Breast feeding, activism and elitism

23 Jan

The current furore over Koch and his stupidity over breast feeding in public is quite telling in the micro-climate of online debate.

There is no equivocation on breastfeeding: it is a legal right. Yet, in a society where women are told their main value is as a mother and yet are shamed for performing an act of motherhood in public, it seems there is still work to be done to overcome the braying of those made uncomfortable by the act. Anyone suggesting otherwise is an uneducated, unwilling participant in reality.

What is more interesting to me is the response. Questioning why are people still talking about it, citing freedom of speech, giving examples of issues of far greater importance for the feminist cause than breastfeeding, decrying modern online activism and everyone, absolutely everyone, has privilege on their face.

This isn’t a thorough discussion piece or rebuttal but there are some things that might be worth saying.

Where does the law stand on breastfeeding in public?
People are still debating and arguing for the right to breastfeed in public because many are denied that right. In public, in their homes, in the homes of others. The right to feed in Australia is covered under the Sexual Discrimination Act. People are not allowed to refuse service, try to discriminate or treat a woman differently due to the fact she is breastfeeding. That is the law. No addition of the word discreet. There’s no grey area there. Law. 

Freedom of speech 
Australia has implied freedom of speech when it comes to political communication. We have no declaration of rights, we have nothing but a common law case relating to political communication. Even then, if you ask “but what of Koch’s freedom of speech?” he doesn’t have any. Even if, as reasonable adults, we operate on the assumption that every one has freedom of speech, that freedom of speech does not mean freedom from offence or freedom from being challenged on what you say.

So they are, within reason (Australia still has sedition law), allowed to say things that I find offensive. Being an offensive jackaninny whose contribution to public discourse is a calcified urine stain isn’t a crime.

I am allowed to disagree with someone, I am allowed to point out where their points are in direct conflict with the law, in fact, I’m allowed to tell them their views on public breastfeeding reveal them as a wowser out of step with reality. I can even liken them to urine. Communication (public or not) sends and receives messages. At its absolute worst, it’s YouTube comments. At its best, it is informative, challenging, validating and entertaining.

But surely there are bigger things to worry about in society.
I identify as feminist and I am a mother. I cannot separate the two: having a child compelled me to become a feminist.  I’ve also mentioned before that feminism isn’t always inclusive of mothers and some of the more derisive comments have come from that sector. This is not wholly the case for all but it has been a recurring experience for me and others in Australia.

Breastfeeding is still an issue. It is an issue because society places overinflated importance to a woman’s role as a mother. In addition to this, society places a huge importance on breast feeding. Consider those two factors and then consider the reality that many women face discrimination doing something that society pretty much demands of them. It may not be important to others but the ability to express the law and breastfeed openly as they feed and soothe their children is important to many women. To deny that is to exclude a large number of people.

When people say there are bigger things to debate in feminism, when people say we are focusing on the wrong issues or even diluting feminism’s effectiveness with weak campaigns, I cannot help but recall the work of Monica Dux and Zora Simic in “the Great Feminist Denial”. One of the compelling reasons women were reticent to identify as feminist was due to perceived elitism within feminism. Elitism arising from impressive academic backgrounds, specialised language and conceptual knowledge. It appeared that modern women could not identify with feminism as a grass roots movement (stunning, given its previous history).

I (and many other people) am all too aware there are other issues directly impacting the world which require attention. Things that affect men, women and children either as individuals or collective groups. Being told there are bigger, worthier issues to combat doesn’t make people fall into line to fight for the cause you deem more credible or urgent – it makes them feel unworthy from another direction, a direction for which they had  felt alliance.

Ideologies are rarely tightly organised, rarely singularly focused. There is always conversation, always disagreement and discord, always a challenge to develop a critical mass of effectiveness. Feminism is another example of this. Expecting universal compliance and activism on a hierarchical list of needs is a failure to understand your brethren and human nature. It’s like expecting all a  political party’s factions to agree and never move against each other.

Personally speaking, I disagree with some things others would classify as feminist issues. I even disagree with some feminist groups or issues presented as being of high importance.  I’m also not a fan of super-positive-everything-is-empowered feminism either. Just let me and others have the discussions and actions where I believe I can contribute something of interest.

People act and prioritise according to their experience and concerns. We have unique reasons to agree and act upon things, be it based on empathy, experience or reason. Castigating people as to whether they are campaigning or upset over ‘authentic’ or ‘high priority’ feminist issues helps no one, least of all feminism. You’re just thinning the ranks. Give them a reason to join your group, don’t give them a reason to ignore you and understand they may not always agree with your priorities and it doesn’t make them less devoted.

If you believe people should care more about one issue than another, explain why. Don’t just complain people aren’t following the right trail and, as such, they are terrible bushwalkers bringing shame upon the art of walking – educate, encourage, give an incentive. Don’t want to do any of that? Recognise you’re activist who doesn’t want to inspire and encourage change.

Modern online activism 

I remember, well over ten years ago, being interviewed by Wired for a piece about online activism. Bless me, it was Adbusters related and I was young. I had no idea what I was doing, but I knew the web was going to offer greater possibilities for getting a message across. Even earlier, I remember marshalling at a protest and watching a journalist grill the event organiser over the protest’s multiple messages purpose, his mind blown that people of many issues could join to protest in one space.

The way I see it (and many don’t so good for you), activism has changed since the 80s. Consider how quickly airflight took to a space program or telephony took to tiny antisocial portable computers – activism has changed even quicker. The brilliance of web communication means we can educate, mobilise and act with like-minded people quicker than ever before. There is no time delay.

This has positive and negative impacts. It can lend itself to histrionic outrage where people come out in binary rashes that others would have different views to them. It can lend itself to superficial debate where people can’t move across to actual change or can’t understand why, after 24 hours, we’re still discussing breastfeeding (answer: because it hasn’t been solved yet, you jackass and here’s the unfollow button). It’s no surprise either that this technology neatly spoons a 24 hour media cycle.

But just as there has been a life cycle for activism and enabling technologies, there is a life cycle for activists. Activists do not emerge fully formed on the half-shell, cresting upon waves of actualised consciousness.  They become interested, they become enraged, they become educated, experienced and articulate. It’s a process – just like every other form of intellectual and physical pursuit.

For example: Destroy the Joint.

They’re polarising. Personally, I’m not a fan. I disagree with some of their topic choices and often think their behaviour mimics the bullies and idiots they despise, that they often show zero accountability and facile results. It’s an unpopular view and it’s one I’ve thought over often and have other friends who perceive the same.

They’re polarising for a reason, however. While some are won over by their volume and swarm and ability to bring activism to a more mainstream audience, others are not.

I think one of the reasons for this is grounded in elitism (and I’m owning it in myself here). Destroy the Joint features the bright ebullience of an activist in the making. They’re enraged with what they now see and want to show their dissatisfaction. They feel emboldened to embrace their anger, comforted in the solidarity of others, which can overcome the usual defeatist fears that things are out of their control. After all, it only takes a tweet, Facebook post, email or phone call. It’s low stakes involvement with a high return. They are the Colin Creeveys of feminism and, frankly, bless ’em for it.

Destroy the Joint features activism at the beginning of its lifecycle. It is dazzling, bright and loud. Not always effective, but able to generate attention. As a group, it has achieved a large following in a short time in spectacular fashion and helped open the eyes of many people. This is to be congratulated but also nurtured past its current phase.

For those who attended Uni, they are the people who are filled with fervour of joining a group and handing out pamphlets. Though I don’t really like them or their work, I appreciate the effort in mobilising a large amount of budding activists. As such, I think there is a unique opportunity in showing them other ways to make their views known and how to help agitate for lasting change which would, theoretically, help them develop further. Rather than accuse them of diluting feminism, it’s worthwhile reaching out and informing, keeping the communication happening and offering alternatives.

No one gets to decide what  is authentic feminism.




TL; DR – fuck positivity, negativity, cult-like activist conformity. Get educated, get involved and get perspective.

4 Responses to “Breast feeding, activism and elitism”

  1. jennylmackinnon January 23, 2013 at 1:04 pm #

    It takes all kinds, eh? Moderates need radicals, radicals need moderates. Causes need kindergarten-stage activism as well as intense, mature debate in other places. The people who are the easy end of activism? They are talking to the swinging-voter kind of attitudes. The radicals? They’re talking to the easygoing activists. It’s all part of the mix.

  2. helenbalcony April 10, 2013 at 12:02 pm #

    Thanks for this post! It gracefully skewers some of the negativism that has been so fashionable recently.


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