“What are you doing, except snarking on Twitter?”: Ableism and activism

This has been pissing me off for a while, and it continues to piss me off. When receiving criticism, an altogether-too-popular retort is “Well what have you done lately? You’re just sitting there snarking on the internet.” From the dick-swinging manarchists deflecting from sexism, to the liberals upset that you criticised their precious petition, the war-cry is howled across digital space with alarming regularity. And there is not one thing about this silly little statement that is OK.

Let’s deal with the fact that it is an obvious deflection first. Rather than an attempt to address any criticism of tactics or ideology, asking “well, what have you done?” is a clumsy sidestep, an admission of having no actual answer or will to engage, and about as strong an answer as “I know you are, you said you are, but what am I?”

Secondly, and I cannot stress this enough, it makes you sound like an undercover cop. If you ask someone to list their activist credentials, I find it very difficult to believe that you are not attempting to gather intelligence and will add any answers to a dossier. In its own clumsy way, it is a fairly decent tactic for the undercover cop to employ, the request to produce an inventory of personal involvement in activism being such a ubiquitous demand. It can goad people into divulging information that it is not necessarily safe to divulge in a climate of surveillance and a hard line against anyone who dares to oppose the murky forces of the state.

And, to further the comparisons with the police, saying “what are you doing, except snarking on Twitter” is ableist as all fuck. The advent of social media was a boon for a lot of people, finally broadening the possibility of involvement to people who had been excluded from many more traditional channels of engagement. The fact of the matter is that for some, it is only possible or safe to get involved through social media. And is that a problem? No, not at all. As this case study from Zedkat shows, Twitter feminism has real, tangible results.

And the intangibles are just as important too. What is dismissed as snark is something which too many privileged people fear: criticism. Social media allows for instant accountability, which is one of its strengths. Unfortunately, a lot of privileged people don’t really like this instant accountability, which leads them to be so dismissive in such an ableist way. Yet it is criticism which makes us stronger, and criticism which means that we can get our theory and our tactics in order. We absolutely should discuss the problems with what we are doing, and criticisms which come from those whose voices have been silenced are perhaps the most important. The voices of the people who are “only on Twitter” are ones which have seldom been heeded throughout history, and now is the time to listen.

We are facing a seemingly insurmountable enemy, a hydra with many heads, and ultimately our struggles all intersect. The class struggle is bound to other oppressions, and every liberation struggle is connected. As such, we need a diversity of tactics. But this does not mean we should be uncritical of tactics used: far from it. We need to be open to criticism, rather than dismissive. What is thrown away as an irrelevance is crucial. It is essential our revolution is done without pissing on those already pissed on by this vile state of affairs. And for that, once again, we need to listen to this criticism. If your response to criticism is this flavour of ableism, you’re probably a bit of a bellend, and you should try not being a bit of a bellend.

And so, let’s stop hearing this risible demand, this feeble deflection bound up in ableism. We should be better than that.

22 thoughts on ““What are you doing, except snarking on Twitter?”: Ableism and activism”

  1. Thank you for writing this. I’m housebound by my illness and find it infuriating that people think my failure to attend events amounts to lack of commitment. I also get asked this kind of thing in relation to work with vulnerable individuals, where there’s no way I can reveal the details of our interactions. But I think there’s also a culture-clash element underlying the question, at least some of the time. That is, some people are disgusted by the idea of complaining about anything because they see it as indicative of failure or blaming others for one’s misfortunes rather than making the effort to correct them. To me, complaint and blaming others both have a legitimate place in constructive dialogue, sometimes constituting a social duty, whereas I find it distasteful when those people big up their successes – culturally normal for them – because it’s so vulgar; consequently I feel uncomfortable if asked to list mine, something which just increases their distrust.

    1. I think you might be right here, and again I feel like flaunting successes is an indicator of a kind of fragile attempt to cling to the privilege one has. I’m not sure why, but I feel like it dovetails with Louise Mensch’s “reality based feminism” and her assumption that she earned everything that was actually, broadly speaking, a big win in the life lottery, if you get what I mean!

      1. Flaunting success brings with it the assumption that you made your success all on your own, and implies that your success makes you better/more worthy/more qualified than others, while ignoring the factors that helped make you a success and downplaying the factors that prevent other people from being as successful.

        To a point, I do believe that it is theoretically possible for anyone to achieve success. But that doesn’t mean that some don’t have advantages and others don’t have disadvantages. When a person who becomes successful largely because of their advantages flaunts it over people who are fighting against severe disadvantages, they may not be clinging to privilege, they may not even be aware of privilege, but they are definitely indicating that they don’t know shit about how different people face different challenges and that they need to shut up and listen once in a while.

  2. What are you doing except arguing for the validity of your beliefs in a public forum?

    What are you doing except drawing attention to the bigotry of others?

    What are you doing except opening this argument up to a wider audience?

  3. It’s misogynist, too. Often I hear “but you should call people out in person!” The old adage “men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them” comes to mind here.

      1. I’d happily provide a foil for you to do so – pass me your call-outs, I’ll publish them & take the flak, job done. People mistake me for the bouncer if I go drinking. Quite ok with keyboard warriors trying to threaten me. I can appreciate how this is a suboptimal option though, but if it achieves what you want I’m up for it.

  4. People often criticise me in exactly this way. My only response is that merely existing and being visible as an openly trans woman on twitter and off it is:
    1) Plenty difficult enough thank you.
    2) Helping other trans people realise it’s possible to do so.

  5. I’m glad to read this, because it’s a useful challenge/way to get me to refine some of my past exasperation! When I was looking to found a Skeptics in the Pub in Wales, I was extremely ill and had very little confidence, and was terribly upset by people who only wanted to criticise rather than help. “Uh why are you doing that you should be thinking of the starving children in Africa”. “Uh why is your group called skeptics in the pub in Wales, that completely excludes everyone in Wales who isn’t in the area you eventually choose” (this one ignoring my explanation that I would change the name as soon as I’d found anyone to join up in any area!). I would never have asked these people what *they* were doing – I knew that not everybody can be active in the same way, or at all – but I definitely wished they would stop trying to bring me down for something positive I was trying to do. I had no success or credentials or anything like that and doing anything was a struggle.

    In previous years I had been even sicker mentally and physically, and resented the people at university who swam into activism while I could barely get to and from lectures – it was, in retrospect, jealousy. I felt so disempowered that I didn’t even feel I had the right to take part in activism – as if I needed a special license, some kind of social standing, to do so. When I realised there was no license, that everyone has “permission”, it was uplifting beyond words. And I found that by working in a charity for disabled people, where everybody contributed what they could, if anything. Let’s build up the confidence of all the people who don’t have strength and success 🙂

  6. Thank you for writing this! As someone who has bad anxiety issues myself, most demos/direct action (especially when I know they police will be there) are just inaccessible to me, so this kind of attack really hurts.

    Also I’ve always found this comment to be have a very much “more activist than thou” kind of attitude, which is an attitude I seem to run into a lot and it really grates.

  7. This is so needed, as well as being abelist it assumes wealth, lifestyle and privileges around identity. Many of us are unable to be more active off line as it would be very damaging to identity us.

  8. Not to mention disabled people are often unwelcome and abused at supposedly social justice gatherings, I know so many people who’ve received threats because they weren’t neurotypical enough to be popular within a social justice group. I’ve been subject to this so I’m very wary of attending any march in person. It’s a lot safer at even social justice events if you have multiple privileges and perhaps one or two oppressions.

  9. My only problem with this is the word “snark”. Rant, complain, share, argue, debate, all of those are totally fine. But, when your only contribution to your cause is to actively post negative information, you aren’t helping your cause and you’re not helping yourself. I don’t mean you need to be marching in the streets, but maybe tone it down a bit when you’re talking to others who maybe don’t agree with what you’re saying. I find that I typically turn to this argument when someone opens with judging ME and what I do. If someone was doing something positive, even simply sharing information on Facebook, and they wanted to talk to me about doing more for their cause, I love that. Tell me all about it, how I can help (if I agree) and how I can learn more. If I don’t agree, or it doesn’t resonate (I have my own causes, thank you very much), then perpetual sniping is only going to make things worse. Then I find it VERY valid to say “Well, what are you doing other than snarking on Facebook?”

  10. I’ll try to have coherent thoughts later but I think this ties in with the other common put downs – “You shouldn’t say anything online you wouldn’t say through a megaphone in the park / to your grandparents” and “Activism will look great on your CV! I bet that’s why you do it” (this one is very prevalent among students, I’ve not had a position on any Union committees in two years, I’m still accused of careerism for merely turning up to meetings and events regularly).

    The people who *can* safely say all they want to say offline and the people who *can* choose to do activism for CV embellishment (ie the kind that looks good, isn’t too radical, is for a popular cause, for an established organisation and *definitely has little or no risk of arrest*) are NOT living the same kind of lives as those of us who feel we have no choice but to be actively against the kyriarchy / capitalism / patriarchy / heterosexism / fascism / etc because those things are none too slowly killing us and our communities.

    And because of the huge mental and physical toll of living under oppression, those of us who can’t not be active are often the same people as those of us for whom online activism is safer and/or more accessible.

    We say things online we couldn’t say in public, we challenge people’s views online who we’d literally panic if we meet them in the street, we advertise demos we know we won’t be able to go on to boost their numbers. And we show other people online that there are people like us and viewpoints like ours when off line we’d never have occasion to be in the same room as them and wouldn’t talk freely if we were.

  11. Both online and offline activism involves a certain amount of privilage. The digital divide is alive and well and many women running between children, work, elderly parents and running a home are able to attend scheduled time limited events/meetings but not to have an online hum running in the background.

    Sometimes this online snarking isolates those who have different types of limitations, we should be recognising on line and off line organising and activism as complimentary.

    Continual negative criticism puts people off activism. There are a fair few campaigns and tactics that I have had my issues with, but they can be addressed in a productive manner with a view to making them better, rather than in a snarky manner.


    Jane Doe was at the last meeting and she said she’d produce a leaflet for the upcoming boycott of the Sun. I’ve taken a look and its a good start, but it seems to be implying that there are no issues other than sexism with the media. What do others think? Are there any suggestions to how we can broaden it out to include things like racism, heterosexism, ablism and other oppressions

    OMG!! Have you SEEN that leaflet that Jane Doe produced? What a load of crap. She always does this – ignores everything but sexism, and never appreciates that the rest of us are battling with a whole load of other oppressions. Just because she is a white able-bodied heterosexual woman. We shouldnt let her produce any more of our materials, all that we will end up with is a white heteronormative campaign and thats not what we want.

    We should be supporting each other to be better activists in whatever realm we can both offline and online, and part of that is building confidence in people and sharing skills.

    The “well, what have YOU done?” question is oftena self-defensive mechanism against, “Well, Ok you think what I did was shit, but at least I tried”, if we can change the manner in which we interact with people and move from snarking to supporting, there is less chance of people feeling defensive, under attack and quite often withdrawing from activism.

    1. But… In the second part of your example you include the information that Jane Doe repeatedly ignored issues like racism, heterosexism and ablism because they don’t affect her. That makes it sound like a pattern of behaviour rather than a mistake, so she probably shouldn’t be producing the materials.

      Also, where would you draw the line with this kind of ultra supportive, benefit-of-the-doubt, Rimmer-in-Polymorph attitude? It seems to include people who identify as feminist but are possible heterosexist racist ablists, so does it apply to everyone?

      1. In the example above there is no suggestion of heterosexism, racism or ablism, although its perfectly possible Doe is all of those things.

        If there was content along the lines of “look at the way the media treat women, if they said that about Black people they would be shot down in flames” (a line that I have seen within some feminist identified comments), that requires a different approach, of actively tacking Doe.

        If its through ommission, its more likely that she has internalised the white, hetero, able bodied normativity that surrounds us and as a white, hetero able bodied person she is more vulnerable to falling for that normativity because she doesnt have to deal with being othered along those lines in the way that Black, disabled or non-hetero women do.

        There is no appreciation, that however inadequate what she has produced is, at least she produced *something*, and that they were happy for her to go ahead and do this.

        With the first, you have an appreciation of Doe’s effort, a base to work form, and a request for the collective to take responsibility for improvement. With the second, you have a binned leaflet and an implicit demand that someone else does it to the standards that are expected.

        The second is alienating to newcomers, who see the snarking and think, better to hide behind it, rather than stick my neck out and risk similar. Whereas the first encourages people to participate in small ways, while aknowledging that even if what they produce isnt what is desired, their effort is appreciated and others will help them improve it.

        We need to grow both the movement and individual activists within it, simultaneously. Everyone has internalised the white cishet male normativity that surrounds us, we cant get rid of it because it swirls around us daily, what we can do is firstly to actively challenge our own behaviour and secondly to raise the conciousness of others, rather than alienate people.

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