Do Social Justice Movements need Mainstream Appeal? – The Problem with “Rebranding”

According to the findings of a new study, activists such as environmentalists and feminists tend to be viewed in such a negative light that they trigger resistance to social change rather than support of it. That, of course, contradicts the goal of many individuals who engage in political activism. But why are many people so offended by activists that they shut down and become defensive?

I developed a huge amount of respect for all people involved in political activism ever since I started doing some of my own. After all, it takes a lot of time, resources and energy to actively support a particular cause. Activists invest money in materials, they spend their free time copying flyers and standing around in the cold, and often the actual political effects of such actions are minimal. So while advocates for environmental, feminist or other causes have my admiration, it makes me resent those who use the same tactics to militate for things i find despicable even more.

Let’s face it, there are a great deal of advocates against progress and human rights. These people offend me, too, not just because I disagree with their politics, but because they have the audacity to spend their valuable time on spreading hate and limiting other people’s freedom and equality.

However, it is too shortsighted to claim that people don’t hate activists per se, but only those whose goals and convictions they reject. After all, the studies suggest that the participants were supporters of the ideas in general. The environment, animal rights and women’s equality – these are generally causes everyone who is not particularly hateful and vile can get behind. As usual, the devil is in the details. Note that the studies’ participants resorted to stereotyping activists with traits that they primarily deemed negative: loud, forceful, assertive, overreactive. Naturally, that is how protesters get attention, by disrupting the  comfort of the status quo. And that’s really the problem, isn’t it? People may say they generally agree with certain ideas, but only as long as pursuing these ideas doesn’t affect their lifestyles too harshly. Outspoken and engaged activists, however, make them aware – through their mere existence – that they are doing too little or nothing at all. Ignorance and apathy are not a good look, but only through activists (i.e. open criticism and direct action) are people reminded of these bad traits and forced to reflect. And of course, supporting a cause that one is not willing to put any effort in is not really support at all.

This problem fits nicely into the current debate on “rebranding feminism” – the search for a “better” representation of the movement to get more people on board with it. This move is a reaction to the classic “I’m not a feminist but…” statement, and will certainly feel further justified by studies such as the ones linked above. The bottom line for the Salon article reads: “Avoid rhetoric or actions that reinforce the stereotype of the angry activist”, and a few new initiatives dedicated to “rebranding feminism” are picking up on that.

The problem with such “rebranding”, however, is the danger of watering the ideas of feminism down and turning it into a movement that’s careful not to step on anyone’s toes. Such a feminism would lose its basic foundation – the struggle. As the always brilliant Flavia Dzodan states: “I do not conceive feminism as the end in itself. To me, feminism is the vehicle I use for the journey, not the end point where my journey ends.” I understand this to mean that getting more people to openly adopt the label does not mean anything, if there is no work behind it, no reflection, learning, questioning. If anything it allows people to wear it like a badge of honor without any substance, or worse: with contradictory ethics.

(TW for the links in next paragraph)

We can see this development in the animal rights movement. Organizations such as PETA continue to sell veganism as something worthy of embrace because supposedly it is cool, it makes you hotter and a “better” lover. Such campaigns are directed at people who are not actually interested in the systems of oppression underlying the issue; that is why they can legitimize oppressing other groups (i.e. women) for the sake of promoting the label.

If these are the means to an end, what is the end worth? To put it bluntly: what good is a vegan who disrespects women? When political convictions become little more than fashion statements, a greater community of supporters ends up as just a bunch of people mindlessly following a trend.

They will do so no matter what. “Trending topics” on social justice, on Twitter or elsewhere, are shaping the media landscape and the public debate, and often that is a good thing. But we need to make sure that when this happens, there is actual substance to debate about. If feminism becomes acceptable only because sexy hip young women are doing it, the message has already been skewed. “Angry, hairy lesbians” are only an image problem in a society dominated by hetero-patriarchal norms. A feminism that doesn’t address this as problematic, is not really feminism at all.

20 responses to “Do Social Justice Movements need Mainstream Appeal? – The Problem with “Rebranding”

  1. i agree. feminists have been that negatively stereotyped because they employ attitudes and behavior that society usually doesn’t want them to employ. as a feminist, i am indeed loud and angry, when as a woman, i am supposed to be quiet and “nice”. so a feminism that tries to be exactly that, nice and quiet and careful, is not my feminism because that’s just the same old thing that we ought to try to overcome.

  2. Dominique Millette

    Indeed. Feminism is not a toothpaste. Thank you.

  3. As usual with your blogs a load of yes-buts clunk along in its wake and I find myself wondering where to begin. But it is only a blog so I guess pitch in anywhere and don’t try for a definitive response is as good as anything.

    Why are so many people offended (para 1)? It’s a pity that the new study didn’t try to winkle that out at the same time as discovering that activists are viewed in a negative light – not a very efficient use of resources if you’ve already got people giving their views (it seems to me).

    Don’t forget that feminists don’t universally agree on what are feminist issues (the whole shopping list) and when they agree on an issue they don’t necessarily agree on how to tackle it. It’s not surprising that the world at large has reservations about activists’ agendas. And it doesn’t help to say that if someone disagrees with you they are spreading hate.

    You seem to make the assumption that all activists causes are inherently good/good all the time – so why the heck can’t the man and woman in the street get that through their thick heads? That’s the question that I puzzled over most. And the answer I came up with involves concrete.

    Consider the following propositions.

    There should be no construction work in areas of natural beauty. I’m pretty certain that the majority would go along with that. I wouldn’t feel the need to test it scientifically.

    How about: there should be no construction work within thee miles (the distance to the horizon re a person 5’5” tall looking out over the sea) of an area of natural beauty, because one impinges on the other.

    Response: Yeh, OK, that seems fair.

    How about: No building above ground from now on.

    Response: Hang, what’s that all about?

    “How about: The only colour you can paint woodwork on a building from now on is green.”

    Response: For goodness sake!

    How about: The colour that you can paint buildings grabs the headlines … and it goes on and on and on ….. and every green paint wielding journalist who can hold a paintbrush tells the world at large how awful it is that buildings are still being painted in colours other than green.

    “Response: For God’s sake, just stop it!!!

    People who are broadly onside get hacked off because they: (a) don’t agree with everything (b) are chastised if they don’t agree – they are cast as weak or obnoxious, ‘easily offended’ people who ‘shut down’ and become ‘defensive’ and (c) detect elements of extremism both in terms of content and delivery. And my guess is that most people don’t care for extremism (and remember that one person’s freedom fighter is often someone else’s terrorist).

    As a direct result of stumbling across your blog a couple of years ago I have made a point of tracking popular feminism in the press (really, and for nearly all that time). Every day I check The Sun newspaper, The Guardian and The Telegraph. At weekends I can’t wait to get my hands on The Sunday Times. Each of these papers has their stable of feminists who have conscientiously recycled a plethora of feminist ‘issues’. Mine’s not an academic study, it’s casual interest. And sometimes it’s like being hit repeatedly on the head with a brick (and no I’ve never actually been hit on the head with a brick). One can see how regular readers might lose their enchantment with causes.

    About three months ago there was an article in one of those papers (Guardian I think) written by a bloke who took the line that feminism was about a small group of women busily (and constantly) diagnosing what was wrong with men …. And that men aught to have a voice in the debate (he meant monologue, I’m sure). I couldn’t believe what I was reading. How had it actually slipped through the editorial process?

    The interesting thing (for me) was that the feminist outpouring across the press (following that article) almost dried up over night (it didn’t completely go away). We started to see more male journalists being credited with stories that would previously have gone to a small, elitist group of women columnists. And we have also seen a few articles (sometimes by feminists and sometimes by blokes who don’t seem to have a particularly heavy anti-feminist agenda) saying things like, “Hang on. You might think that (feminists) but there are holes in that argument and maybe people shouldn’t be buying into it.” It doesn’t come across as a hate agenda but as balance.

    One might say that it’s evidence of feminists being institutionally and systemically sidelined and the movement being set back decades. Or we might see it as an attempt (one strand) to rebrand feminism. The thing is, if that’s the case, it means that there is press collusion, which I think would make an interesting study.

    Anyway, I was pleased to read Veronica’s response to your blog because if she is typical, a coordinated approach to rebranding feminism won’t take place any time soon. We need more women like her.

    And thanks for this article. Enjoyed it as always.

    • First of all, Stefan? Have you changed names? Or are you doing your own version of “rebranding”? ;-)

      Once again a long post from you; I’ll try to respond to what strikes me as interesting.

      “Don’t forget that feminists don’t universally agree on what are feminist issues (the whole shopping list) and when they agree on an issue they don’t necessarily agree on how to tackle it. It’s not surprising that the world at large has reservations about activists’ agendas. And it doesn’t help to say that if someone disagrees with you they are spreading hate.”

      Certainly true, feminists don’t all agree with each other and these debates within feminism are part of what I described as the “work” that goes into being an activist. Yes, it’s not enough to just assume the label and swing the flag; you constantly have to question and learn and reflect and fail. I agree this is not for everybody, a bit like party politics. Just recently, during the German elections, I was once again faced with the choice between parties, none of which felt like it represented me in its entirety and certainly cannot be trusted with its endgame, but I still go out and vote! (I realize this is a bit of a strained analogy, but I gave it a try.) And no, I never said that different opinion = hate, but when the different opinion is based on racism, sexism or homophobia, then I believe that qualifies as spreading hate.

      About your urban development thought experiment: You nailed it! That is exactly what I was saying. People feel comfortable with a general idea (f.ex. no development in green areas, or animals should not be tortured; if we want to leave feminism to the side for a bit), but they are not willing to truly look at what pursuing this idea entails and deal with the consequences (f.ex. no supermarket or airport in the area that could generate tourism and thus income for the area, or for the example of animals, not eating factory farmed meat etc.). But most causes, like environmentalism, like feminism, require a lot of effort, on the political and on the individual level. This is extremism only if you consider everything that requires drastic changes from the status quo extreme.

      As I said, people disagree, even within movements, and I honestly think that is what deters people: not the fact that in order to support a cause you have to agree and comply with everything, but that you will encounter crises of faith over and over again. (That is not to say that there aren’t also a lot of ignorant activists as well, as my post illustrates.)

      As for “popular feminism” in the mainstream press: I’m not sure what point you were making?

      • Urban thought experiment? Don’t you think that if I had been bright enough to call it that I would have.? Not my problem that you don’t understand popular my points (and that is the problem with feminism as it withers on the vine). I’m trying to tell you how to make it more effective and you are dibbing your toes into the soil to stop getting dragged along with it. But I guess that is the nature of blogs (and (sadly) feminism).

        Look back at my posts and you will see that I pointed up the outcomes of the research that you draw on (for free).

        Consistently, you strive to be even handed. Sadly you never quite manage it (I appreciate that it’s a function of ideology rather than intellect). But that is what makes me breathless for your next post (not enough, slacker!). Crisis of faith over gain? OMG. I could draw you a graph about how this works. You girls need to do some maths.That is the point. But thanks for responding (really, because I do find your posts stimulating.). As for that reference to hip young chicks (or whatever) they are part of your problem.

        Veronica is still my must-have on the team.

        Sorry about the name thing. I wrote a response and then wordpress wouldn’t let me in. You have to assume that I have a number of psuedonyms. After all, what’s in name?

      • Hmm, I know we rarely agree on things, but you usually write rather well-crafted critiques. This, however, is just lazy for your standards. And lame in its attempt to be both patronizing and appeasing with backhanded compliments.

  4. I also think that an absence of face to face dialogue with an immediate response /interjection is a problem and with it a lot of misconceptions would be avoided. Having said that, exchanging views with someone else in the world (I never assume that you are in Germany any more) is a definite plus.

    As for, “That is what I meant ….” It should be of concern to you (as feminist with an agenda) that that is not what I read.

  5. I haven’t been entirely fair given your reply. Sorry.

  6. My sorry came before Hmm (best I can do) and your Hmmm response. Patronising, backhanded, and appeasing? Seriously, I feel awful about this. Why? Because you are one of the people who I would take on (man for woman) in a rapier contest (where I don’t assume any gender advantage. My thought is (always) if I shake you up to look at the world differently that might be a good thing – and I am prepared for you to shake me up (remember all the thousands of Sun Telegraph and Guardian articles that I have (not always reluctantly) ploughed through over the last twelve months or so.

    • If you want me to look at the world differently, lecturing me about what you think is wrong with me or feminism is probably not the way to go.

  7. When I received this response (If you want me …) I laughed, and I promise not in a condescending way. Lecturing? I think that perception may be a function of the medium. My guess is that you spent quite a while crafting the original blog (I would have done). The indication that you do that is that there is never any fat on the piece.. I read it. And responded – stream of consciousness. I didn’t give any thought whatsoever to lecturing, how will this be received, or am I right, The only thing that you can do with a blog response (you have shot your thoughts out to be read by about 7 biliion people, don’t forget) is say do I go with this idea/response or not? At the end of the day I don’t care one way or the other if you look at the world differently. Having said that, if I could get the tone right, I would. But it’s the usual thing …. being a bloke I don’t know what that is.

    • Oh, so being a bloke prevents you from not being condescending to a woman, on a feminist blog no less?

      Since I have a bit of time just now, let me give you some hints what is not really appreciated here:

      “I’m trying to tell you how to make [feminism] more effective”
      “that is the nature of […] feminism” – oh, so you’re the expert on feminism now?

      “[…] you strive to be even handed. Sadly you never quite manage it” – I never strive to be even-handed, but thanks for evaluating my performance.

      “You girls need to do some maths.” – BINGO! infantilization and gender bias in one phrase.

      • “You girls need to do some maths.” – BINGO! infantilization and gender bias in one phrase.”

        I’ve had some differences of opinion with you in the past, but here you are 100% spot on.

      • I had hoped to persuade you to share your thoughts on the aspects of feminism that have a negative affect on potential supporters but that doesn’t seem likely. At the same time, it may be a little to late for notions of re-branding.

        I’ve just finished reading Trust Me, I’m Lying (2012) by Ryan Holiday. In it he examines the relationship between news blogs and the press/media in general. Apart from being a page turner it reminded me of something that I’ve always known.

        Basically, newspapers are not motivated by altruism, nor is their primary aim to get to the truth in big stories that the world needs to know about. The bottom line is revenue. These days circulation figures aren’t likely to play too much of a part, but advertising certainly does.

        I told you about the recent sea change in the UK press regarding feminist articles and columnists. My hypothesis was that the press was developing one strand of re-branding by making feminism less of a constant assault on the readers and by engaging a more moderate tone and approach. But what if it’s actually quietly abandoning feminist issues because of the impact on advertising revenue – and because advertisers are concerned that instead of being an asset modern feminism has become toxic. If that’s the case, re-branding would be a null issue. It would be a very difficult place to come back from.

      • “Basically, newspapers are not motivated by altruism, nor is their primary aim to get to the truth in big stories that the world needs to know about. The bottom line is revenue. These days circulation figures aren’t likely to play too much of a part, but advertising certainly does.”

        100% spot on!

        “and because advertisers are concerned that instead of being an asset modern feminism has become toxic. If that’s the case, re-branding would be a null issue. It would be a very difficult place to come back from.”

        Again 100% spot on!

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  9. Oh, yes, while I’m about it, where did my late night comment go. For those who missed it, it was something like: I think your question was a good one. I thought that your analysis was crisp. Re-branding feminism/feminist issues in order to make gains makes sense.

  10. That’s a relief. Must have disappeared into cyberspace. I don’t usually read back through blog stuff but I see that you were suggesting that I was casting myself as an expert on feminism (I assume there was an element of irony). Of course I wasn’t; why would I want to do that? When I said that I was trying to help you I meant it. I was saying that I was on the outside looking in. I try to tell you what that looks like. It’s up to you what you do with it.

    God knows why you are talking to someone call Stefan. Every time I try to post I come up against a verification progress which leads to a new name or new password.