Jazz Hands, Clapping & Twitter Trolls: The Unsuccessful Derailing of NUS Women’s Conference

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Aliya Yule is an undergraduate at Wadham College, and currently serves as OUSU’s Women’s Campaign Officer. A tweet sent by Yule at the NUS Women’s Conference this week, in which she asked for delegates to show their approval with jazz hands instead of applause, prompted a large Twitter backlash. Yule writes in response:

By now, many of you will have seen the #jazzhandsgate furore which took off on Day 1 of NUS Women’s Conference (which is like a national OUSU Council for feminists). During the day, I tweeted NUS Staff asking that they remind people to adhere to an earlier request not to clap during motions debates, but to instead use what are colloquially known as ‘feminist jazz hands’, also known as ‘consensus hands’, a signal from British Sign Language which means ‘applause’.


 
Several people on my timeline had asked that the request be repeated, as it was triggering their anxiety and was also distracting from the discussion of the motions. Anyone who has been to a conference will know that tensions are running high with some of the most vibrant student activists in the UK in one room. Conference is charged with heated debate, there is a lot to get through, say and do, and for those with generalised anxiety disorder and other disabilities, this can be a difficult and exhausting space to navigate and participate in.

 
Making the conference floor as inclusive and accessible as possible for people who often do not get to speak because these requests are not taken seriously is of paramount importance. Women’s Conference is a space where people who find speaking – or even appearing – in public difficult can participate in feminist discussions. To ignore or demean this inclusive ethos is to detract from the seriousness of disabilities, including mental illnesses.

To ignore or demean this inclusive ethos is to detract from the seriousness of disabilities

 
Our jazz hands request enraged Twitter trolls and sparked a flurry of tweets, unfortunately fuelled by some of Oxford’s own (students and tutors!). Often, these tweets used the language of oppression to mock and belittle us, by ridiculing issues of cultural appropriation, ableism and racism (as well as the very mature “jizz hands” parody). Eventually, even the BBC reported on #jazzhandsgate – the same BBC which has repeatedly failed to report on numerous protests and occupations, including those about Palestine, climate change and student demonstrations.

https://twitter.com/Nero/status/580506109611511808

Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulous and Daily Telegraph journalist Tim Stanley mocked the request

 
This is indicative of the successful and all too common derailing of feminism and women’s activism. If you read all of @womcam’s tweets from conference, you will see the wide variety of issues which we were debating, challenging, and learning how to move forward on. By singling out this one tweet, it almost seems like the trolls were sitting at their computers waiting for something which they could jump on and ridicule.

By singling out this one tweet, it almost seems like the trolls were sitting at their computers waiting for something which they could jump on and ridicule.

Instead of writing this piece, I would much rather have written about the panel entitled ‘Educate, Agitate, Liberate: Fighting for Free Education’, where we had a discussion about how to move towards free education whilst not neglecting issues of the gender pay gap, and about how free education means much more than abolishing tuition fees. I would much rather have written about how the panel discussed that free education means education for liberation, which includes breaking the cycle of deprivation, it means including Further Education institutions as well as universities in the conversation, it means the liberation of Palestinian students who are unable to attend university due to the bombing of their homes and schools, and so much more.

I would also much rather have written about the conversations we had at Conference around intersectionality – about how it is so often used as a superficial buzzword, and its use in fact ends up marginalising women of colour who created the term in the first place. I would much rather have written about the workshops we had and motions we passed which aim to tackle the intersections of racism and sexism within Lad Culture, and about how sexual violence affects women of colour in specific ways due to fetishisation and sexualisation, and about the complications women of colour – particularly black women – face when deciding whether or not to report sexual violence. I would much rather have written about motions addressing oppression within liberation movements, such as within the LGBTQ movement, where white gay men often co-opt black women’s bodies, language and mannerisms, which itself sparked its own debate: assimilation or revolution?

I would much rather have written about the workshops we had and motions we passed which aim to tackle the intersections of racism and sexism within Lad Culture, and about how sexual violence affects women of colour in specific ways

I would much rather have written about how prison abolition is a feminist issue, about the #FreePeriods campaign and the necessity for the campaign to remain trans inclusive, about how little support there is for student parents and carers of all genders, about supporting the decriminalisation of sex work and the workshops held by Sex Workers Open University.

Instead, many of us at Women’s Conference have spent our time blocking, reporting and fending off the torrent of ableist, racist, misogynistic and transphobic abuse that is littering the @womcam Twitter account and the Women’s Conference hashtag. Instead of talking about what the conference has achieved, we’ve been inundated with requests to justify the request to replace clapping with ‘jazz hands’.

The tweet requesting consensus hands in place of applause was an important measure to establish an inclusive environment at Women’s Conference. I am not diminishing its value. But honing in on this detail and homogenising us as pedantic, petty, and ignorant of the ‘real’ issues ironically obfuscates the fact that this measure is just a tiny part of the work we are doing at Women’s Conference. The twitter trolls will not stop this work, and we will not let them derail our movement.