Questioning whether authority is right: why the small stuff matters (in feminism)

I recently engaged in a Facebook comment debate on an article about some American teenagers (mostly girls) who campaigned against sexist dress codes that prevented them from wearing crop, halter and tank tops during the summer months. I was so happy seeing these young people acknowledging how unfair the dress codes were and combatting that in a productive, peaceful way. It was – to get emotional – encouraging and so inspirational. However, at least 95% of the comments were things like:

  • “stupid teenagers think they know better than adults”
  • “girls dressing like sluts what do they expect to happen”
  • “wouldn’t let my kid dress like that”
  • “it’s not about sexism it’s about dressing professionally”
  • “this doesn’t matter some women are dying”

And this really, really bothered me. These people – who, yes, were mostly ‘kids’ – had done something brilliant and not accepted things as automatically being right. Now, I’ve already made a post on feminism in younger generations (you can read it here) so I will not divulge into a long post about why it is so incredible that these kids did this. But I will say this – when you say un-constructive, patronising and downright rude things like these commenters did towards younger campaigners, you are fucking up a lot of work, on their part. They will see these comments and, although it may spur some on, it will mostly just discourage them from ever not accepting the status quo again. Something as small as those comments can lead to a group of adults who are stuck in a job they hate, feeling that they need to get married and raise a family, and they can’t challenge anything or have ambition. Maybe that sounds a bit dramatic, but that is the kind of possible knock-on effect hateful and ignorant comments have on young minds (and yes, that includes myself at times).

These kids have seen how things are in society (even if that’s just a small-scope like within their school) and have thought ‘no, that’s wrong, that’s unjust and that should change’. They’ve seen something an authority figure put in place and not only have they questioned it, but they’ve realised they can effect it. 
I will not get all anti-authoritarian here as to be quite honest I’m not anti-authority (within reason – perhaps that’s another post topic!) but I believe it is our kind-of-responsibility to question things that are put in place by the upper-class, the privileged and the authorities.

We need to be open to, and allowed to, question things and we need to be open and allowed to campaign against those things. So many people see so many injustices and think ‘oh but I can’t change that’ – or they don’t even think that, they just subconsciously accept it as unchallengeable. We need to realise that just because something was put in place or decided by an authority, that does not mean it is the right thing

That simple principle is one of many things feminism is campaigning for – freedom to think and freedom to change. I am by no means saying ‘fuck the police’ or that authority figures are always wrong. Authority is often put in place (for instance) to make hard decisions about people’s safety, and that is important. However, those decisions also belong to the people whose (for instance) safety will be at hand. Authority began because the ‘common people’ were thought to not be intelligent enough to make their own decisions – and now more than ever, that is not true.

These are the kind of thoughts we need to instil in new generations, as opposed to the ones I grew up with that the people in charge were always, without a doubt, in the right. The sad and, admittedly, cynical fact is that not all people with power have everyone else’s best interest in mind. We cannot blindly assume they do. We cannot do that anymore. For generations few people have thought to challenge that idea, but those people have shared that idea and now – in 2015 – more people than ever before acknowledge that the authority and the powerful are not always right. Just look at police brutality and how much we have been campaigning to change that. Yeah, it’s taking its fucking time, but the people are speaking up and that is so important. Take the countless deaths of transgender teenagers (eleven trans teenagers have taken their own lives this year – that’s eleven deaths in six months. You do the maths.) – people have finally, finally, been recognising these tragedies. Not as much as they should, or there wouldn’t be so many of them, but a little. And that little will grow.

All this, all this questioning of authority and questioning freedom and rights, all that is why the small stuff matters. One of the people who replied to my comment on Facebook said “get the fuck over it. Im sure the women being beaten kidnapped ACTUALLY RAPED and tortured in the middle east are crying because you cant wear a fucking crop top.” and that really bothered me. Not only was it diminishing what these kids had done – and were proud of – but it was insulting to all the supporters of this cause and implied that we did not care about, for example, women’s rights in the Middle East.
So I want to get this straight: just because we care about the small stuff, does not mean we ignore the big stuff. It does not mean we give small stuff precedence over the big stuff. It does not mean we think the small stuff is more important. No one, no real feminist, is saying that the ‘small stuff’ matters more than things like the violent sexism in many countries. As feminists we do not only challenge sexism, we are openly grateful for the rights we do have – just look at the amount of thanks many of us gave for being able to vote in the recent UK election. We are privileged in many ways and are grateful for those, but the thing is, we shouldn’t have to be thankful. Rights shouldn’t be considered privilege. Rights are rights, and everyone is entitled to them. Basic rights like being able to walk down the street unharmed, like being able to dress how you want without harassment, like being able to breathe and work without fear – those basic rights, everyone deserves. And those basic rights are built up from smaller issues being fixed.

It is a vile, unjust and painful truth that it is highly unlikely that I, as a person in the UK, can directly affect the laws that impact the lives on others in, say, the Middle East. It is possible, but not for the everyday person. We have some incredible feminists who go out to those countries or campaign from other places or offer refuge, but the fact is not every ordinary person is able to do that. They may have other responsibilities, they may lack the funds, they may just be scared. And that is okay. Because by sharing that Facebook post about that issue, or by donating some money to a charity, or by doing the ‘small stuff’, they help the overall cause that we fight for.

Things like the wage gap, like sexist dress codes, like catcalling and rape jokes, the so-called ‘small stuff’, that effects lives. Everywhere. It manifests itself into ideals and stigmas that then in many of those places culminate in incredibly sexist and often violent societal beliefs, expectations and norms. Everything is connected. If we stop focussing on the small stuff then we may well just come to an overall stand still. So don’t you dare come in here and try to diminish accomplishments or make people feel guilty. We will take every ‘small’ victory because it represents a larger move towards the end of oppression and the beginning of equality. That is what feminists do.

Riot ❤

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