explained the critics’ stance — and the idea that publishing the occasional article of this nature tars us all with its brush — simply. “It’s like inviting an asshole to the party,” he said, which I felt is a fair point. But whether or not we want to acknowledge the world of assholes which exist outside our self-selected, politically uniform party, they are always going to be there when we walk out and close the proverbial door behind us.
And while the charges that this girl is sheltered, ignorant, and wrong are completely on-point, it doesn’t change something that many people who write and consume this kind of media on the internet would like to ignore: She is a real person. These are her real thoughts, written with what she perceived to be righteousness and importance. Just as I was a real woman with a true, if distorted, view of womanhood, she is a person who lives her whole life with these ideas and values swimming in her head. And she is not exceptional, or even on the extreme end of things. The fact that she is even aware of critical privilege theory, and submits an article about it to an online magazine, puts her ahead of quite a lot of Americans. Many of the critics spoke from a position of abject shock, as though these ideas and perspectives could be nothing other than a malicious scheme to troll, but only someone deeply entrenched in the internet rhetoric surrounding these concepts could perceive it that way. For most people who don’t regularly participate in conversations about privilege, her perspective is a completely normal, if not slightly nuanced one. There is nothing extreme or “trolling” about the way she feels.
It’s undeniable that a lot of the liberal publications on the internet are enormous echo chambers, where we consume the same rhetoric and affirm it with our comments and clicks, and feel both smug in our informed status and relieved to hear the other people who agree with us. I love retreating into my little internet corners where everyone knows about feminism, anti-racism, transphobia, and size acceptance. But for every article I read online that reaffirms my positions, it is rare that I will see an article on these forums that presents even a lightly opposing viewpoint. While the internet can sometimes be a place for serious debate where real people can possibly change real minds, most of what we seek out is about feeling superior and affirmed. It’s human nature, and there is nothing wrong with wanting to feel like part of a group.
I don’t believe that we need to dedicate huge amounts of space to “non-PC opinions,” or to constantly highlight the people who, like Ms. Menendez, painfully misunderstand privilege. But I think that to ignore their reality — or to form an angry mob and shame out of existence the people who step forward with these ideas — is only plugging our ears and yelling over the noise that is the vast majority of the world. I am glad to, from time to time, post ideas that you do not often see in this corner of the internet. I am happy to write rebuttals to them, to talk to the authors, and to try to better understand why they feel the way they do. Because ultimately, if I want to change minds or make progress (whether with my own family, or with strangers on the internet), I must first accept that they exist and are just as much of a human being with a voice as I am.
Regardless of how she will end up feeling about the subject in a few years, I am glad that Ms. Menendez’s article was seen by the public and responded to in such a wide variety of ways. Despite attempts to paint her ignorance as something completely unacceptable, which by extension implies that her continued existence is something we must ignore, its undeniable that a sizable number of people have benefited from her choice to speak out. From the writers who are able to gain attention, traffic, and a sense of inclusion from deriding her, to the readers who recognized themselves in her words and reconsidered their stance in the several-thousand-deep comment section, there is purpose to reminding ourselves that we can choose the echo chamber, but that it is not the real world we live in. Maybe her story will end like mine, with a hard lesson learned and a new worldview to move forward with over time. But even if she remains firm in her ignorance, banning her from the conversation will do nothing to change anyone’s mind — if that is even really your goal to begin with.