Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Free?

A couple of months back there was interesting discussion about sexism and wikipedia I never did get round to replying then, but I was thinking about and so I thought I'd write about it now.

It started when m from scribblepad compared the definition of 'women' with the definition of 'men' on wikipedia and pointed out that the differences were sexist. She got a whole bunch of replies that critised her for attacking open source (I got all this from Feministe which had a nice post on the issue). She responded

I understand there are several people out there who seem to think challenging wikipedia amounts to challenging open source, something that shouldn’t (according to them) be allowed at any cost. one, it isn’t about “wikipedia versus feminism” or “wikipedia the last stand of free source”. nobody can force that kind of trade off, and even if they do, as much as I support free source, damned if ill continue to do so when the project abuses me.
I wasn't at all surprised. I expect wikipedia to be sexist, racist, and supporting the existing class structures. I expect the same of indymedia, and any other 'free' space.

I'll explain what I mean a little more by talking about something that happened to me a few years back. I protest quite often (I have a personal goal of protesting outside every embassy in Wellington). One day I was happily protesting and someone took a photo. It was the best photo of the day, so I became the face of the demo. Someone posted my picture with an article onto an Australian indymedia site. The comments went like this:
1. "The bird in the red has big tits I'd like to suck them"
2. "Fucken Leso give her some fucken meat".
3. Some long diatribe on how we shouldn't objectify women because it distracts us from the class struggle
4. A reasonably long post about how much the writer liked our protest and how he should do something like that where he lived, and then he ended it with "PS they're not that big"
There were no further comments. The original article was hidden, but no-one, including the person who hid it, or the person who forwarded a link to me, made any further comment on the way they were talking about my body.

I was on the fringes of the local indymedia collective at the time, and wrote to the e-mail list talking about this post, and the concerns I had about indymedia in general. A couple of people responded, and the one I remember was from a man who asked why I hadn't posted a response, as that was the whole point of open communication.

So to recap: a photo of me was taken at demo, this led four men to make a series of comments about my body, including rape threats, some of which came from men who were supposed to be comrades. No one spoke a word against it, including people who thought it was wrong. When I raised an objection in a slightly safer space I was told I was the one who was supposed to do something about this.

Our society is sexist and misogynist. What this means is that if we create a supposedly free space for communication it'll replicate the sexist and misogynist patterns found in mainstream society, unless we take conscious action to change those sexist and misogynist patterns. The same is true for all other power structures in our society, they will all be replicated in the free space.

This doesn't necessarily mean that those who want to build a new world need to give up on open communication spaces as a tool (I am writing this on the internet), but that if we're going to use them we need to set up structures to challenge those power systems we're fighting against.

Also posted on Alas

5 comments:

  1. Graham Watson1:19 am

    Sexist and misogynist attitudes should definitely be challenged by male and female alike. These are an impediment to further development of a liberal society.

    What structures do you suggest?

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  2. Hi Maia from New Zealand!

    I found your blog on a search for texts about feminist witches... your discussion of whether the white witch in Narnia is feminist. I decided not to post my offtopic comment there because I always get confused when someone comments on a very old post and I can't find the context. :) But anyway... two points:

    The white witch is defined in Narnia as a descendent of Lilith, Adam's "First wife" who is both a symbol of "evil" in that she becomes mother of demons (succubus) AND a symbol of female disobedience and anti-patriarchy (she knows the true name of God and speaks it defiantly to leave the Garden of her own free will). In this way, she can be cast (and is often done this way) as a feminist figure. So if the white witch is a daughter of Lilith, she is certainly a symbol of female disobedience and anti-patriarchy. Lewis would definitely have meant all of those things to be in the witch's characterization. So that might be something to think about. I still haven't seen the movie, since I have 8 month old twins (and the reason for my second off topic comment, which will appear in a moment). So I don't know if she is a strong character who acts in a feminist way or just a female character that might seem confusingly empowering but ultimately damaging to women... we'll see. I imagine you might have seen it by now. But I think that strong female characters are often feminist in movies simply because they exist, even if they are somewhat masculine. Why? Because of the dearth of interesting female characters, anytime there is a well-portrayed, well-rounded female that makes us look at women in a new way, a feminist moment has happened. That can be debated, certainly, but is a lonnnnng debate.

    Second off topic moment: my 8 month old daughter's name is Maia!! And it was cool to stumble into your blog on doing research for my dissertation on witches and see a smart, feminist Maia out there. So keep it up. There are little Maias waiting in the rear gaurde to take up our struggle in a few years. :)

    And so now, back to your current thread, and sorry to interrupt.

    Anytime there is a threat to a woman for speaking up about sexism and misogyny it is disturbing. We ought to be past this damn "you distract from the real struggle with your female concerns" crap by now but we're not. Equality means EQUAL. And if we're equal, we will not use power to demean, hurt, or threaten another person. If sexual comments were between equals, they wouldn't have felt the need to try to diminish you that way and threaten and label.

    The internet is a great way to challenge the old power structures. We ALL have our own printing press. Look what it did for the world with Gutenberg, Luther, etc. It remains to be seen where it goes.

    All in all, I find wikipedia helpful, and the articles I had searched for were not sexist in any overt way, and I like the collective way it is generated. But as you say, it will repeat the structures of the society.

    I think Feministe pointed out long ago that the blogosphere is majority female. (and has had to point it out lots of times since, I am sure) So perhaps over time the Internet will be more and more of a tool to fight for equality.

    Again, sorry to hijack your thread too much.... but I just wanted to say hi to another Maia. :)

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  3. It's essentially the same issue as with democracy - without the right checks and balances you're going to get a tyranny of the majority.

    I don't really know how wiki handles things when there's a big complicated dispute. That's the real test of its bias. I couldn't help but think their initial response to scribblepad was a form letter they send to everyone who complains about something. It didn't grasp the issue at all. The talk pages and the dispute resolution process is where the issues get nutted out. People get suspended and blocked for personal abuse or vandalism. That's a reasonable check/balance, and would certainly counter the problem with the munters at indymedia.

    I think it's a far better strategy to get in there and fix things and argue the reasons for it, just like voting and campaigning in a democracy. Keep a watch list of hot topics on the blog and get others involved and editing.

    From my own observation, wiki relies more on committed individuals rather than collective groupthink. The Bigfoot page is a bizarre testament to that.

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  4. Oh, and from Bigfoot to Other Weird Crap on Wikipedia to Nice Guy Syndrome to Heartless Bitches International. I feel like I've finally come home :-)

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    ReplyDelete