When the perfect becomes the enemy of the good

By Emma.
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Everybody’s human.

There’s a phrase I like to use a lot; “let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the good”.

I’ve been thinking about that phrase this past week. About why I use it so often and about why its use is so frequently necessary.

I’m not sure I have a singular ideology. As my Twitter biography says, I’m a socialist and a feminist. What do I mean by this? What do others read when they see this? I know what I mean, but perhaps missing from my biography is the word ‘gradualist’.

Progressive became a word that people on the centre-left used who didn’t (for a variety of reasons) want to describe themselves as socialists. For some it helped them to blur the boundaries as they sought alignment on the left. For others it fitted them better as believers in using the fruits of capitalism for egalitarian ends.

For me, I like the word progressive because I think it describes a journey, movement, progress towards a goal. But I describe myself as a progressive socialist; a progressive feminist. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m not a revolutionary. I’m not a radical. I don’t sneer at small steps, I take them. I am not waiting for the great leap forward but edging society in whatever small way I can towards a better and more decent future. Mine are baby steps if they are steps at all. But they are steps in the right direction.

Why do I do this when there is so much wrong with the world? When the world is such a horrible mess, why aren’t I calling for a revolution? Why do I want to move forward only incrementally? Why when our society is so horribly unequal do I sweat the small stuff?

Because I think those with their eye on the bigger picture, forget that life is actually experienced in the small details. Most people’s lives are ordinary. That’s what makes the ordinary so important; changing small things for the better changes the ordinary experiences of people for the better. It is a small gift that keeps on giving, and brings those who are affected along with the change. Because it is not outpacing them, they have ownership of it. Change itself becomes egalitarian.

So far, 2013 has been a year of loud disagreement. The hard left have been shouting at Labour and the soft left about welfare reform. While Labour rightly and bravely opposed the government’s mean-minded Uprating Bill, apparently they weren’t opposing it in the right way. The steps just weren’t big enough for some, and the size of those steps was – for them – so much more important than the direction of travel.

Everybody’s human and nobody is perfect.

Last week, the writer Suzanne Moore published a piece in the New Statesman about anger – about the anger women should be feeling at their treatment at the hands of this government and wider society. In the piece, she used the incredibly clunky phrase:

“We are angry with ourselves for not being happier, not being loved properly and not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual.”

What I think (and Moore later intimated) she was getting at was the controversial debate around the role of gender stereotypes and transsexuality. It’s a thorny and complex debate that was worth more than this throwaway line. There is not a singular way to be either a feminist or a trans person – or a feminist trans person. There is not a standard line one can sign up to – you don’t get a manual. So these debates continue.

But the line was bad. It was a bad line in a great piece. It was a bad line in an important piece. It was a bad line in a piece that made a really good point about the ways in which women should use their anger and direct it towards making a difference.

It was stupid of Moore to include the line in the piece in this way. It wasn’t essential to her message and it has clearly detracted from the point she was ultimately making. It was hurtful to a group who are hurt by society more frequently than almost any other. That criticism has been well made by some.

Equally, Moore did not respond to criticism of the line in a good way. She was defensive and was lashing out. She said some really stupid things designed – by that point – to be hurtful to those trans people she felt were tormenting her, that were equally hurtful to others who were not.

What started as a spat became a storm. Then Suzanne Moore left Twitter. The abuse became too much. She was the second high profile feminist to go through such a Twitter storm in recent months. The first was directed at best-selling author Caitlin Moran. Once again a situation where a complex series of arguments had been overlooked for the sake of brevity or simply context was exacerbated by a defensive reaction.

I’ve been involved in altercations on the internet. I’ve even called out people for not recognising their privilege and being sensitive to it. By – in this instance – siding with those being attacked, I know I leave myself wide open to a charge of hypocrisy. I think it’s different. I believe that I criticised rather than attacked. And that the person I criticised – as someone chosen to represent my party in Parliament – is someone I have the right to expect something of. But it is up to the reader to judge. I too am human. I too am imperfect.

Everybody’s human, nobody is perfect, everybody makes mistakes.

What is the upshot of these incidences? Are Suzanne Moore and Caitlin Moran going to be better feminists as a result of being told how dreadful they are by a number of very angry and insulting people? Well, they aren’t bad feminists to start with. They made a few mistakes. But they have dedicated their talents and their platforms to advancing the cause of women’s equality. We should remember and applaud that.

They may well consider it twice before venturing off of well-trodden paths – as may we all. I don’t suppose I will be blogging about the issues that face trans people again after this post. I will get something wrong (I probably have already) and without meaning to I will insult someone I’ve never met, bear no malice towards and whose cause and equality I believe in. I will instead abuse my own privilege by staying silent rather than attempting to speak up.

Suzanne Moore is – ironically – a far more radical feminist than me. Were she to know me, she would probably find my gradualism grating. She writes with the incendiary fire of the revolutionary. That writing can now be found through one fewer channel. Some people who might have had their own fires lit by her writing are now slightly less likely to access it. I don’t call that a victory for better feminism. I call it a mistake.

When Vagenda Magazine asked their readers “why is feminism a dirty word”  among more traditional answers such as “un-feminine” and “not sexy” were responses such as “in-fighting”, “angry”, “confusing”, “hostile”, “dogmatic”, “scary and “intimidating”. Moore and Moran were bringing feminism to their platforms in ways that might have an impact on this negative perception. Moran in particular has a way of writing about Feminism that makes it both attractive and common sense (which is not easy to do – try thinking of a sexy umbrella…). But the backlash against them confirms the worst beliefs of those women who fear they don’t have a role to play or an interest in feminism’s present and future.

So before we decide to attack rather than criticise an ally in our struggles, ask ourselves what the end result will be? Will we build a better feminism? Will the expunging of the impure lead to a moment of revolution? Or will we deny space to those with the power to build alliances? Will we turn off those we most need to attract?

As long as we keep remain more focused on keeping our feminism and our socialism pure, we will also continue to make it exclusive and excluding. As long as we keep waiting for great leaps forward, we will miss the steps we could take to complete our journey. You don’t have to like Caitlin Moran or Ed Miliband. You don’t have to think Suzanne Moore or Ed Balls are always right. They will all be deserving of criticism along their paths. But if we allow that criticism to overtake the bigger fight, we lose ourselves and we will lose our struggle.

If that’s the end result, then we can all hang our heads in shame.

This post first appeared on Shifting Grounds.

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