How does a concern for inequality transfer to the internet? Is the achievement of equality the existence of a female Guido Fawkes?
I’ve been pondering this because of the interest my use of the internet as a PPC has generated. Through a weekly community e-newsletter I correspond with 2,000 of my neighbours about our shared passion for E17. The content isn’t generated by me but by them; it ranges from the local jazz club nights or a town centre business forum to the impact Surestart has and job adverts. Residents sign up online or when we meet in real time at one of Walthamstow’s many social and civic events.
Using email in this way is a cheap and simple tool that helps me support local community organising and mobilisation; activities that have defined progressive social and political activism for generations. Yet the presence of political women online was a source of much hand wringing at the Progress 2.0 conference. Panellists suggested the misogyny of blogs puts us off participation in political activity online. We were encouraged to “grow thicker skins”.
Whilst I have a mild anxiety attack when separated from my blackberry, to me these debates say more about prejudices about campaigning than women and the use of computers. I try not to get involved in circular arguments offline, so why would I devote time and energy to them online? Furthermore, discussion of e-campaigning all too often misses women even when we are active online.
Progressives need to challenge the belief there is something wrong because women do not engage in blogging of a style that is identified as political – and ask instead if there is something wrong with thinking only this kind of activity should be prioritised by online progressive politics.
The relationship between women and the internet is more complex than a caricature defined by gender alone allows. Of course women use the web – from Lily Allen to Jemima Kiss, Jo Swinson, Kerry McCarthy, Glamour Magazine or iVillage websites. MumsNet has over half a million registered users and has campaigned on issues such as flexible working and health visitors. My current favourite online activists are “somewhat strident but who cares”. This is a facebook group protesting against plastic surgery adverts. Their campaign against TfL for allowing billboards that depict unnatural body shapes as desirable has prompted stickers on offending posters across the tube network proclaiming “you are normal, this is not”.
This contrasts with using blogs to express opinions for public scrutiny and seeing this as a campaigning act. This is not to suggest women shouldn’t write blogs or that men are incapable of using the internet to campaign. It does however challenge perceived wisdom political activity on the web is solely about one – or the other. Research shows more women are online, more women use social networking sites and there are more female consumers online than men. If we are not engaged in comment to comment combat then what are we doing? And why does this matter to progressive politics?
As campaigners, we need to be better at understanding all our audiences and asking how they want to engage in discussions about policy. I’m yet to be convinced blogging can actually win an election in the way focusing our efforts on building coalitions with citizens about shared issues of concern can. This principle is as true offline as online. Being part of community forum discussing the challenges of children’s services in Walthamstow helps generate ideas for action and commitment to social change locally more than any leaflet or canvassing schedule alone. It isn’t my gender or my use of technology but the usefulness of my e-newsletter in advertising such events to other local residents that means I get an invite.
More fundamentally, the presumptions underpinning these debates reflect the challenge modern progressive politics ignores at its peril. At its best, progressive and democratic politics is a way of finding shared solutions to shared problems that is enriched by a wide range of perspectives and different ideas. That our public institutions and our political debates are still top heavy with those from similar backgrounds means the chances of such creativity being unleashed from all concerned are diminished. That the problems facing Britain- whether ending child poverty, addressing climate change, international terrorism or creating modern public services – are so complex and multidimensional makes redressing this a priority because of the benefits it can bring to all concerned. That still too often only those who are not part of this process are expected to take responsibility for this breakthrough shows the scale of change required.
Equality whether online or offline is something that should be the ambition of everyone, not just the excluded – whether women or those whose potential contribution is also undervalued because of age, ethnicity, disability and social class. Indeed, in the right hands and with the right focus, the internet and its capacity to bring people together to deliberate and decide can help bridge the gap. Yet the medium cannot compensate for the stereotypes that can pervade our debates and definitions of policy or politics. Conforming to an establishment view of what is online politics and how it should be conducted without question can only limit our capacity to promote the use of the internet for progressive ends. Securing as many female trolls as men on Labourlist will do little to advance equality. The battle is not for women’s attention to be turned to blogging but for their activism to be an equal part of our politics.