5/20/2006

Oppression in daily living?

I've gotten myself into trouble over at Shakespeare's Sister. I was somewhat careless in my choice of words in this comment thread, and instead of making my point, I more or less impugned Sis' character for taking offense too easily. I feel like my input in that conversation has become counterproductive, so I just want to toy with some of my thoughts here.

Anyway, the issue is about the use of feminine terms as abusive. John Aravosis, on AMERICAblog (in a post that keeps changing locations so there's no point linking to it; see the sidebar for the mainpage), made the comment that Pat Roberts was acting like a "big girl" by saying that you have no civil liberties if you're dead (contrast Patrick Henry's impassioned: "As for me, give me liberty, or give me death!").

Now, this is an insensitive comment; Aravosis' response was even more outrageous. He starting deleting comments and banning people for the slightest offenses. Insofar as people were carping on something that was incidental to the point he was trying to make, it's understandable that he would be upset. However, he ended up acting like an ass, so I won't defend him.

The more general issue that I've spoken to concerns the notion of offensiveness. Why are some people offended by words that others (in roughly the same group or situation) take in stride? My thinking is that it's a mixture of one side being blind to obvious offenses, the other side creating offenses where there was no such intention, and a whole slew of cases somewhere in the middle.

Trying to argue a Stoic point, I suggested that it would be a good thing if individuals had some control over what offended them, so they could better choose their battles. This doesn't mean inaction. I'm not saying every offense should be written off as innocent. But I am asking, what does it add to become very angry at a slight? Wouldn't it be better if we had more control over our responses (at least upon reflection; initial reactions are often out of our power), all the while still fighting for the end of eradicating sexism and so forth?

I worry that people on the left have a nasty habit of being humor police and interpreting things uncharitably. Aravosis is a progressive. He should just have apologized, but are those who pressed the issue when they saw it upset him totally blameless? He obviously agrees with the end of gender equality, so why waste so much energy on showing him the error of his ways?

Personal responsibility is often invoked as an excuse for doing nothing to help others who should "take care of themselves". Nonetheless, to the extent that we can exercise such responsibility we are better people for it. We will be happier if we can learn not to get so angry with the world even as we make efforts to improve it. It may serve as a powerful motivator, but after a certain point, anger is just counterproductive.

In times like this, when it's easy to feel powerless, sometimes anger is our only recourse. Anger is appropriate in response to real evils. But who do we sway if we start bitching at people on our side for little slips of the tongue?

Part of the issue is also that I doubt the situation is as bad as some make it out to be. Women and other oppressed groups have made substantial strides forward. I worry that carping on little things could lead to an adverse reaction that threatens some of the victories these movements have attained.

If I call Democratic senators pussies, or Dubya a retard, I don't intend to disparage all individuals possessing female genitalia or the mentally disabled. (But, come to think of it, perhaps urging civility in people's responses to crude insults is hypocritical.)

Anyway, I'm quite possibly wrong about all this, but I don't like the self-certainty of those eager to see themselves as victims. Is the plight of women honestly so awful in the US today? If so, is semantics really a large part of this unfortunate situation?

But what do I know? My solution to most problems is that people should take more antidepressants. (This, in jest.)

2 comments:

Shakespeare's Sister said...

Why are some people offended by words that others (in roughly the same group or situation) take in stride?

I think the one possibility you continue to fail to consider is that some people are activists and some aren't. Non-reaction is not necessarily an indication of noting the potential of offense and choosing to ignore it. It could also be indicative of the same sort of apathy that makes half the electorate stay home on election day.

Perhaps the reason I (and others) make the effort to point out offense is because we are better-versed in the associations between language usage and the perpetuation of institutional sexism.

My frustration with your position is that you seem stubbornly unwilling to attribute any remotely positive motives to my reaction. You have yet to seem open to the possibility that it is not attributable to hypersensitivity, but instead the same political and cultural astuteness that drives the rest of my political activism.

In the end, you may disagree with that, but I'm curious as to why you don't feel compelled to engage the possibility.

specter_of_spinoza said...

Hmm... You raise some good points. I've read Judith Butler and others in the philosophy of language on issues of this nature, so I am quite familiar with the kinds of arguments that are made about the role of language in sexism, racism, and so forth.

In trying to understand your position, I can discern at least 2 distinct arguments you could make--please correct me if I'm wrong about one or either of these.

1. One position you might be arguing is a variant of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, what some people call "linguistic determinism". (Wikipedia seems to have a decent entry on this, at least judging from some of the citations there.)

The question at stake is: does language determine thought? In support of the affirmative answer, some have cited that the Inuits apparently having dozens of different words for "snow". As it turns out, this was a hoax; they have something like 3 words for snow, expressing concepts we can also express--just ask a skier. (This doesn't disprove the hypothesis of course.)

I'm not totally familiar with the evidence but, from what a friend in psychology whose judgment I trust tells me, the strongest version of the hypothesis is false. Language doesn't entirely determine thought; we know this anecdotally from our own attempts in searching for the right words to express a concept.

So the question really is, to what extent does language influence thought? More specifically, does sexist language lead people to endorse gender stereotypes, treat women as inferiors, become misogynistic, etc.?

This is really an empirical question. Certainly sexist language comes hand-in-hand with sexist behavior. But, what we really need to ask is this: does the use of sexist language actually cause sexist attitudes and behavior in otherwise progressive people?

If that's so, then we would be very justified to try to stop people from using such language, because it would indeed create more sexism. Again, I don't know the research well enough to know the answer, but it seems at least plausible.

2. Now, if that's what you're arguing, I find that more plausible than a second possibility, which is the way I originally interpreted your comments. Here, the idea would be that the sexist language is itself a manifestation of sexism.

Even if someone does not intend to invoke those kinds of connotations, the very use of that language is an action that oppresses or otherwise harms women. In this line of argument, some words are deemed inherently offensive (not absolutely, but within a particular cultural-historical context).

I'm not so convinced of this. It seems that oppressed groups sometimes have the power to co-opt the derogatory language used against them, thereby empowering themselves. Examples would include the way African Americans have appropriated the n-word, or homosexuals the terms "gay", "fag", "dyke", and so forth.

But, in these cases, it's true that if an outsider uses the language, it can be offensive. I remember having a conversation with a lesbian friend of mine who referred to someone we both knew as a "dyke". When I mimicked her use of the word, she actually called me on it, and said it wasn't ok for me to say it. So I don't use that word now.

The case with Aravosis is an especially problematic one, because you have a sort of clash between different oppressed groups. It certainly seemed to me that Aravosis' response to criticism did not help his case at all; this seems a fairly definite case of sexism.

But, what I'm more concerned about are the more borderline cases. I don't question that you are offended by words sometimes that are used carelessly.

And, even though I did a godawful job of expressing it, I don't believe that you have a negative motive, that you are merely being hypersensitive. (Maybe I did think that at first, but I don't think so now, upon reflection.)

In my objections, I'm trying to draw attention here to a couple of different things.

A. The first is largely a strategic concern, and applies more directly to the Aravosis case. Is this a battle we want to be fighting? It's certainly true that the left is capable of doing many different things--we both know it's not an either/or matter.

But, in the long run, what is the impact that objections like these have? When raised against right-wingers, does it alienate them and generate backlash? Against people on the fence, does it convey an image of political correctness gone awry? And, as here, used among people on the left, does it create fissures and damage the progressive movement?

B. Having raised those questions, though, I certainly would not object to rejecting those strategic concerns out of principle. Sexism is a wrong, and we should work to eliminate it even if it makes us unpopular among certain people.

This is especially so in a complex case in which we probably can't accurately predict what another person or group's response will be. Even if we fail, we won't regret standing up for what we believed to be right. I think that's what's motivating you here, and I find that to be admirable. (I certainly wish more Democratic politicians felt that way.)

(So far, I've done a pretty good job of undermining my case, but that's okay. I'm more interested in figuring out what's right, than in being shown to be right on an issue which I may have judged too hastily.)

C. The last concern I would raise is strategic, in a sense, but it's more a question of ends.

In addition to being wrong in principle, sexism is a source of unhappiness for many women, yourself included. If our powers to change things are finite, which we would all of course grant, when is it appropriate to try to change ourselves and our reactions, rather than the outside world and other people who goad us on?

Again, this is not a matter of choosing one or the other, but a question of degree. In cases like this one in which no offense is intended, I think it's legitimate to ask: should I make a big deal about this?

We have very limited control over our initial emotional reaction, but we do have some choice in what we decide to do about it. It's possible to establish different habits of response, sometimes. Or, as a friend of mine (anotherpanacea) recently commented on your blog, it's a matter of "not sweating the small stuff".

That's why I invoked the whole stoicism thing. Most stoics are wrong in taking the opposite extreme--they become political quietists. I certainly don't advocate that. I was just a little taken aback by what seemed to me like a categorical statement about changing aspects of oneself.

In this case, it may very well be obscene, as you put it, to try to suppress this reaction, because your fight against sexism seems to be something you take very seriously. And I think it led to a very productive conversation that probably has done more good than ill.

But there are a lot of things in life that can be potential sources of anger. I don't get infuriated about every idiotic thing that Bush does, because otherwise I'd never have a peaceful moment. So I focus on the bigger things, and try not to let the other stuff get to me.

What I'm advocating here, then, is a more personal, ethical (though not un-political) suggestion. Do we ever get carried away in our passion for doing what we believe right? Do we go too far at the expense of our well-being?

Specifically, is it possible that our reaction to something we call sexist is what makes it sexist? In other words, are we creating more problems for ourselves on top of the others that already exist?

* * *

That's a lot, but I hope it clears up my position somewhat. I was a little more combative than I needed to be on this, because I largely agree with you.

And, again, I'm sorry for disparaging your character. I respect very much what you do with your blog; I'm an avid fan and a daily reader. You're clearly a very principled person, and I think you contribute some great things to this ongoing progressive conversation.